The Morning After

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

I have had some pretty rough “mornings after.” You know the ones I mean – the kind you’d have to die just to feel better? But the “morning after” I was shot down was unlike any other I had ever experienced. When I first woke up I was proud, pleased and more than a bit surprised to be alive. Mind you, I was scuffed-up a tad, but all things considered I was in pretty good shape – well, for the shape I was in. Life was good. But my euphoric feelings were handed a real quick downer when the following message came down from Headquarters Saigon:
“7AF” would be the headquarters of the 7th Air Force in Saigon, and “Brown” would be four- star General George S. Brown, commander 7th AF and deputy commander for air operations, US Military Assistance Command Vietnam. Right then I knew this was not going to be a good day for the ole Major. You see, I was not only shot down the day before, but in the process I had also violated “their” Rules of Engagement (ROE) – and a whole lot more as it turned out.
In essence, the ROE document states, “...NO air strikes within three KM of the border.” It was practically the first “briefing” every pilot received upon arrival in Vietnam, and we were reminded of it in just about every briefing we had thereafter. Mind you, on the surface it seemed like pretty simple instructions to follow, IF you ignored the fact that all of the charts in our area of operation were CLEARLY marked, “Border NOT CLEARLY defined.” After all, the real terrain does not have pretty colored lines marking its borders like a Rand-McNally road atlas.
However, in this particular case a Rand- McNally was not needed. You see I knew exactly where Cambodia was at the time I was flying and I knew exactly what I was doing. How else could I have declared a Tactical Emergency and directed a few modest US air strikes inside Cambodia? And since the strikes were definitely INSIDE Cambodia, I was definitely in direct violation of our government’s ROE Edict. Of course, the Special Forces Camp that we were trying to protect INSIDE Vietnam was delighted that I did what I did, but naturally there’s always trade offs in this kind of business. You see, NOT EVERYONE was pleased with my actions.
In fact, you might say the “chain of command” from Saigon all the way to Washington DC and the desks of Mr. Kissinger and President Nixon were a little miffed. No, let’s be fair. They were flat Pissed Off. They ALL wanted a piece of my ass in general and they ALL specifically wanted to know under WHOSE AUTHORITY did I declare a “Tactical Emergency?” And THAT was the gist of this Saigon message business.
Of course news of my message from General Brown quickly spread throughout our camp and the crew chiefs were frantically trying to clean up one of the O-1s – knowing that one was sure to be heading for Saigon soon, with me flying it. Since it was going to be an “administrative flight,” all the rockets were removed. However, knowing that there was about 75 miles of jungle between Gia Nghia and Saigon it struck me as a good idea to have some rockets on my plane. So I directed the crew chief to re-arm it – not one of my better decisions as it turned out.
Since I only had charts for the Quang Duc Province, I “borrowed” the 1:250 chart off the wall of the flight shack and made my way out to my O-1, the “Wild Blue Yonder” and my meeting with General Brown. But I almost started laughing out loud when I got into my plane and glanced into the mirror. You see my fatigues were washed in a stream that was as red as the dirt on our runway, and after a few washing they all picked up a rather pinkish hue – how lovely, I thought.
I was truly a sight to behold. My gray hair had a reddish tint to it. My helmet was more pink than white and with the bandages covering the lower part of my face I looked more like some medevac patient from the “San Francisco” area than a US Air Force pilot. No doubt the general would be taken with my appearance. Needless to say, this was not exactly the way I wanted to look as I headed towards Saigon to get “chewed out” or more probably unceremoniously “thrown out” of the Air Force.
As I revved up my engine, the line, “...Into The Valley of Death Rode The 600,” zipped through my head. It seemed quite appropriate since I felt like I was the lead rider in that classic Tennyson poem – The Charge of the Light Brigade. ‘Oh well, you can only do what you can do,’ I thought. ‘Okay Brown, here I come!’
After take-off I turned south towards Phuoc Vinh, Bien Hoa and beyond. In 1962 that area of Vietnam was quite beautiful. But by 1964 the area had been designated “War Zone D” and declared a free fire zone – the only ones there were the “bad guys.” Consequently, the area now had long strips of lush foliage alternating with long strips of dead trees and grasses with huge 1,000 bomb pock-marked craters all over it. The manicure job was compliments of our C-123 “Ranch Hands,” their Agent Orange and the Arc Light missions of our B-52s as the Air Force attempted to drive the infidels out of the area.
I passed Phuoc Vinh off my left wing and turned slightly towards Bien Hoa. As it came into sight I was amazed at how much it had changed since my 1962/1963 tour. Back then we had a 5,000 foot PSP runway and now they had a pair of East/West runways that must have been at least 12,000 feet long and the buildings seemingly stretched from there all the way to Saigon.
