The Early Days in SEA

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

In a word, it was confusion. That’s how I’d describe the scene in SVN when I arrived in early January of 1963. AF and Army people were everywhere, vehicles of all descriptions sped up and down mostly dirt roadways, and the Tan Son Nhut flightline was an eclectic mix of L-19s, RF-101s, Heliocouriers, and every type of airlift aircraft imaginable.
In late December of 1962, I was told, along with several others at Itazuke AB in Japan, that I’d be going TDY for 90 days to Vietnam for a flying assignment. At the time, I was the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing/Base Information Officer at Itazuke, and was flying T-33’s about 25 hours a month towing targets for the F-102 unit there.
One day, we were living with our families in what was considered a fairly desirable assignment; the next, we were getting off a Southern Air Transport DC-6 at Tan Son Nhut and looking for our home away from home. We reported to Major (later Major General) Carl G. Schneider in 2nd ADVON, and were told that we’d have a variety of assignments, including operations staff, L-19 pilot at various units throughout the country, and duties wherever else we were needed. Some of us were sent immediately to places like Soc Trang, Pleiku, Cu Chi, DaNang, and Nha Trang. I did staff work in the Operations Section for a few days. Then I was told that I was being assigned to fly with the VNAF L-19 squadron at Tan Son Nhut.
This unit had about 16 airplanes and about 10 VNAF pilots, so essentially a couple of us were assigned to the unit to help bring it up to strength. The checkout in the airplane was somewhat abbreviated. Two or three times around the pattern, as I recall, and we were on our own. I had a leg up on some of my compatriots, as I had been a FAC in the T-6 Mosquitos in Korea for a year, but not until after the armistice had been signed. At least I was fairly proficient in map reading, had fired WP marking rockets, and had a fair education in what the FAC’s role was supposed to be.
I soon learned that the VNAF way of doing things was not exactly the USAF way. For instance, there was no flying during the siesta hours (1300–1400), and no night flying. The missions were a combination of FAC, aerial taxi, VR, and escort duties. If your mission were a true FAC one, you’d be controlling Farmgate T-28s or B-26s, both of which had very limited ordnance loads. Targets were difficult if not impossible to see. On most missions, you flew with an ARVN officer in the back seat to interpret what the ground commander was saying.
The missions we liked least were the ones that involved train or ship escort. A train left Saigon each morning about 0700, and we would join up on the train shortly after it left Bien Hoa about 0800. From then on, we flew lazy circles above the locomotive at about 3,000 feet while it raced along at 25 mph maximum. At about 1100, the train stopped for a 30 minute lunch break, but because there was no place to land, we continued to circle. Eventually, the diesel engine pulling 10 to 15 freight cars would pull away from its jungle stop and head for one of the towns along the coast. By the time the train got within sight of the coast, it was decision time for us. Did we land and refuel from 55-gallon drums with hand- cranked pumps, or did we try to make it back to Tan Son Nhut on the fumes. At the time, Tan Son Nhut had only a single runway, so if someone blew a tire or otherwise blocked the runway, our only alternate was Bien Hoa. The only reciprocating engine fuel available was 100/130. As a consequence, the O-470 engines in the L-19 rarely got more than 200-300 hours before needing overhaul.
Author’s Note: The train escort mission had an interesting history. When the decision was made, several months earlier, to try to stop the VC attacks on the trains, L-19s were tasked to fly escort, while T-28s orbited just out of sight. After a few weeks of this, it became apparent that the VC rarely attacked the train when an L-19 was near, so the T-28s went to a strip- alert posture at Bien Hoa for the rest of the time of my tour.
On several occasions, we would be told to fly to a division headquarters or a provincial head- quarters and pick up a division commander or province chief and take him “wherever he wanted to go.” He might want to look over his area of responsibility, visit some of his troops, or come to Saigon for R&R. Once, I was assigned to the Tay Ninh Province Chief for a week. Because he wanted me nearby in case something came up, he invited me to share his very spacious quarters in a colonial mansion downtown. Three or four other US officers were also his guests, so our meals alternated between American and Vietnamese. If breakfast was chicken-head soup, then lunch would be hamburgers and fries, then back to noodles or rice with nuoc mam (a fermented fish sauce similar to soy sauce but much more pungent) for supper.
Living in Saigon at the time was no particular hardship, and it was easy to see why some had called Saigon the Paris of the Orient. One of the other permanent party operations officers at 2nd ADVON needed a roommate, so I shared his two-bedroom apartment, complete with a Chinese maid/cook, for almost my entire tour. On the nights when we didn’t want Chinese food (that was all she knew how to cook), we walked the three or four blocks to the Rex Hotel, a Navy- run four-story BOQ with an O’Club on the top floor. Tuesday night was steak night, so charcoal grills were set up on the roof. You cooked your own steak while off in the distance, you could hear artillery fire. Mornings, I went to work in a taxi, dressed in a clean and pressed flying suit.