Copyright 2003 -- Donald S. Pepe

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 (two-four-three). 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 Southern Charlie.

"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, please."

"Understand 2 napes, five o'clock, 50 meters. Dash Two is at the rollin."

"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 benchmark. 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 not apply.

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 front. 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 fuel pits. 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 up.

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.
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