The Bravo Blues

Bravo Blues

The address for this website is named after one of the finest units of fighting men that ever existed – the Bravo Troop Blues. This site is dedicated to them and to those of my comrades who gave everything in Vietnam.  There are, regrettably, many but they include John Swanson (CMH), Larry Harrison, Pete Bohnwagner, Garney Burlson, Jon Shine, John Woodrum, Pete Sawtelle and George Bass.

The Bravo Blues were part of 1st Squadron 9th Cavalry.  1/9 Cav was the reconnaissance arm of the First Calvary Division. It had three Air Cav troops. Each was the reconnaissance force for a brigade. I served with B (“Bravo”) Troop (B/1/9 Cav).

The Air Cav troops of the Vietnam era were unique organizations in the history of warfare. None ever existed previously. To my knowledge, none like them exist now. Each troop had three platoons – the Red, White and Blue platoons. The Red platoon consisted of AH-1G cobra attack helicopters. Each gunship was armed with pods of 2.75 in. rockets, sometimes a 20 mm cannon, and a turret under the nose that housed both a 7.62 mm Gatling gun (capable of shooting 100 rounds every second) and a rapid fire 40 mm grenade launcher.

The White platoon consisted of OH-6A scout helicopters known as “little birds” or LOHs (for “light observation helicopter”). A LOH normally flew with a crew of 2 – a warrant or commissioned officer pilot and a sergeant who flew as the gunner. Being a gunner on a LOH with the First Cav was about as high risk as it gets. The gunner sat in the door opening behind the pilot. There was no seat, his legs dangled over the edge of the bird. By today’s standards a LOH gunner was a low-tech weapon system – he had an M-60 machine gun and a wooden box filled with explosive, smoke and white phosphorous (WP) grenades.   My friend John Swanson was “White” for much of my time with B/1/9.  John was killed in Cambodia in February 1971, along with his gunner, Larry Harrison, in an action for which John received the Congressional Medal of Honor and Larry the Distinguished Service Cross.  Good men, both, and sorely missed.

The Blue platoon was a platoon of infantry. I commanded the Bravo Troop Blue platoon or “Blues.”  The Blue just prior to me whom I replaced was my friend Mike Nardotti.  Mike was a stud, no doubt about it.  He was my classmate at West Point where he was an All American wrestler.  No one messed with Iron Mike. Mike was wounded pretty badly but recovered and ultimately retired from the Army as a two-star general.  The young lieutenant who replaced me also was badly shot up and had to be med-evac’d back to the States with very serious injuries.  I was lucky.

The Blues were a heavily armed, aggressive bunch of guys. Mike had trained them well by the time I took over.  Everyone was a volunteer – you had to volunteer to be in the Blues. It was a sufficiently high risk that no one was forced to join. When I say that the Blues were heavily armed that is an understatement.  Although we were a small unit of only twenty-one men, we had almost as much fire power as a 140-man infantry line company. I took 21 Blues on operations every day. We were divided into three 6-man squads plus my headquarters element consisting of me, my platoon sergeant (“Blue Mike”) and my RTO (radio operator). Each six-man squad was built around two three-man fire teams. Each fire team consisted of an M-60 machine gunner, a rifleman and a rifleman/grenadier who carried an M-203 which was a standard M-16 rifle combined with a 40 mm grenade launcher. So, our 21- man Blue platoon was armed with six M-60 machine guns (the same number carried by a regular 140 man infantry company), six 40 mm grenade launchers and fifteen men with M-16 rifles. As I said, we had all the firepower you could want.  Plus, we had our birds overhead with their added firepower.

Even though 1/9 Cav was a denominated as the division’s reconnaissance unit, it didn’t just do recon.  They fought.  Boy, did they ever fight.  The tactics were built around the “Pink Teams.”  Combine a Red bird (Cobra gunship) and a White bird (LOH) and what do you get?  Presto! A PINK team!  Throw in an attached squad of Blues on a Huey flying with them and what do you get? (Hint: Red + White + Blue)  A Purple team (I know, groan).

