Vietnam 1968-1969

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

My Vietnam experience actually began some time before 1968. I flew B-52s from 1965-1968 and spent six months bombing VN from Guam and a month flying out of U Tapao, Thailand. In early 1968 I was given orders to VN as a forward air controller. I had a wife and four small children and had already put in my papers to leave the USAF. I was a Captain and was 29 years old. I tried to have the assignment canceled but was unsuccessful.
Around March of 1968 I was sent to Hurlburt Field in Florida for training. The school was two to three months long. I was introduced to the O-1 Bird Dog. It is similar to a Cessna 180 but doesn’t perform as well. It has a Continental 235hp engine but is so overloaded that it only cruises at about 70 knots. It also has conventional gear (tail dragger). I had never flown anything like it but found that taxiing it was the most difficult thing to do. Flying the airplane was the smallest part of the job. The FAC is really the on-scene battle commander. You have to control two to four fighter/bombers, keep in constant contact with troops on the ground and check in from time to time with your radio operator. That doesn’t leave much time for flying so it has to become second nature. It didn’t happen in training but I got there after many hours of experience. The O-1 carried eight 2.75-inch white phosphorus rockets for target marking. They were about four feet long and weighed about 40 pounds. After we learned to read Army maps and fly the aircraft pretty well, we started directing air strikes against dummy targets. These were usually old trucks or cars. I got to ride in an A-1 Skyraider for five missions to learn what the fighter pilot had to contend with so I could appreciate his role. One of those missions was a night mission. It was very difficult. We flew sort of a lazy-eight pattern when directing fighters. I would roll into the target with the fighter so I could give corrections after he dropped or fired guns. If I told them to break left, I would break right because I had to keep them in sight at all times. I had to give a BDA (bomb damage assessment) report so had to write info on the windshield during the mission. The bird dog would fly about four hours so that was the duration of most missions. The other part of the job was visual reconnaissance (VR), which occupied most of my time. We were taught to fly 1,500 feet above the ground since that provided the most protection against small arms fire and gave good ground visibility. We looked for trails and signs of activity.
The off time at Hurlburt was quite pleasant. The weather was ideal and I had some very nice classmates. We got up bridge games from time to time but also spent a lot of time at the club. The gnawing fear that we would be soon heading to war gripped us all sometimes but we tried not to show it. We completed our training and headed to Eugene, OR for a short leave before going overseas. The day before I left, I flew to San Francisco where some old friends (Bob and Micheline Turner) brought me to their house for a lovely dinner. I didn’t know if I would ever see them again. I prepared my family as well as I could because I didn’t know if I would come back or not. I caught a late bus to Travis AFB and waited for my flight.
The first stop was Clark AB in the Philippines. I attended jungle survival school. We called it “snake school” and joked a lot but the fear was there. I also fear snakes so I expected the worst. Snake school was actually very enjoyable. We had some interesting classroom time (I was offered a grasshopper and a grub worm which I ate) and learned that the jungle is the best place to survive. There is food and water everywhere if you know where to look. There is a tree that you can cut a limb from and drink fresh water right from it. Insects are plentiful and nutritious and they come right to you. I never saw a snake and I’m glad of that. We did hear about a student who ate some cheese with his gloves on his hand. He fell asleep and when he awoke, a rat had chewed the fingers off his gloves. We spent three to four days in the jungle and had plenty of food. The trek was short and quite easy. It was hot and humid as was VN. Philippine aborigines called Negritos followed my partner and me. We heard that they follow students so they can report back their location. They get money and the student gets bad marks. We asked them to go get us a couple of bottles of beer (San Miguel) and gave them a little money. We sat down to wait for them but finally decided they weren’t coming back. We continued the trek and bedded down in some tall grass. Later, we felt the vibration of their bare feet near us but they couldn’t see us. I learned that night that the jungle is also a great place to hide. We finished up the trek by being winched aboard a helicopter by the same horse collar they use to rescue downed airmen. We graduated on a Saturday but no FACs could go to VN except on Friday. Since we had all that free time, some of us went to Manila to see the sights. We had a great time and played a lot of bridge.
