Copyright 2003 -- Donald S. Pepe

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 the company.

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 happened.
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