Friday, July 17, 2015

Final Post

Back at Holloway
One particular mission was my last for FOB-2 for a medical reason. I was flying at about eight thousand feet in mountainous eastern Laos monitoring a team’s AO and had been ordered back to the company headquarters to take care of some administrative stuff. As I descended to land at Holloway (at an elevation of about 2500) feet the cold I had been unsuccessfully nursing caused a severe ear blockage. I refueled and quickly climbed back to eight thousand feet to equalize the pressure in my head with the altitude and began a very slow descent, clearing my stuffed ears as I came down. This alleviated the pain but the flight surgeon grounded me until the cold cleared up. I never went back to FOB-2.

My first mission after recovering from the cold was to fly security for the Bob Hope Show that took place at the Fourth Division base camp at Dragon Mountain. While the show was going on a couple of other pilots and I flew around the area looking for enemy activity, especially for evidence of rocket positions that could have put an end to the festivities. The closest I got to the show was about five miles away. The guys who went said it was great.

My hooch was adjacent to the Officers Club, and my bunk was only eighteen steps from the door of the club. That’s where most officers went almost every night for cheap drinks and sometimes entertainment. Every so often female singing groups were brought in to perform. One memorable group was from Korea, and they always ended their performance by singing a favorite song. However, it came out with their Oriental accents as, “God Bress America, Rand That I Rove”.

American groups, often very talented enlisted men, would also perform. The hands down favorite that we would request was, “We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place”, originally recorded by The Animals. Of course everyone shouted out the chorus every time:”We’ve gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do!” - and we really meant it.

 If there wasn’t entertainment provided we made our own. A favorite of mine was to shoot champagne corks at helicopter pilots at their tables. One of us would stand on a chair and direct the “fire” of the others, and this often ended up in a semi-good natured, drink-tossing brawl. A favorite target was Boyd Clines, a good friend and fellow Georgia Army National Guard Mohawk pilot, who lives close to me in the Atlanta area. Boyd flew into very hazardous areas to extract Special Forces soldiers and crashed air crew members. He and other helicopter pilots and crews are real heroes.

On the calmer side there was a group of four guys who often played cards together – another Headhunter pilot Tim deBord, two flight surgeons, and me. The chaplain somehow talked us into being the choir at the chapel. (Alcohol could have been involved). This ecumenical bunch (two Protestants, a Catholic, and a Jew) couldn’t sing very well at all but for a time we did show up regularly on Sundays. Being reminded on Saturday nights by the chaplain that the next day was Sunday and that we needed to practice was really the only way, except taking malaria pills on Wednesdays, that I could keep track of the day of the week. They all ran together otherwise. Days of the week didn’t matter, but the day of the month did, since we all knew how many days we had left to go before we were to go home.

I'm showing Tim deBord how many days I have left before I go home.

My close friends over the years
(plus Steve Butler in a later photo).
L-R Garry Forrest, Tim deBord, and John Elmendorf

One of my habits was to take pictures of sunsets. I figured the more sunsets I saw, the closer I was to going home.

Holloway tower and hooches silhouetted by a monsoon-caused sunset

Some didn’t get to reach that end date though. One day in June, 1968, Don Jacobs violated the basic rule of not flying up a valley. The result was that his airplane rammed into the side of a hill. When word came back that he was missing, a search found his airplane with his body inside. While other Headhunters were killed before and after, Don was the only Headhunter killed while I was there. And the accident could have so easily been avoided. Rest in peace, good friend.

Happier days in the hooch. L-R. Donald Wayne Jacobs (KIA June 1968),
Steve Butler, me, Tim deBord, and Wilson Campbell

Back Home Again
Although I had met Linda in Hawaii for a six-day R&R (rest and relaxation) leave in April 1968, I of course looked forward to returning to the States for good in early October. My orders came through, assigning me to the Army Aviation School at Ft. Stewart again, this time to train helicopter pilots how to fly real airplanes.

I left on the DC-8 “Freedom Bird” to McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Washington, with refueling stops in Japan and Anchorage, Alaska. I took a commercial flight from the Seattle-Tacoma Airport and stopped in Dallas to see my mom and dad on the way to Columbia, SC where I reunited with Linda to resume our lives together. And nowhere along the way did I ever receive any of the negative reaction that many guys did. I’m glad I didn’t because I probably would have taken care of the situation in my own way.

I was, and am, proud of the job I did.

Some time ago during a business trip to Washington, DC, I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. It was a very moving experience finding the names of Don Jacobs and others I had known carved into that beautiful and chilling black granite. But a somewhat different and more moving experience came when I casually looked up the last name “Beckwith” on the roster of those whose names are on the Wall. Not being a common name, there are only a few, but the one which jumped out at me was “William A. Beckwith” – my name! He was a Marine from Oregon and was killed in February 1968 when I was there. I can hardly describe the feeling of seeing “me” on the wall.

