LAST MISSION AS ONE-FIVE
Copyright 2003 -- Donald S. Pepe
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It was the last half of August, 1968, and my six month tour on the DMZ
was coming to an end. I did not want it to end, but I had no choice in
the matter. The company commander, Major Wisby, had a long meeting with
me in the club. He said that he felt it was important for the morale of
the newer DMZ pilots to see that the rotation system actually worked,
and that there was life after the DMZ.
He also made the point that it was for my own good, and I could not
argue with him on that, logically. But choosing to go into combat is not
a logical decision. It is not logical or rational for someone to
purposely put himself in harm's way. But it can be an almost
This would not be the end of my missions on the DMZ. After my
reassignment I was able to get in several more by filling in anytime
there was an empty slot in the first platoon schedule. And I would
eventually return to the DMZ for another six month stint starting in
March of '69. But at the time, I did not know all this. I considered my
departure final. And I was kind of numb about the whole thing.
It was Tuesday, August 20th, 1968. I was sitting in the club waiting to
fly up to Dong Ha for what would be my last RON.
Doc came in and told me they had just lifted a big operation into the
southern part of the DMZ. It was a combined Army/Marine operation with
many troops and even 25 tanks (Army). The action was northwest of Con
Thien. It was prepped by 5 B-52 strikes, and there were 11 flights of
F/W standing by on the tanker for the lift. Everything had gone
In our bird dog fleet there were 3 D models. The D model had a
constant-speed propellor. This feature made for smoother cruising on a
"point A to point B" flight. But it made the plane heavier, less
manuverable, and more gas thirsty--not desirable characteristics for the
flying we did on the Z.
I was originally scheduled for one of the D models that day. It was
739, the concensus "dog" of the fleet. When I got to the flight line I
had that switched to 785, a G model; I figured I'd be getting into some
shit before the day was out.
My first hop out of Dong Ha was the 1230 Tally Ho with Bright Light
Uniform in the back seat. I don't recall Uniform's actual name, and I
wouldn't tell it if I did. He wasn't very good. In fact, he was a very
bad observer. He would not be too flattered by my opinion of him.
Catkiller One-Zero was high ship with Bright Light Bravo observing.
We went up and shot at two guns north of the railroad pond. One of them
fired a couple rounds while we were circling. Uniform began a 175
mission, but he was so ungodly slow and hesitant I had to take it over
from him. I never liked to do that to anyone, but Uniform was one of the
two or three worst observers I ever flew with.
Anyway, I'm in a tight turn over the target when a single burst of flack
goes off real close, shaking the whole airplane. I quickly checked all
of the controls and the guages. It looked like we were in good shape, so
I continued on with the mission.
In addition to the artillery, I ran two flights of fixed-wing. They were
all close, but this wasn't horseshoes. We didn't get the guns.
When we got down I counted five holes, a good sized one in the right
wing tip; one on either side of the fuselage, one on either side of the
back window at the metal.
A single burst of flack near the plane of a veteran pilot on one of his
last missions in North Vietnam. I could not know that this same scenario
would be repeated two months later only with a different pilot, Lee Harrison,
and with a tragically different ending.
At 1615, I launched early with Smitty Charlie to cover the big
operation northwest of Con Thien that Doc had told me about. The name of
the operation was "Texas Pete". Communication-wise it was a mess.
Everyone was on the same frequency, and confusion reigned.
There were some Marine Huey gunships (call sign Seaworthy) covering the
area. One of them said he had spotted some gooks down in a hole, but
had lost their location. So I dropped down on the deck to help them
search for awhile. No luck. The NVA were THE best at hiding.
With only light resistance the Marines had swept the area northwest of
Con Thien all the way to the south bank of the Ben Hai river. It was now
time to pull them out. It was a batallion-size force, and it would take
a lot of helicoptering to get them all out. It would have to be done
To begin with Dong Ha DASC sent grid coordinates of the pickup
zone in the clear (it's not like the NVA didn't have radios and maps of
their own). Then there were some fixed wing strikes run to prep the
area. Normally a prep is a good thing, but in this case it probably
served to confirm the grid information the NVA had been given on the
Five Arc Lights (B-52 strikes) just north of the river were called off
at the last minute. The lift began an hour behind schedule. And when the
46's finally did set down it was at the 125760, right on the road on the
south bank of the Ben Hai river, an open spot well known and heavily
travelled by the NVA. I couldn't believe it.
They got out maybe a third of the troops when all of a sudden somthing
hits at the water's edge that looks to be an artillery round. The
helicopters all hauled out of the zone except for the one closest to the
impact which had obviously been damaged and couldn't fly.
