THE LONG LONELY CHECKOUT
Copyright 2003 -- Donald S. Pepe
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Because of my congenital inability to suffer fools passively, I had
made an unfavorable impression on the person who had almost total
control over when I would be allowed to join my platoon and begin
flying missions. My less than cordial realtionship with Major
Sutherland became one important factor contributing to the longest
checkout period of any pilot in the history of the 220th Aviation
Company. A checkout would normally take 2-3 days, a week tops. I was
finally was not released to join my platoon and begin participating
in the war until January 7th, 1968, 26 days from the date I signed
into the company.
My incompatability with Major Sutherland wasn't the only factor. The
pilot who arrived at the 220th immediately before John Kovach and I
preceded us by about ten days. The pilot who checked in previous to John and I on
his first mission he made a bad landing, ground looped, and severly
damaged the plane. If another new pilot were to waste another
airplane soon afterward, it would not look good for those in the
command chain. A several hour checkout would be one obvious way to
help cover one's ass should something like that happen.
Scarcity and condition of aircraft were also involved. The company
had lost the plane the pilot was killed in and the plane that was
ground-looped. The planes that were available for checkouts
were likely to be ones from the maintenance hangar, and often the
problems that put them in the maintenance hangar weren't completely
fixed. In my case I had at least 6 checkflights canceled or cut
short by mechanical problems. It was frustrating knowing that each
time it might be a couple of days before I got another chance.
Yet another factor was the weather. December and January were the
heart of the monsoon season. Every day was overcast. Every day had
rain either intermittent or steady. Ceilings were low to zero. On
many of the days not a prop turned.
And in all honesty my flying was not exactly flawless during the
period. The longer the ordeal went on, the rustier my skills got
and the worse my attitude got. It showed in my flying. By the end I
may have even been doubting my own abilities. I knew everyone else
surely was. It was definitely getting into my head, and it was a
challenge to work through.
But of all these factors I would have to say my failure to maintain
cordiality with Major Sutherland probably weighed heaviest. There
was another check pilot with whom I flew during the period. His name
was John Mulvaney; he was a captain scheduled to be the new
operations officer replacing Major Sutherland who was close to the
end of his tour. Less than halfway into the ordeal, at a point where
I had accumulated 8 hours of flying time and 61 landings, he told me
he had seen enough and that he was clearing me. I started packing my
duffel bag. I would be leaving for Danang and the third platoon to
which I had been assigned. But before I could finish packing
Mulvaney came to my room and told me that Major Sutherland and Major
Clark had put their heads together and come up with a figure of 15
hours for checkout. He was apologetic, but he had been overruled. I
would not be allowed to fly missions for the 220th for another 14
days which happened to be 3 days after Major Sutherland had departed
This period was by far the blackest of all the time I spent at the
220th. I could not even call myself a Catkiller. I did not have a
call sign. Call signs were issued by the platoons. The first platoon
had numbers 10 thru 19; the second platoon, 20 thru 29; the third,
30 thru 39; and the fourth, 40 thru 49. The platoon leader always
had the number that ended in 6. First platoon leader was 16
(one-six); second platoon leader was 26 (two-six), and so on. The
other numbers were just handed out based on what was not being used
at the time the person entered the platoon. Without a platoon or a
call sign, I was pretty much without meaning.
Vietnam was unlike any of the wars that preceded it in that it was
fought by a collection of individuals each serving a 1 year shift.
You did not train, ship out, and serve to a conclusive end with a
unit or group of your peers. Military Assistance Command Vietnam
served as a gigantic staffing agency sending orders to individual
soldiers and marines to fill anticipated vacancies in the various
units under its command. Every soldier was automatically entitled to
leave Vietnam exactly 1 year from the date he entered the country
(for the Marines it was 13 months). This date was officially called
the Date of Rotation Stateside, but it was affectionately know by
all as the DEROS (sounds like DEE-ROAST without the T). Every US
military person in Vietnam had a deros and every one of them knew
what their deros was at all times. A man might get real drunk and
forget his name, but he would still be able to tell you his deros.
It actually proved to be a pretty shitty way to staff a war. The
idea sounded good. Keep morale high by having a definite go home
date for each person to look forward to. But it had the opposite
effect. Young men not yet or just out of their teens were left to
deal with the boredom or horror of their service less as a member of
a group united in a higher cause than as a single person on a
temporary assignment. Everyone had their own individual war which
had its own individual beginning and its own individual end. The
perception for many was that their service was a job, not a mission.