But what came to me later was the realization of what the effect to the family would have been if my name had actually been on the Wall. No forty-nine years with Linda, no three wonderful sons, no daughters-in-law or granddaughters. No joy or love among us all. Thinking back on the close calls that I know about: a slightly faster swing of the machine gun by the North Vietnamese soldier who fired at my airplane over Laos, the shot fired just a few hundredths of a second sooner at my airplane and just missing me and the engine, or a couple of degrees difference in the settings of the mortars and rockets fired by the Viet Cong into Camp Holloway could easily have put two William A. Beckwiths on the wall.

It’s almost too much to think about.

_   _   _   _   _   _   _   _   _   _

To those of you who have hung in there through all the posts, thanks for reading my memories of a defining time in my life.

“Headhunter One-Four. Out.”

Friday, July 10, 2015

Way Too Close

There were a number areas assigned to Special Forces units in which to operate in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. These missions were highly classified in 1967 and 1968. However, they have since been declassified, and quite a few books have been written about the men and what they did there. I am proud to say that some of the most rewarding times I spent were in support of FOB-2.

Forward Operating Base-2, one of four in Vietnam, was located south of the city of Kontum, which was itself about thirty miles north of Pleiku. FOB-2 was later designated Command and Control Central (CCC), a component of SOG (Studies and Observations Group). Consisting of a fairly large number of Special Forces soldiers, probably a couple of dozen, FOB-2 conducted out-of-country reconnaissance and other missions with Vietnamese Army and other non-Vietnamese mercenary troops. Teams led by Americans would be inserted into the mountains and jungles and would operate there for days, keeping in contact with their headquarters by radio. And that’s where I came in, along with other Bird Dog pilots.

Four Bird Dog pilots and their planes were put under operational control of FOB-2 in December 1967. Garry Forrest and I came from the Headhunters and Chuck Wilson and Jim Strye were assigned from the unit I came over to Vietnam with, the 203rd Hawkeyes. Our purpose in life was to fly each and every day at such an altitude over the particular team’s AO (area of operation) so as to be able to be able to maintain contact with the team and simultaneously with the headquarters in Kontum. If a team needed assistance or even anything administratively, we were there so that we could forward radio calls over the mountainous terrain since direct radio contact was impossible. And since the ground over which we flew and in which the teams operated was many miles from friendly bases and was extremely hostile territory, all our missions were dual ship.

View of typical terrain we flew over, looking out the left window of my airplane.
The black bar on the right is the strut supporting the left wing.
We were required to provide daylight coverage over the teams so everyone flew daily, two ships at a time, to provide eight hours of coverage. Our airplanes had enough fuel to fly for more than four hours if we managed the amount of fuel the engine burned. To extend our flight time we would normally cut back on the engine power (and airspeed) and retard the mixture, the device that controlled the amount of fuel entering the carburetor, until the engine began to run rough, then advance it until the engine smoothed out.  It took me a couple of times practicing over friendly territory and near an airfield to get comfortable doing that before trying it over the area we had to fly.

While our primary mission was radio relay we sometimes observed other actions. One day while flying over an exposed section of dirt road in southern Laos that was part of the Ho Chi Minh trail network, I saw the road beneath me erupt in a huge explosion, apparently from a bomb dropped by an Air Force fighter-bomber. I was really upset that I had not heard over Air Force control radio about aircraft operating in the area. I later learned that the Air Force would drop bombs with delayed fuses that would detonate up to twenty-four hours later. This would make the roads dangerous to travel since there were no aircraft around when the bombs exploded. I always wondered if the bad guys thought that our little Bird Dogs were responsible.

One time deep into southern Laos, on a day I won’t forget, Chuck Wilson and I were flying in response to an emergency call by a team that had been ambushed by NVA using flamethrowers. Almost all of the team had been killed or wounded. The team leader had said that he and the few survivors were trying to evade capture by the NVA and had set out an emergency identification panel, a four- foot-square of bright orange cloth, but he didn’t know where he was.

In order to receive and transmit calls between the teams and FOB-2, we usually flew about four thousand feet above the ground. I dropped down to a few hundred feet above the ground to try to locate the panel while Chuck remained at altitude to maintain radio contact with Kontum and the emergency extraction helicopters that were on the way. At about the time I saw the panel and called Chuck that I had found it, streams of bright red tracers went by my left wing. Although I had to think back later on what I did and said, I told Chuck that I was taking automatic weapons fire and that I was “wiping out the cockpit” with the controls. This meant that I was making the airplane rock, roll and seem like it is flying ahead but is actually falling off sideways. Whatever I did it worked, because I didn’t take a round.

