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waters of the operation. His only link to Lieutenant Colonel Austin went via Nakhon Phanom (US-SAG/Seventh Air Force) to the airborne C-130 directing operational traffic (ABCCC), and finally from the ABCCC to BLT 2/9. Likewise, replies went in reverse order via this convoluted means. Compounding this awkward method of communicating was the massive amount of radio traffic generated by other participants and senior commanders wanting to know what was happening. General Burns' deputy chief for operations, Colonel Robert R. Reed, succinctly described in his end-of-tour report the source of the extraneous radio traffic which adversely impacted on the mission and, in particular, on Colonel Johnson:
The constant requests for detailed information to be furnished higher headquarters was a definite hindrance to both the Mayaguez and TV/FW (Talon Vise/Frequent Wind) operation. A secure conference line was opened for [his purpose and remained open for the duration of each operation. This not only required extra personnel to man the circuits, but also unnecessarily divided the attention of the 7AF battle staff. . . . The Mayaguez and TV/FW were of national importance and had the highest level of interest; however even this is little justification for the headquarters to require tail numbers and call signs of each aircraft.55
Thus Colonel Johnson, hampered by these communications problems, would have minimum input to the critical choices made at this juncture. Despite the adverse and grave reports he received from the returning wounded, he had no choice but to face the fact that General Burns at his headquarters in Nakhon Phanom had tactical control of the assault mission through his airborne command center. Unless Colonel Johnson could get to Koh Tang, and with all of the available helicopters airborne this was highly unlikely, he would exert little influence over the remainder of the operation. The rest of the key decisions would be left to the Air Force and the Navy, but they would still have to be made based on the needs and demands of the battlefield commander, Lieutenant Colonel Austin. The second operational plan issued by General Burns' headquarters dated 14 May addressed just such an exception. Although predicated on the assumption that the designated ground security force commander, Colonel Johnson, would be on Koh Tang with his battalion commander (Lieutenant Colonel Austin) and he was not, General Burns' directive still applied:
"Nothing in these authorities shall be construed as precluding a commander from using all means at his disposal to exercise the inherent right and responsibility to conduct operations for self-defense of his forces."56
Without question then, the ground commander's request for additional forces fell within the limits set forth. Whether anyone made a conscious decision not to employ covering fire to protect the requested reinforcements and the five helicopters delivering them to Koh Tang cannot be determined. What is known, however, is that none was provided, and for the second time in the same day, unescorted helicopters entered the western and even the eastern zone.
The difference between no suppressive air cover and some form of close air support could be the difference between success and failure, and ultimately, the difference between life and death. A vivid demonstration of this difference occurred just before the eighth helicopter (JG 41) in the first assault wave made "one more attempt" to land its Marines. An AC-130 gunship, equipped with 20mm and 40mm guns and a 105mm gun, received instructions to support JG 41's approach. In doing so he provided the first real suppressive fire at Koh Tang. The Air Force's official account of the assault recorded that, "An AC-130 gunship, call sign. Spectre 61, was then directed to attempt to pinpoint friendly and enemy positions while JG 41 held off the island."57 The importance of this suppressive fire was underscored by the fact that this helicopter. Jolly Green 41, already had made four unsuccessful attempts to enter the zone, and not until its fifth effort with considerable covering fire from "Spectre 61" did it actually land in the zone. Even then, because the HH-53 lacked close-in, slow-moving air cover to detect and then suppress the enemy's fire (in this case Cambodian mortars), it achieved limited success. JG 41 could unload only 22 of its 27 combat Marines. According to the Air Force's operational report, "Spectre 61 went to Koh Tang island. Info was passed to Bingo Shoes 03 [BLT 2/9 command post] by Spectre. Spectre was then cleared by Crickett (AMC) and Bingo Shoes 03 to expend on position."58 Due to the supporting fire of the AC-130, JG 41 delivered much-needed Marines to a depleted ground security force.
More importantly, by the airborne units coordinating their support with the friendly forces on the ground, they were able to deliver much more effective and infinitely safer suppressive fire. The effectiveness of this support would vary throughout the course of the day and eventually deteriorate by evening. Suppressive fires applied during the night extraction phase conditions would achieve far less results. Yet by this time, all involved recognized the importance of at least their application, emphasized by the fact that the Air Force thought them important enough to include in
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