Combat Leadership, CINC Nail

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

In my 22-year AF career, I commanded an F-16 squadron, but it was during peacetime, so I never experienced what it was like to be a commander under combat conditions. I often wonder what it would have been like and if I would have been as good as one of the commanders I had during my assignment right out of UPT as a FAC in the 23rd TASS. I can only imagine what it was like to command a group of young pilots who were sent off on their own to execute the ‘frag’ with a very tenuous form of control. That is if you can call it ‘controlling’ when we would check in with squadron ops only when in radio range – and then only to report our takeoff time on departure and then our maintenance status when we returned. When I was at NKP, we principally covered the HCM Trail and Cambodia (a few of us did get some missions in SVN before the US pulled out) so we were well beyond radio range of any ground-based sites.
The commander I am referring to is Howie Pierson, Lt.Col. USAF, retired. Howie was often referred to as ‘Commando Clean’ because he had the same barber as ‘Mr. Clean.’ He was tall with a barrel-chest, and he had a boatload of combat missions. He seemed bigger than life with a patch on his party suit showing that he had over 1,500 combat missions accumulated with the VNAF in their T-28s and A-37s (and just about anything else in the VNAF inventory). The A-37 missions were flown in spite of the fact that his size (thigh length and sitting height) would have meant certain leg and back injuries had he ejected. That wouldn’t have mattered to Howie, because he believed that he was serving in SEA to help the Vietnamese remain free from communism and that any price was worth helping them to achieve that goal. This was something he instilled in all of us and how he managed his young troops can be demonstrated in two stories I experienced firsthand.
The first came in the summer of 1973 as I was transiting southeast of Phnom Penh (Papa-Papa; PP) on my way back to Ubon. I had completed my station time and was cruising home at around 10,000 feet cleaning up the cockpit (literally copying my strike information and BDA off the canopy to carry with me to debriefing once I landed). I was around 10,000 feet as the air was cooler there and, since the airspace was totally VFR (i.e., see and avoid other traffic), I knew I could avoid most other airplanes. Besides keeping my eyes peeled, (especially for the numerous air strikes around Papa-Papa) I was monitoring our Nail common frequency (FM 50.50 mhz) to keep abreast of other FACs and their activities in the area.
Suddenly, I noticed another FAC a thousand feet or so below me, offset slightly to my left, and heading in the opposite direction – so I waggled my wings to signal that I saw him. He acknowledged that he saw me with a similar waggle. As we passed, I watched and saw the other OV-10 begin a climbing turn into me. I couldn’t let the opportunity pass and soon we were engaged in a 1-vs-1 Bronco ‘furball.’ As I had been heading home, my centerline tank was empty and, combined with the aforementioned thousand feet of altitude that I had when I entered the fight, I had the advantage. Soon I was camped at the six- o’clock position of this other OV-10 as we twisted and turned through the sky with him filling my gun-sight. I then keyed up “Nail Common” and gave my best imitation of machine gun fire over the radio (takka takka takka). The response was immediate as the other OV-10 rolled sharply over on his back and turned on his smoke generator and began descending in a near vertical dive.
For those who don’t know, the OV-10 had a smoke generator to help fighters get their eyes on our Broncos over the jungle. It was a system that dumped oil (or hydraulic fluid if we were out of oil) from a reservoir in the left main gear well into the exhaust of the left engine creating a trail of smoke. Kind of like what the Thunderbirds have to help the audience keep them in sight during their air shows. Needless to say, I was dazzled and broke off the engagement and watched the other OV-10 pull out of his dive and continue on his way.
At the club that evening, I regaled my fellow Nails with my ‘shootdown’ and tried to figure out which one of them it might have been. None would admit it and so I continued my quest by talking to other Nails hanging around at the bar. Still, no luck until there was only one Nail I had not talked with, “Commando Clean!”
I finally screwed up my courage and began talking to him about his mission that day and eventually got around to asking if he had been around Papa-Papa at the right time. A big grin spread across his face as he asked me if I fell for his ‘wounded bird’ gambit. We had a great laugh together and I realized the old man could check up on his young charges while also letting down his hair – which was tough given how he wore his!
The second incident relates to the entire squadron and occurred after the war had ended on August 15th, 1973. Morale was really low, as many of us had been grounded because we had accumulated so many flying hours in the latter stages of the war that we had exceeded what was allowed in a set period to ensure that we were adequately rested. I guess all those regulations were put on hold for the war and, now that peace was breaking out all over, the regulations could once again be enforced. In addition to the grounding, we were encountering the first of the fuel shortages in the 1970’s and so flying hours were curtailed. Frustration reigned and tempers flared as we sat around and stared at each other counting the days until our DEROS with no war to fight – and curtailments were not being approved!
Then, word came down one day that all the Nails were to report to the big briefing room at Wing Headquarters building. As we arrived, we knew something unusual was going on because there were armed guards outside the door and they were checking ID cards against a squadron roster. As we took our seats, Howie was at the front of the room and behind him was a large map covered with a blank sheet of paper.
“Commando Clean” started the briefing and quickly grabbed our attention by informing us that we were ‘all going to be a part of history!’ He proceeded to uncover the map and it was of the region around Saigon with an area to its northwest highlighted. He told us that a VNAF Major by the name of Hu Chi had been building a cache of arms and garnering support from his fellow officers to overthrow the corrupt South Vietnamese Government and save the country from the seemingly inevitable noose the NVA was tightening around Saigon. The USAF was going to support this whole operation and the Nails were going to be the guys running the close air support portion. Excitement began to run like electricity through the briefing room and guys who were at each others throats over the last few weeks had forgotten all that conflict and were thinking now of the upcoming missions.
“Commando Clean” observed how ironic it was that the whole endeavor was being run from the Cu Chi rubber plantation outside of Saigon where the Viet Cong and NVA had based many of their operations. He pointed to the highlighted area on the map and we all nodded in agreement at how the VC and NVA were going to get the surprise of their lives from their former back yard.
It was at this point that the other shoe dropped. Howie started telling us how it was going to be tough and that we would likely suffer losses, but that we would all look back with pride on this operation. He concluded by saying that there would come a day when we could set our grandchildren on our lap and tell them we had been there for the ‘Hu Chi, Cu Chi Coup.” The room went silent for several seconds as everyone sat there in stunned silence and then people began throwing hats, checklists, maps, grease pencils, etc. at Howie. He just stood there and laughed and then said, “Let’s go to the club.”
What followed was a rather rowdy evening at the club that was only interrupted long enough for everyone to put on their party suit. Howie eventually retired from the battlefield only to return when some REMF phoned his room to advise that his men were acting in an unprofessional manner and that he expected Howie to do something about it. Howie apparently told the REMF that he would be right up,which seemed to satisfy the idiot until Commando Clean strode into the bar in his party suit and joined right back into the revelry.
Again, I saw a commander who was watching out for his troops. In this case he read the frustration that was boiling up and then took direct action to defuse what could have turned into a volatile situation.