LZ Sally

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

I hadn’t done a lot of FACing during the three or four weeks I was at LZ Betty. The weather was just too nasty. But we were well into March now and the weather was getting a lot better when two of us were ordered to join with the 101st 2nd Brigade at LZ Sally.
Sally had its own airstrip that looked like it might have been left over from the days of the French campaign. But the strip was precariously short and had foxholes dug across both ends of the runway.
A short distance from the runway was the Brigade Tactical Operations Center (TOC). This was an awesome structure that had begun with an eight-foot deep hole where six conex’s were set in the shape of a rectangle. A conex is a steel box, six or eight feet square with a walk-in door that had been used to transport part of the unit’s equipment from the States. On top of the conex’s were steel rails from the railroad that had once passed nearby and steel railroad ties laid across the rails. The dirt had been pushed back against the sides, and sandbags about ten deep covered the railroad ties. Inside the TOC there was nothing to fear from anything the bad guys had to throw our way.
Sally was about ten miles up the road north- west from the old city of Hue. I’m not sure how long the 2nd Brigade had been there but they all seemed glad to see us when Dale Richardson (the Brigade ALO) and I landed there with the first Bird Dog ever. We got the Army guys to dig us a revetment big enough to park two bird dogs and to fill in the foxholes and extend the runway by a couple hundred feet.
We pitched a hex tent with two cots and began setting up our operation.
Colonel Cushman was the Brigade commander. He was a hard driver and seemed to have big plans for our future. Like most of the senior Army officers I had met, I don’t believe he much liked the arrangements between the Army and the Air Force regarding close air support, and he talked down his nose to us if he talked to us at all.
“Now I haven’t got time for any of your bullshit, FAC, can we get this air support or not?” That was the character of our relationship. And we would get a satisfied smile from the rest of his staff.
Soon we would have three FACs and three Bird Dogs and since we only had safe parking for two, someone would have to take one of them to DaNang every night. We learned to endure this hardship and soon looked forward to our turn to make the sacrifice.
With good weather and a little excess capacity I did all the VR that I could; there was a lot of ground to cover. A wide coastal plain stretched from south of Hue to Quang Tri and beyond with large areas of windswept white sand near the beach, and then the “street without joy” that ran parallel to the beach for twenty or so miles.
There were bomb craters inside of bomb craters, some of the most total devastation I had ever seen. Going west, the coastal plain yielded to increasingly higher terrain. A line of mountains ran parallel to the coast with the now famous Khe Sanh on the other side. Just west of Hue, a razor back east-west ridgeline stair-stepped all the way up to three thousand feet and more. Nature’s beauty was everywhere and we were doing our best to mess it up. In the rugged terrain southwest of Hue, the cowboys in their C-123s were doing their defoliation operations and west of Sally over the first range of mountains, B-52s had made a large area look like the surface of the moon with strike after strike, night after night. You could hear and feel them from Sally. These were called “Arc Light” missions.
But the Screaming Eagles operated mostly on the coastal plain just east and north of Hue. They would move towards a village and at the first sign of opposition, they would back up and call for air support. The bad guys were always in the tree lines protected by elongated mounds of dirt with tunnels inside and small openings that allowed them to snipe at our troops as they approached. Even the 500 pound snake eyes wouldn’t always collapse their tunnels and when they did, Charlie would usually dig himself out and keep on shooting. Napalm and 20 mm seemed to work better. The 500- and 750-pound slicks (not retarded) with slightly delayed fusing worked very well but they had to be dropped from higher altitude and it was hard to hit the tree lines with them.
A unique way of using close air support was when the Huey arrived to deliver the one hot meal a day that the Army tried to guarantee its troops. Air Force fighters doing their thing would keep the bad guy’s heads down while our troops got to eat a hot meal and watch the air show. But we were gettin’ after it; some days I would fly all day taking turns with the other FACs and keeping a constant stream of air strikes going. The Screaming Eagles were good about calling it quits when it got dark and they seldom asked us to continue into the night. Day after day, village after village, we kept the pressure on the enemy.
