I knew I was sitting in a Huey helicopter making its way along the jagged coastline north of Danang, Vietnam in the most hazardous flight conditions I had ever experienced. It was solid overcast with the clouds almost down to the water. A few feet below us were the white-capped waves of the South China Sea. Off to our left were mountains rising steeply out of the sea and disappearing into the mist in as little as 50 feet. The meeting of the mountains and the water was marked by boulders and large jagged rocks.In places the clouds dropped all the way down to the water forcing the pilots to jockey around looking for pockets of visibility. Twice we actually went into the soup for a few seconds. Back in the states, if pilots flew in conditions like this, they would get their asses royally reamed by the battalion commander. On this flight one of the pilots WAS the batallion commander.What struck me at the time was how casually everyone else in the chopper took the situation. The two pilots, two crew, and two passengers other than myself all maintained blank, almost bored, expressions. Needless to say, I put on the best "ho-hum" face I could muster also. But the second time we went 0-0 (0 ceiling, 0 visibility) into the clouds, I casually tightened my seatbelt hoping no one would notice.What kind of strange place had I come to? It was a place where the rules were very different. It was a place where words like safety and sanity were not defined as they were in the world I had known until now. I knew I was not in Indiana anymore. One of my fellow passengers was a Marine captain with a round, freckly face, closely cropped red hair, and a dark red bushy moustache. He wore a brown leather Marine aviator jacket adorned with a set of wings. He looked to me like he had just stepped out of a WW2 flying leatherneck movie. I was beginning to appreciate at a gut level what my participation in this conflict might require. From the time I stepped off the plane at Cam Rhan Bay six days earlier I had run a continous cycle of processing, assignment, and getting shipped out to the next headquarters where it would start all over again. Cam Rhan Bay to Nha Trang to Da Nang. Each stop was a little further north than the previous one. At the end of this flight, assuming it didn't ditch, I would be at the terminus of my odyssey, the 220th Reconnaisance Airplane Company in Phu Bai, South Vietnam, the northernmost Bird Dog unit in the country. But where, exactly, had this odyssey begun? What were the steps that led to my being delivered in such perilous fashion to what will surely be an even more perilous duty for the next year of my life? I closed my eyes and tried to retrace those steps. It was more appealing than thinking about the flight I was on.The step immediately previous to Vietnam was the U.S. Army fixed-wing flight school, the best light airplane school in the world. I remember reading that description in a article I found in a general aviation magazine of the time. It was accurate. The entire course was eight months in length. The first four months of the program were conducted at Fort Stewart, Georgia near Savannah. The last four months of the training took place at Fort Rucker in the southeastern corner of Alabama.The first 3/4ths of the program, the initial training in Georgia and the instrument phase at Fort Rucker, taught us to be good general aviation pilots--very good. By the end of six concentrated months we were able to fly on instruments and to fly multi-engined aircraft. We could navigate by radio or by map. We could operate from short strips, dirt strips, roads, and fields.
The aircraft used in the intial two phases at Ft Stewart was the T-41, a Cessna 172 airframe with a bigger engine (Lycoming 210 hp) a beefed-up nosewheel, and a constant speed propellor. For the multi-engine/instrument phase at Fort Rucker we flew a configuration of the twin-engined Beech Baron which the Army labled the T-42.
The fourth and last phase, the tactical phase, was specifically designed to teach us the kind of flying we might be called upon to do in Vietnam. And we were introduced for the first time to the aircraft that most of us would be flying in Vietnam, the O-1 Birdog. We learned to find our way at 50 feet off the deck. We learned to follow creek beds and tree lines. We learned to find remote clearings at treetop by dead reckoning and then how to land in them without running into the surrounding trees. We learned to land on dirt strips at night using only jeep lights. We were taught the procedure for controlling a jet airstrike. We practiced controlling artillery fire. We practiced making message drops.
One summer afternoon during my training two of my classmates were making a message drop and let their airplane get a little too slow for the hot Alabama air. It stopped flying and went in from 60 ft. We held a memorial service for them the next day and it struck me that this was the first time in my young life that somebody got killed doing the same job I was doing. It was pretty obvious to me, sitting in that helicopter heading to Phu Bai, that it was not going to be the last.
