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

1st Lt. Rob Whitlow, USMC, VMO-6: This is the story about Mike Company, 3-5 Marines, in grave danger during Operation Swift in the Que Song Valley, RVN, and a VMO-6 Bird Dog crew, Fitzsimmons and Whitlow, who choreographed and coordinated more air power than you can shake a stick at to set Mike Co. free.

The Marines' VMO-6 was subordinate to the 1st Marine Air Wing (MAW), which, in turn supported the III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF) in I Corps in the RVN. This was the northernmost corps, known through most of the war as "Marine Country."

First Lieutenant Rob Whitlow flew the Dawg out of the Marble Mountain Air Facility near Da Nang, RVN in 1967. He arrived in Vietnam in January 1967 and by September had flown 300 missions and had controlled 100 air strikes, the most from a Marine O-1C.

That September, several Marine infantry companies involved in Operation Swift search and destroy missions in the Que Son Valley were under assault by battalion-size NVA forces, and each company was in trouble.

These are the Que Son Mountains. The cleared-out spot on the ridge was known as Landing Zone (LZ) Buzzard. On the other side, the valley. Presented by

Liftoff of M Co., 3-5 Marines, at Hill 63 into Operation Swift, September 4, 1967. Presented by Combat Wife.

Mike Company, 3-5 Marines, was in the worst shape on September 4, by Whitlow's account, "surrounded, cutoff, under intense mortar fire, and suffering heavy casualties."

Whitlow, flying backseat with pilot Capt. Bob Fitzsimmons, callsign Blackcoat 3, arrived on the scene in late afternoon. Mike Co. was trying to pull back to a perimeter defense, but was under intense attack with an NVA battalion. Worse yet, enemy reinforcements were on their way, it appeared, with the idea in mind to destroy Mike Company. The Marines were not about to let this happen.

Capt. J.D. Murray, commanding officer, M Co., 3-5 Marines, on the phone during Operation Swift. He received the Navy Cross, for his heroism in this September 4, 1967 battle. Photo presented by Combat Wife.

Blackcoat 3 reported "pivoting with his right wing down in a tight clockwise circle at about 85 mph" over his Marines. Previous air strikes directed by the FAC he just relieved left the area under smoke and dust, and the sun was fading as dusk approached.

Marine F-8 Crusaders air refueling. Photo courtesy of Col. John Telles, Jr. Presented by djohnson

Whitlow kept directing F-8 Crusader attack after attack against a rice field north of M Co.'s location, almost in the blind because of the dust, the smoke and dusk, with the bombs dropping closer and closer to the Marines.

Soon night fell. Whitlow asked for a strobe light from Mike Co. to mark their location, a dangerous action for the troops on the ground, but he had to know precisely where they were. He got the light, and brought in fighters telling them to lay down their ordnance 50 meters north of the light. As an aside, quite often the troops on the ground would tape the core from a toilet paper role to the strobe to make it directional and reduce the chance of giving away their positions. We don't know if that happened here.

Whitlow said the NVA had extensive artillery all around the Marines on the ground, and kept firing with that and machine guns, lighting up the sky with tracers and explosions. Attack fighters kept coming in, all the while trying to dodge the artillery shells and anti-aircraft fire. At one point Whitlow's pilot Fitzsimmons had to turn the wing tip landing light on to make sure they didn't have a mid-air collision.

Mid-airs for the FACS were always a serious concern. At one point, Blackcoat 3 had 12-15 flights of fighter-bombers stacked over the battle "high and dry" at 2,000 ft intervals starting at about 6,000 ft. He also had medevac and re-supply helicopters on orbit at about 4,000 ft. south of the area, waiting to get in.

AC-47 Spooky gunship working over a target at night, 1966. Photo credit: Dick Swanson. Presented by Piece Unique Gallery

Furthermore, he had an USAF AC-47 Spooky gunship asking for permission to open fire. During one period,Whitlow had to arrange the fighters into wider orbits so the gunship could unload his fire "through the stack of jets."

All the Marine ground companies needed help, every command level was on the radio, and even NVA radio operators entered the Marines' nets, speaking clear English. Mike Co., now under heavy mortar fire, still had priority. For the moment, the other companies would have to make do. Suffice to say that Blackcoat 3 had his hands full.

We urge you read
Whitlow's entire story. The short ending is that the commanding officer of the 5th Marines radioed Whitlow directly, not using his callsign, Blackcoat 3, but instead saying:

"Bob, if you see those mortar positions, and you have positive identification, run the strike."

The message here from the boss was we gotta do what we gotta do to save those Marines, no foolin' around. Do it.

A-6 Intruder, by our count, 20-24 bombs loaded up. Presented by Global Aircraft.

Whitlow then brought in two A-6 Intruders, each with 24 bombs (Whitlow reported 34, but we think that a typo; the max load was usually 24). He directed them to the enemy mortar positions. The first A-6 laid all 24 bombs directly on the target. The concussions threw the Bird Dog all over the place. And then a frantic call from a Kilo Co. radioman screamed that the bombs had hit them.

Whitlow pushed his head out the window of his Dawg and tried to vomit. He then called off the second A-6 and both returned to home base.

As good fortune would have it, the radioman came back up and said the bombs came mighty close but had not hit his company and everyone was okay. The mortars were knocked out and fighting died down.

It turns out that silencing this and other gun and mortar emplacements enabled the 1-5 and 3-5 Marines to pursue a withdrawing enemy and after multiple fierce battles, the enemy bailed out of the southern half of the Que Son Valley and it remained a quiet area until the Marines left I Corps in 1968. It was later learned that the two enemy regiments engaged by the Marines in Operation Swift were unfit for combat thereafter. Two Mike Company Marines received the Medal of Honor (posthumous):
Sgt Lawrence Peters and Lt. Father Vincent R. Capadonno.

Go to the "Covey" FACS and Capt. Cal Anderson, 20th TASS