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Joe Smart email@example.com
FAC Absolutely no one can tell you about the Vietnam War. No one. If you weren’t there, you just don’t know. And if you were there, you only got a snap-shot of the proverbial Big Picture. And although your snap-shot might be similar to the snap-shot of your buddy next to you, your experience would be very, very different from the experience of somebody doing a different job, or doing the same job in a different area, or even doing the same job in the same place but a year before your time or a year after. But I can give you a few glimpses of my snapshot. From April, 1970, to March, 1971, I was a Forward Air Controller (FAC) in Vietnam. I was based at Phu Cat Air Base, about 20 miles north-north-west of Qui Nhon, in II Corps. We flew the O-2A, a Cessna 337 Skymaster pusher-puller twin with a pod of white-phosphorous marker-rockets on each wing. Our job was to fly throughout our assigned area, learn the ground, locate enemy activity, coordinate with our own ground troops, request an airstrike, mark the target with our rockets, then direct the airstrike. We had complete control, and would direct the fighters as to what heading to attack on and where the good guys were and where to head if hit by ground fire. After the strike, we would fly over the area and try to determine the damage and give the fighters a strike report. That was the theory. It didn’t always work so smooth. On the way to Nam first-time pilots stopped at Clark Air Base, north of Manila, for Jungle Survival School, encouragingly known as Snake School. There are a couple things I still remember. One was the advice to never mess with the snakes of South East Asia because, “There are 42 kinds of snakes there. Thirtynine are poisonous, and the other three eat you alive!” I have followed that advice ever since. Another bit was to not panic if you found yourself on the
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ground. A lot of the NVA chasing you would be city kids, conscripts, and no more at home in the jungle than you. Fortunately, I never had to test that advice. FACs first reported to the headquarters for all in-country FACs located at Cam Ranh Bay. After a few days there I flew north to Phu Cat and my new home. Our unit’s call sign was Tum. I was Tum 23, pronounced “Tum Two Three.” The Tums were assigned to the Capitol Division of the Korean Army, called the ROK CAPs, or just ROKs. There were three or four FACs assigned to each regiment, and one of us was with each regiment at all times, in camp if they were in camp or in a bunker on a hilltop if they were on a sweep. So, for about one week out of every four, I was with my regiment and did not fly. Although we only flew about 75% of the sorties that other FACs in the country flew, the field work was a great experience. Our area of operations was fairly safe for FACs. Intel actually had information that the local Viet Cong were told, “Don’t shoot at the funny little airplane with two tails because if you miss him, and he sees you, he’s going to get you!” I don’t know how valid those instructions were, but I’m glad they felt that way. But it wasn’t that way very many places in Vietnam, and it certainly wasn’t that way just north of us, where my old pilot training classmate, Pete Landry, was assigned. Pete had been enlisted, gotten his degree, gone through OTS about the same time that I did, and we shared the same instructor in our first training aircraft, the Cessna T-41. He was married, and had two little curly-headed girls. In our next trainer, the Cessna T-37, a quick little jet with an unpressurized cockpit, he suffered a collapsed lung. He probably could have gotten a different line of work in the Air Force, but he was in love with flying, as we all were, and returned to training after his recovery. He was now a class or two behind me, so he graduated a few weeks after I did, and got to Hurlburt Field at Eglin AFB in the Florida panhandle for O-2 training about a week or two before I completed my training and shipped out. I had been in Nam for about six months when I heard that Pete had been shot down and killed. Sometimes it seems there is no justice in the world. There were plenty of jerks in Nam, and there were plenty of pilots who did risky things, stupid things. At different times, I was in each of those groups. So I wonder. Why Pete? Why
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not me? And I will never, ever know the answer. So what I did was to remember his name: Pete Landry. And touch his name on The Wall in DC. And cry. Like a lot of other veterans of a lot of other wars. And whenever any good thing happened to me, I’d mentally try to share it with him, and remember that it could just as easily be him standing in my shoes.
