SOG Mission ‘Brass Monkey Weather’ – by ‘BlackJack’ – Lynne M. Black Jr.
I recently read ‘Whisky Tango Foxtrot‘ by Lynne M. Black Jr. I read it after Scott had regaled me with the tale of the amazing battle that RT Alabama had in ‘Oscar Eight’ in Laos as part of SOG recon operations. I had to buy the book and it is excellent.
I was able to get in touch with Lynne Black (callsign ‘Blackjack’) on Facebook and had the privilege of having a conversation with him. He is one of the legendary SOG One Zero’s from Vietnam. He was also kind enough to share with me some additional unpublished stories, of which this is the second. Note: this story is not in the “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” book, but was intended as part of a second book.
Here follows the account:
BRASS MONKEY WEATHER
One hundred booby-traps; ten men … ten high explosive devices each. “The spray paint camo is wearing off my survival vest. I need to darken it before the mission.” Survival vest … compass, maps, ammunition for the 9mm, URC-10 survival radio and spare battery. “What else? Let’s see …”
Sitting on the worn uneven plywood floor of the hooch; my back up against the steel frame of a bunk I carefully comb through my web gear. It’s funny how we’ve all learned to sit on the floor down below the top of the sandbags surrounding our hooch. Let’s see, survival kit, signal mirror, strobe light, pencil flare gun with flares, waterproof matches, notebook with pencil, leech and insect repellent. Boy Scouts. Ten essentials; what did I miss?” Need more repellent. For sure there’ll be leeches in that river. Check your web gear.” STABO rig web gear packed to the max with CAR-15 ammo, fragmentation grenades, water … “Water, don’t forget purification tablets. Make sure the knife’s secure.” … and extra snap links. “Extra snap links … I hope this works. We haven’t trained for this kind of insertion. Taking his word that it’s there and has been out there undetected for a year … nothing goes undetected across the fence.” Each man will be carrying approximately a sixty pound rucksack. “Man, those things are going to be bursting at the seams with the devices, two changes of clothes, poncho with quilted warm-up liner, high protein rations for a five day stay, two claymores and ten toe poppers.” We’re going to need rope to rappel off the platform and again at the river; five hundred feet ought to do it. What else? Let’s see … medical kit, weapons cleaning equipment, P-38 can opener, jungle sweater, plastic ties for POWs, gas and white phosphorous grenades, gloves, C-4, detonation cord and blasting caps, camera, film, and binoculars.” Checklist complete.
Struggling, we heft our gear up into the bed of a deuce and a half and settle down for the ride to Danang airbase. “Wow, look,” Mac Fortenberry the One-One points at the parking pad. Heat waves rise off a black tar sea that was once the aircraft parking area. They distort shapes of planes, vehicles, people, buildings and all other living and inanimate objects. Everything is shimmering, dancing, and carrying the oily scent of the airbase skyward. “Jesus, I’ve never seen anything like this! It’s like we could just step into it and vaporize.” The ten of us leave near-liquid jungle boot tracks in the sticky tarmac, producing suction sounds as we stick’n unstick our way toward the flat-black C-130. A sanding truck is making its way toward us with a steam roller not far behind.
“If yer goin to Udorn git on board,” drawls a Crew Chief. “It’ll be a wonder if we can get the goddam ship outa this shit. What the hell are we doin blacktoppin this fuckin country for anyway?” He spits a wad of chew onto the tarmac where it sizzles as he motions us up the tailgate and into fold down strap seats. We drop our gear, snug in and buckle up. The aluminum floor is covered with tar and embedded sand. There are black sticky finger prints on all latches, knobs, toggles and tie-downs. The Crew Chief’s hands are stained from the tar, “Goddam stuff … goddam war … goddam country. Didja know they’re doin this shit at every base in Southeast Asia?”
One-One throws his rucksack and web gear into a seat and flops down on my right. “Sure ain’t like flying a commercial airliner is it?”
“No kidding, these guys have a much higher weight limit for carry-on baggage,” I reply.
“I was thinking more along the lines of flying the friendly skies,” he laughs.
“I was thinking of a cold drink!” I laugh.
A port side engine coughs and turns over. Catching power it starts, then the next and the next. Props feather, causing the ship to lurch then squat low into the tarmac as the brakes are applied, gently rocking. Looking outside, I watch the tarmac distortion effects as the inside of the C-130 fills with the sweet heavy oily smells of fuel. Brakes squeal open, the ship rises like a crouched tiger. Slowly we taxi to release position rocking to a stop on the line, shoulder bumping one another. “Danang tower, Black Bird requesting take-off clearance, over.”
