Big Mother 40
U.S. Air Force pilots are becoming reluctant to fly missions into North Vietnam from their bases in Thailand because the North Vietnamese are shooting them down from a missile site they cannot find. Together with the unexplained loss helicopters on deep penetration missions lead Josh Haman and his friend Marty Cabot, the leader of SEAL Team Sierra Six, to suspect a leak in the Navy’s secure communications. No one believes them until Cabot aborts a reconnaissance mission after capturing several maps that that has their insertion and extraction landing zones plotted.
At the secret missile base, Colonel Alexei Koniev, one of the Soviet Army’s leading experts in surface to air missile warfare is testing his theories. His napalm scarred counterpart, Colonel Du Nguyen, is being pressured to force Koniev to shoot down more airplanes while the Russian wants to be more selective to preserve the element of surprise that has helped them bag almost sixty airplanes. Both know that it is only a matter of time before the Americans find and attack the hidden missile base, but how and when?
You get to ride with Josh Haman as he flies an HH-3A with the call sign BIG MOTHER 40 on combat search and rescues as well as he inserts and extracts SEAL teams in the hunt for the secret missile base.
Taken from Chapter 1 – EARLY BATTLES
MARCH, 1968, A-SHAU VALLEY WEST OF HUE ON THE LAOTIAN BORDER, REPUBLIC OF SOUTH VIETNAM
Captain Nguyen Thai of the North Vietnamese Army stared through the lenses of his East German binoculars at bare-headed American soldiers tossing dirt onto growing mounds that would become fighting positions. He judged the distance between them and his men—hidden in a clump of trees about fifty meters behind him—to be about seventy-five meters. Each man in his company waited for the order that would send all two hundred fifty of them creeping in darkness through the meter- high, razor-sharp elephant grass. They hoped a mortar barrage would let them get close enough to toss grenades into the machine-gun pits and then overwhelm the American defenders inside their defensive perimeter.
Thai was sure his head was well below the small rise; he pulled out his map to mark what he assumed would be M-60 machine gun positions that would be targets for his two mortars. He was lying on his back, which gave him a chance to study the shape of the few cumulous clouds, when a flash froze him in place. He scanned the sky.
He sensed the North American F-100 jets’ presence before he saw or heard them, but by then it was too late. Thai recognized the jets as they flew low and parallel to the tree line, which meant one thing: napalm. Time slowed as he watched two silver canisters tumble from the first F-100’s wings and, despite the fading shriek of the jets’ engines, he heard the pop as the tanks exploded just above the treetops. Thai tried to roll under an exposed root just as the air was sucked out of his lungs. He wondered what the odd odor was, and then realized he was smelling his clothes and flesh burn.
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 9, 1971, 0700 LOCAL TIME, ALONG THE HO CHI MINH TRAIL BORDER ABOUT 40 MILES WEST OF DONG HA, THE NORTHERNMOST TOWN IN SOUTH VIETNAM
Dawn doesn’t come easy in the jungle, and the lack of early morning light makes people think it is earlier than it is. The pungent smell of a cooking fire alerted Marty Cabot’s stomach to tell his brain to shift into wake-up gear and get some breakfast, but an unfamiliar weight pressing into his abdomen kept him from moving. He tilted his head up and saw the blue and black bands of a krait coiled on his belly.
The krait sensed its warm bed stir and raised its oval head to sample the air with its forked tongue, while it stared at the dirty face with six days’ growth of beard. It slithered off after deciding the source of the heat was not a meal. When the deadly foot-long snake was about three feet away, Marty pulled his Kukri, a Gurkha knife, from the sheath on the side of his pack and with a short stroke chopped off the snake’s head.
The silent beheading brought smiles from the other seven members of his team, one of whom gutted the snake and put the carcass in a plastic bag to save it as a potential meal. No one spoke since they, too, smelled pungent mung bean paste mixed with rice and other spices heating in leaves, which would become banh chung for the NVA soldiers about one hundred and fifty meters away on the other side of the clearing that was supposed to be their primary pick-up point. After Marty motioned to two of his men to go down the trail to see if their claymores had been disarmed, he low-crawled to the center of the even-sided, triangular shaped ravine where he could study the grass- covered meadow, whose shape and size matched the picture in his pack. As he scanned the tree line on the far side, he could see tendrils of smoke and an occasional North Vietnamese soldier.
