This is a special Labor Day and Rosh Hashanah gift for our listeners.
December 21, 1969
I was scheduled for my Champagne Flight – my final mission – in the morning. Things had been uncharacteristically quiet on the trail for several days, and I wanted to get some target photos for Intel to find out what was going on. Also, I wanted some photos of the AO as a memento of my Vietnam tour.
The O-2 actually had the provision for a belly-mounted KB-18 aerial camera, but we didn't have any KB-18s at DaNang. So, if we wanted to take photos, we relied on hand-held cameras. There were a bunch of beat up old Nikon Fs at the squadron, but they were really heavy and difficult to use with one hand. It was really tough to fly and take pictures at the same time.
Then, about two weeks earlier, we got new cameras, Pentax Spotmatics with motor drives. Each camera had a pistol-grip mount with a trigger to activate the shutter, and the focus was set at “infinity”, so there would be no problem with single-hand operation. I was really looking forward to giving them a try. I signed one out on a hand receipt and carried it to the plane.
Task Force Alpha had provided Igloo White information from the seismic sensors that indicated a lot of truck activity along highway 165, near Chavane. I headed directly to the Chavane area to see if I could find anything.
Chavane was an old abandoned grass airfield. Reflectors still lined the edges of the runway, and it almost looked like it could support aircraft operations at any moment. I'd heard that it was an old Japanese airfield from World War II.
There was a dead truck parked out in the open, off to the south side of the east end of the runway. About a year ago, it had been used as a flak trap for unsuspecting FACs, but the word had been out for a long time and nobody paid any attention to it any more. There were no longer active guns, that we knew of, in the area.
I followed highway 165 away from the airfield, and kept my camera on the seat next to me, ready to use if I found anything of interest. I put the highway on the left side of the airplane, and made gentle turns right and left. It was during the left turns that I would be able to see gomer activity, if there was any. The gomers thought we always looked ahead of the airplane, and they would frequently conduct their movements after we passed, thinking we couldn't see them once they were behind the wing.
Sure enough, back at my seven o'clock, I saw a truck cross the road, from the cover of the jungle on one side of the road to the cover of the jungle on the other side. I kept my eyes on the exact location and began a steeper turn back toward that area.
I picked out a distinctive landmark, a small bend in the road, and then looked further away to see if there were any other landmarks that could point my eyes back to the target. I used the runway at Chavane for a yardstick. The target was exactly one runway length north of the east end of the runway. The bend in the road sort of pointed to the target. Okay, now I could leave the immediate target area and find my way back.
I flew off to the east and set up an orbit over an area a few klicks away, to make the gomers think I was interested in something else. I turned on the gyro-stabilized binoculars, locked onto the target area, and zoomed in to the highest setting.
Sure enough, I saw some vehicle tracks in the dirt alongside the road that indicated truck activity. I was pretty sure there was a truck park there, I just couldn't determine which side of the road it was on. I flew back to the target area and made a wide sweeping circle, taking pictures from every angle. If I couldn't get any air assets, I would at least have photos to give to Intel.
I switched my transmitter over to VHF and called Hillsboro.
“Hillsboro, Covey 218, vicinity Delta 33. I have a truck park and need air.”
“Roger, Covey 218, we're sending Sharkbait 41 to you, flight of two fox fours, CBU-24s and mark-82s. ETA 10 minutes. Strike frequency Echo.”
“Roger, thank you.”
I looked forward to working with Sharkbait Flight. Sharkbait was the callsign of the F-4s from Cam Ranh Air Base. When I was at the Cam Ranh hospital, I went by the F-4 squadron a few times, just to visit with the jocks. I got to know a few of them, and they showed me around one of the airplanes in the maintenance hangar. Sitting in the cockpit convinced me that I really ought to request an F-4 for my follow-on assignment. That really worked out well!
I switched my UHF to strike frequency Echo and waited. After a few minutes, the F-4s arrived at the rendezvous.
“Hello, Covey 218, Sharkbait 41, flight of two fox fours at the rendezvous point. Mark-82s and CBU-24s. Angels twenty-two. Twenty minutes playtime.”
“Roger Sharkbait. Look due south, at angels seven. I'm giving you a wing flash now.”
