A Steve Bennett Story

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

I was three days into a long four-day airline trip when I walked into our pilot lounge in Atlanta. As usual, I glanced to see what was new on the bulletin board. It usually held all kinds of articles of interest for wandering pilots, from love letters to our corporate executives to interesting pieces from various magazines. But one notice stopped me cold. It was a plea from another pilot looking to make contact with anyone who flew OV-10s in Southeast Asia, and who might have known a young captain by the name of Steve Bennett, call sign Covey 87. It seems that his daughter wanted to make contact with veterans of that war who had known her father. He had been killed in 1972. He had ditched his OV-10 off of the coast of South Vietnam. The crash took his life, but saved his U.S. Marine backseater. For his actions, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
I knew that because I watched the whole thing happen.
And standing there in front of that bulletin board, it all came flooding back to me. It was the 29th of June 1972. I was a young OV-10 FAC assigned to the 23rd TASS at NKP. My call sign was Nail 70. Normally, we flew the Ho Chi Minh Trail and Northern Laos. But these were not normal times. Just a few months prior, the North Vietnamese had invaded South Vietnam in three places with their main army. The first and strongest thrust was right through the DMZ. We met them with airpower.
Normally, the DMZ area was patrolled by our sister squadron the 20th TASS. But they needed help, so we were ordered to deploy half of our squadron to DaNang to reinforce them in their efforts to stem the tide flowing across the DMZ.
Like most June mornings in Vietnam, this one was hot and muggy. By the time I completed my prebrief I was sweating heavily. By the time I took off and climbed to altitude, I was soaked. I flew out of DaNang up to the Cam Lo area, just below the DMZ. For three hours, I searched out enemy trucks and supplies and destroyed some with three airstrikes; one Air Force, and two off of the boats. I took a lot of ground fire from enemy AAA and saw one SA-7 heat-seeking missile. I flew high enough to evade them because they were very effective against OV-10s.
But as I was finishing up, the Direct Air Support Center, “Big Control,” instructed me to head 30 miles south and rendezvous with Covey 87. He was working a hot troops-in-contact and needed immediate help. I explained that I had expended all of my rockets and only had my 7.62 mm machine guns left. The controller responded that he had no fighters available at that moment, but because of the situation, he would take whatever he could get. I was the most immediately available air.
As directed, I rendezvoused with Covey 87. He had been on a mission to direct naval gunfire, and had a U. S. Marine officer in the backseat. The backseater’s call sign was Wolfman 45. He maintained contact with the U.S. Navy ships offshore and actually adjusted the fire from their big guns. But a ground commander had come up on his control frequency and said that he was under ground attack by North Vietnamese infantry along the My Chanh River. He requested immediate help. Covey 87 diverted to his location and called for support. I was his support.
He quickly oriented me on the battle. We would both strafe the enemy positions with our machine guns. But we would have to drop down to dangerously low altitudes for the guns to be effective. Normally, we didn’t do that, because it put us in the SA-7 envelope. But in emergencies like this, we could, and did.
Covey 87 wanted to make the runs from east to west. To deconflict our flight paths, he directed me to pull off to the north, and he would pull off to the south. I acknowledged his instructions and rolled in for my first pass. As I came off, though, he directed me to pull off to the south. I concurred and started a left pull.
The OV-10 had five communication radios on board. Sometimes, the chatter could be distracting, so I had deselected all except the UHF as I worked with him. As I set up for my second pass, I saw a large airburst to the north. I called it to Covey. He did not respond. I called a second time, same result. So I selected the VHF-AM radio just in time to hear someone say that they had just taken an SA-7 missile and were going out over the water to bail out. I called for the emergency aircraft to identify himself. He did immediately – it was Covey 87. I then realized what had happened. The airburst that I had seen was the SA-7 impacting on his OV-10.
I flew up on his wing as he headed for the water. Then I saw the damage. The missile had hit the exhaust port on the left engine and had destroyed it. The left gear was hanging and flames were visible in the engine bay. I told him of his damage. All of his radios were out except the VHF-AM, so I switched to UHF Guard and contacted “King” to scramble rescue forces.
As we crossed the coastline, we were joined by another OV-10. This was First Lieutenant Bob Tempko of my squadron. As Bob slid into position, Covey 87 stated that he intended to proceed out over the water and eject. I acknowledged his plan and reported it to King. But then Covey 87 called back and said that his backseater’s parachute had been damaged in the missile blast. Somehow, he would have to bring the crippled OV-10 down to save him. He intended to go on to DaNang. I told him to go to Hue, which was visible just 20 miles to the west. He said that he would do that. Then someone came up on the radio and said, “You better ditch it Covey!”
That was not a good idea because the OV-10 was not well built and had a tendency to break up during ditchings. I immediately recalled being at Chu Lai a few months earlier when a young lieutenant had done just that, and had eventually died in the water of blood loss caused by the wounds sustained in the ditching. I started to radio Covey to tell him to disregard that advice when King called me on the UHF and started asking for all kinds of information.
I proceeded to give him what he wanted, neglecting to note that Covey was descending. In the middle of my transmission, he bellied into the water, about 200 yards off the South Vietnamese coast. I immediately relayed this to King while the other OV-10 and I set up an orbit over his location.
King responded by notifying me that Sandy A-1s were airborne from DaNang, and a rescue helicopter had taken off from an offshore Navy ship. By this time, I had several flights of Air Force F-4s orbiting overhead for Search And Rescue (SAR) support (Thanks guys). I asked King to determine if the shoreline was friendly or if we were possibly behind enemy lines, because I could see people on the shore and was more than ready to use the air above. But King responded that we were in friendly territory, so I released the fighters.
But some villagers set out in a boat to come out to the sinking aircraft. Since I had a helicopter inbound, I told Lieutenant Temko to lay down a line of strafe between Covey 87 and the sampan. He did so. The villagers got the message and returned to shore.
By this time, the Covey’s OV-10 was almost completely underwater. Then I observed one life raft. I made a low pass and saw one person. Then the survivor called me on his hand held radio. It was Wolfman 45, the backseater. A few minutes later, the rescue helicopter arrived and snatched the soaked Marine from the Gulf of Tonkin. Then the A-1s arrived. By this time, both Temko and I were way low on fuel, so we gave them the SAR command in the vain hope that the front seater would surface, and pointed our aircraft for DaNang.
That evening, I met Wolfman 45. For two hours, we reconstructed the entire event. He told me about the violence of the missile explosion and the damage to his parachute. He also said that Covey 87 decided to ditch right after that fateful radio call. After that, things happened fast.The impact with the water jolted him severely. His first impression was the greenness of the water. As he was unstrapping, he watched his maps and authenticator card float up in front of his face. The aircraft broke in half just in front of his seat. All he had to do was push forward through the opening and float to the surface.
As he got a good gulp of fresh air he looked for the front seater. He was nowhere to be seen. All he could see was a little of the tail of the aircraft still above the surface. He tried to pull himself back down along the fuselage in a valiant attempt to find his pilot, but he couldn’t get past the wing before he had to resurface for air. By then, the airplane had completely disappeared beneath the water. There was nothing more he could do.
Many months later, after I had returned to jet instructor duty in Georgia, I read that President Ford had presented the Medal of Honor to Covey 87’s wife and daughter for his sacrifice. I was happy to see that. I only wish that I could have known him. For the simple fact is, I never met him and would not know him to this day. But his final act has always remained with me.
I watched him die – you can’t know a man any better than that.