Farewell to the Blackhorse

By Andy O’Meara
August 18, 2010

I awoke in pain. I was in the Hospital at Long Binh, South Vietnam. The year was 1969. I had been wounded in an initial engagement to halt a large Communist offensive known as the Tet II Offensive. The North Vietnamese launched the Tet II Offensive just prior to the Chinese New Year – mid February. It followed the pattern of the first Tet Offensive of the previous year that had been a disaster for Hanoi. The Tet Offensive was supposed to presage an uprising by the entire South Vietnamese population to demolish the Government of South Vietnam and their American allies. It was bloody and fought from one end of the country to the other. When the smoke cleared the Viet Cong were destroyed as an independent fighting force. There was no popular uprising. The vast majority of the population had gone to ground to survive the bitter fighting; and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had taken heavy casualties. Ten to one loss ratios were the norm; and in the case of the Blackhorse fights of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR), the enemy suffered even heavier casualties. The Blackhorse Regiment brought heavy firepower to the battlefield consisting of tanks, artillery, air cavalry and three cavalry squadrons mounted in M113 personnel carriers armed with 50 caliber machine guns. In battle after battle the communists demonstrated that their units were no match for the Blackhorse Regiment. When the outcome of the failed Tet Offensive became clear, the NVA survivors attempted to fight their way back to sanctuaries in Cambodia. The mobility of the Blackhorse Regiment allowed the cavalry troopers to play a significant role in the defeat of withdrawing enemy infantry. The engagements followed a pattern. The Regimental Squadron surrounded the enemy position on three sides, pounded them with tanks, artillery, and 50 caliber machine guns; and awaited the outcome. When the communist unit could no longer endure the punishing firepower, they would make a break through the open corridor composed of bone dry rice paddies. When the retreating enemy cleared the protection of their prepared fighting positions in a desperate attempt to escape the American fire power, the Squadron called in the Air Cavalry Troop to finish the enemy in the cleared killing ground. Gunships and scout helicopters appeared from concealed positions to unloaded on the fleeing enemy soldiers, who never completed that dash to the protection of distant tree lines. The battles were soon over and hundreds of corpses littered the ground.  The Regiment repeated the mopping up fights as communist survivors were obliterated in the Vietnamese III Corps Sector (US II Field Force Sector). Regrettably the actions were never reported in the press because the press corps had lost their nerve during the initial urban battles of Tet. Most of the journalists were afraid to leave the protection of Saigon; and they dismissed the Blackhorse reports of annihilated enemy units as inflated body count and lies. The media never understood the Tet Offensive. The most influential American journalists were deeply hostile to the South Vietnamese Government they had labeled corrupt in line with Hanoi’s propaganda. Their hostility toward the war coupled with their sympathy for the “gritty” soldiers of North Vietnam resulted in a bias that tended to reject American victories. The clueless Walter Cronkite dismissed the stories of allied successes and announced the war a stalemate and the time for a negotiated settlement had arrived. The result was a war Americans never knew that inflicted cruel and devastating losses upon the communist forces. American television audiences learned of a war distorted by journalists far from the battlefields. The Tet Offensive was fought during the late winter and spring of ‘68. I arrived in June of ‘68, joining the Blackhorse Regiment. Located north of Saigon, the Regiment guarded the approaches from the Iron Triangle and War Zone D to the American support facilities north of Saigon — the Binh Hoa Air Base and the Long Binh logistical support complex. Although, I had missed the fighting of the Tet Offensive of ’68; I arrived in time to assist in cleaning up the communist base camps in the Blackhorse sector. And I was on the ground when Hanoi launched the second Tet Offensive in ’69, known as Tet II. Unlike the Tet Offensive in ’68 the American commanders were able to track the movement of North Vietnamese Divisions as they moved out of Cambodia in the second Tet Offensive. Moreover, the tactical challenge was simplified because the Viet Cong survivors were few and the populace had demonstrated their hatred for the Communist Regime in Hanoi by voting with their feet to escape communist capture. The South Vietnamese and American commanders followed the movement of the communist units with multiple intelligence sources that allowed Americans units to ambush the NVA in a series of battles from blocking positions that resulted in violent and bloody jungle battles. The Hospitals in the area had been alerted to the stepped up fighting and were bracing themselves for a large influx of casualties. Every patient well enough to make the trip to Army and Navy medical facilities in Japan, where flown out of the country to a hospital bed in Japan that was in the midst of a cold damp winter. I was hurting. I had been operated on the night before. The surgery had been preceded by an angry confrontation that I would learn about much later. The nurse heard me as I began to come to and asked me how I felt. I confessed that I hurt. She returned with a large hypodermic syringe of morphine and told me roll to over to receive the shot. I did as I was told and was soon feeling no pain. I was the intelligence officer of the Blackhorse Regiment and I needed to be about my business. I had an Arc-Light Strike scheduled to hit targets north of Long Binh at 0900 hours. It was 0850. I was about to miss the sight of the incoming B-52 Bombers that would obliterate a communist base camp and staging area in our Area of Operations. A lone soldier lay in the bed opposite me. He had a