When you look at a group of airplanes of the same type, you think they’re all the same. They all look the same, they all smell the same and they all weigh about the same, but for reasons I can’t explain, some of them fly better than others. Tail number 469 was just such an airplane. She was light and agile and stable and powerful. She was like putting on an old faded pair of Levis, and I loved her. Most Bird Dogs had their rocket tubes mounted two on top of two on each wing. On 469, there was a straight line of four tubes on each wing; I can’t imagine that would have made any difference, but maybe it did.
I had polished my short field landing skills to a razor’s edge on Sally’s short runway. I would approach with about a third of my flaps down at a moderate angle and as I came near the point where I wanted to touch down I would cut the power, pull the stick all the way back, and bring the big barn door flaps all the way down. When she shuddered and quit flying, I would be inches off the ground and I could stop in just over twice her length. I felt just like a bird landing on a wire. Good thing too; one day as I returned to Sally some jerk in a jeep drove across the runway as I was touching down. Luckily, I had full control as I passed him on the left and put my right wing right over his head. We both came to a stop and he got the full fury of my blessing. Lucky I was flying 469.
The ridge that ran east/west came to within 2 kilometers of LZ Sally on the south side. There were three little points (peaks) about 800 feet high that were joined by a ridge just a few feet lower than the points. There were footpaths right along the tops of these and on the western one some pretty good-sized rocks on both sides of the foot- path. Pointing south from the center peak was another ridge that curved slightly around to the west; I called this the T-bone, as it looked like one from above, the flat part being an extension of the east/west ridge. The Screaming Eagles were on the eastern-most peak, and trying without success to get over to the center peak. This was our back yard and we didn’t want the bad guys to own it. They called for a FAC and I called for some fighters. Two Huns from Tuy Hoa showed up with snakes and napes and we scattered their stuff all around the center peak but with results that were less than impressive.
There was one bad guy left in a three foot square hole probably four feet deep right smack in the middle of the center peak, or hilltop. The good guys tried to get to him but he would hold his AK-47 horizontally over his head and hose them down. I couldn’t call for another strike for just one guy so I tried to take him out with my smoke rockets. I couldn’t hit him. Then I tried to put a half-dozen smoke grenades in the hole with him. That would bring him out. But that didn’t work either. And then I tried to hit him with my M-16 shooting out of my left window. Two full clips gone, to no avail, and I was out of everything.
Everybody at Brigade headquarters was watching the show as I circled around and landed to get reloaded. Airman Hoppenwrath (Hoppy) filled her (469) with gas and stuffed eight fresh rockets into her tubes, while I went to scrounge some M-16 ammo and some smoke grenades. Hoppy was a nice young lad and I could see that his combat tour had been less than exciting. So when he asked if he could come with me I threw the rulebook to the winds and said, “OK, jump in.”
But in my haste I had left the battery switch and the radios on and the battery was flat. There were provisions in the design to hook a jeep up to the bird dog for a boost, but nobody knew where the cables were. But I’m a country boy and I used to fly airplanes that didn’t even have a starter, so I told Hoppy to hold the brakes and what to do with the magneto switch and the throttle and I got out and hand cranked the old girl till she came alive. Hoppy had never seen that done before, nor had any of the other ROMADs or FACs, but we were up and running and I raced to get back to our battle up on the T-bone.
In the short time I had been out of the action, things had changed. As I climbed for all I was worth and approached between the center peak and the western peak, I could see the good guys pitching the bullet-ridden body of the guy who had caused us so much grief off the cliff on the north side. They must have just run him out of ammunition. He looked like a rag doll with red polka dots as his body tumbled through the air.
And then I looked straight ahead. I would clear the T-bone by a hundred feet or so, but there among the rocks was a whole bunch of guys; they were bad guys and they all had AK-47s, and they were all pointing at me! From where I was, anything I did would be wrong, so I remembered that piece of 1⁄2-inch boiler plate under my seat and tried to get as much of me as I could on top of it.
I knew it was coming, and it was terrible. Tracers seemed to fly in one window and out the other. It got real noisy and windy and I realized that my whole rear window was gone. I looked around at Hoppy to see if he was okay; his eyes were big as dollars, but he nodded that he was okay. I was out of range now, heading south over the dense jungle that covered the west side of the southern leg of the T-bone.
