July 8, 1970 - By Danny Cox

In July 1970, I was the Operations Officer of C Troop, 2/17 Cavalry, 101st Airborne Division (air assault) located at Phu Bai. I had arrived in Vietnam in Sep 1969 when the Troop was located at LZ Sally, outside of the city of Hue before it moved to Phu Bai Airfield in Jan 1970. The Troop’s primary area of interest was the Ashau Valley. Troop A of the Squadron was located in Quang Tri, south of the DMZ, and Troop B was located at Camp Eagle along with squadron headquarters. The Squadron Commander was Lieutenant Colonel Robert Mollinelli, who was a dynamic personality and whose personal bravery and skills as an aviator were legendary. He led the “Out Front” Squadron from the front and he may have been the most decorated aviator of the Vietnam War. LTC Mollinelli was chosen as the 1971 AAAA Aviator of the Year.
When I arrived in-country, the Ashau was a challenging Area of Operations. It was an avenue of approach into the southern part of South Vietnam and fed off of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. However, in the Spring of 1970 the level of vehicle traffic and anti-aircraft weapons in the Valley had significantly intensified. The North Vietnamese, who were operating in the Ashau, were not fighting a guerilla war. They withstood Arc Lights by B-52s, regular air strikes by fighter aircraft and everything we could throw at them but still the NVA persisted. They accepted the casualties while intensifying their operations during the Spring of 1970. The nature of the air cavalry mission frequently resulted in flight crews reacting to the NVA’s initiative, simply meaning, the NVA shot at us first. This vignette is about one day of the war, July 8, 1970.
The Troop Operations received a call from Cheyenne Phantom, LTC Mollinelli’s call sign, to immediately get as many cobras as possible in the air and to head for Quang Tri. Also, he needed a command and control aircraft. The C Troop commander was on R&R, so I grabbed a cobra and a scout and we launched while leaving instructions for the rest of the guns, scouts, and slicks to follow us as soon as they could. We had to divert our other assets that were on missions. I was flying with Rockets Ridenour who was competent, very conscientious and an all-around good guy. The cobra aircraft commander was CW2 John Baron who was a cool, level headed, highly skilled cobra jock and was mature beyond his years. I knew I could count on John. CW2 John Judge, LT Gary Swift, and Specialist Steven Carr were flying the OH-6 while conducting the scout mission. This crew’s accomplishments while flying the aero scout mission during their tour of duty is worth a separate article. The problem is, no one would believe it. However, on this day all of us were in for a long, eventful day.

While in the air, LTC Mollinelli told me to head to the south of Khe Sanh because he needed to break station and refuel. I was to send my gun and scout to Quang Tri where they would be briefed. He told me that A Troop had jumped a large number of NVA in the open and that there were two A Troop cobras and a scout on station. July 8, 1970 was a busy day in South Vietnam and I Corps. The siege of Fire Base Rip Cord was on-going and was only a few clicks from where we were headed. Also, Fire Bases O’Reilly and Kathryn were receiving a lot of attention from the North Vietnamese Army. I do not know where the A and B Troop Commanders were, but I am sure they were gainfully employed. Cheyenne Phantom ended up with me, Rockets and crew as his relief C&C. As we approached the area of operations south of Khe Sahn, we saw LTC Mollinelli’s huey pass under us headed towards Quang Tri.

When I arrived on station, the two A Troop guns and the scout were engaging the NVA. It took a little time to wrap my mind around what was taking place. To the best of my knowledge no one had taken fire and they were coordinating their gun runs so as to put down as much ordinance as possible as quickly as they could. The scout would mark the target and pop smoke and the gun would be inbound. Soon after we arrived on station, the A troop team had to break station to refuel and rearm and another team of guns and a scout had arrived on station. John Barron, another cobra, and I believe the C Troop scout arrived with them. There was a small stream and we used it as control measure. The scout would pop smoke center of mass of a group of NVA and scoot immediately to the other side of the stream and mark the targets on that side. At the same time, the cobras would make a run and climb so as to roll in on the targets on the other side of the stream. We came close to having continuous fire on the targets. From my vantage point, in orbit as a C&C aircraft, it looked like a really well choreographed dance. The radio traffic was short and focused although much of the time it was quiet. There really wasn’t much to say other than “smokes out,” “inbound,” and “going hot.” John Barron reported he wasn’t firing center of mass of the smoke, but frequently engaging individual targets and there were a lot targets.

Cheyenne Phantom arrived on station to relieve me and told me that I needed to make a quick turn-around. When we arrived back in the area of operations the pace had let up. The scout reported the NVA had broken up into small clusters and were hiding in the elephant grass and he had to find them and mark their specific position. We had lost the rhythm and the cobras were no longer making continuous gun runs; however, I believed that they were still being effective. While I was on station, none of our aircraft reported taking fire, which was unbelievable. The NVA seemed to be completely disorganized. In less than an hour, Cheyenne Phantom arrived to relieve us and told me we were going to insert our ground cavalry troop, D Troop. We departed the area and headed for Quang Tri to refuel.
When I arrived at Quang Tri, I went into the tactical operation center (TOC) where Squadron had co-located a jump TOC from Camp Eagle with A Troop’s operations. I had become vested in the operation and thought I had something important to say. I wanted to talk to the Squadron S-3, Major Mason, about inserting D Troop, since I believed our cobras were still being effective. I wanted to tell him it may be a good idea to delay putting in D Troop for an hour. So I walked in talking loudly when someone grabbed me by the arm and escorted me out the door. I was told that one of the Assistant Division Commanders, a brigadier general, was in the TOC being briefed. I was to stand outside and they would talk to me later. I stood there until someone told me that my aircraft was running and the Squadron Commander wanted me to relieve him. I was ready to go….I no longer wanted to be there anyway.

