Airstrike on the Bunkers

by Jerry Prater
with Contributions by Jim Aguirre

SEPTEMBER 3, 1967 — Being assigned as a light weapons infantryman with the 1st Cavalry Division, Air Mobile, had several advantages.  The main advantage was the access we had to helicopters to transport us from one location to another very quickly.  A rifle squad of five or six soldiers could fit in a Huey, and the entire platoon of approximately 24 could be transported as a unit in the two rotor Chinook. If our platoon or company made contact with a large force of NVA soldiers, other platoons or companies could be air assaulted to assist us within a short period of time.  In addition, we had access to helicopter gunships to provide intensive rocket and machine gun assistance to us when needed.  The two basic types of gunships were the regular gunship, which was a Huey or Cobra that had six mini machine guns that fired similar to a Gatling gun on both side of the chopper.  The ARA, Aerial Rocket Artillery, was a gunship with rocket pods capable of firing six rockets attached to each side of the Huey or Cobra.

Another advantage to being Air Mobile was that we could be air assaulted to the top of mountains or tall hills so we could walk down, instead of up the heights.  One of the times we took advantage of this was on September 3, 1967.  At approximately 0705 hrs., a scout helicopter sighted, and received small automatic weapon fire from a bunker on the side of a hill [BS774148].  Additionally, a series of newly constructed bunkers were sighted in a close proximity to the bunker.  As a result of this activity, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd platoons of A Company were air assaulted to the top of the hill so we could search for and engage any enemy forces in the bunkers.

The Hill Near Dong Tre at Coordinates BS774148, Elevation ca. 490 Meters
An Lão, Sheet 6738 II

A flight of Huey choppers picked my platoon up and flew us to the top of the hill.  After all the platoons had successfully landed, we formed up and started our decent down the hill in search of the bunkers.  The Second Platoon took the point, and my unit, the first platoon was providing blocking cover at the rear of the formation.  The trek down the hill was very slow and difficult because of extremely heavy foliage, as well as a heavy concentration of tall trees with exposed roots that had to be avoided so we wouldn’t trip and fall down the hill.  As usual, we also had to be aware of, and try to avoid, the ever present “Wait a Minute” vines that were so prevalent, especially on the sides of hills and mountains.  Additionally, and much more importantly, we had to be very cautious and on high alert because we knew that enemy soldiers were in the vicinity and could ambush or attack us at any time. 

We struggled down the side of the hill, and we became very tired because each of us were carrying approximately 70 pounds of equipment and ammo on our backs.  Carrying that much weight down hill is more strenuous than when we would walk on relatively flat ground because of the extra stress and pressure that was placed on our legs to slow down the pace of our walk, and to keep us from falling and rolling down the hillside.  Additionally, we were getting little to no breeze because it was blocked by the extremely heavy foliage, as well as the sides of the hill.  We were walking in a recessed area of the hill, so we were covered on three side, which also gave me a slight sense of claustrophobia.  This increased our fatigue because we were sweating profusely, even though we were shaded from the hot sun.

At approximately 1355 hrs., after we had traversed a little more than half way down the hill, my squad was ordered to halt because the Second Platoon had made contact and received automatic weapon fire while they were in a draw approaching a bunker complex. The gunfire was very heavy initially, and the Third Platoon moved up to provide support fire. Three members of the Second Platoon received wounds and Jack Goodwin was killed.  Approximately 45 minutes later, my squad was ordered to saddle up and move about 50 meters down the hill and set up a defensive position.

Part of Heath's Gun Crew: Prater, Heath, Washington

Heath and I set up in a front of a dead tree that was lying flat on the ground behind a dry swale.  We felt reasonably safe there because we were sitting in a depression in the ground, very similar to a two feet deep and six foot wide foxhole.  Heath and I were together because he was assigned as one of the machine gunners, and I was his assistant gunner.  As his assistant, I had to be by Heath’s side at all times because my duty was to check the ammo for short or long rounds and feed it as he fired the M-60 machine gun.  Also, I had to carry about 300 rounds of the M-60 ammo, in addition to the 400 rounds for my M-16.

