They Were Whispering

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

“Covey 220, this is red team, do you read me?” They were whispering. My heart was up in my throat. This was going to be a bad one. I had never before gotten a Prairie Fire declared by a team that was whispering. I was told that when the team whispered, the Viet Cong had probably surrounded them and both groups were very close to each other. This was going to be a bad one.
I had been a Forward Air Controller (FAC) with six months in country when I was asked to become a member of the Prairie Fire team. The person in charge very reluctantly asked me if I wanted to join. He was afraid that being a little of a maverick, not one to adhere to rules very well, I wouldn’t last long before I managed to severely damage one of the Air Force’s OV-10s with me in it. I was offended. I was a Captain, a graduate of the Air Force Academy, and clearly one of the best pilots around. Just ask me. I had spent six months flying the Ho Chi Minh trail and could fire a 2.75” white phosphorous rocket, from six thousand feet up, right through the left windshield of trucks touring the trail (no need to hurt the driver).
After a lot of begging (I wish I could say on his part), I was allowed to join. The mission involved leading a “package” into the nether regions of the war zone, as well as those not exactly in the approved area, and inserting a team. The package usually consisted of two Army Huey’s and two Army Cobra gun ships. The team was made up of five US Army Green Berets and five South Vietnamese Rangers. I would lead this package to the area, park them in a high holding pattern, and then drop down to the deck to get a lay of the land and check out the intended landing zone. At least that’s what they told me. I think the prime reason was to see if I drew any enemy fire. While down there, I would go to full throttle and hug the tree tops as close as I could. My theory was that by the time I was within somebody’s gun sights, I would be gone. Besides, it was a lot of fun roaring along at tree top level. If the area was clear I would key the mike and say some predetermined word as I flew over the landing zone so that the package above would know where they were going in. Once the team was on the ground they would sneak around and do “Green Beret” things for a week or so until discovered. All these zones were “very” behind enemy lines. The Green Berets loved it.
Inserting the team wasn’t the end, however, for the next week we kept an airplane within handheld radio range day and night. Should they get into trouble we were right there. On this day I was right there. I had just shown up in the area and relieved the other Prairie Fire pilot. He said all was quiet. It was for about 30 minutes. Then came the whispered call for help.
The team reported that they were indeed surrounded. They were on the side of a mountain about half way up. They didn’t think they had been discovered yet, but there were sure a lot of Viet Cong around them beating the bushes. The team would not put out smoke for fear of being pinpointed, so we decided that they would stomp a little of the grass down and expose a bright two foot square orange panel. I’m sure it looked like a football field to them; but it looked like a candy wrapper to me when I finally spotted it.
Once I declared a Prairie Fire Emergency to Hillsboro (an airborne command post), I got first priority on anything airborne that had any ordinance on it. I usually got something within 10 minutes. Hillsboro said it might take a little longer. The team couldn’t wait. They were already under fire. They needed help right now! After much haggling, the Air Force had authorized us to carry live ammo in our four 7.62 mm M-60 machine guns. We called them popguns, but they were a lot better than nothing. From where the team was, I had only one way to strafe the site. I had to fly right over the top of the mountain, then down the side of it. This gave me about three seconds of shooting. After the first pass the team said that I would have to bring it in a lot closer if I were going to help them any. I told him that meant right on top of them. All he said was “please.” So on the second pass I came in with half flaps and throttles pulled back to idle. With this unnatural combination I managed to get a longer and more accurate firing. It was working. The team said that I was getting some hits. They figured a few more passes would quiet the Viet Cong down until help arrived.
On the third pass, I was really in a position to do some major damage. I knew where our guys were and I knew where the bad guys were. I lined up and squeezed the trigger and – nothing. The four M-60’s would not fire a single round. I continued the pass trouble shooting the firing system but nothing worked. I pulled up and came around again, for the good guys were yelling for help. I thought that if the guns wouldn’t fire, maybe I could fake it.
As I passed over the mountain top, the whole top started sparkling. There were a lot of people there that were not faked out. They were now shooting at me! I remember thinking “Hey guys, I’m not shooting at you all anymore. Shooting at me is not fair.” I lowered the nose, retracted the flaps and shoved the throttles to the wall. If I couldn’t strafe them maybe I could scare them with the props or something. They began to scatter; I began to press lower to the ground. I felt a few bumps as I roared over them but luckily none caused hard damage to the props or airframe. It was working. “Buzzing” kept them so occupied (probably at the sheer wonder at my stupidity) that they stopped shooting at the team. Luckily, I only had to do that twice. Two diverted F-4s arrived and their 20 mm strafing quieted things down until the Army package could arrive and extract the team.
