Hill 881S and the Super Gaggle
By Col William H. "Bill" Dabney - Originally Published April 2005
In this 'Sting of Battle' offering, excerpted from the Purple Fox web site, the author pays tribute to his Marines and the ingenuity and indomitable spirit of the Purple Foxes of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 364 (HMM-364).
On and before 21 January 1968, helo resupply of Hill 881S was by "daisy chain" (single sequential helicopters). Loads were staged at Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB), loaded internally aboard birds, and brought up to the hill. It took a lot of Marines, both at KSCB and on the hill, to load and offload, so the loading and landing zones were crowded. On 21 January we had some lightly wounded priority medevacs and needed some ammo resupply to replenish stocks. A UH-34 came up with the ammunition, which we offloaded, and then we immediately began loading wounded aboard. The bird had been in the zone for 2 or 3 minutes when a 120mm mortar round impacted within a few feet of it. Our senior corpsman and two of our previously wounded Marines were now killed in action (KIA). About a dozen others, including the helicopter crew, were wounded in action (WIA)-all seriously. The UH-34 remained on the hill throughout the siege, on what we referred to as our "front porch" zone, which faced east toward Khe Sanh.
Internal loading was obviously not going to work. Starting on 22 January, all loads were external but still staged at KSCB for birds to pick up. As incoming got more frequent and more accurate down at base, Marines staging loads and helos picking loads up were at greater risk, and loads themselves were often damaged by shrapnel while in the staging area. Things did not improve on Hill 881S for either the aircrews or the 881S Marines. We'd figured out by then that the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) tended to leave mortar tubes registered wherever they'd fired their last rounds, so we'd fake that zone with air panels and smoke, bring the helo to hover over it, and listen for the tube "pop." (The pop from a 120mm mortar was pretty loud.) As soon as we heard it we'd shift to another zone (we had five) and bring the bird in, usually getting away with it, because it took the NVA about 10 seconds to shift a tube to a new target, and time of flight for the round was about 20 to 25 seconds. This gave us time to get casualties aboard, replacements offloaded, bird gone, and troops covered before the next round came in.
But that only worked for one bird, and we usually needed several. Shifting zones after each bird was not an option, because it meant that the helicopter support team (HST) and others had to move to the next zone under fire-not a good idea. Also, zone shifting, although it could mitigate effects of NVA mortars, did nothing to mitigate antiaircraft (AA) fire, which was constant and came from both sides of the hill. We were told to have troops up in trench lines firing suppressive fires at all known or suspected AA sites. Again, that didn't work because, although these fires tended to make AA fire inaccurate and thus helped the birds, 50 to 100 Marines had to be exposed during helicopter operations, and given the volume and accuracy of mortars, we inevitably took more casualties, often multiple. That meant, of course, that when we'd finished the original resupply or medevac, we had to bring in another bird to evacuate new casualties-sort of a "snowball" effect-and that process quickly became an exercise in futility.
Super Gaggle Tactics
We described the problem we were having to battalion at KSCB, but "do the best you can" was about the only answer we got back. There really wasn't much battalion could do to help. We would, however, occasionally have a bird downed, which meant that the aircrew would spend some time with us. We described, and the pilots could see, our difficulties with the daisy chain system. Apparently it was that feedback that led to the implementation of "Super Gaggle" on 24 February 1968.
We grunts had a problem, but the Purple Foxes came up with the solution. It was brilliant! In the first 4 weeks of battle, there were six birds downed on Hill 881S alone, along with a bunch of WIA among aircrews. We lost 100-plus 881S Marines KIA or WIA getting in and out. In the 7 weeks after Super Gaggle started, the Purple Foxes had zero birds downed (although a few were hit by AA), and we had perhaps 20 WIA and zero KIA during resupply.