After I left the immediate area and climbed for altitude we vectored the extraction helicopters to the panel and the accompanying helicopter gunships to the location of the automatic weapons for suppressive fires. As the last helicopter lifted the final survivor up through the trees on a cable that had been lowered to him, something didn’t look right. I realized that he was hanging by one foot, possibly because that was the only part of him that was not burned. He was carried that way, four thousand feet above the ground, to a safe landing in Dak To in Vietnam.

As an afterthought to this time when I almost died over enemy-controlled jungle, I realized that most of us who came over as Bird Dog pilots felt we were invincible. Although we didn’t talk about it openly, the feeling was there. For me, this incident put an end to that thought. And thinking back later on the events of that day, I had a strange but comforting feeling that I was going to be around to go back home.

Even so, this was way too close for me.

Friday, July 3, 2015


The Vietnamese annually celebrated Tet, the lunar new year. Traditionally they would set off fireworks and celebrate with parties of eating and drinking. Vietnamese soldiers tended to shoot all their ammunition into the air if they had no fireworks. The VC and NVA (North Vietnamese Army) had chosen this celebration in late January 1968 to open their well-planned offensives against virtually all US and Vietnamese installations in the country, and Camp Holloway was not exempted. The many out-of-ammunition Vietnamese troops at their bases made this easy.

On the night of January 28, 1968 a huge explosion racked Camp Holloway when Viet Cong sappers infiltrated onto the base and detonated explosives in the ammunition dumps. We had been warned to expect “something” and something really happened. Although there had been sporadic mortar and rocket attacks throughout the three months I had been there, this major attack set things into motion. Before the dust settled from the giant explosions, we were running to our bunkers for protection from whatever was to come next. The Tet Offensive, as the next few months were called, caused the well known political reverberations in the States because high ranking military and civilian officials had been saying the war had been going well.

There was a standing procedure that in case the perimeter of the airfield was breached by the enemy, a green star cluster (a flare, like a skyrocket) would be fired and anyone moving around outside was subject to being shot. One night a firefight between our airfield security forces and the bad guys erupted outside the main gate, and before we could reach our underground bunkers a green star cluster was fired. A group of us jumped into the trash dump outside the hooches, a concrete walled area about fifteen feet square and two feet high. There I was again, defending myself against a ground attack. This time, however, I had a steel helmet, flak jacket, and two hundred rounds of ammo for my weapon and was in the company of a dozen or so other scared pilots similarly equipped and armed.

Nothing moved for us to shoot at over the next few hours, and close to daylight an Air Force “Spooky” gunship, an AC-47, a twin-engine transport airplane modified with three mini-guns that could fire up to 6,000 rounds per minute each, circled above the action at the main gate and put an end to the attack.

This early morning picture shows the Holloway control tower lit up by
 parachute flares dropped by an Air Force AC-47 "Spooky" gunship as it is
 circling and firing at NVA and VC troops attacking the main gate of the
airfield. The picture is blurry because it is a time exposure and I'm holding
the camera in my hands.
 The next morning we were in the air early. There were reports of NVA troops holed up in a particular group of buildings on the outskirts of Holloway called “Sin City”. These hovels were painted garish colors (red, green, yellow, etc.) and were allegedly the business offices of prostitutes and drug dealers. This time we were able to be the offensive force protecting the airfield since the attack helicopter companies were off flying in support of US and Vietnamese troops engaged with the enemy.

 Each aircraft would take off loaded with high explosive rockets and climb to about 1500 feet altitude. Stan Irvin was orbiting in his airplane above the group of Bird Dogs that were flying basically in an elongated traffic pattern around the airfield. Acting as an aerial air traffic controller, he directed the aircraft to whichever house he observed ground fire coming from (“One Four, hit the red house between the two yellows”). We would expend our rockets, continue in the pattern to land, re-arm and take off again until that threat was eliminated.

(Just a quick note on our protection. Beginning with Tet we began to receive ground fire on a regular basis. Not only were our Bird Dogs unarmed until we could add modifications, they were also un-armored. Helicopter pilots sat in armored seats and their crewmembers wore armored vests, logically because they would often be subjected to heavy ground fire dropping off and picking up troops. We, like soldiers on the ground, only had flak vests, made of tightly woven nylon designed for upper torso protection from shrapnel. We also wore flight helmets, the protective values of which were doubtful.  Once again, reacting to situations we wanted to change, we scrounged sections of helicopter pilots’ armor plated seats and placed them under our canvas seats. The back-pack-style parachutes carried in the airplanes made sitting more comfortable and might have slowed down bullets. However, because of the altitudes we flew there were no times when we could have used them for their intended purpose.)

Pleiku City didn’t suffer the devastating attacks that major cities in Vietnam did (Saigon, Da Nang, etc.) but the military installations around Pleiku, such as Camp Holloway, Pleiku Air Force Base, and the Fourth Infantry Division base camp at Dragon Mountain got hit often. Mortar and rocket attacks occurred each night over the next few weeks.  Needless to say we headed for the underground bunkers early each night until the threats of attacks were over. We got hammered a couple of times and the following pictures show the results of some of those attacks. Fortunately no Headhunter was injured or killed in any rocket or mortar attack while I was there.

