Thursday, April 9, 2009

Living History: "Send Me Some Stukas!"

COBRA! The AH-1G “Cobra” or “Snake” helicopter system filled the Army’s need for a fast armed escort/attack helicopter in Vietnam. Unlike the lightly armed Huey, the Cobra carried an array of weapon systems that quickly proved their tactical worth by providing immediate fire suppression and rocket barrages to the airmobile doctrine. This Cobra helicopter, tail number 67-15663, first entered service in Vietnam in August of 1968 with F troop of the 8th Cavalry stationed in Chu Lai. Its fuselage is patched from where it took ground fire during a combat mission on November 25, 1969. In Vietnam the Cobra proved it could engage Soviet made armor during the North Vietnamese forces attack on An Loc on March 30, 1972. After Vietnam, the Cobra series helicopters added the XM65 TOW missile system to their weapons package and were designated as AH-1S and redeployed with an additional anti-tank role on the front lines of the Cold War. The Cobra would be on the front line protecting areas such as Frankfurt to counter a potential Soviet/Warsaw Pact invasion of Germany through the Fulda Gap. This Cobra served with the 175th Aviation Company and then with 3rd Infantry Division Company B in Germany from 1973 to 1975. It is on display at the Army Heritage and Education Center. (Photo credit USAMHI.)

Living History:

WASHINGTON, April 9, 2009 -- The North Vietnamese Army’s (NVA) Easter Offensive of 1972 in Vietnam centered on General Vo Nguyen Giap's plan to move fourteen NVA divisions with armor against three strategic locations in South Vietnam below the Demilitarized Zone. The northern assault was aimed at Dong Ha and Hue; the middle thrust centered on the Kontum and Pleiku region in the Central Highlands; and the southern objective would drive on An Loc as a gateway to Saigon. Straddling Highway 13, a north-south paved road from Cambodia to Saigon, An Loc was considered by Giap as key to a quick drive on the Southern capital city -- a strike that would politically embarrass the United States program of “Vietnamization.” Under the “Vietnamization” plan the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) was increased in size and was equipped and advised by U.S. Military personnel. By 1972 over 5,000 advisors were working with ARVN units to effect a handover of the military situation in South Vietnam and allow the U.S. Military forces to eventually withdraw.

Giap’s plan for An Loc pivoted three well equipped NVA divisions of over 35,000 troops across the Cambodian border in three columns. The NVA movements commenced on March 30. The NVA attacks on the three strategic objectives fell with a strength and force not seen in the war in Vietnam since the campaigns of 1965. The attacks in the Northern and Central objective zones forced the troops of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and their American advisors back in disarray. On April 7, the town of Loc Ninh, approximately fifteen miles north of An Loc on Highway 13, was overrun after beating off two days of assaults in force. Sensing disaster, the political and military leadership of Saigon quickly determined to concentrate defense efforts on An Loc to block the NVA drive on Saigon.

On the morning April 13, after several days of intense artillery preparation, the NVA made a combined arms assault utilizing approximately forty Soviet-built T-54 and PT-76 tanks. As the armor rumbled down Ngo Quyen Street of An Loc heading toward the command post of the 5th ARVN Division, the cry of “thiet giap” -- Tank! -- was taken up by the ARVN defenders of the town. The Easter Offensive was the first time the ARVN forces faced Soviet-made armor in combat, and the initial shock in An Loc was paralyzing until ARVN Private Binh Doan Quang used one of the U.S. Army supplied M72 “LAW” rockets to immobilize an attacking tank. At the height of the armor attack, Colonel William Miller, the American advisor in charge, got on the radio net and called for help. Miller called out “send me some Stukas!,” referencing World War II German dive bombers’ ability to engage armor. That desperate call was answered by the crews of “Blue Max” with two AH-1 Cobra Attack Helicopters of Battery F, 79th Aerial Rocket Artillery, 1st Cavalry Division Airmobile, flown by Chief Warrant Officer Barry McIntyre and Major Larry McKay in the lead ship and 1/Lt. Steve Shields and Capt. Bill Causey following.

As the Cobras approached An Loc, Major McKay radioed Colonel Miller. “This is Serpent Six (McKay’s call sign) with a flight of Cobras” Colonel Miller tried to wave them off due to the heavy anti-aircraft ring that the NVA had established around An Loc. “Negative! Negative! Sir; I’ve got HEAT!,” referencing his Cobra’s 2.75 High Explosive Anti-Tank missiles. Braving intense anti-aircraft fire, the Cobras dived at an extreme angle in order to place their unguided rockets directly on target and knocked out a T-54 that was about to engage Colonel Miller’s command post with the 8th ARVN regiment. They hit the lead tank, the middle and the rear vehicle in the column effectively stopping the attack. Over the course of the engagement the Cobras would be credited with destroying over twenty Vietnamese-crewed Soviet tanks with the new tactic. The attack was stopped, and An Loc became a siege and battle of will as Giap and the NVA became fixated on reducing the garrison and opening the road to Saigon. Throughout April and May after repeated human wave attacks which were stopped by coordinated ground defense and B-52 raids, the NVA gave up the siege in June of 1972. The use of Cobras against tanks at An Loc added a new dimension to the Army’s capabilities that would play a significant role in the development of weapons systems during the Cold War in Europe.

(Report by Christopher Semancik, Army Heritage Museum.)

ABOUT THIS STORY: Many of the sources presented in this article are among 400,000 books, 1.7 million photos and 12.5 million manuscripts available for study through the U.S. Army Military History Institute (MHI). The artifacts shown are among nearly 50,000 items of the Army Heritage Museum (AHM) collections. MHI and AHM are part of the: Army Heritage and Education Center (AHEC), 950 Soldiers Drive, Carlisle, PA.

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