The Tom and Frank Show

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

I was a second lieutenant and this was my first assignment out of “navigator school” when I arrived in Thailand. After I had been in the 23 TASS for several months, we had a “hail and farewell” party for the new arrivals and for the guys going home. I remember Major Quinn Waterman’s farewell speech as if it were yesterday. He got up on the stage and said something like this:
“You know I feel sorry for Lt. Gray and Lt. Barbin, this is their first assignment in the Air Force and it will be their best. They will never in their careers have another assignment like this one. The responsibility, comradeship and excitement will never be equaled.”
At the time, I thought that he just did not know what he was talking about. Here I have roughly 18 months in the service, with at least 19 more years to go, how could he say that. I retired with 22 years in the U.S. Air Force, two years as a Weapon Systems Officer in the F-4 and with the last 15 years as a helicopter pilot flying in Europe and eventually in Desert Storm. Major Waterman spoke the truth.
I arrived at Nakhon Phanom RTAFB, Thailand in November 1971 and was excited to be flying with some older and wiser and very professional pilots. In April of 1972, for some great reason, the leaders of the 23 TASS crewed Tom Heimbigner (Nail 63) and I (Nail 241) together in the Pave Nail program. We were both First Lieutenants. Tom was one terrific pilot, a “natural”, and I was a Weapons System Officer flying in the back of the OV-10. Our first mission was in April of 1972. We were sent to Pleiku, South Vietnam to destroy tanks, had a great time, and recorded a lot of Bomb Damage Assessment. There were some great missions, but there were also moments when we were not too bright. Once in a great while, we were your typical, young, immature lieutenants who liked to play games and screw around. The following recounts four occasions when there was a significant lack of good judgment.

Quick Draw
Tom and I had an early morning briefing to fly out to Section 3, the Mu Gia pass area. When we arrived at the Tactical Unit Operations Center at Nakhon Phanom RTAFB, Thailand (NKP) for our intelligence and weather briefing we were told the weather was bad at NKP and over the Ho Chi Min trail so we went on a weather hold. After picking up our maps, we went to life support and picked up our survival vests, binoculars and thirty-eight revolvers, and then on to the 23 TASS Operations building to relax until the weather improved.
It was roughly 0600–no one was in the squadron area. The early morning, boredom and fatigue must have gotten to us. I cannot remember who said it first, but the conversation went something like this: “Let’s practice our quick draw to see who is the fastest. Let us not be stupid like every other person who has been wounded or killed by a loaded gun. We will each ensure that the other empties his gun and puts six bullets on the table.” After unloading we put the weapons back in their holsters and for the next hour we quick-drew on each other, actually pulling the trigger, because it does not count if you don’t pull the trigger. He won some and I won some. After an hour or so of doing this we checked the weather one more time and decided to weather cancel. We put the bullets back in the guns and drove over to life support to turn in the weapons and vests. Once inside we put our vests and holsters back on the rack, then took our thirty-eights out of the holsters to turn them in at the life support cage. With his weapon in his right hand, pointed down at about a 45-degree angle, Tom accidentally squeezed the trigger and a round went off. It went between my legs, ricocheted off the floor, and lodged in someone’s survival vest. We looked at each other with our mouths wide open in astonishment. I think we both had the same thoughts: 1. No one got hit. 2. Frank is okay. 3. There is no one else in the building. 4. Are the life support personnel in the back room? 5. Just maybe no one heard the shot. 6. Maybe we can get away without anyone ever knowing. Well we were wrong. The life support specialists came out of nowhere and surrounded us like buzzards on a gut wagon. Needless to say there was a lot of paperwork to fill out and we never played that game again.