From our perspective, how did it work? On days Super Gaggle was due, we'd register all of our mortars (we had eight-two 8mm and six 60mm) on known or suspected AA sites and stand by. At about 10 minutes prior to Super Gaggle, we'd get the word and fire all mortars with white phosphorus (WP) rounds. Four A-4s would then appear-two on either side of the hill-and attack mortar marked sites with Zuni rockets. Two more would then drop delay cluster bomb units and high-drag 250-pound bombs in valleys north and south of the hill. Two or more would then drop napalm along both sides of the hill-about 75 to 100 meters out to discourage NVAs who would lie on their backs and fire up into bellies of birds with their AK-47s. It got hot when napalm hit, and we prayed a lot, but they never missed. We'd also have each Marine in the trench line (about 200) heave a grenade as far as he could down the hill in front of him to clear or discourage the same NVA.
Finally, our mortars would fire four to five more rounds of WP at AA sites they were registered on (to blind them in case Zunis hadn't gotten them), and then all Marines on the hill would take cover. As we did so, two more A-4s would lay smoke on either side of the hill. Super Gaggle prep was an exciting show, and we'd sometimes have trouble keeping troops, especially replacements new to the hill, under cover. It was dramatic entertainment, but given the inevitability of incoming mortars, it was mortally dangerous to forsake cover to watch.
As soon as smoke was laid, the Purple Foxes would appear with external loads brought from Dong Ha-10 birds in 2 strings of 5-just above the smoke. They'd fly parallel to the hill, usually to the south since wind was usually from the north. They appeared to us to do a "right flank, march," come in to the five zones on the hill, release their loads, and beat feet. A second echelon of five would do likewise, but it was dicier, because by then smoke from the north would be blowing over the hill and visibility would be severely restricted. Since all zones were on a line only 200 meters long, the birds were damn close together. How they avoided colliding, I don't know, but they did. One bird in the second echelon would be designated to land in a zone we'd have ready, drop off mail and replacement Marines, and pick up any casualties. The NVA would always fire mortars, but their forward observers were blinded by smoke, so their fire was generally ineffective except when an occasional round would land in some trooper's hole. Nothing we could do about that, except pray. AA fire was constant and sometimes heavy, but, like mortars, gunners were firing blind through smoke. They'd occasionally get lucky and wing a bird, but they never brought one down on the hill during Super Gaggle.
The whole idea of the operations described was to suppress, inhibit, and blind NVA gunners for about 2 minutes, without exposing our troops on the ground, so birds could deliver, pick up, and get out. What amazed us was that it always worked, even the first time we did it. My guess, based on knowledge of Hill 881S casualties both before and after Super Gaggle, is that it saved 150 to 200 casualties and perhaps half a dozen birds. Planning, coordination, and airmanship were all flat out rnagnificent! Whoever came up with it rated the Navy Cross, at least.
We had a ceremony that began in early February and continued as long as we occupied Hill 881S. Three Marines would race from the bunker to a 15-foot radio antenna. Two of them would raise our Nation's colors, then stand at attention while the third sounded a rusty rendition of "To the Colors" with a battered bugle. We were never without volunteers for this ceremony. They were proud of themselves and our flag. At night this process was reversed as we retired the colors. Often the retired flag was folded, packed, and shipped to the family of a Marine slain on the hill. We had a substantial stockpile of flags sent to us by people from all over the country. We even got a "coffin" flag from the widow of a World War II KIA. She'd been given it when he was buried. She sent it to us with a note saying he'd have wanted the flag to be useful again instead of gathering dust on a closet shelf. For some reason this daily ritual seemed to irritate the NVA in the vicinity of Hill 881N, and they would usually shoot at us. That gave us more targets for our close air support (CAS) and Super Gaggle prep. They never seemed to grasp the principle that, with all of the firepower we could bring to bear, it was not a good idea to make us mad. But regulations specified that we should fly the Republic of South Vietnam's flag anytime our flag was displayed. I recall being gently admonished once for not doing this, so I said I'd be happy to fly the South Vietnamese flag anytime ours was hoisted if they would provide a detachment of Army of the Republic of Vietnam troops to raise it. I never heard more on the subject.
It took a full external load per day just to get us enough water to drink, cook, and clean wounds. Since Super Gaggle came on average of once every 3 days-not because that's all we needed, but because weather was so often zero zero-that meant at least 3 of 10 Super Gaggle birds were dedicated exclusively to water. To be able to shave/wash up, we'd have needed to double that to six birds. That was bad enough, since it would cut down on chow/ammo deliveries. More important, I was damned if we were going to ask for any more water than we absolutely needed to survive-it would have been grossly unfair to the aircrews who took enough risks (and hits) as it was.