pair of crutches resting against the wall by his bed. I asked him if I could burrow his crutches and he replied, “Yes sir.” As I removed the sheet and swung my legs out of the bed I observed that my blue pajamas had only one leg. I was wearing no pajama top. My left leg was swathed in bandages from my ankle to the middle of my thigh. I hopped on one leg across the narrow width of the ward and taking the crutches I made my way to the exit at the end of the ward. I opened the door gingerly with the help of a crutch and gently made my way down the three steps that led to a cement walk. The walk led in the direction of higher ground. I made my way as quickly as I could to a grassy mound that provided an excellent view of an unbroken blue sky above. Within minutes I saw the first flight of three B-52s approaching from the south. They were followed by a second V of three more B-52s on a heading that took them directly over the Blackhorse Area of Operations and the communist base designated as their target. I waited for a few minutes and felt the earth tremble followed by the long terrible rumble of the detonations of 500 lb. bombs that were dismantling the communist staging area that was providing cover and concealment for a communist unit that had planned to hit a target in the complex where I was now hospitalized. The story of my gunshot wound began during an engagement the previous afternoon. The scouts of the air cavalry troop were searching for signs of communist movement through our area, a mission similar to our earlier efforts to locate communist base camps. They alerted me that there were signs of heavy trail activity on trails leading south from War zone D. They asked me to confirm their finding. I agreed. Within minutes a light observation helicopter landed at the chopper pad at the Regimental headquarters. I put on my helmet, picked up a submachine gun and headed to the aircraft. The pilot didn’t shut down the bird, but waited patiently as I strapped on the “Chicken Plate,” a heavy armor plate that covered the frontal torso. I replaced my helmet with a flight helmet in the observer’s seat on the left front of the chopper. As I buckled myself into the seat, the pilot increased the speed of the rotor blades and slowly lifted off the pad. We headed north in the direction of the enemy sighting. We crossed the Dong Ngai River and were soon over virgin jungle that led all the way to War Zone D. After flying for some minutes we followed the terrain that rose in elevation as we proceeded north, where we encountered a major trail connecting the villages on the Dong Ngami with the communist bases to the north. The pilot dropped down to tree top level so that I could observe that the trail showed no signs of recent activity. The soil was hard packed and any dust revealing enemy troop movements had long been washed away by periodic rains. As we continued north the pilot spoke to me on the headset explaining that we would soon begin to pick up signs of movement, which appeared as boot prints in powdery dust that covered the trail. When we reached a point along the trail that was heavily covered by inch deep dust coved by boot prints, the pilot turned the bird back to the south. We were looking for the enemy unit. Where did the signs of movement along the trail begin to taper off indicating the enemy had moved off the trail into the heavy jungle bordering the trail? As the signs of movement decreased we observed a clearing in the jungle on the east side of the trail. The tall jungle trees reached several hundred feet in height. The trees hand no foliage – they were killed by Agent Orange – an herbicide used to kill the vegetation allowing observation of the jungle floor below. As we over flew the clearing the pilot dropped down to allow me to get a closer view of the terrain below hoping to spot indications of an enemy bivouac. As we circled the clearing I spotted a single communist soldier. He was bare foot and carrying an AK47. Because of the restricted maneuver room, the pilot couldn’t bring his mini-gun on the target. I told him to put my door opposite the enemy soldier. Taking my submachine gun I emptied a burst of fire into the torso of the communist soldier. My fire was returned by several enemy soldiers, who told us what we wanted to know; and the pilot began his ascent out of the clearing. We held our breath as he maneuvered to avoid the outstretched limbs of the giant trees that seemed to reach out towards the small observation aircraft. With great skill the pilot cleared the jungle and took the bird to altitude beyond the reach of small arms fire. He directed the gun ship that was covering us to roll in for a rocket attack. Following the gunship attack we adjusted artillery and called in a report of enemy contact. During the exchange of fire, the bird had taken several hits and I had taken a round through my left leg. Given the elevated position of the chopper the round entered at my ankle and traversed the lower leg exiting just below the knee. It felt as if a mule had kicked me, but I felt no pain as we held our breath and made the dangerous ascent out of the danger area. We were both on an Adeline high that masked the pain. When we reached a safe altitude, I looked down and saw that my trouser leg was gone exposing a deep dark hole where my calf had been exposing both of the bones in the lower leg. Removing my boot laces I made a tourniquet above the knee.  The enemy round was an AK 47 hollow point round containing a tungsten core that the Chicoms manufactured for use against choppers. The command frequency came alive with the sharp voice of the Commander with two words: “Sit Rep,” meaning report on the situation. I replied that we had located a communist unit and made contact. I indicated that we had placed gunship and artillery fire on the target. Major “Doc” Bahnsen, the commander of the Air Cavalry Troop, soon arrived in his Command and Control chopper bringing gunships with him. He took charge of the fight. It was clear that our job was accomplished. I informed the commander that I had taken a round and requested permission to land at the Long Binh Hospital to have it treated. 

