Sleepytime, the Night FACs of the 19th TASS

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

As a former enlisted Marine, I was not surprised or disappointed when my first assignment after UPT in August 1968 was as a FAC in SEA. I was assigned to O-2A FAC training at Eglin soon after graduation, completed Aircrew Survival School at Fairchild AFB, and then PACAF Jungle Survival School in the Philippines.
Still a second lieutenant, I arrived at Bien Hoa in November of 1968. It turned out that the next year would be the best in what was to be more than 22 years of service. I had everything a young pilot could want: the respect of one’s comrades, life-and-death responsibility, and the real capacity to affect the outcome of battle.
The Sleepytime mission was to provide night support in a 5 X 15 mile- square area of the Mekong Delta east of Saigon. The mission began on 23 January, and its purpose was to stop the rocket attacks on Saigon and Tan Son Nhut. Later, our task widened to include protection of Bien Hoa and the Army Base at Long Binh. Finally, we supported SF camps along the III Corps/Cambodian border, particularly in TIC situations. We were tasked directly by the TACC.
We lived at Bien Hoa in hooches which came with maid service, and which were immediately adjacent to the O’Club. We also had a centrally located sandbag bunker which served the hooch occupants.
Our nighttime checkout included 100 hours with another FAC. Once we were considered qualified, we were assigned a FAN who operated a Starlight night vision scope and helped with the radios and navigation. Most of the FANs were senior captains and majors who were former SAC crewmembers and ROTC staff officers, and most of them had previously flown missions over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Many of them learned to fly the O-2A, and in an emergency could bring it home.
Several of my missions were flown with Major Don Schoeni, my AF ROTC Instructor from Washburn University. We younger FACs were given a great deal of advice by the FANs. Some of us, I am sure, would have made fatal mistakes long before we had time to learn from our own experiences. Although we came to appreciate very clearly what they had done for us, I’m sure we never thanked them properly.
On one of my checkout flights, we sent a flight of F-4s back to DaNang with a BDA of zero over zero. This meant they missed the target completely. As a result, they had to undergo additional training and another standardization flight. It was probably one of the harder phone conversations I have had when I had to explain to the Squadron Commander that his pilots had hit a friendly village and that, luckily, no one was killed.
Our mission was to provide coverage from dusk to dawn. We generally flew three separate missions using three different aircrews. At times of heightened alert, we were directed to have two aircraft airborne at the same time. We looked primarily for the VC setting up rocket launching sites and for rocket ignition flashes. Our response normally included 155 mm artillery fire, AC-119 and AC-47 gunship fire, and fighter attack missions supplied from various bases throughout Vietnam. Our O-2A also carried a pod of four two million-candlepower flares, one log marker, and a pod of seven WP rockets.
In January 1969, I performed a rescue mission for Navy Seals who were lost in the Mekong Delta, and were surrounded by VC. I located the Team and adjusted the gunfire of a battleship to literally blast a safe corridor through which the Seals escaped. It was quite a show on an otherwise slow night and it again demonstrated the versatility and adaptability of the FAC in Vietnam.
During the TET offensive of February 1969, Bien Hoa fought off a ground assault by an estimated battalion of NVA attacking from the east of the runway. After we put in three fighter strikes, a gunship, and artillery, the friendly tanks and infantry met little resistance.
Two interesting side notes: It took most of the morning to convince the Army Ground Commander to use F-100 fighters out of Bien Hoa to bomb that close to our runway. Further, the VC were told that Bien Hoa and Long Binh were undefended. In a letter from my mother in March 1969, she relayed that the stateside newspapers made it sound like we had lost the runway during the “Battle of Bien Hoa.” In reality, the attack only lasted a few hours after the FACs and fighters were turned loose, and it was completely repelled.
One night in mid-March 1969, all three of our aircraft aborted for maintenance. As you might expect, Saigon was hit by three rockets at 0600 – an unfortunate but graphic indication of our effectiveness when we were on scene.
The FAC community lost many pilots during my period of service. I must say that there were too many FACs who were not sufficiently aware of the combat environment and of their own limitations. Some survived, but others died unnecessarily. I miss them all, and I think about them often, especially on Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day.