It was decision time. Were the Vietnamese passing through, or were they waiting to ambush the helicopter coming to pick them up? He munched on his next to last D-ration candy bar while observing the Vietnamese soldiers prepare their breakfast.
Today was “hunger day” for the SEALs, whose call sign for this mission was Gringo Six, because it was the day they ate the last of their rations. If they had to stay in North Vietnam longer, they would have to live off what they could find in the jungle. They’d already begun to prepare for that possibility by collecting wild fruit—mostly pomelos — and now the dead snake.
Gentle pressure on his leg told Marty to slide back from his perch. A team member told him in hushed tones that their claymores were untouched, and the extra grenade they’d set to explode if anyone had cut the trip wires was also undisturbed.
They’d arrived at the LZ a day earlier after spending three days counting trucks passing between the lines of porters who pushed bicycles with saddle bags filled with supplies on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Movement continued day and night along the section they watched, though the southward flow stopped to allow small convoys with wounded soldiers to pass on their way north. The most important find was a refueling station that, if the drums of fuel were set on fire, would slow the movement of trucks until it was replenished. Decision time. Move or stay? If they moved, they’d have to contact the Air Force EC-121s, which flew orbits over Laos with the call sign of Billiard Ball, to tell Big Mother 40 to pick them up at their first alternate pick-up point, Kneissl 200, instead of the primary one labeled “alpha.”
Marty looked at his map and confirmed that Kneissl 200 was about two kilometers away from their present position before taking up his perch again to watch the North Vietnamese soldiers. They had time before they had to notify Billiard Ball if they wanted to change the pick- up time and location.
He was studying the map and was about to make the call on whether they should move to Kneissl 200 or stay, when a team member tapped his foot. Looking up, the hand signals told him what the suddenly quiet jungle said—many NVA were approaching their position from their front and to the right, and a battle was about to begin.
Marty folded the map as he reviewed their plan to escape from the deep, wedge-shaped ravine that had its ten-yard wide base a few yards inside the tree line and narrowed into the tip of a triangle that stretched farther into in the jungle about eight yards down the hillside. Water erosion had dug it about four to five feet deep in places, which made it an excellent defensive position, but no one in Gringo Six had any intention of making their last stand there. As he gathered the team, Marty figured they had ten minutes to deploy to their pre-selected positions before the shit hit the fan.
One fire team of two SEALs would protect each side of the triangle while the fourth team, equipped with one of the Stoner light machine guns, set up farther along the ridge and on the flank of the ravine. The second Stoner team in the triangle would swap with one of the other teams to gain fire superiority and let their team mates disengage and escape.
Marty positioned himself just off to one side of the point of the triangle and nearest the approaching enemy. When he spotted two NVA soldiers attempting to scout their position, Marty made sure the safety on the suppressed Smith and Wesson Model 39 semi-automatic pistol chambered with 9mm rounds was off as he slid it through the foliage and aimed it at the NVA soldiers, who were less than twenty yards away.
The first soldier who fell with two red holes in his face caused the second to pause before he, too, started to fall face flat on the wet earth. A third crawled up, touched the soldiers and looked up, trying to find the shooter, when Marty squeezed the trigger two more times. The third NVA soldier crumpled to the ground on top of one his comrades, not knowing where the shooter was located.
The clatter of several PKM light machine guns broke the sudden quiet and sent bullets whizzing well over his head were meant to pin his team down as the attack began. Marty was sure four were spraying bullets at their position below the top of the ravine, which meant, according to his knowledge of North Vietnamese People’s Army organizations, that there was at least a platoon in front of them. If they followed their traditional doctrine, the series of attacks from the front and the flank would to try to flush them out into the clearing, which would make it easy for the NVA soldiers on the other side to pick them off.