I was well passed Bien Hoa when I contacted Tan Son Nhut (Saigon) tower for landing. They asked me if I was familiar with their local procedures for FAC aircraft, which struck me sort of silly considering that I just had called them on the wrong radio frequency. Nonetheless, I replied, “Negative,” then added, “I need to park in the FAC arming area.”
The “tower” quickly came back with, “The party meeting your aircraft wants you to park at ‘Base Operations’ and that you are not armed.” “Well,” I said, “Sorry ‘bout that, tell them to meet me in the arming area because I have eight 2.75 WP rockets.” Of course you can imagine what was going through my mind by this time. Good grief, I’ve got them pissed off at me already. Now they’re going to have to move the “firing squad” to the arming area.
After landing and taxing to the arming area, the ground crew put safety pins in my rockets after I shut down the engine. The safety pins had cloth red streamers on them and must have been at least four feet long. Looked kinda pretty, wish we had safety pins at Gia Nghia like that they would have really impressed the Army folks there. It’s sort of funny the things that run through your mind just before you’re about to be shot.
Within minutes after landing, a bright, blue shiny jeep arrived at the scene. It looked like it just came out of the factory, and so did the Colonel who was in it. I didn’t notice a firing squad, but the colonel was accompanied by a civilian with a crew cut and wearing a black business suit – oh boy, right then and there I knew I was in deep shit.
About that time the crew chief asked me about my maintenance needs and my departure plans. I nervously smiled and said, “A wash job would be nice. Other than that all I need is fuel and workable rockets when I leave. As far as when I leave, I have no idea, Sarge. I’m here to see General Brown.” I knew things were deteriorating rapidly when the ole Sarge replied, “I know Major, and good luck!”
His comment made me think that a firing squad might be preferable to what might be really in store for me. And that thought was not diminished in the least when I reported to the colonel standing by his shiny new jeep with my best military salute. You’ll understand my feelings as you hear the following discourse between us:
“It would have been best if you had worn a clean uniform, Major.” Of course I held back the urge to tell him that this is a clean uniform, you jerk. But I really didn’t have much of a chance to respond as he fired several questions in rapid succession. “Don’t you have a flack jacket?”
“Yes Sir,” I said, “I have two. I sit on one and the other covers the back of the seat.” But I was thinking why would I need a flak jacket at a court- martial? “Shall I get one?” (Thinking it might be a good thing to have under the circumstances.)
“Never mind. Did you bring any bags?”
“No Sir.”
“Okay. Hop in.”
Just like that we were off to see the General.
Well at least that’s what I thought. But I noticed we zoomed right past the operations tower in our shiny new jeep and went directly to the hospital’s “Emergency Room.” Then his questioning really got ugly.
“Who put those bandages on your face? Are they really necessary?”
“The Doc at Gia Nghia put them on and he wants to look at them tomorrow,” I replied.
“Well now, was this ‘Doc’ a medical doctor or just some enlisted medic?”
Not liking this conversation at all, I responded, “Colonel, he is an Army Tech Sergeant, that is all we have. Anyway, it’s only a bunch of cuts and some glass in my face.”
“Well, we are going to stop by the Emergency Room and see if we can get that looked at right now.”
I could tell from his line of questioning that this lad was not at all interested in my health. On the contrary, his inference from his questions was that I was really not wounded at all. I was just dressed up for sympathy since I knew I was soon to meet my inquisitioners. In other words, he was a real first class REMF! I’d seen hundreds of them during my twenty-year career.
Anyway, the colonel, the mute in the black suit (he had yet to say one solitary word to me) headed into the Emergency Room with me following dutifully behind. Once there, the colonel went to talk to the desk sergeant and the black suit headed for the telephone – I guess he was not a mute after all. Within minutes a medic took me to an examination room, and told me to strip to my waist as he walked out of the room. He quickly returned with a tray of shiny instruments and a real doctor. Well, I guess he was real. He looked the part anyway.
“Let’s see what we’ve got here,” as he removed my bandages. Closely looking at my face he said, “It looks like you were in a losing fight with a cat!” He reached for some tweezers and started picking out some of the bigger chucks of glass from my face. He then turned to the medic and said, “I’m going to need a steptic pencil, that colonel told me that he wanted no bandages on this man’s face at all.”
