Copyright 2003 -- Donald S. Pepe

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 irresistable addiction.

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 smoothly.

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 well.

It wasn't.

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 radio.

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 tank.

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 terrain.

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 clean).

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 mission. 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.

Oh shit!

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 reaper.

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. Twenty Seconds.

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 compelling.

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 Catkiller One-Five. 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.
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