The day finally arrived and we boarded a B- 727 for Tan Son Nhut. The thing that impressed me about the terminal was the nice new roof. I was told that the VC (Viet Cong) had destroyed it not long ago. The airport is close to Saigon and about 15 miles from Bien Hoa AB that was my next destination. We were going to take a bus but there was fighting along the road. We waited a long time for a C-47 to fly us those 15 miles. At Bien Hoa they put us in old open barracks like they used in World War Two. There was no air conditioning and the heat was unbelievable! We went to the club to eat and had some drinks with some navy pilots. One of them was joking about setting a hooch on fire and seeing the people run out. He called them “Crispy critters”. I was and am still horrified at the callousness of these “offi- cers and gentlemen.” Human life is such a precious thing that I was shocked to hear this kind of talk. I also heard about a FAC who crashed and caught fire. When the rescuers tried to pull him out, his head fell off. Welcome to Vietnam. I have always been a sound sleeper but my first night in VN they rocketed the base at three in the morning. I have not been a sound sleeper since. The purpose of my time in Bien Hoa was to get briefings on Vietnam and our role in the war. A major briefed us and he had seen his share of combat. At one point he started to cry but composed himself well enough to continue. We were told that there was one chance out of 50 that we’d go home in a body bag. There were about 50 of us in the room and we all wondered who it would be. I knew at least one of the men who didn’t make it. I have thanked God nearly daily, that He preserved me in my time of peril.
My next stop was Phan Rang on the South China Sea just a few miles from Cam Ranh Bay. This was in-country FAC School. We flew several missions with guys who had been doing the job for real. They knew the score and we soaked up all the info we could get. It was a good program and saved a lot of lives. We had air-conditioned quarters, BX, Red Cross workers (donut dollies) and real movies.
I then went further north (South Vietnam was divided into four Corps areas starting with I Corps running from the DMZ south. I was in II Corps) to Nha Trang. Our squadron headquarters was there so we did administrative work there and did some processing. The military thrives on paperwork and red tape and it was there in abundance. They had good quarters; air conditioned club, nice BX and a nice theater. My squadron commander was a Lieutenant Colonel. He had a big handlebar mustache and a big smile. We were playing dead bug one night at the club and he broke a chair. When you are sitting around the table and some one yells “dead bug” you all fall over backwards and the last one to hit the floor buys the next round. I hear the Aussies play it from bar stools but they are tougher than us.
Sometime in May of 1968 I boarded a Caribou (two engine prop aircraft built by deHavilland) flown by two majors. My next stop was Ban Me Thuot in the central highlands. This was to be my permanent duty station. BMT is in Darlac province, which is the largest province in South Vietnam. I noticed the lush jungles and triple canopy trees. We crossed mountains over 5,000 feet high on the way to BMT. We landed on a short PSP (pierced steel planking) field and I was taken to the MACV compound where I would live. My quarters were sparse but comfortable. The food was good but I couldn’t take the powdered eggs. I got a local checkout by one of the FACs and was on my own. Our province bordered Cambodia but we were only rocketed a few times during my stay there. I became friends with a major who accompanied me to Japan on a leave later in my tour. After I was familiar with my job and surroundings, I was told I would be sent to Bao Loc.
