||August 10, 2006|
by lyle e davis
I had just completed two days of missions in airplanes. Two days prior I had flown a FAC (Forward Air Control) over the Mekong Delta, last night I had spent a very bumpy 3 or 4 hours in "Spooky" while providing suppression fire over the An Lo valley. I shared a few libations with the flight crew after the mission.
I was now awakened at 6am for yet another adventure in a new aircraft. I was not hungover. . but was damned tired and a bit queasy. I was driven to Bien Hoa airbase, near Saigon, where I was to accompany a sortie of three F100 fighters on a mission over the Mekong Delta. I was fitted into a flight suit that was filled with pneumatic tubes that would increase or decrease air pressure on my body to prevent blacking out from pulling too many "G's". When a fighter pulls out of a dive, or makes other violent manuevers, you have pressures placed upon your body equal to several times the force of gravity. Two G's are the equivalent of twice the force of gravity, four G's the equivalent of four times the force of gravity, etc. When this happens the blood can be forced from your head to your lower extremities and cause a blackout from blood loss. The G-suit prevents that by automatically increasing air pressure to constrict areas of your body and not allowing blood to leave that area.
I was also given a flight helmet, a flak jacket and a 38 revolver.
"What good will this do if we're shot down?" I asked.
"Probably not much," said the Sergeant who was outfitting me. "It's more a security blanket than having nothing." (By contrast, I had an M-14 issued to me when we flew the FAC; it rested behind me in a storage area). He also told me that the Vietnamese word for journalist was "Bao Chi." (I can just see me running around on the jungle floor or in some Mekong swamp, hands in air, wearing military gear, "don't shoot, bao chi, bao chi." I figure I would give some Viet Cong a good laugh or two before he ends my days with a few rounds from an AK47. [I have since practiced this word, "bao chi" on Vietnamese I have met in the States; they look at me quizzically and then, when I explain what I am saying and what it means, smile and say, "oh, yes. . "bao chi." Very good." But they always pronounce it differently than I do. Had I gotten shot down and met up with Vietcong I would have been shot because I didn't know how to pronounce "journalist" in Vietnamese. Would have ruined my whole day]).
We head out to the flight line and I meet my pilot, a handsome 1st Lieutenant. We do a walk around the F100 and then climb aboard. I’m given a canvas bag of some type.
"What's this?" I ask.
"It's a helmet bag. If you should get airsick, you can use it as a barf bag," said the technician.
"You just really helped my self confidence," I groaned.
I'm strapped in, radios connected, check out the ejection seat controls (I have the capability to eject myself but am told that unless the pilot is injured or killed that he will activate the ejections seat after warning me first; if he is incapacitated then I had been trained Stateside in what to do).
In no time we are barrelling down the runway. Once in the air the plane climbs effortlessly and quickly into the sky. I have my oxygen mask on. The pilot asks on the intercom if I'd like to take the controls and fly the F100. I had about 100 hours of flying time on my private pilot's time on my license, mostly on a Cessna 150, a couple hours on a Cessna 172. How many civilians get a chance to take the controls of a military fighter and tool around the sky? I answered in the affirmative.
"Feeling okay?" asks the pilot.
"Yup. A bit tired. Have been busy as hell the last couple of days. Tummy's a bit rough. Had a few beers with a Spooky flight crew last night."
"Okay. You start getting queasy, just turn the emergency oxygen on.
That'll force feed an increased amount of oxygen to you. Does wonders for the morning after."
"We'll complete the mission then we'll have to fly around a bit and burn up some fuel before returning to base. That's when I'll turn the aircraft over to you."
"You got a deal."
We are on target. The pilot points down below and, sure enough, there is a little Cessna 170 circling around down below over the target area. I see white puffs of smoke where he has delivered WP (White Phosphorus) rockets, marking the target. He will now tell his fighter pilots to deliver ordnance 10 meters to the right of the smoke, 20 meters to the left, etc. (Or, 3 o'clock, 10 meters, 20 meters, 9 o'clock in military parlance).
On the intercom. . . ."we'll go in and beat up the target area with some 20 mike-mike" (20 millimeter cannon fire).
We dive. I feel the g-forces building up, I feel the g-suit working and squeezing me. It is doing its job. We fire. We pull up. We circle.
There are three birds on this mission. The one I'm riding on carries a 750 lb. fragmentation bomb; the other two have napalm.
We dive again.
We deliver our ordnance. Again, the g-forces. Again, the
We pull out of our dive.
It suddenly seems awfully warm.
I am having trouble breathing.
My stomach is churning. I feel nauseous.
I turn the oxygen on to full emergency.
I try to breath. Can't. I rip the oxygen mask off my face and breath deeply. I'm breathing. But my stomach. . .
Too late. I heave all over the floor of the cabin. Too late I reach for the helmet bag. I manage to divert some of last night's party fare into the helmet bag but a goodly portion is
on the floor.
I remember thinking "who's gonna clean this mess up?" I knew that it would be the ground crew. I bet they just loved to have visiting war correspondents go on combat missions.
"You okay back there?" the intercom asks.
"No!" I gasp into my oxygen mask microphone.
"Okay. . .just breathe in some emergency oxygen and we'll see if it clears up. We have to fly around a bit and burn up that fuel then we'll get you back to base."
"Don't make any fast turns," I plead.
The rascal laughs.
The emergency oxygen now seems to be working. I am feeling better.
