Black Ponies and PBRs

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

I got to Vung Tau for my tour with the 1st ATF as a Jade FAC, in July of 1969. The USN Light Attack Squadron, VAL-4, the Black Ponies, were flying OV-10s out of there at the time, and were still there when I left in mid-1970. On several occasions I was able to use them in our AO. We bordered the Rung Sat Special Zone where they operated, and we would call on them if we got in trouble and nothing else was available.
The Navy had a very active “brown water” operation going from a naval base a little ways north of the city of Vung Tau. When we were in the “bar hopping” mode, their small O’Club was on our list of stops.
On one occasion, I went along on an operation looking for a local POW camp on the west side of our AO. I rode along on one of their three PBRs and was to perform the ground FAC role if we got into the “thick-of-things.” We checked a lot of sampans and found a few hidden goodies, but did not find any sign of a POW camp.
The boat crewmen were all wearing flak vests, life preservers, helmets, and web-belts with side-arms, and they all kept a rifle in their hands for most of the trip. It was about 110 degrees in the shade with no breeze! This all seemed a little “dramatic” to me and I thought they were just putting on a show for the Air Force “puke”. I had stripped down to the waist because of the heat and had my rifle close, but not in hand. One of the guys finally asked me to come with him below deck. When we got down there, he closed the hatch, turned off the lights and said, “Sir, look around. What do you see?”
What I saw were dozens of bullet holes letting the light shine through! He said, “They don’t patch the ones above the waterline if there’s no major structure involved.” He also advised me that they got hit on just about every trip. The very polite young navy troop was sending the not too smart AF captain a not too subtle message.
He didn’t have to say anything else. Back up on deck I put on every last piece of gear they had given me. Luckily, we didn’t receive any fire on that trip. They thought I might be a “good luck charm“ and invited me to come back for another trip. I declined!
There may have been another operations location for VAL-4, but I never heard one mentioned.
Editor’s Note: The other location was at Binh Thuy. Another personal note. Chris was my first roommate at Travis when I reported there to fly the C-133B. He was a navigator in the C-124. Later went to pilot training, something that he had always desired intensely.