It is the provincial capital of Lam Dong Province and is about 100 miles south of BMT. When I arrived at Bao Loc I was very disappointed with what I saw. It was a small town and the MACV compound (advisory team 38) didn’t look like much. We had about three strands of barbed wire between the jungle and us and I didn’t feel very secure. We had trenches around the compound and I was given command of a bunker at the corner of the compound nearest my quarters. The buildings were concrete block construction and had been used for an agricultural college. I heard that a B-40 rocket had gone through our house a short time before I arrived. It didn’t explode or there would have been no house at all. The evenings were cool so I slept under a blanket. Days were warm and humid but not unbearable as they were in Saigon. The province was divided into five areas and I soon learned them literally as well as the back of my hand. I flew four hours every day and occasionally more if the other FAC wasn’t available. Tan Rai Special Forces camp was located just north of our airfield. The field was 3,500 feet of PSP and was at 3,300 feet above sea level. Some of the mountains in area five went up to 8,000 feet. I had just learned the area when I flew the most dramatic mission of my tour. I was doing VR (visual reconnaissance) east of the field when I received a call that the Tan Rai green berets had enemy contact. I contacted them on my FM radio and reported that I saw a lot of white smoke. They said they were M-79 rounds (grenades fired from a launcher resembling a big shotgun). I got the general location of the VC and called for fighters. I got F-4s from Cam Ranh Bay almost immediately. I briefed them, laid out a plan of attack including run in heading and location of friendlies. I remember being concerned that I would have them drop too close to the good guys. I started my run and put a rocket about 500 meters left of the friendlies. I told the fighters to hit my smoke. I continued to have them make runs in the same direction and moving about 50 meters closer to the friendlies till they told me “that’s close enough.” The F-4s left and I got some A-1 Skyraiders. They could haul a lot of munitions and could loiter longer than I could. We worked over the area some more. The green berets told me that they had broken contact and the VC were gone. I was exhausted by then so I headed home. I had flown nearly four hours and fuel was getting low. Several years after I got home, I received the Distinguished Flying Cross for this mission.
Major Ken Ziegler came to Bao Loc and was the air liaison officer. He and I flew our little bird dog every day and things were generally very calm. We had to take the airplane to Nha Trang about once a month for maintenance. They could build airplanes from scratch and actually created several “phantom” airplanes from spare parts. It was a good chance to see a movie in a real theater, go to the BX and spend time in an air-conditioned club. We used to write home a lot and all you had to do was write “free” on the envelope and you needed no stamps. We usually had about three days in Nha Trang. I was always ready to return to Bao Loc. One day the Tan Rai guys were driving to Bao Loc to make their daily run. They were ambushed and all died in their jeep. It was shocking but reminded us that death could be everywhere. I got my haircut by a barber that I really suspect was a VC. I kept my hand near my .45 all the time I was in his shop. He also gave a lousy haircut.
We met at what passed for the officer’s club, every evening before dinner. We usually had several beers and then had dinner. The food was quite good at first but seemed to get worse as time went on. We had an army mess sergeant but Vietnamese cooks. On Saturday we could cook our own steaks outside or have lobster. It wasn’t Maine lobster but was still good. Then we’d go back to the club for the rest of the evening. I drank way too much during this time and am thankful I survived it. We were all scared and lonely. Sometimes we had a movie but didn’t have a Cinemascope lens. All the characters looked like toothpicks.
Major Ziegler was reassigned after several months and I became the ALO. It just meant that I was in charge of the six airmen assigned to me. I did the same job and went to the same intelligence briefings. They were always reporting sighting VC but seldom engaged them.
My crew chief was a staff sergeant named Sheppard. Everyone called him Shep and he was really a character. He was black but no one noticed it. He was always laughing but he was very scared the whole time. He never cleaned or fired his rifle and he was drunk every night. He took meticulous care of my airplane and I will always be grateful to him for my life. The only problem I ever had was a tire went flat on landing one day. No mag drops, no engine problems, no rocket trouble, no electrical problems, no problems at all. The VC mortared our field one night and our Bird Dog took part of a mortar round. Shep patched it good as new. Shep and his helper, Airman Swider, used to sit in lawn chairs and heat C rations over a can of burning avgas while I was flying. I can still picture them to this day. Shep finally went home and was replaced by a Sergeant Cook. He was a very capable man but didn’t have the personality that Shep had.
My BMT major friend and I went on a leave to Japan. We left out of Saigon but returned through DaNang with a load of metal coffins. It was just another grim reminder that lots of good men were dying everyday. I still grieve for them, the ones I knew and the ones I didn’t.