Bombing Run Approach   Bomb Impact
Airstrikes in Support of First Air Cavalry Troops in Operation Jeb Stuart, 14 August 1968
Government Film Archives, Arc. 32182

A short time later, we received word that air strikes had been called to take out the bunkers, and that we should make certain we had good cover.  We soon heard an ARA gunship fly by and fire machine guns and rockets into the area of the bunkers.  The ARA flew out of the area and I heard, and then saw a jet fighter zoom what seemed to be about 500 feet above our location.  A couple of seconds later I heard a loud explosion as the HE, high explosive, bomb hit the target about 75 feet from my location.  The ground beneath and around me shook, then I heard the unmistakable whistling sound of shrapnel from the bombs flying over my location, and then hitting the trees and knocking down some of the branches and limbs in front of and behind me, as well as to my right.  A few minutes later I heard and then saw another jet fly over, and then a whooshing sound as a napalm bomb exploded close to the same location as the HE.  A huge black cloud appeared, and I could feel some of the heat generated by the napalm.  I thought about how glad I was that I wasn’t the target of those bombs because it was scary just to observe the after effects of the explosions.

Just a few minutes later, after a lot of the smoke from the napalm had been cleared, I heard and then saw another jet fly over.  A couple of seconds later I heard the loud explosion, felt the ground shake, and the whistling sound of the shrapnel from the HE going over my head and knocking down more branches and limbs in front of and behind me, and to the right side of my location.  A few minutes later I heard another jet fly over, then a swooshing sound as the napalm bomb exploded.  I felt some heat again as the black smoke appeared over the target.  I was hoping that the jets would drop just the napalm and not anymore HE bombs because the shrapnel was extremely scary because it flew so close us.

Then I heard the sound of a jet approaching and I saw the bomb as it fell towards the target.  Once again I heard the loud explosion, felt the ground shake, and the whistling sounds of shrapnel as it flew over my head and past my location.  But, this time the whistling sounds were louder and closer to me.  Then, a large piece of shrapnel hit the fallen tree between Heath and me.  We looked at each other, and both of us were startled.  Then, we immediately jumped up and over the fallen tree and laid down behind it.  We looked at each other again and I asked “Did you get hit?”  Heath said no and asked if I was hit.  I told him that it just grazed my right arm, but it didn’t hurt much and didn’t draw much blood.  The piece of shrapnel was laying on the ground a few feet away from us, I picked it up and it was about 4" in diameter and slightly more than 1" thick.  My next thought was how much damage such a large piece of metal flying that fast could have done to my body.  Now, that was really terrifying!  About this time, another jet flew over and dropped another napalm bomb, and I heard the swooshing sound and felt some heat as the big black cloud of smoke appeared once again.

Jack L. Goodwin  
Vietnam Wall of Faces  

Heath and I just laid there behind, instead of in front of, the fallen tree waiting for the next air strike to take place.  After waiting for several minutes, we were informed that the air strikes were over and for us to saddle up so we could move down the hill and inspect the damage to the bunkers.  Aerial reconnaissance indicated that several of the bunkers were still intact, so an ARA was called in to strafe the area with machine gun fire and rockets.  The Third Platoon moved into the bunker complex and removed the body of Jack Goodwin.  The Second Platoon then moved into the bunker complex, engaged and killed 2 NVA and, after inspecting the bunker complex, discovered numerous arms, legs, and other body parts.  Additionally, a few AK-47s were captured and several Chinese grenades were destroyed in place.  The bunker complex appeared to be of sufficient size to house a company of NVA soldiers.

Since it was getting late in the day, further exploration of the bunker complex was broken off and all three platoons moved down to the bottom of the hill to a secure LZ so we could get extracted.  A group of Huey choppers picked us up at approximately 1855 hrs. and transported us to LZ Santana so we could arrange security, and send out the OP and ambush patrols for the evening.  This was not the first, nor the last, time that airstrikes had been called in to assist my unit while we were engaged with enemy units.  However, this was the scariest, and the one that really stands out in my mind. 

LZ Santana — for this LZ, see the map, "Base Map for LZ Santana."

For the events of this day, see "Chronology," for 3 September 1967, and the map from the "Odyssey" series for 3 - 5 September 1967.