Hon Ilo Ilo
by Fritz Guenther
Go Cong Province Sector Pilot, Apr 1966/Oct 1966, then transferred to the
Company Headquarters in Soc Trang as Aircraft Maintenance Officer.
One clear, bright, sunny morning, I had completed a two and a half hour Visual Reconnaissance (VR) in the Go Cong area. The Operations Officer Advisor, Major Ed Schowpe, didn’t have anything specific he wanted me to check out that morning, and the VR was uneventful. I decided to try to make it back to our MACV house for lunch. I radioed the house and asked them to have my crew chief, SP4 Bob Preble, come out to the airstrip to pick me up. Bob was waiting for me when I landed. Our standard procedure was to perform a Post-Flight Inspection, refuel and rearm if necessary. By doing this the aircraft was ready to go on a moment’s notice. We drove to the MACV house in time for Vietnamese noodle soup, a peanut butter sandwich and ice tea. After lunch I relaxed before checking to see if Operations had anything going on in the afternoon. Otherwise, it would be another VR and maybe drop a cold soda to our Infantry Advisor in the field.
All of a sudden, there was a very loud commotion outside and as I got up to see what was going on, Maj. Schowpe and a Vietnamese (ARVN) Major came running into the house. The Vietnamese Major was screaming something in his language that I didn’t understand, and Maj. Schowpe was hollering, “Where’s Captain Guenther?” They saw me and came running up. The ARVN Major was saying “VC, VC! Beau coup VC!” Maj. Schowpe explained that there was a VC boat stuck in the tidal mud and he wanted me to fly out and blow it up. The boat was out of the range of our two 105MM Howitzer Batteries and there were no Air Force assets available for an air strike. He said the ARVN Major would go with me and direct me to its location.
We jumped into a jeep and raced out to the airstrip. I loaded my excited passenger into the back seat and strapped him in. The major showed his map to me and pointed to Hon (island) Ilo Ilo. The island was just barely into the South China Sea between the northern two channels of the Mekong River. We took off and as I approached the island, I could clearly see a boat. The boat apparently got too close to the island when the tide was going out and became high and dry resting on the mud flats about half a mile off the island. It was a large wooden vessel 40 to 50 feet long. The boat had no cover, and as I flew closer I could see that it was loaded with people. The ARVN Major was screaming, “VC, VC, shoot VC!” I didn’t have a flight helmet or headset to give him, but I sure didn’t have a hard time hearing or understanding him. All of a sudden there was a problem. I noticed a large yellow flag with three red stripes–The Republic of South Vietnam’s flag–flying off the transom of the boat. I said to my passenger, “No VC, see the flag?” He about had a hemorrhage and kept screaming “VC, VC, shoot VC!” At this point I knew that he must have had some good intelligence information concerning the boat. I knew that if it were VC they would not hesitate to display the flag. I also knew that I would not fire on the boat when it was displaying that flag unless I could confirm that they were VC. I then had only one operational option so I flew over the boat at 1,000 feet, and as I passed the boat I performed a “split S” as if I were starting a rocket run on the boat. As I made a high speed (for a Birddog) low pass over the boat, some idiot lost his water and shot at me. He came so close that I could hear the crack of the bullet over the roar of the engine and through the sound deadening of my flight helmet. That was my confirmation! I climbed back up to 1,000 feet, armed my four 2.75 inch rockets with #10 high explosive war heads, pulled the safety pin from the trigger on the control stick, and started my run on the boat. At about 600 feet I checked the needle and ball in the Turn and Bank Indicator and saw that they were centered. I squeezed the trigger. All four rockets fired. Three hit equally apart in the center of the boat.
Bodies and pieces of the boat flew every where. My passenger went ballistic with excitement. I climbed back to 1,000 feet and circled over the boat to access the damage. The boat had been loaded with people, now there were only three VC alive. They were trying to wade through the mud to the concealment of the island. As I headed back to the Go Cong airstrip, I radioed the MACV house and told them to have my crew chief get his M14 rifle, ammunition and get out to the airstrip ASAP. Bob was waiting there when I landed. I kicked out the ARVN Major and had Bob get in. I didn’t take time to rearm with rockets as they aren’t an anti-personnel weapon, and I wanted to get the VC before they made it to the cover of the island. On the way back I briefed Bob on what had transpired and that I was going to check out the situation when we got there. I told him that, situation permitting, I was going to fly over the VC and that I wanted him to fire at them out of the back window of the airplane. I told him to make damn sure he didn’t put a round through the wing’s left strut or the tire. The VC hadn’t made it to the island and nothing was moving in or around the boat, so I made two low passes and we went home. It wasn’t high tech or an F4 on a strafing run, but it got the job done.
I had fired many, many rockets, adjusted lots of artillery, and as a Forward Air Controller put in several air strikes. This was the first time I saw the bodies flying all over as the rockets exploded. It had quite an impact on me and I still vividly remember the scene.
That night I tried to convince myself that this was war, I was a professional soldier and it was part of the job. Major Leo Origer, USAF, broke out a bottle of Gin and I got very smashed. Many years later when Bob and I met, I told him that if he had any bad feelings about that day, that it was my responsibility and my order that he had followed.