“Black Bird, Danang Tower, clearance granted, begin your departure over.”
The engines rev to an earsplitting level. As brakes release, the C-130 rolls down the runway, gathering speed. The ship’s nose rotates skyward … Danang diminishes behind us. As we climb to cruising altitude the fuel smell is sucked from the aircraft.
That’s better. At least we can breathe and hear ourselves talk.
“Where are we going,” yells the Interpreter over the aircraft noise.
“What’s in Udorn?” he yells.
“Launch point … another ride.”
Landing at Udorn airbase the Black Bird taxis as close as possible to the shadow side of a large hanger. Hidden from view we don our gear and cover ourselves with large green ponchos before quickly moving to waiting Jolly Green Giants. Thailand is a neutral country in this war and does not allow armed combatants on their soil. The doors of both ships are closed immediately as the last man’s onboard.
The Crew Chief puts a helmet on my head and plugs it into the com system. “Goddam it,” complains the Crew Chief. “Look at all this sticky ass tar you all have tracked onto my deck, goddam it.”
“Sorry about that Chief,” I apologize.
“You the team leader,” asks a voice over the com.
“Yes, who’s this,” I ask.
“I’m the Flight Commander. Face the flight deck … I’m the one waving at you.”
I wave back, nodding my head.
“We’ve got perfect brass monkey weather over your LZ.”
“What does that mean?”
“There’s a severe storm over the AO; thunder, lighting, heavy winds and rain. The weather will mask your insertion. We’ll get you as close to the LZ as the weather allows, but you’ll have to jump. Due to the nature of the platform LZ we can’t land, and the weather won’t let you rappel. Are you up for this?”
“This is what we do boss. If you can get us there, we’ll get it done.”
“OK then, relax, the flight time is a little under two hours in good weather.”
Brass monkey weather … my grand father used that expression when I was a kid … freeze the balls off a brass monkey he’d say. I always had this image of little cold brass monkeys until he told me it was an archaic naval term. To save space they stacked iron cannon balls alongside each deck gun, arranged in a pyramid on a brass plate called a monkey. In cold weather the brass would shrink unseating the balls which would then roll around the deck of the battle ship causing all kinds of damage … iron and brass don’t shrink at the same rate when cold … freezing the balls off the brass monkey … dangerous weather … brass monkey weather. Hell of an analogy. I close my eyes and lean back.
Zolanokus showed up at Danang, FOB-4 in civilian clothes flashing NSA identification. I don’t think spook techies like Zolanokus have two names. Saigon sent him to talk with a few of us about a series of targets we have been running; all of which have the same river running through them. “It’s that same river that supposedly parallels the infamous pipeline no one can seem to find,” he frowns while opening a file folder.
The two of us sit in the Operations Center where he reads to me, verbatim, the After Action Reports of several of our missions. He asks detailed questions about any reference in the reports to crossing or getting up next to the river. He asks if we took pictures or heard unusual sounds. “Why aren’t there pictures in these files? Did your team hear any metallic sounds? Did you smell oil or gas?” He tells me about another recon team that had heard unusual metallic banging noises and then observed 55-gallon drums jostling there way down that river. “The team was drawn down along a granite cliff gorge by metallic sounds of what turned out to be gas and oil drums bumping along river shallows.”
“How did they know they were gas and oil,” I ask.
“Good question, they reported counting hundreds of them.” Zolanokus takes a note on my question. “Their 35mm pictures didn’t turn out. They were in the shadowed low light on the leeside of the ridge, sheltered from the sun. Good for recon, bad for picture taking. They attempted to track the drums journey but ran into natural barriers.”
“How were they geared?”
“They launched their mission traveling heavy, equipped for a cold high mountain trail reconnaissance, not for the terrain and vegetation down in the wet low lit bush.”
“The area you’re talking about demands going in heavy no matter what the mission. It seems like there’s one NVA for every hundred square feet of ground. Any team operating along that river had better have multiple escape routes and be ready for a fight.”
Zolanokus continues briefing me on how the recon team had inserted several miles away from their observation site. They had prepared to stay in the AO five days. He talked about how they had taken a careful two days traversing craggy ridges atop the tree line, finally slipping into their observation site in the shadows next to a high grassy plateau. Diligently they camouflaged their position, set out claymores, toe-poppers along with seismic warning probes. “I don’t use those seismic probes as security devices anymore.”
“Why not?” Zolanokus looks surprised.
“If you insert them into ground that is covered with grass or shallow rooted plants a slight wind will set them off.”
“You have that experience?” He looks amused.
“Yes, we were awake an entire night telling Bat Cat we were surrounded. Unfortunately all that radio traffic gave away our position due to enemy RDF. The next morning, first light, they hit us.”