The attack started with mortars falling on the airfield. One round caused this
crater in the road while we were safely inside an adjacent sandbag-protected
bunker. No one was hurt but the damaged jeeps and trailer (grill blown off,
 flattened tires and holes in the windshields) can be seen.
One of the hooches took a direct hit from a mortar round when the occupants
were in a bunker.

This is the interior of the hooch hit by the mortar round. Note the hole in the roof
and shrapnel holes that riddle the ceiling and walls. The large slash in the wall on
the right was caused by the fuse on the nose of the round. I forget who lived in
the room but he was extremely upset - his new stereo system was the only casualty.

Holloway wasn't the only Headhunter location attacked. The Second Platoon
operations and adjacent ammo storage rooms at the airfield at Kontum also took
direct mortar round hits.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Missions with Green Berets

One of our main missions, and the one which gave me the most satisfaction, was supporting the men in the Special Forces camps. I respect them and what they did and to this day I am proud that I was able to be a small part of helping them to accomplish their missions.

 While some of the following incidents are less than serious, the missions these Green Berets accomplished were important and in many cases incredible.

Rocket Ridge
Steve Butler and I had flown to the Dak To Special Forces camp, located in the region known as the Tri-Border Area where Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos meet. My engine had been running rough on the flight north from Pleiku so I performed a common but probably unauthorized maintenance procedure after landing. Each airplane carried a spark plug wrench, a steel brush and a grease pencil in a small pouch. Bird Dogs have a dual set of spark plugs, two in each of the six cylinders of the engine, for safety purposes. In case one set of plugs and its electrical system ceases to function, the other will continue to keep the engine running.

If a spark plug happens to become fouled by gunk in the gasoline (a not uncommon problem), the engine will run rough. The procedure was to open the cowling on both sides of the engine, mark each cylinder with a grease pencil (actually composed of colored wax), and briefly run up the power. The problem cylinder with the bad plug, having run at a lower temperature than the others, would not melt the grease pencil mark. The fouled plug would then be removed, cleaned with the steel brush, replaced, and the engine run up and checked for adequate performance.

Steve and I were to pick up two Special Forces sergeants to fly a dual-ship mission along the borders where the Ho Chi Minh trail entered Vietnam. A ridge line just to the west of Dak To was known as Rocket Ridge because of the frequency of Soviet 122-millimeter rockets that were fired onto the airfield and camp from the jungle between the ridge and the Cambodian border.

Just as I replaced the cleaned spark plug and before the sergeants could get to the airplanes, rockets began to impact on the far side of the airfield. It was either jump into the ditch along the runway or get into our airplanes and get out of there. Steve started up first and hit the runway from the ramp under full power with me in hot pursuit. As we flew west over Rocket Ridge, climbing for altitude, Steve immediately located the rocket position that was firing. He rolled in and fired four high explosive rockets at once from under the wings, and they all hit in the middle of the position, stopping the attack and causing secondary explosions from stored rockets.

That was one of the finest examples of doing what Bird Dog pilots did when confronted with a critical situation. However, he never got the award he should have gotten for probably saving lives and property in Dak To.

Beer Bombing
Supporting Special Forces was always interesting. These guys would go out into the jungle with a group of Vietnamese troops, patrol through the area during the day and set up ambushes at night. Critical to their survival on these missions was good radio communications to their base camp. One afternoon I was flying in support of a team when I got a call from the leader that they were setting up for the night and needed more radio batteries and a replacement radio transmitter/receiver handset. I flew back to their camp and put the batteries and handset into a heavy fiber tube in which artillery rounds were shipped. It was about three feet long and since there was quite a bit of space remaining, I put six cans of cold beer into the tube and taped it closed. I found that the patrol had set up their tents along a small ridge line, so I made a low, slow pass (at about 100 feet and 70 miles per hour), and had the guy in the back seat toss the container out the window at the appropriate time.

As I looked back I saw the tube cartwheeling through the line of tents, with Vietnamese soldiers running off into the bushes to get away from the “bomb”. The team leader told me no one had gotten hurt but the handset was broken, the beer cans had exploded, and the batteries were soaked in beer and wouldn’t work. However, he said the beer was good even though they had to drink it out of the tube and it tasted only a little like battery acid. I returned to the camp, loaded another tube with a handset, batteries, and beer, packed it so the contents would not move and made a drop again, this time successfully away from the tents. Mission accomplished!

