WELCOME TO THE DMZ
Copyright 2003 -- Donald S. Pepe
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You only get one chance to make a bad first impression on your boss. During
my brief military career I consistently took advantage of those
opportunities. This included the period when I began flying the DMZ.
At that time there were two Catkiller platoons that launched from Dong Ha
and patrolled the DMZ, the First and the Fourth. In less than one week I
managed to make the shit list of the leaders of both platoons. This is
particularly noteworthy because both of those men were eventually found to
be very regular, very good guys--not at all the regimented, slow-thinking
types I usually offended.
The leader of the first platoon, the one to which I had been assigned, was
John Kovach; he was the other pilot who reported to the Catkillers at the
same time I did three months earlier. He was a captain on his second tour.
When he originally took over the first platoon back in mid December it was
stationed in Quang Ngai, south of Danang and the farthest removed from the
hostilities of the DMZ. Two weeks later the 220th relinquished Quang Ngai
to another Bird Dog unit and the first platoon leapfrogged up to join the
fourth on the DMZ. It was a development likely not celebrated by a married
guy like John who expected to soon become a first time father.
The fourth platoon leader was a captain named Mike Sharkey. I didn't know
anything about him at the time. On the second of March under an overcast
sky I was assigned to follow him up to Dong Ha for my first trip to the
DMZ. Before we got into our planes he told me that after takeoff I was to
come up on triple nickel. Triple nickel? "On the FM, frequency 55.5". Or
did he say 55.05? Or was it 50.55? Suffice it to say, we didn't make radio
contact after takeoff. Rather than lead someone to Dong Ha for the first
time under low ceilings without radio contact, he returned to land at Phu
Bai with me following.
Back on the ground out of the planes, he came up to me obviously pissed.
What I still remember is that he had taken off his flight gloves and was
holding them in his right hand. As he talked to me he was slapping the
gloves into the palm of his left hand. Before I had only ever seen bad guys
in the movies do that. I told him my FM radio didn't work. It could have
been true. It didn't work for me anyway. "Well see that it gets fixed", he
spits out, then turns on his heels and walks off. I made a note to myself
that this is one asshole I need to stay clear of. It was the most wrong
first impression I ever drew. There would be many occasions both in Vietnam
and after when Mike and I would laugh, drink and party late together. But
the day we met wasn't one of them.
It took me another four days to piss off John Kovach, my own platoon
leader. Two days after my run-in with Sharkey, I made it up to Dong Ha,
finding my own way. I flew a mission in the afternoon, spent the night,
flew another mission in the morning, and returned to Phu Bai. Then the
following day I had off. So far so good.
Now in Vietnam there was always a lot of air travel between the bases.
C130s, and helicopters were in the air delivering people and things hither
and yon during all the daylight and some of the evening hours. On the
morning of my day off I somehow came to know that a C130 on the deck at Phu
Bai was shortly taking off for Chu Lai, a large base about 200 miles south.
It just so happened that one of my hard partying college chums from Indiana
University, Bob Benson, was stationed down in Chu Lai putting in
his time as a clerk-typist. What the hell, I might not get another chance
I knew I should tell somebody I was going, though the idea that I might
have to get permission from someone never crossed my mind. It was my day
off. John Kovach wasn't around, and my section leader, Lieutenant Gary
O'Shields, was asleep. I grabbed my helmet bag with helmet inside and
headed for the terminal. The helmet bag was insurance for my return trip.
If I couldn't get booked on as a passenger, I might fit in with the crew.
It proved to be a wise precaution. On the way out, I shook O'Shields until
I got some response. I told him where I was going and got a groggy
acknowledgment. I told him to go back to sleep and went to board my plane.
