Song Be City Airstrip
Red Marker One Eight: “Ramrod Eight Seven Lead, confirm friendly smoke and target in sight.”
Ramrod Lead: “Red Marker, roger. Friendly smoke is green. I have your mark in sight. Rolling in.”
Red Marker: “Lead you are cleared in hot. Hit my smoke.”
Ramrod Lead: “Lead is in hot.”
Ramrod Lead (after dropping bombs): “Lead is off.”
Red Marker: “Ramrod Two, confirm friendlies and hit twenty meters short of Lead’s bombs.”
Ramrod Two: “Roger, Red Marker. Green smoke and twenty meters short. Rolling in.”
Red Marker: “Two, cleared in hot.”
Ramrod Two: “Two is in hot.”
Ramrod Two: “Two is off.”
Red Marker: “Lead, I need a strafing run in that tree line just beyond your first bombs. Do you need another mark?”
Ramrod Lead: “Negative on the new mark. I’ve got the tree line in sight, Marker. Rolling in with Twenty Mike Mike.”
Red Marker: “Cleared hot.”
Ramrod Lead: “In hot.”
Ramrod Lead: “Lead is off.”
Red Marker: “Two, make the same run and then hold high and dry while I take a look.”
Ramrod Two: “Roger. Rolling in.”
After a bomb and strafing attack by the aircraft, the Red Marker Forward Air Controller (FAC) would go in to make a damage assessment. If the result was good, he would let the “fast movers” leave and have the Vietnamese Airborne troops on the ground go in and do a sweep of the target to provide more detailed information.
A day in the life of a FAC involved hours of slowly patrolling his assigned area. Staying in touch via radio with the ground troops he supported. Idling and waiting for instructions. Then suddenly a radio call would come and within seconds, he would find himself in the middle of an intense fight for life and death as he maneuvered his light, unprotected Cessna O-1 Bird Dog into the fight to mark targets and guide fighter bombers to the enemy.
Some of these men worked out of Song Be City Airstrip.
This little main street of a small remote town in Phước Long Province was once one of the most challenging airstrips in all of the Republic of Vietnam for the Red Marker FAC pilots flying their dangerous missions over the jungle covered hills near the Cambodian border. The Song Be City airstrip was a center for forward air controller missions in this highly contested area as PAVN troops continuously infiltrated from the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia down through the dense jungle to disrupt Allied activities and control territory.
At 360 meters, the mighty Ba Ra mountain overlooks this once peculiar and little heard of airstrip located to the north in the town of Song Be, to the southwest was FSB Buttons.
The airstrip did not serve supply planes, fighter jets or gunships, rather its main purpose was to serve as a runway for the U.S. Air Force Forward Air with call signs like Viper and later Rod. These FACs patrolled the province and supported Special Forces and the ARVN in the area.
The strip was also shared by the Red Marker FACs assigned to support the Vietnamese Airborne Division wherever it deployed. From 1969 through early 1970s, a task force of the Vietnamese Airborne conducted offensive sweeps around Song Be with support from the Red Markers.
The Red Marker pilot and their support staff lived at nearby FSB Buttons, which was a major base with a long runway and a large troop presence.. Each morning the pilots took off from the main runway at Buttons on their first mission of the day as the crew chiefs and mechanics traveled up the road to Song Be.
The Song Be strip was unique too because the town’s provincial headquarters, with its clock tower, was located at the north end, blocking takeoff and landing in that direction. The FACs always took off south toward the Nui Ba Ra mountain and landed to the north away from the mountain regardless of winds, challenging the pilots’ skills on a daily basis.
Over the last few months, the team behind namwartravel.com has had the honor to work together with some of the American veterans that served in and around the Song Be City airstrip. As they provided picture material from their time there and at FSB Buttons, we had the idea to help get their stories told by putting together a video. Our friend and colleague Luke Johnston at Vietnam Heritage – Healing Through History happened to be on site in Phuoc Long, he took time from his schedule to shoot video and take pictures of the area for the project. The veterans, Gary Willis, James Hoppe, Jim Yeonopoulus and Barry Schupp recorded their stories and all this resulted in the video below. We hope you will enjoy this unique insight in to the daily lives of the men who were there.
For the history traveler, the wider area is full of interesting war sites. North and east of Song Be there were a large number of Special Forces camps from the war, including Bu Gia Map, Bu Prang and Bu Dop. Several of these camps still have almost intact runways and often old perimeter berms or chopper pads that are easy to locate. To the west and south were a number of larger bases such as Phuoc Vinh, Quan Loi and Lai Khe as well as Special Forces camps such as Bu Nard and Loc Ninh.
Today the area is a sleepy backwater of the country, although not very far from Saigon and is secluded and quiet. But with the Cambodian border less than 30 kilometers away, it was very active during the war and right in the middle of the PAVN infiltration routes toward Saigon.
It’s not hard finding the runway in Song Be, it’s gone back to being the main street, now named Cach Mang Thang Tam. This name is common in Vietnamese cities as it refers to the August revolution, or the general uprising against the French and Japanese, which ended with Ho Chi Minh declaring Vietnamese independence on the 2nd of September 1945.
Riding down the runway, looking at Nui Ba Ra in the distance, it is possible to picture the FAC pilots taking off on another dangerous mission. The flagpole at the northern end is still there but the old provincial headquarter building that long bedeviled the FAC pilots, is long gone — possibly destroyed in the 1975 battle for the town.
At the southern end of the runway there is a provincial museum. In the courtyard there are several old military aircraft and ground vehicles, while inside weapons and photos from the war are on display. The museum is there to commemorate the Battle of Phuoc Long which started on the 14th of December in 1974 and ended with a decisive PAVN victory on the 6th of January 1975.
The attack on Phuoc Long was a test by Hanoi to see whether the American government would help the Saigon government militarily. They didn’t. This meant that the road to Saigon was finally open and they could keep advancing, ending the war in less than four months.
Beyond the runway and the museum, there is still much to see in the surroundings that would have been part of the daily life for the men posted there. Why not take a drive down the river valley and ride over one of the many Bailey Bridges that are still doing their job helping people cross the Song Be river? We found seven of these bridges near the town. From here you can also drive up to the top of the Ba Ra mountain and enjoy the view of the beautiful landscape.
A special thank you to Gary Willis, Red Marker 18, Luke Johnston and Paul Schemm for the work with creating this article. Picture credits to Gary Willis and Luke Johnston.
How to get there
Continue east on the main road from FSB Buttons about five kilometers and you will reach the site in town. From here one can also drive up the Nui Ba Ra mountain where there is a great view of the area where FSB Buttons was located.
We highly recommend staying a few nights up here to explore the area. There are reasonable hotels and guest houses in most smaller towns, people are friendly and the food is as always good. Binh Phuoc town where FSB Buttons was located is the better option as there are more hotels and restaurants here.
Decimal coordinates: 11.856150, 106.998925
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