My First Bullet Hole
The commanders at all the firebases we supported made it clear that if any Headhunter received ground fire, they would immediately expend however many rounds we called for on the shooter's position. I was able to take advantage of that agreement one day, flying with a Special Forces sergeant in the back seat. We were covering an operation of a unit from his camp at Duc Co along the Cambodian border. As I made a low pass along a tree line so we could see below the trees, I heard a loud, metallic “pop” and knew immediately that a bullet had hit the airplane. There was no indication that the engine or either of us had been hit, so as I was climbing away I called in an artillery fire mission and obliterated that line of trees and probably the guy who had shot my airplane.

When I returned the sergeant to Duc Co and we realized by lining up the holes in the lower and upper skins of the wing that the bullet had passed below the engine, just in front of my feet, and just outboard of the two rockets hanging on the wing, he was shaking. This extremely courageous soldier who regularly and willingly went into the jungle to find, attack, and get shot at by the enemy told me he wanted nothing to do with getting shot at in the air. I, of course, wanted nothing to do with what he did. I guess it was all in your view of things, that the grass sometimes looks browner on the other side of the fence.

Besides missing the engine, me and the sergeant, the bullet traveled
up from the lower left in the photo and missed the two rockets under the
wing. The two white dots in  the photo are the tips of the high explosive
 warheads on the rockets
I Killed the Monkey!
The airstrip associated with the Special Forces camp at Plei Djereng was about a half mile away and downhill from the camp. Someone in a Jeep would meet us at the airstrip and drive us to the camp for the mission briefing. The camp happened to have a pet monkey they kept chained to a large, open barrel in which it slept and ate. As I followed the Special Forces sergeant to the operations bunker for the briefing, I stopped to admire this cute little creature. It apparently didn’t think much of me because it jumped on my right arm and began to bite me. I instinctively reacted by smacking the monkey on the head with my left hand. I wore my wedding ring in Vietnam and evidently the ring hit the monkey behind the ear, and it dropped to the ground on the end of the chain.

All I could think of was that I had killed the Special Forces team’s pet! What had I gotten myself into? Somehow no one had seen what had happened, so I quickly decided to get rid of the evidence. I picked up the chain with the monkey dangling on the end and dropped it into the barrel, hoping to get back to the Jeep some other way.

After the briefing I looked out and saw the monkey sitting on the edge of the barrel, swaying slightly and rubbing its head. Fortunately I had only knocked it unconscious. With a huge sigh of relief I walked out and went off to fly the mission.

A Special Forces sergeant, holding the monkey that I almost killed. The
hole surrounded by sandbags in the background is the entrance to one of the
underground living quarters typical in these camps. They are built to be
a final defensive position in case the camp is overrun.

Friday, June 19, 2015

What We Did

Local Area and People
Pleiku City is the administrative capital of Pleiku Province in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. The province is a plateau ringed by mountains to the east (the Mang Yang Pass connects Pleiku with lower elevation An Khe Province) and to the west and northwest by mountains along the border and extending into Cambodia. The plateau region consisting of flat and undulating terrain extends northward into Kontum Province.

Main drag, downtown Pleiku City. In the foreground is a Vietnamese
policeman, known as a "White Mouse" because of their uniforms.
The predominant ethnic group in the highlands were the Montagnards, a French term meaning mountain people. We referred to them as Yards. They consisted of a number of tribes loosely allied in their dislike of the Vietnamese government, and since the Viet Cong were Vietnamese, the Yards didn’t like them either.  The Yards were oppressed by the government and were basically looked down upon as uncultured minorities. But they had the reputation that even if they wore loin cloths, they were good fighters when led by Americans.

The relatively flat areas were farmed for rice and tea. Catecka was one notable tea plantation, an undisturbed oasis in a war zone. This allegedly resulted because of agreements, financial and otherwise, between the French plantation owners and both the Vietnamese government and the Viet Cong. It was essentially a no fire zone, and as far as I know there was no enemy activity on the plantation.

Catecka tea plantation. Burned areas and artillery and bomb craters
can be seen beyond the borders of the well-tended plantation but none
are visible on the property.

The Ins and Outs of Missions
While we were supposed to fly in a strictly visual role, there were times when some type of offensive action on our part was needed until helicopter gunships or Air Force tactical aircraft could reach the scene. So when we could we modified the aircraft to take care of these occasions or just used what we had on hand. OK, here’s the truth: we were always looking for situations in which we could actually shoot and fight, because it was very frustrating to be flying around with only radios when the guys on the ground needed help.

There were two “hard points” under each wing on which rocket tubes were normally attached, one or two tubes on each hard point (four or eight rockets total). The rockets had solid fuel motors tipped with warheads, either smoke (to mark targets) or high explosive used in a more offensive role. These five-foot-long rockets were fired electrically from the cockpit by a trigger on the control stick.

