Copyright 2003 -- Donald S. Pepe

It is July, 1968. Lyndon Johnson is President. Five months ago the Tet offensive erupted in Vietnam. Six weeks ago Robert Kennedy was shot. The anti-war movement is gaining strength and the United States is in turmoil.

There are over 500,000 troops serving in Vietnam in July of 1968 and I am one of them. The place where I am serving is called Dong Ha and it is real easy to find on a map. You just look in the middle right where North Vietnam and South Vietnam are separated. The border is a river. Just below that river is Dong Ha, the northern-most airfield in South Vietnam.

It is July 17th, 1968 at 6:30 a.m. in Dong Ha, South Vietnam.

"Call it."


"You lose."

"I guess that means I got low ship."

"God, your sharp."

Missions to North Vietnam are always two-ship missions. The low ship does most of the work and has to do most of the talking. The high ship just tags along, looks for anti-aircraft and keeps track of where the low ship is in case it gets shot down. High ship is easier.

Catkiller One-Five wins the toss and gets to be high ship. Catkiller One-Five, that's me, is not a morning person. The other pilot, Catkiller Four-Niner whose real name is Donald Lee Harrison is also not a morning person. But he lost the toss.

"Dong Ha Tower, this is Catkiller Four-Niner."

"Go ahead, Catkiller Four-Niner."

"Dong Ha Tower, Catkiller Four-Niner is a flight of two on the bird-dog ramp for taxi, take-off".

"Roger, Four-Niner, negative traffic at this time; cleared to taxi into position and take off runway 090. Winds 065 at 5."


The two single-engine Cessnas are off the ground at 7:00 right on time. "Dong Ha Tower, this is Catkiller four-niner switching to DASC". "Roger, Four-Niner".

Dong Ha is very near to North Vietnam, about 11 miles as the crow files or as the artillery shell flies. Flying artillery shells are the reason for this mission. They come out of large guns up in North Vietnam and crash into Dong Ha and the other bases in the area blowing up things and people. Catkiller Four- Niner and Catkiller One-Five are flying into North Vietnam this morning, as Catkiller pilots do every morning, to find some of those large guns and to destroy them if they can.

The airplane that carries them on their mission is the US Army O-1 Bird Dog. It is the least sophisticated aircraft in the American military. It is a single engine Cessna with two seats--pilot in the front, observer in the back. No guns or bombs, just tubes used to launch marking rockets. Top cruising speed of a 100 knots on a good day. It is the only military airplane that still flies with the windows open.

"Dong Ha DASC, Dong Ha DASC, this is Catkiller Four-Niner, over".

"Catkiller Four-Niner, Dong Ha DASC".

"Dong Ha DASC, Catkiller Four Niner is off Channel One-Oh-Nine at this time with Catkiller One-Five. Our back seats are Sundowner Bravo and Sundowner Whiskey. We are headed up Highway 1 to work Tally Ho around the one-nine-eight-five. ETA plus 10."

"Roger Four Niner, cleared highway 1; no fire activity at this time." "This is Four-Niner, roger".

DASC stands for Division Air Support Coordinator. It is sort of like Air Traffic Control back in the states, except it does a lot more. Among its useful functions is scrambling jet aircraft with bombs and napalm that you can run on your targets. It also keeps track of all the artillery missions in your area and where the B52 strikes are going to take place. DASC services are essential to accomplishing the mission, and to staying alive which is a very important part of the mission. Working "Tally Ho" tells DASC we are going into North Vietnam.

Channel 109 (One-Oh-Nine) is the name for Dong Ha that you give to other pilots. It is the frequency of the TACAN radio navigational aid located there. To aircraft flying on instruments Dong Ha, the northernmost airstrip in South Vietnam, is known only as Channel 109. If you want the F4s and A4s that DASC scrambles for you to show up where you are, you have to give them the distance and direction from Channel One-Oh-Nine.

The unsophisticated Bird Dog airplanes the Catkillers fly don't have TACAN radios, or any other instrument navigation aids for that matter. The Catkillers figure out where they are from Channel One-Oh-Nine by looking at a map and estimating what their location would be on a TACAN radio if they had one.

