Journal Entries

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

Editors note: Byron Sutton, better known as “Smokey,” assigned to the 21st TASS, was stationed at Phan Rang as a Sector FAC, where he flew missions over II, III and IV Corps. He flew O-1s, O-2s and F-100s, for a total of 867 missions and 1170 combat Hrs.

On 8th Jan, 1968 Seahorse 21, an Army O-1 pilot taxied out and lost his wrist watch out of the window of his O-1 as he signaled a turn. It’s quite embarrassing to ask the tower to send someone out to pick up your watch for you off of the taxiway.
On 12th January, we launched a mission to occupy a hamlet 085 degrees at 15 miles off Phan Rang. The Viet Cong had come in the day before and taken over. They held the families hostage while one member of each family went out to
work in the fields. They had a big Bar-B-Q. They had two American POWs with them in the village. They came in one night and stayed through the next day. I thought, “Boy it would be Hell to be a prisoner in sight of a US Base and not be able to do anything.”
On 14th Jan, after a couple weeks on the job, a new FAC, Walt 42 (Walt Trisko) went down in aircraft #12750. I had 350 hours in that airplane. He was burned severely in the rear end and legs. He had been responding to a two company sighting in the area. The winds were severe. He was probably shot down. At least that was the way it was reported. The O-1 and severe down drafts don’t agree. He went down so fast he had no chance to jettison flares or rockets. It was hard to tell how he survived the pancake crash. The entire plane was demolished in the fire. It looked like he had been hit by a giant fly swatter. I sure missed that airplane. The next day Walt was medivaced out to Cam Ranh Bay and then on to the burn center in Texas. Dart 01 officially determined it was a combat loss. Dart 01 ordered me to go out in a helicopter and make sure there was nothing left of the aircraft and its weapons.
On 17th January, I went out in an Army slick and we could not find the wreckage. At treetop level your perspective is entirely different than in your O-1. The chopper pilot got sick in the turbulent air around the crash site, so we returned to base. I went back up in my O-1 and had no trouble finding the wreck. I briefed Dart 01 over the phone and was instructed to go back out in the chopper the next day.
On January 18th, we had no trouble finding the wreck of the aircraft. The trees were high around the site and prevented an approach and landing at the site. There was a clear spot approximately 100 yards from the site on the opposite side from the grove of trees. We made the choice to land in the opening and to walk to the site. I assumed a couple of the Army types would go along with me. They informed me this was not in their job description. With my CAR-15 in hand I headed into the woods toward the site. Being a good Boy Scout this appeared no problem. Once in the woods, with the view of the sky blocked, it appeared to be a foolish undertaking. Upon coming upon a well-worn path, it took little convincing for me to do a 180 and get out. As I approached the edge of the woods one of the spotters in one of the two escort gun ships determined that I was being chased. As I trotted out of the woods one of the gun ships let loose a round of rockets into the woods behind me. Unexpected as it was, it really motivated me. The pilot of the helicopter on the ground, feeling vulnerable in the open area, begins to wind up the blades for an immediate exit. I dove into the open door of the Huey just as the pilot yanked us into the sky and immediately banked hard to get away from the presumed threat. The second gunship rolled in and loosed a major barrage behind us. With the chopper rolled up on its side I was staring straight down to the woods below through the open doors on the opposite side. With nothing to hang on to, all I could think about was the pilot releasing the g force that was holding me there and then plummeting to the ground. Fortunately, he was very smooth in his roll out and I was able to secure a handhold as I hooked up to the microphone to inquire as to what they had seen. To everyone’s surprise no one was chasing me.
We circled back to the site, hovered over the dead aircraft, took pictures then allowed the gun ships to do their thing. Needless to say the Army enjoyed reducing what was left of an Air Force asset to rubble of tin.
On 25th Jan, the Vietnamese took a long walk in the sun around the area of the crash, but as normal, they were unable to make any contact.
Early January, l967 my instructor from Moody AFB was killed in IV Corps, Binh Thuy. Murray Smith. O-2 pilot. Instructor type. He had met my plane when I came into country and briefed me on the real FAC picture.
The USS Pueblo was taken by the North Koreans, with 85 crew members.
29th Jan, TET Lunar New Year Offensive kicks off. Dart 01 reported that we lost 20 aircraft, but few pilots.
