After much procrastination, I have decided to set some of my experiences as a FAC in Viet Nam down on paper and tell some of my stories. The title reflects the nickname that I earned early in my tour and is one of the funnier stories that will follow. I didn’t keep a diary or a real logbook during my tour; so much of what I write is from memories that are over thirty years old. As much as I like to embellish stories, I will do my best to keep these to just the facts.
My story isn’t any different from any of those of my many friends and fellow aviators. I had a job that needed to be done and I did it. While I was over there and for many years afterwards, I really believed that I was pretty good at what I did. These days, I think maybe I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. But, that is neither here nor there. Here, in no particular order, are my stories and memories.
After graduation from pilot training in December 1969, I went to Fairchild AFB, WA to attend the basic survival school. During the two and a half weeks of training, those of us headed for SEA kept wondering what the hell we were doing in eastern Washington/northern Idaho in January/February in preparation for a tour in Viet Nam. We got to crawl through an ice and snow covered obstacle course, and then be captured by the bad guys so we could learn about POW life.
Then, thrill of thrills, we got to spend five plus days hoofing around on snowshoes in the field part training segment. The best part of the experience was the people on our team. Our leader was Lt Col Howard “Howie” Pierson, who had been our student squadron commander at Reese AFB during pilot training. His partner was Jay “Smokey” Mengel, a pilot training classmate. I was teamed with another classmate, Ken Bassett.
For those who remember, the goal was to be on one of the first buses out of the survival area so that you could bet back to the barracks first and get cleaned up. Well, the four of us were on that first bus, in spite of Howie hurting his back and needing painkillers and Smokey having cut his knee bad enough to require stitches. I do very specifically remember that the hot shower and cold beer was reward enough for the effort required to get on that bus.
Then came the best deal of them all. I went to Hurlburt Field, FL for ten weeks of training in the art of being a Forward Air Controller and initial checkout in the OV-10A. Now, after a year in the confines of the panhandle of Texas and almost three weeks in the snows of the northwest, I was in heaven in northern Florida. It was warm (relatively speaking) and there was lots of fresh seafood to eat. Oh yeah, I was treated like a real pilot and learned to fly a combat aircraft. I learned how to shoot rockets, drop bombs and strafe, just like the real fighter pilots did. Well, maybe not just like they did. I don’t remember getting any in real depth training in the ‘how to’ part of ordnance delivery. My friends, John Hanna and Howard Kravetz, would disagree since they were both instructors when I went through training. We were pretty much given the mil settings (for the gun sight), airspeeds and dive angles. Then I would subject some poor instructor to my wild gyrations in an attempt to be the best shot in my class. (I wish I could remember the name of the Lt Col who took me out on my first 60-degree dive angle bombing run. Yippee, that was a real eye opener for both of us!) What a hopeless cause I was. First of all, many in the class had been to the instant fighter pilot school at Cannon AFB, NM and they had been taught the right way to do all that stuff. Probably even learn the basics on why and how. I was so caught up in trying to get it all in the same container, that I never really grasped the concepts. So I routinely hit the ground with my ordnance, but never was a threat to win any of the money bet on range scores. Somehow, we all graduated and headed for Travis AFB, CA to board a flight to the Philippines for Jungle Survival School.
Arrival at Clark AB in the Philippines was an eye opener. Right off the bat, there were no rooms at the BOQ, so we boarded a bus for Angeles City and were put up in some off base hotel. My roommate was Mark Rowell, UPT/OV-10 classmate. What I remember most about the hotel was the need to shake the bugs out of your shoes before putting them on. I had never seen cockroaches like these before, what an experience. The survival school it self was pretty interesting. We were shown the many ways of surviving in a jungle environment, how to operate a survival radio, use a signal mirror to attract the rescue helicopter and then board the jungle penetrator for the ride up to the helicopter.
Of course, we were also shown the various kinds of snakes that lived in the jungle (how do you think the nickname ‘Snake School’ came about?) One story that always sticks out was the session that covered the most deadly snake in the jungle. It was bright green and the instructor told us that if this snake bit us, we should just sit down and light up a cigarette. One of the students told him he didn’t smoke. The instructor calmly said “You might as well start; you are going to die anyway.” Nice thought! We spent two nights in the jungle sleeping out under the canopy of the trees. I remember not getting too much sleep the first night listening to all the new sounds around me. Then it was back to the base to check the flight schedule to see when we were headed to Cam Rahn Bay AB for our initial theater indoctrination as FACs.
Much to our surprise, our class of Bronco drivers was not on the manifest. It seemed we were to spend a couple extra days at Clark AFB. When we gathered in the classroom for the additional training, we were told that FACs had a high risk of being shot down and captured, so the Air Force wanted to train us in ways to get messages out of a POW camp if that happened. I remember thinking that wasn’t a very nice thought. Once this training was done we finally got to board a commercial flight to South Viet Nam and the war zone.
In Country, At Last
Arrival at Cam Rahn Bay AB was uneventful. I do remember seeing tracers and explosions not all that far away while we were on final. We were met at the terminal by a representative of the 504 Tactical Air Support Group, the parent unit for all the FACs in SEA. We were welcomed, given a cold beer and shown to some Quonset hut type quarters for the night.
Sometime the next morning, Greg Shuey (OV-10 classmate) runs into the very dark room to announce that we are under attack. There is a siren going off somewhere in the distance and we can vaguely hear the sound of explosions. Greg seems to think that we should head for cover. The problem is that we have no idea where that cover might be, since we had not been briefed on such possibilities. While I pondered my response to Greg, he went over and attempted to wake up the only other person in the room, Mark Rowell. Now even half asleep, Mark had the right answer. He was in the top bunk and asked Greg how high the sandbags were on the outside of the building. The answer was ‘about halfway between the lower and upper bunk’. At which point, Mark rolled out of the top bunk and proceeded to get into Greg’s empty lower bunk and went back to sleep.
Our class went through the indoctrination sessions and was sent to the TASSes that had openings for OV-10 pilots. Mark Rowell, Greg Shuey, Craig Bradford, Jim Allenberg and I were sent to Da Nang AB to the 20th TASS. Charlie Russell went to NKP Thailand to the 23rd TASS. The rest of the group, Claude Newland, Jim Nuber, George Brower and Jackie Bell went south to Bien Hoa and the 19 TASS. When we arrived at Da Nang, Mark and I were assigned to the Coveys, an out country FAC unit with responsibility for interdiction along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Bradford and Shuey went to Quang Tri to become Barky FACs and Allenberg went to Chu Lai to fly as a Helix FAC. I was assigned a call sign, Covey 251 and a room. For the life of me, I can’t remember who my first roommate was. I do know that I was directly across from what was to become the famous Muff Divers Lounge and right next door to our flight surgeon, Dr. Jim Ramsey. Later I moved into a room with Mark Rowell on the other side of the building and we were roommates for the rest of our time at Da Nang.