Water was initially sent up in 5-gallon cans, but they were big, tipsy, and didn't have very good tops, so even if shrapnel didn't hole them they might turn over and leak. Sometimes a load would be dropped hard, and the cans would burst open. In one case, a CH-53 brought up a full 250-gallon "water buffalo." About 10 minutes later, a 120mm mortar round landed near it. We crouched in a trench watching all that precious water run out onto the ground. Finally someone down at Dong Ha came up with idea of using 155mm powder canisters for water. They'd line them with plastic bags, fill them with water, and screw the top down tight. The canisters were strong, had heavy tops, and it didn't matter if they fell over when dropped in external loads. Also, they only held a couple of gallons, so a net load would be lots of them. If a round hit nearby, we'd lose a few, but most would still be full when we went out after dark to clear zones.
One of my privates first class suggested we use empty canisters for excrement-fill 'em up, screw the top down tight, and pitch them off the hill. It wasn't long before another Marine suggested that the last man to use the "commode" before it was completely full be required to place a grenade, spoon down and pin pulled, into the canister on top of excrement, screw the top down tight, and pitch it off the hill! The hill was steep and the canister would bounce a good distance down. Every once in a while, late at night, we'd hear an explosion and screams from down below. The smell was unpleasant, but well worth it. Troops would look at each other and say, "Yeah, gotcha, you (unprintable)!" Curiosity kills!
During what little free time the Marines had, they thought of their situation on 881S, thought of home, and wondered if they would ever return to their loved ones. One Marine, Earnest Webb, was so engaged when he wrote a letter to his pastor, Reverend Anderson. PFC Webb had seen the morale of his fellow Marines waning and described a remedy to his pastor that he named "Operation We Care." PFC Webb's church and other organizations responded to "Operation We Care" resulting in an abundance of "We Care" packages arriving at 881S. We not only received the items Webb had requested in his letter, we also received gin and vodka in plastic baby bottles in several packages.
The Mightiest Corporal
Infantry units in combat usually have a forward air controller (FAC) attached to control all air support for the unit. He is a Marine officer pilot on temporary duty with the unit for a 3-month period. Our FAC was hit and medevaced on the first or second day, and Cpl Robert J. Arrotta, his radio operator, took over. By the time the battalion came up with a replacement, Cpl Arrotta had proven himself so good that I told battalion I didn't need a replacement.
His team spotted, determined map coordinates, and controlled aircraft for CAS missions. For what it's worth, all troops who've survived for any length of time with a grunt unit in combat will pick up a radio call sign to avoid the risk of the enemy getting their names. Cpl Arrotta had the official tactical call sign of "India 14" that identified him as the CAS representative of the company. The troops, in recognition of the tremendous amount of firepower he was capable of calling to bear on the NVA, referred to him as "The Mightiest Corporal in the World." Cpl Arrotta remained our FAC for the entire siege. He directed about 300 CAS missions, all of the Super Gaggles and, in coordination with the HST, all of the medevacs. He was one hell of a Marine! Cpl Arrotta received an end-of-tour Bronze Star, but deserved better. He did a captain's job superbly under fire for 3 months.
During the 77-day siege we never called for a routine medevac. For us to subject the CH-46 crews to unnecessary exposure was not an option. In fact, many of our priority medevacs waited for the last bird of a scheduled Super Gaggle to be evacuated rather than call for a dedicated medevac package. Emergencies, of course, were called immediately. In fact, if a priority medevac could carry one end of a stretcher, he would. We got more out that way, while still keeping the number of troops exposed in the zone to a minimum. These were often Marines with deep flesh wounds that required stitching or who'd been peppered with shrapnel that had to be dug out so the wounds wouldn't get infected. I remember one stretcher bearer was a man who'd had his pinkie finger blown off. He wasn't an "emergency" and he could carry one end of a stretcher, albeit painfully, but we still needed to get him down to a doctor to get the slump healed. We had no water to keep clean with, so any wound eventually got infected. It was a "pay me now or pay me later" situation. Better to send them down as soon as they got hit. Besides, the regulations in those days said that if you hadn't been treated by a doctor, you didn't rate a Purple Heart, and I was damned if I was going to let those Marines be cheated out of a Purple Heart just because they happened to be serving on that God-awful hill. I tried to get authority to have my senior corpsman certify wounds that rated the medal, but no go. Some Marines who were lightly wounded simply refused evacuation, figuring the medal wasn't worth the risk of the trip down and back. We even had a couple who refused evacuation for light wounds because it would have been their third Purple Heart, which meant they got sent out of country. They didn't want to leave-sense of duty. I wish I could convey to the young Marines of today, and to our fellow countrymen, how magnificent those men really were.
