Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Tales of the Chopper: "Gunfighter" Emerson in Vietnam, Part 2

This follows my earlier post on Gen. Hank "Gunfighter" Emerson, who died in February. It's excerpted from my book on the social history of helicopters, The God Machine.  Gen. Emerson called me from Montana after my book came out, saying he was interested in writing a book based on his experiences, which I thought a fine idea, so I put him in touch with my agent at William Morris, but as far as I know the project didn't happen. It's a shame because the general was an outstanding tactician and leader. 

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Col. Hank Emerson returned to Vietnam for his second combat tour in February 1968. He was to command the First Brigade with the 9th Infantry Division (the “Old Reliables”) in the Mekong Delta. The principal mission of the brigade seemed simple: to keep a 16-mile stretch of Highway 4, and its bridges, open for traffic. This highway connected Saigon with the vital rice-growing regions to the south (Image, US Army Corps of Engineers).

A simple mission ... but one that looked close to impossible. The Delta had little in common with the sparsely populated, heavily forested areas of Emerson’s first tour, except for the presence of a die-hard enemy. However successful up north, his Checkerboard tactic wouldn’t work here because it required men to walk long distances without being noticed. The open, rice-paddy terrain made long treks impossible and the many villages and their ever-alert dogs would foil any attempt at stealth. And Checkerboard’s wide-ranging artillery fire would have threatened the closely-packed villages. 

Through 1964 the highway had been safe for traffic, but beginning with the 1965 offensive the Vietcong had frequently been able to blockade it or blow up its bridges. At the time Emerson took charge, helicopter pilots were reporting flocks of little red Vietcong flags across the countryside; once they had been modestly pulled down by day but not any more. For a while armed powerboats along the canals called “riverine forces” had been able to break up enemy concentrations, but then the Vietcong had learned how to ambush the boats with rocket-propelled guns and heavy machine guns. 

“The psychological situation in the Delta was very bad,” the commander of the 9th Infantry Division, Gen. Julian Ewell, told an interviewer later. “I wouldn’t say it was defeatist, but it was tense and very nervous. The troops weren’t quite sure whether they would make it.” Ewell gave Emerson, who was one of three brigade commanders, permission to try something new. 

When Emerson arrived, American infantry tactics in the Delta had mostly been variations on the “sweep,” an ancient tactic for hunting wild animals. At its simplest, the sweep had troops walking in lines across the landscape to flush the enemy from hiding. When and if the enemy appeared, the Americans called in artillery or gunships to kill as many as possible before they scattered. 

Though the sweep sounded intimidating, like hunters closing in on foxes, usually the enemy units remained snug in their bunkers, and if caught outside were usually savvy enough to slip away via tunnels, by waiting for darkness, or by using canals and ditches. “Although you’d occasionally corner someone and beat up on them, often it was a dry hole,” Ewell recalled.

“The old idea wasn’t working,” Emerson told me. “The delta was full of mines, deep mud and paddy dikes, so we couldn’t get around on foot. I said, ‘We’ve got to get airmobile! This is one big LZ!’”

Emerson came up an approach he called the Jitterbug. As with the high-energy swing dance of the 1930s for which it was named, forces carrying out the Jitterbug maneuver tried to be everywhere at once. The concept was to find large groups of enemy soldiers, pry them out of hiding, and then confuse them once in the open so they couldn’t see a way out. It required a sustained, high level of operational tempo.

A successful Jitterbug operation began long before the shooting. It required sifting all available information to divine where an enemy main-force unit might be hiding. Emerson knew the identities of the main-force units in his area, but the location of their hidden heavy weapons and companies at any given time was an ever-changing secret. Learning that location quickly enough to mobilize a large-scale attack relied on village informers, starlight scopes, radar coupled with long-range listening gear, and reports from 12-man reconnaissance patrols that ranged out each night, when the Vietcong were most active. 

In one intelligence-gathering incident, an informer led Emerson’s men to a building at which Vietcong commanders were meeting with a North Vietnamese officer. The men broke down the door, shot most of the men, and took the NVA officer prisoner.

The brigade also experimented with the people sniffer, a laboratory-in-a-crate that fitted into a Huey and detected the presence of ammonia that all encampments emitted. The sniffer worked, but only until the enemy adopted some simple steps to frustrate the equipment. One effective countermeasure was to hang buckets of urine from tree branches.

Once the enemy position was identified with reasonable probability, helicopters moved in and shifted troops at a rapid pace. This frenetic activity was intended to alarm the enemy and persuade them that they were nearly surrounded, which prompted them to bring out their 12.7mm DShK heavy machine guns to use against the helicopters. 

The distinctive green tracer rounds (which looked as big as balloons as they came up to meet helicopter crews) pinpointed the guns’ locations and also indicated the value of the force. The more AA fire the better: heavy fire indicated a main-force unit, and Emerson was out to destroy the biggest forces he could find. If Emerson was satisfied that the enemy was within the Recondos’ grasp, he transmitted the radio signal, “Pile on!” which meant that all infantry units were to move in and create a tight perimeter.

The goal was to get the Vietcong out of shelter and trapped inside a ring about one half-mile across. To block exits via the paddy canals, troops draped concertina wire across the waterways and tossed grenades in the water at frequent intervals to discourage escape. 

Locating the enemy and creating a tight seal sometimes required 72 hours of unceasing activity. When the ring was secure, helicopters dropped bundles of tear gas bombs, particularly along lines of nipapalm trees where bunkers were likely to be concealed. 

