Talking Proud Archives --- 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

The Army's 74th Recon Aviation Company: A striking characteristic of the 74th RAC was the breadth of missions it flew. We'll tell you about these to reflect the great versatility and flexibility shown by our FAC pilots across the board.
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The Army's 74th Recon Aviation Company (RAC) was the first O-1 Bird Dog company to arrive in Vietnam, created in March 1965 and headquartered at Phu Loi Army Airfield, RVN, about 15 miles north of Saigon. They were known as the "Alofts," and used "Aloft" as part of their callsign.

A 74th RAC Bird Dog is shown here over the III Corps Tactical Zone, presented by
Hawk Magazine, July 1969. It almost looks like the pilot is in a "zoom climb!"

A striking characteristic of the 74th is the breadth of missions it flew, primarily over the III Corps area, but also over parts of II Corps south to Saigon.


You can see from this map that III Corps includes Saigon and abuts the Cambodian border. Southern II Corps abuts Cambodia as well. This is where the 74th operated.

In his book,
Killing Hope, William Blum said the following:

"On March 18, 1970, Cambodia's leader, Prince Sihanouk was deposed. The next day the Cambodian army called in an American spotter plane and South Vietnamese artillery during a sweep of a Viet Cong sanctuary by a battalion of Cambodian troops inside Cambodia."

We do not know whether that "spotter plane" belonged to the 74th RAC, but supporting efforts like that was one of its jobs. The 74th RAC watched the Cambodian border. If friendly ground forces had enemy contact on the border area, the "Aloft" FACs would call in and direct artillery fire. They also directed troop movements, fields of fire, adjusted artillery, and directed air attacks. They even hunted elephants which were being used by the enemy for logistics.

Whatever the case, on May 1, 1970, the US decided to invade Cambodia to attack NVA sanctuaries. The US 1st Air Cavalry along with ARVN units were sent in. These next two photos show you examples of what our forces found. We present these to help you imagine how hard it was for the Bird Dog FACs to find these kinds of enemy targets in Cambodia, and in Laos, another sanctuary, for that matter.


Here you see two troopers from Bravo Company, 5th Co., 7th Cavalry, 1st Air Cavalry Division on the ground in Cambodia after they found a huge cache of enemy weapons and supplies. Presented by skytroopers.org.

Both the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong communist insurgents used eastern Cambodia as a safe haven, perhaps as many as 40,000.


This is an NVA bunker found by US forces of the 1st Cavalry Division in Cambodia on May 26, 1970. Photo credit: Ed Griffith.

Complicating this, a Cambodian communist insurgent movement called the Khmer Rouge entered the conflict as well.


Capt. Bob Clifford, 74th RAC, 1969. Presented by Aloft.org


Let's switch to another topic.

Company D (Ranger), 151st Infantry (Airborne), Indiana National Guard, was the only National Guard Infantry unit to serve as a unit in Vietnam. Delta Co. was a long-range reconnaissance patrol (LRP) outfit that participated in frequent insertions and extractions during its stay in Vietnam. It conducted numerous patrols against the Dong Ngai Regiment occupying bunker complexes and base camps throughout the III Corps Tactical Zone (CTZ).

The Rangers were almost always at a disadvantage. Delta Co. patrols would normally be inserted by the 1st Platoon, 117th Assault Helicopter Co., known as the "Annie Fannies," flying the Huey. This is a photo of then SSgt John "Big Jon" Ellis, a Delta Co. Ranger, hugging his Annie Fannie on a 1st Platoon Huey UH-1. The Annie Fannies would usually insert and extract them, and the 334th Armed Helicopter Co. "Playboys" would blitz the area to support both endeavors. Interestingly, the 74th RAC would provide radio relay and aerial observation support, maintaining constant radio relay between the LRP teams and the company's Tactical Operations Center (TOC) at Long Binh. When you talk to a Delta. Co. guy, he'll sing the praises of all three of these airborne units, with gusto.

In this role, the 74th Alofts were watching for enemy, keeping the extraction and gunship helos informed, targeting them if needed, and keeping the home office informed of contacts and problems involving the Delta Co. teams they were supporting. No wonder the Indiana boys loved them.

