THERE IS A GOD
Copyright 2003 -- Donald S. Pepe
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I had never, even for a millisecond, considered making a career of the
military. I knew from my first days of ROTC at Indiana University that
the military and I were not a match. Every superior officer I served under
during my time in the Army, including the time I spent in Vietnam,
came to the same conclusion.
Since those officers were for the most part individuals who had chosen
a military career, this sometimes put me out of step with their
My view was that everyone had a specific job to perform. In our case
it was to fly missions and kill the enemy. To be effective in that job
you must of course stay alive yourself. I did not like rules and orders
that had no relevance to the performance of our job or, even worse, worked
Under the "no relevance" category fell things like dress codes and
correctly addressing officers of higher rank. It was brought to the
attention of my platoon leader on more than one occasion that I
was seen in the headquarters area without my cover (hat). It was also
noted that, when I was still a 1st lieutenant, I addressed other
pilots who were captains by their first name.
My usual response to this attention was "Thank you for caring", and I would
pretty much continue life as I had always lived it. I knew that as
long as I was flying lots of missions and delivering lots of bodies it would
have been awkward for anyone to apply heavy discipline. What were they
going to do, send me to Vietnam?
Orders that worked directly against our mission, particularly the
staying alive part, caused the most resentment, and not just with me.
Nothing spread hate faster than being assigned a new mission that our
aircraft were not qualified to fly. Truth be known, we probably had no
business being in North Vietnam in single-engine, 90 mph, prop planes.
But an even bigger folly had to be the scheduling of night missions
over Ashau Valley.
The O1 Bird Dog that we flew was not instrument equipped. It was a
visual reconnaisance aircraft. If we wanted to know how far we were
from the airport, we didn't look at the instrument panel, we looked at
the ground. We determined our location on a map, located the airport
on the map, and then counted the grid squares in between. This
sophisticated technique was quite difficult to execute in total
Flying night mortar watch in sight of the base is one thing. But 30
miles away, next to the Laotian border, over mountainous terrain made
no sense at all for our single-engine, non-instrumented plane.
It is ironic that the commanding officer (CO) who was the worst on the
chicken-shit, non-relevant stuff was the best when it came to
protecting his men from inappropriate missions.
Major Millard Pedersen was awful about things like not having your
cover on, or not saluting at all the right times. I pegged him to be
just another chicken-shit lifer hung up on playing the game right.
But when the order came down for the night missions out in the valley,
Major Pedersen went to bat for his men big time. He protested long and
loud that ours was not the correct aircraft for this mission.
His superiors up the line didn't share his fortitude. He was relieved
of his command.
That happened on August 6th, 1968. It really pissed us off.
The nonsensical mission assignments came from PCV, Provisional Corps
Vietnam, with offices right there in Phu Bai. To this day I have never
figured out exactly what this organization was or where it fit into the
bureaucracy but it just seemed to show up one day and over a short period
of time got the operational say-so for all three of our platoons.
The people who went over and dealt with them directly were Tank Meehan,
the Marine major in charge of the observers who flew with us on our
Marine support missions, and Major Pedersen, our CO.
The rest of us underlings just got the results of their meetings. But Tank
did keep us pretty well posted on what went down and how.
One name kept getting mentioned as the source of inane directives,
Major Parker. Major Parker, the non-pilot G2 Air of PCV, seemed
obsessed with finding new and inappropriate ways to employ the pilots
and planes of the 220th Reconnaisance Airplane Company. And he was
certainly not going to let his ignorance of aviation stand in his way.
When someone asked him how the pilots, on a completely dark night,
would even know they were over the Ashau, he replied, "Use your
radar." Bird Dogs didn't have radar. Never did. The
We spent many hours around the club spewing venom toward the assholes
at PCV in general and toward Major Parker in particular. Grumbling
among ourselves was our only relief from the frustration of not being
able to grab that sorry lifer around the neck. He could
fuck over us, and there was nothing we could do to him. We didn't even
know what he looked like. If there really were a God, I would have
gotten a shot at the sorry son-of-a-bitch.
I was taken off the DMZ at the end of August, 1968 and reassigned to
the third platoon flying out of Phu Bai. Assignments to the DMZ platoon
were for six months. After that you were rotated to a relatively safer
(boring) mission. My six months were up and I
had no choice in the matter. The CO at that point was a Major Wisby
who moved into the position from Executive Officer when Major Pedersen
got canned three weeks earlier. I begged him to let me stay with the
first playoon, but he told me he thought it was important to set a precedent for
the newer pilots. He wanted to show them that it was possible to finish a tour
on the Z as a non casualty and get rotated to a sane assigment. It sounded like bullshit to me,
and I was able to get in another DMZ six month gig the following year, but at the time I had
to accept the order and the reassignment.
After that I filled in up on the Z any time there was an open slot,
but I mostly just flew dip shit missions around Phu Bai, things like
artillery registrations, night mortar watches and vr's (visual reconnaisance) out in Ashau
(yes, at least a couple of them at night). I also got drunk a lot and
lead many of the hate sessions over in the club.