The extraction was successful and we all met at Quang Tri. I got to talk to the team leader as the surgeons sowed up a two inch graze on his forehead. “I hope that was not my doing “, I said, because I knew that I had come close when my guns were working. “No”, he said, “This was a Cong bullet. Your rounds were close, though. So close, that we could have lifted up our cigarettes and lit them from the tracers, but that fine shooting saved our butts. My question to you, Captain, is what were those last few passes all about?” I told him. He mumbled something about my ancestry including unmarried parents. I refueled and headed back to DaNang, my home base.
I was feeling good. I had done something pretty stupid and had managed to live to tell the story. I wish I had remembered that pretty stupid things should only be done once in a lifetime.
On the way back south to DaNang, we always went east and flew down the coast. The idea was that over the water there were fewer people that liked shooting at airplanes. So there I was at about five thousand feet motoring along, when I spotted a large US destroyer sitting about 10 miles off the coast. One of the Navy’s finest. Maybe these poor bored souls would like a little air show, I thought. Liven up their day a little. I lowered the nose and streaked along side the great vessel. With the airspeed from the dive, I pulled up amidships into a loop and did another low-level pass. The sailors were waving. Well, I thought, looks like it’s time for a little impromptu air show. Looking back now, I think the biggest mistake was the very slow pass down the side of the ship, waving back. The Captain of the ship (I later learned was the USS Lindy McCormack) was not waving, he was writing down tail numbers. Mine, to be exact. He was upset. How was I to know that this particular Navy ship, of all the Navy ships in the Vietnam Combat theater, had nuclear weapons aboard? He had the silly idea that I might err and dent his ship. Denting might cause detonation and World War III. He was really upset. Not only had I almost caused World War III, but my antics had caused them to interrupt a fire mission. The ship had been shooting at the beach in direct support of some unit that was now without their artillery support. This Captain was very upset.
About ten minutes into my air show, put on solely for the morale of the navy troops, I heard a short message over the emergency radio frequencies. “OV-10 over the USS Lindy McCormack, stop your acrobatics immediately.” Well, I can take a hint. I ceased and left.
My landing at DaNang was uneventful, but almost perfect. I was feeling terrific. I had just saved a whole Green Beret team and had returned intact. Must speak to the crew chief, though, about those malfunctioning machine guns. As I taxied in, I noticed that there were a lot of people waiting for me. The Covey Commander, the Base Commander and a bunch of other brass I had never met. Wow, just for me! I had flown an almost perfect mission, but their welcome was not really necessary. I killed both engines several yards before my parking place. I wanted both props to have stopped rotating as soon as possible. Didn’t want to inconvenience the waiting crowd.
I unstrapped and climbed out of the cockpit. Something was wrong. There seemed to be a lot of quiet. There seemed to be a lot of somber faces. Something was very wrong!
The Covey Commander of the FACs in DaNang walked up to me and informed me that I was under house arrest, temporally removed from flying status and confined to quarters. I was to report tomorrow, early, for a trip to Bien Hoa (FAC headquarters) to answer the Navy’s accusations that I had greatly endangered one of the ships. Not the reception that I had hoped for.
The trip to Bien Hoa was quick and uneventful. I was not allowed to fly there myself. I was allowed to get into the back seat (with control stick removed) in one of our planes. I guess headquarters was afraid I would go berserk (again), take control en route and do something strange. No sense of humor.
As soon as we landed, I was escorted to the Commander of all the Forward Air Controllers. I was severely chewed out. Thank God, I had been severely chewed out before. My butt had plenty of scar tissue, so it wasn’t so bad, but it still hurt. At the end of the formal chewing out, the Colonel put his feet up on the desk, told me to stand at ease, and remarked, “Damn, Capt., what am I to do with you? You are one of my best pilots in the Prairie Fire program. The Navy is mad as hell and wants your hide. Got any suggestions?” I had one.
My buddies back at DaNang knew the FAC Colonel and figured him to be an alright guy and if we could give him some wiggle room, he would figure out a way to get me off the hook. So we had come up with a plan. In essence, I would throw myself at his mercy and admit my wrongdoing. Then with great anguish, I would lament. “If only I could pass on to the new pilots coming into the war zone the evils of buzzing Navy destroyers”.
The Colonel liked it. He could report to the Navy that I had been taken off flying status and made into a special safety officer. A terrible fate for a true warrior like me. No more flying into the thick of combat. No more chances to cheat the grim reaper. Truly a devastating sentence.
So, I took up a small desk in a dark corner at headquarters and tried to disappear. I managed to stay hidden for about a week until one morning the Colonel demanded my presence. “Yes Sir”, I reported. The Colonel said, “Capt, where is your first draft of your class presentation? A new class of Forward Air Controllers arrives this afternoon and I want you to give your speech on the evils of buzzing” I tapped danced around a little and reported that I would be ready in a few hours to practice my first run through. The Colonel said. “Great, I’m free at 3:00, I’ll meet you in the classroom”.