Well, after picking around for a while, he washed my face down with alcohol. Now you want to talk about burn, baby burn? Good grief! Then as if that wasn’t bad enough he gave me a real deep-down burn with his alcohol-filled steptic pencil. Finally the masochist was finished and he stepped back and said, “You still have lots of tiny little pieces of glass there, but I think they should fester up a bit in time and you can easily pop them out.” This real doctor was a real class act. I can tell you that. I just can’t tell what sort of class he was.
He then told the medic all I needed was a tetanus shot for the moment. I took strong exception to that notion. Not because I’m necessarily frightened of needles, but because, as I patiently explained to the real doctor, the medic gave me a tetanus shot yesterday!
Of course knowing full well that I had come here to see the general and not a real doctor, he knew I did not have my medical records with me. So he cut my pleadings short by saying, “Really Major, well let’s take a look at your shot record, shall we? Not being able to produce it, I reluctantly looked at his aide and said, “Get the needle, Sarge!” But that needless tetanus shot really torqued me—almost as much as this whole ordeal did.
With my wounds verily visible to the human eye, I went back out to the lobby to meet up with my awaiting escorts. The no-name colonel (I never did catch his name) and Mr. Black Suit (who never gave me his name) were busy talking – proving once and for all that he wasn’t a mute, except to me. But they cut their conversation short when I walked up, and the colonel said to me, “Looks a lot better now. I still wish we could do something about that uniform!”
While we seemingly had forever for the real doctor to check me out, now we seemed to be in a big hurry. We jumped in the jeep and in about three minutes we arrived in front of a building with a sign proudly proclaiming, ‘Headquarters 7th Air Force’, and below that ‘General George S. Brown.’ This must be da place, I thought, as we got out of the jeep and started quick stepping into the building. All of the Air Force Security Police (Air Police) surrounding this place started talking into their radios. It sort of reminded me of the movie, “The Green Mile,” as I walked down the hallway to my certain demise.
Then we entered this huge room. Golly, it could have been the office of a real important person back in the states. The centerpiece was a very large desk behind which sat an Air Force officer in his mid-50s wearing four very large stars on both shoulders! The nameplate on his desk said, ‘General George S. Brown.’
Thank you nameplate for reminding me who I was about to address, I thought as I walked up to his desk, saluted and said, “Major Lattin, George R. reporting as ordered, Sir!”
The General returned the salute and said, “Have a seat Major Lattin.”
Since there was only ONE chair in front of the General’s desk, I figured that it must be mine. The walls of this mini-colosseum were lined with chairs – all occupied with an assortment of Army and Air Force Generals, but mostly black suited civilians – and they ALL had very somber and sober faces.
You can imagine the sort of thoughts whizzing through my head. “Was this what General Hap Arnold went through when they kicked him out? Will ‘Air America’ hire a kicked out O-1 and C-47 driver?” Then, as I looked at all those Generals surrounding me, a funny thought came to mind, ‘Good grief Gerte, there’s enough stars out there to make several constellations – you know, like the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper. It would have looked real nice too against the black backdrop provided by all of those black-suited mutes.’
I took what the Navy would call “the Cat- Bird-Seat” as the General opened up the folder on his desk. He looked at me, smiled and said, “Please relax Major.” I thought, easy for him to say, he was on the other side of the desk, but his smile did make me feel a little more comfortable. Then he began to read from my folder.
“The records that I have here indicate that you have been in-country since 2 September 1969, is that correct?”
“I’m sure it is General, it was the very first of the month,” I said.
“The record also shows that you initially received a thorough briefing on ‘The Rules of Engagement’ back in 1962 while here with ‘Farmgate.” Then again, after your most recent arrival here you attended an extended briefing at Bien Hoa on 4 September 1969. In fact, in the past ten weeks, since you have been on this tour, you have been briefed and you have signed no less than six acknowledgements on the Rules of Engagement. How can this be true?”
My second tetanus shot in two days flashed through my mind as I said, “Well sir, seems to me we have a lot of briefers around here, and everyone of them wants to get into the act. It seems that at every stop along the way we get briefed on ROE.”
The General continued, “The records also show that your most recent briefing was on 9 November 1969 (just seven days before I broke them) and the one prior to that was 2 November 1969, is that accurate?
Better watch myself here I thought and I said, “Well sir the 2 November briefing was by the Air Force and the 9 November one was by the Army.” I wanted to add “ours,” but I thought I’d let that one pass. I didn’t want to confuse anybody at this stage of the game. The General looked around the room and said, “Gentlemen, I think we can all agree that the good Major has had plenty of briefings on the ROE and should understand them well, do we all agree?”
A black suit in the back chimed in and asked, “Is his signature on all the briefing documents along with the signature of the briefer?”
I thought, “Promote that black suit legal- trained bastard. He can be taught!”
