The Jim Bolen SOG Interviews. Extraction from Laos by Helicopter – Under Fire.
Above Photo: Helicopter door gunner in Vietnam, 1968. (USAF)
Jim Bolen was interviewed by Peter Alan Lloyd as part of his research for BACK (see: http://peteralanlloyd.com/back-part-2/backpackers-meet-the-vietnam-war-back-screenplay-finally-finished/)
PAL: Jim, a number of times in your book No Guts No Glory and in our previous interviews you’ve touched on helicopter extractions and the bravery of pilots who came in under heavy fire to get you and your SOG teams out of the jungles of Cambodia and Laos.
Can you describe a typical ‘hot’ extraction?
JB: First I have to start off with the greatest sound in the world, that of a Huey getting close. Even to this day my wife always remarks about my reaction when I hear a chopper going overhead.
In my close to fifty SOG missions I came out being chased and or under fire in over thirty of them, so to me that sound is life-saving.
PAL: Do you ever keep in touch with the chopper pilots?
JB: Last year my wife and I went to a reunion of the 20th Special Operations Squadron (the Green Hornets) in Kokomo Indiana. These were the men of the Air Force helicopter unit that supported us. I believe our unit, CCS, was the only SOG operation that had Air Force over regular Army or RVN pilots supporting them.
PAL: What were the differences?
JB: One of the big differences I could see right off the bat between the services was the personnel with the Air Force were much older, especially the pilots. In the Army and RVN the pilots were 1stand 2nd Lieutenants mostly whereas the Air Force pilots were Captains and Majors. Not saying one was better than the other but it always seemed strange to me when climbing into the chopper under fire and seeing the pilot with grey hair taking rounds through the wind shield.
Also, the model number for our birds was UH1-P. Other designations were the UH1-F .
There’s no difference between these two models although I heard that the F Model was given to those birds configured as gunships…The biggest difference between the Army Models and Air Force Model was the engine….Army Hueys had the T-53 turbine and the Air Force had the T-58 turbine that produced more shaft horsepower than the T-53…….The T-53 on the army birds had the exhaust coming straight out where the Air Force T-58 exhaust curved 90 degrees to the right to help compensate for the torque of the main rotor…. Another difference was the obvious camouflage paint scheme.
PAL: I bet there were a few interesting conversations at the SOS reunion…
JB: Talking to a couple of the door gunners one reminded me of the time I was shot, after being chased for a few hours to find a LZ, he said he helped me into the chopper. Another door gunner brought up the fact that on another mission he took 2 rounds in the head picking me and my team up. I don’t know what happened to him after that but at the reunion last year he seemed fine.
They all mentioned that they knew when I called for an extraction they would be going into a world of shit. I guess sometimes I just got too aggressive and I believed my job was to kill as many NVA’s as possible. I believed a dead NVA was an enemy that could not fire at an American soldier.
Those conversations made me think. I know the feeling I had on the chopper ride heading to my drop off point. I would have an hour or two to think about my mission and what was going to happen once we got there. To me the rush was overwhelming and exciting. Talk about adrenalin. Now I realize the chopper crews must have been going through the same feelings coming to pick me up. Actually it was probably even more so because when I jumped off the chopper I did not know for sure what I was facing where the chopper crews knew for sure that when I called they were going in for a fight.
Believe me the NVA really wanted to bring down choppers. My team and I could hide to some degree but there is no way you can hide a chopper coming into a small LZ for a landing. Everyone knew that sometimes the enemy would try to direct a team to a specific LZ just in the hopes of luring a chopper in to be shot down.
PAL: How would you usually call for an extraction?
JB: Remember in my previous interviews I explained how LZ’s were picked out a week or so before the missions. This was done riding with an Air Force Forward Air Control, FAC, pilot. He was our life line back to our Forward Operating Base, FOB. The team leader, me, always picked out the insertion LZ but the FAC was the one in position overhead to pick out the extraction LZ if needed.
Once on the ground we tried to have contact with him 2 or 3 times a day. During this contact we would keep him updated on our location, or at least where we thought we were. Sometimes if the overhead canopy permitted, and we thought it was safe enough, we would use a mirror so he could get a positive fix on us. He also had a copy of our map and intended direction of movement outlined.
Having a lifeline contact a few times a day added a lot of comfort to the men on the ground.
During the course of our mission, if we came in contact with the enemy, the first thing was to break off contact by laying down a heavy base of fire,the second thing was to contact the FAC. He would contact the FOB and the chopper crews would come out from wherever they were, running to their ships – and I do mean running. No one would ever need to get permission to come and save our ass. We would tell the FAC our approximate position and direction of movement. If we had wounded that information was also forwarded to the FAC so there would be medical people ready on the ground when we landed.
He would then give us an ETA to when the choppers would be on location. He would then find us a suitable LZ away from the enemy to head towards for an extraction. As I mentioned in my previous interviews the first thing we would do is lay down such a heavy barrage of fire that the enemy would disengage. Sometimes we killed them all, sometimes the enemy would back off until they were reinforced; other times if their unit was large and brave enough they would stay right on us. We were a huge prize for the NVA.
Remember the jungle was very heavy in most areas and this alone would put the enemy at something of a disadvantage. They would be afraid of staying too close,in case they were charging into an ambush. We on the other hand moved as quickly as possible but we had the same concern of running into an enemy unit that was alerted by the automatic weapons fire or a possible trap.
There were times that after first contact when we’d hear weapons fire behind and on both sides of us trying to flush us out. This was a method the NVA used to funnel a team in the direction they wanted. Capturing or killing a SOG team was always a high priority for the NVA.
