NOTHING IS FOREVER
Copyright 2003 -- Donald S. Pepe
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When I left the 220th on December 4th, 1968, I had before me a 30 day leave
in the states which was to be followed by a 6 month assignment flying U-21's
for the 201st Airplane Company in Nha Trang. Both the leave and the
assignment were disasters and testaments to how much of a misfit to polite
society I had become.
At the time of my first departure from Vietnam I clearly had a drinking
problem. It was not obvious to me at the time; Such things rarely are. But
starting your day with a water glass of gin is never a good sign. Working
interractively with the alcohol was a feeling of alienation that would have
vexed me regardless of my state of sobriety. I had changed in many ways
during the year I was away from American society. But so had American
society changed and in directions that were hard to recognize, much less
The status of the warrior returning from Vietnam was not consistent across
the populace. Some regarded us with contempt though I can honestly say I
never received any direct hostility myself either time I came back. This was
due to my engaging demeanor and strong people skills, I'm sure. But then
being 6'5" and 240 pounds at the time might have had something to do with it
as well. Even those who welcomed me back, like my old college party crowd
seemed to regard me with a sort of pity or concern. They were worried about
me. There was a seemingly small segment of the population that actually had
admiration for us. Mostly those were parents and the parents' generation,
people who likened going off to war, any war, with their rememberances of
World War II.
The biggest single adjustment the returning combat vet had to make, in my
opinion, was getting into step with what is important. So much of what held
day to day importance for the stateside civilians didn't matter a hill of
beans to me. No one was shooting at you. You didn't have to kill anybody.
The PX wasn't going to run out of cokes or beer. You could pick from all
kinds of chow halls. There were many clubs with bunches of round-eyed
females. Way more than one radio station to choose from. Pizza anytime you
wanted it. What else could you want? People really expected you to
value their spiffy car, or spiffy clothes, or spiffy house, or spiffy job.
Or they would expect you to be upset because they got passed over for
promotion or their sports team lost the big game or they didn't get asked to
the prom. I've never wanted to hurt anybody's feelings who didn't deserve
it. But it was impossible for me to understand how any such things as those
could be that important to anybody.
Those such things are important of course. They are what makes our civilized
world go around. They are the means by which we motivate and evaluate our
lives. They are what energize our economy and our society. The combat vet is
not fully assimilated back into that society until he truly accepts that the
priorities he aquired in his service were the artificial ones, and that
those items of concern that seemed so trivial to him upon his return are the
ones that actually matter. He isn't all the way back until he can get upset
about not getting asked to the prom.
Needless to say, 30 days is not enough time for that assimilative process to
occur, particularly if you are inebriated the greater part of the period. I
couldn't handle it. I had to get back. I actually decided to cut my 30 day
leave short by a few days and headed out to Fort Lewis, Washington to sign
on for the next flight back to Vietnam. But there was one more temporary
delay. While waiting around for my flight I went to the Officer's Club for a
few drinks. There I happened to meet a group of young ladies and enjoyed
some stimulating conversation with one in particular. Late in the evening I
returned to the air terminal and casually retrieved the luggage I had left a
few hours earlier. Two weeks later I went back to the terminal and resumed
my return trip to Vietnam. Another story for another time.
Eight months later I would make another attempt at reentry, this time with
somewhat more success. Some restraint on my drinking habit helped for
certain, but probably what aided me most was that I had started shaving my
head a couple of months before I rotated out. Our flight surgeon at the time
was named Francis, and Doc Francis had a shaved head ala Michael Jordan
style. He was clearly ahead of his time, or maybe he was just dealing with
premature male pattern baldness. I didn't know why, but I thought it looked
cool, and something just told me it was the right thing to do. It proved the
perfect thing for me to do.
In the U.S. in 1969 hair was very, very important. There was a play, movie,
and song about it. People expressed who they were and judged who you were by
hair length. For someone who really didn't know who he was, then, having no
hair was exactly right. Also, at that time, people usually didn't try to
engage a large man with a shaved head in casual conversation. I talked only
to the people I wanted to talk to. It allowed me to keep my sanity while
waiting to get asked to the prom.
A WASTED STOP
The 201st Aviation Company, call sign Red Barons, was a U-21 company
operating out of Nha Trang. U-21s were the military version of the Beech
King Air, an 8-place turbo-prop twin. Nha Trang was a well secured large
airport way down in III Corps just north of Cam Rahn Bay. The mission of the
company was command transport. What that meant was flying high ranking
officers and other other allegedly important persons from one well secured
airfield to another well secured airfield for puportedly important purposes.
They were decidedly not the persons who were getting shot at in the war.
As you might suspect, I wasn't cut out for this job. My start with the Red
Barons paralleled my start with the Catkillers in some important ways. For
one thing I got off on the wrong foot with a Mormon Major in my very first
meeting. Major Young was the CO of the 201st and not a particularly
intellectual sort of guy. In our first meeting he brought home to me exactly
what sort of game I would be expected to play in this new job. He finished
the interview by asking, "who does your fatigues?". Translation: "The next
time you report, you will be wearing a starched uniform".
