IT WAS A BAD DAY

Lt Mike Kurtgis recalls the events leading up
 to OPN Green Lighting and the loss of a
MedEvac chopper loaded with wounded

After a stint with B/2/35 as their FO (Forward Observer) July Ė Sept1969, and a short stay at Nha Trang Hosp (VC mosquito), I was reassigned to Headquarters DivArty, and sent to 3rd Bde Firebase Oasis as the 3rd Bde AO (Aerial Observer). I was supported by the 2/9 Artillery Battalion located at Oasis, Col. (Richard) Wiles commanding at that time.

I started off my time as the Bde AO, riding in OH- 3 Hiller (flying deathtraps) helicopters.  The helicopter with pilot was assigned to me for four hours per day.  I would generally fly a couple hours in the mornings and then a couple in the afternoon, depending on what was happening in the 3rd Bde AO (Area of Operations).  My day without contact would usually involve doing Artillery Battery gun registrations.  Also, there were intel planned targets to be fired, targets of opportunity and of course ground units in contact took priority over everything. 

When I was working with a ground unit in contact, and if an Air Force Fighter/Bomber (F4 Phantom, A1E Skyraider, etc) came in the 3rd Bde AO,all Artillery would  immediately receive a "Check Fire" order, usually from the Artillery Liaison (LNO).  This stopped my fire missions instantly and in most cases while rounds were still in the tubes.  Of course, this situation was not good for anyone as the ground units were no longer getting Arty support, especially if the Air Strike was not inbound for their engagement.  In a lot of cases, that was the end of my fire mission as I would not get a "Resume" mission order for many minutes or even an hour later, this is obviously critical in a combat situation. 

After several frustrating experiences like that I went to see the Bde Air Force Liaison Forward Air Controller to discuss how we could coordinate keeping rounds on the target.  He explained to me that the inbound pilots and the FACs (Forward Air Controller) did not know where all the artillery batteries were and then could not determine the gun target line of the Artillery rounds so the command was to "Check Fire" when all Air Strike Fast Movers entered the AO.  I told him that I know where the Artillery Batteries and the Gun Target Lines, so were letís coordinate.  First, I asked him for a list of planned Air Strikes for the day in the morning briefings and some days they were so numerous I might as well sit on the ground.  That didnít work, so I asked Maj. Ferrell if I could ride with the Cider FACs after I finished my morning helicopter missions and he said that would be a great idea.  I started flying with the Cider FACs and we coordinated the Artillery and Air Strikes in the Bde AO.  Sometime in December 68 DivArty Aviation had replaced all its OH-23 Hillers with the new turbine (jet engine) OH-6 Hughes Helicopters which were a welcome change. 

In January, activity increased in the area of the Chu Pa Mountain, and I was spending most of my time in that area and was flying more and more with Cider FACs. The three Cider FAC pilots that I flew with were, Maj. Ferrell, Maj. Tarr, and Cpt. Himmelburger.  The one day that stood out from all the rest and that I remember from the events leading up to and that culminated in Operation Green Lightning, on the Chu Pa Mountain occurred in late January, 1969.  Maj. Ferrell (Cider FAC) and I (Victor 76), were putting some planned Artillery fires on the Chu Pa and hanging around in case an Infantry unit needed us.  We were somewhere south of the mountain as I recall and were monitoring the Infantry command net, Artillery net and of course the Tac Air net.  We picked up radio calls from an infantry unit which I believe was "B" Company, 1/14 Inf. who was in heavy contact.  Nobody was answering them and Maj. Ferrell asked me if we should talk to them.  I told him to go ahead as I was about done with my current fire mission and we could head over to them and see if we could help.  They were relieved to hear from us and said they could not reach anyone and that they were in danger of being overrun and needed at least Arty support and a MedEvac to get out the wounded.  I was calling up for a new fire mission while the Maj. asked for them to pop smoke and relayed their sitrep to Bn.  The Maj. handled the com with the Infantry Bn and the Infantry company while I worked the fire mission.  They were in dense cover with triple canopy and we could only see smoke wisps dispersed coming above the trees. There was no LZ where a helicopter could land and they could not move the wounded in any case as they were still heavily engaged with the NVA.  Maj. Ferrell, after repeated calls for a MedEvac, finally got one to answer inbound.  The Huey had to hover above the trees and send a Jungle penetrator down and lift out the wounded.  It seemed like the helicopter was hovering there a long time and I could not help thinking he is very exposed; the fighting was almost underneath them as I saw they had another wounded guy on the sling.  I turned my head to watch my incoming rounds when I heard the Maj. exclaim they just blew the helicopter out of the air; they hit it with an RPG.  I turned my head back and all I could see was dense black smoke rising into the sky.  We were stunned there had to be a full load of wounded plus crew on the Huey, adding up to a lot of guys gone in an instant!  We continued the mission as we had some Tac Air inbound and I lifted the Arty as the Air Strike went in.  Shortly after that the 1/14th unit was able to break contact and thanked us for our help and the support we brought in, but they had been hurt bad.   After that mission, I had a couple more planned targets to fire and then we returned to Oasis and I filed my after- action report.  But as I remember it Ö..  It was a bad day.

Lt Mike Kurtgis
FO and Air FO / Pilot

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Webmaster Note: Mike's account points out the ongoing and detrimental lack of communication between our ground/air efforts
                            in critical times of providing support to the Infantry units.

 

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