[From Jack Serig's "Picnic in Laos" Story]
"General Duong Van "BIG" MINH was an imposing figure. A four-star general, he had retired from the South Vietnamese Army and was active in his country's politics. He was taller than six feet, large boned, crew cut and a wide, easy grin that exposed a missing tooth in the upper row. Several gold crowns also drew your attention to his mouth when you first met him. He reportedly refused to have his missing tooth replaced. He wanted to remind himself, and especially others who met him, that his tooth was lost to the Viet Minh when he was in their capture. It was, apparently, his personal "Badge of Courage". He had survived the Viet Minh's torture."
"It was mid-1962 when we met on the Da Nang tarmac. The general, and his entourage, needed an aircraft to accompany a helicopter to take the general's party to Lao Bao, so they could visit Laos, of all places. I didn't think I had signed up for Laos! Lao Boa was the closest South Viet field to the Laos destination. My 18th Aviation Company's U-1A (Low-Slow-Reliable) Otter flight detachment was given the mission."
"Just days before, I had flown a young U.S. Army sergeant to Lao Bao to rejoin his MAAG (Military Assistance Advisory Group) unit. He had been one of the very first prisoners of war ever captured by the Vietcong. But the Cong had returned him to a friendly unit, unexplainably. His capture and release had made international news. I had read about him in the Pacific Stars and Stripes before meeting him and taking him back to Lao Bao."
"And now, here we were, a few days later on the Da Nang tarmac expected to accompany this picnic-like gathering to visit Laos, via Lao Bao, near where the sergeant had been captured."
"The general was in civvies accompanied by two American's in golf-club togs who said they were lieutenant colonels from the embassy in Saigon. They had all brought their wives who were dressed similarly with blouses, slacks and high heels, and lots of jewelry. The only thing lacking was a holiday picnic lunch basket, with French wine, of course. Our crew was concerned, especially for the safety of the ladies because of our knowledge of active Vietcong operations in the area. Surely, our embassy staff knew of the return of the captured sergeant in the same locale. Some picnic!"
"The general mounted the helicopter with his small party and the embassy-types with wives boarded our Otter. It was a beautiful VFR (Visual Flight Rules) morning. The flight was pleasant landing at the 1,300 foot Lao Bao strip about mid-morning. We had alerted the MAAG unit of our impending time of arrival while in flight and they were waiting for us with several jeeps."
"We loaded into the jeeps leaving behind security for the aircraft. After a few kilometers along the South Viet side of the border we reached a concrete marker which advised we were crossing into Laos. We stopped for pictures."
"After a few minutes into Laos the general halted the convoy, had the vehicles park and proceeded toward the "unknown" via a footpath. He seemed to know exactly where he was going, as though he'd been there before. Over a small rise in the path was a broken down palm-thatched shelter serving, we would learn, as a guardhouse. A young, bronzed man, streaked with dirt, in a dilapidated, battered, dirty uniform of khaki shorts and black shirt raised his relic of a rifle as in salute. The general engaged the young man in conversation and obtained permission to enter Laos, or the village, perhaps both."
"The few U.S. military personnel in uniform with weapons automatically flowed toward the flanks of the general's party to allow for clearer fields of fire and whatever protection they could provide the party, if that became necessary."
"We stayed in the village less than thirty minutes. It wasn't a detailed inspection tour. The general was doing the questioning and consulting with a few of the village women. The officer's ladies in the party remained jovial and paid special attention to the tatter-clothed kids. Others in our party were making polite but strained conversation around the periphery of the VIP's, on alert!"
"An unseen danger! Kept expecting something to happen? It didn't! We went back to our jeeps, much more somber than when we arrived, and returned to Lao Bao and flew the Saigon-Laos picnic-party back to Da Nang."
[End of Jack's story]
[From Jack's "BLOOD BROTHERS" Story]
"One dark, cloudy night, the unit commander summoned my Otter aircraft crew to his native-style quarters in our 18th Aviation Company's hooch village, located at the northeast section of the Nha Trang Air Base. It was mid-1962. An emergency request had been received to take a packet of human blood to Dalat. An ARVN soldier, stationed in Dalat had been severely wounded. The blood delivery could make the difference in saving the injured soldier's life. The South Vietnamese Air Force unit stationed at the base was unable to take the mission. Our unit commander agreed to fill in. Keith Mowry was the crew chief, Louis Oliverio the pilot and I was aircraft commander."