PAL: What would be the usual pickup configuration? All gunships?
JB: There was always one slick (Huey to pick up personnel with door gunners using M-60 machine guns (2) not mini guns) and 2 to 4 gunships with mini guns, 2 each, and rockets.
PAL: How often would you call in Skyraiders or jets to help with your extractions?
JB: Very seldom would we have to call in air support other than our gunships. Believe me the 20th could handle anything the enemy put on them. There were also restrictions to the type of aircraft allowed in Laos or Cambodia, each country was different.
PAL: What would happen when you arrived at the LZ, and would you be in direct radio contact with the incoming choppers, and also with the FAC?
JB: We almost always maintained radio contact with the FAC to avoid confusion. The FAC had direct control over the choppers movement and directed them to us. The FAC would be flying one to three thousand feet above and the choppers were at tree top level. There were a few times when the FAC would turn us over to Skyraiders or other air support when the enemy got in very close to make sure everyone was on the same page. Having bombs, CBU’s or rockets landing that close and the pilot not being able to see your location on the ground, it is necessary to pull his finger off the button ASAP if you see them coming at you. The time it takes to communicate with the FAC then him to the pilot it could be too late, cutting out the middle man so to speak.
PAL: Would you co-ordinate to the second when you’d break from the jungle as the chopper came into land? How would that work if you were being chased and shot at?
JB: The FAC would direct us towards an LZ then when our support choppers were on station, close, we would move to the center of the LZ and pop smoke. This let the gunships know where we were and they would start making their passes. The gunships with the mini guns would absolutely tear the jungle around the LZ to pieces. Believe me no one had their head up when that was going on, us or the enemy.
It was extremely impressive the amount of fire power those guys could put down with precise accuracy. The reason for this is on the gunships they had individually mounted mini guns on each side of the chopper which were controlled by the gunners. The gunners would be strapped onto the side of the chopper so they could hang out and maneuver their weapons.
This is why we would sometimes get plummeted by shell casing. The gunship would fly right over us at tree top level and fire right into the base line of the LZ. Remember many or most of the LZ’s are very small, just large enough to get a chopper or two into, so the gunners are firing directly into the edge of the jungle and the round casings, 5000 a minute, would be raining down on us. To me it was raining love.
After a few circling passes the slick would drop in like a rock to pick us up.
PAL: What would your first move be once you were aboard – would you be firing into the jungle as you were flying away?
JB: There were very few times that I can remember me or my other American firing out of the chopper. There were a few times we’d expended all our ammunition on the ground so we had nothing to fire anyway. The speed the pilots got us off the LZ was amazing.
We always put the indigenous personnel on first and I was always last. Now that I think about it I never heard of anyone firing a weapon inside the chopper by mistake. I also can’t recall any friendly casualties inside the choppers.That’s saying something when we are all carrying fully automatic weapons and at that time none were on safety. When everyone was on board leaving the LZ they were normally bunched up as close to the center as possible. The floor boards of the choppers were bullet proof to a degree. I remember previously Sgt. Torres was being extracted and was onboard when he was hit and killed by a 51 caliber that penetrated the floor of his chopper so you never really know.
Our FOB was named Camp Torres after him.
PAL: What happened when the chopper moved away from the LZ and stopped taking fire? What would usually be running through your head?
JB: First relief and absolute exhilaration, then the feeling of accomplishment. Always happy I never lost any of my team mates. The chopper crews would sometimes have beer or cola waiting for us in the chopper when we were on the way back.
One thing the crew always mentioned was how bad we stunk. You can imagine being closed up in that small area, they flew back with the doors closed, for a few hours with 6 men who’d just got out of the jungle after 4-6 days.
PAL: Were you ever extracted on ladders or strings during the daytime? (We’ll deal with your remarkable nighttime experience in a separate interview).
JB: Teams practiced these forms of extractions fairly regularly. I only had to come out once each on rope ladders and the McGwire rig.
PAL: What was that like?
JB: Coming out on the rope ladder is a pain. This is used when the LZ is big enough for a chopper but the ground vegetation, small 10 foot trees, is too high for the Huey to sit down. You let the indigenous personnel go up first. The reason is the Americans, being heavier, to hold the bottom of the rope ladder to steady the ladder and makes it easier to climb especially with equipment. Once they are aboard then the Americans climb. When practicing sometimes the chopper will take off before everyone is on board. When this happened it was standard to use your snap link on your web gear and hook yourself on the ladder and go for the ride.
One of the big advantages of the McGwire rig was you didn’t need a LZ. The rope rig is thrown through the jungle canopy with the use of heavy sand bags tied to the end of the ropes. The McGwire rig to me was much easier. Once it was thrown through the canopy by weighted sand bags you sat in the webbing and hooked yourself in and gave the OK either by hand signals or radio. One of the problems though was being dragged through the jungle canopy. Remember you were hooked on a 300 foot rope to a Huey. If anything on your body got caught on something going through the canopy you knew what was going to be left behind. Another problem, which I did not mind, was a 1 to 3 hour ride hanging 300 feet underneath a chopper going around 100 knots. I will say it was a nice view of the country side.
The great thing about being in the Special Forces and SOG is there was no distinction with rank. Sergeants and Colonels ate and drank together unlike most other military units.
In closing again I just want to say how extremely dedicated and brave the personnel of the 20th Special Operations Squadron (Green Hornets) were. I feel very privileged to have fought with such men.
Special thanks to Jim Green for the use of his photos in this article.
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