I instinctively pointed the plane north and started looking for
artillery flash. Then I thought, "Hell, that was just too damn
accurate. Something isn't right here." So I look back down at the river
and I see another H46 putting down on the road 20-30 yards behind the
downed one. He probably intended to pick up its crew.
Before my eyes, almost instantaeously, the second helicopter became one
huge fireball. No one in or around it had a prayer. All that was left
was an unrecognizable mass of sheet metal just off the side of the road. My
thoughts were that it had to be direct fire, probably rpg into a fuel
I was stunned and enraged. I was angry at the NVA for what they had
done, and I was angry at the Marines for the bad planning and execution
that led up to this.
It was one of the few times I lost my cool in the cockpit. I started
circling over the north bank of the river, making very low passes,
frantic to find the enemy and make him pay. I had to find the person who
did this. I had to kill the person who did this.
I called for and ran 9 flights of air of all kinds, nape to 750. Most
of it was within 100-200 m of friendlies. But I got no KBA that I could
see. In fact, there was no real BDA to give. I just blew up a lot of
All the fireworks may have taken out the shooter. It at least seemed to
discourage him from further attack. The Marines were able to get their
med evacs out. The rest had to spend the night.
I had been up 03+30 when I returned to Phu Bai. My decision to change
aircraft for the day had been the right one, for both missions. It was
about the only thing I felt good about on that day.
On that day, the enemy had gotten us, and we had not gotten him. He had
put holes in my airplane, and I was unable to damage his artillery
piece. He had blown up a helicopter and killed a bunch of Marines; I had
blown up a bunch of trees and never saw an enemy soldier. And it all
happened on my watch.
By this date in late August, the Catkiller pilots overnighting at Dong
Ha were staying on the Army side. But that evening I stayed with the
Marines thinking there was a good chance I would be returning to work
with Texas Pete that night. The call never came.
Everything remained quiet overnight. The next morning at 0655 I got
airborne with Smitty Victor (Major Simpson), and we went straight out to
to work with the our Marines. They were headed south and ask us to pick
out an LZ. We flew around low-level for a while, picked a spot and
dropped smoke to mark it. They chose a different spot.
The rest of Texas Pete was picked up without any enemy fire.
We then went over and started working with some tanks rolling out of Con
Thien. We flew out ahead of them at high and low altitudes looking for
suprises. Just north of a dried out lake bed they flushed out 3 gooks,
and everybody started shooting at them. I tried to get in on the fun by
making low passes shooting my M-16 and my 45. But they both jammed on
the first round (I was always a little lax about keeping my weapons
We gave up and took it in. I refueled and returned to Phu Bai. I had
spent my last RON at Dong Ha.
Thursday 22 Aug, 1968 was my last day as Catkiller One-Five. I took off
for Dong Ha with my tape recorder in the Cockpit.
From Dong Ha I launched at 10:00 on a Tally Ho mission with Bright Light
Bravo, Steve Boese, one of the best of the Army observers. We were low
ship. Our high ship was piloted by One-Six, First Platoon Leader John
Mulvaney. He was carrying a photographer in his back seat.
We found a gun just southeast of Finger Lakes. I made a couple of
circles over the target at 3000 feet while Boese worked up an artillery
I was staring down at the target, listening to Steve talk to the battery
when, suddenly, it seemed like the whole North Vietnamese Army started
shooting at us at once. If it wasn't the whole army it was a least
everyone who had a machine gun. The drone of the bird dog engine was
completly obscured by the sound of 30 cal. and 50 cal. projectiles
cracking the sound barrier. Pop-pop-pop-thump-thump-thump.
I could discern in the firing at least three separate machine guns
including one 50 cal. Could have been more. There was some small arms as
well, but at that point I almost considered small arms fire a pleasant
diversion. It was those fucking machine guns. They were locked on.
I immediately headed south and started thrashing the stick and kicking
the rudder pedals in a series of evasive manuvers.
Evasive manuver is somewhat of a misnomer. Unless the gunners were using
tracers you couldn't even see where the rounds were passing. You
certainly couldn't determine just by the sound. Even if you could see
every bullet that passed your plane, those would not be the ones to
evade. Your problems are the bullets that are about to arrive at your
plane in the next second, and there is no way you know that path. Can
you really evade something when you don't know where it is or where
it will be?
What you try to do with your random twists, turns, climbs, and dives is
to provide a very difficult target for the gunner to lock on. But if
there are multiple gunners, all firing into the same small area of the
sky, the odds that you don't turn your plane into the path of at least
one of those rounds go way down. And it only takes one round to meet the
I twisted and turned and headed south. They stayed on us. Normally an
initial burst of anti-aircraft machine gun fire would last for no more
than 5-10 seconds (which is still a long time to be shot at by a machine
gun). After the pilot was alerted and taking evasive manuvers, the
gunners would usually save their ammo and wait for the next easy shot.