The living at the 201st was downright plush compared to Phu Bai. The rooms
were all air conditioned. There was a small courtyard with a fountain. Nice
basketball court (full court). There were no mortar or rocket attacks the
whole time I stayed there. No planes were ever shot at. I tried to play the
game, but it never felt right. I had just been involved in too much of the
real war. I couldn't make myself believe that hauling a load of high ranking
officers in starched uniforms from one safe place to another safe place was
much more than a waste of gasoline. As is my style, I was perhaps not always
diligent about concealing my opinions on such matters.
Major Young did us both a favor by canning my ass after about a month. I
immediately put in my papers to return to the Catkillers.
GOOD TO BE HOME
I arrived back at the 220th on the 12th of March. It was the first time in
three months I stood somewhere I felt I belonged. The Company was different
from the one I had left in early December just as that 220th was different
from the one I reported to the previous December. The personnel were always
changing. The leadership changed at least every six months. The missions
it flew and the units it supported frequently changed. The war situation
changed drastically over time as did Phu Bai itself. But through all the
changes the Catkillers always retained their uniqueness and their identity.
In great part that was because they always retained the DMZ.
It was good to be back with the guys. All of the "new guys" that I had seen
arrive during my first tour were now the seasoned "old guy" veterans. Some
were near the end of their tour and would be returning stateside themselves
within a couple of months. At the same time there were new guys who had
arrived during the time I was away. These pilots never knew Lee Harrison;
and to them flying in North Vietnam was just a tale some of the old guys
tell at the club. But they are dealing with the war they have been given,
and they are flying their missions, and they are accumulating their war
stories that they will pass on to the bunch that follows them. And they are
Some of the old guys I might have expected to see were missing. Doc Clement
had opted for a reassignment to another Bird Dog Company down south. He was
part of the six man block of pilots from the same flight school class that
reported to the 220th in May of 68. That would have meant all six pilot
slots would have to be filled at one time a year later when their DEROSes
became due. The Army asked for volunteers to switch with pilots in other
bird dog companies to better stagger the departures, and Doc took them up on
it. The word among the guys was that Doc had gotten pretty onery by the time
he split. He had few kind things to say at the poker table, and had actually
slugged one of the other pilots in an incident in which he may have been
justified. Most of his hostility seemed to emerge after his six months was
up and he was no longer flying the Z. I could relate.
I missed Bill Hooper by a week. He had just been medevaced after getting his
right arm badly messed up by a chunk of a Marine artillery shell that
slammed through his windscreen.
Mac Byrd was lost in bad weather out over the mountains near Khe Sahn in
January. He had gone out to help a recon team and by the time he was
finished the weather had closed in and he was low on fuel.
Charlie Finch was still around and still flying the Z. He managed to spend
his entire tour without having to pull any of the dipshit missions the
non-DMZ platoons were frequently stuck with. Charlie broke more rules than
any Catkiller I ever knew including me. But in addition to being incredibly
lucky, he seemed to have a feel for where the line was. And he understood
the need to be cordial with your superior officers as you were disobeying
them. And that somehow enabled him to get their blessing on the
concessions he wanted. I had to admire him for that.
One of the big changes that had taken place in Phu Bai was the arrival of
the 85th Evac hospital, complete with American, round-eyed nurses. It was
actually in town before the end of my first tour, but by the time I returned
some of the guys were actually "dating" the nurses there. At least one
marriage came out of it.
There was more air conditioning and some the living quarters were done up
more elaborately though there was still nothing that compared with the
Hudson/Stranger/Clement super hooch. Doc had sold his interest in it to
another pilot when he left. The camaradarie was still there and and the
drinking was stil there and the partying was still there. If anything the
spring and summer 1969 collection of Catkillers was a more amiable and
social group as a whole. All night parties till dawn happened regularly.
And the DMZ was right where I had left it. It felt good to back in the war.
The official missions into North Vietnam that were halted just after Lee
Harrison was shot down were never resumed. The flying was similar to when I
first came to the Z the year before. We supported combat operations on the
ground, covered convoys, did visual reconnaisance, and occasionally slipped
up north on our own to see if we could find something. We were called upon
more often to work areas further west and slightly south toward Laos and Khe
Sahn but otherwise the job was the same.
The mix of Marine vs. Army missions had shifted heavily in favor of the Army
which was in the process of assuming the responsibility for the area. But
the Catkillers continued as the primary controllers of tactical airstrikes
in Northernmost I Corps.
The missions were no less hazardous than they had been the year before. I
took my closest hit during this time flying low over a small unit
operation just southeast of Khe Sahn. A 50 cal round clipped the left wing
strut passed through the corner of the wing tank and exited
through a big hole in the top of the cockpit about a foot from my head. But
luckily all of the holes that we accumulated during this period were
restricted to the airplane. We didn't lose anybody.