The Koreans The Korean Army had two divisions in Vietnam. I was assigned to the Capitol Division. I met only a few Vietnamese while I was in their country, but I met a ton of Koreans, and I learned a lot that is still with me. One thing I learned is that they were amazingly tough, ferocious fighters, and they scared the crap out of the Viet Cong. When we drove our jeep from Phu Cat to our regiment, we passed over a lot of bridges. (You can see the roads we took on Google Earth. Go south from Phu Cat toward Qui Nhon, then turn right and go about half way to the Ahn Khe pass.) Since bridges have been military targets forever, each bridge was guarded. Even without seeing the flags, you could tell from the sandbags which bridges were guarded by the Vietnamese Army, which were guarded by Americans, and which were guarded by the ROKs. The sandbags of the Vietnamese bridges were ramshackle and not uniform, like they had been put up in a hurry, knocked down, and put up again in a greater hurry. And they had bullet holes. And the troops guarding them were hunkered down, and once in a while there was a dead body nearby, waiting to be picked up by whoever had that thankless job. The sandbags of the American bridges were a lot better, but the guards were still careful, watching, waiting. But the bags of the Korean bridges were perfect, like green adobe blocks, neat, uniform. I believe they must have used wet sand to fill the bags, then placed them in rectangular wooden forms, like you would with wet concrete, till they dried. And the guards stood at attention, out in the open, like guards at Buckingham Palace, daring the Cong to try something. Nobody messed with the Koreans. Another thing I learned is that they were smart – at least, some of them. One of my two best friends during my year was the regimental dentist. His English was
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practically flawless, and he taught me the Asian version of chess, the one with the elephants and the artillery and the horses which move so similarly to and yet so differently from the knights of European chess that I was often caught by surprise, and he usually kept me from offending any of the Korean officers with my American manners. In return, I taught him European chess, and gave him my set when I left Nam. Actually, it is inaccurate to say I taught him European chess. I did show him the moves, but in our first game, the “demo game,” he beat me and he beat me in every game we ever played of both versions of chess. He enjoyed winning, but he didn’t gloat. I didn’t enjoy losing, but I didn’t whine. He was a good friend. My other best friend was a FAC named Steve Scrivener. I have a picture of Steve and me on a hilltop, wearing our vests, holding our rifles, looking really, really young. Steve was the most exceptional young officer I have ever met, and although I called him my best friend, I’m sure a lot of us did the same. We were a competitive bunch, reluctant to acknowledge either our own weaknesses or the strengths of others, each trying to be a leader, not yet realizing that sometimes you need to be a loyal follower. But I think we all felt differently about Steve. I believe each of us expected him to make general, and each of us would have been glad to work for him. But Steve wanted more excitement than we had at Phu Cat, and when the call came for volunteers to fly in a new area, he jumped at the chance. And he went to that new area a couple of weeks after I returned to the states, and he was soon shot down. I was out of the loop, and didn’t hear about it. When I saw his name in the obit section of The Air Force Times I cried out like I’d been kicked, and I still remember the anguish, and I still feel the pain.
“Trust me!” If you want someone else’s view of being a FAC, you could read the book Bat 21 by William Charles Anderson, then watch the movie of the same name, starring Danny Glover and Gene Hackman. The story is supposedly true, although someone so fanatic about golf that he even knows the compass headings of various holes throughout the country seems a little far-fetched. Danny Glover is a FAC, and directs Gene Hackman from where he bailed out of his aircraft to a safe pickup site. The movie has some pretty good flying sequences, and it has
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the only scenes of an O-2 flying I know about. But except for seeing the aircraft, the book is better. The book has a neat sub-plot involving racial tension which is not too apparent in the movie. I believe I grew up remarkably free of racial prejudice, and I believe I know why. Our church, the First Baptist Church in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, sponsored several missionaries. One family, Abe and Susie Guenter and their two sons, were missionaries in Liberia. In addition to financial support, the church would occasionally send them a care package. I remember my mom being appalled one time when some lady who had probably never traveled outside Clinton County donated a collection of once-used tea bags with the explanation that “Yes, they were used, but they were good enough for missionaries!” Every couple of years, Abe and his family would return to the US and go to all the churches which supported them and give a report and slide-show. I was