REQUEST FUEL TRUCK
Copyright 2003 -- Donald S. Pepe
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It was the first day of summer, June 21st of 1968.
I launched on a Marine hop at 1500 with Klondike Tango, Tom Bailey.
The 3rd Marine Division observer call sign had just changed from
"Southern" to Klondike.
Whatever his call sign, Tom was top notch as an observer. His
artillery missions were quick and accurate. His airstrikes were
professional. And damn did he have good eyes.
About a half hour into the flight he spotted a cache of building
materials under camouflage in the southern half of the DMZ
north-northeast of Con Thien and just south of the river.
We were only able to get one flight of air, but it was all that was needed.
They were right on target and made a big mess out of the metal beams
and sheeting the NVA were trying to hide.
Then we wandered over northeast of Gio Lihn where Tom spotted an NVA
bunker complex and ran a flight of air on it.
Just as Tom was finishing up his airstrike, we got a call that both
Dong Ha and Con Thien were taking incoming.
We started scanning north of the river and, sure enough, saw some
smoke to our west over an area northwest of Con Thien.
We bore in that direction and were quickly rewarded with the sight
of four simultaneous flashes. Now we knew where to head. It was to
someplace we were not supposed to go.
Prior to Operation Thor (July 1, 1968) we were not officially
allowed to fly north of the river, though we all did to some extent,
some of us more than others. If you did go north and something bad
happened, it would be your fault because you violated the rules.
At the same time, nobody really said anything if you took on some
active artillery or found a strong target up in the northern part of
the Z. I guess you could say it was a gray area.
Also, you were usually without cover when you went north. Two-ship
missions north didn't come about until Thor.
As we pulled up on the target, which sat on the northern edge of the
DMZ, the guns continued to fire at intervals of 1-3 minutes. They
seemed almost oblivious to our presence.
We immediately began working up artillery missions and calling for
air. Evidently these guns were doing some damage down south, and we
were getting anything we asked for.
It really was great fun. Between the two of us we ran 5 flights of
fixed-wing and shot 3 batteries of 8" and 175. We destroyed three of
the guns and damaged the fourth enough to put it out of firing.
And here is the really weird thing. They didn't even shoot at us, at
least close enough to notice. We were over active artillery in North
Vietnam at altitudes ranging from 800 to 2500 feet for over three
hours, and we took no rounds. Maybe they just didn't expect us to
come up there looking for them. I have no rational explanation.
Ground fire wasn't the problem. Fuel was the problem. We had been
more than an hour into a 2.5 hour mission when we got the call about
the incoming. Now we were into our third hour on this target and my
anxiety started to build regarding our fuel. I was mentally juggling
how long it would take to finish the job with how much gasoline we
had in the tanks.
The O-1 uses two equal size wing tanks for fuel. During the course
of a flight you usually switch back and forth between them at least
once an hour. By the time we got the guns completely shut down and
surveyed the damage, I had run one tank completely dry, needle on
the peg. The other tank was in the red.
I figured that if I leaned it out as much as I could and flew
straight and level by the most direct route, I would have enough
fuel to land safely at Dong Ha. I hoped.
I switched to tower frequency as soon as I cleared the southern edge
of the Z. I wanted to let them know where I was and make sure I got
priority for landing if there were other traffic.
"Dong Ha Tower, this Catkiller One-Five. Over"
"Catkiller One-Five, Dong Ha Tower"
"Catkiller One-Five is about 10 miles north for landing. What's your
"Catkiller One-Five, this is Dong Ha Tower, be advised that Dong Ha
runway is shut down at this time."
"Roger, Catkiller One-Five. Incoming has hit the ammo dump. It
is currently on fire and there is debris exploding across the
runway with heavy smoke. You can land pilot's discretion, but
the fuel pits are down."
I had seen the flames and smoke in the distance as I flew toward
Dong Ha. I figured something had been hit and was burning; that
wasn't a rare sight from the air over Vietnam.
But as we got closer I could see that this was no ordinary fire,
even by Vietnam standards.
It was like all of the 4th of July fireworks you have ever seen
combined, times 100. Smoke was a thousand feet in the air. Bombs,
artillery shells, rockets, white phosphorous, mortar shells, small
arms rounds, open flames--just a mess.
By now my "good" tank was bouncing off the peg.
The closest alternative airfield was Quang Tri, southeast of Dong Ha
about 15 miles. I did not see how I was going to make it. But it
wasn't like I had a choice.
I got clearance from Quang Tri tower and made it into the traffic
pattern. My "good" tank was now resting on the peg. I cut a quick
base to a short final, chopped back on the power and floated to
touchdown on the runway. We had rolled no more than a couple of
hundred feet when the engine briefly sputtered and went quiet. The
propellor stopped turning.
I let it coast to the first cross taxiway where I pulled it off let
it roll to a stop.
"Quang Tri Tower, This is Catkiller One-Five. Request a fuel truck
The fuel crew was right there and was real helpful. I got gassed up
and fired the engine back up. I had to get Tom home to Dong Ha. I
also had to pick up another passenger there for the ride back to Phu
Bai. Now that I had a full tank of gas I figured I could go up there
and fly around the strip a few times and figure out some way to
squeeze the plane down between the exploding ordnance.
"Dong Ha tower, this is Catkiller One-Five, five miles south.
Request landing attempt."
"Roger One-Five, this is Dong Ha tower.
Cleared for landing attempt, pilot's discretion".
"Pilot's discretion" is a code term that stands for "You've been
warned, you dumb ass; screw the thing up and its all on you." It
takes the controller and everyone else but you off the hook.
The winds dictated landing runway 25, but the heaviest part of the
debris and shrapnel were blowing across the approach end. So I went
north of the field and waited for a wind shift that would make
enough of the runway I needed visible through the smoke. I made a
dogleg final approach to a touchdown about half-way down the runway
where the air was clearest. It was a little hairy as was the takeoff
a few minutes later.
The next day I heard that there was a huge party at the O-club in
Dong Ha that night. Everybody got drunk and whooped it up over the
ammo dump exploding. There were explosions all night and shit
falling on the roofs. It must have been a wild one. Sorry I missed