I looked out my left window and I could see white smoke coming from the warhead of one of my smoke rockets, I couldn’t tell which one. I remembered a diagram from the FAC school at Hurlburt that showed how the warhead on these rockets was built and how it worked. The warhead itself was about a foot long; all the rest was rocket motor. It was made of some kind if cast metal and had a fuse at the front and a tube down the middle with .7 pound of High Explosive inside. When the fuse makes contact with the ground or target it detonates the HE, bursting the casing and scattering the white phosphorus. That’s where the big cloud of white smoke comes from. White phosphorus must be kept in a sealed container, because it burns on contact with air, releasing considerable heat.
“Burns on contact, burns on contact!” Those bastards had knocked a chip out of the warhead on one of my rockets and the white phosphorus was leaking out, burning on contact with the air and causing a lot of heat. I didn’t want that rocket hanging on my wing any more, but which one was it?
Above the windshield on the left side of the cockpit were eight guarded switches, one for each rocket. To fire a rocket, you would arm one of the switches, and when you squeezed the trigger, the rocket would fire. I changed the routine just a little and kept the trigger squeezed while I toggled the rockets off one at a time beginning on the far left, using the guarded switches. When the third rocket fired it exploded almost immediately, not more than a hundred feet in front of us. WOW! One more second and that rocket would have exploded right there on my wing and Hoppy and I would have been history. One of us must be living right.
Circling around to the left (pilots always turn left when given the choice) I could see what was happening. The bad guys who had hosed me down were shooting at the good guys on top of the center point and mortar rounds from somewhere were landing in the same area.
The good guys had no choice but to retreat back to the eastern point. We needed some more fighters. I had no sooner asked when another flight of two Huns checked in. It was the same two guys who had been here earlier; they had gone back to Tuy Hoa, reloaded and refueled, and were back for another go at it. These guys hadn’t done very well the first time; hopefully they’d do better this time.
“We thought we owed you an apology” the leader said, “Hope to do better this time”.
And they did. Everything they had done wrong the first time was done right this time. And every piece of ordnance was placed exactly where I wanted it. The guys who had hosed me down were still hiding among those rocks and we splattered them with 500-pound high drags and barbequed what was left with napalm. My troops thought they knew where the mortar fire was coming from and we gave them as much grief as we could with what we had left. It seemed that everything had worked because the troops were able to take the whole T-bone without any more shooting.
Hoppy was glad to get back on the ground and I was, too. Not counting the bullet that had hit my rocket and counting both the “in” holes and the “out” holes, I had twenty-six bullet holes in my bird dog. They gave me a Silver Star for that flight; they should have given me a psychiatric evaluation. It would be only a couple of days till 469 had another rear window and all of her holes repaired. Nothing of importance had been hit.
The magic day finally arrived for me to pin on my major’s leaves. From now on instead of being the senior-most captain around, I would be the youngest major. It wasn’t a gala affair; I just chose the occasion to wrap myself around a bottle of Beefeaters Gin while spending yet another night at LZ Sally. My boss, Dale Richardson, the Brigade ALO, would soon leave and that would leave me the senior Air Force guy and the ALO.
There was a bit of overkill when the Air Force sent people to live with the 101st. We had ten ROMADs and ten MRC-107s plus we had our own Deuce-and-a-half (two-and-one-half-ton truck) and two conex’s filled with all kinds of stuff, not the least of which was two refrigerators.
These guys were talented and industrious and in this case, underemployed. They stayed pretty much to themselves in one corner of the camp, rotating the duty in the TOC, pampering their equipment and sharing guard duty with the Army. Three of them took the Deuce-and-a-half on a scrounge mission down to DaNang; there were mountains and treacherous terrain between Sally and DaNang, so at the end of the safe part of it, they waited for a convoy which they joined for the rest of the trip. These guys were excellent traders and they returned with enough plywood, 2x4s and corrugated roofing metal to complete their clandestine project.
I had some business to take care of, so at the end of my morning duties I planned to go down to DaNang, do my business and pick up my afternoon duties on my way back. I would be gone all day. My troops had seemed unusually curious about my intentions and when I would return.
I knew why. There in the spot where our hex tent had been was the most beautiful frame structure I had ever seen. It had a shiny metal roof with plenty of overhang, horizontal plywood sheets about two feet wide running the full length of the building that were hinged at the top and would swing inward and upward to a hook, revealing a screened opening that was the top
half of the wall on each side. What looked a little like a fireplace at the far end was the entrance to an underground bunker.