fascinated by the views of Africa, especially the photos of the children. Kids my age, hungry-looking, poor, often diseased, living in some pretty tough conditions. And I remember thinking, “God could just as easily have put me there, in that family, and put that kid in my skin, in my house, in my family.” And I wondered why He put me here and that kid there, and I wondered if I would have been tough enough to survive there, in that situation. And I wondered if maybe God put me where he did because He knew the answer. So I developed the belief that good guys, bad guys, jerks, and fools came in all sizes, in all colors, and from all places, and that it was ok to dislike someone for their words or actions, but not for their color or origin. The Air Force reinforced this attitude of racial equality, and I never saw overt discrimination on the part of any AF personnel during my whole career. But I did see discrimination once in Vietnam, and it still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. I have observed that the more homogeneous, or “racially pure,” a society is the more the members of that society think of themselves as the top of the evolutionary heap and that they are absolutely better than anyone else from anyplace else. And the greater the difference in the physical appearance of the outsider, the greater the sense of superiority. The Koreans demonstrated this feeling one time when we got a new pilot into our outfit, and he was black. We FACs welcomed every replacement pilot enthusiastically, because when a new guy came in, the most senior of us, in length of time in-country, got to go
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home, and the rest of us moved one step closer to being the next guy out. But our commander came back from a visit with the ROK brass, and told us the new guy was not acceptable to them, that they said he was “like ape in jungle.” This was ugly, and we all protested. We wanted to press the ROKs. Who were they to dictate anything to us? We wanted to boycott. We wanted to say, “OK. We can’t fly for you anymore!” But lieutenants didn’t have a very loud voice, and our new buddy went off to fly for a different outfit, and I heard that he did very well. A few weeks later, I was on the top of a volcanic cone of a hill for a few days while the regiment did a sweep around our hill and around a similar-looking hill about a kilometer away, and I got to give the ROKs a double-shot of revenge. To understand how the first shot worked, you have to understand that there was very strict discipline in the Korean army. An officer or NCO could beat the snot out of someone of a lesser rank, and often did. And just a week or so earlier, we had heard that a ROK officer backtracked a sapper who had penetrated the perimeter of the headquarters camp, found where he had come through the fence, and shot dead the guard who had failed to detect the intruder. So I was sitting on a box of C-rats, shirt-sleeves rolled up, catching some rays while waiting for some action, and vaguely wondering if a cong sniper might be good enough to hit me from the top of the other hill, when the ROK corporal assigned as my translator opened the dance. Sitting beside me, he reached over and stroked a finger down my forearm, and said, with a smirk, “Korean man say American man hairy like ape in jungle!” I thought of explaining that different cultures had different views on the subject of manly beauty, that I had met several women who seemed not to be offended, and that he was both a fool and an ignoramus, but then I decided to just use a more direct approach. So, with my left hand, I reached over and stroked a finger down his arm and said, “American man say Korean man smooth like woman!” At the same time I put my right hand on the grip of my .38 and, as he processed my reply and leapt into his tai-kwan-do “kill-the-insulter-of-my-manhood” stance, I was in my Richard Boone’s “Paladin-is-going-to-blow-your-head-off” stance. He saw my hand on my gun, and he knew that a ROK officer would kill him in a heartbeat.
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He didn’t know if I would or not, but he didn’t take the chance, and he took a walk to cool off. A few others had seen the exchange, and I saw one NCO ask him something. I do not know what he told him, but it seemed like I was treated with a little more respect by the ROKs after that. Or, maybe they just didn’t want to get in a gunfight with the crazy American. The second shot of my revenge started to play out an hour or so later. An officer, accompanied by the reluctant translator, came to me, pointed to our twin peak, and announced, “VC on mountain. Need airstrike, 1400.” I scratched my chin, looked at the hill, looked at the major, and said, “Major, there are no VC on that hill! That hill is only a klick away! If there were VC on that hill, they’d be shooting at us! Now, tell me what you really want!” “Well,” he said, bluster all gone, “General come, want see airstrike. Need airstrike 1400 hours!” I looked at my watch. Just about noon. Two hours would be enough. “No problem!” I said, “Airstrike at 1400. All you had to do is tell me the truth. Trust me!” As we synchronized our watches, I could see his relief; he would not have wanted to face his boss without getting the strike! So I made