Copyright 2003 -- Donald S. Pepe

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 understand.

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.


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.


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 Catkillers.

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 half years.

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.
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