I was ready at three. The class was supposed to start at five. Not bad for someone who hadn’t done a thing up until that morning. I had found out that four of my fellow pilots in the last year alone had managed to kill themselves putting on air shows. Two in one plane. That one was really sad. The pilot in the front cockpit, who had been in the war for a year, was flying his replacement back. The replacement had been in country only a week. On take off, the old timer decided to do a “Victory roll” on takeoff and rolled right into the ground. Both of them were killed.
My presentation to just the Colonel in his office included this case history as well as three others. Each case with gory pictures. The safety office really had taken a lot of photos. At the end of the talk, I read the fax that the Navy had sent the Air Force vividly describing my little 15 minutes of “show de Aire”. I summed up with “Now gentleman, this pilot did not manage to kill himself. He is in fact alive, but not well. He probably wishes he really were dead, because he is in an awful lot of trouble”.
I thought my dry run in front of the Colonel went well. He was impressed. He liked the whole show, pictures and all, except for the last part. He said, “Captain, I noticed that your last part you presented your episode in the third person. I think you should change that. Seems to me that using the first person would have more impact. A much better ending would be something like, I am now in a heap of trouble.”
I protested. “Colonel, how can you make me stand up there in front of my fellow officers and admit guilt?”
You’re absolutely right,” he said, “But I can convene your court marshal in thirty minutes”.
I thought it over for a whole three seconds and decided that his idea for an ending was a really terrific idea. I went straight from his office to the classroom. There sat about twenty-five pilots brand new to the war zone. All eager to, “defend the skies that canopy free nations.” The class consisted of a major, five captains, and nineteen second lieutenants.
I took a deep breath and began presenting. The lecture went pretty well. The class showed plenty of interest. But about halfway through, the questions and comments seemed to fade away. I soon became the only one talking. I went ahead and finished by reading the fax from the Navy and as suggested, my confession. I asked for final questions. The room was dead silent. I remember thinking that I had really screwed this one up. Nothing to do but suck it up, smile, and leave – and head straight for the Officer’s Club.
Thank God it was early afternoon and the Club was open. I greeted the bartender and got the usual, “You should have been here last night.”
“Never mind that,” I said, “I am in deep poopoo and my career’s finished. Set me up and don’t let the glass experience that feeling of emptiness”.
Within an hour I was feeling no pain and the specter of lost careers didn’t seem so bad. In fact, it almost seemed like a good idea. The bartender had followed orders and while refilling my glass for the umpteenth time, told me that someone was looking for me. It was an enlisted man at the Club entrance. The Club wouldn’t let him in so I had to go to him. Almost made it without incident, except for the guy who stepped on my hand. I growled, he apologized and I crawled on.
The Sergeant at the door turned out to be the Colonel’s. I was to report to his office immediately. Things seemed to blur. The next thing I knew I was standing in front of the Colonel trying very hard to act sober and contrite. I don’t think I did either very well. What followed was sort of good news, bad news.
“Well “, said the Colonel, “You’re in a fine state. How you managed to get so drunk in so short of a time is beyond me. So listen up. Your lecture was a bust. You are hereby ordered back to DaNang until I decide what I’m going to do with you. You are hereby grounded. Don’t even get near an airplane. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Sir,” I said. I did a 180, well, maybe a 220, and got out of there as quickly as I could.
Back at DaNang I aimlessly wandered around for a few days. If you can’t fly there’s not much else to do. After the third day, I asked the Covey Commander if there was anything that needed doing. “There sure is, Captain. The Awards and Decorations job is a mess. Get in there and clean it up.” Now, that has to be the worst additional duty there is for a fighter pilot, but he was right. It was something that needed doing.
I played around at it for about two weeks when the word came down that the FAC Commander wanted to talk to me. I was again strapped into the back seat. The stick was again removed. We flew off to Bien Hoa again. We landed and I reported to the Colonel.
He wasn’t too happy. He started with, “First, Captain, all charges have been dropped. Second, considering all your write-ups for medals, forget it, it will never happen. Third, there is a plane leaving for the states tomorrow morning and you will be on it. There is one very unhappy airman who got bumped so that you could have a seat on that plane. So, don’t go out alone anywhere between now and then.”
“And fourth”, he continued, “I have pulled some strings and the Air Force is sending you to the worst hole of an assignment that I could find.
Where you’re going may still be in the United States, but for all practical purposes is a foreign country and the locals hate gringos. It is above 100 degrees most of the time. You are going to be teaching second lieutenant pukes how to fly (second lieutenants are about as useful as wet toilet paper). You, Captain Quiros, are going to Laredo!”