The General answered back, “They are all signed properly.” He handed the folder to Lieutenant Colonel ‘Door Opener’ to pass around the circle.
“Okay Major,” he continued, “On 16 November 1969 you declared a Tactical Emergency in the vicinity of the United States Army Special Forces Camp near Bu Prang, Quang Duc Province, Republic of Vietnam. If this is true, would you give us the circumstances that prompted you to make this decision without first seeking direction from some higher headquarters?”
I thought, ‘Okay Lattin, this is it. Bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases loaded and you’re up.’ “General may I first give you some background information?”
“Of course, please do,” he responded.
“General, I hope that everyone in this room is aware of the activity in my AO for the past two to three weeks. We have had three serious attempts by the NVA to take the Duc Lop camp, and yes, I’m sure they are NVA. I’ve seen them in uniforms and photographed them with my government issued camera. In fact, these photographs were sent here a couple of weeks ago.
Directly across the border from Duc Lop, in Cambodia, is a very large building around fifty meters long with a huge red cross painted on the roof facing Vietnam. This building has four “long wire” antennas running from the building to poles nearby. I have taken our radio operators up there several times to look at these antennas. They all have identified these as HF or high frequency antennas – the kind that have the capability to communicate great distances. My estimation is that this is a major NVA headquarters/ communication center.”
I heard all kinds of rumbling from the chairs along the wall behind me. The General quickly responded, “Major, would you please excuse yourself for the moment.”
I rose from my chair to leave the room and I could feel that all of the eyes along the wall were riveted on me as I left. I said to myself, ‘I think I hit a nerve!’ Of course, the ever gracious and thoughtful Lieutenant Colonel Door Opener escorted me out of the room.
Once outside he directed me to the bathroom and coffee pot and said, “If you care to smoke, step outside the door to the right, but remain outside while you smoke.” Good grief, I thought to myself, I’m about to be incinerated and this jerk is worried about “second hand smoke.” Nonetheless, I needed all three suggestions. After taking the “pause that really refreshes,” I headed for the door with the cup of coffee in one hand and clawing for a pack of cigarettes with the other.
I tried to make some small talk with the AP asking him if he knew who all those other people were in that room? His answer was curt, direct and short, “No Sir!” Seeing that this conversation was going nowhere, I quickly downed my coffee and smoked about three to four cigarettes, and paused to gather my thoughts. I was a little nervous to say the least. I decided to go back into the building but the AP said, “Sir, it would be best to stay out here until called.”
‘I need a lawyer,’ I said to myself. ‘God, I wish I knew what they were talking about inside that room. Was it Duc Lop, that building, the antenna and/or my firing squad?’
Just then the doors opened and Lietenant Colonel Door Opener stuck his head out and said, “Major would you please join us again?” Like I had a choice.
I walked back into the room and saw a large map of Southern II Corp and Northern III Corps on an easel beside the General’s desk. It had all those goofy markings of squares with Xs and arrows all over it – the kind that the Army likes to draw on its maps. As I sat down, the General said, “Major, please continue.”
“Well Sir, after the NVA attempts to take Duc Lop, they next began to attack Fire Support Base Kate to the South.” The General interrupted, “We have all just been briefed on both Duc Lop and Kate. Let’s move on to Bu Prang and Sunday morning.”
“Yes Sir. After most of our people got out of Kate, with the exception of one PFC who is MIA, they started hitting the Bu Prang Special Forces Camp. The activity kept increasing. Last Friday I was flying support of a battalion of the 47th Regiment 23rd ARVN Division when they were suddenly hit by a flight of VNAF A-37s – resulting in 21 ARVN KIA and 33 WIA. Sir, what I am trying to do is give everyone here an idea of the tempo of what has been going on there.
“From Friday afternoon and all day Saturday, A-236 was taking heavy mortar and B-40 rocket fire from about every direction. I have no idea of the number of air strikes we put in Saturday trying to defend the camp, other than to say it was a bunch. General, these folks are my friends in addition to being my comrades. Well Sir, Sunday morning the camp contacted us and advised us, and this is their terminology, “We’re getting heavy shit from the west.”
“I immediately launched two FACs about thirty minutes before daylight Sunday morning and another FAC every thirty minutes after that. I was in our command bunker monitoring the radio traffic when I got a call from Walt 23 who said that it seemed to him that the “incoming” was coming from Cambodia. He wanted me to give him an okay to go over and take a look. I denied his request and I was airborne in less than ten minutes.
After takeoff I contacted Walt 21 who was in the area and he advised me that he was sure the big guns were at the dirt airstrip named O Rang, we called it Le Roland, across the fence in Cambodia. He felt that the AA guns were there also. I can’t swear to it, but Lieutenant Gusky most likely had got a real close look at the anti- aircraft guns, if you know what I mean?