the radio call, telling headquarters I had low-priority assault-prep target, that I didn’t care too much about what ordnance was used, but I needed it at 2 pm exactly. They called me back in a few minutes and told me they had a flight of F-100s returning with their bombs, and who welcomed dropping them as opposed to trying to land with them. Then I called my FAC buddy, flying a few miles away, and began to coordinate the strike. Then the plan for revenge sprang into my head, fully-developed! “Look,” I said to my FAC, “These guys tried to bull-shit me, and we still owe them for dictating who can be in our unit, so this is what I want to do!” I explained I wanted him to loiter behind a ridge behind us till just before 2 pm, then, while we were all looking at the target, pop up and fire his marker rocket over our heads to mark the target, and to have the fighters already beginning their run, coming out of the sun, unheard and unseen, only needing to make their final correction upon seeing the marker smoke, and drop the first bomb about 15 seconds after 1400. So he and I synchronized our watches, and he went off to the north a ways to wait for the fighters, and I watched as the general and all his smartly-dressed
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staff in their spotless uniforms emerged from their helicopter, met the troop commander, and found good spots from which to watch the air show. I made one more radio call, just to see if everything was set, then we maintained radio silence. As the appointed hour neared, every eye was on the target hilltop. The FAC was hidden behind us and the fighters were high in the eye of the sun. The silence and lack of activity began to unnerve the major. Had there been a misunderstanding about the time? About the target? About the day? He glanced at me as I stood calm, relaxed, serene. He motioned, pointing at his watch. I gave him a thumbs-up and mouthed, “Trust me!” Now the colonel was getting restless – he had been getting looks from the general’s staff. He muttered to the major, and the major came to me, almost frantic. I looked at my watch and said, “There’s 20 seconds to go! Plenty of time! Trust me!” As he staggered back to his colonel, almost paralyzed with fear that he was going to be shot for failing to give the general his airstrike, the FAC’s rocket streaked overhead and the target hilltop sported a plume of white smoke. I had never heard anything as loud as that rocket passing over us! I mean, I knew it was coming, and I still almost hit the deck! As I recovered my poise and straightened up, the first bomb hit the smoke. I pointed to my watch and said to the major, laying in the dust with his colonel, the general, and the staff, now not so neat and clean, and said, “See! Right on time! Trust me!”
Rocket Attack Most of the FACs were young, just a year or two out of college, and most of the guys treated the assignment as a flying club during the day and a frat party at night. I was the only one who did not drink. I was raised to not drink. Although the Bible reports that Jesus drank wine, the theory in our church was that our bodies were the temple of God, that the Holy Spirit lived within us, and so we should not contaminate our bodies, God’s house, with alcohol or tobacco. Inexplicably, but thankfully, this desire to not contaminate our bodies did not extend to soda, coffee, bacon, or fast foods – perhaps it should have! While in college, I saw no reason to suddenly begin to smoke or drink, and it may have been my desire to stand up for something, to not follow the crowd, to
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not be intimidated into doing something I did not choose to do. Besides, I saw what fools people made out of themselves when they drank, and I once kissed a girl who smoked, and thought it must be very much like licking an ash tray. So, although the term “designated driver” had not yet been coined, I was the “designated walker-home-from-the officer’s-club” for all my drunken buddies each evening. Phu Cat was a fairly safe place to live. The perimeter was guarded by the Korean Army, and they were pretty rough customers – the danger was to pilots when we flew out on our missions. However, about once a month, some Viet Cong, either brave or foolhardy, would sneak close enough to launch a few unguided rockets at us. Usually, these had very little effect other than to remind the support personnel, who never left the base and often suffered from “cabin fever,” that they were, indeed, in a war. It was amazing how these rocket attacks improved moral! Reminded that they were in a war and filled with enthusiasm, everyone worked harder, doing their part in the fight. This high would last for a week or so, then the attitude would start to sour, then the discipline would really fade, then we’d have another attack and everyone would perk up again! This pattern was so regular that I secretly wondered if perhaps the senior officers arranged the ineffective attacks, just to manage the troops! One time, intelligence indicated that a real rocket attack was in the offing, perhaps from more professional NVA troops instead of local Viet Cong. This intelligence was given enough credence that the base commanders requested that we FACs fly an aircraft around the area every night from 1 a.m. till our fuel ran out, looking for bad guys, trying to keep them from moving. This was a silly idea, but it actually worked. It was silly in that we had no way to see the enemy at night. Night vision technology was in its infancy, and the few “starlight scopes” were all deployed around Saigon. But it worked because the enemy figured we were not foolish enough to fly around unable to see, so we must have night scopes, so they did restrict their movement. One night at the club, about 10 p.m., one of my buddies staggered up to me and said, “Joe! I’m supposed to fly rocket watch at 1 a.m., but I’m a little drunk! How about you fly for me?” This was a no-brainer. I obviously had to cover the flight. But I was tired and worried about staying awake the rest of the night, so I
