Heroism and dedication to duty didn't end at V-J Day or even the 1953 Korean Armistice. This journal describes how an U.S. Army small unit rose to the challenges of a new mission on an isolated foreign battlefield-The Mekong Delta.
On paper this helicopter gunship platoon was designed to escort two helicopter lift platoons of an Assault Helicopter Company (AHC) in transporting U.S. Army infantrymen into battle. In this case, the Cobra gunship platoon of the 114th AHC. With light machine guns and small rockets, the gunship platoon was intended to provide en route protection for troop carriers, suppress enemy in planned landing zones and cover the air landed troops in their assault on enemy held objectives.
However, this was not the textbook situation. First of all the Mekong Delta is unique geographically. It was the mouth of the Mekong, an aggregation of streams flowing to the East China Sea from Cambodia. Except for a small ridge on the west near the Gulf of Siam, the delta was at sea level, a flat highly populated area crisscrossed with wandering rivers, canals and few roads. People and commerce travel mostly by water. The land limits of this peninsula were the suburbs of Saigon in the northeast and the Cambodian border on the north and northwest.
The Delta is richly agricultural with vast rice paddies and tropical fruit plantations, much of these abandoned as the South Vietnamese government had drawn the population into " strategic hamlets" for security.
The second unique feature: There were no U.S. Army combat troops in the Delta. Instead, the 114th "Knights of the Air" and its three sister companies of the 13th Aviation Battalion provided direct support to the Army of Vietnam (ARVN) IV Corps, its three infantry divisions and their U.S. advisors.
The ARVN were billeted in towns and went to battle often by helicopter assault. These troops were supplemented by regional and popular (paramilitary) forces located in forts and outposts at hamlets and along waterways. U.S. Special Forces operated with counterparts along the Cambodian border.
The third unique feature: The enemy of this period were local insurgents who had beaten the French and were now directed and supported by North Vietnam to drive out the American supported government in the South. Thus, the conflict was a 360o battle to hold friendly territory and population. Sorting out the enemy Viet Cong from friends presented a real dilemma to gunship pilots. This unfamiliar type of combat was counterinsurgency.
Lastly, the U.S. Army had never before gone to battle dependent on helicopters for either troop lift or fire support. With little firm doctrine, tactics and techniques evolved through experimentation and experience.
The unique feature of being separated from higher U.S. headquarters without firm rules of the road placed a high order of responsibility on the Delta Battalion units and personnel all the way to the helicopter cockpit. It also stimulated innovation.
In rising to this responsibility, the Cobra gun platoon contributed substantially to development of tactics and doctrine, which were copied or adapted by U.S. units arriving in country. In turn, this experience contributed to the design of tactics and aircraft qualifying Army aviation to be a member of the Army combined arms team for all forms of combat.
Back in Washington, the Army Staff used the Delta Battalion experience to help justify new weapons, equipment, and aircraft in budget battles with the U.S. Air Force. The effectiveness of the UH-1B gunships in delivering timely and effective firepower convinced Bell Helicopter to fund, on its own, the development of the world's first true attack helicopter with narrow fuselage, greater speed, lift ability, and accuracy. Crew was reduced to a pilot and gunner. The accelerated development program was complete in 18 months. The Army immediately bought this AH-1A and designated it "Cobra." What better tribute to the dedicated members of this memorable platoon.
This brings us back to heroics and dedication continuing beyond the wars of the 1940s and 1950s. While there was disheartening social and political turmoil in the 1960s, it was not evident in the cockpits and maintenance tents in Vinh Long. Rather, the Cobra horn governed the lives of the Cobra platoon.
It summoned the gunship crews to battle day and night. While slaying enemy troops, they defended towns, outposts, and friendly troops in dire circumstances, undoubtedly saving many more lives than they terminated. This in addition to the regular mission of covering friendly troops delivered into hostile landing zones.
No "50 missions and home." Like combat infantrymen, the Cobras were on a one-year commitment rallying to the cause every day. Many like Bailey Jones returned for a second year of daily risk and challenge.
This narrative tells of 10-hour flying days, of daring pickups of wounded under fire, of contributing blood and body to a just democratic cause and winning the rarely awarded Presidential Unit Citation. How better to exemplify the U.S. Army doctrine, "Be All You Can Be."
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Created by Terry A. Dell, White Knight Crewchief 69-70' Republic of Vietnam
in association with members of the 114th Assault Helicopter Company
who served May 1963 to February 1972.
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