The intermittent machine gun fire went on for about five minutes, providing cover to allow the NVA to get close so they could rush the SEALs’ position and overwhelm them with superior numbers. Marty was wondering why the rounds weren’t chewing up the dirt at the edge of the ravine when the first Claymore went off and the steel balls made three distinct noises as they ripped through the leaves, smacked into tree trunks, and thudded into NVA soldiers. The second Claymore banged off with the same result as the first with the added clang of the spoon coming off when the trip line for the Claymore was released by its explosion. A few seconds later, the grenade went off. The explosions and the screams from the mine’s victims told the SEALs that the attackers were about thirty yards from their position.
The gaps between the bursts from the PKMs had become shorter and begun to taper off when there was a yell and the thrashing of men running through the jungle, which set off a ripple of their remaining six Claymores. After the singing of the mine’s ball-bearings died down, the surviving NVA soldiers charged.
Marty dropped the first two men he saw with short three-round bursts from his M-16. As much as he hated and mistrusted the light automatic rifle, because of its reputation for jamming in the middle of a firefight, Gringo Six carried them for two reasons. One, because it fired the same 5.56mm cartridge as the Stoners, and two, each man could carry three hundred and sixty rounds, along with a spare one hundred- round box magazine for the Stoners.
Pausing between targets, Marty could hear the Stoner on the left side of the triangle’s base ripping off short aimed bursts. With only a dozen thirty-round clips per man, the SEALs used discipline and aimed their fire; they didn’t have the ammo supply to spray and pray. They had to get fire supremacy in a hurry and then disengage.
When the SEALs didn’t see any new targets and the PKMs stopped firing, Marty tapped the Stoner team leader in the ravine on the shoulder, then pointed to the position where the second Stoner was hidden and had, according to their plan, still not fired a shot. A nod, and the two men reached the second position just as the second rush came. All four men left in the triangular shaped ravine were firing continuously when the leader of the fire team on the other side of the ravine looked at Marty, who gave him the signal to bug out. Marty and his teammate kept up a steady stream of accurate bursts while the two men joined the four others about thirty yards farther up the hill and away from the NVA.
The PKMs started increasing their rate of fire, but the shooting was still well above the edge of the ravine. Lying on his back, reloading, it suddenly struck Marty why the soldiers were firing the PKMs high. “Get two grenades ready.” He pointed toward the clearing behind them four times to give his fire team the direction to toss grenades, then mouthed one, two, three, and both men tossed their first grenades simultaneously, following quickly with their seconds.
Screams from wounded men in the elephant grass confirmed what he suspected. One of the Stoners started spraying the elephant grass, the other started shooting, killing men in the jungle approaching the right side of the ravine, giving Marty and his fire teammate cover to scramble out and join the rest of the team as they poured bullets into the NVA soldiers swarming over their former position.
The SEALs kept up a steady stream of accurate fire for another two minutes before clambering down a steep slope they’d scouted the day before in case they needed to get out of the area. On the way down the trail, one of the SEALs, Thomas, at the tail end of the line yelled, “Shit, I’m hit!”
Chief Jenkins and two other SEALs ran back up the trail. While one man kept firing, the Chief and the other looped their arms under the fallen man’s armpits and hauled him down to the others, who scanned the jungle for NVA while the team’s medic tended to Thomas.
Sixty minutes later, Marty called a halt and the team deployed in a rough circle around its leader.
The reports from the seven other members told him that they’d expended about forty percent of their ammunition for the M-16s and all their Claymores. For the Stoners, they had three one hundred-round boxes left for each.
Satisfied with the report because he had guessed that they were down to less than fifty percent, he pulled out his map. “We need to call in and tell Big Mother 40 that Kneissl 200 is the new pick-up point and we’ll be there for a dawn pick up.”
The radioman nodded and began getting the radio ready.
Chief Chris Jenkins, Gringo Six’s number two, cradled his M-16 in one arm while he levered himself into a sitting position on the muddy jungle floor next to his team leader. “What the hell happened back there?”
“I think some of their scouts stumbled on us and then they moved on us from two directions, figuring the first to make contact would fix our position and keep us occupied to burn up ammo. While they were doing that, they’d hit us from another direction and then from the back.” Marty used a twig to draw their position and the direction of the attack in the soft earth. “The PKMs firing well over our heads gave it away. The bastards were making sure they didn’t hit their own guys in the elephant grass.”