The rockets were usually fired in a steep dive and a more effective method of aiming than just by eyeball was needed. This was a ¼-inch steel rod that was bolted to the top of the engine cowling in front of the windscreen and was cut off at a length of twelve or fourteen inches, about the same height that a pilot’s eyes were above the cowling. Theoretically, the pilot’s eyes, the top of the rod and the axes of the rocket tubes were all aligned. Of course, this varied by the stature of each pilot, so each pilot put a grease pencil mark on the inside of the windscreen in line with the top of the rod when he was sitting straight up in the seat. He would then go out, fire a few rockets, and adjust the mark so that it and the top of the rod were aligned with the impact of the rockets.

One airplane was set up as close to a gunship as we could make it, and everyone wanted to fly it. On the left wing’s hard points an M-60 machine gun and 750 rounds of full tracer ammunition were attached. On the right wing was a seven-rocket pod we had scrounged from one of the helicopter companies. The machine gun was bore sighted with the rocket tubes so they would hit the same spot at about 1,000 feet from the airplane. That let us roll in, fire the machine gun until the stream of red tracers hit the target, then fire the rockets. It was unconventional but accurate and effective.

We also carried hand grenades, hung from wires stretched across the back of the pilot’s seat and in easy reach of the observer who sat directly behind the pilot. We could carry about two dozen that way. They were mainly smoke grenades used for marking targets. About the size of a beer can, they emitted dense, colored smoke (red, yellow, green, violet or white). For a while I also carried high explosive grenades until one of my Special Forces friends told me that these grenades would explode if hit by a bullet. From that time on, those grenades and I were not in the airplane at the same time.

Artillery Adjustment
The most common mission beside visual reconnaissance was adjusting artillery fire on known or suspected enemy positions. We would establish radio contact with the nearest firebase (in some cases, for long range guns, at distances up to 20 miles) and request a fire mission by giving map coordinates of where we wanted the rounds to hit. The first rounds fired were two-piece smoke shells. These contained a small bursting charge that was initiated by a time fuse over the target and broke the shell into two smoking pieces. The alignment of the smoke from these pieces accurately indicated the gun-target line. Knowing this line was critical to our adjustment (left or right, add or drop so many meters) of the high explosive rounds onto the target, not to mention critical to our safety while flying near the target.

Since we needed to be in a position to observe the impacts of the rounds and to accurately call in adjustments, we would fly horseshoe-shaped or racetrack-shaped patterns around the target and at least at least 1,500 feet above it. If we timed our patterns properly, we would be on the side of the target when the rounds impacted. A problem might occur if we found ourselves between the guns and the target or just beyond the target and a round fell short or long. One of our pilots (not me) came close to disaster. He was inadvertently flying where he shouldn’t have been, along the gun-target line, when the rounds arrived. A shell passed through the aircraft’s tail without exploding (!) and caused him to crash land. He was successfully picked up by helicopter. Way too close for comfort! 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

On the Way

California, Here We Come
Our airplanes had to be flown to the Army Depot in Stockton, California, where they would be prepared for loading on a cargo ship for a month long sea voyage. Each airplane would have the wings removed and then the wings stacked next to the fuselage would be sealed in a plastic cocoon to prevent sea air and water from corroding the metal skin and structure.

Twenty-four Bird Dogs took off from Ft. Sill’s Post Army Airfield just after daylight one Monday in August 1967. We flew in a very loose group southwest out of Oklahoma into Texas and made our first refueling stop in Hobbs, New Mexico. Then it was on to El Paso, Texas where we would RON (remain overnight). On the way I diverted slightly to overfly Carlsbad, New Mexico and the mines to the east where I worked on an underground surveying crew in the summer following my third (and last) year at Colorado School of Mines. Vertical shafts at the mines were developed to a depth of 900 feet below the surface where potash (potassium chloride) was extracted, hauled up to the plant at the surface and processed into fertilizer. The vast deposit under western Texas and southern New Mexico was once the bottom of an ancient extension of what is now the Gulf of Mexico.

After flying over the mountains of southern New Mexico and west Texas, I dropped down to about fifty feet  above the ground and flew the last hundred miles or so to El Paso chasing coyotes and jack rabbits across the flat, arid plains. El Paso, on the US side of the border, is opposite Juarez, Mexico and of course we had to visit the other country.

The next day we flew on to Palm Springs, California after a refueling stop in Tucson, Arizona. We stayed at a motel in that oasis in the desert and the next day we all split up, with orders to get the aircraft the next day to Stockton, California. I flew into San Jose, California and spent the night with an Army buddy and his wife. The next day I dropped off the airplane at the Stockton Army Depot then joined up with the other guys to fly commercially back to Ft. Sill.

