Someone up There Loves Me

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

Saturday 17 April 1965 dawned as a typical day in the Mekong Delta. It began uneventfully with a routine rendezvous with Shed 21, a flight of four A-1Es, at 1030.
My Vietnamese observer was Lieutenant Phong. The four A-1s dropped their ordnance in a timely and professional manner, while receiving the normal small arms ground fire. I estimated that seven sampans were destroyed and 17 structures were damaged. Routine, but the routine was soon to change!
At 1500 Shed 31, another flight of four A- 1s, arrived on target. One member of the flight was Captain Larry Height. The target was the VC District Headquarters and a VC platoon bivouacked in the area. The target was triangular in shape bounded by buildings around an open cultivated field. The flight of four carried a typical ordnance load – two aircraft were carrying napalm and the other two were loaded with bombs. Of course, each aircraft had their four 20 mm cannons.
This was a significant mission, because it was the first time the Province Chief had given permission to destroy water buffalo, the working animal of Vietnam. He had agreed because the VC maintained complete control over the region. They lived, grew food, housed their troops, cared for their wounded, and provided a safe place for their soldiers there. No government authority had visited or operated in the area in months, perhaps years.
I decided that the water buffalo would be the primary target for the napalm and positioned the flight to first bomb the Headquarters and other buildings. The fighters released all bombs on target, and my effort turned to the task of eliminating a herd of about 15 water buffalo. We assumed this would be quickly and easily accomplished with the napalm carried by the other two A-1s.
Napalm requires the attacking aircraft to fly about 50 feet above the ground with supporting planes about 100 feet above them. The airplanes that drop bombs provided protection for the napalm delivering aircraft by flying slightly higher and on a path perpendicular to the attacking aircraft. They strafed the target and known active gun positions.
As the first A-1 made its initial napalm run, everything looked perfect. Two napalm canisters left the wings, but the buffalo saw the napalm coming and separated into two groups. The napalm landed in the vacant area and spread harmlessly between and behind the thundering herd that immediately joined up again and continued ahead at a full gallop. This shocked everyone. The next approach was from behind the herd with the same results! How the buffalo saw the napalm coming we’ll never know, but they did. Napalm attacks are full of activities by the entire flight and FAC, but it was beginning to be down right funny with the usual kidding about not being able to hit the broad side of a barn, etc. On another pass, the pilot fired a short burst from his cannons. Dust flew everywhere, but not a single buffalo went down. It was as if you shot at a covey of birds without aiming at a specific target. The herd dispersed and continued on their way.
As Captain Height pulled off the target, he reported a hit on his engine. It began smoking as the leaking oil met the engine’s hot exterior. Immediately his engine began to run rough and he did not know how long it would continue to provide power. I suggested he fly a course of 130 degrees that would head him toward Cao Lanh, my home Base. It had a 1,100 foot paved runway – not nearly long enough, and without emergency equipment. Larry transmitted the normal MAYDAY emergency message to Paddy Control, the Tactical Radar Control Center for the area. The four A1’s were faster than my O-1, and they began to leave me behind. I provided information to Paddy Control and prepared to coordinate the rescue. I did not see the A-1 as it’s engine finally failed and Larry attempted a landing in a dry rice paddy.
Larry ran out of altitude short of the desired landing area. His plane hit hard and bounced, shearing off the right wing. When he hit again, the impact broke the fuselage in half directly behind the wings. The engine broke away from the fuselage and the rotating propeller cut the instrument panel away as cleanly as if done by a surgeon. There was nothing in front of Larry except the rice paddy. His spinal column was broken.
When I arrived, Larry was out of the aircraft and lying in a ditch waving. There was intense gunfire in the area, so quick action was essential. I made a 90 – 270 degree turn to land in an adjacent open rice paddy. Safely stopped, my Observer and I jumped out leaving the engine idling. The Observer slid to the tail of the O-1, and began shooting his pistol over the fuselage at a tree line where the VC were firing toward Larry and our airplane. I ran about 300 meters, wading across a canal, to help the injured pilot back to my O-1. As I approached, Larry was walking slowly while firing at the tree line. He holstered his pistol and stuck out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Larry Height and am I glad to see you!” He was bleeding and in terrible pain. I began to think how the three of us were going to make it off. While I was surveying the dry rice paddy, White Knight 7, an Army helicopter, arrived. Larry climbed into the helicopter and was soon safely airborne.
It was time for us to go! We had landed in plowed ground, but part of the paddy was unplowed and looked smoother. When I applied power to turn toward the smooth, unplowed area, the O-1 would not move! The plowed mud had hardened, and the lumps served as effective chocks on both wheels. I got the airplane moving by applying 100% power and having the Observer and me jump up and down in our seats. We taxied to the unplowed area preparing for a fast maximum-performance takeoff.
The safest way out was to take off into the wind, but it was over a canal with trees about 20 feet tall on each bank. I made a short field takeoff. It was close. The O-1 stalled as I abruptly climbed to avoid the trees. The stall caused the aircraft to settle on the other side of the tree line, but it touched only once in the far paddy before continuing to fly.
We remained over the downed A-1 for about an hour preventing the VC from removing anything from the crash site. Beaver 84 replaced me as cover and I returned to land at Cao Lanh. The landing was uneventful until I applied the brakes. Unknown to me, the rough rice paddy landing caused the right hydraulic line to come loose and there was no right brake! Quick reaction allowed me to position the O-1 on the right side of the runway while the rudder was still effective. As the end of the 1,100 foot runway approached, I applied right full rudder and hard left brake that resulted in a “ground loop,” but the O-1 remained on the paved surface. We tightened the nut and added hydraulic fluid to the right brake line. It was as good as new. And so ended the day before Easter of 1965.
Thinking back on the events, I realized that this was the closest I came to dying from a cause other than enemy action. As I exited the O-1, I had a 45 pistol on my hip and my AR-15 (now the M-16) rifle in my hand. My head was down providing some protection from prop-wash from the idling engine. As I started to run, something stopped me from proceeding in the direction I originally intended to follow. I do not know how close I came to the invisible rotating propeller, but it was close. Nor did I think about it at the time. Only in the peace and quiet of my room did my close approach to that turning propeller really dawn on me. In reliving the event many times, I realized that “something” prevented me from running into that propeller. On the way back to the O-1, that same warning came to me to avoid the propeller. Most never know how close injury or death comes or what protects you, but in my case I know...
Editor’s note: Thad Welch earned the Silver Star for this action.