Talking Proud --- Military

The O-1 "Bird Dog," the toughest dog in the fight, "our little flivver"

March 26, 2006

The Bird Dog in the Vietnam-Laos Wars

Capt. Tom O'Toole, USMC, VMO-6: During the onset of the famous 1968 enemy siege of Khe Sanh Combat Base, RVN, this FAC backseater found enemy artillery way inside Laos firing its big guns at the base, and had to use Close Air Support (CAS) aircraft to mark the targets with bombs. What was alarming about this story is how much freedom the enemy had to carefully place very heavy and long range guns in Laos, yet the suits in Washington would not allow American ground forces to go in there and cut them off at the knees.

Editor's note: We have done a thorough report on Khe Sanh from its beginning in the war through to one year before the 1968 siege It is entitled, "RT BReaker Patrol, the Hill Battles of Vietnam," March 1, 2006. It explains in some detail the importance of the Hills of Khe Sanh, of which 881S and 881N were among the more important.

Khe Sanh Combat Base, 1968. Presented by

In February 1968 the Marine base at Khe Sanh was again under siege. This time, the enemy felt it could destroy the Marines garrisoned there. Capt. Tom O'Toole, USMC, a Bird Dog backseat observer, callsign "Southern Oscar," had to use his noodle to work a difficult artillery problem (
Story conveyed by William H. "Bill" Dabney, Col., USMC (Ret.).

LCpl Michael J. Niuatoa, USMC, 26th Marines, Hill 881S, Khe Sanh, RVN, retired as Sergeant Major and received the Bronze Star for valor as Fire Team Leader. Photo credit: David Powell. Presented by HMM-364

The Marine outpost on Hill 881S in September 1967 is shown in this photo along the near ridge-line extending from the lower left of the photo to just right of center. The KSCB is about three miles away in the direction of the tall mountains in the upper right. Photo courtesy of Chaplain Ray W. Stubbe. Presented in the book, A Patch of Ground, Khe Sanh Remembered, by Michael Archer

LCpl Michael J. Niuatoa was tasked to search for NVA heavy artillery positions from an exposed observation post on the infamous Hill 881S, an outpost for the 26th Marines at Khe Sanh. The enemy had dug trenches and spider holes along the north side of Hill 881S, and were constantly firing at the Marine positions, and at helicopters coming in on what the Marines called the "Mass Gaggles" bringing in supplies.

Niuatoa remained at his post despite receiving constant heavy fire. On February 18, 1968, he spotted muzzle flashes from positions over 10,000 meters away (roughly six miles), inside Laos. If you read about the Hill Battles of Khe Sanh, you will learn that the Marines at high observation posts like this could see and hear the enemy's artillery whizzing overhead toward the base, and would call in and tell them there was incoming artillery on the way.

O'Toole was on the scene and estimated the distance from Hill 881S to the target to be 12,000 meters, or about 7.5 miles. The targets were in Laos. That presented O'Toole with some challenges. There was nothing available that could reach the target to mark it, nothing on 881S or 881N, nothing at Khe Sanh. Yet, the enemy artillery located there was able to reach KSCB with a good deal of precision. The only way to take these lads to their Maker was with air.

O'Toole fired his rocket markers but no one could see them at that distance. So O'Toole, who had some close air support (CAS) aircraft aloft running out of fuel, decided to use these aircraft to mark the targets with their bombs, and then use LCpl Niuatoa to help him adjust the CAS fire based on his previous sighting of enemy muzzle flashes. O'Toole had other CAS fighter bombers available so, in essence, the on-scene CAS fighters would mark the targets, and these other fighters could come in and take care of business.

This is the view from Hill 881S. At the center of the photo, on the ridge-line, you can see the effects of B-52 Stratofortress "Arc Light" bombing. We show you this to give you a feel for what this story was about. Photo presented by Jim Singer.

O'Toole put the first CAS bombs on a "prominent ridge-line and asked LCpl. Niuatoa to gauge needed adjustments from his vantage on Hill 881S, and based on his having spotted muzzle flashes in the distance."

Niuatoa's reply was:

"Left a click (kilometer), add two ridge lines!"

With that superb adjustment description, O'Toole called in two more CAS drops.

The last set of CAS bomb runs blew away a bunch of bamboo matting and O'Toole spotted a cave opening with a big fat enemy gun sitting in there. He then directed the follow-on CAS aircraft to target that. They did so and blew the gun away.

This is a NVA photo reported to be of a 130mm NVA gun firing on the Khe Sanh Base in 1968. These 130mm NVA cannon would fire a 73 lb shell for 20 miles. They caused a lot of KIAs as well as sleepless nights for those at Khe Sanh. The NVA artillery regiments were armed with both the 130 and 152mm howitzers. These were used along with a lot of heavy mortars and 122 mm rockets to try to take Khe Sanh. "They did not succeed." Presented by

In coordination with "Southern Oscar," the CAS aircraft proceeded to run up and down the ridge-line for two hours along what they estimated to be the NVA gun-target line and knocked out three more guns. They figured these to be at least 130 mm guns with a range of 18,000 meters (about 11 miles). O'Toole later reported that it appeared to him the NVA had placed individual guns about 500 meters apart to avoid total destruction if hit by US B-52 strikes. While separated, they all remained on the gun-target line and had no problem hitting KSCB.

This enemy tactic was useful for hitting KSCB, but the enemy did not seem to understand that there was no way their artillery fire was going to keep the Marines at Khe Sanh in a fixed position, hunkered down and hiding. The Marines throughout were always on the move, sending out patrols to find and fight the enemy, and bring in air. The enemy's 130mm big guns were useless to support their troops being attacked b y the Marines venturing out from the base. They were set to target the base, but had no FACs to tell them where the Marines were while they were on the move.

Go to 23rd TASS, USAF