I rocked my wings several times and performed a quick aileron roll. The O-2 wasn't really an acrobatic aircraft, but an aileron roll wasn't all that much different than the maneuver we needed to perform a rocket pass. And I wanted to get my rocks off one last time.
“We have you in sight, Covey.”
“Roger, the target area is off my left wing. Truck park. Negative reaction so far. I'm in for the mark.”
I rolled into a 120-degree bank to the left and pulled the nose of my aircraft through into a 30-degree dive. When the pipper in my gun sight tracked up to the target, I fired off a willie pete. I pulled off hard to the right, then banked left to see where my mark hit. It was a perfect mark, right on the road adjacent to my target.
“Sharkbait has your mark in sight.”
“Okay, Sharkbait, the target is a truck park on both sides of the road, alongside my mark. I want you to run in with mark-82s from north to south, with a break to the west. Lead, put your bombs in the trees next to my mark. Either side of the road. Two, I want you to take the other side of the road. I'll be holding off to the east.”
“Sharkbait lead is in.”
Sharkbait lead put his bombs exactly where I wanted, and we immediately got huge secondary explosions. As lead pulled off target, there was heavy fire at his aircraft from a ZSU 23-4, located about a klick to the west of the target.
I transmitted, “Number two, hold high and dry. I want to put you in on that gun. Do you have the location, or do you want me to mark?”
Before number two could answer, lead came back on the radio.
“Sharkbait lead's been hit.”
I immediately got on the radio again, “Lead, head south, I repeat, head south. Number two, hold high and dry.”
Sharkbait two acknowledged.
Sharkbait lead had apparently heard me, he was heading south. I could see flames trailing from lead's aircraft, and they were moving forward, gradually engulfing the entire aircraft.
I was fairly sure lead knew he was on fire, but I didn't want to take any chances. “Sharkbait lead, you're on fire!”
Now burning pieces were separating from lead's aircraft.
Lead came on the radio one last time.
“Sharkbait lead bailing out.”
Sharkbait lead's aircraft was in a slight bank to the right, at about 5000 feet. The rear canopy separated, followed immediately by the ejection of the rear seat pilot. About a half-second later, the front canopy separated and the front seat pilot ejected.
I was able to keep both ejection seats in sight, and watched in horror as the back seat pilot separated from his seat, his parachute automatically deployed, and the parachute didn't open – it was a streamer. He plummeted down into the jungle. There was no beeper.
I looked at the front pilot's seat and watched him separate. As his chute opened, I heard his high-to-low-sweep beeper on Guard. The front-seater had a good chute. I set up an orbit to the east and watched him descend, as I selected VHF and called Hillsboro.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday. Hillsboro, this is Covey 218, we have Sharkbait lead down in the area of Delta 33. Need immediate SAR.”
“Roger, Covey 218, we are notifying King.”
I switched back to UHF.
“Sharkbait two, say playtime remaining.”
“I can give you 30 minutes, then I need to RTB. Listen, Covey, we need to get a SAR for lead.”
“I'm working on it.”
“I mean,” he responded, “we really need to get lead picked up.”
“Roger, hold high and dry off to the east, over me. Climb to your best endurance altitude and let me know your angels when you get there. Left hand orbit. We're going to need to use you to go after that gun when SAR gets here.”
I watched the front-seat pilot descend to the ground. He landed in an open meadow. At least he wasn't hung up in the trees. I saw him release from his parachute harness and head south to find cover. Right after he disappeared into the tree line, the beeper went silent and he came up on Guard, using his survival radio.
“This is Sharkbait 41 Alpha. I'm on the move heading south. Unhurt.”
I saw about twenty gomers entering the meadow from the north. I went to Guard frequency.
“Sharkbait 41 Alpha, Covey 218, you need to keep moving. There are gomers north of you heading to where you came down.”
Back to strike frequency Echo.
“Sharkbait 42, Covey 218. I need to put you in with your CBU on the meadow. I'm in for the mark.”
I rolled in and put a willie pete dead center in the meadow. The gomers had flooded in and were now everywhere.
“Hit my mark. Cleared in hot with one CBU from any direction. I'll be off to the east.”
