A Lesson in Contrast

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

It’s exactly 31 years, to the day, since I left Australia for a tour of duty as a FAC in Vietnam. As I look back over half a lifetime, the details have been somewhat dimmed by the passage of time. However, a few impressions and a few memories still remain quite clear.
The contradictory nature of flying in Vietnam was brought home to me very quickly. My first destination after arriving in-country was Cam Ranh Bay. I was there to undergo conversion training in the O-2. I recall two events that occurred in the first two days. The course was not due to start for a day or so, so on my first day there, I had the opportunity to spend a free afternoon relaxing on the magnificent beach adjacent to the Base. I never expected to qualify for R&R so soon! The reality check arrived soon enough. The following day, and for the next three days, I flew as an observer in the O-2 looking for a FAC who had failed to return to base the day before. We did not find him, and the experience was a sobering contrast to my one and only expedition to the beaches of Vietnam.
The O-2 was a light aircraft originally built for the civilian market in the US, and intended to be flown primarily for pleasure. Ours was outfitted for war. It was overloaded and sluggish – made too heavy by the addition of an armor-plated seat, additional radio gear, and under-slung WP rocket pods on each wing.
Our missions varied between the routine tasks of reconnaissance and communication and the highly dynamic task of coordinating and directing awesome firepower in hostile situations. I think that in many respects, the FAC shared the experience of many military pilots in that he often felt somehow removed from what was going on below him – almost like watching a motion picture. On the other hand, when the situation demanded, we became intensely involved in the battle on the ground.
I also soon learned that not everyone spoke the same language. One of the many talents that FACs soon developed was the ability to listen to three radios at once and switch rapidly between them to transmit. When things were tight, it seemed as though there was one continuous transmission to three or more different people – troops on the ground, helicopters, artillery, and attack aircraft, among others, and the FAC had to be able to converse in the jargon of each of them. Being an Aussie FAC brought its own special communication problems. After a few weeks of responding to, “Say again FAC,” I developed my own special AmericanOZed accent, which went a long way to solving the problem. The ultimate test was to avoid misinterpretation between 13 and 19 and 30 and 90 – numbers that had initially caused so much difficulty, and some pretty conservative BDAs!
A lot of the intense job satisfaction that I am sure I shared with other FACs came from the enormous authority and responsibility vested in us, particularly given that most of us were relatively young. Dedication to doing the job well was automatically accepted without question by all the FACs I was privileged to serve with. In fact, I cannot recall anyone thinking twice about it. This on-the-job attitude contrasts significantly with some of the tales still being told about the way FACs spent at least some of their “off-duty” time!
We had never experienced life so intensely. Most of us never would again. The fear and elation, boredom and excitement, satisfaction and frustration, fun and misery, were good preparation for whatever else life would hold in store for us. I’m glad I had the chance.