The trip to Chu Lai was smooth. I found my Indiana buddy Bob and had a good
visit for a couple of hours. The trip back didn't go so well. First I had
to appeal as a fellow pilot to the crew of a courier helicopter that was
headed to Marble Mountain, the home of the my old third platoon that I had
just left a week earlier. Once I got there I asked my old platoon leader,
Denny Felton, if he would let one of the other pilots (I had volunteers)
fly me up to Phu Bai, but he turned me down flat. It would have taken maybe
an hour fifteen for the round trip. I bummed a ride over to Danang airport
and put my name on standby for a flight to Phu Bai. Afternoon went to
evening went to night and no passenger planes came through heading to Phu
Bai. Things were beginning to get desperate. I went over to the cargo port
where I located the last C130 cargo plane (no passengers) that would be
going into Phu Bai. The helmet bag allowed me to pass unquestioned out onto
the flight line where I was able to find the pilots of the plane. Again the
helmet bag helped me get the professional courtesy I needed--a seat on the
It was 11:30 at night when I finally got back to Phu Bai and walked into a
wall of shit. It seems that company commander Major Clark, platoon leader
John Kovach and section leader Gary O'Shields were all offended by my
little excursion. When the last passenger aircraft scheduled to land at Phu
Bai that day did not have me on it, they assumed that I would not be back
in time to fly my missions the following morning. The fact that I actually
was back in time didn't count. I also didn't get any points for
communicating my plans to O'shields since he was half asleep at the time. I
had been back in Phu Bai for less than a week and I already had every
superior officer in my chain of command upset with me. Some of us just have
It was John Kovach's role to mete out my punishment and it was that I spend
five straight nights at Dong Ha. I had no problem with that, and I suspect
it probably resolved some scheduling problems he had. Every night two
pilots from each of the two DMZ platoons had to stay over in Dong Ha. They
had to be available to fly the early morning missions. Plus it assured that
there would be planes and pilots on the DMZ even when the weather between
Dong Ha and Phu Bai was unflyable. The living conditions in Dong Ha were a
bit more primitive than in Phu Bai, and it received a lot of incoming
artillery rounds. Most of the pilots didn't particularly relish their
nights in Dong Ha. They were especially displeased when the weather kept
their relief from arriving a few days in a row. You could get pretty
At that point the prospect of spending nights at Dong Ha actually appealed
to me. It kept me away from the company headquarters and spared me some of
those military formalities I could not seem to master.
I had already done one overnight at Dong Ha. The billet area was up on a
low hill about a quarter mile from the flight line. The buildings were
plywood barracks structures that the Marines referred to as "hardbacks".
One of these small hardbacks was left empty except for 6-8 cots with well
used sleeping bags on them. This is where the overnight catkiller pilots
were lodged. The place got swept out only when you could find a broom which
wasn't often. The sleeping bags had never been cleaned within anyone's
memory. And the building itself, like all of the others in the area, was
surrounded by vast expanses of mud. (Outside the monsoon season they were
surrounded by vast expanses of dust).
There was a large slit trench outside the front door that was used as a
bunker during the frequent artillery shellings. The cardinal rule was that
you never zipped up your sleeping bag. It was tempting to do because some
of the nights got pretty chilly and damp during monsoon. But you did not
want to be trapped in your bag with a stuck zipper when the incoming
artillery started landing. And you always slept with your clothes on.
I had no problem settling in there. I secured myself a cot by putting my
duffel bag under it. I put some nails in the wall to hang clothes on, and
nailed up a wooden ammunition box which provided for additional storage and
a place to sit my cheap am radio. I had plenty of magazines to read, and
the rotating schedules of the other pilots meant I had a different mix of
"guests" at my place every night. I enjoyed the camaraderie among the
pilots and Marines that resulted from our mutual peril and discomfort. The
only persistent nuisance was the incoming artillery and rocket fire that
randomly disrupted our activities and sleep.
It wasn't as though we were living in tents in the middle of the jungle. We
had solid roofs over our heads. There was electricity (when the generators
were running); there were hot showers (when the water wasn't locked off);
and there were regular hot meals (if you got to the chow hall before it
closed). Thousands of Marines called Dong Ha home full time and considered
it the lap of luxury which it was compared to a tent city out in the
boonies somewhere or to nights in the field.
But it is accurate to say that the nature of the Marine mission does not
normally involve building and maintaining permanent bases. In fact the
construction of infrastructure is actually done by the SeaBees who work
very closely with the Marines but actually belong to the Navy. By mission,
organizational structure, training, and mentality the Marines are a mobile
invasion force whose job it is to fight and move on. Their purpose is to
invade, not to occupy. It is understandable that they would be more apt to
regard their facilities, regardless of size, as being temporary in nature.
Creature comforts would either slow you down or be left behind.