There were two metal beds with mattresses and clean white sheets and a refrigerator. They had prefabricated most of it down in their corner and had put it up in almost no time. Everyone who saw it just stood there in amazement; Colonel Cushman shook his head and commented to me “Why don’t you just paint a bulls eye on the roof?”
Our standard of living had just undergone a dramatic improvement.
On my frequent trips to DaNang, I would always stop at the 20th TASS to check the mail and to see if the Air Force had any news for me. On the squadron bulletin board I noticed several lists where one could sign up for R&R. Your priority would depend on how long you had been in country. So I had put my name on the list for Hawaii; there were other choices like Australia and Hong Kong, but I preferred Hawaii as I could arrange to meet my wife there. Eventually I was selected and there was plenty of time to make arrangements for Gayle to meet me there.
On the day before I was supposed to check in for my flight from DaNang to Hawaii I was doing VR along the southern edge of the east/ west ridge that ended at the T-bone just south of Sally. Just west of the T-bone, a river came out of the mountains forming three sides of a square, then continued north for a little bit before it headed east toward the ocean. Just to the west of that “box” the razorback continued with a long (maybe 150 meters) hilltop at about twelve hun- dred feet elevation. All the vegetation had been cleared off the top and it had obviously been used as an artillery firebase. Artillery ammo boxes were strewn haphazardly all over the place. But today, there was something different about it. I noticed it from about 3,000 feet when I was heading west; the mess had been tidied up noticeably. No question about it, something was going on up there and I couldn’t imagine what.
Days earlier I had seen several enemy troops walking along the south side of the ridge heading in the direction of the old fire base, but I had had other things to do and I didn’t think much about it. So I climbed to almost 4,000 feet and at the western end of the ridgeline I turned east to fly parallel. Then I shut the engine off and pulled up to a near stall until the prop stopped. Now I am flying a glider and making zero noise. I turned off my radios too as I wanted to make sure I had enough battery left to kick the engine over when I was ready.
I continued toward the east, staying just about even with or slightly above the ever-descending ridgeline. There were bad guys all over that ridge;
20th Tactical Air Support Squadron I could even hear some of them shout when they saw this silent bird dog, but by the time they could react I was too far away for them to get a shot. But before I got to the old firebase I got cold feet and yearned for the sound and feel of my engine and prop. As soon as I hit the starter, she roared back to life.
I continued east and as I approached the old firebase just about level with the top, I noticed that a bunker had been built out of artillery boxes and sandbags, with its opening facing south, just below the top of the ridge. As I flew past the opening I could look into it, and saw two little round faces looking out at me. I would have waved to them but I didn’t want them to think I had noticed them.
After returning to Sally, I went down into the TOC to discuss my observations with the Brigade S-2, Intelligence guy. His interest seemed passive so I asked him what I might expect in the way of a response. He indicated he would make note of it, and put it on his target list where, if priorities allowed, a few rounds of artillery might be fired during the night. How impressive!
Tomorrow I’m leaving for R&R and I shouldn’t be concerned about the war, yet I spent hours awake thinking about that situation and wondering. Sleep finally came. The next day, I don’t remember what time it was, we loaded up a bird dog for the trip to DaNang. I don’t even remember who was my passenger, but he had a bag full of dirty laundry and with my hang-up bag we had all the weight we needed. We didn’t even load any smoke rockets. As we took off, I was still haunted by those two little round faces. What were they up to, and what had they been doing while I was sleeping?
Instead of heading straight toward DaNang, I climbed for all I was worth to the west and then I turned south to fly directly over the old firebase. I could hardly believe what I saw! Those little boogers had been busy. They had stacked up sandbags, in twos. Two this way, two that way and so on until there was a square stack four or five, maybe even six sandbags high. They were in rows of four. Three groups of four were finished and the fourth group lacked only one pile. The westernmost group was covered with brush, as was the one next to it, but the third one was naked, revealing a 122 millimeter rocket leaning against each stack of sandbags.
As we continued, I could look back and see right through the brush that each of the stacks of sandbags under the brush had a rocket leaning up against it at an angle of somewhere between 30 and 45 degrees. So I could see they were planning a barrage of sixteen (possibly twenty) rockets. Eleven or twelve kilometers north, and perfectly aligned with the rockets was Camp Evans, a sprawling brown spot where I’m not sure what unit was camped, but they had possibly sixty or seventy helicopters, a huge ammunition dump and dozens and dozens of tents. This was unquestionably an opportunity to earn my salary.