My checkout program was explained to me and I began the long, seemingly endless process of becoming a fully qualified Forward Air Controller. First there were the local area checkout rides with the local Stav/Eval pilots. I practiced landings, instrument work and emergency procedures and when that was completed to their satisfaction, I was sent to the Coveys for my out country checkout. We were supposed to get 100 hours before becoming combat qualified. We flew 50 hours of observation (backseat rides with qualified FACs), 30 hours with an instructor and 20 hours solo over the trail but could not put in any air strikes. On my first observation sortie, I got to fly in the backseat of our Ops Officer, Major Don Conn. My grade book reflects that he demonstrated to me three ways to get lost over Laos that day. (The weather was pretty bad) That didn’t stop us from attacking a canoe like vessel on Xe Cong River. We found these three folks near a transshipment point and since the weather was too bad for any air strikes, Major Conn decided to use his rockets to sink the boat. Well, the first two bracketed the boat and the bad guys started to paddle even harder for the shoreline. The second set of rockets caused them to leap from the boat into the river and swim for the shoreline. As we flew back over the area in an attempt to then sink the boat, we discovered that they were pretty clever bad guys, they had a rope attached to the boat and had pulled it to the shoreline with them. Since it was risky business to stay under a cloud cover too long, we departed with only a funny story for BDA. The lesson I was supposed to learn that day unfortunately didn’t stay with me. More on this later on.
Mallard Flight — Or how to get your nickname in one easy mission
On my second instructor ride with Captain Art Schwalm, I earned my nickname and a couple valuable lessons. As I had alluded to in my description of training at Hurlburt, I wasn’t very good at shooting rockets. So Art wanted me to work on that and my target briefing techniques. We launched to the area with a couple of fragged missions and normal reconnaissance tasks to complete. Ever since arriving at Da Nang I had let it be known to anyone who would listen, that my fondest desire was to be able to work a flight of F-105 Thuds before the Air Force sent them all back to the states. Now there is one important aside that the reader must know. The cockpit configuration of our aircraft in those days had the second FM radio control head in the back seat, so I could listen to it if I wanted to, but had no control over it.
Out of the clear blue on the UHF radio I hear ‘ Mallard Check; Two, Three, Four’. ‘Covey 251, Mallard Flight’ Well, this wasn’t one of my fragged missions and I was caught off guard, but quickly answered them. The flight lead read me his line up, four F-105s with four Mk 117s each. They were at such and such a location and needed a target to expend on. (That should have been a clue; you never got ordnance like that!) I asked Art if I should check with Hillsboro, the Airborne Command, Control and Communications (ABCCC) aircraft that provided us control over the trail. He quickly said no, that they had sent the flight to me and I needed to expend them on a good target. He made a couple of suggestions and left the rest to me.
I gave the flight lead a rendezvous point and pushed up the throttles to get over to the area as quickly as I could. All the while, I was putting together a target brief for Mallard flight. As I approach the target area, I gave them my briefing and then frantically started searching the skies for a flight of four very large fighter type aircraft. The leader told me that he had me in sight; he needed a mark and then clearance to drop. I quickly rolled my aircraft into a firing pass, launched a rocket and pulled off. I gave a quick correction from my smoke and again started searching for these fighters.
Lead called in from behind me, telling me to move in a particular direction, which I did, and I cleared him in hot. He called off and I rolled around to get a look at his drop. (Next clue coming!) I saw smoke (not dust) rising from near my mark and gave a quick correction to the second aircraft. Number two called in with me in sight, once again suggesting that I move in a particular direction. I cleared him in hot while moving that way. He called off and I looked for his bombs, once again seeing smoke (second chance!) near my mark. By now I was totally frustrated. Here I was a young, steely eyed FAC and couldn’t see four Thuds anywhere. I keyed the mike and said, “Mallard, I still don’t have you in sight. Where the hell are you?” “Right behind you, Covey” was the answer. I stood the plane on its wing and reefed it around and was looking nose to nose with another OV-10. 1st LT Homer Pressley had been on his way home from a Prairie Fire mission and he and Schwalm had set this whole thing up on the second FM radio. Homer rocked his wings at me and headed for home.
I still had a couple of hours left on my station time, so you can imagine that the whole outfit knew the story before I landed. The good news was that Art said that I had performed well under the stress of the situation and had fired a good mark and had given my best target brief ever. One last thing, it wasn’t a good idea to clear fighters to drop if you didn’t have them in sight. I still have the “Mallard” nametags and to this day there are still those who greet me by that name and with a hearty “Quack, Quack”.
How Not to Drive
“The Jeep accident” is the next thing that sticks in my memory from those days. Our group had four jeeps assigned and they were a very precious commodity. One was earmarked as the commander’s vehicle, although it was available for the rest of us to use, if the old man wasn’t using it. I was still a 2nd LT at the time of this particular incident. We were putting together a small gathering of folks at China Beach for a day at the beach. We actually made more than one trip from the base to the beach and since I as the most junior guy and the FNG; I was elected to the position of driver. It didn’t hurt that I was probably the only one who admitted to having a military driver’s license.
Nothing special happened on the trips over, if you didn’t count being stopped by the Military Police for having five people in the jeep. We had four guys and one very petite nurse. She was squeezed into the back seat with two of our guys. When we were stopped, I was really sweating it, but Captain Eldon R. (Sonny) Haynes jumped out and escorted the MP to the rear of the jeep and explained the ‘facts of life’ to him. We were sent on our way with just a warning.
Unfortunately, the return trip wasn’t so uneventful. The other occupants of the jeep were Captains Bill Bruner and Sonny Haynes and 1st LT Eric Cooper. Cooper was directly behind me, Haynes in the shotgun seat and Bruner in the right rear. All of us had been drinking while at the beach, but I recall that I had had only one or two mixed drinks total for the afternoon. (Honest, Officer, that is all I had!) There was a discussion about whether or not we should stop by the ops building to check mail before heading back to the main compound to our barracks.
For reasons completely forgotten, Sonny and Bill got into a fairly heated discussion about something and somewhere along the line; Bill smacked Sonny in the head with his flight cap, the end with the captain’s bars on it! This quickly escalated to both of them swinging their hats at each other. No serious blows were struck, but suffice it to say, I was slightly distracted. Then Sonny grabbed the steering wheel locking chain from the floor and began to swing it like he was going to hit Bill. I reached over and tried to grab the chain to prevent what looked to be serious trouble. Of course, I was also still in charge of driving the jeep and allowed it to drift left of the centerline. If it hadn’t have been for the deuce and a half coming the other way, we might have got away completely unscathed. But not that day!
The jeep struck the rear tires of the truck and the impact ejected Haynes and Bruner from the jeep. Cooper and I continued forward and to the left into the ditch on the left side of the road. I remember the jeep stopping, and I continued forward and up. The driver’s seat came up and forward (gravity and Newton’s law were working) and I was forced into the canvas top of the vehicle. My right leg impacted the bottom of the dash panel and then I returned to my normal place behind the wheel, just in time for Cooper to wrap his arms around me in a attempt to keep me from getting hurt.
We exited the vehicle, noticing that the entire left front wheel assembly was missing, and went to find Bill and Sonny. Initially, we thought, they were both okay, just shaken up. Well, almost. Haynes had been ejected high enough to require some kind of spectacular paratrooper style landing roll and was nursing a sore butt. Bruner was scraped and bruised, but generally all right.