The Pink team typically operated with the LOH flying at tree top level just above the triple canopy jungle.  The pilot would use the rotor wash from the helicopter blades to blow aside the tree tops and foliage so that he and the gunner could see down into the jungle below.  If they saw something they shot it up, marked the target with a smoke or WP grenade and got the hell out of the way so that the Red bird could roll in with its rockets, cannon and heavier firepower.

We Blues had three common missions.  The most typical was to be inserted by air (or sometimes by rappelling down ropes from a hovering helicopter) when a Pink team found something.  That “something” could be anything from unfriendly people with AK-47s who took offense at the snooping of the Pink team and decided to try to kill them, to a freshly-used trail or bunker complex that indicated an enemy unit in the area.  The second most common mission was as the quick reaction force for the Ranger teams.  The Rangers or LRRPS (for Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols) operated in 5 or 6 man teams.  Their mission was to operate deep in the enemy’s area, far from US units and usually far from the protection of US artillery.  The Ranger company was commanded by my friend, Pete Dencker.  Pete was my classmate at West Point where he played football.  Another stud.

Because they were so small, if a LRP team made contact with the enemy, they could get in hot water quickly.  Often their first contact with the enemy would come in the form of a sudden eruption of heavy gunfire in the heavy jungle from only 15 or 20 feet away.  Because of the lack of visibility and the chaos, they might not initially know if they were facing three, thirty, or three hundred enemy soliders.  They usually didn’t have the luxury of waiting too long to find out.  Their immediate protection was the Blues.  We could be on our Hueys and airborne to help them in about 1 minute from the time we got the radio call.  The Blues got in a lot of fights by going in to assist the Rangers.  The other most common mission — although thankfully less frequent than the first two — was going to the assistance of pilots and crew who had been shot down.  If one of our birds was shot down, the two man crew deep in Indian country needed help fast.  We were on the way pronto.  When crews were shot down or LRP teams were in trouble, they often weren’t near a landing zone that could accommodate our helicopters.  That could mean that we had to rappel into the contact area.  Now the Rangers and Delta Force “fast rope” out of aircraft to get to the ground quickly.  Check it out here: http://blogs.howstuffworks.com/2010/06/02/how-fast-roping-works-or-how-to-get-from-a-hovering-helicopter-to-the-ground-in-a-hurry/ That is much more efficient, but back then we had to rappel.

So, that is a brief description of the fightingist unit since Nathan Bedford Forrest.  Best men I ever met.  I will think of them every day during this trip.

5 thoughts on “The Bravo Blues

  1. John,

    Thank you for your service. I never know how much to ask about your service in Viet Nam. I appreciate you sharing this …The Navy signal for “job well done” is Bravo Zulu…BZ my friend
    Bob Murrian

  2. I ‘m looking for a specific Blues team that responded to a crash my brother and six others were killed in on evening of Feb. 15 1971 Vietnam. My brother was in Co. L 75th Rangers 101st Airborne. They made a McGuire rig rescue of a wounded team member and was returning to Camp Eagle when the pilot experienced vertigo and went down in bad weather. Please help if you can I have all the other details except for the troops who recovered the bodies. My brother was 1st Lt. James L. Smith

    • John, I just saw this. I knew your brother well. He was my USMA Classmate and were were on the sky-diving team together. I will make some inquires and see if I can turn up anything on the 101st Blues.

  3. The person you need to speak with is Stephen Ogrady,I do not have his address,he lives out side the U S,but I will see him when he come for the winter to Ga,

  4. I’m trying to get in touch with Colonel Jeffrey E. Furbank who is the biological grandfather of my children. Jeff had a son in 1965 who I married. If anyone knows how to find him and engage him in getting to meet and know his grandchildren – who are desperate to know him – especially on this Veteran’s Day – please help by contacting me.

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