The six months passed by quickly, and I departed Vietnam for good on 15
August 1969. I used the time to better prepare myself for reentry into
polite society. Interracting with the nurses was good training for
conducting oneself in mixed company. And I cut down considerably on my
drinking. I did that initially just to lose weight, but that didn't diminish
the benefits to my personality.
As a Catkiller by this time I was way past being an old guy. I was the
ancient guy. Life was comfortable and it was easy. I thought very seriously
about extending for another six months. But something was telling me that it
was time to move on. I could not live the rest of my life in this very
narrow world, as satisfying and comfortable and sometimes thrilling as it
was. And I had to think logically about the risk factor. If I kept letting
people shoot at me long enough, one of them would eventually get lucky.
It was probably fortunate for me that I left the Company for good when I
did. Three months after I departed there was a permanent change to the
Catkiller mission that it would have been difficult for me to accept.
In November of 1969 the Marines removed the last of their units from
Dong Ha and the Army took complete responsibility for all of the areas in
which the Catkillers flew. For the first time since the initial deployment
of the Company in Vietnam in July of 1965 the Catkillers did not fly any
missions in support of the USMC. Because of this the mission of the
Catkillers became restricted to what it had always been for all of the other
Army Bird Dog units in Vietnam. The Catkillers were no longer allowed to
control tactical airstrikes.
While operating under Marine auspices the Catkiller pilots ran both Marine
and Air Force aircraft in tactical airstrikes. This was the case even when
the observer and ground troops involved were army and the aircraft were Air
Force with no element of the engagement involving Marines. The Catkillers
were the primary controllers of tactical airstrikes in northernmost I-Corps,
and they were damn good at it. But when the Marines withdrew, the
convention that only Air Force conrollers controlled Air Force aircraft
immediately took effect.
If a Catkiller found a hot target or troops in contact, he would have to
request an Air Force FAC and wait for him to arrive on the scene. If they
were able to describe the target and situation to his satisfaction, the FAC
would call and request jets for the airstrike. The jets would eventually
arrive on station and the airstrike would be run. Of course by that time
there is a good chance the enemy would have escaped, or the friendly troops
would have been overrun. It was a good illustration of the counter-
productivity that service egos inflict upon the effort to win battles and
save American lives. It is as though the war was being held primarily for
the Air Force's benefit.
By contrast the relationship beween the Catkillers and the Marines served as
an example of how productive, efficient, and seamless an inter-service
collaboration could be. There was never any question that we were there to
serve the guys on the ground in the best way we knew how regardless of which
service did what.
The Marines always had the oldest equipment and usually not enough of it.
But in terms of the utilization of their resources they had the superior
model. They had all of the necessary battle elements: the ground forces, the
artillery, the helicopters, the jets, and the controllers. And most
importantly, those closest to the action with the most knowledge of the
situation were the ones advising and controlling the supporting elements.
In mid-August of 1969 Charlie Finch and I signed out of the 220th within a
few days of each other. We were the last of the Catkillers who had flown in
North Vietnam as an assigned mission. One chapter in the rich history of the
220th Reconnaisance Airplane Company had wound to an end. Other chapters
with other characters were still in progress and yet more would follow
those. The complete story would continue to unfold for another two and a
Later Catkillers would have their mission area expanded westward to Eastern
Laos. Extensive coverage of the Ashau Valley was resumed. The old Khe Sahn
outpost was later reoccupied by Army units and the 220th even overnighted
airplanes there briefly in March of 1971. And always there remained some
responsibility for patrolling the DMZ. The men who served in that period and
those who served in the years before I even knew the Catkillers existed all
have stories at least as worthy of telling as the ones posted on this site.
These are but a very few brief
scenes from the movie. And they are almost certainly not the best scenes;
they are just the ones I know enough about to tell you.
On August 10, 1971 Captain Paul Bates became the last Catkiller pilot lost
in Vietnam when he was listed as missing in action over the western DMZ. By
the time the 220th Reconnaisance Airplane Company received its standown
orders on November 23rd of 1971 it had outlasted every American fighting
organization that it had been called upon to support in the time since its
first commander, Major Jerry Curry, led the unit advance party onto
Vietnamese soil in June of 1965. The First Marine Division, the Third Marine
Division, the 101st Airborne Division, the 5th Mechanized Infantry Division,
the 108th Artillery Group, Americal, First Cav--all had relocated to the
United States. At the end it was down to the Catkillers and the Army of the
Republic of Vietnam.
When standown was completed on December 23rd of 1971 it marked the end of
the era of the light fixed wing combat observation aircraft. The 220th was
the last Bird Dog unit to stand down in Vietnam. These type aircraft would
never again be used in a combat theater. The Catkillers were truly the last
to fly with the windows open.