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quickly found a new guy, a guy who had just arrived that day. “How much you had to drink?” I demanded. “One beer,” he replied. “Good! I’ve got to fly and you’re going to come with me to keep me awake!” Welcome to Vietnam. So we got into our gear, grabbed our parachutes, survival vests, and handguns, found the plane, and took off. We patrolled around the base, lights out, engines desynchronized to create a harmonic we thought would make it difficult for people on the ground to tell where we were, and basically listened to the Armed Forces Vietnam radio station on the ADF nav radio till the sun began to rise. Since the rocket attacks had always come much earlier in the night, well before sunrise, I figured our mission was complete and landed. I hadn’t been on the ground more than two minutes before the rockets came – those sneaky guys had waited us out! I quickly took off, low on fuel, not so much to find the bad guys but rather under the “big sky-small bullet” theory which stated that it was harder to hit a flying aircraft than one taxiing on the ground. And we did find some bad guys, although one of my buddies, sober now, directed the airstrike while I nursed my plane back to the runway, really low on fuel. After we parked the plane, we discovered the attackers were as accurate as they were patient. One rocket had landed right outside our own operations building, destroying a truck and throwing shrapnel throughout our briefing room. Another rocket had landed between our quarters and the senior officers’ rooms about 50 feet away. The main damage was to the senior officers’ building. The blast blew the roof and door off the room of one colonel who had just arrived the day before. The door landed right on top of him as he slept, completely protecting him from any harm, and he pushed the door aside and looked up at the stars. One of my buddies helped him up and said, nonchalantly, “We’re lucky tonight. Most nights it’s a lot worse!” Welcome to Vietnam. At first glance, my room seemed untouched. Of course, I had put my stereo gear on the floor and had covered everything with flak-jackets, so that was safe. Then I noticed sunlight coming from a hole right at the edge of my bed. I pulled back the covers and saw a piece of shrapnel, about one inch long and half as wide, resting on the sheet.
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If I hadn’t been flying, I’d have been shot in the ass while asleep! (“Dad, how’d you get your Purple Heart?” “Dad, can I see your scars?” “Shut-up, kid!”) Now, based on my stance about drinking, you might suppose I used this as an example of the evils of alcohol. No, for although I have never, ever seen anything made better by alcohol, and I have seen a whole lot of things made very, very much worse, in this instance the consumption of alcohol (by others, but still…) helped me. The lesson I took from this event was this: Never refuse the opportunity to fly, ‘cause it might just be God’s way of getting your sorry butt out of bed and up in the air where you’ll be safe! Over the next 18 years in the Air Force and an equal time as a pilot for Delta Air Lines, I often got calls from scheduling, often at very inconvenient times, to take an unexpected flight. And I always agreed, and never whined. One time, a Delta scheduler told me he had tried to get several other pilots to cover flights that night, and I was the only one who had not whined and complained. So I told him my story, and I guess he told some others, because I became known as a “go-to” guy. This not only helped the company and made the schedulers’ job more pleasant, it often was very lucrative for me and it always, always, got my butt into the air, where I was safe!
Naked Aggression There are funny stories about Vietnam, there are sad ones. I guess this is one of the funny ones – at least, it seemed funny when I told by buddies about it, after I landed. Sometimes we flew alone, sometimes we flew together, taking turns being in the left seat, the seat of the pilot in command. Being alone was probably better; you would focus more on the task at hand, and there was no one to catch you if you happened to exaggerate a little when you told your story that night. One afternoon I was flying, alone, over an area I seldom observed. Seeing a small river, I buzzed down pretty low and started flying upstream, giving about equal attention to my altitude and the trees lining the river, while looking for ground fire or other signs of enemy activity.