We had at least four sets of fighters holding and being briefed by Walt 25 when I arrived. I could see the explosions as the enemy’s rounds impacted all over the Special Forces camp. I turned to the West and I could see the NVA’s cannons recoil as they fired. There was no doubt we were being fired on from Cambodia. I immediately contacted the TACP at Gia Nghia and advised them that I was declaring a Tactical Emergency within 20 Nautical Miles of the 268/51 off the Cam Rahn Bay VORTAC.
“I was handed a set of F-100s (call sign Dusty) by Walt 25 and started to direct an air strike on the first target – which were the first two anti- aircraft gun emplacements that I saw in addition to the big guns. I told Walt 25 to follow my strike with a set of F-4s that he had with their Snake and Nape. I rolled in on the target, fired one smoke on the left hand anti-aircraft gun emplacement, then kicked the rudder and put two smokes on the larger emplacement. As I broke left off the target, my O-1 was hit inside the right wing root – cutting the aileron and elevator cables. It also knocked out all my radios, with the exception of FM. General, we got this thing back on the ground, but I sure tore up your airplane. After that, the Division ALO pulled all of the FACs out of the area. I’m sorry I’m taking so long, but I’m being as brief as I can, Sir.
“Gentlemen, any questions,” asked the General. A voice from the wall spoke out, “General, I feel that we need to hear from a radio operator or someone that was in the bunker at Gia Nghia.”
The hair on the back of my neck stood on end and I could feel this jerk’s eyes burning between my shoulder blades. So I thought to myself, “Okay you dickhead, now it’s my turn to break it off in your ass.” I could hardly contain a cynical smile from forming on my face as I reached in my pocket and pulled out a cassette tape and placed it on the General’s desk, “General, this is a tape of all radio traffic on Sunday’s events. It was recorded in the TACP bunker by Air Force Sergeant Peacock of our TACP.” (I STILL have a copy of this recording.) You could hear a pin drop on this heavily carpeted floor after my comment.
General Brown stood up and said, “Please excuse us gentlemen. Major, please come with me.” He walked me through a door to the left that I had not noticed before. As he closed the door behind me, he said, “First I want to thank you for coming in today. I also want for you to thank each and every person you work with. They’re all doing an outstanding job.
“For your information,” he continued, “and this is “Top Secret.” What you started on Sunday is the scenario for an active OPERATIONS PLAN the Pentagon has developed for our ground invasion of Cambodia. When the folks at CIA, the Joint Chiefs and even the White House got the word on what you did yesterday, they went nuts. They thought that Westy (General Westmoreland) had started the operation without their okay. Keep this to yourself. Okay?”
So there you have it. These fine black-suited jerks, who were so willing to throw me to the wolves, did not care a flip what really happened – our guys getting shot and killed from inside Cambodia. No, from the fragmented reports coming into the Pentagon, what I had done sounded almost exactly like their “Top Secret” plans, and their only concern was that Westmoreland was trying to upstage them and had struck Cambodia without their permission! Once they were satisfied that I acted on my own and Westmoreland had nothing to do with it, they quickly lost all interest in me.
It never occurred to them that somebody way down in the lower echelon of command could or would take it upon themselves – without parental consent – to take direct action on the enemy in an attempt to protect their buddies. But then what would you expect from a bunch of Ivy League grads who never spent a day in the military? Nevertheless, I looked at the General and said, “You know, Sir, for a while I thought I was going to get the boot, or the firing squad when I first got here.” He quipped, “There are people in that other room that are fully capable of doing both, George.” Its kind of scarring to think that people like that have so much power and so little common sense, I thought.
“Major, I know you need to get back up there, but I want you to spend the night here in Saigon. Relax a bit. Do you know anyone around here?” “Yes Sir. I have an ex-boss, Colonel George Reinker, he’s the Director of JPRC, and living at the Rex.”
“Good,” he replied as he pushed a button on the desk and said, “Bruce, get Major Lattin some wheels to the Rex. Also contact Reinker at JRPC and tell him he has a guest for the night.”
“Yes Sir,” the desk said in reply. By golly, Lieutenant Colonel Door Opener does have a first name. As I started to leave, the General smiled and said, “By the way George, way to kick ass.”
I walked out of General Brown’s office and thought, “What a day this turned out to be. Instead of getting court-martialed and executed, I got a pat on the back and hearty thanks from a four-star General. What a fitting way to end the “Morning After.” Just goes to show, that you never know what a new day’s going to bring forth until after it’s all over.