Copyright 2003 -- Donald S. Pepe

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 active?"

"Catkiller One-Five, this is Dong Ha Tower, be advised that Dong Ha runway is shut down at this time."

"Say Again"

"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."

Oh Shit.

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 please."

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 it.
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