We had an assortment of army officers in our compound. There were advisors on every subject including a California Highway Patrol officer. One young lieutenant worked on the secret Project Phoenix. I didn’t know much about it at the time but learned that they execute VC leaders by infiltration. Another young lieutenant seemed to be fascinated by other people’s weapons. We each had an M-16 and a handgun. They were loaded and ready at all times and we all knew it. This fellow had to be told to leave them alone. One night when he was duty officer, he shot himself in the head with his .45. I’ve often wondered who wrote the letter to his parents. This was a senseless loss of life caused by carelessness and stupidity. The other needless disaster in our province involved a C-130. We had no navigation aids at our field and no lights or tower operator. During the monsoon season, we frequently couldn’t fly for sometimes a week at a time. This C-130 tried to land under impossible conditions. We found small pieces of metal, a boot with a foot in it and not much else. They hit a mountain that they should have known was there. Another bunch of America’s best dying from stupidity.
The U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade came to Bao Loc for a while. They were undisciplined and usually stoned on drugs. There were lots of very strong drugs available and many died because of them. They wanted body count and didn’t care who they killed. I was glad when they left.
Something should be said about the Montagnards. They lived in the central highlands and were very interesting people. They were bigger and darker than Vietnamese and they had their own culture. The Vietnamese persecuted them but the Montagnards were loyal and honest. The green berets only worked with Montagnards because they were utterly fearless and dependable. The Montagnards had their own musical instruments. I had a strange sort of flute for a long time. It was made of gourds and bamboo. They used to have Nam Pe parties where they drank a lot of rice wine. I never attended one but heard that they also slaughtered a water buffalo. I didn’t care for that part of their culture. Since we left Vietnam in 1975, I understand many of the Montagnards have been slaughtered. Some have come to America but not many are left in their native land. I cry for them as well. We let them down.
I have pictures of Americans giving medical aid to Montagnards and Vietnamese. We tried to do a lot of good but the only ones who appreciated it were the ones who received it. It didn’t make the home news. All they wanted to report was atrocities.
Since I had complete control over air strikes and artillery, I was the person who could help or hurt the people on the ground. I remember refusing to strike a village near the highway because I knew there were friendlies in the area. Since I was quite a bit older than the draftees, I think I knew that I couldn’t knowingly kill innocent people. I may have let some VC escape but I have slept better knowing that I did the right thing.
The Army had L-19 (O-1) VR (visual reconnaissance) pilots (call sign Pterodactyl). They could do everything I did except direct air strikes. Lieutenant Dave Sidella was a Pterodactyl and he was my friend. He was from PA and had a great sense of humor. He flew for a commuter airline after VN, got hired by Eastern and stayed with them until they folded. I wrote a recommendation letter for him and United hired him. He died of leukemia at the age of 45. I still miss him.
The only Vietnamese I met that I really admired was a gentleman who ran an orphanage school in Bao Loc. He was a kind, gentle man. The children were adorable and we all wanted to bring them home. I don’t think anyone did.
I remember celebrating New Years of 1969 in Bao Loc. Twenty days later I had my 30th birthday. I also got to go to Honolulu for R and R. I left from Cam Ranh Bay. I had been told to call the F-4 squadron and they would take care of me for the night. I called and a shiny lieutenant picked me up and whisked me to officer’s quarters. He introduced me all around and gave me a very comfortable room for the night. I was taken to the club and wined and dined like royalty. They wouldn’t let me spend a red cent. They were really a great bunch of guys and I don’t know if I thanked them properly or not. I flew to Honolulu the next day. My wife met me there and we had about a week of relaxation. The people were wonderful to us. We had free movies, food and discounts on just about everything. On the mainland, we were told not to wear our uniforms but they seemed to love us in Hawaii. The only thing that spoiled it was the knowledge that I had to go back to Vietnam. The return flight was about as pleasant as a wake.
Early in April my replacement arrived. He was a major who had flown F-106s. His name was Don Zumstein and he was a quiet, professional officer. I was designated a combat tactics instructor so gave him a couple of familiarization rides. I had to fly in the back seat but he flew the plane. He was completely familiar with procedures so it was an easy checkout. I left to come home from Saigon so I had to go there a few days early. We turned in weapons and did a lot of processing. It was during the first week of April that I boarded a commercial flight for McChord AFB, Washington. As soon as the gear was retracted, a huge cheer echoed through the airplane. I was on my way home. There has hardly been a day since my return that I have not thanked God for preserving me. I started school with United Air Lines three weeks later.