“Got it. Good news is there were a bunch of bodies in the ravine and in the grass. My guess is there was the better part of a company coming at us in that ravine and we got maybe thirty.”
“Yeah, but that was way too close. They almost got us all.”
“Boss, Billiard Ball is on the line. This airplane’s call sign is Billiard Ball Zero Nine.” The radioman handed Marty the handset.
TUESDAY, JANUARY 11, 1972, 1630 LOCAL TIME, KALININ, SOVIET UNION
The cold gray sky reflected his mood and told him more snow was coming to the Zhukov Command Academy of Air Defense, located on the Volga River about a hundred miles northwest of Moscow. The low temperatures meant spring was still a long way off. The wind battering the window outside his small office, cluttered with Soviet Air Defense
Force missile systems’ manuals, was a hard reminder that winter was still around. The side of his messy desk sat against one of the dull gray concrete walls adorned only by the obligatory pictures of Lenin and Breshnev. The desk was dominated by the only real picture – a large black-and-white photo of a young girl and her mother.
Today was the fourth anniversary of his wife’s death from pneumonia. He and Valentina had been married for twenty-four years. The coming Monday would be the anniversary of their child’s, Alexandra’s, death. Fewer tears came with each anniversary, but even though the pain lessened with time, it still hurt.
When he heard a knock on the door, he placed the framed picture on the bookcase behind him. It had been taken in happier times when he’d been stationed in East Germany. “Come in.”
Colonel Alexei Koniev stood up when he saw the towering figure of General Dimitri Poliakov, the head of the school where he was a senior instructor, teaching air defense system tactics and doctrine. The school was the older man’s last assignment, and the respected World War II veteran had stayed on active duty in the army he loved as long as he could. Poliakov, the father of the Soviet surface-to-air missile systems tactical doctrine, was a very, very large man, almost two-and-a-quarter- meters tall, and Koniev guessed a taut, muscled one hundred and twenty- five kilograms. “Alexei, am I interrupting something?”
“No, sir. I was just reading and grading some of my students’ papers.”
“You looked very thoughtful. Were you thinking of Valentina and Alexandra?”
Alexei realized that his moist eyes had given him away. Poliakov had rescued him from the bottle and despair by installing him in the school to dry out and share his innovative ideas. “It is the fourth anniversary of Valentina’s death, and next week is the anniversary of Alexandra’s passing. It is a hard time of the year for me.”
“I am sorry. I should have remembered the dates. It is hard to lose a wife, much less a wife and child just a week apart.”
“Life must go on.” And they wouldn’t have died if their great socialist republic provided competent doctors who could stay sober so they could use their knowledge to treat their patients, or sufficient medicines for its citizens.
“I have something that may cheer you up. It will let you put some of your more interesting theories into practice.” The general was referring to Koniev’s top secret study called “Ambushing Attacking Aircraft with Dispersed Missile Sites.”
“What do I have to do?” The only place they were shooting Soviet surface-to-air missiles at enemy aircraft was in North Vietnam. Koniev was one of the favored few who saw the reports coming out of that embattled country. He was careful not to voice his opinion that the optimistic analyses overstated the effectiveness of the missiles. When asked, he offered no comment other than saying they made interesting reading.
“The General Staff wants you to test your theories in North Vietnam. They, as I do, think you are the perfect man for the job. This is a two-year assignment. You will be told more if you agree to go.”
“When would I leave?” It wasn’t like Koniev had a choice.
“Soon. We will send you to language school to learn Vietnamese. We cannot assume that our allies will speak Russian. Then off you go to Hanoi where you will be further briefed. The plan has you in Hanoi by the first week of April.” The general stopped for a few seconds. “You should get a star out of this.”
“Thank you for your confidence, General, but you know I am not after promotions.” Koniev looked up at the General, who was leaning with both hands on the back of the chair in front of his desk. “How big is the detachment and who will I be working for in Vietnam?”
“From what I understand, we’ll be sending about four to eight officers who have been trained here, about a dozen technicians to maintain the missiles, and a platoon of our special forces—you know, the Spetznaz—to protect the stuff we don’t want our Vietnamese friends to have. I don’t know any other details. My guess is that our Vietnamese allies will provide security and you will be responsible for shooting the latest generation Divina missiles.”