Bird Dogs on the refueling ramp at Tucson International Airport

Once all the airplanes were gone, all we had to do was help the enlisted men pack up the rest of the company equipment and supplies into large, steel CONEX containers that would accompany us on the troop ship that would get us to Vietnam. After that was done and the CONEXes were loaded on trucks enroute to Stockton, all company personnel were allowed to take leave before we shipped out. I took Linda on a trip through the West in our Mustang, visiting (in Colorado) the Royal Gorge, Pikes Peak, and the Coors Brewery and School of Mines in Golden . We then drove south through the beautiful mountains to Durango where we rode the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad through the Animas River Canyon over the route that gold and silver ore was brought from the mines in Silverton to the smelters in Durango in the late 19th century.

We then went to the Four Corners and the Painted Desert on the way to a two-day stay at the Grand Canyon. The final stage of the two-week vacation was down to the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, then back to Ft. Sill. Linda and I really enjoyed the time we spent with each other, with the unknown future not far from our minds.

The day finally came when we soldiers had to leave the ones we loved for the war. My mom and dad drove up from their home in Irving, Texas (having escaped New Jersey in 1961) and Linda’s mom and dad drove out from Columbia, South Carolina. After a few days of both families enjoying being together, tearful goodbyes were said, not knowing if or when we would be together again. Then back to Texas for my mom and dad and Linda to Columbia with her mom and dad and her third year at Columbia College.

Getting There
On the trip to Vietnam we used every mode of transportation available:  bus to Oklahoma City, train to Stockton, ship to Cam Ranh Bay (Vietnam), Air Force airplane to Qui Nhon, and truck, jeep and finally foot to our airfield at Phu Hiep on the South China Sea.

Our ship, the “General William Wiegle”, was a Liberty ship built in World War II to carry cargo, and recently reconfigured to carry troops as well as cargo. There were about 1500 troops on board, most of which were two airborne battalions, one from the 82nd and one from the 101st Airborne divisions. The ship left the pier at Stockton  and passed under the Golden Gate Bridge on October 3, 1967. Three weeks later it docked at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam.

Another troop ship passing us in the middle of the Pacific

During the voyage the ship put in for a 24-hour maintenance stop at Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines. About six or eight airborne troops felt that their chances of surviving the shark-infested  waters of Subic Bay were better than surviving a year in Vietnam, so they jumped overboard and started to swim away, The Navy picked them up and threw them in jail, only to be returned to their units later in Vietnam.

It so happened that the night we got into Subic was nickel beer night at the Navy Officers Club. While the details of the incident are fuzzy in my mind, I was told that I played a mean set of drums and that one of my friends was dancing with an Admiral’s wife when we were not so politely asked to leave.

One of our sergeants had acquired a Doberman Pinscher in Oklahoma and brought him along with us. We called him “Sarge” and he wore a coat on which was stitched our unit patch, his name, and his “rank” of sergeant. He lived in a doghouse on the upper deck and enlisted men were detailed to walk and feed him daily. Sarge was used to us and liked us but he didn’t care for the airborne guys. When one came along and tried to pet him, Sarge bit him. The next day we held a ceremony and promoted him to Sergeant Major, the highest enlisted rank in the Army.

On board ship we were indoctrinated into what would be the ritual everyone would follow in Vietnam  - malaria pills on every Wednesday. The large, brown pills were to be taken weekly, and to some that was the way to keep track of what day it was.

The policy of the Army was that each man was sent to Vietnam for 12 months, and the tour of duty started the day one physically departed the United States, whether by airplane or ship.  Everyone had a DEROS date, the “day of expected return from overseas”, and everyone counted down to that day. Those of us on the ship had been on “duty” for three weeks when we first reached Vietnam. Therefore, everyone who went over with a unit had the same DEROS, so they all would leave on the same day 12 months later (if they survived, of course). This caused a policy of “infusion”, which meant that individuals were assigned to other units so there would be men with different DEROS dates and everyone did not leave the unit at once. This is how, after about a week at Phu Hiep, I came to be reassigned to the 219th Aviation Company, the Headhunters, based at Camp Holloway Army Airfield near Pleiku in the Central Highlands.

Home for the next 11 months - Holloway Army Airfield

During a large going away party for me and others at the Phu Hiep Officers Club, Viet Cong sappers sneaked onto the airfield and blew up a helicopter. The explosion caused the entire base to go on alert for a possible attack. I ran back to my hooch, grabbed my steel helmet and M-16, loaded the one cartridge I could find, and crawled between the sandbags and wall of the building. I was prepared to defend myself with one round. Welcome to the war!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

How I Got There (II)

Mother Rucker

We finished our initial training at Stewart in mid-February 1967 and were ordered to the advanced phases of training at Ft. Rucker, Alabama. Linda and I loaded everything we owned, including canned goods, into the trunk and back seat of our 1966 Mustang and headed for Daleville, the town closest to Rucker.