Highway 1 is the badly damaged, hard-surface, two lane, north-south road that runs the length of Vietnam near its coast. It is an easy ground feature to follow up into North Vietnam. Less than ten minutes from take off the two planes cross the indistinct southern edge of the DMZ. The DeMlitarized Zone, the ragged 3-5 mile imaginary swath that straddles the border between North and South Vietnam. The zone where no one is supposed to be. The zone where you assume that everyone you see is a member of someone's military. The DeMilitarized Zone; the DMZ. To the Catkillers who make their living here, it is simply known as "the Z".

The early morning sun is still low over the South China Sea. The two planes cast no shadow onto the hideous expanse of interlocking bomb craters passing below them. A minute later they are crossing the Ben Hai river, the unfortunate stream in the middle of the DMZ that separates North and South Vietnam. Catkiller One- Five glances below at the remains of Freedom Bridge, the span that in better days took Highway 1 across the Ben Hai. By this time to two planes are at their initial working altitudes. In North Vietnam the low ship generally starts out at 3000 feet; the high ship, 5000.

3000 feet is close enough to the ground to spot guns and troops and fresh signs of activity. It is reasonably safe from small arms fire, and still below the altitude at which the flak guns are effective. 5000 feet for the high ship is a good altitude from which to see both the plane below and the muzzle flashes of anti-aircraft guns in range of the planes.

Catkiller aircraft are subject to receiving ground fire in any area they fly. But the chances are much greater in the DMZ, and increase even more when they cross the river. A minute past the Ben Hai the planes cross over the blurry northern edge of the DMZ Beyond this line ground fire is almost certain. But this is the area where the big guns are. The job description for both the Catkillers and the observers who fly with them consists mostly of looking, looking, looking at the ground. They are looking for things to shoot at and they are looking for things that are shooting at them.

The commute is over. It is time for Catkiller One-Five (that's me) and the other three airborne soldiers to punch the clock. It is time to go to work.

A half-hour later we are checking things out a click (kilometer) or two north of the DMZ and a couple of miles east of the coast. The mouth of the Ben Hai river is well in sight to the south. I am having a tough time performing my high ship duties. The early morning sun is making it very difficult for me to keep track of Lee's plane. Each turn toward the east puts the sun directly in my eyes. I keep losing him. I decide to fly east over toward the coast, then turn back and try to set up a pattern to put my plane between Lee?s and the sun. I have come back inland about a mile or so. I am scanning the air below me trying to spot the little brown bird dog. I am at 4900 feet with nothing but the steady drone of the engine in my ear.

Then, all of a sudden, they are there, right off the nose of the plane--a stream of 50 caliber machine gun tracers. I call it 50 caliber. Technically, it might be from a 12.7mm, the Russian equivalent of our 50 caliber. The NVA use both 12.7mm and captured 50 cals to shoot at us, so I just call it all 50 cal. And it all is terrifying.

More so than any other type of fire we take, the 50 caliber scares me. I mean psyche-deep, adrenalin-drenched, fear. Small arms fire and flack get my juices flowing, but 50 caliber rounds are the real deal in my heart and in my mind.

For one thing, they are very large bullets and they make very large holes in both airplanes and humans. 50 cals don't wound; they explode bone and flesh. For another thing the 50 caliber class machine guns that fire at airplanes have special anti-aircraft sights. 50 cal fire is accurate over large distances and up to a mile above the ground. And that sound--that deep, loud, resonating, bone shaking sound.

In my life I have come to define something that I call the "Oh Shit Point". It is that point at which you realize that this could well be it, and there is nothing you can do about it. The name comes from the phrase that crosses your mind if not your lips at the exact moment of such realization. Time spent beyond the "Oh Shit Point" normally totals only a few seconds out of a person's entire life. But they are the most memorable seconds.

The passing of the rounds is silent initially. The sound has not yet arrived. The bullets are faster than the speed of sound. That is true of all the fire we take. Unless the enemy is using tracers like this time, it is the boom of the rounds cracking the sound barrier which alerts us that we are taking fire. Small arms fire sounds like popcorn popping on the stove--small pops going off randomly. 30 Caliber machine gun fire is a steady, continuous stream of pops. 50 cal is a steady, continuous stream of thumps.