“No one has ever given us that information. We give you guys those devices but we don’t get any feedback on their viability. Thanks, I’ll note that.”
“We found other uses for them?”
“O’Byrne came up with a way to attach them to claymores which we use when being tracked or on the run.”
“Who? What did he do?”
“Captain Mike O’Byrne … RSG.”
“What does that mean … RSG?”
“Really Smart Guy.”
“Humorous, now what did he do to modify the device?”
“He didn’t modify it; he added a delay mechanism … a chip I think he called it. It delays the signal for several seconds. What we do is attach a probe to a claymore wire and battery pack. The delay allows us to set it up and get away without triggering the device. When the enemy approaches the probe they set off the claymore and we’re long gone. It’s one of the best tracker delay tactics we have.”
“I need to talk with this RSG Captain. Where is he?”
“He has an office in the headquarters building. When we’re finished I’ll introduce you too him. Tell me more about the team discovering drums in the river.”
“During daylight hours, from their position, the team scoped the opposite ridge with binoculars and radio direction finding equipment hoping to catch a clue of troops or trucks moving along the Ho Chi Minh trail. Nothing in the first three days, not a single sighting, no troops, absolutely no trucks or movement, zip radio traffic, just those sounds from below that kept them awake at night. Morning of the fourth day they moved down in the direction of those titillating sounds. All that evening and night 55-gallon oil and gas drums bumped along rocky shallows right in front of them. The morning of the fifth day they climbed back up to a clearing where they were extracted on strings.”
“Yes … good job. Too bad the pictures didn’t turn out. I need pictures to effectively complete my work.”
Zolanokus briefed me on two other teams that had been inserted above and below the initial sighting point. The first was to search out the point of origin into the river and the other the point of destination or extraction of the drums. Each team had run into enemy patrols and didn’t have the opportunity to achieve their missions. Actually, neither team even got close to the river. “Why are you so interested in pictures of drums floating down a shallow river?”
He leans back in his chair nervously clicking his Parker ball point in and out several times before throwing it on the table. Silently, contemplative he stares at me, searching for the right response. “I don’t … anymore.”
“You don’t … a second ago you said you needed them to complete your work. What is your work?”
“Gas and oil means trucks and trucks mean truck parks. Truck parks mean arms and ammunition caches. If we can get a fix on two of those caches and verify truck traffic between them we can assume concentrations of troops between those two points; possibly a major binh tram; rest area.”
“Arc Lights.” I flatly add.
“Exactly, the B-52’s will have a field day … we’ll significantly slow them down. Look at this map. From here to here, that’s through five areas of operation, we have no knowledge … no intel on binh tram or truck park locations. The NVA walk they don’t ride. They hunt animals and eat plant life. They survive off the land.”
“I know we’ve run into their hunting parties.” I add.
“Trucks are used to transport arms and ammo; not food, not troops. NVA troops move between binh trams, the rest stops located approximately every twenty miles along the Ho Chi Minh trail.”
“Yes, I know. Trucks parks, rest and cache sites are usually kept apart and separate according to the Saigon analysts. They don’t group everything or everybody together to prevent one B-52 raid getting it all.”
“If we can identify POL dumps Saigon can then assess the possible locations of cache sites based on the round trip range of a truck.”
“SOG recon teams can be sent into suspected areas to positively identify cache sites and then Hatchet Force companies can be inserted to conduct search and destroy missions.” I ask.
“Not any more. SOG doesn’t have the assets to support Hatchet Force operations. Two or three years ago there weren’t as many NVA on the trail. The Hatchet Force was a viable tool. Not any longer. I doubt even the Marines or Airborne could handle the job. At best we can be ready for them when they come again. SOG’s job is gathering Intel so we can try and slow them down.”
“If this is the good news I don’t think I want to hear the bad stuff.” I half heartedly joke.
“How about this, POL is usually buried and often heavily guarded. In addition to those guards are the workforce used to maintain the sites and caches as well as the troops in the area at the moment. I don’t think a recon team would have a chance of even getting close to a cache. An extraction from such a place would be impossible,” Zolanokus frowns.
“Suicide missions, we need another approach.”
“Exactly, I agree,” he adds, “… you understand what I’ve been trying to get across to Saigon for weeks. They just don’t seem to grasp the concept of standoff reconnaissance. It’s suicide to send any of you out there for traditional close reconnaissance work.”
“What’s standoff recon? How can we successfully perform our recon role without observing the size of the enemy force first hand? Without getting up close there’s no way we can understand what they’re up too. We need to know which of their units are where at any given time. That’s recon.”