Fort Rucker is the headquarters of Army Aviation. During the Vietnam War, the Army maintained two parallel 8 month pilot training pipelines, one for fixed wing (airplanes), and one for rotary (helicopters). They began in different places--Fort Stewart, Georgia for fixed wing and Fort Wolters, Texas for rotary--but both ended at Fort Rucker. Every month a new class of clueless Rickenbacker wannabes went into each pipeline and every month at Fort Rucker a class of trained aviators dropped out of the other end to collect their wings.
The classes coming through the helicopter side were much larger than the fixed wing classes reflecting the fact that the Army had far more helicopters than fixed wing aircraft. In a typical month the Army Aviation School would graduate around 200 helicopter pilots but only 60 or so fixed wing pilots.
A majority of the rotary trainees were warrant officers. The fixed wing trainees were almost all commissioned officers, most of them second lieutenants in their early 20's fresh out of ROTC or OCS; the split was about 50/50. There were always a few first lieutenants and captains and one or two of them might have already done a Vietnam tour with a ground unit before signing the flight school dotted line. Only a handful from each class was planning to make the Army a career. The rest were basically citizen soldiers who wanted to become pilots for varied and personal reasons. Rarely did those reasons include a burning desire to fly an airplane over Vietnam. But all were resigned to the fact that they probably would.
We're in the soup. I see only clouds through the front of the helicopter and out both side doors. I know we can't be on instruments this close to the surface of the water. This is nuts.
The fixed wing training slots were considered preferable by most flight school applicants. There were fewer of them; it was generally held that helicopter duty was more hazardous; and there were many more fixed wing flying opportunities outside of the military. Applicants for flight training could not designate fixed wing or rotary. You could state a preference, but you got whatever you got and the assignments seemed to be random. Most of the commissioned officers who applied for flight school requested fixed wing and most of them got rotary. I did not state a preference and got fixed wing. There were guys in my class who specifically requested rotary but got fixed-wing.
I got into the Army flight school the same way all my classmates did, by signing on dotted lines. In my case the dotted lines started at Indiana University. When I entered there in 1962 two years of ROTC were mandatory for all male underclassmen. I would not have chosen it on my own; I'm not the military type. But then at the end of the two years the Army had this deal for me. If I continued in ROTC for the final two years, I would go into the Army as an officer when I graduated which meant I would get a lot better pay than if I waited until I got drafted after college. That I would be drafted was never in question. There were no other possibilities at the time for a healthy, single 21 year old male from a working class family with no political connections.
But the real kicker for me was that they would pay me the impressive sum of $40 per month for my junior and senior years just for taking the ROTC class. I was working to put myself through school with part-time jobs and scholarships. That $40 was my room rent and the clincher. "Where do I sign?"
The next signature was even easier. "It will only add a little extra time to your military service, and we will teach you how to fly. Why we will even give you 30 hours of flight instruction while you are still in college." "Gosh, I've always wanted to fly. Where do I sign?" $40 a month and free flight instructions. Such a deal. And here I am now wondering how cold that water below is going to feel.
Halfway through the 30 minute trip to Phu Bai the weather began to improve. We got ceilings all the way up to 300 feet in places. I felt slightly relieved at being able to see our destination and downright joyous when we actually landed there.
On the ground there was a 3/4 ton truck waiting to give us a ride to our various destinations (the limo must have been in the shop). The ride was only a couple of minutes for me. I hoped out of the truck, sat my duffel bag down on the muddy road and stared up at an archway that bore the words, "220th Aviation Company -- The Eyes of I-Corps".
The company headquarters was located in two small, one-story buildings located on either side of the 30 foot stretch of sidewalk that led into the company area from the muddy road. I walked in, signed in, got processed some more, and was given a few introductions. The company didn't have any billet space for me, and I needed a place to stay until they could arrange some. Someone standing behind the counter said, "Let him stay in Captain Johnson's room. He won't be back for a few days."
"Gone on R&R", I asked.
"No, he's accompanying Mr. Keevin's body down to Saigon."
I had heard about a pilot getting killed when I was down in Danang waiting for my flight up, but I did not know any details. The pilot's name was Lou Keevin. He was a warrant officer.
"He had some NVA (North Vietnamese Army) troops in the open and was trying to keep them from making it to a treeline. He must have been firing his rockets and shooting M-16 out the window. He was about 500 ft. above the ground. Got one unlucky round through the head. It was the only shot that hit the plane."
That Marine captain that I saw on the helicopter on the way up was in the back seat of Keevin's plane when he was hit. My flying leatherneck wasn't a pilot as I originally thought. He was one of the Marine observers that flew with the Catkillers. His name was Ramsay. He flew the plane back and got it down pretty well considering he was not a pilot an Keevin's body was slumped over the stick in the front seat. He did ground loop on and crash the plane on the roll out but he wasn't hurt.
So the guy whose bed I'm using is away riding shotgun on the body of a guy who was shot through the head doing the same job I am going to have for the next year. No question; I am not in Indiana anymore.
Later on that day there was a briefing in the S-3's office for myself and for another pilot who had just arrived a couple of days before me, a captain named John Kovach. The S-3 (Company Operations Officer) was a big, bulky, older Major named Sutherland. He had us fill out some more forms and dispensed us some handouts--radio frequencies, company s.o.p.'s, flight charts and other mission related material.
The 220th Reconnaissance Airplane Company (RAC), an Army aviation unit, at that time flew no missions in support of Army operations. The U.S. Army was just starting to move into I-Corps, the northernmost of of the four tactical areas into which South Vietnam was divided. The area covered by the 220th (known as its Tactical Area of Responsibility or TAOR) was the northern half of that northernmost area. The military responsibility for that space was then divided between the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and the U.S. Marines. On every mission the Catkillers flew an aerial observer from one of those services occupied the back seat. The pilot and observer worked as a team.
What the Major couldn't convey but what I later came to appreciate was the strength of the bond that existed between pilots and observers, the Marine observers at least. They actually lived at the 220th most of the time. Like the pilots they were mostly lieutenants and captains, but unlike the pilots most of them had previous experience in ground combat units. A few months later the company began supporting Army units and the same sort of bond was shared with many of the artillery observers that occupied the back seats for those flights. But as a group the Army backseats had less screening and training than the Marines and were a little less consistent. Individuals ranged from outstanding to dud. The ARVN observers were the Rodney Dangerfields of the 220th observers. There were only a few that impressed the pilots with their attitude and competence. Mostly they got little respect.
In the air the Catkiller mission had several facets. The first was visual reconnaissance. You go out and fly around and look for the enemy or signs of the enemy using both binoculars and the unaided eye. In some cases the enemy was easy to spot because he was shooting it out in a battle with our forces. That situation was referred to as Troops In Contact.
Once the location of the enemy was known, be he hiding or fighting, the second phase of the mission, the killing phase, would be activated. There were two main weapons available to kill the enemy, artillery fire and jet airstrikes. These were requested, directed and controlled by the pilot/observer team.
Simple enough. When do I start?
At that time The 220th Aviation Company had four platoons, all operating in I-Corps. The fourth platoon was based there in Phu Bai and patrolled the DMZ and area immediately south. Its pilots spent some of their nights at Dong Ha, the Marine base and airfield immediately below the DMZ. The second platoon was stationed at Hue, the old imperial city located a few miles north of Phu Bai. It covered the next strip of the country south of the fourth platoon area. That strip ran from the coast to the Laotian border. It included Phu Bai itself and the Ashau Valley. The third platoon, stationed at DaNang covered the next area south. And the first platoon, stationed at Quang Nai had the southernmost area of the 220th's tactical responsibility.All of this was to change dramatically less than two months later in response to a little incident called Tet. But that's the way it was at the time. As of the briefing neither I nor the other new guy, John Kovach, knew to which platoon we would be assigned.At some point in the briefing it was mentioned and strongly emphasized that the minimum altitude for any mission at any time was 1000 feet. That sticks in my mind, because I remember thinking to myself, "you won't have to worry about me." Funny how you change. Just as he was wrapping up our session the good Major Sutherland mentioned that he would be giving us a check out in the aircraft before we would be cleared to fly missions. That is standard anytime you report into a new aviation unit, and I didn't think much of it. I should have.Afterwards, Sutherland, Kovach, and Pepe got a jeep and went over to the flight surgeon's office located a fair distance away in another section of the installation. John and I had to receive medical clearances to fly, and Sutherland had to take his annual flight physical.I don't know if it is still true, but at that time the Army had an absolute weight maximum of 200 lbs for its pilots and an absolute height maximum of 6 foot 4. I knew these numbers well because in my best condition in the middle of fast break basketball season I wieghed 206 lbs after practice. And I stood a fraction under 6 foot 5 in my bare feet. Prior to my physical to qualify for the flight program I starved and dehydrated myself to make the weight and practiced slumping to get in under the height limit. Well the good Major Sutherland wasn't pushing the height limit but weight-wise it had been many servings of mashed potatoes since he had seen 200lbs. He passed his physical with flying colors. Once again I am conftronted with the reality that this is a place with very different rules from the place from which I had come.December is monsoon season for that part of Vietnam. The lousy weather we flew through on the way up from Danang was typical for that time of year. The rain had been intermittent in the early part of the day and had gone steady by the time of our jeep ride back from the flight surgeon. We were grateful our jeep had a canvas top, but wished it also had sides.After we returned from the flight surgeon we were sent over to supply to pick up some useful items like a .45 caliber handgun, survival kit, survival knife, M-16, flack vest, and an APH-6 flight helmet which was supposedly able to stop a 30 caliber round. We also got a duffel bag full of front-line-trooper stuff like a gas mask and and an entrenching tool (folding shovel). They had no jungle fatigues or size 15 jungle boots, two items I really wanted. Months later I got the jungle fatigues. But by the time I eventually left Vietnam for good 21 months later, I still had not been able to locate a pair of size 15 jungle boots. I don't think they made them.The other new guy, Captain Kovach, and I retired back to the hootch to look over the stuff we had been issued and began shooting the shit. " Where did you go to school?", I led off. "John Carrol; it's a small college in Ohio." "Play Football?", I responded. "Yeah, linebacker". It wasn't just a lucky guess on my part. John had the kind of broad thick body that belonged under a football helmet. Seeing he was wearing a wedding ring I made another high-percentage assumption. "Married"? "Yeah and 6 months from being a daddy, How about you?" "No, I'm very single", I was quick to answer. "This your first tour?" he continued. "Sure is, how about you?" "This is my second; I did a tour down in Cam Rahn Bay before it was an airbase. I was a transportation officer; there were only a hundred troops. Left in June of '66." "Making a career out of the Army?", I asked. "Thinking about it; I'm not real happy about being back over here so soon." "Yeah, sounds like they just ran you through flight school and shipped you back". "That's what happened all right".After about a half hour our sparkling conversation was interrupted by Major Sutherland who walked in and announced that it was time for us to start our checkouts. We would be going out to the ramp to preflight a Bird Dog. I could not help but notice that though it had slacked somewhat it was still raining outside.Five minutes later we are standing on the ramp in the pouring down rain while Major Sutherland starts going through the bird dog preflight checklist. It could have been a scene out of MASH except that movie wouldn't be made for another two years. Then, about a third of the way through the exterior checks, with the rain intensifying, the good major, in a moment of inspiration, decided it might be a good idea to come in out of the rain."Great Idea.""What was that, Lieutenant?"As you probably tell by now, Major Sutherland and I didn't exactly hit it off. It was mostly my fault. Somewhere early in life I had developed the delusion that I was a special enough person that I did not have to suffer fools gladly if I didn't want to, a tragic flaw. The response of most normal, well-adjusted people when addressed by an dud in authority, will be simply to smile faintly and keep his or her mouth shut. But for some unexplainable reason I have always felt it my duty to let the loser know in some way, however subtle, that I am really not buying his shit. In the case of Major Sutherland, as with most other times in my life, it cost me.