The only thing better than reading a good book may often be new friendships. I still have a book that opened my eyes to the fact that even in the age of helicopters and other mechanized warfare there are warriors in our midst that are akin to famous scouts like Kit Carson and Daniel Boone. LOW LEVEL HELL is the true story of a LOACH helicopter pilot, Hugh Mills, Jr., who would fly along enemy trails below the tree line and report back signs of the enemy during the Vietnam War.
The LOACH scouting helicopter gained its nickname from the acronym LOH which stands for OH-6 Light Observation Helicopter. I recently had the pleasure of meeting a former LOACH pilot that lives in Federal Way. I met Ken Snyder at a dinner party and we started talking about how he and his wife like to get out and do some shooting. My ears really perked up as soon as he mentioned his experience as a Loach pilot.
Mills started conducting his missions much more aggressively than the established policy of just observing and reporting signs of the enemy and I asked Ken about what he knew regarding the change in tactics.. To my surprise, Ken had taken over command of the Scout Platoon from Hugh Mills upon completion of Mills’ second tour in 1972.
Ken told me:
“My tour with C/16 Cav was after the Mi Li massacre and the rules of engagement were somewhat restrictive. I know this is going to sound crazy, but the things you do when you’re young! We would aggressively pursue the enemy and expose ourselves deliberately in order to draw their fire. Once they made that mistake, then their a…. was ours! We carried super bombs (2 one pound sticks of C-4 taped to a concussion grenade), the door gunners had an M-60 hanging from a bungee cord in the back as well as a large assortment of grenades (fragmentation, white phosphorus, various colored smoke, cs tear gas) at their disposal and several thousand rounds of ammo. Our 7.62 mm electrically fired mini-guns carried several thousand rounds also; additionally, the pilot carried a CAR-15 and 38 caliber pistol. I’ve observed several LOH pilots fire their pistols at the bad guys while flying with their left hand.”
Ken is now a supervisor in the Seattle Flight Standards District Office. Ken and Judith invited my wife and I to their home for dinner. Like many of the combat vets I have met, he is friendly but not apt to talk too much about his war experiences so the big surprise was when I started looking at the books on the coffee tables in his home- books like SOG: THE SECRET WARS OF AMERICA’S COMMANDOS IN VIETNAM. I asked Ken why he had so many books about the legendary SPECIAL OPERATIONS GROUP (code named STUDIES AND OPERATIONS GROUP to make it seem like a liaison to academia). It turns out that, before he flew helicopters, Ken already had served his country in Vietnam as a “One Zero”, team lead for a SOG Recon Unit. He and two other Americans worked with a group of about five Montagnards, the mountain people of Vietnam that hated the South Vietnamese as much as they hated the North Vietnamese.
Ken, who grew up in Rockport, Washington near Sedro-Woolley, joined the Green Berets and arrived in Vietnam just as Military Assistance Command Vietnam began to take over certain covert programs from the CIA. The mission involved inserting teams like Ken’s into Laos and later Cambodia in such a way as to maintain deniability. Even their cigarettes had to be Asian in order to maintain the legal fiction that they were not operating within the U.S. chain of command.
The NVA were running hundreds of trucks down the Ho Chi Minh trail every month. Much of “trail” which lay just within the border of Laos, was actually a network of well maintained roadways through the jungle. At first, the SOG units inflicted devastating damage on the enemy’s transportation system with few losses. Eventually, however, the NVA caught up and began hunting the SOG units with hundreds of well trained troops and tracking dogs.
SOG units carried any weapons they chose so I asked Ken about the weapons he favored:
“FOB2/CCC worked primarily in Laos around the Tri-border area during my tour (1969) with a few missions into Cambodia. We would equip one Yard with a M-79 grenade launcher. The 1911 in .45 ACP was really the pistol of choice. I carried an old .45 submachine gun a lot of the time (it could really reach out through the bamboo) and the 9mm Swedish K, although it didn’t have the knockdown power the .45 had. The CAR-15 (a shorter version of the M-16) was great simply because it was light weight. The Yards (Montagnards) had the same availability but their equipment was pretty much determined by the One Zero. We all carried at least one Claymore, half a dozen or more frags, several hundred rounds of ammo, one or more bandoleers of M-79 rounds, one or more bricks of C-4 and lengths of Det Cord with time pencils, etc. and rations for 7-10 days. The One Zero was issued a .22 caliber w/silencer used to wound an enemy and then take him back for questioning.”
We have a new generation of warriors now that are returning from combat with similarly legendary reputations. They keep us safer today because of Ken’s experience and the learning curve experienced within groups like SOG- learning now incorporated into the standard doctrine of fighting asymmetrical warfare all over the world.
It took a lot of bloodshed to make it possible for me to sit at home and read about the jungles of Vietnam, write about the Second Amendment and hold forth on sundry other topics. Many are convinced that Vietnam wasn’t worth the cost. The Vietnamese people that experienced the oppression of Communism know otherwise. The next time you are at a barbeque expressing your opinion or just talking about your last vacation, think about all the men and women that fought and even died for our freedom.
“The fact is that the average man’s love of liberty is nine-tenths imaginary, exactly like his love of sense, justice and truth. He is not actually happy when free; he is uncomfortable, a bit alarmed, and intolerably lonely. Liberty is not a thing for the great masses of men. It is the exclusive possession of a small and disreputable minority, like knowledge, courage and honor. It takes a special sort of man to understand and enjoy liberty– and he is usually an outlaw in democratic societies.” — H.L. Mencken, Baltimore Evening Sun, Feb. 12, A. D. 1923