It is a beautiful day. Sun is shining, warm. Getting warmer. "Lovely day to bomb somebody," I thought.
It was time. I was to take control of an F100.
"Let me just gain a bit of altitude and she's yours," said the pilot.
He pulled up. "Damn! I asked him not to do that!," I thought.
The sudden lurch of the plane as we climbed to altitude, the warmth of the cabin, the oxygen mask and the aromatic remembrance of things passed over, under, around and through it all combined to reawaken another bout of nausea.
"Ready to take over?" asked a somewhat too cheerful pilot.
"No! Please get me down on the ground. Fast!"
"Okay, we'll be on the ground in just a sec."
He dived and headed for home. I took great comfort in knowing I had performed the latter part of my mission very well. I
managed to fill up the better part of the helmet bag on our return home.
Once on the ground I saw the ground crew approaching the plane. They could see that I had had problems. Didn't phase them. True public relations professionals . . . they continued their dazzling white tooth paste smiles. . .took my helmet bag, helped me out of the plane and proceeded to clean the aircraft while I headed for the pilots room.
I was disconsolate.
I had a chance to take the controls of an F100 fighter. A chance most civilians only dream about. And I blew it. Wimpy correspondent gets sick . . can't make the grade.
The pilots gathered around me and gave me a pep talk.
"Don't worry about it. Combat pilots with 2000 hours can get sick riding the back seat. You don't have anything to do with your hands, you can't remain focused. You think . . . you get airsick. It happens to the best of us."
"I was taking photographs. I was tape recording. I wasn't idle. That's no excuse. I just blew it."
"Naw. . .you've had two days of flying in a combat zone; a C170, Snoopy, and now an F100; plus you partied last night. It all adds up."
That was probably closer to the truth. I had partied a bit too much last night. Had very little sleep. Was queasy to begin with . . . and I had been very busy. In later years I have heard from other military pilots that, indeed, it is quite easy to get sick flying "back seat." (But several of my Kiwanis brethren, Navy and Marine fighter pilots all laughed and said . . . “naw, they were just trying to make you feel good. Combat pilots fly back seat periodically. We never get sick.”
But it still upsets me to no end.
Still later that day we got the BDA (Bomb Damage Assessment). One secondary explosion with blue-black smoke; an indication that we had hit our target well, probably blew up an ammo dump of some type.
The following year when I returned to Vietnam I had hoped for another ride in a fighter, this time an F4 Phantom. I was qualified stateside to ride with them but everytime they had a flight going where I could go I was on another mission; everytime I was available to go they were flying over and above the DMZ. Correspondents were not allowed to fly above the DMZ.
I have never had another chance to fly a military fighter. I am now 67 years old. I expect the bulk of my days of adventure are behind me. I still seek adventure and excitement but I now exercise a wee bit more caution. After all, I had been fired upon in Vietnam. Twice. Once on the FAC mission, another when I was caught in a mortar attack at An Khe.
But that's another story.
The ROK’s (Korean Military) were one of the most feared military units in Vietnam, by both Viet Cong and the NVA (North Vietnamese Army). Reason? They didn’t normally take prisonsers . . . and those they did take, didn’t last long.
One day some ROK officers came into a nearby American camp and asked to borrow a helicopter and pilot for an hour or so. The C.O. asked them why they needed the chopper. The ROK officer calmly replied that he had some prisoners to interrogate. He was going to take them up a couple of thousand feet and begin tossing them out. He figured the last two or three out of the group would be very cooperative by the time their turns came.
He didn't get the helicopter.
This story and a variety of others were fairly common in Vietnam (and, indeed, in almost any combat zone).
It was not an apocryphal story. It happened. Several times. And it wasn't always ROK's that did it. Our very own U.S. of A troopers were known to use "creative interrogation".
Another troop that the NVA and VC were not terribly fond
of were our LRRP's (pronounced "Lurps") [Long Range Recon Patrol]. These were the lads that came back with VC ears hanging around their necks. I've seen 'em.
One night in Saigon I had a lad that had been assigned to me as my press liaison. I had arranged with the Congressman who sponsored my tour to have him detailed to me. He saw more of Vietnam in two weeks with me than he had for the 6-7 months
he had been in-country. While in Saigon he insisted he wanted
to get laid. I told him he was nuts, that these gals were walking cases of VD. He didn't give a damn, he was going back to the bush in two days time and he wanted to get laid. It was late at night, past curfew. The White Mice (Saigon Police) normally did not bother me after curfew. They tended to beat up
on their own people. They normally did not bother with correspondents and/or military types who had any rank.
So we set out to get John laid.
We walked downtown to find a compliant young lady. It didn't take long. We found John a lady, sent him off to a room. I started to head into the bar to wait for him and here were a bunch of LRRP's in from the bush, drunker than lords and mean.
I prudently made my exit as I felt my presence would not add
much to the joviality and I didn't want some drunken LRRP
deciding that, just for giggles, he'd like to add a correspondents ears to his VC ear necklace.
I found another, more sedate, bar.
John and I met up later. He had a rather large grin on his face. Two days later he went back into the bush. About three weeks later I went home.
About a month after arriving home I heard from John back in Vietnam.
Sure enough, he had come down with a case of the clap. Big time. He didn't give a damn. He might be blown away by the enemy tomorrow. At least he had gotten laid. He said he still was grinning, in spite of it all.
Meanwhile, the LRRPS went right on collecting ears.