Sidewinder 14’s Last FAC Mission

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

On 3 September 1967, an O-1 FAC aircraft gently lifted off the gravel runway of Phouc Vinh and rose above a lush green jungle. Captain Bob White, a former Purdue University football lineman, filled every inch of the front cockpit.
A veteran of hundreds of combat missions in Vietnam, he easily flew the aircraft while navigating by subtle landmarks in the jungle. Picking out familiar turns in the meandering Dong Nai river or small clearings in the triple-canopied jungle, he could almost pinpoint a six-digit set of coordinates without checking his frayed, dog-eared area map. This would be Captain White’s last flight as an AF pilot and his last few minutes being physically whole.
He shifted in his seat to glance back at his Army SF passenger in the rear seat. Staff Sergeant Bob Rowland, a 33-year old Green Beret, smiled back at his pilot and gave him a “thumbs up” signal. This was his first flight with a FAC although he was on his second tour of duty in Vietnam. As an intelligence specialist with an SF A Team, he had received a report from a Vietnamese informant that an unknown number of enemy soldiers were to cross the Dong Nai River at a specific location that afternoon. He had prearranged with Captain White several days earlier that, if he received a solid tip from one of his trusted agents, they would check it out together. He looked around the cockpit and took note of the available armament: two CAR-15s with several bandoleers of ammunition clips, a bucket of hand-grenades and eight white-phosphorous 2.75-inch rockets slung underneath the wings.
Within minutes, they were approaching the target area. It was within artillery range of the Brigade Base at Phouc Vinh. The 155 mm gun batteries were extremely accurate and could pin down the enemy while tactical airstrikes could be ordered if they hit the jackpot with a large enemy unit. Suddenly, they were over the coordinates, 200 feet above the trees. Captain White banked the aircraft into a steep turn and looked down into the startled faces of an enemy squad crossing the river!
Captain White quickly reversed his turn and barked into the plane’s intercom. “Looks like a small squad of VC; too small for an airstrike. By the time artillery is cranked up, they’d be gone. Let’s hose ‘em down ourselves!” He tightened his turn and slapped an ammunition clip into his CAR-15. As Sergeant Rowland pulled the arming pins on two hand-grenades, the O-1 lined up on an attack heading and dropped low skimming just above the jungle. Both men braced themselves for the next few seconds of combat, adrenaline pumping, and breathing heavily. Steamy hot air mixed with the heavy sweet smell of the jungle blasted their faces. They didn’t know it, but they had made a grave mistake.
Although only a squad had been visible in the streambed, a full company of VC was under the treeline. They were experienced fighters, and their experience told them that they had to bring this FAC down before he could call in tactical air- strikes or artillery on their position. They hated the American pilots who flew their small gray airplanes and had a $10,000 standing reward out for FACs.
In a matter of seconds, every enemy soldier ran out into the small clearing next to the river and aimed his AK-47 toward the sound of the approaching aircraft. The next few moments seemed to pass in slow motion. The O-1 aircraft popped over the tree line in a 60 degree bank, the muzzle of Captain White’s rifle blinking on full automatic fire. Sergeant Rowland released his two hand-grenades into the pack of enemy soldiers. A hail of gunfire erupted from 100+ AK-47s, red tracers arcing to a point focused on the tiny aircraft. Two explosions on the ground from the hand-grenades sent white-hot shrapnel cutting through the tight throng, dropping scores of mortally wounded soldiers. Numerous bullets riddled the O-1, ripping away chunks of metal all over the aircraft and filling the cockpit with the
pungent smell of phosphorous from the tracers. Then, just as quickly, the staccato of automatic weapons fire stopped as the plane disappeared behind the cover of jungle canopy. Black smoke from the grenade explosions slowly dissipated above the carnage below.
Miraculously, Sergeant Rowland had not been hit although several bullets tore through his camouflage jungle fatigues. Captain White had taken an AK-47 round in his left side. It had tumbled inside his body tearing vital organs and had finally lodged in his spinal cord. His legs were instantly paralyzed leaving his feet tangled motionless beneath the rudder pedals. The pain was excruciating as he pulled the control stick back to gain a few hundred feet of altitude above the trees. Without a word, he passed out from shock and the heavy loss of blood.
Sergeant Rowland felt the O-1 start into a dive back toward the jungle. He had been in many life- threatening situations before but none quite like this. Recalling Captain White’s preflight briefing on emergency procedures, he pulled the auxiliary control stick from it’s stowed position in the back cockpit, placed it in it’s proper receptacle between his feet and pulled the stick back just aft of neutral. The plane leveled at 100 feet above the trees. He was flying the airplane but had no idea what he was doing or what to do next.
Slowly, Captain White regained partial consciousness, took control of the aircraft and headed toward Phouc Vinh. Waves of pain and semi-consciousness would hit him on the long, slow flight back. Sergeant Rowland would hold the aircraft level until the pilot shook the control stick signaling that he was awake again. Captain White’s paralyzed feet remained useless and jammed under the rudder pedals. Knowing that they would probably crash, Captain White ordered Sergeant Rowland to lock his shoulder harness straps. A strained radio call to the Brigade TOC advised that he was seriously wounded and in extreme pain but was inbound.
I had just lifted off the runway on a regularly scheduled FAC mission and had monitored Captain White’s radio transmission. His weak voice told me that he could barely maintain consciousness. “Sidewinder 14, this is Sidewinder16. What is your position,” I radioed. Captain White replied, “About five miles southeast of Phouc Vinh. I can’t see. (He was blind from the loss of blood and the effects of shock). I can’t take it anymore. I’m going to take it in.” “No, Bob, you’ll drown in the streams and rice paddies! If you can read me okay, I’ll give you a “gyro-out” approach.” (I was referring to a voice-controlled approach with turn directions used when a pilot’s direction and attitude indicator are out). “Okay,” he answered, weakly.
Flying in loose echelon formation on his wing, I gave him a series of succinct instructions: “Turn right; stop turn, drop your left wing more, push up your throttle a little, you’re close to a stall, turn left, more throttle, etc.” He valiantly fought to stay conscious and responsive.
Finally, he was lined up with the runway and on final approach. The entire Base population was out standing on top of buildings and vehicles, lining both sides of the runway and cheering the wounded pilot on! As he felt the impact of the runway, the relief was overwhelming and he slumped forward unconscious. The O-1 veered off the runway and slammed nose-down into a drainage ditch. Scores of soldiers raced across the runway to help with the rescue. But, Sergeant Rowland was already out of the aircraft and pulled Captain White out.
Captain Bob White was hospitalized and stabilized at the Army hospital at Long Binh. He remained in intensive care while the AK-47 bullet was removed and he gained enough strength to be evacuated from Vietnam. He had previously received the Silver Star for an earlier act of valor among other decorations, including the DFC and numerous Air Medals. He was Medically retired from the AF, received another Silver Star and the Purple Heart, and was reunited with his wife and two daughters in Indianapolis, Indiana. Although paralyzed for life from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair, Captain White began a full career with the US Postal Service and recently retired. His unwavering loyalty to his Country, and his positive spirit, have been an inspiration to everyone who has known him.
With Sergeant Rowland’s precise description of the enemy’s location, I was able to return to the battle site and decimate the remaining company of VC with several batteries of artillery. Captain White’s actions confirmed intelligence reports that numerous enemy units were converging on the area to link up and stage a major attack on the key Provincial Capitol of An Loc. The detection and subsequent elimination of this particular unit disrupted the enemy’s plans and averted the loss of an important Capitol and hundreds of lives.