The long and short of it was, I was blamed for the accident by the MPs, had to face Lt Col Ed Cullivan with the bad news that I had put one of his jeeps out of service for awhile and seriously attempted to decrease the number of combat ready pilots by a number of either two or four, depending on whose story you listened to. My punishment was revocation of my drivers’ license for 45 days and a month’s worth of Duty Dog, when I wasn’t flying. Cullivan chewed my ass at least twice more that I can remember in the month or so following the accident, but that was pretty much the end of it. Sonny had actually bruised his tailbone in his fall and was seen carrying a rubber donut around for a few days afterwards. As for me, I never went to China Beach again during my tour.
What are they shooting at?
Daylight fliers didn’t see all the AAA that was shot at them. At least in my case, I believed that to be true. If you weren’t looking right at the gun when it was firing or see the tracer or airburst, you might just miss it entirely. So I guess some of us operated on the big sky theory for AAA. You know the theory, ‘Big Sky, Little Airplane’. It probably made my perception of the danger a little easier to live with at the time. In all honesty, the thought of flying at night where you could see it all scared the hell out of me. I probably thought of it as much like those bomber pilots in WWII who flew in formation over Germany through AAA so thick that they thought they could walk on it. Either crazy or courageous as hell. Anyway, I flew in the daytime, primarily, and used this defense mechanism to deal with the threat. (That and the concept of immortality that comes with being 23 years old)
Keeping the above sentiments in mind, I remember distinctly a mission where I saw lots of rounds directed at the FAC and fighters during a daylight-bombing mission. It was the middle of the afternoon, probably in late November 1970 and I was scheduled to fly the afternoon add on sortie. We scheduled four daylight area coverage sorties each day and the add-on mission was setup to overlap the station times of the second and third missions. Most of the time you just performed visual reconnaissance. When called on by either the on-station FAC or Hillsboro, you might put in an air strike, but generally, it was strictly a VR mission.
This particular day, Captain Norm Monnig, Forward Air Navigator (FAN), opted to jump in the back seat to see the trail in the daylight and see what we did for our combat pay. Norm and I took off for the area and once we were over the fence, we contacted the on station FAC, 1st LT Bruce Young, to make sure we knew where each of us was. Bruce told me that he had a couple of Navy A4 Skyhawks fragged for a target near the bend in the Xe Cong River known as Delta 43. We discussed this, because neither of us could figure out what they were trying to hit at the specified coordinates. Since I was in the vicinity of the target when the fighters checked in, I offered to assist in the air strike. That was okay with Bruce and the fighters, so I set up and orbit above Bruce and below the fighters.
After the target brief, Bruce rolled in for a marking pass and almost immediately drew some ground fire. He pulled off and I told him I would call ground fire for both him and the fighters so he could concentrate on directing the air strike. For the next few minutes, I was pretty busy watching these three aircraft and what appeared to be three AAA sites. Bombs were dropped and corrections were given and before long, the fighters were done. They joined back up and head back to the boat. Bruce stated that he was going to make a Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) pass and he would relay it to them. As he rolled back around to look the area over, two of the AAA sites started firing at him. I shouted for him to break to the south now!!! Get south of the river!!!! Needing no other encouragement, he headed south immediately and as I watched him move away from the threat, I called him clear.
Up to that point, to the best of my knowledge, I had not been specifically fired at. I was generally on the opposite side of the circle from the fighters and Bruce. After I saw that he was safely across the river, I rolled out of my turn and saw a string of tracers rising from the directly in front of me. Before I could react, I noticed that the first couple exploded below my altitude. I followed my advice to Bruce and broke south and headed to the other side of the river. As we cleared the threat area, I distinctly remember Norm saying, very nonchalantly, “I didn’t know you could see them that well in the daytime.” I muttered something back to him to the effect of “Yeah, sometimes you could see them pretty well.”
When we got back to base, Bruce and I compared notes on the target coordinates and tried to figure out why we had been shot at so much. The target was a suspected truck park, but the coordinates were such that neither of us could see any evidence of any traffic movement in the area. We shrugged it off and made some disparaging remarks about photo intelligence folks and went to get a beer.
About a month later, 1st LT John Browning and Norm Monnig tracked a truck into the trees north of the area we bombed on this mission. They directed ordnance onto the area where the truck had driven into and the results of their strike and the strikes of the ensuing ten days in the area of Ban Bak resulted in the destruction of the truck park/storage area known as the Covey Bomb Dump. At least now we knew why they were shooting at us while striking this seemingly non-threatening target the month before.
Pure luck wins out over skill
Suspected truck parks were a daily part of our lives over the trail. If we weren’t fragged to strike them, we were instructed to look for any signs of activity that would confirm or deny the photo interpreter’s judgment. The bad guys were experts at covering their tracks, so we many times reported no activity in the areas we were assigned to check out. Imagine the frustration of both FAC and fighters when they were directed onto suspected truck parks, underground bunkers and storage areas and they observed no results from their efforts. Jokingly, we often referred to these targets as suspected tree parks, communist trees in the open and underground dirt storage areas. Since our efforts often went unrewarded, it is no wonder that both FAC and fighter pilot wanted to have nothing to do with missions fragged on those types of targets. This story tells of a happy ending to one of those missions.
I was briefing for a mission that had a flight of two F-4s scheduled to strike a suspected truck park in an area of the trail south of an area known as the Golf Course. The ordnance for the mission was MK 82 bombs (500 lb) with fuse extenders (daisy cutters) and CBU 24 (anti personnel cluster bomb units). This type of ordnance would be great for clearing an area out and hurting the people there, but it wasn’t all that great for killing trucks. But that was what they had, so I had to make do with it.
I took off and headed for the coordinates specified for the target. I searched the area and looked for any signs of truck activity. I didn’t see anything in the immediate target vicinity that indicated recent truck traffic. I searched north and south of the coordinates in some large groves of trees along the side of the road. I decided that if there were any trucks in the area, they were in this tree line. The F-4 flight checked in as they approached the rendezvous point and the flight lead asked me if their target was really a good one since both crewmembers in the number two aircraft were on their last mission before heading back to the world.
You can imagine their excitement when I told them it was a suspected truck park. I gave them their target brief as they headed toward the target. Once they arrived and we had each other in visual contact, I marked the target and told lead to hit the area from my smoke to the south. He placed four MK 82s in a large clump of trees just south of my smoke and pulled off. I gave two a correction to move more to the south of lead’s hits. He rolled in and dropped. As I looked back to pick up the flight lead and give him another correction, I saw flames coming up from the area of his first hit. With my naked eye, from 4000 to 5000 feet above the ground, I could see the flames shooting several hundred feet into the air. And then there was a very large explosion that shot 55 gallon barrels into the air like popcorn. Apparently the flight lead saw this about the same time I did because he keyed his microphone and said, “Jesus Christ, Covey, what the f**k was that?” My inadequate response was something to the effect of, “It looks like you hit something good, lead.” I directed him to drop in the same area of his first bombs and told his wingman to do the same.