In addition, the 74th RAC flew "mortar watch" over Saigon. The general drill for any FAC unit flying "mortar watch was for one "unlucky" crew to be chosen each night for this duty at all major bases and areas throughout Vietnam. Basically, they flew around the city looking for mortar flashes, reporting them, and, as required, arranging for the enemy mortars to be eliminated. This was a job conducted at almost every base in Vietnam, usually by helicopters. But Saigon is a big city, and the helos were needed to put the kibosh on the mortar fire so the Alofts were tasked to find and locate them.

Frequently carrying a Marine backseater, the 74th flew patrols over the Saigon-Vung Tau-South China Sea shipping channel, watching for rocket attacks against shipping and directing Naval gunfire from destroyers in the South China Sea against enemy bunkers and enemy positions along the channel.


This is a photo of the Vung Tau shipping channel, we believe taken from a 74th RAC Bird Dog.


This is the Vung Tau Airport and you can see two Bird Dogs parked there. This and the photo of the Vung Tau channel were provided by John J. Williams II, 74th RAC, who assembled a photo album after he and five others "from the flight line" took a trip to Vung Tau

The 74th supported Navy riverine patrols on the Saigon River, in the Rung Sat Special Zone south of Saigon, and the large fuel farm at Na Be. It also supported intense ground force insertions by Navy riverine units and massive air attacks against enemy positions. This is a most interesting mission.


Forget that this map erroneously identifies Saigon as Ho Chin Minh City. Focus on the Rung Sat Special Zone and the Lung Tau Channel, shaded in a turquoise-blue. Also note the location of Vung Tau in the lower right corner. The 74th RAC's main base at Phu Loi was located near Vung Tau. This map provides a good overview of the Saigon-Vung Tau Port System. Map presented by the 4th Transportation Terminal Command.

The Rung Sat Special Zone (RSSZ), also called "Forest Assassins," surrounded the Saigon River as it wound its way 45 miles to the ocean by Vung Tau. Enemy forces, including VC communist militia and NVA regulars (supported all the way from North Vietnam over the Ho Chi Minh Trail) periodically and regularly attacked freighters on the river as early as 1965.


Graphic presented by Marine Riverine Force Association.


The American freighter Eastern Mariner was sunk by enemy mines in the zone in May 1966. The
Army Times described it this way:

"For the 9th Infantry Division soldiers who must seek out the Viet Cong there, it is a special kind of hell. Neither land or sea, the Rung Sat is a tangled maze of mangroves dotted with bamboo thickets that always seem to be dying, never growing. The swamp is interlaced with sluggish salt rivers which appear incapable of supporting life ... The smell of decay permeates the humid stale air. It is an odor that soldiers never quite become accustomed to. It is putrid, acrid, primeval."

USN River Patrol Squadron 5 was officially activated in late 1966 with five river divisions; River Patrol Division 51 was placed at Can Tho Binh Thuy, near Phu Loi, home of the 74th RAC. The Navy ended up flying its own FAC missions with the OV-10 when it became available, but until then, the Army and USAF FACs were the lifeline, though the Navy and Marines did fly helicopters for similar job.


The American ship is the Eastern Mariner which was sunk by a VC mine in front of the base at Nha Be. Photo credit: Rusty Johnson. Presented by Brownwater Navy.


An example of the river systems that had to be flown and watched by the FACs and the riverine patrols. Photo credit: Raphael Marchese. Presented by the Mobile Riverine Force Association.

We wish to remark here that we commend the web site of the
Mobile Riverine Force Association to your attention. That site has a fantastic suite of photographs submitted by members that give most of us a seldom seen view of the war on the rivers.

Let's finish our look at the 74th RAC with an amusing GI story. Charlie Welsh, with the 220th RAC, has said that he was part of an advanced party to fly over to Vietnam to understudy with the 74th RAC. When he got there, he asked what they were supposed to do. This was the answer they got:

"Fly around until you get shot at, then call in artillery or air strikes."
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Go to 1st Lt. Rob Whitlow, USMC, VMO-6