My reaction to the sight of the fire is instinctive. I pull back on the stick which puts me into a climb and bleeds off the speed at which I am closing on the tracer stream. I then start to kick it into a left turn. But looking in that direction, I see another stream of tracers. I swing my view out to the right side of the plane and see yet another stream of tracers. They've got me fucking bracketed. Now the rapid thump-thump-thump-thump-thump sound reaches the cockpit.

Oh Shit!

When you have nowhere to go, you go everywhere. Twist, turn, push the nose over, pop it back up into climb, start a wingover, then stop it. And all the while keep edging away from those guns, wherever you guess they are.

It must be my superior piloting skills that are keeping one or more of those 50 caliber rounds from ripping through sheet metal and soft flesh. Bullshit. It's mostly luck and I know it. Even at the supersonic speeds these bullets fly, they take at least 2-4 seconds from leaving the muzzle of the gun to reaching my plane. I am only hoping that I don't steer my plane into a spot where one of those gunners happened to take aim three seconds earlier.

It is July 17, 1968 and I just might be dead in the next instant. These could be the last conscious thoughts I have. It is not necessary to overcome fear to survive combat. It may not even be possible. But you must learn to coexist with it and you cannot let it turn to panic.

The only thing I can do is try to get out of range while giving them a bad target to aim at. At some point they will decide to conserve their ammunition. The North Vietnamese Army doesn't have an unlimited supply of bullets; they try to use them efficiently. They count on the element of surprise. They like to catch us being lazy, flying along straight and level well within range. If they don't get us with their first few bursts, they usually stop after a few seconds and wait to catch somebody off guard again.

They occasionally lock on and continue firing until you are well out of range, but it is rare. It is usually means you have something spotted that they want to protect like an artillery piece or a body of troops. Today, they must want to protect something, or maybe they just want to bag themselves an airplane.

Through seemingly random maneuvers I keep climbing and heading west. Finally it stops, and the rush of relief is pouring through me. I'm going to live. For a little while longer, anyway, I'm going to live.

"Catkiller Four-Nine, this is Catkiller One-Five, over."

"Catkiller One-Five, this is Catkiller Four-Nine."

"Four-Nine, I just got hosed down, man. Big time. 50 cal, more than one."

"Roger One-Five, what is your position."

"Right now I'm about the One-Eight-Eight-Six. The fire came from a couple of clicks east of here, but I didn't see the guns."

"Roger, I'll see if I can spot something."

"Four-Niner, this One-Five, I suggest you get a little altitude. These guys are pretty good."

Our back seats begin working up a 175 fire mission (artillery) even though we don't have the actual gun location pinpointed. I fly cautiously back toward the area, actually steering a little to the south of where I suspected the guns to be. Staying south puts me looking north rather than east into the sun and at my altitude it means I have the possibility at least of gliding back across the river if I took an engine hit. I would still be on one of the most insecure plots or real estate in the entire world, but I would just feel a lot better putting it down south of the river.

Suddenly Lee's voice comes over the radio. "Holy Shit!, they just hosed us down, too."

"Take any hits?"

"No, but I don't know how the hell they missed."

"Did you get the location?"

"I'm not sure."

"Where do you think?"

"Standby, I'm checking with my back seat."

I am waiting for Lee to come back up, flying along about 5000 feet sweeping my vision across the terrain below looking for some telltale sign of our antagonist's presence. Suddenly I see these four puffs of smoke all the same size, appear above the trees in a tight square pattern. "What the hell", I am thinking. A second or so later I know what the hell.

The large glowing tracers come flying past the plane again, all around the plane--first silent, then accompanied by the ominous, soul-wrenching thump- thump-thump-thump-thump. Oh Shit!

This time I am even quicker to make peace with the fear. Using a twisted logic convenient for my predicament, I reason that since they didn't get me before, when I was off guard, it is less likely that they will get me now. Of course that makes no sense. There is no reason to conclude there is any less chance now than before that the flight path of my airplane and the flight path of one of those 50 cal rounds will intersect. I am still intensely aware that it might all go black at any instant; but I just feel better about my chances this time.

I repeat my earlier drill of twists, turns, and thrashing around. Turn away from the bullets you see and hope you are not turning into the bullets about to arrive, and all the while keep increasing the distance between you and those 50 cals.