One of the keys to success in the FACing business is not to reveal your intentions by your actions. While I sized up this situation I just continued to drone along what seemed like forever until I felt like the bad guys had decided I hadn’t seen them and I was out of earshot as well. I felt naked without any smoke rockets and I simply had to get back to Sally for some rockets and to offload my passenger. I made a wide gentle turn back toward Sally, and then I sprang into action.
I called my ROMAD and gave him the coordinates of the exact center of the old firebase. Then I told him to order up two flights of fighters with a priority one notch higher than troops in contact. Next I told him to talk to the Artillery guy and to have him fire everything he had at those coordinates, and to just keep shooting until I tell them to stop. Anyone who doesn’t want to play should get in his bunker.
With that, I eased back onto the runway at Sally where I had them load me up with rockets with my engine still running and then I was off.
The 122 mm rocket is a thoroughly nasty weapon. Just under five inches around and about six feet long, its fins are curved to wrap around the body of the rocket motor and they extend after the rocket is launched. They don’t require anything but an angle to launch and a couple of flashlight batteries to ignite its motor. Its warhead is awesome.
I climbed out just a little offset from a straight line so I wouldn’t get hit by one of our artillery rounds. By the time I was half way there, a flight of two Phantoms was checking in. The box formed by the river was easy for them to spot and they were able to see the target as I had described it. I turned off the artillery as my Phantoms were getting lined up west of the target, but just for the record, I wanted to smoke the target for them to eliminate any possible doubt. They were carrying 750-pound high drags and napalm and each had a 20 mm gun pod. What a perfect load for the job!
The bad guys were scurrying frantically around the fire base as my first Phantom called, “On final hot.”
“Cleared hot,” was my response.
I had fired a smoke rocket and he had acknowledged it. These bad guys were in trouble. Both Phantoms dropped their 750s smack in the middle of the rockets. Pulling off straight ahead they did a quick turnaround and went back in from east to west with more of the same. Then came the napalm and after that they sprayed the whole top of the mountain with 20 mm. While this was going on, a couple of Hellbornes, Navy or Marine A-4s, probably off a carrier, came on frequency. They had been listening and watching and they knew just what I wanted. They fell in right behind the Phantoms and dropped their deadly loads all over the top of the mountain. Then Cushman came on the radio with, “What the hell are you doing up there, FAC? You’re wasting ammunition while my troops are needing it.”
“No sir, I just thought you’d like not to have these rockets in your bunker.”
“What rockets?”
“The ones we’re bustin’ up.” The colonel came chugging along in his Huey about 2,000 feet above the old firebase.
“I don’t see any rockets.” The rockets were scattered around like pick-up sticks. Some were broken up while others looked pretty much intact.
“They’re down here where the war is.”
His pilot eased down to three or four hundred feet and his next remark was, “I wanna capture those rockets. How many enemy troops are down there, FAC?”
“The most I saw at one time was seven.”
“Order up an air strike for thirty minutes from now; when it’s finished I’ll put some troops down there and pick up those rockets.”
So I ordered up another strike, and while I waited I continued to fly around the firebase. I could see a few bodies among the scattered rockets, sandbags and other debris, but not a sign of life. A few yards downhill in all directions was plenty of foliage for the bad guys to hide under. Then I noticed what looked like red flares coming up from below; there were five or six of them and they barely came close to me when they curved over and fell back to the ground. I could see them coming and could easily avoid them.
And then I realized what they were. Acting in defiance and desperation, the bad guys were shooting Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) at me! They didn’t like me even a little bit. The RPG is made for tanks and other vehicles and is a poor choice of weapons for trying to shoot down an airplane.
My fighters arrived, another pair of Hellbornes (A-4s) and we scattered their high drags and napalm in the foliage where I thought the bad guys were hiding. I couldn’t tell whether we did any good or not but there were no more RPGs, so we probably got some of them.
As my fighters were finishing up, a string of four Hueys circled around to the north to approach from the west. As the fighters left, one Huey after another stopped on the firebase, eight troops jumped out and the Huey was gone. I think Colonel Cushman was in the last one, as it continued to circle overhead while the other three circled nearby. I don’t think they had to fire a shot.