On 19th March, Walt 33 was shot down, crashed and disappeared. No sign of him or his aircraft. Charlie does good work. Charlie could hide an aircraft in a matter of minutes. We kept looking in the same area to appease our conscience.
March 25th, we gave up searching for Walt 33.
May 8th, An Army pilot nosed an O-1 over and got the prop. A rudder cable broke on a O-1 at Nha Trang and he rolled it up. An O-2 lost power at NKP and tore up the plane and an O-2 lost power on take-off and crashed killing both pilots. A bad day for the little airplanes.
The stress on the FAC pilots in SEA I feel is so strong that it has a great deal to do with our losses. The higher echelon is not happy unless we’re working ourselves to death and that is what is happening every day. No one has our accident rate because no one flies like we do. You should never kill yourself in an O-1.
On February 14th, we set a free fire test area for the Spooky in the southwest quadrant of Nin Tuan Province near North Vietnamese Secret Base 7. At 0400 on the 15th, Spooky 62 crashed in the area. By 1100 they finally allowed us to start our search and rescue. It was so long afterward that if there were survivors Charlie would have them. At 1300 I flew over the site. The aircraft appeared to have been circling around a 3,600’ peak firing at something when it impacted the peak just below the crest. All crewmembers were lost. The aircraft commander was an Ace in WW II.
The ground personnel decided to put troops in tomorrow so I got the job of preparing the Landing Zone (LZ) with 750 pound Daisy Cutters. Six F-100s with wall to wall bombs. The ground personnel moved in in assault helicopters as soon as the smoke cleared after the drop. They moved rapidly up the hill to the crash scene. The aircraft was intact with the guns still set up out the side ports. They gathered the charred bodies, no survivors, and returned to the LZ and were evacuated. Based on intelligence information they operated within a click of secret base 7, NVA. One young marine, along for the ride, was identifiable by his brass rank. No sign of the enemy, only a lot of elephant dung. The bodies were almost enough to make me want to turn in my wings. The plane had apparently clipped the tallest tree on the peak and gone in wings level.
The pictures of the AC-47 came out very good. Three mini guns were still there operationally sound. In a direct line for extended initial approach for Phan Rang. Unfortunately the Special Forces did not have the foresight to destroy them. So I had to go back up later in the afternoon with a set of fighters, under a 100’ ceiling to try to bomb them. After two passes and misses, I sent the fighters home.
On 18th Feb, the Spooky destruction began early and lasted all morning and ended up not having destroyed the target; 22 bombs, four napalm and no hits. They cut the top off of the hill and burned it up within a few feet of the target, but in the end we were going to have to go back in on the ground. By now, if ‘Charlie’ hasn’t been there he is going to go look see why those crazy Americans would put so many bombs on this target.
On Feb 21st, we finally wiped out Spooky 62. I put in another flight of four F-100s with wall to wall bombs. Needless to say we missed again. But we were able to slip a ground crew in. With Thermite grenades they finished off the mini guns, which were there intact. Mission complete. It cost us 36 bombs, four napalm, six gunships of rockets and machine guns plus two ground operations, and most of the tricks in a FAC’s bag.
On May 4th, I took our O-1E birddog aircraft up to Pleiku for sorties into Cambodia. First flight was on May 5th.
On May 8th, I was in the Officers’ Club enjoying a nice cold beer. An OV-10 pilot came in looking for a backseater. His got sick and no one else was available. I told him that I would go with him. It was a night flight over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. Got to see an air strike but luckily we took no ground fire. The next day, I contemplated how dumb a move that really was.
On May 9th, I spent a lot of time flying over the area in Cambodia. Not watching my gas gauge. I had to land at a helicopter field and refuel, before going back to Pleiku.
On May 11th, I put in an airstrike in Cambodia in an area that was supposed to be a storage site. I rolled in on that first pass to mark the target with my “Willie Pete” rockets for the fighters and got hosed down by a .51 cal machine gun emplacement. The red tracers were coming fast and furious by my windshield. It scared the shit out of me. I pulled off the target as hard as I could and yanked on the stick so hard I squeezed the trigger. That smoke rocket fired and went off and flew at least five miles into the distance. As I gathered my composure, I knew I would have to make another pass. And this time they knew I was coming, and I knew they knew I was coming! So one more time down the chute, and this time, the ground fire was even worse. But I was able to get my rocket to hit somewhere in the vicinity of the target and then it was up to the fighters. They did a super job and when they were done, no more ground fire. After two more air strikes, I was getting low on fuel and headed back to Pleiku. It was wonderful to see the runway, and I made an uneventful landing – or so I thought. As I pulled off the runway, my engine quit. I looked at the gas gauge on the left wing, and it was on “E”. No problem, I switched to the other tank in the right wing and taxied back to the parking spot. I almost made my spot when the engine quit again, and I coasted to a stop. When the crew chief and I looked in both wings, they were bone dry! Came that close to walking home.
