The helicopter has revolutionized the ugly little anti-Communist war in South Viet Nam. Using the whirlybirds for transport, government forces no longer remain immobile in fixed outposts. They now go where the Viet Cong goes.
Sometimes this is not very healthy, for the Red guerrillas have developed tactics to counter the copters. In the early days, they tried to shoot them down with homemade shotguns and ancient French rifles; one helicopter even returned to base with an arrow stuck in its fuselage. Today, with more practice and an abundant supply of captured U.S. weapons, the Viet Cong gangmen can make things hot for the most skilled U.S. helicopter pilot. Last week the Viet Cong forces proved their prowess by shooting down five helicopters over rice marshes southwest of Saigon and inflicting a brutal defeat on the government forces.
Like Shooting Ducks. The battle began as a routine "search and clear" operation in a Red-infested area near the tiny hamlet of Apbac. The strike plan called for ten U.S. H21 troop-carrying helicopters, escorted by five U.S. rocket-firing HUA choppers, to ferry 400 government troops to the drop zone in waves of 100 men each. The first three groups landed with no ground fire from the enemy. But as the fourth lift fluttered over the paddies, the Communists let loose with a blaze of bullets from the woods at the edge of the rice field. "The tree line seemed to explode with machine-gun fire," said one helicopter pilot. "It was pure hell." Virtually motionless, the banana-shaped helicopters were helpless targets at point-blank range; five of the hovering choppers were shot down, and nine others were riddled by enemy fire.
On the ground, the government forces were pinned down in the hail of fire. "When those poor Vietnamese came out of the choppers, it was like shooting ducks for the Viet Cong," said one U.S. officer. The stunned survivors burrowed into the slimy mud of the paddies and stayed there, refusing to continue the assault. Desperately, Captain Kenneth Good, 32, a West Pointer from Ewa Beach, Hawaii, sought to rally the Vietnamese for a counterattack, but he was stitched through the neck and chest by a burst from a Viet Cong automatic rifle. The government troops stayed put.
After eight hours of continuous bombardment, reinforcements began to arrive. Blasting away with machine guns, government armored cars repeatedly attacked the entrenched Viet Cong positions at the tree line and along a canal bordering the paddies; each time they were driven back. Overhead, government planes pounded the Viet Cong with bombs and napalm, but the Communists did not break. "My God, we got a fix on one machine-gun position and made 15 aerial runs on it," said a U.S. adviser. "Every time we thought we had him, and every time that damned gunner came right back up, firing."