The Central Highlands region of South Vietnam was a particularly fearsome location for an American soldier to be stationed. The region was close to North Vietnamese infiltration routes that passed through Laos. As a result, regular North Vietnamese troops — not the Viet Cong — constituted the majority of enemy forces there. Mountainous terrain locations were rarely accessible by ground, so the helicopter was the primary means of transportation. Villages were isolated and sparsely populated, mostly by Montagnard tribes. Limitations on the employment of firepower imposed elsewhere, in order to prevent the harming of civilians, did not apply in the Central Highlands. Most high-intensity engagements involving U.S. forces took place there. Covered by triple-canopy jungle, where the uppermost layer of vegetation could reach heights greater than 50 feet, visibility was poor, hindering the efforts of scouts moving by foot and by helicopter.
The 119th Assault Helicopter Company at Camp Holloway
The U.S. Army 119th Assault Helicopter Company operated throughout the Central Highlands region from September 1962 until November 1970, when the unit was deactivated. In Guts 'N Gunships: What it was Really Like to Fly Combat Helicopters in Vietnam, Mark Garrison describes his 1967-68 tour in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot. For most of his tour he was with the 119th AHC, stationed at Camp Holloway near Pleiku.
Pleiku had great strategic importance for the U.S. military, hosting the main air base and supply terminal for the Central Highlands. It served as the primary distribution center for the logistics corridor extending westwards along Highway 19 from Quy Nhon, the seaport with greatest access to the Central Highlands. Moreover, its central plateau location faced North Vietnamese Army bases across the Cambodian border, making Pleiku a defensive center of gravity for the entire highlands region.
At that time, the 119th AHC had two platoons that flew troop transport helicopters and one platoon that flew helicopter gunships. The transports were UH-1H Hueys, which were called "slicks" by American soldiers — the company had 16-20 of them. The gunships were UH-1C Huey models, numbering about 8. The slick pilots were called "alligators" and the gunship pilots were called "crocodiles". Mark Garrison flew slicks for two and a half months, then moved up to Huey gunships
Support for Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrols
Long-Range Patrol Reconnaissance (LRRP) patrols predate the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, but their need soon became evident, as a critical lack of timely, actionable intelligence was recognized. Trained to penetrate enemy lines by ground, air, or water, LRRPs carried out intelligence gathering missions in enemy-held territory, reporting on troop movements from well-concealed positions. Small, six-man teams were inserted by utility helicopters, which also kept them supplied over the course of the mission and extracted them when it was time to return to base. Helicopter gunships got involved in cases where a LRRP team was discovered by the enemy and needed quick fire support.
The Central Highlands were a prime infiltration route for North Vietnamese troops and supplies sent down via the Ho Chi Minh trail. Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols were tasked with verifying and monitoring the flow of supplies, equipment and troops into South Vietnam.
Special Operations in Laos and Cambodia
The 119th Assault Helicopter Company provided support for other U.S. Army infantry formations and special forces, as well as the U.S. Marine Corps and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.
They flew many classified missions for MACV-SOG, a highly classified special operations unit belonging to the Department of Defense joint-service command in Vietnam. The MACV-SOG (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group) conducted strategic reconnaissance missions in South Vietnam, North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. They would also be sent out to capture enemy prisoners, rescue downed American pilots and rescue prisoners of war.
Until the Cambodian Campaign of 1970, regular U.S ground forces were strictly limited to South Vietnamese territory. The People's Army of Vietnam took advantage of that restriction by forming sanctuaries in eastern Laos and Cambodia. U.S. Special Forces teams would be sent across the border on covert reconnaissance operations into North Vietnamese strongholds. Sometimes they sneaked into concentrated enemy locations — even regiment-size formations, gaining intelligence and engaging in other activities.
The U.S. Army 5th Special Forces Group was a contributor of personnel for the MACV-SOG. The 5th Special Forces Group had set up Forward Operating Base #2 near the city of Kon Tum in the Central Highlands. The launch point for missions into Laos was a 5th SFG base camp in the South Vietnamese village of Dak To, conveniently located near the tri-border point, where Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia all meet.
The 119th Assault Helicopter Company was often called upon to drop special operations teams into Laos or to provide gunship support for helicopter transports or for teams already on the ground. In some cases they went into jungle regions in order to extract reconnaissance teams or to drop off supplies. On rare occasions, 199th AHC helicopter gunships would go in and independently engage an enemy target.