But these gunners on this day didn't care about the ammo. It was clear
that they were intent upon shooting down my plane regardless of the
ammunition required. They were not trying to scare us away. They
were trying to kill us. They were trying very hard to kill us.
Ten seconds passed and the rounds keep coming. The thump-thump-thump's
and the pop-pop-pops all riveting away in a terrifying ruckus. Fifteen
seconds. It should be over. Make it stop. Please God, make it stop.
I was by then the old pro on the Z, the dean. Nine months in country,
six months on the DMZ. I was cool and I was bad. And, friends, I was
scared. When the firing did not shut down as expected, there was a
precise moment when the fear lumped in my throat, dropped to pit of my
stomach, and then saturated my entire being, all at once.
I have to think that the fact that I was leaving the Z had something to
do with my state of mind. I was no longer to be a DMZ pilot. A big part
of my purpose and of my identity were being taken away from me. I was
not as sure of anything as I had been, including my own invincibility.
I was just a regular person now. Could it be that I really could get
killed after all?
It's still coming. There's no way. They're going to get us. Oh Shit!
Then, there is that instant when something is different, an almost
imperceptible change in the sound that hints you are starting to get out
of range and that if you can luck out for just a few more seconds you
might stay alive after all.
By the time we made it to the Ben Hai, all firing had stopped.
For some people a close call is sort of like a roller coaster ride. It
is terrifying while it's happening, but after it's over, you want to go
back and do it again. It must be the adrenalin rush.
On a normal day I was such a person. On the DMZ The shot-ats were some of
the cheap thrills that, if I had to admit it, made the mission so
This was not a normal day. On this day a re-tempting of fate held no
such appeal for me. I felt like I had truly dodged a bullet--lots of
them, in fact--and I had no mettle at all for a repeat performance.
We still had to go after the artillery piece, but we were going to do it
in a little different way. My mother might have raised an ugly child,
but no fools.
I climbed to six thousand feet and we headed back north to the target.
Six thousand feet was above the effective range of small arms and
automatic weapons fire, even 50 caliber. But it was prime altitude for
the 37 and 57 millimeter, radar-controlled flack the North Vietnamese
threw at us in heavy volume north of the river.
I knew we were going to be dodging flack for the rest of the mission,
but that was alright. At least those fucking machine guns weren't going
to get us. It was a personal thing with me and machine guns.
By the time we got back to the target, my backseat, Steve, had already
resumed his communication with the artillery battery. We were waiting
for their first round when we got the loud bangs and large smoke puffs
we knew would come. The flack bursts were loud and menacing, but none
close enough to do any damage.
The flack continued intermittently for the balance of the mission,
alternate sets of black and gray smoke puffs accompanied by large bangs.
Lots of noise and an occasional shudder of the aircraft but no hits.
Meanwhile, back at the target, Bravo was running about the best one-seven-five
mission I'd ever seen. 175 mm artillery shoots a big shell and can send
it a long way. But it normally isn't very accurate for a point target.
It was not unusual for a round to be several hundred meters off; their
best use was for area-type targets.
But on this day, when so many of the rules seemed to work differently,
the 175 artillery was blessed with bullseye accuracy. On about the
third adjustment we were peering down at the target when it suddenly
disappeared in a cloud of smoke. Direct hit. They followed with two more
right in the pit. Scratch one NVA artillery piece.
We had gotten the bear, and the bear hadn't gotten us. By some miracle
even the airplane had taken no hits. And to top it all off, the
photographer riding with One-Six got some great pictures. It turned out
to be a good day after all.
Well, actually the day wasn't over. I still had one more mission as
My last mission as Catkiller One-Five was the 1400 Marine hop with
Klondike Tango, Tom Bailey. Nothing happened. All day we couldn't get
any air because there was some pretty heavy action going on down south
around both Da Nang and Chu Lai.
It was all visual reconnaisance; no action; no shot-at. A lot of missions were like
that. I followed the Ben Hai river all the way to the Laotian border and
back. Coming back to Dong Ha I low-leveled back in the Cua Viet river
and made my low pass over the runway trailing smoke.
I landed, refueled, and returned to Phu Bai carrying the photographer.
When we got back to Phu Bai it was under alert and all the vehicles were
secured. We had to walk back to the company area.
In the we hours of the next morning Phu Bai did get mortared. I heard the
noise but rolled over and slept on through it. Doc Clement came in and
tried to wake me up on his way to the bunker. I told him, "Forget it,
Doc, it's just mortars."
Maybe Major Wisby was right. Maybe I had been on the Z too long.