Ouch! What a punishment. What had happened? Sent back to the US from the war zone five weeks early? There would be no one wanting to blow me out of the sky anymore. No more additional duty as Awards and Decorations Officer. How would the brave deeds of our heroes ever get reported? No court marshal. Worst of all, sent to Laredo. I was from Laredo! I was born there. I went all the way through high school there. My parents lived in Laredo. My wife’s parents lived in Laredo. Did the Colonel know this? I’ll never really know.
I saluted and said, “Yes, Sir,” trying to look defeated. I made it back to the BOQ where a few of my fellow warriors were. The news had already beaten me there. There was more beer and more celebrating. Somewhere during the night we decided that I had to get back to DaNang and get my belongings.
When I got back to DaNang and told all that had happened with the Colonel and that I had been kicked out of the war zone, everyone was delighted. Not because of my good fortune, but because it was a good reason to have a going home party. A fellow Covey and good friend, “Zot”, volunteered to give me my “fini-flight” (an unofficial, official final flight in the war zone). The only problem was that I had been officially banned from flying. “No problem”, said Zot. “We’ll get someone to drive you out in a jeep over behind the hanger nearest the taxi-way. I’ll suit for a mission and you can jump in the airplane when nobody’s looking.”
We pulled it off. I jumped into the back seat, hunched down and off we went. The flight lasted a short hour, but it was great. I had never spent time in the back seat (at least with a control stick installed). It was another world there trying to fly and fight. I would roll in on a strafing run, line up as best as I could looking over Zot’s shoulder and tell him to pull the trigger. We had a ball.
As we taxied in I hunched down again and popped up as we emerged from behind the hanger. We had told the Covey commander that Zot was picking me up after his “sortie” so that I could have a sort of faked fini-flight. To launch the party, you had to have the pilot step down from the airplane and get hosed with a bottle of Champagne. Then and only then could the party begin. It began. The next morning I was poured onto the Freedom Flight (the airplane taking people back to the states).
After an uneventful year as a pilot instructor at Laredo, the squadron commander told me that my air medals had come down. I had been really worried about that because the commander had been hinting around that he couldn’t understand why I hadn’t received any medals from my tour in Vietnam. My story had not followed me and I preferred to keep it that way, so I had been simply replying with a vague, “I don’t know, sir”.
The Commander called a special Officer’s call and presented me with the Air Medal with nine oak leaf clusters. The citation said something about me being very brave and flying lots of combat missions.
Several months went by when I was notified that I had been awarded another combat medal from my actions in the Vietnam War. This time it was the Distinguished Flying Cross. To award that medal, tradition calls for a formal dining out, a formal affair held at the Officer’s Club. The citation said something about my being very brave, flying lots of combat, and doing it all under very heavy enemy fire. We celebrated and got very drunk that night.
About six months later came another notific tion. This time I had been awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action. This award is supposed to be awarded only by an officer of General rank. Somebody tagged a three star General from headquarters and flew him to Laredo for the ceremony. It was not just any ceremony, but a full Base Parade. We marched around a while and I ended up in front of the General and was pinned with the Silver Star. The citation reflected the actions that day long ago when I had provided air cover for that Green Beret team with non-firing guns.
By now the whole U.S. Air Force knew the story of my early retirement from the “Great War” and I took a lot of ribbing from all my fellow pilots. The puzzling part to me was, how had those medals come about? Hadn’t the FAC Commander sworn that I would never receive anything? What had happened?
I learned the answer several years later from a pilot who had shown up in Vietnam just as I had been asked to leave. He was in that one class that I had given on the evils of buzzing. After that he had been sent to DaNang to join the squadron I had left. He said that after my speech, the whole class had walked into the Colonel’s office and said that what they just sat through was the worst thing that they had ever seen a fellow pilot and officer obviously been forced to do. They were incensed and if this weren’t stopped immediately they would be forced to write their congressmen, etc. The Colonel was embarrassed.
The Colonel immediately started the ball rolling to get me out of his hair. It took about two weeks. After I had left the war zone for the states, my replacement said that when he got to the squadron at DaNang he volunteered for the duty of decorations officer. Nobody ever volunteered for that. He was assigned immediately. He pulled out all my write-ups, rewrote them, got supporting documents, and stuck them on the bottom of the pile marked incomplete and awaiting supporting documents. When he was replaced, he told the new decorations officer to review them, see if he could improve them in any way, and then put them on the bottom. This continued until all the people at headquarters who knew anything about my episode were rotated back to the states. The documents were then sent forward with rush orders. Explanations of gross incompetence of previous Awards and Decorations officers were attached to each write-up. In the great bottomless pit of bureaucracy no one caught on. The docu- ments were rushed through and the system did its level best to award the long overdue awards. It taught me a great truth. People fight wars, as well as all other encounters. People who cover for each other win them. People don’t get to the top by crawling over the backs of others; they get to the top by pulling their fellows up along with them. My fellow pilots, some who I knew and some who I never met, covered for me. For this I am eternally grateful.