7/28/14

The Red Baron and Casper the Ghost

So this morning on the way in to the Smile Hi, we saw the Red Baron doing his crop dusting thing off Road 24.5. The Red Baron is a red low-wing monoplane, like an Air Tractor 502, though I'm not certain of exactly what it is.

But it is similar enough to the Lockheed YO-3 QuietStar, sometimes called 'Casper' by the troops, that it gave me one of those instant remembrances. I hesitate to call it a 'flashback,' as that often has a negative connotation.

During the last half of 1970, two Caspers were stationed at Binh Thuy, in Can Tho province. These things were so quiet, that all you could hear was a slight flutter from the prop as it approached, and maybe a slight 'rushing' noise from airflow over the wings, and that would be as it passed overhead, only a couple of hundred feet up. In addition to this silent operation, the Caspers also had a night vision periscope in the belly, which the pilot could use to observe the ground.

There were a couple of crews of local "freedom fighters" possessed of a Soviet M1938 120mm mortar, and a Chinese copy of the US M20 75mm recoiless rifle. Both crews had developed the annoying habit of lobbing in a couple of dozen rounds in the wee hours of the morning, to see what they could stir up. Among the things they did blow up were the chow hall and the water purification plant. The chow hall was not seen as much of a loss, but the water plant most certainly was.

The US Navy had a squadron of OV-10's at Binh Thuy, the Black Ponies. Unlike USAF OV-10's, which were used almost exclusively in a FAC role, the Black Ponies were shooters, and they were armed to the teeth. The two Caspers arrived, and they and the Black Ponies hatched a scheme ... the Caspers would go up about sunset, and the Black Ponies would rotate through starting about thirty minutes later. A couple of Ponies would be on station throughout the night.

We were sitting on the roof of the radar van the evening all this came to pass. We caught the movement of the Casper launching, but of course heard nothing. He turned and came back over the radar site, which was located right at the extreme edge of the perimeter, right where the tanglefoot and other wire and booby trap encumbrances began. Though he passed about a hundred feet overhead, we heard nothing but the aforementioned flutter and rushing noise. Whispering Death, you might say. A while later a couple of Black Ponies went up.

We were running Arc Light strikes along the Cambodian border (possibly in the same area where John Kerry had spent his Christmas fighting off the Commie hordes), so we went back to that. But we had the Ponies and Caspers up on one of the radios. About 1 in the morning the Casper picked up some movement and got a solid ID on the recoiless rifle crew. This was perhaps a thousand yards out from the perimeter, over toward the river. The 'river' was the Bassac, which drains the Ton Le Sap in Cambodia, and runs parallel to and south of the Mekong as that river empties out in the South China Sea.

The night was a black as the inside of a water buffalo. But we had some idea of where the Caspers and Ponies were, so we looked out that way. Shortly, we saw a dribble of brilliant white 'sapphires' tinged with blue fall out of the sky down to the ground ... and then the ground lit up like the 4th of July. These were the 2.75" rockets fired by the Ponies. Thus endeth the recoiless rifle crew.

Some people went out the next day and recovered the recoiless rifle and a bunch of rounds, and what was left of the crew. The VNAF who ran the base (it was actually a Vietnamese base, not US) hung the corpses up by their feet out in front of the main gate, on the main road. I'm not so sure this was a way to win anyone's hearts and minds, but it did seem to put the mortar crew off, as they never bothered us again. The recoiless rifle was put on display over by base HQ, along with other such memorabilia from previous engagements.

So thanks and a tip of the hat to the Red Baron for triggering what, some 44 years later, and a bit clouded by all those years, was one of those "Say, that reminds me of the time ..." moments.

Historical references:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lockheed_YO-3

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binh_Thuy_Air_Base (if you enlarge the aerial photo of the base, you can barely discern the radar site, top left, a blob just off the perimeter road.)

http://www.blackpony.org/enhfl110run.jpg (a Pony armed and ready to roll)

And a pretty good blurb on the Chinese recoiless rifle, including a short clip of it being fired, possibly in Afganistan or Iraq: It remains a very popular item in the arsenals of 'freedom fighters' everywhere.

http://www.5rar.asn.au/weapons/75mm_recoilless.htm