On 17th May, Major Skaar, an O-1 pilot with the 4th Infantry Division and a good friend was killed while holding over a target. Heavy fire. He was to leave that day for Japan to meet his wife. She was already there. Short timer theory at work; when you get short you vary from your standard procedures, get too cautious, and they get you.
On 21st May, I directed an airstrike with Limit 31; he did a fantastic job. I had worked this same person two weeks before. He was so good, the best I directed in my entire tour, that I went out my way to find out who he was. It was the same guy, an F-4 driver. THE BEST.
On June 15th, at Bao Lac, a Vietnamese compound we supported, was overrun. All personnel killed.
On June 19th, Fearless Ferguson lost two Tonto FACs.
On July 5th, Walt 32 was directing a flight of F-4s. One of the pilots was pressing the target. The FAC and lead warned him. On the third pass he literally flew wings level into the ground, cutting down trees with his wingtips, then came back airborne. Both pilots ejected and we had a chopper there almost by the time they hit the ground. Unharmed. Dumb Pilot. On the same day Dave Jenny, a Misty FAC, was shot down over North Vietnam and picked up ok. Dave flew with us at Phan Rang. One of the Lucky Devils.
On July 6th, an O-1 was lost at Qui Nhon. Two pilots – one killed.
On July 8th, Journal entry “Cancelled due to lack of interest, there was no July 8th, 1968.”
On July 13th, took an O-1 to 13,000 feet to get over the weather.
On July 16th, AB 71 went out to work with Walt 21 near Gia Nghia. He called to check in. In a perfect English voice he was told by the Viet Cong to go on home they didn’t need him. Walt 21 came up on channel and cleared it up when they could see each other. He said he was loud and clear. He knew there was something wrong as we were never loud and clear.
On August 6th, l968 I took off for the dawn patrol, standard every morning. Shortly after take off I flew east from Phan Rang toward the South China Sea and down the beach. Seahorse 22 was Visual Reconning the same area. We joined up and proceeded south. Upon sighting a column of uniformed troops moving south down a rice patty dike we decided to make a customary flyby. It always gives the troops a boost to know we are around. With 22, affectionately called double deuce, in the lead, me in trail we flew down the column at a reasonably low altitude. Half-way down the column the soldiers dropped to their knees and took aim at Deuce and opened fire, he immediately pulled up exposing his belly. His passenger was hit and the aircraft suffered severe damage. My first thought was “I’m too short for this and they’ve killed me.” With that thought, I dropped all the way down turned my aircraft toward them and tried to take them with me. It was like Keystone cops as they leaped out of the way. I made it down the gauntlet and out of range before I climbed up. By this time Deuce was putting his plane down to the west of them.
I called my control for help and was told to stand by. I immediately shifted to command post frequency at Phan Rang and asked what they had on strip alert. Two F-100s – Blades were ready for the call. I explained the situation. They knew us and they knew the Army FACs. To expedite, the wing commander authorized the launch of the alert birds. These enemies were close enough to the base to indicate a threat. As they taxied out I briefed them on the situation. Deuce was too close to the enemy and we needed immediate action to save them. The commander of the Command post authorized the jettisoning of the tip tanks to allow immediate passes. The first aircraft jettisoned his fuel tanks on the enemy; the wingman strafed the fuel and jettisoned his. They made a great fire. They then set out to do their job. In the mean time ten sets of fighters were stacked up ready to go to work. An American in trouble was the greatest reason to be there and everyone wanted to take a shot at them. As the enemy moved south we continued to hammer them. As they moved into the foothills south of the target area we hit their position causing a major fireball and secondary explosions. We were able to get a helicopter in to pick up Deuce and his injured passenger. This was, to my count, Deuce’s third total loss aircraft.
We attempted to get the local troops out to check the area. After the dead bodies layed there for two days they finally came out. THIS WAS A GOOD DAY FOR THE GOOD GUYS.