Anyone caught in the ring came under a blanket of fire delivered simultaneously by fixed-wing aircraft, helicopter gunships, and artillery. “We had great artillery officers, like Joe Wallace and Bob Dirmeyer,” Emerson told me. “Dirmeyer could figure out how to deliver what I needed and deal it out all at once. We worked out aircraft flight patterns so they wouldn’t get hit by artillery.” 

Called “shooting the doughnut,” Dirmeyer’s intent was to put every howitzer round within the area ringed by American troops, and to keep doing this even as the Americans shrunk the circle by closing in. At intervals the firing would stop so that bullhorns could transmit a call for surrender.

“I hate buzzwords but in this case synergy was the right word – each type of fire protecting the other – and suppressing the AA,” Emerson recalled. “It was synergistic as hell.”

According to a dispatch by Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett -- who was as skeptical of military quackery as any correspondent in Vietnam -- by early 1969 the 9th Infantry Division was a formidable machine of war, even in the northern Mekong Delta, the Vietcong’s once-fearsome stronghold. It was an amazing performance considering that as recently as 1965, the Vietcong main-force units of the Delta were regarded as unbeatable. Arnett did express doubts about whether America’s firepower was leading anywhere productive, but wrote that when it came to dealing out such carnage with the “pile-on” tactic, the draftees of the Old Reliables were masters. 

“The game of hide and seek has honed the Ninth Division into a deadly efficient machine,” Arnett wrote for the Associated Press in April 1968. “One recently captured document from the enemy high command described it as the most dangerous division in the country.” 

Because the style of such warfare required close-in leadership from all officers, the toll was high. “There were six battalion commanders when I was with First Brigade. Three were killed,” recalled one of Emerson’s battalion commanders, James Lindsay, who retired as a four-star.

“Using this technique in Dienh Tuang Province, Col. Emerson over a period of months, essentially was able to break up every communist battalion in the province,” Ewell said an interview with military historians. Emerson’s men later repeated the achievement in the notoriously dangerous Long An province. 

MACV estimated that Vietcong forces controlled 75% of the villages in Long An as of January 1964, despite the Americans’ use of fortified “strategic hamlets.”

“The only problem with the Jitterbug was that it was so complex that it took a real master to do it well,” Ewell said.

“Jitterbug was most practical with enough helicopters to give combat units a high degree of mobility,” Julian Ewell went on. “Hank’s virtue was bringing tremendous intensity to the mission. He was a fighter and combined a high level of tenacity and speed with the Jitterbug. Hank’s sole purpose in coming to Vietnam was to beat the living stew out of the VC with minimum American casualties.”

“Emerson had a great deal of initiative – higher ups didn’t always like it but he just said screw you, and he set the rules,” Brien Richards, veteran of the early Recondo missions, told me. One of Richards’ proudest possessions is a signed photo from the Gunfighter. 

In the photo, Emerson is wearing a Colt .45-cal. single-action revolver, which he once used to shoot two Vietcong soldiers on the bank of a canal. That gun battle won him a Distinguished Service Cross, but Emerson sounded almost apologetic when I asked him about it: “It was a happenstance of course, I’m not that stupid, but I thought I’d cut ‘em off … It was a rash thing to do.” 

 “As good as a man he was, he had some quirks,” Richards recalled. Emerson acknowledged that on occasion he carried Scotch whiskey in his canteens for “medicinal purposes.”

The Gunfighter’s second tour in Vietnam ended with a bang on August 26, 1968, when a Vietcong gunner launched a rocket propelled grenade at his helicopter as he was returning to headquarters from a visit with one of his battalion commanders. Such projectiles are unguided and the great majority of them miss the aircraft at which they are aimed, but this one blew off the tail boom. 

The Huey nosed down, started spinning, and dropped into a rice paddy. It rolled over and caught on fire. Two men died instantly; four men climbed out; that left one man was trapped in the flames. That was Emerson. Emerson pulled himself loose shortly before the aircraft erupted in a fireball, which followed from the fact that it had landed on an enemy ammunition dump. He was evacuated in a Loach helicopter and treated for burns and a massive infection; Gen. Ben Harrison brought a bottle of whiskey to the hospital and they drank it in two hours. 

Motion pictures often portray the genuine risks that infantry soldiers faced when landing in a “hot LZ” but helicopter travel in Vietnam posed risks to all participants, military and civilian, particularly when Vietcong anti-aircraft weapons improved. Statistically, helicopters were the biggest single killer of the highest-ranking officers: helicopter crashes killed four of eight generals who died in the war, along with one admiral. John Paul Vann, early critic of the war and the subject of the biography Bright Shining Lie, died in a helicopter crash in June 1972. 

Emerson recovered from his crash, but never got back to the war. He had run twelve Jitterbug operations before being shot down for his third and last time. In 1969, while training at Fort Rucker to qualify as a helicopter pilot in preparation for a combat command with the 1st Cavalry, Emerson was pulled out of helicopter school and reassigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, as head of special forces. 


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  2. Very good article on "Old Dad", as those close to him were encouraged to refer to him. The last two clauses of your article, however, were awkwardly strung together in such a way as to make it seem as if Special Forces was a part of the 82nd Airborne. He was the Assistant Division Commander of the 82nd, and following that, was made the Commandant of the JFK Center for Special Warfare, responsible for all Special Forces at Ft. Bragg. He pumped some life into the garrison routine by initiating Adventure Training at distant locales for integral elements of 7th and 6th/5th Groups (mountaineering in Montana, ocean exfiltrations

  3. [cont'd] off the coast of Big Sur in California, etc.)

  4. Despite leaving Rotary Wing training before completion, he was--somehow--certified as a bona fide chopper pilot, and used to drive the Right Seaters crazy by always insisting on flying whatever he was in. He loved to buzz around in the little "Loaches"...