And for most that job was to stay alive for 1 year and come home.
This approach, combined with the unpopularity of the war in many
quarters back in the states, contributed strongly to the adjustment
problems experienced by many returning Vietnam vets. It is one thing
to deal with negative judgements while standing, at least
figuratively, shoulder to shoulder with comrades in arms. It is
quite another when you see yourself as pretty much on your own.
'On my own' was definitely how I felt my first month in Vietnam.
Often, two or more pilots from the same flight class would be
assigned to the same unit. In May, 1968 six members of the same
flight school class reported to the 220th together. But I was the
only member of my class who made it to Catkillers. John Kovach, the
other new guy who reported in at the same time I did completed his
checkout in mid December and departed to Quang Ngai to be the leader
of the first platoon. That left me as the only pilot, indeed the
only soldier, in the company who did not have a job. I was a kid
from a working class family who had always equated worth with work.
Being a non contributor was very difficult for me to accept. It did
not help that this period spanned the Christmas holidays. Gloomy
weather, gloomy spirits, and a long way from home. Two things got me
through this period--alcohol and the Marines.
Alcohol was the essential lubricant of the Vietnam war, as I am sure
it has been in most theaters of combat since the discovery of the
fermentation process back somewhere in antiquity. I must admit to
having been particularly vulnerable to its charms during my youth.
In high school and college I was always heavy into party, but the
need to maintain grades and pay for education placed limits on my
alcohol consumption. The time available for boozing and the money to
pay for it defined my periods of excess. As a junor officer in the
Army drawing a regular paycheck, I was relieved of some of those
limitations. In Vietnam, almost all of the restraints fell away.
Booze was cheap and there were many, many idle hours. My
overindulgence in the demon rum and its various cousins--beer, wine,
whiskey, vodka, and gin)--was a steady feature of my first Vietnam
tour, but the periods when it became excessively excessive were at
the very beginning and at the very end. There wasn't much physical
danger in those times but there also was not much purpose in my
role. My propensity to view the world with benefit of can or bottle
was never anything I tried to hide, and it probably contributed to
the negative opinion Major Sutherland held of my abilities. He was a
practicing Mormon and a teetotaler.
The Marine observers from the 3rd Marine Division who flew the DMZ
missions with the Catkillers built the Officers Club for the
company. When I first arrived in the Company, the O-club was just
the front half of one of the hootches. It had a bar, a small fridge,
a couple of stools, and a few folding chairs. It also had a dart
board which was hung on the inside of the entrance door. You always
knocked before entering.
A new building for the O-club was planned for the rear of the
company area and during that dreary December I was suffering through
my checkout, it went up. Some of the Army guys pitched in here and
there, but the bulk of the work and the scrounging for materials was
done by the Marine observers who stayed with the 220th. I recall on
one day Major Clark ordered the Army officers out to provide
help to the Marines working on the club.
Early on I stopped by to watch some of the work going on and wanted
to pitch in. But nobody asked, and I didn't feel right just putting
myself in--one of those funny acceptance things. There was one Army
guy who worked steadily on the project. Captain Larry Diebert had
been the DMZ platoon commander but was nearing the end of his tour
and was no longer flying missions. He decided to lay a stone wall
for the front of the club. There was stone avaialable, but it was in
the form of very large rocks/small boulders. They had to be broken
up with a large, heavy sledge hammer. I knew I would not be
intruding by taking on that job.
So I took up the challenge of keeping Captain Diebert supplied with
the size of rocks he needed for the wall and helping in other ways
like mixing mortar. It was damn hard work, but it was a godsend.
Every time I felt up to it I went out and swung the heavy sledge
for a couple of hours. When I ran out of big rocks, I drove the
company's two and a half ton truck over to a quarry on the other
side of the base and loaded some more. I was now contributing
something and it was a great way to work off frustration. I could
now be known as the big guy busting up rocks rather than the new guy
pilot who can't get cleared to fly. I suspect that my hard work on
the rock pile also improved my image with Major Clark and helped
persuade him (eventually) to let me fly.
That happened on the morning January 7th, 1968 three days after
Major Sutherland rotated out of the company. I went up with Major
Clark at 0800. We shot three landings; he released me; and I was on
the 1030 plane to Danang. Just that quickly the ordeal was over. I
would never again have my ability to fly a Bird Dog questioned. I
eventually completed over 1500 combat flying hours and made over 900
landings in Vietnam without accident or damage (outside of hostile
fire). The second the trial was over, it was like it had never