“Those words sound like what I’ve been hearing from The Brass.”
“Exactly what do you want us to do?”
“I want you to sneak into a target, leave something and come back.”
“Is this an Eldest Son operation?”
The spook hesitates on this question. “Yes, but of much greater importance than the usual psychological warfare of the Eldest Son operations.”
“You still haven’t answered my question.” I query.
“Your job will be too collect and booby-trap several 55-gallon oil and gas drums then return them to their down-stream journey, all without being detected. It’s part of a much larger operation. If you are successful you will be the trigger for other groups and actions.”
“What groups … what actions?”
“You have no need to know that information. Just do your job and trust the process. Come on, I want to show you something in the supply warehouse.”
“How the hell do you booby-trap a 55-gallon drum floating down a river? Booby-trap it with what? How do you keep it from going off while you’re setting it up? When should it explode? What will cause it to explode? Is it command detonated or on a timed mechanism?” All of those questions got asked as we scuffled through the sand across the FOB-4 compound to S-4. On the concrete floor just inside the big sheet metal doors of the loading dock bay sits a black 55-gallon drum with North Vietnamese markings. On top of the drum are a bung cap wrench and a cylindrical device attached to the bottom of a similar black cap. “These caps are alike,” I observe.
“Photos … that’s why I needed the photos. Actually, what I really needed is one of the bung caps off one of those barrels they spotted. Similar or close just might not be good enough.” Zolanokus picks up the wrench and unscrews the bung cap in the barrel placing it in a Levi pocket. A toe of one of his elephant hide cowboy boots accidentally kicks the drum indicating its emptiness. He laughs at my startled reaction. “Inert training devices, you don’t think I’d work with live explosives in here do you? Don’t answer that, I’ve read your file.” Laying down the wrench he picks up the cylinder handing it too me for examination. “It is an explosive timer that can be adjusted for months, weeks, days, hours, minutes or seconds. There’s a mechanical trigger at the base of the integrated cap that becomes armed once it is screwed into a drum. Anyone attempting to unscrew the cap once it’s in place will trigger the device. Otherwise it will be set off based on the timing programmed into it by the saboteur, in this case you or members of your team.”
“It’s a beautiful piece of work. These combinations of steel and brass fittings are very finely machined. The markings are clear and bold for low light level reading. Everything seems to move easily.” I’m impressed with the ingenious design and workmanship.
The next morning as Zolanokus, the NSA techie, is on his way back to wherever he came from I set about training the team on the devices use.
A sharp jolt brings me back to the mission. We’ve launched out of Udorn, Thailand riding Jolly Green Giants above the turbulent brass monkey weather. Flashes of lightening expose roiling cumulus clouds as heavy rains provide sight and sound cover for our last light insertion. Sudden wind shear drops and rises, along with heavy winds, relentlessly roll, pitch, and yaw our ships.
“Five minutes,” yells the Crew Chief; holding up five fingers.
We put on our web gear, check weapons and position our rucksacks in front of us.
“Stand in the door,” yells the Crew Chief.
“Where’s the LZ platform,” I yell. “I can’t see it.”
“It’s down there,” he jabs a finger down into the raging storm. “It’s been there for months. The foliage has grown into it making it invisible. That’s the beauty of this thing. Trust me it’s there. Get ready to jump.”
“You first,” I yell back.
“Not in this lifetime Ground Pounder,” he urgently gestures for us to depart.
We’ve volunteered to jump out of this helicopter in the middle of a raging monsoon two hundred feet above the ground into the top of jungle canopy. Sure why not.
“Who’s first,” yells the Chief.
“I am,” I yell, grabbing my ruck; positioning myself in the door. Suddenly the ship drops to tree top level; I stagger forward trying to find my footing, fumble my rucksack and drop it into the trees. A flash of lightning reveals it sitting atop the foliage approximately ten feet away. The pilot is struggling to keep his ship within jumping distance without crashing into the tree tops. There is a platform! As the ship raises gravity increases my body weight and along with the full load of my gear my knees buckle. I fall rather than jump the distance between the door and the unseen platform. The winds roll me over on my back as I descend. This is going to hurt. My fall is cushioned by a steel wire grid laid over the top of canopy foliage. The whole thing is like a circus safety net … circus is right. Shortly there will be ten of us clowns riding the net.
We snap link ourselves to the bucking storm tossed mesh, wrapping ourselves in poncho liners snapped inside ponchos. The ten of us ride out the storm the remainder of that evening and night into the second day and its long night. I’m concerned about a lightening strike on the wire grid. Screw it. I have no control over Mother Nature.