I watched Sharkbait 42 release his CBU, saw the spark that indicated the canister opened, then saw the donut-shaped sparkling pattern, right on target. I put the gyro-stabilized binoculars on the target area and saw a bunch of dead bodies. But I saw some gomers still moving through the meadow, headed south. And more were entering the meadow.
“Okay two, I need you to keep making passes on that target until you're winchester CBU.”
Sharkbait 42 made three more passes on the meadow, all right on target. There were a bunch of dead gomers. But there were still more coming in from the north.
Just then the ZSU 23-4 opened up again, this time targeting me. I jinked out of the way without too much trouble. I was getting good at dodge ball.
If I had to, I'd put Sharkbait 42 in on the gun now, but I wanted to reserve his mark-82s for the SAR. I went over to VHF.
“Hillsboro, Covey 218, what's the status of the SAR?”
“Covey 218, Jolly 22 is departing NKP now with Spad 11 Flight. ETA 30 minutes.”
“Roger, I need more air for the cap right now. I don't care what ordnance. I want them ASAP.”
“We're scrambling Dingus Flight from Ubon. They should be there in fifteen to twenty minutes.”
Shit. It looked like the gomers would be on top of Alpha before my air arrived.
Over to Guard.
“Four-one Alpha, say your position.”
“I'm still moving south. I hear automatic weapons fire coming from where I landed. I'm at the edge of a tree line now, alongside what looks like an old grass strip.”
“Okay Alpha, Covey 218. Cross the strip and hide in the tree line on the other side, the south side.”
Strike Frequency Echo.
“Sharkbait 42, I need to put your mark-82s on the tree line, north side of the midfield of that grass strip. Do you have the strip in sight?”
“Okay, hold high and dry until I call you in. Be ready to roll in on short notice.”
I checked out the tree line on the north side of the runway. No gomers yet. I kept checking, and after a few minutes the gomers appeared. I could see flashes. They were firing at Alpha.
“Sharkbait 42 roll in now, parallel to the runway, in the tree line, midfield, north side. North side only.”
His bombs were right on target. He held for a few more minutes, then made another run. And another.
“Sharkbait two is winchester.”
“Any chance you have twenty mike-mike?” I was hoping he had a cannon, but I already knew what the answer would be.
“Negative. Sharkbait 42 is bingo.”
“Roger, Sharkbait, cleared RTB. I'll pass BDA over the landline.”
Back to VHF.
“Hillsboro, I need those fighters and SAR, NOW”
There was a short pause. My guess was that Hillsboro was contacting Jolly and Dingus.
“Ten more minutes.”
Fuck! We didn't have ten minutes. The gomers were everywhere in the north tree line, muzzle flashes everywhere. I still had 12 willie petes left. Time to become an attack aircraft.
I rolled in on a rocket pass down the runway, angling in slightly toward the north. I fired off one willie pete at a time, and made 12 passes.
I was now a war criminal.
The Geneva Convention prohibited the use of white phosphorous weapons. The willie pete rocket explodes with the lethal radius of a hand grenade, and the phosphorous sticks to the skin and burns at a temperature of five thousand degrees. It's terrible. It's illegal.
So is skinning a helpless captive. Or shooting at someone descending in a parachute. Or setting up a flak trap. Or shooting rockets at helpless South Vietnamese civilians.
And besides, we were fighting a fucking war in Laos, where our government didn't even acknowledge our presence. Every fucking mission got logged as “South Vietnam”. We weren't even there, so the Geneva Convention wouldn't apply. And if it did, I didn't give a fuck. I wasn't going to let those bastards get Alpha.
I was out of willie petes, and SAR was still eight or nine minutes away.
Over to Guard.
“How are you doing, Alpha?”
“The gomers have me pinned down on the south side of the runway. They're shooting at me from across the runway and also from somewhere south of me.”
I had to do something. I climbed to 5000 feet and feathered my rear prop. Then I released my lap belt and moved to the passenger seat, opened the passenger door, and pulled the red door release handle. With the rear prop feathered, I didn't need to worry about the door hitting the rear prop as I jettisoned it. As soon as the door was gone, I unfeathered the rear prop, and the engine started right up.