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Rounding a bend in the river, I saw, on the right bank, a lot of black clothing spread on the rocks, and some stacks of weapons, butts on the ground and barrels pointed up, looking for all the world like the frames of little tepees. I didn’t see anyone, and I wasn’t being shot at, as far as I could tell, but I sure didn’t want to give anyone the chance to run out from wherever they were hiding and get to a gun. I pulled up in a spiraling climb, never taking my eyes off the strange site, and tried to figure out what I was seeing. In just a moment, I realized that I had found a group of VC taking advantage of the nice day and the river to wash their clothes and take a bath, and that I had snuck up and surprised them, the trees both hiding me and muffling the sound of my low-altitude approach. In just another moment, I was on the radio to my control, explaining that I had 50 naked VC trapped in the rocks, and that I needed an airstrike. No luck. There was a big fight going on to the northwest, with American lives at stake, and all the jets were tasked on higher-priority targets. Man! I couldn’t let this opportunity get away! “How about artillery?” I asked. There were several fire-bases around, and we often attacked targets with the big guns. I figured out the target coordinates and called them in, then mentally reviewed the procedures for directing artillery fire. The main idea for directing artillery is to not get hit yourself. Although I had read about ground troops calling in fire on their own location when being overrun, that wasn’t considered prudent when in an aircraft. And I had had one experience of something almost like that. I had been given coordinates of possible enemy activity and had been asked to go check it out, right now, and see what was up. Unfortunately, the coordinates were also given to an Army firebase and the artillery shooters, thinking there were no good guys in the area, fired a salvo. I was orbiting right over the coordinates when five rounds of arty splashed around me, shaking the aircraft and startling me. As I fled the area, my control called, “Tum 23, get out of there! Artillery’s going to fire!” I hadn’t had time to get scared before it was over. But I thought about it for a while. So the way to not get hit was for the FAC to hold a moderate distance upwind of the target, and at a 90 degree angle from the direction the fire would come from, the idea being that the angle of the fire was fairly easy to control, but the
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range was difficult. The normal procedure was to ask for one round and, if it was in line with the target but either long or short, call the distance off to the shooters and they would make a correction to the range and fire another round. As soon as you got one round just long and one just short, you would order “Fire for effect!” and all the pieces would fire and hopefully cover the target. The call came from control that there was only one battery with the range to reach my target. It was a ROK 155 howitzer battery, and the 155s were considered not accurate at max range. I never saw the first ranging shot, the second was short and to the left, the third was long and to the right, and that was exactly where I was holding. So I called off the artillery and glared at the clothes and the guns, hoping the cowardly VC, not willing to come out and fight, had gotten their naked butts burned by the setting sun. The setting sun? Uh-oh. It was getting late. And I was getting low on fuel. I had to leave soon. But I had one more trick up my sleeve! I rolled in and fired all my rockets into the rocks, probably not getting any of the troops, but burning the heck out of the clothes and guns, and then flew home, smiling at the thought of 50 naked VC trudging all night through the bugs and the snakes and the mud, finally walking into their camp and trying to explain what happened!
The Kids in the Dump I was based “in-country” from April, 1970, to March, 1971, as a Forward Air Controller, or FAC, flying the little Cessna O-2A “pusher-puller” prop plane. About a year to the day after I got back to the States, I got a phone call at 2 a.m. telling me to report at 5. I was going back, this time as a co-pilot on the crew of a B-52D, the aircraft I had just been trained in. The B-52s operated out of Anderson AFB, Guam, and U-Tapao Air Base in Thailand, and the D crews would usually split their tour between the two bases. My first tour lasted 178 days, then I was back in Texas for 28 days, then over again for a 158-day tour, which terminated just after the release of the US POWs by the North Vietnamese. This second tour covered the Linebacker II bombing of Hanoi and other previously excluded targets. It began Dec 18, 1972, and lasted 11 days. Our crew, CAR S01, flew seven of those days, and we were told that we were tied with one other crew for the most missions flown.
