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War Story: Hero Medals for Mixer and I

by MAJ Robert Nelson, USA (Ret.), Daedalian Life Member #4970

Whenever Charlie (the VC – also known as Chuck, Charles, Gooks, Slopes or Dinks) mortared our airfield at Vinh Long, it was always at night, between the hours of midnight and 0200. They’ d set up a mortar tube, launch anywhere from four to twelve rounds and then break up and skedaddle out of the area before anyone could react.

To combat this little bit of skullduggery the Army came up with a counter-mortar radar that would detect the incoming rounds and through triangulation figure out where the rounds were coming from. The Vinh Long airfield operations center also kept an armed Cobra on patrol overhead from the hours of 2200  to 0400. Two aircraft, with crews, were on alert with the flying broken up between the two birds.

Our Apache troop pulled the alert duty every third day and was rotated among the members of the gun platoon. The other two nights were covered by the guns of B and C Troop. One particular night, I was tagged for alert duty along with a new guy as my front seat, Donn Wilimzic, later with the call sign “Mixer”, and another crew with their aircraft. We would report for duty around sundown to our own Apache operations center and then go out to the line and preflight our aircraft, move them to the alert pad, shut them down and have the aircraft “cocked” for instantaneous departure in case of attack.

This particular night was really hot and humid. No attacks had occurred for the last several weeks. Just before we were scheduled to crank the aircraft and take off to start flying our patrol, the second of the night, Mixer and I looked at each other and came to the same conclusion – leave our Chicken Plates on the ground – it was much cooler flying without them restricting the air flow around our bodies. That would haunt us later.

After taking off and establishing a circular pattern over the airfield at 2000 feet above the ground, I pulled out a device  I had made to attach to my helmet to simulate instrument conditions. I was going to get some practice flying on instruments, as we only had rudimentary instruments in the Cobra. If I ever got caught in weather, I wanted to be able to fly on instruments well enough to get me out of the instrument conditions and back to flying visually. Figured it could save my life someday. So, I put the hood on my helmet and told Mixer I was going on instruments and to look out for any traffic in the area.

I spent about thirty minutes flying around, practicing maintaining my altitude and heading by instrument reference. I listed for any radio traffic on the airfield, which would mean I had company in the air. Nada – it was a quiet night. I was directly over the airfield when I got an excited call over the airfield tower frequency.

It was the counter-mortar radar crew – “Incoming rounds from the southwest, bearing 220 degrees!” I ripped my instrument hood off, looked down at the airfield, saw the mortar rounds going off, looked in the direction I’d been given and, on a bend in a canal southwest of the airfield saw the telltale flash of a mortar tube launching a round.

I rolled in on the target, armed my weapons systems and fired several pairs of rockets, dead on target!! The counter-mortar crew yelled “On Target!” and I knew I had hit the bad guys. Feeling elated I broke my dive and turned the aircraft to recover my inertia and climb back up. As I broke from the gun-run I was down to 500 feet above the ground and really moving.

But, Charlie had changed his usual hit and run plan that night. Three anti-aircraft weapons had been set up just off the west end of our runway in a triangulated position to catch aircraft that would launch once the rounds started falling. They had not counted on me being able to hit the mortar tubes so quickly. But, on my break from my gun-run, I flew right over the west end of the airfield and they responded accordingly – all three of them.

Things went from quiet and dark to extremely bright and terrifying. I had never seen so many tracers coming by my aircraft – I was the only target and they were determined to knock me down. As I flew through the cone of fire coming up from those anti-aircraft positions, I glimpsed Mixer’s face in the mirror we had for visual contact between the back and front seat positions.

He keyed his microphone and asked, “Know what I wish I had?”

I responded with “Your Chicken Plate.”

They were sitting back on the ground, in the revetment where we had left them.

I climbed, turned, and came back down in a gun-run on the closest enemy firing position, which was a .51 caliber machine gun. I could tell the caliber because the tracer rounds were as big as basketballs. This night I had an aircraft with a Scout configuration – two miniguns on the inboard wing stations and two rocket pods on the outboard stations. I switched from rockets to my inboard weapons station – my two miniguns – and started putting out a stream of rounds at a rate of 4000 rounds per minute per minigun. I touched that enemy antiaircraft emplacement with a combined 8000 rounds per minute and they immediately stopped firing – because I tore the gun and the crew to pieces.

The other two were still trying to knock me down and I climbed up to engage the other two positions. All of a sudden, flares started popping around me, the counter mortar battery had fired off some flares to illuminate the area. They had gone off above me and were swinging down under their individual parachutes and illuminating the area.

I swung back up out of the dive, rolled left and lined up on the second VC gun position. He stopped firing as I was inbound but I hit him with another stream of rounds and closed him down for good also. As I climbed back up for a run at the third enemy position, those folks had seen what had happened to their compatriots and departed the area. The fight was over.

It had taken less time to happen than it took me to write about. It was over in minutes. Seemed like a lifetime when it happened.

I later talked to the other members of my troop. They said they were standing on top of the bunkers in the troop area cheering me on. They had a grandstand view of the action and couldn’t believe the amount of ground fire I was flying through and cheered and yelled whenever I would come in on my gun runs and let fly with my ordinance. Gentle Ben and the rest of the guys said it was awesome. But I didn’t sustain one hit on my aircraft. That amazed me!

My troop did an aerial sweep of the area at first light with the scouts, with me as the covering gunship. I insisted even though I could have turned it over to another gun lead. I wanted to know how I’d done. The scouts found the destroyed weapons and body parts and blood trails to attest to the effectiveness of the weapons I employed.  

That action earned me the first of the three Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) medals I was awarded.  It was the one I felt the most satisfaction over, but in reality, I was just doing my job. I also never flew without my chicken plate again.

Maj. Rob “Apache 40” Nelson on break during his tour