The storm breaks late that second night revealing a full moon and a surrealistic view across the top of miles of glistening canopy. We begin to shiver uncontrollably as the temperature drops. Its cold, we’re all wet and hungry. I need to pee so bad my sides ache. Empty a canteen and pee in it. Otherwise the smell might attract attention to our position. We pass the canteen. A couple hours before first light, dancing, swaying lanterns move in a line below; heading south. A chilling mist is flowing up through the mesh from the jungle drenching us in dew.
At first light a warming sun peeps over the glistening horizon. We eat and then prepare to rappel off the wire to terra firma. Before we vacate the platform I turn over an orange panel to reveal a yellow side indicating we’re OK and have continued with the mission. A Covey, Forward Air Controller, will fly over later in the day to status check the panel color change. Our descent turns more into a climb rather than a rappel. We haven’t been on steady ground ever since we boarded the Jolly Green’s. Ground Pounder is right, glad to be here.
One-One takes pictures of the trail and footprints being careful to cover any sign of our presence. I get out my map and compass, orient myself and order Point to move out.
Slowly, quietly, we’re careful to cover our trail as we move without incident to an obscure observation point suggested by Zolanokus. He had said it was close to the original team’s site. It’s located in difficult terrain next to the river shallows which should minimize our being discovered. He has surprising knowledge of terrain features which don’t appear on the map; almost like he has been here before us. We set up camp on the rocks under a granite overhang in a shallow grotto. We change into dry clothes and hang the wet ones about the cavern to dry. C-4 is used to heat water in the back of the cave where the M-79 man serves a warming ginseng tea. Just inside the rock perimeter of the grotto overhang each of us finds a place to sleep. Wonder if we could stay here until the war ends.
“Black … Black … wake up Black,” the Interpreter quietly urges.
“I hear them. I’m awake,” I whisper.
A full moon illuminates the vague forms of One-One and three of our mercenaries wrestling drums into the shallows attempting to stand them up on end. The problem is they can’t maintain their footing on the slippery moss covered rocks of the river bed. They and the drums are rolled along the shallows. I motion the bruised four out of the water. “Get the rope. One-One, when we get the rope lengths tied together, you and one of the indig take an end and anchor it upstream on the other side.”
“To what,” One-One asks.
“It will have to be to something as close to water line as possible. We’ll string it across and down to this point at about a forty-five degree angle. That will channel most of the drums to us … understand?”
“Gotcha. Man, that waters cold as hell.”
“I’ll bet, get a move on,” I order, pointing to the other side of the river.
Two Americans and eight Vietnamese mercenaries, the ten of us carry ten booby-traps each. One hundred drums are collected over a period of two days by stretching a rope across the river at a forty-five degree angle forcing the drums to a lower end collection point along the bank.
We soon discover the drums stack up faster than we can fuse them. Only about every fifth drum gets booby-trapped. Initially we work in two man teams with all of us in the bone chilling water at the same time. Quickly we find there can be only one fusing team in the water at a time and that a team needs to be made up of three men. It takes two men to wrestle a drum and the third to remove the bung cap, program and set the booby-trap. The brass timing bezels on the devices shrink tight up next to the steel explosive cores and can’t be moved. Brass Monkey. Goddam Brass Monkey.
“How about if we heat them up and then set the timers,” asks one of our mercenaries.
“You want to apply heat to a high explosive device,” I ask incredulously. “And you guys think I’m nuts with explosives. Not only no, but hell no. Forget the settings, just screw them in. When the NVA try to remove the bung the thing will go off. At least that way we get at least one of the bastards.”
“If that’s all we’re going to do we might get this all finished tonight,” the One-One interjects. “On average, each team of three can fuse three drums before having to exit the freezing water to warm up.”
While the fusing team is at work another is maneuvering the drums across the rope and on their way downstream. We fall into a pattern, driven by the elements, which suits our mission needs. It occurs to me that by fusing every fifth drum and keeping a steady supply going down stream is a good thing. If we were to corral them all and then release them at the same time it might raise NVA eyebrows down the way. The terrain, the weather and the situation are working for us. This brass monkey is frozen solid. Can’t tell the difference between my balls and my tonsils.
Once finished, I fish a couple of caps from the freezing water and throw them in my near empty rucksack. We sanitize the drum collection point and our base camp before hiking unseen for three days across two mountain ranges to a Jolly Green pick up point. Weeks go by before I begin to read in the Saigon analyst reports of POL cache explosions being reported by Air force reconnaissance and other sources along the Ho Chi Minh trail. Trust the process. Life is good.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a really great book, and set me off on my current reading-frenzy on anything SOG-related: