A Different Perspective

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

I was the flight surgeon for the 19th TASS, and for the 22nd TASS before it left Bien Hoa. I managed to fly combat missions with the Rash, Rustic, Rake, Jade, and Pretzel FACs. I finally ended my career at Patrick AFB in Florida, flying with the FAC training squadron. Since I switched from group to group, I maintained a single call sign, X- ray 01. Here are a couple of the stories you might find interesting.

This was a rather controversial topic at the time. Just about everybody supported it, but because the US Government wasn’t supplying the Cambodians with arms, its legality was, at best, questionable. Luckily, the commanders, police, and OSI were busy with other problems regarding our people, and they didn’t get involved, or if they did, they were on our side.
It all started as the result of one mission where Hank Keese, Rustic 16, and I were flying over Kompong Chhnang. I think that’s where we were, although I was often lost. We saw a well- armed NVA unit chase three Cambodian soldiers who appeared to have only Enfield-type carbines, probably of WWI vintage. Back in the States it was probably written up as a guerrilla unit routing Government forces, but that’s another issue.
In any case, it was obvious that the Cambodians could use some help.
That evening I went with the Rash FACs to a 1st Air Cavalry Division dinner. While there, I saw US soldiers preparing to collect and destroy captured weapons. I went over to a group of the grunts and told them about the Cambodians who were fighting without any reliable weapons and that it would be a real payback to the VC if we could send the weapons back into the field against them and the NVA. The Cav troops liked the idea, and pretty soon the word spread all the way to An Loc. I started getting jeep-loads of weapons, which I stored in my room at the Rash hooch. My roommate, an Issue FAC, moved out. It became a joke in the hooch that if a rocket ever hit us, the secondaries would go off for a week. There are times when, whether they knew it or not, they were not joking. The guys on the local SEAL team, who usually drank with us, brought in captured RPGs and the Green Berets contributed some explosives.
One day a master sergeant from Di An came by and said that he had a bunker full of weapons. A security cop borrowed an APC, and we drove out to get them. When we returned, it was obvious that I had outgrown my room. We kept the APC outside the Rustic hooch until I could find a storage area. Finally, Colonel Slane, the Base Commander suggested that the APC didn’t belong outside the hooch, but that there was room in the bomb dump for storing “bulk items.”
It just kept building up. One day while conferring with the OSI on a drug problem, I noticed that they had a .30 caliber machine gun mounted in front of their office. Another security policeman, who later became a Rustic interpreter, helped with that acquisition. When I later met with the head of the OSI, he asked whether the gun was being put to good use. I told him, not yet, but it soon would be.
We learned of an impending inspection team visit and had to move the weapons from the bomb dump. One of our Cambodian officers, Colonel Oum, arranged for a Cambodian plane to pick up the pallets of arms, and the Rustics and other volunteers loaded the plane. It was hectic, but every now and then things do work out right. I still feel very good about that entire episode.

A View from the Ground
The FAC and the people they supported on the ground tended to develop very close relationships. You could hear it in their voices, and sometimes you could see it in their faces if you got close enough at the right time. You could hear it in the FACs voice while he watched helplessly as an airstrike was disapproved or delayed. You could see it in their faces when they were together, particularly in informal situations. The camaraderie and bonding between the 1st Cav and the Rash FACs was particularly strong, as was that between the Rustics and the Cambodian ground commanders who occasionally visited Bien Hoa and stayed with us.
In mid-1971 I had the opportunity to change places and see things from the perspective of the guy on the ground. A Rash FAC had been missing for two days in an area held by the VC. Right at dusk the wreckage was spotted, but there was heavy gunfire from the jungle in the area. There had been no radio contact on the emergency radio carried by all fliers.
Jolly Green was supposed to recover the missing pilot, but the 1st Cav said that their AAT would go in to recover their FAC. Even though the FAC was an AF officer, the Army considered him one of their own. The Jolly Green would fly over them as a backup during the recovery. I felt that if the FAC were alive his injuries would likely be more severe than a corpsman was trained to treat. I volunteered to go in with the AAT, and Technical Sergeant Leal went with me.
As the Huey neared the landing zone, it became obvious that we would be out in the open, surrounded by dense jungle that could hide anything. Suddenly, I didn’t feel like John Wayne any more. I felt more like R2D2 surrounded by the Sand People. The vines were so thick and dense that you couldn’t see more than ten feet into them. Luckily, one of the Cav stopped me from hitting a trip wire connected to a mortar, which I hadn’t seen. I was a rookie, and no one there would have ever confused me with Rambo.
When we finally arrived at the crash site, we found that “the Russian” had already died. We recovered the body and returned with it in the Jolly. Since I had replaced their medic, I stayed with the AAT in case something happened. The rest of the mission was uneventful.
The terrifying part for me was being totally exposed to an unknown enemy in the nearby jungle foliage – something our guys on the ground faced day-in and day-out for their entire tour.
When I looked up, though, I could see two OV-10s circling overhead. I could see the pilots, and I knew that they were there to protect me. Obviously, they were there to support the whole mission, but under the circumstances, I felt that those guys were looking out for me personally. One of them waved, and it was then that I really began to understand the “special relationship.”

Editor’s note: The “Russian” referred to by Dr. Thomas is almost undoubtedly John Rydlewicz, a Rash FAC KIA in 1971