Since we were all assigned as students and would only be there for about four months, once again none of us was allowed to get on-post housing. Therefore we had to find a place to live in the local area. Some of the bachelors got rooms in motels but Linda and I found a twelve-by-fifty foot trailer to rent – and it was brand new. We were trailer people, and proud of it! We were really in good shape compared to our next door neighbors who lived in an old, eight-by-thirty foot trailer that they owned. It was like a closet on wheels. I don’t know what they did when he graduated from flight school. It may still be there.

That part of Alabama is very deep in the Bible Belt and the county, like all the others around, was dry – alcohol was prohibited. Ft. Rucker was the exception.  The rumor was that the police would check the trash for empty bottles or cans, so we took our empties back on post and dumped them there.

The advanced training at Rucker was also in two phases: instrument and tactical. The instrument phase taught us how to fly solely by reference to instruments in the cockpit and not by looking at the ground. It also required that we become qualified to fly the Army’s instrument trainer, the twin-engine Beech Baron, designated the T-42. When the weather was cloudy and visibility was low, we flew. When the sun shone, we also flew – but then wearing a hood, a device that fit on our heads and restricted our vision to the instruments within the cockpit. Of course, we looked outside when taking off or landing but soon thereafter it was back under the hood or into the clouds.

At the time the Army also trained pilots from many allied nations, one of which was Germany. One day we were in the cafeteria at Cairns Army Airfield, the main airfield at Rucker, getting a cup of coffee before the morning flight. A  loud noise outside got our attention as a large transport bearing the black Iron Cross insignia of the German Air Force (the Luftwaffe) pulled up and offloaded a group of German student pilots. My instrument instructor was a former Air Force fighter pilot (remember, this was just a little more than twenty years after the end of World War II). He was startled as he looked out the window and said, “The last time I saw an aircraft with those markings it was shooting at me”.

The tactical phase was back in Bird Dogs and dealt with living in the field and planning and executing day and night flights into and out of short grass strips throughout Lower Alabama. The purpose was to learn to conduct tactical flight operations – visual reconnaissance, aerial delivery (dropping of supplies and illumination flares at night), and firing rockets from under the wings to mark targets on the ground - safely and effectively through simulated enemy territory. I was to use all these skills in Vietnam.

Each of us in the class received our silver Army Aviator Wings on June 25, 1967, having flown 220 hours during the past nine months. After the graduation ceremony almost all the others and I took the FAA written examination to be certified as commercial pilots.

Linda pinning on my wings with my mom watching

Ft. Sill – Again

Along with the wings came orders, this time assigning me to a new aviation unit being formed at Ft. Sill, the 203rd Reconnaissance Airplane Company (“Hawkeyes”). It was to be deployed to Vietnam but we first had to get organized and trained to fly our expected missions. Just eight new pilots in my flight school class were assigned to the 203rd, to join some that had graduated previously. Others in the class went directly to units already in Vietnam.

The airplanes assigned to the company were Bird Dogs, the type in which I had learned to fly. They were not there when I arrived but were in the process of being completely renovated by the Cessna Airplane Company in Wichita, Kansas. Newer style radios and navigation equipment, hard points under the wings (on which rockets and other ordnance could be attached), and self-sealing fuel tanks that would not leak if punctured (they worked!) were some of the upgrades to these Korean War-vintage airplanes, all manufactured between 1950 and 1953. We were flown to the Cessna plant in an Air Force C-47 (DC-3) where we picked up the Bird Dogs and flew them back to Sill.

Once we got our airplanes we had to hone our flying skills in simulated tactical environments. One of our primary missions was to adjust artillery fire from the air and there was no better place to learn than at Ft. Sill, the Army’s Artillery School. We would fly to grass strips on post, pick up Army and Marine artillery officer students, and take them up to observe the artillery rounds impacting on the ground. They (and we) would adjust the impact of the shells onto the target by radioing corrections (add or drop, left or right so many meters) to the fire direction control center at the guns in the firing battery.

My experience adjusting fire from the ground during my classes at Artillery OCS was definitely beneficial  but it took some getting used to seeing the situation from a bird’s eye view. Some of the pilots from different branches (Infantry, Armor, Transportation, Signal, etc.) had a more challenging time of it but they all learned well.

We also practiced field conditions, living and conducting flight operations from tents along dirt airstrips, both at Sill and at Ft. Hood, Texas. These are known as “FTEs” or field training exercises. My most memorable was the one held in August 1967 in the woods at Sill. We set up our tents in the trees and bushes next to the airstrip. It was to be a three-day exercise and by the end of the second day, with no showers available, I just had to get clean. There was a small creek a hundred yards or so from the tents, so I stripped to my shorts and walked through the bushes to bathe in the creek. It felt wonderful to be clean again in the hot Oklahoma summer! That good feeling lasted until I got back to our apartment, when I noticed a rash had formed over much of my body. The bushes I had walked through were poison ivy. I spent the next week covered (actually painted) in pink calamine lotion, suffering in the hot Oklahoma summer wearing full-length, sweaty flight suits.