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A few months later, I volunteered to go back to Guam. I was there for about three months, then back to Texas for only a few days, then, again as a volunteer, went back overseas for my final six-month tour. You would think that, because I was over there in B-52s twice as long as I was in O-2s, I would have twice as many stories pop into my head about flying the Buff as about my time as a FAC. But as I jot down notes and sit down to type, I find that the memories from that very first tour as a FAC dominate my thoughts. I am not sure why. Perhaps it is because I was younger – I spent my 24th birthday mid-way through my tour as a FAC. Or maybe everything was so new and strange that first year and I was an “Old Pro” and somewhat jaded later on. Although I matured and changed in several ways during both periods, one experience in Vietnam, at the beginning of my tour as a FAC, changed my attitude toward life forever. Our unit of FACs, based at Phu Cat AB, was assigned to provide air support to the ROK CAP Division of the Korean Army. Since each regiment always needed one of us actually with them as opposed to just flying around, we each spent about one week out of every four at their camp, or out on a hilltop with the command element if they were on a sweep. To get to their camp, we drove our own jeep. It was about a 30-mile ride, and on this ride we passed a huge dump, piled high with the refuse of the three allied armies working in the area. And in the dump, I saw the kids. The kids lived in the dump, in 55-gallon drums, cardboard boxes, and shacks shingled with flattened-out Coke cans, and the kids would fight with each other for the right to be the first ones to pick through a new pile of garbage when a GI truck dumped a load. I had grown up with a “head-knowledge” of poverty from viewing our church’s missionaries’ slides of Liberia as well as watching the occasional television news show, but I had never seen anything like this, and the sight hit me like a ton of bricks. We all knew that the war was hard on children. We knew about the VC recently stopping and boarding a brand-new school bus on its first run of its first day of service, cutting off the finger of the first kid in the first seat, then telling the kids that, tomorrow, they would cut off the hand of the first kid in the first seat.
Snapshot of Vietnam
And we had seen the intelligence report about a satchel-bomb which had been planted at a market in near-by Qui Nhon and had killed over a dozen shoppers. The bomb had been planted by a 10-year-old boy who, when questioned, explained that he and his buddy had been out fishing in the creek, and the VC grabbed them, and one of the VC drowned his buddy, then told him, “Take this to the market or we’ll drown you, too!” And we knew kids could be killed by our own forces, too. I myself had had a close call with this. I had been assigned to patrol the north end of the shallow bay stretching from Qui Nhon up to the Phu Cat Mountains, a known VC enclave. The area was the ultimate “No Trespassing Zone.” Anyone in or on the water there was considered an enemy and was to be attacked and killed. As soon as I got to the area I saw a small boat, certainly suitable for running supplies or people to and from the mountains. It was too small a target for fighters, so I rolled in, ready to shoot it up with my rockets. But it didn’t “feel” right - no one fired at me, and the boat drifted along, not making any effort to escape. So I held my fire and flew down for a closer look, a possibly dangerous look because it put me so close that the boaters could have knocked me out of the sky with a rock, let alone an AK-47 they might have hidden under a seat. I saw that the occupants were an old man and a boy, and they were fishing, and I immediately thought of my grandfather and me. Yeah, I knew that they could be runners, that the rods could be props, that the boy could be either a helper or an expendable decoy, and that they could be the coolest, smoothest actors ever. But I also knew that, if my grandfather had lived there, he would have been tempted beyond all reason to fish where the fish were, regardless of some line on a map. So I declined to fire; instead, I buzzed the heck out of them, trying to get them to move south to a safer location. I irritated the old man enough that he finally stood up in the boat, shook his fist at me, and hollered something. Of course, I couldn’t hear him, and I didn’t understand his language, but I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt what he said: “You’re scaring the fish!” We also knew the story of one of our own NCOs and his wife who had tried to adopt an 8-year-old orphan, but after paying the bribe to the village chief to certify the kid wasn’t a VC operative, then paying constantly more expensive bribes to constantly more senior and more corrupt individuals, they finally ran
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out of money and had to abandon the attempt. He lost track of the young orphan, and it is not unlikely the kid ended up in the same dump we drove by every week. As a result of seeing the kids in the dump, I began to develop the attitude that material things were just not that important, that the real valuables in life were health, family, and the blessing of not living in a trash heap and eating garbage. But while I was developing this attitude, this theory, a lot of my contemporaries back in the States were developing a completely different philosophy. Although the term “Yuppie” had not yet been coined and Madonna hadn’t even entered junior high, let alone sung “Material Girl,” the worship of things was taking root. The supremely talented and equally troubled Janis Joplin had recently died, but her song “Mercedes Benz” was very popular – but the young materialists didn’t realize it was sarcasm. They seemed to think it was a pretty good prayer! On returning to the States, although I didn’t suffer from the stress of war that affected so many of the ground-pounders, I found that my philosophy of life and my set of values was diametrically opposed to the values of many around me, including those of my wife. I believe this was the major cause of the break-up of my first marriage. But I am comfortable with the direction in which my philosophy has taken me, and happy with the lessons I learned in Vietnam, and so very sad that those lessons came at such a high price. And I am still affected when I see kids living in a dump.
Snapshot of Vietnam