I opened the karabiner that attached my AR-15 to my survival vest, put the rifle in full auto, and pushed the throttles to the firewall to fly down the runway at max airspeed. I went down to about five feet, screaming down the runway, firing my AR-15 out the open door at the north tree line. I emptied the 20-round clip in about a second. Shit! I should have used short bursts.
I pulled up into a chandelle, put another magazine in the AR-15, and made another run,. This time I was shooting out the left window. It was a smaller opening to shoot through, but it would have to do. Ejected shell casings hammered against the instrument panel. The glass on the Vertical Speed Indicator cracked. I didn't care.
Over to VHF.
“Status on the SAR.”
“Five more minutes.”
“We don't have five fucking minutes!”
If I didn't get Alpha out of there right now, there would be no use having a SAR.
Over to Guard.
“Alpha, how high is the grass on the runway?”
“Not very high. Maybe eight, ten inches.”
“Okay, get ready to go for an airplane ride.”
I jettisoned my rocket pods and dove for the ground. I needed to get as low as I could as I approached the runway, so they wouldn't see me coming. I unsynchronized my propellers, so that the engines would make a beat frequency sound, making it more difficult to determine my location by ear.
I came in from the west. As I crossed over the end of the strip, I put down the landing gear and pulled the throttles to idle. I touched down a third of the way down the runway, and rapidly slowed to a crawl right at midfield. I suppose the gomers were totally surprised, because there was no ground fire. None. Alpha came running from the tree line and leaped through the open door into the passenger seat while the plane was still moving.
I firewalled the throttles and hoped I still knew how to perform a soft-field takeoff. I got airborne and stayed in ground effect, trying to accelerate.
The gomers quickly caught on to what I was doing, and opened up from the tree lines, both left and right, with massive automatic weapons fire. I could hear our aircraft taking a few hits, but it was still flying. I think the gomers hadn't gotten the hang of leading a moving target. They'd probably never gone quail hunting.
I handed the AR-15 to Alpha and tried to tell him to kill those bastards. The sound of the engines, the open door, and the ground fire drowned out what I was saying, but he caught on and started shooting out the door. I could see gomers firing back, and some were falling down as he fired.
I climbed up to 5000 feet and tried to figure out which way to head. The front engine was starting to run rough, and my fuel gauges showed a huge discrepancy between the left and right tanks. I must have taken a hit in the right wing. I headed toward Lima 44, about 50 miles due west.
I still had work to do. I didn't want the SAR forces coming anywhere near that ZSU 23-4. I got on VHF.
“Hillsboro, cancel the SAR. Keep the SAR airplanes away from Delta 33. There's an active 23 mike-mike in the area. I have Sharkbait 41 Alpha in my aircraft. We've taken numerous hits, and we're recovering at Lima 44. Send Jolly 22 to Lima 44 for our pickup.”
“Roger. We'll pass the info.”
The front engine quit about two miles on final approach to Lima 44. Now I would need to pump the gear down, since the hydraulic pump was on the front engine. I feathered the front prop, put down the gear handle, reached down, extended the manual hydraulic pump handle, and started pumping. Then it occurred to me: I had a helper. I made a pumping motion with my right hand.
“Here. Pump this,” I said. He probably didn't hear me, but he figured out what to do.
The gear came down about a half-mile on final, and we had an uneventful landing. I followed a beat-up follow-me truck, probably the same one as last time, and shut down the airplane. When we got out, Alpha gave me a big hug. He didn't want to release me, and he was shaking.
I knew how he felt. I hugged him back, and then we both started crying.
“I, I don't know how to thank you. I'm Herb McCall.”
“I'm Hamfist Hancock. No problem, Herb. I've been in your situation, and I understand completely.”
Just like last time, Jolly 22 landed in the parking spot next to our airplane. I reached into my plane and grabbed the AR-15 and the Pentax, and then we climbed aboard the chopper. I went up to the cockpit and saw Vince.
“Hey, Vince, we've got to stop meeting this way! I'm on my Champagne Flight”
“You got that right, Hamfist. So am I.”
Alpha took off his survival vest and guzzled down the water the PJ handed to him.
When his vest was off, I saw the rank insignia on his shoulders. Alpha was a Brigadier General!