Among the First Ten PCS ALO / FACs

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

While at George AFB in 1962 I was solicited for a classified project in SEA. I volunteered for the project and was accepted. The project was de-classified and made a MAAG assignment. There were ten of us. I was an F-100 Squadron Commander, and the other nine held equivalent jobs. We were to be the first PCS, USAF ALO/FACs in South Vietnam. Previously these assignments had been 90 day TDYs.
When we received our orders they were not MAAG orders but normal AF PCS orders, and when we arrived in Vietnam, the old ugly service rivalries reared their heads. Since we were not part of the MAAG, and therefore, not under the Army, we couldn’t live in the Army-controlled MAAG quarters.
The AF wanted an ALO who would volunteer for assignment with the Vietnamese Airborne Brigade (later to become an Airborne Division) and go through the Vietnamese Army Jump School for parachute qualification. I volunteered.
Since the Airborne Brigade Headquarters was in Saigon, I rented an apartment. The other nine ALOs scattered throughout Vietnam and found their own living quarters as well. Many rented hotel rooms as living quarters and offices in vari- ous cities, towns, and villages.
Editors Note: Other ALO/FACs on 2nd ADVON SO A-11, dated 17 Aug 1962, included Major Herbert L. Prevost to the ARVN 7th Infantry Division, Major William J. Kuntz II to the ARVN 2d Infantry Division, and Major Andrew J. Chapman to the ARVN 5th Infantry Division. A very brief input from Joe Breen indicates that at essentially the same time that the ten ALO/FACs to whom Gene refers were arriving in RVN, another ten were arriving (April 1963) through the MAAG route, and were attached to the VNAF. Joe indicates that he was the only fighter pilot (F-100) among those ten.
We listened to the MACV pitch. It was, “We are winning the war,” and “1,000 will be home by Christmas.” Herb Prevost was very outspoken in his disagreement with this conclusion and offered many specific examples of the worsening situation.
Americans, reportedly, were not flying or actively participating in the war. This was not the actual case. I was soon checked out in a VNAF O-1 on 22 November 1962. I came from flying F-100s and I’ll never forget my feelings in pointing an airplane at a 700 foot long grass strip the first time. And when I touched down, my VNAF instructor hit the throttle and yelled, “Touch and go!” During that first tour I went on ground operations with the Vietnamese and their American Army advisors who were from the 82nd or 101st US Airborne Divisions. I probably went on 15 assault operations. We ate the Vietnamese food and my weight loss for a typical ten-day operation was about 15 pounds.
On my first search and destroy ground operation I was walking along a canal bank with the Vietnamese Battalion Commander and his US Army Advisor when bees started buzzing past us. The Army Advisor hit the dirt immediately recognizing the bees to be bullets zipping past. I squatted down and watched the Vietnamese Commander. He walked slowly back and forth with his Radio Operator trailing along. In three or four minutes he issued some terse commands and soon, about two hundred yards south, a patrol started across a bridge, one at a time, on the run. The same thing took place about three hundred yards north. The sniping stopped as I remember and after we got back from the operation the Brigade Commander told me to get into a Vietnamese camouflage uniform with a red beret or not go on any more operations. I would be a prime target in my AF fatigues. To my knowledge I was the first AF type to wear camouflage and the “Beret Rouge.”
I carried the first Collins miniaturized radio equipment in the field. The Single Side Band HF unit was about the size of a regular FM backpack radio.
Anyway, when we stopped for lunch, I set it up and lo and behold we contacted the DASC. That night again we contacted the DASC. A day or two later we needed fighter support and I called the DASC. The DASC informed me that all aircraft had been evacuated the previous day because of a typhoon alert and no aircraft were available. The duty officer could not explain why I had not been notified.
Early on in the tour I went through ARVN Parachute School. I remember my legs were sore from the exercises. The outstanding event was the 34-foot tower. I went through the school with another American and I’ll never forget his eyes as he “stood in the door” of the tower. I’m sure mine were the same when I stood there. It probably took more will power to make that first leapt than I had ever called up before. We had to jump three times from the tower. What a relief when that was over!