“Sir, I’ll go.”
“Excellent. I will notify the general staff, who will be pleased. Do not discuss this with anyone. We will tell your colleagues you have been picked for a new assignment.”
Taken from Chapter 7 – IN HACK
THURSDAY, MAY 11, 1972, 0812 LOCAL TIME, YANKEE STATION AIRCRAFT CARRIER, GULF OF TONKIN
Josh and Jack walked into the ready room that HC-7’s Detachment 110 shared with the reconnaissance squadron that flew Vigilantes off the USS Ranger. The heavy attack recon squadron only had about fifteen officers and had lots of extra space.
“Lieutenant Haman and Lieutenant Junior Grade D’Onofrio!” The commanding voice came from one of the vinyl-covered ready room chairs.
Josh turned to see a commander coming toward them from the back of the ready room. “Yes, sir.”
“The chief of staff wants to see you, and I am to escort both of you to his office now.” The commander pointed to the door as if to emphasize the last word. It was then that Josh saw the Judge Advocate General’s insignia on his collar. His nametag had the CTF 77 logo and ‘Winthrop’ in white letters.
Commander Winthrop ushered them into a large—by shipboard standards—office and then sat in a chair in the corner, leaving both lieutenants standing in front of the captain’s desk. It had a large name plate with the logo ‘Commander, Task Force 77’ on the corner, along with the name ‘Martin Ruppert’ in gold letters. The man with eagles on his collars was flipping impatiently between pages in two folders flat on his desk.
“You are at attention.” The captain spat out the words in a command voice and shifted his gaze from one folder to the other as both aviators stood in a rigid position of attention. “Do either of you know what rules of engagement are for?”
“Yes, sir.” Both Jack and Josh answered almost simultaneously.
“Enlighten me. What are the ROE for ships from neutral nations?” Ruppert’s head came up and his eyes bored holes in the two junior officers.
“They are not to be fired upon.” Josh paused for a second before adding, “Unless they commit a hostile act that puts U.S. forces in danger. Then we are supposed to either evade and withdraw or return fire with enough force to stop the hostile action.”
Josh wasn’t sure whether it was annoyance or anger, but whatever it was, Ruppert was closer to a boil than a simmer. What the hell was this about? They’d both just been briefed on the ROE and both had passed the written test.
“Who was the mission commander on the HH-3A during the rescue on May eight?
“Sir, I was.”
“And you’re Lieutenant Haman.” It was more of a statement than a question. The captain tossed one of the folders aside.
“Yes sir, I was the mission commander?”
“Why did you order your crewman to fire on neutral ships?”
“We fired on the Valentinov and the Razov only after they fired on us with DshKs which could have easily shot us down.”
“Why didn’t you evade or withdraw?”
Josh paused for a second. “Two reasons, sir. First, we had already taken hits. Second, if we had not fired back my crew and the helicopter would have been exposed to more gunfire that would probably have shot us down, because it would have been several minutes before we could get out of range. So we encouraged them to stop firing. As you know, we routinely fly near anchored ships in the harbor because we know that the North Vietnamese don’t want to hit them. No one has told us not to do it.”
“Don’t be cute with words with me, Lieutenant. Both of you and your crew are in a lot of hot water. You’ve created a goddamn international incident.” The captain’s face flushed with anger as he tossed copies of Izvestia and Pravda to the front of the desk. Both had pictures of an HH-3A with tracers streaming from the mini-gun. “These were couriered to me from CINCPAC and let me tell you what the articles say.”
“No need to, sir, I speak and read Russian. The headline on Pravda says ‘U.S. helicopter attacks innocent Soviet merchant ship.’ The—” Josh started to reach for the paper but it was pulled back. Josh wondered why the captain was getting so upset by Soviet propaganda. And what about the rescue?
“Lieutenant, you are at attention!” Ruppert slammed his hand down on the desk and then took a deep breath, but his cheeks flamed bright red. “Not only did this make the Russian papers, but the New York fucking
Times carried the Izvestia story with the fucking Russian journalist’s by- line.” Captain Ruppert threw the front page of the U.S. paper across the desk. “You idiots killed at least ten Soviet merchant marine sailors and wounded two dozen more. The State Department wants your heads, along with your crews’, on a silver platter. They’re trying to contain this war and you’ve just tried to expand it.”