Colonel G. S. Patton responded tersely, “Roger.” We made the return flight traversing the jungle and crossing the Dong Ngai River, a trip that seemed much longer than our earlier flight over the same ground. When we reached the hospital chopper pad the pilot landed and shut down the bird. He came around the aircraft and helped me out. I removed the flight helmet and chicken plate and then handed him my submachine gun and 45 caliber pistol, which I wouldn’t need any time soon. There were gurneys alongside the building to transport the wounded, but they were drench is dark blood that formed pools in the center of the canvas. I was not tempted to settle for a gurneys ride as we made our way into the surgical ward. With one arm around the pilot’s shoulders, we made our way into the surgical facility. We were met by medics, who took charge of the situation. I said good bye to the pilot thanking him for his great flying. God had protected us that day, as He assisted the young pilot, whose remarkable skills saved our lives. A strike by a rotor blade on a tree limb and it would have been all over for both of us. The medics assisted me up onto the surgical table in the center of the room.  Using surgical scissors they began cutting away my clothing starting at the collar of my jungle fatigues all the way down my body through trousers, belt, boots and underwear. I objected to the loss of my belongings and the medics replied that the wounded don’t know how many wounds they have and all clothing had to be cut away. The faces of the medics were ashen gray. It was obvious that they had been at work since early in the day and were close to exhaustion. I kept my mouth shut as they stripped me necked, bathed me in alcohol and began shaving my left leg from the crotch down. Plasma bottles appeared. Needles were placed into my arms and medication was injected into the liquid that was replacing the blood I had lost. Soon I was dead to the world. Before I lost consciousness two surgeons appeared. One was from the Regiment, who cheerfully observed: “You’ll never run again.” Colonel G. S. Patton, Commander of the Regiment, entered the surgical ward as the surgeons were examining my wound. The senior surgeon announced: “We can’t save the leg. It has to come off.” Patton gave him a cold, hard stare, drew his revolver and said: “You cut him and I’ll kill you.” The surgeon turned and walked out. Patton went to his chopper and contacted a surgeon in Saigon, a personal friend. Patton told him he needed help and told him his chopper was on its way to pick him up. Fortunately we were not far from Saigon, and George Patton’s friend was soon ready to handle the surgery. He saved my leg, which was not easy. The tendons behind the knee were gone, most of the calf had simply exploded on impact of the hollow point round, and the nerve to my foot was gone. I awoke the next morning in some pain, which the nurse soon remedied. And looking at my watch I realized that the Intelligence Officer of the Regiment was about to miss a B-52 strike that I had planned and had in the works for weeks. By coincidence it was striking a target close to the area where we made enemy contact the previous day. With the help of the borrowed crutches I was able to observe the strike aircraft. As I rested on the ground without a pajama top, half a pajama bottom and left leg swathed in bandages, a jeep rolled to a stop nearby. Out of the jeep stepped Lieutenant Colonel Lee Duke. He said: “What are you doing here Andy?” I answered that I was watching my B-52 strike. To my way of thinking, I was still the intelligence officer of the Regiment; a misunderstanding that I would soon learn was a serious error. Lee helped me to stand and tried to help me into the jeep, but I hurt too much to raise my leg. My bandages had begun to come lose and I was bleeding. We made our way back to the ward with the crutches and Lee’s help. As we opened the door and climbed the three steps into the Ward, we were met by the Nurse. She was furious. She asked where I had been. I replied that I was the intelligence officer of the 11th ACR and I had gone to watch my B-52 strike. She replied that I was no longer assigned to the Regiment. I was a patient of the 193rd Medical Evacuation Hospital and if I so much as put a foot out of my bed she would have me court marshaled. I was floored, but sensed it was no time to argue. I backed against the bed; lay back, and drew my legs up into the bed. The nurse pushed a steel medical cart down the aisle. Using surgical scissors she cut through the back side of the bandages and ripped them off in one swift movement. I uttered an unprintable oath, while she proceeded to chew my ass, saying that If I obeyed the rules that the treatment wouldn’t be so difficult. Lee joined in and told me to watch my language in the presence of a lady; then he excused himself and departed. Colonel Patton arrived the next morning and pinned a Purple Heart on me. He was accompanied by several members of the staff, who had brought a bottle of whisky in a brown paper bag. They passed the bottle and offered me a drink in honor of the occasion, but I was too sick and had to decline. As they left the ward, I had seen the last of the Blackhorse Regiment. Three days later I was evacuated to Japan to make bed space for the incoming wounded. I wanted to return to the Regiment, but was informed by an angry wife that if I volunteered for Vietnam again she would divorce me. She felt that two volunteer tours in Vietnam were enough. To my great regret, my days as a Blackhorse trooper had come to an end.

 See more at: http://www.goldcoastchronicle.com/politics/farewell-to-the-blackhorse/#sthash.WFEZRkq5.dpuf