Meanwhile, I called Hillsboro and asked for more ordnance to strike the entire area. As this flight left the target area, I was able to give them three trucks destroyed and several large secondary explosions for their BDA. I never got my additional strikes but passed the target to my replacement who did get more flights and was able to uncover a couple more trucks and destroy them.
The only thing that I could figure was that one of the fuse extended 500 lb bombs must have landed either in or right next to one of the trucks carrying drums of fuel. The ensuing fire set off the explosions and resulted in the popcorn affect that the flight lead and I saw that day. The end result was the destruction of several trucks and a slightly renewed faith in the photo interpreters at 7th Air Force.
Lam Son 719
In the spring of 1971, the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) with help from the combined efforts of the USAF and Viet Nam Air Force (VNAF) launched an operation into Laos along Route 9 toward Tchepone. From my limited knowledge of the politics of the time, it seemed that President Nixon was trying to prove that the Vietnamization of the war was working. The FAC support for this operation was mounted at Quang Tri AB under the control of the 23 TASS, since this was their normal area of operation over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. If the Nail FACs from the 23 TASS had detachment type operations they always had call signs that were somehow related to their Nail heritage, so the call sign used for Lam Son 719 was “Hammer.”
My first exposure to this operation was just after it started. I was told that I was being sent TDY to Quang Tri and that I should plan on being gone for about three or four weeks. So, I pack my bag with my stuff and took off for QT. When I landed and parked the airplane, I met Major Hearn, a NKP Nail FAC, who was in charge at that time. I told him that I was reporting for duty and brought him an airplane. I don’t remember his specific words, but the gist was that he needed the airplane, but had no use for me. When I asked him how I was supposed to get back to Da Nang, he shrugged his shoulders and told me that was my problem. I bummed a ride back with Major Tommy Pope, one of our Prairie Fire guys who happened to be around. I went back and told my boss, Lt Col Ed Cullivan, that I had been sent back. We both figured that the situation was pretty screwed up and let it go at that.
The size of the operation at Quang Tri expanded pretty rapidly and within a short time, I was alerted again for TDY duty at Quang Tri. This time Mike Warren, another OV-10 pilot, was going along. Mike and I each took an aircraft to QT and reported in. This time Major Hearn seemed to need my services. I don’t think he remembered the previous meeting, but I hadn’t forgotten him or the way he had treated me. (You have to understand there was a distinct level of inter unit rivalry between the Coveys and the Nails) Now, I figured that I would never have the opportunity to get even, but the thought did cross my mind.
The next morning, I was scheduled to fly an orientation mission over the AO and get certified to fly support for our ARVN friends on the ground. Much to my surprise, my checkout ride was with Major Hearn. We briefed and then stepped to the airplane. I noticed that he had his Aussie “Go to Hell” hat on as we walked to the plane and I wondered where he was going to put that thing during flight. We preflighted and started engines and began our taxi out to the runway. I had always taxied the OV-10 more with engines than nose wheel steering, so I started the right turn out of the ramp area with the nose wheel steering and then pulled the right engine into full reverse and goosed the left engine forward. We took off and did our orientation flight, worked a flight of Army Cobra gunships and then headed home. After we landed and parked, the crew chief came up to the airplane holding his hands together with pieces of Hearn’s hat in them. Seems that I sucked that puppy right out the right rear cockpit opening and into the propeller. The crew chief told him that this was all they found of his hat. He just shrugged and we walked off to debrief. The hat was never mentioned, I was signed off and cleared to fly missions in support of Lam Son. Every time I remember that incident, I smile and think, I couldn’t have done it any better if I had planned it like that. Honestly, it really was an accident. I had no idea he had that stupid hat in his lap. Served him right!
The operation at QT was truly amazing. The Air Force had two small units there prior to Lam Son, the Trail FACs (O-2s) and the Barky FACs (OV-10s). They had just enough sleeping area for their pilots and their support crews and the luxury of a one-hole outhouse. When the Hammer operation was in full swing, I am guessing there were over 100 crewmembers and at least two to three dozen aircraft. Initially, the folks bunked in with the resident FACs where there was room and then in tents until the Army built a large building that housed the flight crewmembers. I can’t remember how many double bunk beds were in that building, but there were a lot. The top 18 – 24 inches of the walls were screened rather than solid. After having lived in closed, air conditioned rooms at Da Nang, this was a lot like camping out. The humidity took over and everything seemed to be damp all the time. I vaguely remember being chilled at night, but between the dampness and the springtime weather, that probably shouldn’t be a surprise. Our Army friends also helped out by building us a four-hole outhouse. One of the real pleasures of the four-holer was that we now had four barrels of waste to dispose of everyday. The approved method was to mix fuel with the waste and burn it. Now I knew the real meaning of the “shit” detail. Following the war, Barry Hedquist and I were T-38 instructors at Laredo AFB, TX. He had a picture under Plexiglas on his table of him with his pitchfork standing next to a barrel with flames almost above his head. One of his Iranian students once asked him what he was cooking in that picture. He and I could only smile at each other in amusement.
We were flying sorties in four or five sectors twenty-four hours a day. During the day, the OV-10s many times were scheduled to fly with a Vietnamese FAC in the back seat. At night, our O-2 brothers flew with two pilots and sometimes a Vietnamese FAC in the third seat. (I remember Doug DeGroot telling me of the night that he saw sparks coming off the front prop while taxiing out. Seemed that the weight of the crew, fuel and ordnance overwhelmed the nose gear strut.) These Vietnamese FACs were experienced Captains in the VNAF with lots of hours in the O-1, all of it in country. We figured they had never seen anything bigger than small arms or maybe machine gun fire. They were along to help us out with the ARVN forces on the ground. Even though most of the ground troops had folks who spoke English with them, in the heat of the battle, they normally reverted to their native tongue, which could prove to very distracting during an air strike or an extraction.
I remember two specific incidents concerning Vietnamese backseaters. The first one has to do with a lesson that I had forgotten from my mission with Don Conn. Something about not staying under a cloud cover too long. My backseater and I launched on a mission to try and find an enemy position that was shelling an ARVN camp. I do remember that it was in the northern part of the area and I was hell bent to help the good guys on the ground. As an out country FAC, I didn’t get the chance to even talk to folks on the ground, let alone do something to help them. So my fangs were out and I was going to get that site for them. There was a high overcast and we let down through it and found the camp. We established contact with the Vietnamese ground commander and he proceeded to tell us that he was taking intermittent incoming fire from various positions to the north of his area. After he picked us up visually, we stayed close by waiting for the bad guys to shoot. Well, it didn’t take long. My headset picked up the ground commander saying. “Hammer, Hammer, they shoot me now. You go north, you go north.” Well, I went north and we started looking for muzzle flashes or any other indicator of where the shells were coming from. This went on for quite awhile. He kept saying that they were taking incoming and that I needed to go this direction or the other. Blindly intent on doing something to help this guy out, my back seater and I were all over the sky around the camp. Not once did we see anything that would have indicated enemy forces, but it wasn’t for lack of looking.
