A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT
Copyright 2003 -- Donald S. Pepe
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It started out as a routine mission, a routine boring mission. I
took off at 1700 with Southern Charlie in the back seat.
Southern Charlie's name was actually Robert Carswell, but he went by
Charlie most of the time, in or out of the air. Charlie was a career
Marine and a damned good observer. Like several other of our
observers he was an NCO who received a field commission. I believe
he was a first lieutenant at the time.
Rank didn't mean much among the pilots and observers. Everybody was
either a lieutenant or captain. Respect was based on how well one
did his job and whether or not he was a good guy or an asshole off
the job. Charlie did his job well, and he was a good guy.
He was a little older than the rest of us, old enough to have a
little less hair on the top of his head. He was a short, wiry guy with
a pronounced southern drawl and an ever pleasant disposition. And
did I mention that he was a damn good observer?
It was late march of '68 and I had only been flying the Z for about
3 weeks. I had been flying out of the DaNang platoon for two months
before that so I wasn't a totally FNG, but I was still in the group
that listened to the war stories, and not in the one telling them. I
had not been fully tested.
Off the deck we went straight to convoy cover.
In northern I-Corps there were no airfields west of Dong Ha save
Khe Sahn which was essentially under siege until it was abandoned.
All positions west to Laos were supplied and resupplied through the Quang Tri and
Dong Ha airfields. The largest of these positions was Camp Carrol,
due west of Dong Ha about half way to the Laotian border.
This all meant frequent long convoys stretching out west from Dong
Ha along highways 9 and 558.
These convoys were subject to sniper and mortar attack, and we were
assigned to protect against same. It was a necessary mission, but
damn, was it boring.
The air was usually bumpy. The radio chatter was maddening. It was
mostly a whole lot of nothing going on combat-wise which was great
for the convoy, but numbing to the aviators overhead.
We were about an hour into the hop when we got a call from Dong Ha
Dasc. There was a Marine recon team in need of extraction about six
miles southwest of Dong Ha. Gladly we went.
We were on station in a few minutes, and Charlie established contact
with the recon team which was named Harbor Queen.
The situation was not good. They were in dense canopy jungle and the
NVA was close, like 40 meters close. There was a small clearing
nearby just big enough for one or at very most two helicopters.
The pick-up helicopters and supporting gunships were on the way. But
it was obvious there was not going to be an extraction unless the
NVA unit sitting less than half a footbal field from our Marines
could be neutralized.
The fixed wing arrived first--Helborne A-4's with snake and nape,
250lb general purpose bombs and napalm. The flight number was 243
We had to rely upon the team to tell us where everyone was. Charlie
was running the airstrike. I listened inintently on his target brief
I wanted to make sure I was with everyone else on exactly the same page,
line and column with regard to the target, location of the friendlies,
and run-in heading.
The first moment of truth for me came when it was time to put in the
marking rocket. Keep in mind the sighting mechanism for shooting
these rockets was a grease pencil mark on the windscreen. 40 meters
was easily within normal dispersion for our target marks.
I had to get smoke down right on the NVA position or slightly
between the enemies and the frienlies. Because of the proximity and
the shortage of identifiable terrain features, this mark would have
to serve as a boundary for the fast-movers on their drops. It would
mark a point beyond which they would not go.
Thirty or Forty meters behind the enemy and it would not be usable.
The same distance the other way would mean this semi-new guy puts a
white phosporous 2.75" rocket into the middle of a friendly position
and possibly into the middle of a friendly Marine.
Flip the switch to arm the left outboard tube. Chop the power and
nose it over. Steady, eye on the needle/ball for coordinated flight.
Small arms fire--igmore it. Steady. NOW.
With a loud bang the rocket explodes out of the tube a few feet from
my left ear. BINGO. A good mark. Thank you, God. Thank you very,
very much. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than to be good. Now back
on the radios to monitor the strike. Charlie's radio call sign was
"Dash one, do you have the smoke".
"Roger, Southern Charlie, I have the smoke."
"From that mark, lets take it to the one o'clock about 30 meters
with two napes. The friendlies are to the ten o'clock of that
smoke. Do not; I say again do not under any circumstances drop to
the left side of that smoke on your run-in heading. Do you copy?"
"Roger, understand one o'clock, thirty meters, two napes,
friendlies to the left of run-in. Dash one is at the roll-in."
"I have you, dash one--continue......continue.....cleared hot."
The cannisters tumbled from the bottom of the plane. The fire
streaked through the trees. Right on target.
Charlie had just gotten out a "Good job, Dash One" when
the radio contact with the friendlies suddenly became alive with shouting.
It sounded like we had hit friendlies. It is the worst nightmre of a FAC.
"Dash Two, this is Southern Charlie. Take it around. I say again,
take it around. We have a problem with the friendlies. Stand By."