Darrel Whitcomb, Nail 25, wrote the following story about Tom and Frank
A DMZ Mission
It was June 1972, and my squadron, the 23rd TASS was TDY to help the Coveys at DaNang to try and stop the North Vietnamese invasion known as the Easter Offensive. I took off one night in my trusty OV-10 to work a mission over the DMZ area. For once the area was relatively quiet, and I really did not have much to do. But it was a very clear night and I could see big action up to the north. Somebody was doing some serious bombing with lots of ground fire and secondary explosions. I could not tell if it was in North Vietnam or Laos. So I called the ABCCC (Moonbeam), and they told me that one of my squadron FACs was attacking trucks near Mu Gia pass. Actually, it was one of our Pave Nail modified OV-10s crewed by two young Lieutenants, Tom and Frank.
I wasn’t busy so I asked for their radio frequency. The controller gave it to me and I tuned my radio to it. Immediately, I could hear my buddies directing fighters against massed trucks in the open. At a quiet moment, I identified myself to them and asked where they were. Tom responded rather sheepishly that they were on the EAST side of the pass. I could see the AAA coming up at them, which confirmed that they were over North Vietnam – not the best place to be in an OV-10.
But for the next 30 minutes he directed flight after flight of fighters as they literally tore truck convoys apart. And the enemy reaction was ferocious because I could see the streaming AAA rounds rising up at him from my distant location.
In total, they worked six flights of attack aircraft against the convoys and left huge fires and explosions. It was a truly amazing performance – made all the more so by the continuous enemy ground fire.
But as the last flight of fighters was leaving, the flight lead called the FAC crew to congratulate them on the job they were doing. Tom was touched and said so. But the flight lead continued. He stated:
“Nail, you have to be just about the bravest FAC that I have ever seen.”
Now Tom was not expecting that and he asked why.
The pilot responded: “Because I would not fly around over North Vietnam with MY landing light on!”
The next morning, I saw Tom and Frank at breakfast. Both were real quiet. I did not mention the mission, but I could not help but notice that both sides of Tom’s head were red and swollen. I asked him what caused that. He did not say anything.
But Frank responded.
“That’s because all the way home last night, I was smacking him up along both sides of his head,” he said, as he made roundhouse motions with both fists.
True Story!

Tigre Island
On one early morning, Tom and I were working around the DMZ and Quang Tri area. We had just arrived and the weather over our section was socked in, but the weather over the ocean was great so we decided to stick around for a while to see if the weather over the DMZ would clear. In the meantime, we had to find something to do. We decided to go out over the ocean and take a look at Tigre Island. It is a small island several miles northeast of the DMZ.
“Let’s do it smart,” we said.
“Let’s look at it from 4,000 feet and if it looks good we can go down to 2,000 feet and then 1,000 feet and so forth.”
We made several passes at different altitudes, and the only things we saw were some huts and sampans. On the eighth pass, we were within a couple of hundred yards of the island and down to about 50 feet. We came around the southwest corner of the island and I saw big muzzle flashes coming from inside a cave. This guy was eating us up. He was showing no mercy. I screamed over the intercom,
“Tom, we are taking ground fire let’s get out of here.”
Tom started yanking and banking and throwing the coal to the fire. Somehow, we were able to escape with no hits. To this day, I do not know how the guy in the cave missed. When we debriefed our flight that day, we did not mention our little incident to the Intel folks because we knew we should not have been there. A week later we did ask in a very innocent way,
“Hey, what is the story on Tigre Island? Is their anything out there”?
The Intel guy said: “You should never go there because of the high threat. Even the Navy does not mess with that island.”

Looking for the F-111
One day in September of 1972, Tom and I were given a regular OV-10 slick (Non-Pave Nail) and a full tank of gas. Our mission was to go into North Vietnam and look for an F-111 that was missing from the previous night’s mission. Six F- 111s were scheduled to take off the previous night from Ubon, Thailand and conduct a night strike in North Vietnam. Two of the F-111s aborted in the arming area, two aborted after taking fuel from the KC-135 tanker and returned to Ubon. That left two aircraft to continue the strike into North Vietnam. In the morning, only one F-111 returned to Ubon. No one knew what happened to the other aircraft.
Maps that included the route the two F-111’s flew were provided and we took off. A very conscientious effort was made to find the lost fighter. We were deep into North Vietnam and could not find any area that looked like a crash site. Tom was doing most of the flying, but at our turn-around point he offered me the controls. We decided to go back over the route at low level and headed south, yanking and banking about 50 – 100 feet above the treetops.
Down in a valley we both spotted an odd shaded structure on top of a hill and decided to have a look at it. We were fifty feet above the trees and about 25 yards from this structure when we both noticed a North Vietnamese army troop with an AK-47 just shooting the crap out of us. If we saw him today, we could pick him out of a line-up. He put a few rounds into our Bronco as we came across him broad side so we again started yanking and banking and threw the throttles full forward to get the hell of there. Our generator was lost just as we came over the soldier. Tom performed a controllability check while another Nail FAC inspected us for damage. We were able to make it back to Nakhon Phanom RTAFB, Thailand without further incident.
On the way home the brain was really churning. What are we going to tell the Commander and Director of Operations about how we took the hits? We were not supposed to go below 4,500 feet, (because that was the maximum range of an AK-47). We came up with the idea that we saw a crash site and were going down for a closer look when we took the hits. That was our story and we stuck to it!!
Tom and I flew almost six months together and certainly had our share of great missions. In the incidents mentioned above we certainly exhibited a lack of good judgment but had a wonderful time and managed to live to tell the tales.
It was a pleasure and a privilege to fly with such a top-notch pilot. They say that there are people in your life that you will never forget. Tom is one such person, and for six months we were on a great roll-coaster ride.