I had probably been under that overcast for an hour and a half or more when I heard the words I will never forget from the ground commander. “Hammer, Hammer, they shoot YOU now!” Well, that is guaranteed to get your heart started. I was in a bank and looked over my shoulder and saw a string of 37MM tracers headed my way from that direction. I immediately reefed the aircraft around and look over the other shoulder and saw the same thing. My feeling was that they were getting way too close and I needed to get the hell out of there. (We later figured out that this gunner was quite a ways away from us, but had depressed the gun as far as he could and decided to give it a try) I knew my replacement was above the cloud cover (I had been talking to him) and I told him to look out, I was coming up through the clouds right now. I snatched the nose up, pushed the power levers all the way forward and tried to will the sky above the clouds to be empty.
We got on top safely, briefed the replacement FAC and headed for home. It was pretty quiet for a while. I was trying to figure out what had happened and how stupid I really was for staying under the cloud deck for so long. About halfway back to the base, my backseater piped up with a question to the affect of “Was that triple A?” My simplistic response was, “Yeah, looked like 37MM to me.” Nothing else was said during the flight. As we parked the aircraft I keyed the intercom to remind him to put his ejection seat safety pin in before leaving the plane. I got no response and repeated my comment. Still nothing. I looked over my right shoulder to make sure he was listening to me. Well, all I saw was his back as he hauled ass heading across the ramp. The props were still spinning and to this day I have no idea how he got out of the back seat and onto the ground without getting hurt. Now I am pretty sure he had never seen anything like that before and did not relish the idea of some stupid American 1st LT trying to kill him. The funniest part of this story is that whenever anyone was scheduled to fly with this guy, he just didn’t show up. The on going joke was that I had scared him so bad that he went AWOL.
The second memorable incident involving a Vietnamese backseater happened one day when we were scheduled to extract some good guys from a camp that was being attacked. Here again, Troops in Contact, something I had trained for, but had never seen. We got to the area around the camp, made contact with the ground troops and they needed us to get the bad guys heads down so the choppers could get them out.
I had a flight of two F-4s from Da Nang with snake and nape checking in and everything was looking good for this mission. Little did I know that it would be the last time I got to work with ground forces and almost the last mission that I flew during this operation. The in flight visibility was horrible. I could see the choppers orbiting north of the camp waiting for me to do my thing. The good guys were on the flat terrain with the bad guys coming down a hill toward them. I needed the fighters to run north and south to maximize the effectiveness of their ordnance.
The problem was that the choppers didn’t want to get out of the way. I was talking to the Redbird ( C in C ship) and asking him to move his choppers east of the LZ while I ran the fighters in. He didn’t seem to think that was necessary and only moved slightly away from the LZ. Meanwhile, I was briefing the fighters on the target and telling them that I would not clear them to drop until I had them on final and I was sure the choppers were out of their way. Needless to say, that didn’t make them very happy.
I marked the target, pulled off and heard the lead fighter call in, with the smoke in sight. I was still screaming at the choppers and had not cleared the flight lead to drop when my FM #2, the ground forces radio, erupted with Vietnamese. I saw that the F-4 had released without permission, almost hit the friendlies and was pulling off target. I screamed at him to hold high and dry. The Redbird chimed in with some kind of unwanted advice (at least it was at the time) and the ground commander was really bending the ear of my backseater who was having trouble getting it all under control and translated.
The F-4 driver was pissed because he had thought I had cleared him. I was pissed because I hadn’t and he had come too close to the friendlies and that the choppers would not get out of the way. Well, I cracked. The Redbird made one too many transmissions about getting the air strikes done right and the friendlies picked up. I mashed the mike button and told him to “Shut the f**k up and get the f**k out of my way, so I could do just exactly that.” Well, he calmly came back with something intended to settle me down and get things moving along. It worked and it didn’t. I sent the fighters home with the rest of their load. They had dropped without clearance and were running out of gas. I didn’t feel I had the time available to get the whole thing under control and work them before they were bingo fuel.
Here is where things got interesting. We needed to get the bad guys heads down and let the choppers get our folks out, so I decided to help matters out by strafing with my mighty 7.62MM machine guns. Remember, I hadn’t exactly graduated as top gun in my class at Hurlburt, but be that as it may, I was ready to give it a try. I don’t remember how many passes I made, but on one of them, I realized that the trees were getting awfully big in the windscreen as I was shooting. I distinctly remember just pulling for all I was worth, not hitting anything and being a lot more aware of my altitude for any remaining gun passes.
We did get the good guys out, but apparently I made no friends with the US Army. The next morning I was informed by Captain Tom Bohan (23rd TASS guy) that I would be patrolling a sector way up north that had no troops on the ground. It was then that I found out that the Redbird chopper I had cussed out the day before had been under the control of an Army Lt Col who didn’t see anything humorous about my little tirade on the radio. For the remainder of my time at Quang Tri, I never flew another Troops in Contact sortie. In fact, I am not sure I ever flew with another Vietnamese backseater. I guess the word was out on me.
Other Lam Son Memories
Leonard J. Funderburk, better known as Thunderchicken, lost an F-100 trying to kill three NVA tanks that were catching up to a column of ARVN troops in trucks headed east on Route 9. We had just been briefed that we weren’t supposed to use low angle ordnance (snake and nape) on tanks anymore. Apparently the head shed finally figure out that the bad guys had a better chance of hurting us than we did of hurting them. Anyway, this column was moving down Route 9 and the tanks were getting too close. The folks in charge, believed that the risk was acceptable and even after Chicken protested that he wasn’t supposed to utilize these two F-100s with snake and nape on these tanks, they ordered him to proceed. Reluctantly he briefed the flight on the target and marked the tanks. On his second pass, Blade 82 was shot down and hit the ground just past his target on his original run in heading. Thunderchicken was heard to proclaim over the command and control frequency that he had told that damn general not to use that kind of ordnance on tanks. He was still pretty upset when he returned to Quang Tri and when Tom Bohan attempted to use a little humor to cheer him up, Thunderchicken just barely restrained himself and he walked away before hitting Bohan in the mouth. Shortly after this incident, Funderburk joined me in the area where there were no troops on the ground. It was apparent that he had also said the wrong thing to the wrong person.
The day after the F-100 was shot down, I went back to the area to destroy the trucks that the ARVN had left behind. There were twelve of them all lined up on the south side of the road. The first flight was two USAF F-4s with wall-to-wall MK 82s (500 pounders). They scattered dirt and made holes in the terrain, but didn’t hit the trucks. Just got them dusty and might have broken a windshield or two.
The next flight was two Navy A-7s who had ten MK 82s and 1000 rounds of 20MM apiece and lots of loiter time. By the time they were done, all the trucks were burning and of no use to anyone. I distinctly remember that the number two man was the best strafe pilot that I had ever seen. He made ten passes and was able to start hitting the first truck in line with the first part of his burst and quit shooting in time to avoid wasting ammo on the other end.
I wish I could remember the names of the two guys who went out one night from Quang Tri in their O-2 and forgot to turn off their navigation lights when they crossed the fence. What I do remember is that there were several folks who saw their airplane shot down. The bad guys didn’t very often give you a second chance on a mistake like that one.