After the inital shock and confusion the conversation settled down and it
was not what we had feared.
When the napalm hit the ground and exploded a piece of one of the
metal cannisters had bounced over and hit one of our troops. He was
conscious and able to move. No napalm had gone on any friendly.
There was nothing different we could have done. It was one of those
freak things that can happen when you are forced to run close air
support outside any reasonable margin of safety. To my knowledge it
was the only time in my 1500 hours of combat flying that a friendly
was harmed by fire, airstrike or artillery, under my direction or that
of one of my observers.
Charlie was back on frequency with the A4's.
"Helborne two-four-three, this is Southern Charlie, over."
"Southern Charlie, this is Helborne two-four-three; go."
"Roger two-four-three; the friendlies had us shook up for a minute.
It looks like everything's ok. Let's change that run-in heading
slightly to a 210, still with a left hand pull."
"Roger, Souther Charlie; understand run-in heading now 210 with left hand
pull. You copy, Dash Two."
"Dash Two copies."
"This is Southern Charlie; I have someone on downwind."
"Dash Two is on downwind."
"Roger, Dash Two. From Dash One's hits let's bring it back to the
five o'clock about 50 meters on that 210 heading. Give me two napes,
"Understand 2 napes, five o'clock, 50 meters. Dash Two is at the
"I have you Dash Two. Continue"
He let the A-4 continue down the slope toward the target until he was
as certain as he could ever be that he was lined up correctly and
that he was aiming for the spot specified.
"Cleared hot, Dash Two."
"Good hit, Dash Two."
We immediately went to the radio to check with the friendlies. They were fine
and good with the new direction.
The airstrike continued. One more pass each with napalm, then two
passes each with 250lb general purpose bombs. It was a good flight.
We covered the area where the enemy was supposed to be.
I say "supposed to be" because we could not see the enemy directly.
We could not see the friendlies directly. This whole life and death
saga was being carried out shielded from our eyes under a dense
jungle canopy. There was only the small clearing we could use as a
Our knowledge of the location of all the principles on the ground
came to us via radio as directions and distances from that clearing,
and then later from the point where the bombs were impacting.
We were dropping napalm and 250lb bombs on an unseen enemy separated
from unseen friendlies by the distance from home plate to second
base. Strong compass skills required by all parties. Dyslexics need
The helicopters arrived during the airstrike and were circling off
to the side. After giving the jets their BDA we brought them over
and briefed them on the situation and the location of everyone.
The Marines use CH46 helicopters to insert and extract troops. These
were somewhat large, 2-rotor birds that were probably more
vulnerable than the Hueys the Army used for that same purpose. The
46 call sign was "Chatterbox".
They did have Marine Huey gunships to cover them on this extraction.
There were two 46's and two Hueys (The Huey call sign was "Seaworthy").
The ground troops had taken no enemy fire since the airstrike began.
Neither had we. It was time for the pickup.
The big Chatterbox bird dropped into its approach for the zone. The
Huey guns fell in on a parallel pattern hosing down the general area
where the enemy was last reported.
When the chopper touched down, the enemy opened up. The 46 started
taking hits immediately. There was no choice but to pull pitch and
leave without the team. Shot out of the zone.
It was the right thing for the pilot to do. It was a very small
clearing. If the 46 had been brought down there would not have been
enough room to get another chopper in there. No way to get anybody
in or out--game to the enemy.
Instead the pilot was able to get the wounded bird to to a road a
couple of clicks north of the action before setting it down. The
crew was scooped up by the other chopper.
Another flight of 46's was scrambled from Quang Tri.
The gunships continued to hose the area. The intention was to make
another try. But time was also becoming our enemy. It was now early
evening and we were beginning to lose the light.
Then things got worse. Much worse.
I had been noticing a cloud build-up out to the west. It looked like
a thunderstorm might be developing, probably the leading edge of a
At first I didn't give it much importance because I reckoned we
would all be safely landed before it got to us. I could see now that
wasn't going to be the case.
The high winds and rain hit first. Then the visibility dropped.
Things got real shitty real fast.
The helicopters all made the wise decision to use what little light
was left to escape the storm. I didn't.
I'm not sure why I chose to fly out the storm. It was not a single
decision. It was a minute by minute committment with a lot of silent
second guessing in between.
I somehow had this idea that this was our gig, and damn it, it was
our job to stay until it was finished. Also, I knew that our radio
com was the only contact the members of Harbor Queen had with the
friendly outside world. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that
if we left, we might be the last people they ever talked with. I
would have had a very tough time handling that.
But on the other side I knew that Bird Dogs and thunderstorms were
not a good match. We would only be adding to the problem if our
flying machine ended up as a sheet metal taco stuck in the jungle
canopy. And then there was the lightning.
We were getting bumped around pretty good and I could tell Charley
was worried. He made a couple of statements that let me know he
would not object if I wanted to go back to Dong Ha. If he had known
how unsure I was he probably would have put his hands around my
throat and forced me to return.