“Sir, if you read—”
“I’m talking, and you, Lieutenant Haman, you are listening.”
“Lieutenant, this is an order and don’t fuck it up. You and your crew are in hack. All of you are to pack your gear and board the next COD to Subic Bay. There, you will report to the HC-7 Support Detachment O-in- C as well as to the JAG officer at the Cubi Point Naval Air Station. You are also grounded and will not leave the Cubi Point facility until the pending judicial action, which will probably be a general court-martial, is completed. You will be confined to the BOQ and only go to work and the officers club for meals. You will also be in your rooms after nineteen-thirty. If you violate these conditions, you will be confined in the brig.” Captain Ruppert fumbled around for a manila folder. “These are your formal orders. Now, get out of my office and get off this ship.”
Neither said anything until they got back to their stateroom where Josh turned to Jack. “What did you do with the film from the Topcon?”
“It’s still in my helmet bag; I forgot to turn it in.” Jack paused for a second. “You don’t want to talk about what is going to happen to us? It sounds like we’re going to be poster boys for a public execution.”
“Good, and not yet. First, when the smoke clears, cooler heads will prevail. If not, our careers are over unless we want to hire some expensive lawyers. So, what we have to do is be prepared to prove our innocence.”
“And you’re an expert on this?” Jack’s voice dripped with sarcasm.
“Not exactly, but this is not the first time I’ve been in hack.” Josh looked into his friend’s face. Action, not worrying, was needed. “I’ve got the film from my Nikon. When we get to Subic, we’ll go to the Hobby Shop photo lab, process the film and see what we can see.”
“But he said we were not allowed to go anywhere except the BOQ, the club to eat, and the squadron. The Hobby Shop Photo Lab was not on the list.”
“I know, but it is in the building next door to the BOQ. Are you going to tell anyone we made a slight detour for an hour or so?”
“Okay. Just so you know, I’m pretty sure the guys manning the guns were Spetznaz. I could see the blue-and-white striped jerseys they wear under their fatigues.” Jack fished out two rolls of film and stuffed them in his pocket. “Are you sure we’re not going to get hammered? I can live with getting tossed out of the Navy, but breaking big rocks into small rocks at Leavenworth for years, no way.”
“My gut says we’re going to be okay.” He was just as scared as Jack, but right now he was focused on exoneration. “Right now, the armchair admirals are looking for someone to hang to show they are forcing the warriors to play by their politicians’ ridiculous rules.”
“So what chance do we have? There are probably admirals lining up to make examples out of us so they can tell their buddies how they are helping win the war.”
“Here’s what I think happened. Somebody in the State Department got his panties in a wad because he had to work late one night answering a bunch of questions from some high mucky-muck about how do we deal with this instead of what caused it. Fixing blame is more important than figuring out why.” Josh popped open a can of Coke. “When the smoke clears and someone at CINCPAC comes to their senses they will realize that, first, we picked up two guys in the middle of Haiphong Harbor. Second, we took a fair amount of fire from two Russian ships. Third, if they string us up—figuratively speaking— no one will go into Haiphong to pick up guys who land there. This is not a message they want to send to the air wings. And fourth, last time I checked, we were doing our job. The Russians shot at us, we shot back, and I think the Russians are pissed they didn’t bag us. Now they have a couple of shot-up ships and casualties that they have to explain at home, so why not blame the Americans and try to create a diplomatic incident?”
Jack wasn’t yet convinced, but worrying wasn’t going to help. “We need to tell the guys, and they are gonna be pissed.”
MARC LIEBMAN, AUTHOR & SPEAKER
Marc is an experienced pilot and writer whose career as a Naval Officer and Naval Aviator, business executive, consultant and entrepreneur helped him fulfill his dream of becoming a novelist. In the novels, Marc creates stories with rich, interesting characters and puts them the proper historical and operational context. His books are memorable, exciting and fun to read.
HISTORICAL & MILITARY FICTION
Big Mother 40
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