Before I had left Da Nang for this TDY, I had had the chance to spend a couple days aboard the USS Hancock. The Navy would allow a couple of FACs the chance to come out to the ship and spend a day or so with one of the squadrons on board. They even flew you in one of their aircraft if they could. Well I stayed with VA-155, an A-4 Skyhawk Attack Squadron who’s callsign was Garfish. One day I was working a flight of two Garfish just south of Route 9 when one of them hollered at me by name to break south for heavy arty. Seems I had turned off Guard channel and had not been paying close enough attention during the preflight Intel briefing. There was an Arclight strike going in along the road and I was pretty damn close. I saw the bombs falling past me and felt the concussion of their explosion.
Another Navy story from Lam Son is about the only time I ever controlled Navy F-4s (Black Lions). I didn’t think Navy F-4s flew other than air-to-air missions, and I made the mistake of mentioning that and must have insulted them. They were loaded with Mk 82s and CBU 24. Now CBU 24 was supposed to be dropped high enough to allow it to arm so that the canister opened far enough above the ground and the bomblets would be dispersed into a doughnut shaped pattern explode on impact. Well, one of these guys was pressing so hard that the canister hit the ground intact. I politely explained that that was not the intent and would be greatly pleased if he would release just a little higher for better target coverage.
One day I was directing a flight of Navy A-6s and their load consisted of several large bombs, I think 1000 pound each. They wanted to do visual bombing but wanted fly one pass and then head home. Not thinking about the ordnance load or the consequences of the explosion, I held over the target like I always did. I was high enough that the A-6 would pass under me on his run in and I could make any adjustment necessary. Well, when the first load went off and I was almost flipped onto my back by the concussion, I quickly told number two to wait until I got clear of the target area. My mistake only cost me a moment of embarrassment and an increase in heart rate, but it could have been much more serious.
I distinctly remember Rick Ottem, fellow Covey FAC, coming back one day from a mission way up by the tri border area almost as white as a ghost. Seems that he had been flying over a broken deck of clouds when a very large explosion went off below him that completely turn him inverted. His plane wasn’t damaged, but his bravado was. We never saw triple A much bigger than 37MM down in the area that we normally flew in, so this 85MM round that went off below him was a real shocker. We weren’t sure why it shot at him, but they did get his attention.
Then there was the day that I got caught in Ops by some reporter who wanted my view on the ARVN running away from the fight along Route 9. I had just come back from a mission and was the closest thing this guy could find to an eyewitness. Good thing Lt Col Cullivan was there to help out. I spoke my piece and then he would chime in with his “What the Lieutenant really means” comments to keep me from embarrassing myself. I surely didn’t have any idea what the big picture was, but there was no doubt I had an opinion.
Drinking warm beer and taking cold showers are two things that stayed with me until today. Remember, this place wasn’t designed for the number of people who were there and most of us had come from larger bases where cold beer and warm/hot showers were taken for granted. Well, that changed quickly. The cycle time for water to heat up in the small shower room was about eight hours (or so it seemed) and the average cycle time for a beer to be in the refrigerator was two to three minutes (once again, so it seemed). Not enough cooling space for number of beers required to be cooled. I made a promise to myself that I would not drink warm beer ever again. So far, so good.
Now for one last memory of the good times at Quang Tri. The makeshift movie theatre was a sit-in outdoor style setup not too far from the taxiway/runway complex. The noise of a C-130 landing or taxiing by would challenge even the best lip readers.
When the operation was over and we were ordered to return to DaNang, Rick Ottem and I were given two airplanes to fly back home. Now you have to remember that we were just two young frustrated fighter pilots who needed to continually prove our skills (if to nobody else but ourselves), so we briefed up an illegal formation trip back down the coast. We took off as close together was the tower would allow and joined up over the coast. I still have photos that I took on the way home. It was a great day just to fly and enjoy the thought of going back to DaNang. Be it ever so awful, there is no place like home.
Not long after we got back, the Vietnamese 110 FAC Squadron at Da Nang put on a party for any and all Hammer FACs who had supported them and their ARVN brothers during that operation. We drank and ate and told stories all night long. It was the only time that I ever had the chance to party with the VNAF pilots. I don’t remember if either of the guys I scared so badly was there or not.
The Guys We Lost
During my tour, four of my fellow Covey FACs went out one day and didn’t come home. The first was Captain Mike McGerty. Mike was shot down in August 1970. I didn’t know Mike well. I hadn’t been there very long when he went down. I remember that it was a pretty sobering to realize that you could die doing this job.
The second guy was Captain Jim Smith. Jim was on his second tour in SEA. He had flown C-7A Caribou cargo aircraft on his first tour. Now he was back as a Covey FAC. He did his checkout and started flying the trail. In the late part of the year, he was selected to train for the Prairie Fire mission. These guys supported an operation that placed Special Operations Group (SOG) teams under the control of CCN (Command and Control North) into Laos to observe the bad guys and get good intelligence for our forces. He was in the checkout program in December 1970 when he was lost flying out of Quang Tri. Under the supervision of Captain Tom Yarborough, his Prairie Fire trainer, he had put a team on the ground. Tom had debriefed him and returned to Da Nang while Jim and his Army Special Forces backseater (Covey Rider) went back to Quang Tri.
I was down at Ops that afternoon when we got the word that the team Jim put in had heard him trying to make radio contract with them. Shortly after that, they heard the sounds of a low flying aircraft and then what sounded like an explosion. Tom Yarborough was in Ops when the word came in and he stated that he was going to fly up to the area to see if he could find Jim and asked me to come along as an extra set of eyes. We launched and flew all around the area that Jim was last known to be in, but the weather was bad and we couldn’t get below the cloud deck in most places. After a couple of hours, Tom finally decided to return to Da Nang. The sad part of this story is that it was two weeks or more before the wreckage of Jim’s aircraft was found. I believe that it was my good friend Wayne Johnson who found them.
The death that hit all of us the hardest, or so it seemed at the time, was Larry Hull. Larry was another young 1st Lt flyer just like so many of us. He was an O-2 pilot and after doing his thing at night over the trail, he was selected for the Prairie Fire mission. He was a great guy who had a wife and a little girl back in the states. He had stated many times that all he wanted for an assignment back in the world was to be an instructor pilot in the training command. He wanted to be able to be home with his family.
Now I don’t know the specifics of the incident that earned him his nickname, but suffice it to say that he overestimated the ability of the O-2 to pull out of a nose low attitude and he hit the tops of some trees. This caused some damage to his aircraft and the squadron brass figured out a way to keep it under wraps, so he didn’t get any negative publicity from it. However, he was known as Woodstock from then on, after the little yellow bird in the Charlie Brown cartoon strip.
Anyway, on the morning of the day that Larry went down he, Wayne Johnson and I went to work together. In my memory, we walked at least part of the way because there was no jeep available. I was headed to the trail for a normal mission and he and Wayne were off to Prairie Fire missions. The day before, Wayne had lost an Army Huey as it was leaving a pickup zone not far from the Ashau Valley (as I recall). The Huey’s main rotor had separated from the helicopter as they were lifting off and the chopper crashed back down to earth. There were no survivors. Somebody had to go back and try to extricate any remains and make sure that the classified equipment was destroyed. Again, I can’t remember the specifics, but it seems that Wayne was going to do that and Larry was going to go to Quang Tri. Somewhere they switched jobs and Wayne ended up going to QT and Larry went to Phu Bai to take care of the chopper.
After I returned from my mission, I ended up flying a maintenance functional check flight (FCF). When I had completed that and walked back to Ops, somebody asked me if I had heard what had happened to O-2 tail number 001 (Balls 1). Nobody asked that question unless something bad had happened. My first response was no, who was flying it? “Woodstock” was the answer and then they said it was down near the Ashau Valley. The Jolly Greens had scrambled and put a PJ on the ground. Neither Larry nor his Covey Rider survived. The PJ was able to retrieve enough to confirm that they were KIA. That night, I do remember sitting in the Jolly Green bar downstairs with Wayne Johnson in the area listening to the story of the Jolly pilot who really hung it out just so his PJ could get on the ground to get to the wreckage. It was a sad time for all of us. So close to going home, now Larry was just another number in the war effort.
The last person we lost from our group during my tour was Jack Butcher. I had met Jack in the hallway of the Covey Hooch. I was back from Quang Tri (Lam Son) for one night and was introduced to him. We shook hands and that was it. I went back to QT the next day. Several days later, while flying a Lam Son mission, I heard radio traffic on guard channel that told me that one of the Covey FACs from Da Nang was down. A couple days later I heard the story. Jack was on the first solo training sortie of his checkout program and had found a river crossing (ford) being constructed. He informed the FAC on station (Tom Yarborough) and stayed in the area while he waited for the other FAC. Jack’s aircraft was hit by ground fire and he was forced to eject. As the story was told to me, Jack was captured almost immediately upon landing. Jack ended up in Hanoi as a POW for the remainder of the war.
Of course, there were other deaths to contend with. One of my UPT classmates (Bob “Bubba” Hauer) was flying O-2s out of Cam Rahn Bay and went out one day and just never came back. Extensive searches never turned up the slightest clue of where he went down or why. Another UPT classmate (Charlie “Doc” Russell) was flying as a Raven FAC in Laos and was killed when a chopper lifted off and climbed right into his airplane. An OV-10 classmate, Jim Allenberg, was killed just off the coast of Chu Lai when he ditched the aircraft following a major emergency situation. Jerry Bevans died at Pleiku one day when he lost control of the airplane too close to the ground to recover. There was the Barky commander at Quang Tri who crashed after takeoff while flying to his new assignment with his replacement, killing them both.
And that was just us slow mover FACs. I remember on one of my solo training flights helping to find the wreckage of a RF-4 from one of the northern Thai bases that went missing one night. From the looks of what we found, he lost track of where he was and turned the wrong way and ran into a hilltop. There was the F-4 who rolled in on a gun one night and never pickled or pulled out. Just hit the ground and exploded. I can’t forget meeting the F-4 backseater (Navigator) whose front seater was hit by the golden BB. They were on a low angle delivery and the pilot didn’t pull out. The WSO took control and after much deliberation, was directed to initiate a dual sequenced ejection over the beach near Quang Tri. When they recovered the pilot’s body, he had a bullet wound to the head. There was a similar story about the Hostage FACs (USMC OV-10s) at Da Nang. The backseat occupant didn’t respond to the pilot during the landing rollout and upon shutting down they discovered he had been shot in the head somewhere on final approach. Death seemed to be everywhere around us, but we treated it very callously. Sang rude songs about those who “bought the farm” and drank to ease the pain.
I flew 600+ hours of combat on 165 missions “across the fence” and was shot at more than once, but was almost done with my year when I took my only hit. In mid April, late in the afternoon, Rick Ottem was working an A-7 flight on several trucks and one of the A-7s was shot down along the route structure south of Delta 87. The pilot ejected safely and scurried to a hiding place for the night. We kept a FAC nearby to stay in radio contact with pilot and an early morning Search and Rescue (SAR) was scheduled. Now there had been at least seven AAA guns around the site when the A-7 was shot down, so the plan was to double up on the FACs and have plenty of air available to suppress the guns for the Jolly Greens. Surprisingly enough, not a round was fired and the pilot was rescued and returned to DaNang.
The extra FACs had been pulled from the day’s normal flying schedule and so I was plugged into the late go to cover for one of them. I had been scheduled for a day off. I wasn’t terribly happy about being pulled in at the last minute to fly when I hadn’t been scheduled. Not sure why that was, but I distinctly remember that feeling. Maybe because I had about thirty days left before I was done.
Anyway, I flew the mission. It was scheduled to takeoff around 3 PM and stay out until dusk/dark depending on when the night fighter O-2 guys showed up. The mission was uneventful up until the last forty-five minutes or so. I was in the middle of the Area of Operation (AO) when my replacement checked in. He was up north, planning on entering the AO quite a ways north of my position and working his way south down the route structure. He had a fragged sortie of F-4 with Thermite bombs and CBU scheduled to show up in about thirty minutes or so. I chose to continue south from my position toward Route 966 in the Yankee Strike Zone bordering South Viet Nam. I would do my reconnaissance and head for home.
As I turned east along the route structure I saw a truck moving the same direction at a pretty good clip. Now we day fighters didn’t get to see too many trucks moving on the roads, so this really picked up my spirits. I decided to stop the truck with a rocket and see if I could get the fragged sortie diverted to my target. So I rolled in and fired a Willie Pete at the truck and watched him pull over into the tree line next to the road. I quickly got the coordinates figured out, called Moonbeam (nighttime ABCCC) and started begging for the ordnance.
Now, you have to remember we day flyers didn’t carry the correct type of marking device to work an air strike after the sun went down. And it was rapidly going down about this time. So I was doing my best to see if I could get this strike done while there was some light still left. I was working up a target brief and begging for the divert, when my whole day changed. I must have gotten predictable or just pissed this guy off, but he hosed off a clip of 37 MM rounds right at me. Before I could really react, I felt the plane lurch. Now, that is a feeling you never forget. I crammed the power levers to the front stop, started jinking for all I was worth and, of course, scanning engine instruments and outside to see if there was any damage. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary except my rapidly beating heart. So, I did my best to collect my wits and continue my preparation for the arrival of the F-4s. (Yes, I was successful in getting them diverted.) The O-2 too far away to help me out, so I just figured, once again, I could just John Wayne my way through this one.
It wasn’t totally dark when the fighters got there, so I briefed them up, told them about the gun and proceeded to mark the truck with a Willie Pete. I told the flight lead that since it was getting dark and we were having trouble seeing each other, that I would be north to northeast of the target at a specific altitude and that he should plan his roll in from any direction other than that. He agreed and the fun was about to begin. As he rolled in all hell broke loose from the ground. The tracers weren’t that bright in the daylight, so I had never seen this kind of a light show. After they both had made a pass, I had them hold while I tried to remark the target.