The other military services, by contrast, seemed to have the attitude that
"We are here to stay for a while", at least with regard to their large
bases. More importantly they had the logistical structure and budgeting
that enabled them to honor that mindset. The contrast was easy to spot in
Vietnam. The Marine bases had secure perimeters and hardback hootches. The
Army bases were the ones with the sidewalks, television antennas, and air
In March, 1968 Dong Ha was a Marine base. But there was a transition under
way. Army units were being moved in to take over an increasing share of the
fighting in northernmost I-Corps. Accordingly, the DMZ Catkillers who had
previously flown exclusively with backseat observers from the 3rd Marine
Division now flew some missions with Army artillery observers. Over the
next few months the ratio of Army flights to Marine flights increased to
the point where they were in the majority. At that point those Catkillers
who remained overnight in Dong Ha spent their evenings in billets in the
new Army area. The accommodations were a little nicer and by that time the
incoming artillery fire was greatly diminished, But for those of us who
remembered the dusty cots and the unzipped sleeping bags the new quarters
had no class.
Things down at the airfield remained pretty much unchanged through the
transition from Marine to Army support. The runway was east-west, about
3000 feet long. On the north side was the air freight ramp where C130's and
C123s unloaded cargo. Alpha Med, a first level medical facility was there
also. The south side of the runway is where the Bird Dogs lived. The ramp
and the line shack were toward the west end. On the east side of the field
just south of the runway were the fuel pits. Frequent incoming artillery
and rocket fire made it prudent to locate gasoline storage bladders at a
distance from the airplanes and buildings.
Each time a Catkiller landed he would taxi to the fuel pits and fill up
before pulling back to the ramp. There was a gas tank in each wing. The
filler caps were on the top of the wings close to where they attached to
the fuselage on either side. The normal etiquette was that the pilot and
observer would each top off one of the tanks working jointly. All the
aircraft on the ramp were kept topped off at all times, ready for quick
The line shack was another of the ubiquitous Marine hardback structures. In
the back there was a small living area where the two crew chiefs assigned
to Dong Ha slept. The crew chiefs rotated the duty every seven days. They
did a remarkable job of keeping that collection of old and severely abused
aircraft serviced and flyable. No maintenance hangar; no crew of
specialists here. Just some young guys with an incredible responsibility to which
the pilots and observers trusted their lives.
The front part of the line shack is where the pilots, observers, and crew
chief hung out between missions. There was a picnic table with two benches
in the middle and a cot next to the wall on one side. The rest of the space
was generally cluttered with tools, oil cans, magazines, boxes of
c-rations, flack vests, weapons, and sundry other accoutrements of war.
A few steps out the front door was the bunker, a wide trench covered with a
section of steel plating covered by three layers of sandbags. Next to the
bunker was the water trailer (aka water buffalo). Twenty feet beyond and to
the right was the latrine, aka the outdoor john.
None of the forward bases in Vietnam had the luxury of sanitary sewer
systems or treatment plants. The most prevalent provision for those bodily
functions was an outhouse with the bottom half of a 55 gallon drum under
the hole. At specified intervals the drums were removed to an unpopulated
area and the waste contained was "treated". That treatment consisted
dumping a few gallons of aviation gas into the drum and lighting it. Hence
the hallowed Vietnam ritual known as "The Burning of the Shit." It probably
would not have withstood the provisions of the Clean Air Act. Usually a
number of the drums were treated at the same time, and from a distance the
resulting conflagration could easily be mistaken as the product of enemy
It would be a mistake easily made in Dong Ha in March of 1968. The products
of enemy fire were numerous. We were getting incoming several times a day.
Like every other location in Vietnam, Dong Ha was subject to mortar and
rocket attacks from the surrounding countryside. Unlike most other bases
Dong Ha and the smaller positions nearby were also subject to heavy
artillery from North Vietnam. Dong Ha was well in the range of the North
Vietnamese large guns shooting from north of the Ben Hai river and even
from north of the DMZ.
They never did hit our shitter, but a rocket did destroy our water buffalo
(trailer) a couple of weeks after I arrived. In the same barrage the ramp
was hit and two of the parked planes got minor damage. I was fortunate to
be in the air when those particular rounds fell. The afternoon before I had
been up in our sleeping quarters sitting on my cot when some rounds started
falling in. I heard the first round hit sounding real close. I leapt up and
looked out the door just in time to see another round hit no more than 20
meters from the hootch. To my good fortune it was a rocket impacting, not a
large artillery round. I can still picture the erupting shower of sparks
and flame center-framed in the doorway. It wasn't the closest call I
had in Vietnam by any means, but it sticks in my mind as one of my most vivid visuals.
I got myself to the bunker muy pronto. I knew I wasn't in Indiana anymore.
My first few days at Dong Ha I was struck by the matter-of-fact way
everyone dealt with all of the the incoming fire. Humans are a remarkably
adaptable species. Most of the troops seemed to regard the frequent
explosions as more of a nuisance than a threat. When the rounds started
impacting everybody would hit the deck or scurry for a bunker. When the
firing stopped, everyone who wasn't touched by the explosions resumed
whatever they were doing pretty much without comment or upset.
I quickly fell into the pattern. One day late in that first week I was
catching breakfast in the mess hall when the first round hit. I remember it
well because I was eating a big bowl of cherries; we did not often get
cherries. At the sound of the first boom everyone immediately,
instinctively, dropped to the deck. I lay face-down under the table for the
15 or so minutes the barrage lasted. After a few minutes passed with no
rounds landing, everyone got up and resumed what they were doing. There
were no orders issued, no all-clear siren. Somebody just decided it was
time to get up off the floor, and everyone else decided he was probably
I picked out some pieces of dirt that had shaken down into my cherries and
finished the bowl. It seemed like breakfast was a favorite time for the
enemy to send artillery into Dong Ha. There were mornings when I would have
to make floor dives two or three times before I could finish my meal. It
was a real nuisance.
Incoming killed and maimed. But it was also responsible for some humorous
incidents. You may remember the earlier mention of the unwritten rule that
you never zipped up your sleeping bag when you spent the night at Dong Ha.
John Kovach, my platoon leader from Cleveland, either from ignorance or
absent-mindedness violated that rule on one of his first overnights.
Visualize a large, burly, panic stricken man doing a full-body sack race
for the entire length of a quonset hut, bouncing down a set of steps, and
plunging headlong into a slit trench--all choreographed to the flash and
sound of impacting artillery rounds. Needless to say, the incident was
remembered by many more people for a far longer time than John would have
preferred.I am sure he will be very pleased that I have recalled it here.
On our worst day those of us at Dong Ha never received anything close to
the fire that the Marines trapped at Khe Sahn were getting at the time.
That base, less than 30 miles southwest of Dong Ha by air, was under siege
for 77 days. During much of that period they were receiving in excess of
1100 rounds a day.
The missions we flew out of Dong Ha were more dangerous than anything I had
known before, by a factor of 10, at least. Nothing that I had experienced
around DaNang, not even the period of intense activity during Tet, was even
remotely close. The pilots who flew up here were shot at a lot and
sometimes they were killed. I knew that because I had been in Vietnam for
three months and a Catkiller pilot had been killed in each of those months.
There would have been a fourth dead pilot if the 50 caliber round that
slammed into Rick Billing's chest had not passed through a lot of airplane,
control stick, and flack vest first. Three of those four pilots were flying
DMZ missions from Dong Ha.
At the time I was one of about a dozen pilots total in the two platoons
flying the DMZ mission. 12 pilots, one pilot per month, and I had 9 months
left on my tour. You didn't need an actuarial table to figure out those are
less than even odds. My hope was that the pattern wouldn't hold and that
things would improve. I wouldn't allow the possibility that the pattern
might get worse. I couldn't.
If the math wasn't discouraging enough, there was always the map. The map
provided graphic reinforcement that where we flew our 15 year old single
engine Cessnas was squarely on the line between Us and Them. From a
psychological standpoint there could be no denying that you were on the
frontline. Help could only be behind you. It could never be in front of
you. There was no one else the enemy had to beat first before he got to
you. These hard truths were all right there on the paper for you to see.
The actual area of ground normally patrolled by the DMZ platoons was not
large. The width of Vietnam at the DMZ was only about 40 miles, stretching
from the South China Sea to Laos. The Catkillers primarily worked a rough
15 mile square stretching from the top of the DMZ down to the Cua Viet
river and from the sea on the east to the foothills in the west. Beyond the
foothills and into Laos there was steep mountainous terrain that impeded
the movement of supplies and military operations. The NVA wanted control of
the flatter terrain out next to the coast, the area under the Catkiller
The most concentrated combat of the Vietnam war, perhaps of any war ever,
had to be in the small area around Khe Sahn during the 77 days that post
was under siege. But over the entire course of the war the relatively small
block of ground which the Catkillers patrolled immediately south of the the
boundary of the two Vietnams absorbed more blood per acre than did any
other part of the land.
Repeatedly from 1966 to the end of the war the North Vietnamese launched
large scale operations intended to extend their control southward to the
Cua Viet river. At times large scale NVA forces reached the very edge of
Dong Ha. I can recall running airstrikes against the NVA in which the path
of the attack aircraft took them through the landing pattern for the Dong
Ha airfield. Some of the most fierce fighting of the war took place
immediately north of Dong Ha in an area that came to be called Leatherneck
The frontline of the frontline was a string of Marine outposts on the
southern edge of the DMZ that was referred to as the "The Trace". On the
military map these outposts had alphanumeric designators, A1 through A4. A
couple of them would be easier recognized by their Vietnamese names. Con
Thien (A4) and Gio Lihn (A2), were each the site of repeated bloody and
widely reported battles.
Frequent and intense combat continued here through the entire period of the
war from the early occupation by the Marines to the gradual transition to
Army responsibility for the area. This forsaken little patch of earth
claimed many of America's best for many years.
One day about two weeks after I started flying on the Z Major Clark, the
220th company commander, Catkiller 6, scheduled himself to fly a hop out of
Dong Ha and then spend the night. His observer was Major Hollen, the leader
of the Marine observers that flew with the Catkillers. I don't know what
Major Clark's motivation was. Maybe he was trying to show leadership, or
maybe he just genuinely wanted to know how life was for the DMZ pilots. If
it was the latter, he found out.
As I launched on my 1700 flight that day, we got the call to relieve our
good Major on station. He was working a hot target just north of Gio Linh.
The scene was a classic DMZ battle between Marines and NVA, and the ground
fire was extremely heavy. Early in the afternoon one of our planes had
taken a 50 caliber round across th floor of the cockpit, passing under the
observer's seat. In mid-afternoon another Catkiller named Hardy Bogue was
running an airstrike when one of the jets took a serious hit. The pilot
managed to get it to the coast and the crew ejected over the South China
Sea. Hardy went out to direct the crew rescue, and Major Clark took over
the original mission. Within minutes his plane took a hit through the top
of the observer's window.
When I arrived over the battle's coordinates I did not see Major Clark's
aircraft. Our normal working altitude south of the river was 1000 feet. My
observer and I scanned in all directions but the only thing we could spot
were a couple of Huey gunships circling below us and working out on the
"Catkiller 6, this is Catkiller 15, over".
"Catkiller 15, this is Catkiller 6, go ahead."
"Catkiller 6, this is Catkiller 15, say your position from target area."
"We are southeast of target area."
"Roger 6, I still don't have you. What is your altitude, please."
"This is Catkiller 6. We are at 2500 feet."
I shifted my gaze upward and caught the metallic glint of a bird dog high
above us and 4-5 miles away, almost over the coast. It was obvious
that Catkiller 6 had seen all he needed to see of what a day on the job was
like for a DMZ pilot.
Major Clark did not spend the night at Dong Ha, and he never again
scheduled a DMZ mission for himself. I can't say I blame him. On my initial
DMZ missions I carried a heavy load of well-concealed anxiety and internal
conflict. I was after all a 23 year old, semi-redneck, semi-jock male who
needed to make his peers aware that he was brave and bad and didn't back
down. On the other hand I very much did not want to die. I enjoyed living a
great deal and was looking forward to a long life crammed with many sensual
Fortunately, it only took a couple of days to contain my fears and settle
in to my new job. Humans are an incredibly adaptable species. The fears
were only contained, never totally eliminated. They could always be flashed
back by 50 caliber machine guns or close flack bursts.
As mentioned earlier, we served both the Army and the Marines out of Dong
Ha. The Marines had the more experienced observers. Most of them had ground
combat experience, and they were all qualified to run airstrikes. The Army
observers were less consistent in quality, though some were excellent. They
shot artillery but did not run airstrikes. Each observer would have an
assigned mission for the flight, but if there were troops in need, flights
were diverted to help without regard to service branch.
For both services there were essentially the same three types of missions.
The most basic was straight Visual Reconnaisance. We took off and looked
for things. Sometimes we would have specific coordinates to check out
initially; sometimes we were just on our own to go looking where we might
find something. After a time each pilot and observer developed his own list
of usual suspects, locations that were recurringly used for artillery
sites, anti-aircraft sites, river crossings, etc. It was on these missions
that we frequently strayed onto the North Vietnam side of the river to look
for juicy targets, particularly artillery pieces. Technically, during this
period, we were not supposed to be flying north of the river, but most of
the pilots did, some of us more than others. You would never write it down
on a log or shot-at report. You were subject to getting your ass chewed for
it if certain people found out. In a few months that would all change when
flying north of the river to look for artillery sites became one of the
primary scheduled missions of the Catkillers on the DMZ.
Other missions were in direct support of ground troops involved in combat
operations. We made radio contact with specific units and provided them any
services we could. Under this category was the most demanding type of
mission we flew--Troops In Contact. Troops In Contact required large
measures of concentration, good judgement, and good luck. You had to stay
aware of many factors including where your troops where, where the enemy
was, the type and location of all enemy weapons, where the artillery was
coming from, and what kind aircraft were available for close air support,
and what kind of ordnance they were carrying. You had to process all of
that information such that the enemy was killed and no harm was done to the
friendlies. You also had to fly the airplane, and all the while you are
doing these things, the enemy was shooting at the friendlies, the attack
aircraft, and you. The teamwork between pilot and observer was critical.
A special kind of Troops In Contact mission was the recon extraction. Small
reconnaisance teams of 8-10 Marines were sent out into the bush to find and
spy on the enemy. Sometimes these teams would get in trouble and it would
be necessary to pull them out of harm's way. That usually involved running
very close air support to suppress the enemy long enough to allow
helicopters to come in and snatch up the good guys. The extra challenge
involved in these operations was that the bad guys and good guys were often
very close to each other, and both were likely to be well hidden.
The last type of mission we were flying when I first went up to the DMZ was
the Convoy Cover. By early March, 1968, Khe San had been under siege for
over a month. The effort to break the siege involved building and supplying
a new base named Camp Carroll about half-way between Dong Ha and Khe San.
This meant frequent large supply convoys traveling the road west from Dong
Ha to the new base. Our air cover helped to discourage mortar and rocket
attacks on the vehicles in the convoys. It was a worthy mission, and it was
relatively safe. But god it was boring. You basically just flew back and
forth along the road and listened to the continuous squawking and chatter
on the convoy radio frequency. Convoy Cover was on the opposite end of the
spectrum from Troops In Contact.
Weather was a big factor in the conduct of our mission as it was in the
whole Vietnam War. The reason Khe Sahn remained under siege as long as it
did was because it was situated in the mountains, and it was monsoon
season. The almost constant overcast and low ceilings prevented any
sustained close air support.
Even out on the coast the monsoon weather greatly limited our flying. The
Catkiller's Bird Dogs were not instrument equipped. Once you went in the
soup, there was no way to determine where you were. In March and early
April there were many mornings on which we could not fly at all. When we
did get into the air we might have to stay under a ceiling of 800-900 feet
or less which greatly reduced our effectiveness and our safety. And you
always ran the risk of having the weather close in on you before you made
it back. I recall on a couple of occasions returning from a convoy cover at
dusk and being pushed down under 200 feet in the rain and semi-darkness
before finding my way back to the runway. Weather also was a factor in the
commute between Phu Bai and Dong Ha. There were two possible routes to
follow. You could fly out to the sea and follow the coastline up, or you
could travel straight up higway 1 over Hue and Quang Tri cities. If you
started up one route and the clouds pushed you to the deck, you could
switch over and try the other. If both routes closed down, you turned
around and one of your fellow pilots got to extend his stay in Dong Ha an
extra night. It rarely happened that a pilot ever turned around flying from
Dong Ha back to Phu Bai. The closest I ever came was 150ft over Hue with
visibility at a quarter mile and closing, ok numbers if you are in a
Bad weather and a non-instrumented airplane is a dicey combination over the
flatlands. In the mountains it can be lethal. In January of '69 a good man
and brave pilot name Mac Byrd became a victim of that reality. Late in the
day he responded to a call for help from a recon team out in a mountainous
area just east and south of Khe Sahn. When he completed the mission it was
near dark and he was trapped in a valley by clouds. You have a couple of
choices when that happens and neither one is particularly attractive. Panel
35W - Line 58 of The Wall.
At the time I was the newest guy on the DMZ, but I wasn't totally a new
guy. For one thing there were three members of the Fourth platoon whom I
knew from Danang, Bob Domine, Ray Caryl, and Jan Smith. And it was easy to
get to know guys when you sat around in the lineshack with them for hours
on end waiting for the weather to break. Early on I found a best friend.
His name was Tony Keltner and his call sign was 17. He was a couple of
years older than me, had gone into the Army straight out of high school,
served as an enlisted man for a time, and then went to OCS. He was married
and had a kid. Our backgrounds had little in common. We just seemed to be
on the same wavelength. He was from a small town in southern Illinois not
too far from my hometown in southern Indiana. And we both liked to ride
I was pretty much accepted as an ok guy by everyone, but nobody really knew
what kind of pilot I would be, what kind of DMZ pilot. Where would I fit on
the war story scale? There were basically three positions on the war story
ladder. Those at the bottom listened to war stories. Those at the next
level told war stories. Those on the highest rung had war stories told
about them. My position would depend on what I showed them when I was
tested, whenever that might be. Fortunately I did not have to wait long.
Three weeks after I arrived on the Z I got involved with a hairy recon
extraction that had us flying through ground fire, darkness, and a heavy
thunderstorm. My observer did a fantastic job though he probably would have
been frozen with panic if he had know how unsure I was about my flight
decisions during the mission. Somehow everyone got out alive, including us.
That mission is described in another chapter. It was monitored
on the radios by the commanding general of Dong Ha who recommended both the
observer and myself for medals. I lucked out by getting my "old guy" ticket
punched early on.
April was a good month for me. The weather cleared up, and there was lots
of action. The convoy cover hops slacked off. I was feeling confidence in
my abilities, and I had the trust and friendship of my peers. Most of the
missions were busy and productive; we were killing people. But above all of
those things there was a greater reason April held good feelings for me. No
Catkiller pilot was lost in March. The one-a-month pattern was broken. I
just might live through this thing after all.
By the beginning of May I had been on the DMZ two months, Many of the old
guys who were on the Z when I arrived were completing their time. Their
replacements were the first pilots assigned to the DMZ since I was sent up
at the beginning of March. This particular batch of replacements was in
some ways unique. For one thing, most of them came from the same flight
school class. Six guys from the same class were assigned to the 220th at
the same time. When I reported to the 220th, I was the only pilot from my
flight school class. But more significantly, the four of the group who came
to the 1st and 4th platoons were the first pilots to be sent to the DMZ for
their initial company assignment. Always before, pilots were only sent to
the Z after they had put in some time in one of the less hazardous platoons
to the south.
These four were Jerry Bonning, Bud Donnelley, Lee Harrison, and Doc
Clement. Tony and I had our doubts about new guys being sent straight to
the Z. Toward the end of May we were also concerned that some of these new
guys seemed to have a know-it-all attitude that was going to get them in
trouble. Some of that was probably just the usual older generation thinking
the younger generation is going to hell. But in truth, a little humility
was not a bad thing to have when starting our line of work. There was one
thing we felt these guys had going against them. Again in May the
Catkillers had no casualties. These guys had never known anyone who was
killed on the job. To them getting killed was something that used to happen
Our fears proved ungrounded. The new batch of pilots, with some occasional
direction, all survived and became proficient warriors. They were all very
different individuals. Jerry Bonning was a short, reserved, well-spoken guy
who presented less the image of a combat pilot than that of the CPA which
he later became. Today it must blow away the other accountants in his firm
when they find out what he did in his previous life. Lee Harrison was the
most openly friendly; he was from Texas where his father had a flying
service. It would be hard to imagine Lee as ever intending slight or harm
to anyone who didn't deliberately cross him. He was at the same time able
to be both his own man and one of the guys. Doc Clement and Bud Donnelley
were the two outwardly cocky guys. But they were very different in how they
expressed it. Doc's attitude was an up-front "I'm great". Donnelly came
across more as "I'm greater than you".
I got along with all of the new guys, though not everyone did. They also
did not always get along with each other. Bonning and Doc Clement had words
for a time. And one night at the club Harrison and Donnelley almost came to
blows in an argument over the war. Donnelly thought it was a dumb war that
we had no business fighting. Harrison, like just about all the rest of us
at the time, believed that if the war had not been necessary our leaders
would not have committed us to it. They were sitting across a small table
from each other with voices rising when Lee just stood up, turned around
and walked out. It was obvious to me he did it to stop himself from
throwing a punch. I thought it was a class move. I understood Lee's anger.
I never had any major run-ins with Donnelley, but he could be a bit of
prick. I wish I didn't have to admit he was right.