The first jump from an airplane was no problem. I looked forward to it and enjoyed it. I was 47 years old then. Later when I saw the young 82nd and 101st professional paratroopers wearing casts on broken arms and legs I began to have doubts. A new colonel came over to take over the US Army Advisory Detachment (Detachment 162 – “The Red Hats”). We all watched his first jump and thought “good landing”. But he didn’t get up. He had broken his femur and hip socket. That was the end of his serious walking days.
I received nothing in the way of jump pay and injury could impact my flying career and flying pay, so I limited my jumping to necessity only. All in all, I made 13 jumps.
There was a lot of talk about the quality of the Vietnamese as a fighting soldier. I will say, without question, the soldiers in the ARVN Airborne Division would and did fight well. What Americans on TDY or one-year PCS assignments sometimes forgot is that some of the airborne officers had been fighting for twelve years. One Vietnamese lieutenant colonel, a battalion commander, was missing several fingers on his left hand, his left arm was badly misshapen from another injury, and his face was badly scared and burned from a phosphorus grenade.
Anyway, the Airborne was the Vietnamese Strategic Alert Force. They went to the assistance of any Vietnamese unit in trouble in combat. One battalion stood by in a hangar at Tan Son Nhut with C-123s ready to go. Later, the helicopter rendered airborne operations in Vietnam obsolete. As I remember, I participated in three combat jump operations.
Planning for either a heliborne or parachute operation was interesting, and planning for a parachute operation was the most complex. First, the Vietnamese commander with perhaps one staff member, the US Army advisor, and I, would go scout for a LZ or DZ. Because they believed that circling over an area tipped off the VC as to its coming use, we stayed as far from the zone as possible and made our final selection on one straight fly through.
On jump operations, I would take off early, do a weather reconnaissance, and call the mission on or off. The troop carriers would take off and later the fighters. About ten-minutes before drop time I would pre-strike the tree-lines with four to eight fighters. We would cut them off two minutes before drop time and have an airborne CAP of four more fighters in case we needed them.
I’ll never forget one LZ. The pre-strikes started fires, which burned the LZ. When the choppers started to land they kicked up enough ashes that they were flying blind.
On another jump operation, the enemy had prepared the DZ with six-foot long anti-paratroop bamboo stakes. When inbound to the drop zone, the Vietnamese commander was informed of this and it was recommended that he cancel the operation. The commander ordered, “Continue the mission and jump as planned.”
On another jump operation, the AF dropped a battalion in the jungle. Some paratroopers were hung up in the trees 50 or 60 feet above the ground. Even after deploying their reserve chutes and cutting the shroud lines to climb down, they were still 30 or 40 feet above the ground. Many injured their backs and tore up their hands climbing down the nylon shroud lines.
My first tour was extended two or three months and I spent it in the TACC at Tan Son Nhut writing the fighter FRAG orders and specifying ordnance loads. There were six of us to pull weekend duty officer. The tour started Friday at 1700 and lasted until Monday at 0800. The TACC had no windows and a nice canvas cot to sleep on.
During my tour, I met two people who particularly stick in my mind. The first was Father Hoa. He was a Catholic priest who had had a parish in North Vietnam. His entire parish wanted to retreat from Communism and the war. In 1955, He started walking, leading his followers to the south. They walked to the southern end of the Mekong Delta. When they could retreat no farther he convinced his parishioners that they must now fight for their beliefs. He organized his parish both for fighting and for worship, whichever was necessary. He lost of course, as did all of South Vietnam. I salute this great man by displaying his swallow emblem, of which I may own the only remaining original.
The second person I particularly remember was Dai Uy (Captain) Phat. He was the Brigade Commanding General’s Adjutant. He was young and very special to me. He had lived in France but returned to Vietnam out of a sense of patriotic duty. The first time we met he came to get me to go and see General Vien. As we walked to the General’s office he held my hand. I learned quite quickly that this was a Vietnamese custom for friends, nothing more. In fact, after we knew each other, he would say he loved me. He was a really super little guy. He was full of questions about what my life was like in the US, and was anxious for me to know about Vietnam. He took me many places including a Cao Dai Temple. It was spectacular and beautiful. I sure hope in the end he got out of Vietnam and back to France.
Editors Note: Dai Uy Phat later became Colonel Phat and at this writing lives in California.