An Aussie FAC

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

In June of 1969, I was assigned to the 19th TASS at Bien Hoa and, from there, deployed to support the 1st ATF at Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy Province. The ATF was self-supporting, was totally independent, and had its own AO, but it was reliant on the USAF for CAS and FACs. I was based at the coastal airfield of Vung Tau where we shared a hotel unit with a USAF Caribou squadron. We most frequently operated from Luscombe Field at Nui Dat where we maintained a TACP in support of the 1 ATF. The FACs who supported the TF were assigned the callsign “Jade.” There was usually one Aussie fighter pilot assigned as a Jade FAC. The Jade FACs were originally equipped with O-1s, but they were replaced in 1969 by O-2As. I flew that aircraft exclusively.

First Impressions
I was impressed by several things. First, by the sheer scale and commitment of US military resources to the War. Second, by the pockmarked, diseased, landscape of Vietnam – the result of years of bombing and Agent Orange. Third, the courage of the aircrews – particularly the baby-faced Army warrant officers flying helicopters. Finally, by the professionalism of the vast majority of the “old-timers.”
Between missions morale was generally low and the intention of each serviceman became one of surviving the war. When we were airborne it was a different matter as we each had a job to do. DEROS was the most important question when meeting a stranger – like meeting a fellow prisoner – “What was your crime and how long do you have left to serve?”
We watched a man walk on the moon and yet wondered whether we had in fact progressed from the Dark Ages. We were capable of visiting the planets and yet spent our effort trying to kill one another. Vietnam was a time for deep reflection.
We looked for whatever fun or joy we could find in the day. Flying was a pleasure compared to being on the ground. We drank too much and slept too little. We played card games. We told dirty jokes. We listened endlessly to Glenn Campbell on the Jukebox, and we drooled over the centerfolds in Playboy Magazine. Visits by entertainment groups, were treasured breaks in the ugly routine of war – mud, heat, mosquitoes, and worst of all, the boredom.
The black market was active. MPC replaced money and was changed every six months or so to prevent the accumulation of illegitimate money. Greenbacks were treasured and were a powerful bargaining tool. Barter was rife. Poncho liners were a unit of currency and could be exchanged for almost anything. I carried an Australian- issue Browning 9 mm automatic and could have exchanged it for a new Jeep. An army officer was offered an airplane in exchange for his Land Rover. Sergeant Bilko was alive and well.

My Claim to Fame – “Split my Smokes”
In our Province we Aussies experimented with air power in direct support of the troops as we sought to maximize the result of minimal resources – we needed accurate, safe, low-cost weapons. We knew that in future wars we would never have the massive firepower of the USAF. We played with precision weapons delivery before we knew about smart bombs.
I developed a technique where I fired a pair of WPs on one marking pass –one a little short and one a little long. Initially I used it with the Aussie Canberra bombers. The idea had two advantages. First, it gave the pilot, and the navigator lying in the bomb-aimer’s position in the nose, a line-up reference for their attack. Second, it eliminated differences of interpretation of distance. Each fighter pilot, and perhaps each FAC, had different impressions of distance on the ground. If you wanted to move an aim point say 50 metres beyond the previous bomb, the result might vary widely, and in close situations could mean life or death for the wrong people. By using two smokes I could use proportional distance, which were consistent for all pilots; e.g. aim two-thirds of the way to the second smoke. I found it to work extremely well.