When we arrived on station, LTC Mollinelli briefed me that D Troop was on the ground and moving and he gave me call signs to contact. We now had a lot of cobras from several units involved in the operation. Once inserted into the fray, the guns were able to brief and relieve each other like the pros they were. Almost immediately after Cheyenne Phantom departed, a scout reported that an NVA soldier was standing in the open with his hands up and was surrendering. We had inserted D Troop to capture POWs, maps, weapons, etc. but this NVA soldier wasn’t close to D Troop. I was surprised that he was not shot by the NVA, but somehow he managed to isolate himself. I told the team working in that sector that I would extract him. I had the LZ and scout in sight and was on an extended final approach when LTC Mollinelli dropped in front of me and cut me off and simply said, “I’ll get him.” He told me that if we had picked up the POW we would have to fly with him in our aircraft for an hour and a half and it made more sense for him to extract the NVA soldier since he was headed back to Quang Tri. Cheyenne Phantom called taking fire going into the LZ and coming out. Once out of the LZ and gaining altitude and with the POW on board, another aircraft escorted him back to Quang Tri. He thought he might have a fuel leak or other mechanical problems. LTC Mollinelli didn’t have to make the pick-up, but he chose to for operational reasons.

Soon after extracting the POW, D Troop reported that a patrol was separated from the rest of the unit with two wounded soldiers. The main body was able to reach the patrol but only after several more soldiers were wounded. Of course, the total focus was on supporting D Troop and evacuating their wounded. The ground operation was very successful and a large number of enemy documents were taken along with 3 captured POWs. D Troop was inserted around 2 PM and extracted around 6 PM. Cheyenne Phantom was quick to get a different huey and relieve me around 4:00 PM.

While flying back to Quang Tri, I looked up and noticed that our aircraft was in a shallow descent and if we didn’t level off we would eventually crash. I looked over at Rockets and he had a firm grip on the controls and his eyes were closed. Obviously, it was a long day and it was my turn to fly. When we arrived at the Quang Tri airfield, refueled and shut down, we were told to fly a POW to the 1st ARVN DIV HQs, or the headquarters of the 1st Division of the Army of Vietnam, at the Citadel in Hue.

Two of C Troop’s soldiers, who were assigned to our infantry platoon, escorted the POW on board the huey and they got on board as security. The POW was wearing a belt with a really cool belt buckle. I wanted it, but I figured everyone wanted it, so none of us said anything. The NVA soldier appeared to be healthy and his uniform looked new. As we followed QL1 back to Hue, the crew chief said the POW was squirming around and he might get loose and jump out. I couldn’t help but think that it would not be good if he were to jump, primarily because I would be in a lot trouble. I told the crew that he couldn’t be allowed to do anything dangerous to us or to himself and that they had to insure he didn’t. I decided not to look back over my shoulder and nothing else was said. We were met at the pad of the 1st ARVN DIV in the Citadel and the POW, who still appeared to be in good condition, was escorted to a waiting jeep. After landing at Phu Bai, one of the guys told me that they gave the POW a cigarette and he didn’t cause any more problems. I wondered if the POW’s belt played a role in all of this.

My story is mostly told from my memory and the memory of others and there probably are some factual errors. Certainly, all involved have a different perspective on a fight that took place 48 years ago. However, I found on the internet at http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/515469.pdf a copy of the 101 ABN DIV journal that tells that we engaged elements of the 9th NVA Regiment and killed 139 NVA soldiers and captured a large number of enemy documents, in addition to the POWs. On July 8, 1970, we had the initiative and the NVA were reacting, as best they could, to us.
I wrote the summary to this story in 1970 in an after action report to Squadron. Sonny Coughlin, who was an OH-6 crew chief and M-60 gunner in the scout platoon while I was platoon leader, shared this document that he found in the Library of Congress:

"Air crews who have flown the missions believe that they could see a vehicle on the road without the light and that if a vehicle was pulled off the road into the shadows, the chances of them detecting it with this particular system is negligible."

"4. Staff Officers Evaluation of Operation During Period: The success of the Squadron Operation on the 7th and 8th of July was a tremendous morale booster for the pilots and air crewmen of C Troop. To facilitate crewmen briefing and more efficient operation, it would be desirable for the S-3 to put maximum emphasis on passing the missions to the troop at the earliest possible time with a minimum of changes to the original missions.

Signed: DANNY C COX, CPT, Armor, Operations Office
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I want to thank John Barron, Gary Swift and Sonny Caughlin for sharing their memories with me. Their input was valuable. Also I would like to recognize all the Brave Troopers of C Troop, 2/17 Cav, “The Condors.”
General Molinelli was a great commander, warrior and Army Aviator and was a Major General when he died of cancer in 1987.

Danny C. Cox, L10086 - VHPA