Awards and Administration
In addition to Purple Hearts not given to all who deserved them, many from those days were not recognized for superb and often heroic performance-both grunts and aviators. Keep in mind, though, that any kind of unit administration was way down on the list of priorities, what with tempo of operations, lack of administrative capability (26th Marines admin rear was back on Okinawa, and battalion admin rears were at Phu Bai which might as well have been on the back side of the moon), and the fact that all forward echelons, from platoon to regiment, were subject to the same constant and devastating incoming. These were big rounds-120mm mortars, 122mm rockets, 130mm guns, 152mm howitzers-and staying alive and alert was always the top priority. All of this was during the height of the Tet offensive when all of Vietnam was at "general quarters." Also, when we did send paperwork down from the hill, it was usually using a lightly wounded courier, and we had no guarantee he'd not get hit again in a bird on the way down, or that the bird would even stop at KSCB. If a bird had an emergency medevac aboard, it would often bypass the base and go straight to Delta Med at Dong Ha or out to the USS Repose (AH 16) offshore. Paperwork would have to wend its way back through the system and often didn't make it. The situation made getting anything back to either the rear at base or to the wing (including the Purple Foxes) iffy at best, and since we rarely got feedback from the rear, we never knew whether we'd succeeded or not.
These memories were supposed to be about the Purple Foxes and the support they gave my Marines on Hill 881S. However, at the insistence of the squadron historian/webmaster, I provided this photograph. The Marine on the right is SSgt Karl G. Taylor, Sr., 1st Platoon Sergeant, who won a Medal of Honor later that year during Operation MEAD RIVER. I'm the big guy on the left (6 feet 4 ½ inches, 205 pounds "fighting" weight). We're both filthy and obviously unshaven for reasons previously explained. I didn't wear the cammie cover on my helmet. I needed some way for the troops to identify me when things got exciting. I figured that if I needed camouflage on my helmet, we were all in deep kimchi. I weighed 155 pounds when we got back to Quang Tri at the end of April. We were all a bit scrawny and couldn't have passed the physical fitness test if our lives depended on it (didn't exist then, anyway), but we could hit the deck and roll faster than any other Marines still alive.
I hope I've given the Purple Foxes of HMM-364 some feel for the Marines they were supporting and the unique problems we, and they, had to deal with. These are old memories, but with the help of notes, old letters home, and recollections of a few other Marines who were on the hill, I think they're fairly accurate. I wish I could be more specific as to tail numbers and dates, but as I said before, we were too damned busy to worry much about that then-ducking rounds, running CAS, and working the birds in daytime and pulling in loads, improving defenses, and standing 100 percent watch from midnight till dawn because that's when the NVA was likely to attack. Our troops did most of their sleeping in the daytime.
For the Marines of India and Mike Companies, the word "magnificent" is inadequate to describe the Purple Foxes. I can't imagine the Marine Corps ever again having a better collection of gutsy aircrews (goes for the fixed-wing folks also) and tough birds than we had to work with on Hill 881S during the siege of Khe Sanh. They deserve this glorious history. God knows they made it!
Editor's Note: The siege at Khe Sanh during the early months of 1968 showed Marine and Navy courage and innovation at their best. The author commanded Company I, 3d Battalion, 26th Marines (I/3/26) and parts of M/3/26 for a good portion of the seige, and spent most of the time on Hill 881S, a regimental outpost roughly 4 miles west of the KSCB.