One afternoon in late September, about a month after I was taken off
the Z, I was scheduled for a 1530 hop for the 101st Airborne. About an hour
before takeoff I was told there had been a change, and that it was now a two
ship mission. Two ship missions were scheduled for very remote areas.
So I drafted another pilot, Captain Doyle, and we
made it on down to the flight line with a half hour to spare.
At 1515 two majors saunter into the line shack. I ask who is low ship,
and one of them says he is. Being a first lieutenant at the time I am
the lowest rank in the room. But I am a big 1st lieutenant and I have zero
career aspirations. So the rank technicality seemed of little relevance to me.
I ask him where he wants to go, and he shows me route 545 south of Nam
Dong which is south southeast of Phu Bai. I had never flown there
before, but I could read a map. And it really wasn't a two-ship
We head out to the aircraft, and I start doing my preflight. All the
while this guy is generally mouthing off in the manner that lifers who
take themselves too seriously so often do. I am not paying much
attention to it, because I am basically hung over and trying to tune
out the details of yet another dip shit mission until I can get back
to the club.
We got into a discussion about the function of the low ship on the
mission, and he gave a wise-ass response to one of my instructions.
It pissed me off, but I let that pass too.
Then, just as he was getting into the plane he announced that this was
a PCV mission, and that he was the G2-Air. Bells ring; the light
bulb comes on. I take the trouble to look at his name tag for the
first time. It says "Parker". This is the "use your radar" asshole.
There is a God.
I forgot about my hangover; the sun was shining, and life was good
again. I quick glanced into the backseat to make sure there was a good
supply of barf bags.
Now it doesn't take much airspeed to get a bird dog off the ground.
With flaps down you can break ground at 50-70 mph depending on the
load and the condition of the air.
By using no flaps and pushing the stick forward with everything I had
I was able to keep the bird dog carrying Major Parker in touch with
the runway through 120 miles per hour. Finally, at the end of the
runway I let it up just high enough to make a 90 degree bank turn to
the left at about 10 feet above the ground. Once we cleared the
perimeter of the field, I leveled the wings and pulled back on the
stick shooting us up 300 ft in a max performance climb to a near
And the fun was just beginning.
I took us on out to the area he requested which was only 15 minutes or
so south of PhuBai. He has problems working his radio right off the
bat, and generally proves not to have his shit together for any part
of the mission. Why does this not surprise me?
But this poor clueless wonder still did not have any idea what his
situation was. We are flying along the road and he comes over the
intercom with a direction he wants to head. I give him a "roger" and
make a sharp right turn to head off in that direction. Well, evidently
I heard him wrong, because he comes back up and says, "Where the hell
are you going."
This was a very unfortunate act of rudeness on the part of this very
boorish man. Observers do not give pilots shit, this pilot in
I explained to him where the hell I was going and what I heard his
directions to be. Then I further explained to the good major exactly
what the rules were for this exercise. "Major, I am the aircraft
commander and you will address me with respect. One more word from you
in that tone of voice, and we will be heading home." I took his
sudden silence as acknowledgement.
If you are doing a good job of flying an airplane, your turns will be
coordinated. What that means is the amount of bank your plane has will
be in just the right ratio to the amount of turn. When these two
factors are coordinated, there will be no forces pulling you sideways
as there would be in a car making a high speed turn. In fact, if an
airplane is making a perfectly coordinated turn--even a steep one, you
can have an open glass of water sitting on the floor, and it won't
spill a drop, much less fall over.
You may wonder why coordinated turns are important. One of the reasons
is that uncoordinated flight subjects the body to forces in many
directions other than the straight down we are used to from gravity.
This greatly increases the incidence of motion sickness. Beause of the
design of the bird dog these forces were strongest for those sitting
in the back seat, the observer's seat.
Airplanes do not carry a glass of water to guage coordination of
turns. Instead they have a 3-4 inch sealed tube of liquid, slightly
curved and mounted horizontally on the instrument panel. There is a
marble-sized ball in that tube. When the aircraft is in coordinated
flight that ball is resting on the bottom of the tube, exactly in the
Friends, I can assure you that during Major Parker's flight that ball
was only in the middle of the tube when it was passing through. It
never rested there. It was the most uncoordinated flight of my career,
complete with numerous steep turns and low-level passes.
The only question was whether we would run out of barf bags before the
mission was completed. Fortunately, we did not.
The major never caught on to the strong contributions I had made to
his motion sickness. Being so ignorant of flying, he must have assumed
that all rides were like the one he had.
Once we were back on the ground and he recovered his stomach a
little, he actually said that it was a good mission for him. I told
him, "It's good that you liked it; you're never going to take another
one with me." I told him he was the worst observer I had flown with in
my entire time in country. I wrote him up that way in my debrief
and strongly advised that he not be allowed to fly with us again.
I never heard any more about the incident. And to my knowldge Major
Parker never again flew on a mission with the Catkillers. I don't
think that had anything to do with my write up. I think it had
everything to do with the major's stomach.