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Secret War: Green Hornets, Dust Devils and Blackbirds

To supply their forces in South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese built a secret road system through neutral Laos and Cambodia. This supply line, named the Truong Son Road but called the "Ho Chi Minh Trail" by Americans, consisted of a network of roads and hiding places concealed by jungle. In an effort to stop the communists' flow of supplies while appearing to respect Laotian and Cambodian neutrality, the United States secretly placed radar stations to guide air strikes and sent small reconnaissance teams of native personnel into Laos and Cambodia. Led by U.S. Army Special Forces personnel, those reconnaissance teams found targets for air strikes and later assessed the damage. These cross-border or "over the fence" operations relied upon U.S. Air Force helicopters for transportation and resupply.

Covert reconnaissance operations into Laos, codenamed SHINING BRASS and later PRAIRIE FIRE, began in 1965. Using the call sign Pony Express, Sikorsky CH-3 Jolly Green Giant helicopters from the 20th Helicopter Squadron (later redesignated the 20th Special Operations Squadron) operated from Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base in support of these secret missions and the radar sites. Later, the squadron received Bell UH-1F/P "Huey" helicopters to support the effort. The 20th's mission expanded as they started working closely with forward air controllers and other USAF aircraft in Laos to rescue downed American pilots.

In 1967 the U.S. expanded its secret reconnaissance operations into Cambodia under the codenames DANIEL BOONE and later SALEM HOUSE. The 20th's UH-1s supported these operations using the call sign Green Hornet. During a Green Hornet mission on Nov. 26, 1968, Capt. James P. Fleming earned the Medal of Honor while rescuing a six-man reconnaissance team.

The group rescued was code named "RT Chisel," and it was composed of Staff Sergeant Ancil “Sonny” Franks, Sergeant Charles Hughes, three Montagnards, and Captain Randolph Harrison (he was the new CCS Recon Company commander and there to learn ops).  The Americans were SOG personnel (Green Berets) while the Montagnards were indigenous personnel that worked with SOG.  All six were safely recovered during the operation.

The 20th's Sikorsky CH-3 Jolly Green Giant helicopters were separated into the 21st Helicopter Squadron (later redesignated the 21st Special Operations Squadron) in 1967. The 21st continued supporting the covert operations in Laos, including the placement of IGLOO WHITE electronic sensors, from Nakhon Phanom under the call sign of Dust Devils.

To insert and resupply covert reconnaissance teams deep into North Vietnam, the USAF used special Lockheed C-130E(I) aircraft. Later redesignated the MC-130E Combat Talon I, this aircraft was equipped with the Fulton Recovery System to pick up personnel and packages. This system used a balloon to suspend a cable which the MC-130E would snag in flight. At first using the innocuous designation Detachment 1, 314th Tactical Airlift Wing (later the 15th Special Operations Squadron), they operated from Nha Trang Air Base, Republic of Vietnam. Nicknamed "Blackbirds" because of their special green and black paint scheme, these MC-130Es avoided enemy detection by using terrain-following radar to fly very low at night.

While these secret missions never stopped the flow of supplies to the communists in the south, they caused severe disruptions. In addition, the need to defend against these reconnaissance teams caused the North Vietnamese to hold back troops that could have been fighting in South Vietnam.


Green Hornets to the Rescue

Col James P. Fleming, Medal of Honor



          On November 26, 1968, helicopters from the 20th Special Operations Squadron Green Hornets inserted Special Forces reconnaissance team “Chisel” near Duc Co, South Vietnam.  Part of the clandestine Daniel Boone operations along the Cambodian border, this six-man team almost immediately encountered a much larger enemy force and retreated to a nearby riverbank.  While the communists fired at them from three sides and prepared to overrun their position, the reconnaissance team radioed for an emergency extraction. 


          The Green Hornets heard the call and returned to extract the threatened Special Forces.  Despite heavy enemy gunfire, 1st Lieutenant (later Colonel) James P. Fleming flew his UH‑1F in close to rescue the Special Forces team.  Meanwhile, Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) Leonard Gonzales provided covering fire with his gunship.   


          With no safe landing spot, intense enemy gunfire forced Fleming to back away, but he made a second attempt.  While Fleming kept his helicopter hovering just above the river and nudged up to the riverbank, the door gunners kept the enemy at bay.  This effort gave the “Chisel” team time to sprint toward the waiting helicopter.  Door gunner Sergeant (later Master Sergeant) Fred Cook remembered the incoming gunfire as being “so thick you could walk on it.”  Returning fire with his M60 machine gun in one hand, Cook pulled the “Chisel” team aboard with his other. 


          Escaping low over the river in a hail of gunfire, the helicopter received numerous bullet holes, but amazingly, nobody was hurt.  For his efforts, Fleming received the Medal of Honor.  The two door gunners, Cook and Sergeant Paul Jensen, received the Distinguished Flying Cross.  Fleming’s copilot, Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) Paul McClellan received the Silver Star.  Gonzales received the Air Force Cross.  The other participating Green Hornets received eleven Distinguished Flying Crosses, one Silver Star, and two Air Medals.

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Laos: The Panhandle and the Ho Chi Minh Trail Overview

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