Darkness and the full brunt of the storm hit at about the same time.
Cloud bottoms were maybe 600 feet AGL with banks of patchy fog below
that. It was pitch black outside so visibility was 0 except when the
lightning was flashing. Even in the lightning flashes visibility
straight ahead was non-existent because of the sheets of water
hitting the windscreen.
Using the lightning flashes I could see the ground out of whichever
side window was not getting the wind. I used these glances at the
ground along with fixing on my instruments (mainly artificial
horizon) to fight off vertigo. All the while we were getting
bounced around like an old sneaker in a clothes dryer.
I was not at all sure I had done the right thing.
Finally the storm began to ease. The clouds lifted somewhat, and the
rain slackened to a heavy drizzle. Dong Ha and Quang Tri were again
visible to the east.
It was time to crank the extraction back up. We called Dasc and
advised them to get the helicopters back out. We also requested a
flare ship. We were going to need some light.
By this time we were critically low on fuel. As soon as the first
gunships arrived on station we flew directly back to Dong Ha and the
Even though this action was taking place in almost inaccessible
jungle terrain, it was only a few miles, as the crow or Bird Bog
flies, from Dong Ha. I-Corps Vietnam was like that. Compact.
We filled the tanks, taxied from the fuel pits onto the runway and
took off. We were back on station in less than 30 minutes and had to
wait a few more for the flare ship to arrive.
Flare ships were C130 cargo planes that circled high over the battle
area and dropped flares suspended from small parachutes. The flares
illuminated the battle area shedding some much needed light on the
subject. The only ones I ever ran had the call sign "Basketball".
If their job was done well there would always be several flares in
the air at one time all kicked out at short intervals. As one flare
burns out, others are there to maintain the light.
Things got very busy for us. In addition to our other duties, we
were now controlling a flare ship.....and dodging flares.
The Marine commanders now had to make a decision--either pull the
recon team out, or put a reaction force in. We had two sets of
CH46's circling the area. An empty set for extraction, and a set
full of reaction troops for an insertion.
I'm sure there was a lot of radio traffic going on, but I chose not
to be in on it. I let Charlie do that. I just flew around and tried
to keep the flare ship over the target .
Finally the decision came down. There would be one last attempt to
extract the team. If it failed, the reaction force would be put in.
Now the only problem was that the helicopter pilot wasn't certain
about exact location of the LZ.
As appreciated as the flares are, they are no substitute for
daylight. The actual amount of light is minimal and the fact the
flares are continuously descending means the appearance of the
landscape is continuously changing. The shadow angles are in
constant flux giving the same feature entirely different looks.
It can make make green trees and green grass almost
indistinguishable from overhead.
The pilot needed a precise fixed point to home in on. I was the only
person at the show who could give him one.
I had by this time been over the zone for almost 5 hours, at least
half of which was in daylight. I had seen it by sunlight, by
lightning, and by flare. I knew this zone.
It was rocket time again. I told Charlie to tell the team to button
I knew the friendlies were going to be right on the edge of the
clearing. It was yet another chance for untested pilot to shoot
friendly Marine with white phosporous rocket.
I knew that if that happened, it happened. There was no way anyone
of any skill level marking this lz could assure that that this
rocket would not hit a friendly. It was strictly a crap shoot. I am
essentially punching this rocket into the middle of where a bunch of
Marines are, and hoping it doesn't hit any of them.
It didn't. The rocket showered its brief but fiery life near the
center of the zone, and the CH46 swooped to it.
Then, just as the chopper touched down in the zone, something awful
happened. The flares went out.
The damn ship had not kicked out enough to allow for early
burnouts. Just at the most critical point in the extraction,
everything went to black.
"Oh Shit. Basketball, Basketball, get those fucking flares going."
The next few seconds I stared into the darkness feeling totally
helpless. God, what is going on down there?
Finally the radio cackles alive. "We got 'em." "All of them?" asks
Charlie. "All of 'em" responds the chopper pilot.
Relief, joy, pride, gratitude, all of the above. Charlie and I both
whooped. And I almost never whoop.
We cleared everybody off on the radio and headed back to Dong Ha
ourselves. We fueled up the plane, taxied to the bird dog ramp and
tied it down. It was 11:45 pm.
Then we walked across the runway to Delta Med where the pickup
chopper had dropped off the Marine who was hit by the nape
cannister. Broken arm; otherwise, okay. Very respectful kid and
a damn good Marine I'm certain. Of course we were greatly relieved to
find out he wasn't permanently injured.
Because I was so late shutting down, someone covered my morning
mission for me, and I got to sleep in. At the same time I
knew that I had gotten more than a few extra hours of sleep from the
events of that dark and stormy night. I had gotten full membership
from my senior peers. I had now been tested.