The smoke was still visible enough for them, so we decided that one more pass each with the CBU would have to do. Once again, I told them where I was and not to roll in from that direction. I was in a right turn trying to pick up the flight lead when he called in from a direction other than where I was. I was straining to get any glimpse of him that I could. Nothing. I remember just having some kind of premonition to look left, which I did. All I could see of his F-4 was four cans of CBU separating from the hard points as he flashed by me well inside of what seemed like 50 feet, but was probably closer to 500+. Neither of us spoke for a bit and then we exchanged some stupid comments like, “that was close”. Anyway, his wingman dropped his ordnance and they headed for home. I was able to see just well enough to see that the truck was no longer in the area where I had stopped him. As far as I could tell he had driven off either during the air strike or while I was trying to collect myself after the near mid-air.
Well, I had had enough of this fun, so I pointed my Bronco toward home and departed the AO. I was doing my best to try and figure out how to debrief this mission to Intel and figure out if I needed to change my drawers. You know the feeling you get after a near collision, the one where the shaking starts once the adrenaline quits pumping. That’s where I was. After landing, we checked the underside of the aircraft pretty carefully for damage. We found none. So, I went to debrief. During the course of the debriefing, I was explaining to the Intel Sergeant that I thought the accuracy of the gunner who had fired on me was excellent. He insisted that since I had not been hit, I could only classify him as good. I was doing my very best to argue my case and losing rather badly. Then there was a knock on the door of the Intel building. It was the crew chief that had blocked me in. He was saying rather excitedly, “Lt. Wright, Lt Wright, there is a hole in your airplane”. I won the argument with the Intel guy and went out to my airplane to figure out how we had missed the damage during the post flight.
The hole was in the number two blade of the left engine propeller. A nearly perfect semi circular hole in the leading edge of the blade was what I saw. We moved the prop around until we figured out where it had been when the shell went through. I am not sure how I got that lucky. The only place it could have been was above the wing and the hole was just barely above the leading edge. To this day I have no good reason why it did not explode when it hit. At best it could have seriously damaged the left wing and engine. At worst, it would have blown the wing off. Either way, I seem to have avoided being killed or at best spending the night on the ground by a hair. I got some photos of the prop and then headed back to the hooch. I met the rescued Navy A-7 pilot downstairs in the Jolly Green Bar and congratulated him on his good luck. After hearing my story, he did the same for me. With just about a month to go, all of the sudden, I seemed to be very acutely aware of the danger of the missions I flew. I decided not to tell anyone at home about the incident because I didn’t want to worry anyone this late in the game.
A couple of weeks later, I was again working the last sortie and I got a call from the EC-121 (sensor signal gatherer) on station and they called me to ask if I was near the river crossing at Delta 87. Since I was, they wanted my to check out something that their sensors said was truck movement near there. I headed up that way. When I got near the river crossing, sure enough there were a couple of trucks there. It was getting dark and I thought I would see if I could stop them and hold them there for the night FAC, Tom Bliss, who was inbound just crossing the fence. So I fired a couple Willie Petes at the trucks and stopped them. I set up an orbit near the sight, keeping my eye on the trucks.
I decided to climb to give myself a pad of altitude in case any nine level gunners were in the area. I was probably up above 10,000 MSL. So here I was as the sun went down and darkness began to take over, babysitting a couple of trucks, waiting on Tom Bliss and his O-2 to arrive on scene. You would have thought I would have been acutely aware of my vulnerability to ground fire after the previous incident, but I must have allowed myself to get complacent thinking there was a safety margin in my extra altitude. Anyway, now I was having trouble seeing the trucks and wondering if this was really worth the effort when I heard Tom’s voice over the radio saying, “Hey Mallard, who’s that poor bastard over Delta 87 getting his ass hosed?” Well a quick head count revealed that I was the only poor bastard in the area besides Tom and I was over Delta 87. I reefed the plane around and saw a string of tracers reaching up to me from behind. I was so nicely silhouetted against the evening sky and this gunner was waiting until I turned away from him to shoot. The only good thing was my altitude put me pretty much out of range because of where I had setup my orbits. Pure dumb luck strikes again. I very quickly briefed Tom on the location of the trucks and headed for home. The only damage, once again, was to my ego.
The day finally came for my last flight as a Covey FAC. Mark and I had a Short Calendar in our room and we religiously marked off each day in our countdown from 100 Days To Go. Since we were both leaving on the same day, we alternated marking off the days. With a DEROS of 24 May 1971, my last flight was scheduled for ten days prior to that. It was policy to pull guys off the line ten days before DEROS so that they could get their out processing done and quit testing fate, I guess. The Coveys were in the process of moving to the west side of the base and so at the end, only those of us too short to move were left in the hooch in the main compound.
I was able to work with maintenance and scheduling so that I could fly my last flight in ‘my airplane’, tail number 820. I can’t remember how long I had had my name on that bird, but to be able to fly it one last time on my ‘fini’ flight was a nice touch. In my year I had flown over 600 hours of combat time and crossed the border between Laos and Viet Nam more than a 150 times. Now it was time to take one more trip across the fence and then call it a tour. I conspired with the arming crew so that I could have one rocket pod set to ripple (enabling me to fire all seven rockets at once). Since we used our White Phosphorous rockets to mark targets and direct fighters, we always shot them one at a time. I just had to see what firing all seven at once looked like before I left. It was pretty impressive but not very effective for our mission.
My logbook says that I flew exactly four hours on my last flight. I don’t remember anything special happening during those four hours except when I was checking out with Hillsboro. I made a point of letting them know it was for the last time. The controller and several of the other FACs who were on station in Laos wished me well as I crossed into South Viet Nam for the last time. It was a nice feeling of camaraderie.
Returning to base, I contemplated what I could do to signify that this was my last flight. Then I remembered the statement that I had signed in front of the Ops Officer before taking off. There had been several really dumb accidents that had occurred on folk’s last flights and 7th AF in their infinite wisdom had cracked down on all unauthorized activities by crews on their last mission. I really wanted to go home and did not relish the thought of official disciplinary action, so I behaved myself. Well, not completely, I did turn on the smoke generator when I turned into our revetments. (That always upset the Tower but it wasn’t much of a rebellion)
Following tradition, I was soaked down as I deplaned and then presented with a bottle of champagne to toast the event. After a quick debrief and turn in of my flight gear and weapon, I was done. No more early morning briefings. No more late night returns. No more getting shot at. My war was over.
I arrived at DaNang full of the idealism of youth, ready to do my duty for God and Country. Fresh from flight school and training, I had no real concept of my limitations. I chafed under the multitude of checkout requirements. When I finally did get qualified to do the job, I never questioned my ability to do anything. I was so full of myself, I had no concept of the myriad of things that I needed to learn and perfect to get better at my job. I learned and learned and did accomplish the mission, but in retrospect, it was probably more because of luck than because of skill. I was a pretty good pilot but was I a pretty good FAC? Well, I thought so then, now I am not so sure. As I said at the start, that doesn’t matter now. I can’t go back and change anything.
I met so many people during the almost year and half it took me to train for and complete my tour. To this day, I stay in contact with several of them, even if only sporadically. When we came back to the world, so many of us ended up in ATC (Air Training Command) that there was almost a combat unit feel to our gatherings, especially at the O’Club. We relived our experiences over and over while drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. You could watch the stories grow with each telling. We were young returning warriors and felt unappreciated by the American public, so we bonded together to provide each other the support we needed. Now, thirty plus years later, I find that the bond is still there and that is enough for me.