Most Memorable Mission
“Night scramble – troops in contact – fighters on the way”. At dusk there was a scramble – Aussie troops had been ambushed and they were still in contact with the enemy.
I had flown the same O-2 earlier that day. There were problems with bringing both alternators on-line together, but they seemed to work OK independently. The problem was signed off as, “Checks OK” by the ground crew. Again each alternator checked OK, but not when both were on-line together. There was no time to change aircraft so I decided to go. I had USAF Captain Carter C. (Chris) Neale, Jade 08, as my copilot. We were loaded with WPs and flares and fortunately, had a flashlight each.
The transit to the contact area was as black as a cow’s insides. By the time we arrived, the VC had pulled back and we weren’t needed after all. We continued to overfly the area just to be certain, and then – trouble! Without warning, total electrical failure. Our world went black and silent, except for the engines. No radio, no intercom, no cockpit lights, no attitude indicator, no flaps, no nothing. I switched to the second alternator, and you guessed it, it wouldn’t come on line. The only illumination was our flashlights. I shouted to Chris to illuminate the instrument panel – especially the airspeed indicator.
We managed to turn around with no attitude information and could just see the lights of Vung Tau in the distance. There was a 30knot crosswind at Vung Tau and a heavy rain-shower had just passed. The PAP runway was wet and slippery.
We made it to short final and we were lined up nicely. Everything looked good. Then an OV- 1 Mohawk taxied onto the runway. We couldn’t believe our eyes! Of course, it wasn’t his fault. He didn’t know we were there – no radio and no lights.
We had to go around – very carefully. This meant a climbing turn away from the runway lights in a direction where there was no horizon – again, black as guts. I shouted to Chris to keep the airspeed indicator illuminated in the climbing turn. It was a tense few minutes but lady luck was with us that night. In a few minutes, we had landed OK – with no flaps and no lights, with 30 knots of crosswind, and on slippery PAP.
Of course I had to submit a formal incident report, and the Wing Safety Officer called me the next week. He didn’t know whether to write me up for an award for bringing the bird home in one piece, or to admonish me for taking a suspect airplane in the first place. He did neither – which, in my opinion, was an acceptable compromise.

I was controlling a pair of F-100s from Bien Hoa. By the way, my favorite fighters for TIC were F-100s and A-37s. Those ANG F-100 squadrons at Bien Hoa and Phan Rang were stocked with old hands from the ANG. They flew and bombed well. The target was a small cave in a rocky out- crop of the Long Hai Mountains. A defector had fingered the target. It was one of those targets that you either hit or missed. There would be no partial result. We couldn’t use the more accurate high drags as they wouldn’t penetrate the rock and we could easily miss over the top. We would have to use a conventional high angle pass with slicks, and accurate delivery of those bombs called for a great deal more skill on the part of the pilot.
On the second pass the lead F-100 placed his MK-82 slick right down the throat of the cave. Later a Bell UH-47 Sioux helicopter, callsign “Possum,” went in to give us a BDA. He couldn’t find anything but shredded papers and clothing – the cave had disappeared. BDA? Who knew?
On another afternoon I had a pre-planned strike using an Aussie Canberra. The cloud base over the target prevented a safe level pass – the bomber would have picked up fragmentation from its own bombs. I diverted to a target which had been nominated by intelligence sources as a secondary target, and that had prior approval as an alternate. The target was a cave, shielded by large rocks on the south side of the Long Hai Mountains. It was partly obscured by clouds, but I thought we could just get in. It was clear that we wouldn’t be able to drop the bombs on individual passes – the load of six 750 pound bombs would have to be dropped simultaneously.
I stood off and managed to mark the target though a break in the cloud as the Canberra lined- up for his bombing run. He dropped the full load through a break in the clouds, and the six bombs straddled the target perfectly.
Later, another defector reported that there had been a meeting of the local VC commanders and NVA in the cave that day, and that there were more than 20 of them in the cave when the Canberra silently unloaded its fatal cargo.

Most Humorous Experience
We had many visitors at Vung Tau. The best/worst/biggest/smallest/fastest/slowest were Marine Corps pilots. One had the trick of picking up a full can of beer and breaking it open across his forehead. He was challenged to do the same with Aussie beer. He didn’t realize that Aussie beer came in a steel can instead of aluminium. There was blood everywhere!

Lessons Learned
The fourth most important lesson for me was that war is won on the ground and that air forces contribute to that end. There was no point creating a swimming pool in every Vietnamese garden. Someone had to occupy the garden! The first, second, and third lesson was this – the will to win is more important than any other weapon of war. My experiences at home on R&R, and what we learned from the radio and newspapers while we were in Vietnam is that we (the US, Australia, and, New Zealand) didn’t have it!