Marine Michael Phillips flew re-supply choppers into Khe Sanh and the surrounding hills during the siege. Here he tells us what it was like.
My name is Michael Phillips, and I was a Marine Corps pilot with HMM-364 Purple Foxes helicopter squadron during the siege at Khe Sanh. Every day during the siege, we sent 8 CH-46’s to resupply the hills and Khe Sanh between 24 February 1968 until 9 April 1968. This came to be known as the “Super Gaggle” in aviation history.
Our day began with a 05:30 briefing at Phu Bai, then up to Quang Tri to be briefed again by General Hill. After that we flew over to Dong Ha and picked up our externals. Since it was IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) at Dong Ha, our first aircraft took off on a heading for Khe Sanh, aircraft # 2 took off 10 degrees to the left, aircraft # 3 10 degrees to the right, etc., until all 8 were airborne. We normally punched out around 8,000 feet, on to Khe Sanh where we would orbit for 30-40 minutes while the artillery, F4 Phantoms, A6 Intruders and A4’s provided gun support for the hill that we would resupply. One of our biggest concerns was that of a mid-air collision. We had so much air support that F4’s were constantly zipping in front of us. At that altitude and at our weight, we barely had enough power to maintain elevation, so when we flew thru their exhaust it was not unusual for us to lose control and drop 3-400 feet prior to regaining control.
When the command was given for us to begin our run, we had to lose 8,000 feet of altitude but still maintain enough power to land at the LZ. On the way down our gunners would begin firing their .50 caliber guns, careful not to hit the Marines on the ground. The NVA AK-47 was not very dangerous to us until we reached around 1,500 feet in elevation above the LZ. The major problem for us was maintaining proper spacing between aircraft, or we might have to attempt to hover at 900 feet. We simply did not have enough power to do so. It was essential that aircrafts #1, 2 and 3 get on to the hill or the LZ at Khe Sanh and off without wasting any time. Or else the balance of the flight was trying to hover, and a pilot could not do so.
Hill 881 South was our most difficult as we owned that hill and the NVA owned 881 North. We could always count on intense fire from there. One hill that did not receive much publicity was 558. This hill was in a slight ravine and there must have been 100 mortar tubes there. Keeping them supplied with ammo was a fulltime job.
After we completed the resupply we left for Quang Tri, refueled and flew back to Phu Bai. Every Marine base in I Corps was surrounded. When we got back, our gunners took the .50 caliber guns out of the A/C down to the perimeter as we got hit by the NVA each night. Our crew chiefs worked all night to fix the battle damage to our A/C. We could have done nothing without the crew chiefs. They were superb.
It was not unusual for us to take 50 rockets at a whack. Afterwards the NVA would always put a round in every half hour, so out to the bunkers we went. This ensured that we got very little sleep. Flying that CH-46 lacking sleep was a chore and all of our pilots became extremely rude, ugly, tense and it did have an effect on how efficient we were.
Approaching Hill 881 South (or any of the other Khe Sanh LZ’s) was somewhat more sophisticated than I mentioned earlier. When we began our descent it always reverted back to the individual pilot’s skill and his ability to shoot a good approach. Controlling the rate of descent, controlling spacing, controlling air speed, maintaining turns (RPM’s), running out of ground speed and altitude at the same time over the LZ was imperative. Dropping the external as “softly” as possible was a never-ending challenge. If any of the A/C in front of you did not do these things, you had to make adjustments, quickly. We simply did not have enough power to hover at 1,000 feet so sometimes one had to drop out of the sequence and go to the Khe Sanh Combat Base airstrip to hover, then air taxi to the hill. This was not a good thing as the Combat Base runway always took a lot of rockets and mortars, and you were exposed to more fire than desired.
If one A/C screwed up, overshot the LZ, he had to come to a complete hover, back up to the zone, bounce around some; this took time. It was time that the A/C behind him did not have to sacrifice. The CH-46 does not stop on a dime. In our haste to get in and out, sometimes our airspeed was excessive. It was adjustment time for everyone behind the pilot who was trying to get into the LZ.
Prior to flight school, I went to Basic School in Quantico. There I studied tactics, explosives, rifle range (M14) .45 pistol, everything that a Second Lieutenant is supposed to know. (Not much, huh?) As a result I had many friends that were 0311, and it provided me with a very good understanding of what the grunts were going through. Since I was not there with them, I could not actually experience in depth their plight, but I did have enough knowledge to admire their courage, never giving up, never leaving a wounded man in a hot zone.
During and after Tet, I had occasion to fly many medevac missions. Some of these required that I land in a rice paddy, 100 meters from the tree line where we were taking intense fire. The plexiglass cockpit and 1/8 inch aluminum skin of the A/C did not slow down an AK-47 round, and we paid a price.
I am proud to say that in the Marine tradition, we never left a wounded man in a hot zone. Never. He was coming out, and was going to be on a hospital ship in 20 minutes. It was not that I was a hero, all of our pilots, and all of the pilots from other squadrons did the same. All in a day’s work to support the Private with a bayonet on the ground. The same was true if one of our recon teams was compromised. They might have to run for a mile to find a LZ big enough for us to land, but we took them out.
Probably more than you wanted to know about the day-in, day-out life of a CH-46 driver.
You guys were the greatest, a shame that none of you (us) ever got the recognition that we deserved.
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