I had fired a bunch of smoke rockets during the strikes and thought one had been a dud. Later I learned that one of the bad guys had taken a smoke rocket right in the chest but that it hadn’t gone off. They picked up twelve perfectly good rockets and one with slight damage. Several more were in pieces.
One aspect of this whole situation that really bothered me was that this old abandoned fire base was only about five kilometers from Sally. It was up where anyone at Sally with a pair of binoculars could have seen that something was going on!
As soon as that exercise was over I went back to Sally, picked up my passenger and headed for DaNang. I was running quite late now, so I had my ROMAD call ahead and tell them not to give my seat away. In a few hours I was dressed in civvies sitting in a Pan Am 707, sipping a martini and eating a delicious steak. This has got to be the craziest war in history. I was half way to Honolulu before I unwound from that last mission. I was proud. Not because we had greased a few bad guys and not because we had taken away their rockets, but mostly because of the potential damage and loss of life we had prevented at Camp Evans.
In the war zone, a week is a long time. I had a wonderful time on my R&R, and when I returned to Sally after only a week, everything looked different to me. It might be that only my perspective had changed, but it was painfully obvious that our enemies up on that ridgeline were as determined as the guys at Sally and Camp Evans were determined to ignore them. We had paid a terrible price for misplacing our priorities. When I flew up over Evans, all I could see were burnt spots on the ground where the ashes were framed by rotor tips and tail rotors. The ammo dump had been hit and the explosions that followed took care of everything else.
Eleven clicks to the south you could see the entire ridgeline including the old firebase. Eleven clicks happens to be the optimum range of the 122 mm rocket. Down on the ridgeline in a saddle that was between the fire base and the rest of the ridge I saw a dead Huey lying on its side, telling of an effort that had been made to retaliate. I never got to talk to anyone who knew what had gone on. The best I could get out of anyone was, “Yeah, they hit the ammo dump at Evans.”
If any of our troops had perished, I had no clue how many or what outfit they belonged to. I asked myself, if I had not been so hell bent on the pleasures of an R&R, could I have, or would I have prevented this tragedy? I’ll never know, but I still feel a little guilt over it. When I spotted a group of bad guys on the south side of the ridge I tried to get an airstrike and I was told there were LRRPs (the acronym for Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol) operating in the area and it was no longer in our AO. In other words, mind your own business, we’ll take care of it.
My business was to support the Screaming Eagles in their relentless pursuit of bad guys out in the coastal plains. It was flat country just north and east of Hue, with small rivers winding their way to the ocean, large rice fields that were chopped up into hundreds of small rice paddies of all shapes, and small villages surrounded by the large fields and connected with each other by footpaths.
Again and again I would hear Cushman’s booming voice on my radio, “I wanna level that village.” And we did, only to find a couple of weeks later that the bad guys were right back. Later, we would use bulldozers to level all the places the bad guys could find to hide. This was a frustrating business. On one occasion, we had approached a village from one direction with troops moving around both sides intending to encircle it. Cushman was overhead in his Huey and me in my bird dog. Leaving the other side before we could close the circle were long lines of civilians. Old men, kids and women with babies strapped on their backs, all running down footpaths, and some following no path. But every tenth person would be a soldier with a fresh new uniform and a shiny AK-47. I couldn’t tell whether they were herding these civilians or just using them for protection. I didn’t know what to do, and neither did Colonel Cushman. I didn’t hang around to see what the outcome was, but no strikes were requested.
Not far to the north, the wandering river took the shape of a Christmas stocking with a round heel. We called it the booty. There was a village next to the river just above the heel, then a cluster of hooches at the heel. The rest of the booty was mostly an open rice field. Screaming Eagles had taken positions all along the far side of the river and were in the cluster of hooches at the very heel. There was a whole battalion of bad guys (between 600 and 1,000) in the village and we had them trapped! They would be hopelessly exposed if they were to flee across the open rice field.
I was on the scene and as I flew repeatedly over the village I could see no civilians, but crowds of dusty green uniforms. They seemed to be in a state of panic. The target was easy to describe to my fighters; everything was in the village running along the river. This was like shooting fish in a barrel; my thoughts went back to my childhood when I would trap rats in the chicken coop and bludgeon them to death before they could escape.
