(Just) Another Day at the Office

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

It was early Spring of 1966, and I had just been assigned as the ALO/FAC to the 10th ARVN Division, Advisory Team 98, at Bien Hoa AB in the RVN. I was an old-timer, or so I thought. After all, I had been in country for almost a month. What’s more, I hadn’t picked up any hits, and I hadn’t been wounded, captured, or KIA. In short, I was feeling pretty good about myself – indestructible you might say.
The man I replaced, Captain Andy Anderson, an F-106 pilot from ADC, was in a big hurry to get back to the Land of the Big BX, and had only a few days to teach me enough so that I could be on my own. Boy, did I miss him in a hurry!
Soon after I got settled in, my boss, Major Pat Kramer, an ex F-4 Phantom pilot from TAC, called early one morning from our headquarters at Xuan Loc. He told me I was to take an ARVN first lieutenant intelligence officer up on a VR mission. The lieutenant wanted to verify some information he had received. I called him, and we arranged to meet at the O-1 maintenance shack on the flight line at Bien Hoa.
Author’s Note: The maintenance shack had an old tower in front of it. On the tower was a sign that will bring back memories for many a Bird Dog driver. It read, in large letters, “TWA” and under those, in smaller letters, were printed the words “Teeny Weeny Airlines.”
I drove out in my Jeep and met the lieutenant. He was a small, slender, cheerful man who wore his Army uniform well. He carried a pair of binoculars and a briefcase that contained maps and papers. At the aircraft, he pulled out a well-marked map and showed me the area in which he was interested. I was pleased that he spoke English well enough for me to understand him the first time he said something. How important that became will be clearer in a minute.
He asked me to take him to an area about 18 miles south-southeast of Bien Hoa. It was in what I knew as VR Area Hotel 3. It seemed that he had intelligence regarding a company of VC harassing a string of peaceful farming and fishing hamlets, and he wanted to take a first-hand look.
As we approached the area in which he was interested, we saw a church with a tall white steeple, on top of a hill. He asked me to circle it a few times. I believe it was near a small village known as Ong Doi. Before long, three or four men in camouflage uniforms came out of a small building nearby and waved at us and pointed southward. My observer waved back, and directed me to fly a little south, then west, to circle over a narrow dirt road running through trees, and then back east and south again to parallel another dirt road. Occasionally he would have me circle a small hamlet once or twice, then proceed. Soon he asked me if I would fly lower and right over the road, so that he could get a good look through the trees to the west of the road. Nervously, I obliged him, but I decided to carry a little extra airspeed for safety.
We hadn’t been at our lower altitude for more than a minute when I thought I heard the sound of a loose shoulder harness slapping against the side of the aircraft. Wrong! My observer tapped me vigorously on the shoulder and said, “Dai Uy! Dai Uy! They shoot! They shoot!”
Before I could react, I realized that the sound was the supersonic snap of multiple rounds whizzing by the cockpit.The sound was followed immediately by the loud report from the muzzles of the guns. Obviously, the shooters were very close.
Author’s Note: The guns turned out to be .30 caliber BARs – US weapons left over in SEA from the Indochina Campaign during the Second World War.
Before I could react, there came the sound I will never forget – the first time I heard a round smashing into my aircraft! It sliced through the fuselage skin, punched through the cockpit floor right in front of the lieutenant, and then through the carburetor air screen cover that I had left lying on the rear cockpit floor after removing it during my preflight inspection. Finally, it slammed into the baseplate of the rear cockpit control stick, and dropped to the floor. It had missed the lieutenant’s right ankle by less than an inch!
The aircraft shook violently. I instinctively shoved the stick forward, jammed the throttle wide open, and banked hard left to avoid the guns, but I was too late. The shooting had stopped as quickly as it had begun, the damage had been done, and I was no longer feeling indestructible!
It probably only took a second or two to regain my wits, and when I did, I found us just above the treetops in a steep left turn with the engine screaming. I also discovered that my arms and legs were shaking, and, worse yet, I had the strongest urge to pee that I had ever had in my life. We needed to make an unscheduled pit stop, and soon!
I stopped the turn, rolled out on a northeast heading, picked up Route 15, and turned northward toward Long Than. I decided to land at the Bearcat SF Camp north of Long Than to relieve myself and assess damage to the aircraft.
Approaching Bearcat, I announced my presence on the radio and prepared to land to the west. The west end of the runway was surrounded by trees and brush, which suited my immediate purposes just fine. I landed, taxied, and parked on the far right side of the runway. Unstrapping my seatbelt and shoulder harness, I unceremoniously tumbled out of the plane, managing to grab onto one of the wing struts as I did so. I then took a whiz of herculean proportions! What a relief!
I realized I wasn’t shaking as badly as I had been before, and I decided it was time to compose myself and try to behave like it was “just another day at the office.”
Returning to the aircraft, I saw my Vietnamese observer sitting forward in his seat, grinning from ear to ear. In his left hand, he was holding up the carburetor air screen cover. It had a large, ugly bullet hole in it. In his right hand, he was holding the smashed remains of the bullet that had so dramatically attracted our attention. Then it struck me that although this man was young and unimpressive in appearance, he had probably been through many harrowing experiences and close calls. He was undoubtedly a combat-hardened veteran who had seen a good deal of combat, and he probably had ice-water in his veins – like it was “just another day at the office.”
I never did find out more about him. The clock of war was ticking, and we both had to get back to Bien Hoa to do our jobs – me, to write a report on the mission and the hit, and he, I’m sure, to initiate some action against the VC we had discovered.
I checked the aircraft for visible signs of serious damage, but could find none. I also carefully checked the control system. After I took off, I looked at my watch. It had only been 13 minutes since we had taken the hit. My, how time flies when you’re having fun!
That evening, I went to the Officers’ Club to eat. I downed three bourbon-and-waters in a matter of minutes while I was waiting for my meal, and didn’t feel as if I had drunk any alcohol at all. I later drove to the Team 98 compound and went to bed. I lay on my back musing about the rite of passage I had gone through earlier that day. A small voice in my head kept asking, “Why me?” Why had someone shot at my aircraft at that particular place and time? I had done nothing to make them angry with me. We were only sightseeing, so to speak. So many questions, so few answers. My mind and emotions went into free-fall. I felt angry, confused, and curious, all at the same time. WHY ME? Then, another voice inside of me began to speak. “This is a war, stupid. They want to kill you so that you and your aircraft cannot be used against them again. And, if it will make you feel any better, they want to kill every FAC in SEA. So don’t feel so damned special!”
Right! That said it all. My questions were answered. I drifted off into a fitful sleep, a wiser but much less cocky young man.
Author’s note: The Bird Dog mechanics measured the angle and the route the bullet took as it came into the plane. They said that we were both lucky it had hit the carburetor screen cover and the base plate. Otherwise, it would probably have hit me in the back of the head. I’d have been dead, and the observer couldn’t fly!