The relief you feel, the rush you feel when the shooting stops and you realize that, for now anyway, you are probably going to live. I don't know that you can describe it to someone who hasn't had the experience. It is what makes the adrenalin junkies keep taking the dare.

"Four Niner, this is One-Five, did you see him?"

"Negative, One-Five."

"Four Niner, this is One-Five. I did. I've got a lock on the bastards; there's four of them. What say we kill 'em?"

"Great idea, One-Five. How about talking me in to the position?"

"Roger Four Nine. You've got the east-west highway up there, right?"


"You see where it dips down to the south there and then curves back north, about 4 or 5 clicks in from the coast?"

"Got it."

"Okay, from that point in the road come south about a click and east about two...HE JUST SHOT!!" I scream over the radio. The four telltale puffs of smoke appear above the trees, and I know it is time for us to duck. But there is no place to duck. Lee has seen it too. What neither of us know is which of us is the target.

I swallow and wait. The tracers don't come. Lee is the target. Again, they miss but only by a little. Now we both know where to shoot.

"Four Niner, this is One-Five; I think we need some air. You go Hillsboro, I'll go DASC."

"Roger, One-Five, switching Hillsboro."

Hillsboro is the controlling agency for the combat aircraft in the southern part of North Vietnam in the same way Dong Ha DASC is the controlling agency for combat aircraft in the northern part of South Vietnam. Our tactical flying area straddles the two jurisdictions, and we often contact both agencies during the same mission. These were the people who could send us our attack aircraft.

We have to wait for the first flights to arrive. To fill the time Lee's backseat shoots a 175 artillery mission on the guns. As a general rule 175's are not very effective against a point target, and today is no exception. A couple of the rounds land in the same 1 kilometer grid square. Unfortunately, none of them landed within a grid square of the target.

"Catkiller One-Five, This is Helborne Five-Three-Nine, Over"

"Helborne Five-Three-Nine this is Catkiller One-Five, Go"

"Catkiller One-Five, Helborne Five-Three-Nine is a flight of two A4s carrying 12 Delta One Alphas and 6 Delta Nines, approximately 20 nautical miles south of Channel One-Oh-Nine, 18000 feet."

"Roger Five-Three-Nine, This is Catkiller One Five. Proceed to Channel One-Oh-Nine, Zero-One-Zero at Fourteen; descend and maintain ten thousand feet. Advise when approaching station."

"Roger, Catkiller, Understand 010 at 14, Channel 109; descend and maintain ten thousand."

"We've got some fixed-wing. Shut off the Artillery."

Lee and I ran a total of 6 flights that morning, three each. It was the best two-ship team effort I ever worked. He would have his flight briefed and ready to roll in just as I was finishing up mine. Then I would be ready to follow him with my next flight when he finished. We watched and learned from each other's missions as we progressed.

The NVA kept shooting, at us and at the jets. Every one of the attack aircraft took heavy fire on every pass. I had heard that NVA gunners were sometimes chained to their guns. I don't know if that was actually true, but if these guys weren't chained, they had some balls. These guys were real determined to get themselves an airplane that day.

All of the flights were good. They held their heading through the fire and dropped very close to target. But the first four flights did not hit right on the target, and the guns were still active.

We were down to one flight each. Last chance. My last flight was Helborne 547. The Helbornes were the Marine A4's out of Chu Lai; they were the aircraft we got and ran most often, and they were usually pretty good. 547 didn't disappoint. On dash-1's first run, a 250 lb bomb landed right on the edge of the target. There was a small secondary, and one of the guns stopped firing.

Then Lee ran his last Hillsboro flight. The call sign was Dallas. It was a flight of 4 which was unusual. Most of our attack flights consisted of two planes, Dash One and Dash Two. This one was probably diverted from a mission further north.

They were carrying 500lb bombs and rockets. And they were very good. Two of them got 500 pounders right on the target. All the firing stopped. We watched tracers cooking off through the smoke and small secondary fires erupting around the target. We hung around for about 15 minutes after the jets had gone just to confirm the destruction and savor the moment.

We were back on the ground by 10:20. We had an hour to kill before lunch.

Donald Lee Harrison, Catkiller 49, was lost over the DMZ, October 28, 1968.
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