As I went about the business of putting in one strike after another, some of the bad guys jumped in the river and tried to swim away, but they immediately became good targets for our troops on the other side. Others were gunned down as they tried to run towards our troops at the very heel of the booty, and still others fell victim to my smoke rockets as they broke ranks and tried to flee across the open rice field.
This was a slaughter. The word must have gotten out that we could use all the air we could get; fighters checked in and orbited overhead and by the time I cleared one flight off, another would be ready. They had been watching the action and listening and they knew exactly what I wanted.
I usually flew my bird dog with the windows open, and when I needed to write something down, I would drop my left window down and write in grease pencil on the glass. There was so much stuff written on my window, I could hardly see out. Some of the fighters had been diverted from less productive targets and had only enough fuel for one pass and would have to jump to the head of the line. An F-4 loaded with snakes and napes, unloading on a single pass was an awesome sight. This went on and on and when it was over, there was nothing left but blood, guts, hair and teeth. I don’t know how many were killed, or how many were taken prisoner, if any, but it was a good day’s work for sure.
Jim Wilkes had been on the scene for a part of the action, too, and I wondered if his impressions were the same as mine.
Whenever I had a choice, I always flew ship 469. It was early in the morning when the Screaming Eagles called for some air strikes and I was the first one overhead in 469. The good guys had been camped overnight in a square formation, smack in the middle of quite a large area of rice fields. They were taking fire from tree lines that half surrounded them at some distance. The enemy fire had not been accurate, but it was no fun.
My first flight of fighters arrived and we silenced a few of the enemy gunners along the nearest part of the tree line. The second set of fighters had not yet checked in and Jim Wilkes was on his way up to relieve me so I could get some breakfast. My normal technique was to have about 10 degrees of flaps down and I would fly around at a low power setting with the mixture as lean as I could get it; that way I could stay up for hours. I would lean it out until the engine would sputter, and then richen it up slightly. That would give me the best possible setting. Sometimes when leaning it out, I might go a little too far, and the engine would quit completely but it was no big deal; as soon as I pushed it forward it would catch. I constantly fiddled with the mixture without even thinking about it. But today was different; I pulled back on the mixture control lever and she started to sputter, then I pushed it forward and she died. It seemed as if something had been disconnected. Nothing I could do with the mixture control made any difference; my engine had quit.
I was only at a thousand feet altitude and there was nowhere to go but down. I called my ROMAD that my engine had failed, and then I switched over to the FM radio to let the troops know I’d be dropping in on them, and for some strange reason I locked my shoulder harness. I picked out a long skinny shaped rice paddy that was close to the camp and made my usual short field approach thinking I would fix this thing and fly it out of there. But as soon as I hit the ground I got a surprise. I hadn’t seen a small dike just over a foot high and half a foot thick made of packed and dried clay. It might as well have been made of concrete.
When my wheels hit it, they stopped and I could feel the tightness of the shoulder harness as her nose went into the dirt and her tail came up and over. I was hanging there in my seat belt upside down, so I opened the belt and crashed on the top of the cockpit and got out through the window before the dust had settled. Then I reached back inside and turned off the battery.
It was just minutes before I was surrounded by the troops, but we could hear the AK-47 rifle shells landing around us. Looking at my pitiful Bird Dog laying on her back with her feet (wheels) in the air, I thought the feeling to be somewhat like having to take your favorite horse out and shoot it. The last time I saw 469, she was slung beneath a big Chinook with her wheels twisted under her and her wings drooping. She was on her way to Phu Bai where her pieces that were still good would be used to build another bird dog.
I was almost oblivious to the peace marches, the hippies and the riots back in the States, and I felt like we could have won this war. But for what? I get a much different picture looking in the rear view mirror. On a national scale, we had duped ourselves into believing that our South Vietnamese friends were freedom-loving people with values similar to our own. Most of them could not have cared less, but those among them that we had chosen to deal with had a fixation on our open treasure chest. All the good qualities we attributed to them were part of their scam. The North Vietnamese would teach us a lesson about sacrifice and determination, if only we would notice. Instead, we have mostly become a society focused on pleasure, luxury and stuff.
Only people who have been associated with the military and those on the receiving end of the continuous flow of body bags know anything about freedom and its price.