"There were two airfields at Dalat. A respectable, long concrete field with an operations building/terminal and tower located at the base of a mountain which held the town of Dalat in its upper region. A much shorter grass strip was on a sloping, small plateau within the town of Dalat on top of the mountain. Neither field had night lighting and we were unable to determine from the emergency request at which field we were to deliver the blood. My crew's selection for this mission came about for several reasons. We were available; and I had personally experienced one daytime landing at each field. With the CO we jointly determined that we could deliver the blood, barring adverse weather conditions."
"In planning the mission several important items were discussed: How to keep the blood cool; the overcast weather; flight planning; instrument qualifications; airfield familiarization; NOTAM (notice to airmen) check; and to whom the blood should be delivered. We estimated an engine-start time to coordinate the blood's delivery and purloined a container of ice from the mess hall to keep it cool during the flight. Preliminary weather reports indicated overcast conditions enroute. We should be able to fly on-top after penetrating the cloud bank by climbing to altitude over the South China Sea, back to the Nha Trang ADF (automatic direction finder) beacon, then flying a prescribed direct route to Dalat with sufficient altitude to clear the mountainous terrain. There were no NOTAM's for Dalat. We would land at the main, concrete runway at the base of the Dalat mountain. If no one was there to meet us we would do our best to fly to the mountaintop strip near Dalat city which had low overcast cloud cover on our takeoff."
"The lifesaving blood was delivered to us and we took off from Nha Trang, proceeding as planned. We initiated our approach from the Dalat ADF, announcing our intentions on the prescribed radio frequencies and broke out of the soup just east of the airport, above minimums."
"There was one visible light, a small electric bulb, which gave a ghostly appearance to the tower's interior as we passed on a high recon, and one small outside security light to the rear of the operations/passenger terminal. The runway was not lighted. The field was in a narrow valley and there were no landmarks other than the close mountain ranges to either side of our direction of travel. We prepared for landing after circling the field on the high recon and lined up on final about a half-mile out, landing to the west. Upon touching down my peripheral vision was picking up blurry objects both left and right. As the aircraft slowed down we realized how fortunate we were to have stayed over the centerline. A few short yards to our right and left were large piles of construction rock and sand at close intervals along our path of travel. The runway was being readied for repairs. We had specifically checked NOTAMS for Dalat prior to our departure from Nha Trang. There were none. We had been lucky---so far! "
"We slowed on the main runway pulling off onto the available parking apron before reaching the dimly lighted operations area. I advised Louis to keep the engine running and to be ready for a quick get-away as we had seen a person in black pajamas, conical hat and slung weapon, come out of the shadows from the area behind the operations building. "Was it a good guy or bad guy?" I wondered. I dismounted and approached him, simultaneously unloosening the strap to my .45 caliber pistol and checking my jungle knife, building my courage. The pajama-clad figure watched me approach, his rifle still slung. I took him for a good guy. As I got closer I could see his smile. He turned out to be the airport's sole night security. I pantomimed "telephone", smiling back. He pointed to a phone booth. "
"The Vietnamese female operator put me through to the home of the Senior MAAG (Military Assistance Advisor Group) advisor in Dalat city, atop the mountain, an army lieutenant colonel whom I had flown to Dalat with his family earlier in the year on my only other flight into Dalat. He had remained at his home anticipating a call. His reception party was at the dirt strip, on the plateaued mountaintop waiting for us. I advised that we may not be able to get into that strip as the cloud cover was below the mountain tops. "Could he send a party down to the main airfield?" "No!" he replied, "The Vietcong controlled the roads at night and ambushes had been experienced before." It was too dangerous to send a land party. I responded that we would take off, climb on top of the cloud cover and try to find a hole through the cloud bank and search for the strip. He provided me with several radio frequencies from his jeep radio so we could communicate. I advised him how to position the several jeeps he had along the airstrip so we would have a source of lighting if we were successful in breaking through the cloud cover. The colonel concurred. Thanking the night security man with a few bows, I re-entered the Otter hoping our luck would hold and reviewed in my mind just how fortunate we had been so far: flying instruments at night with no radar tracking nor any knowledge of other aircraft in our vicinity; landing exactly where we needed to land to miss unbeknownst piles of construction materials; and encountering a pajama-clad person who could have been on the wrong side. So far, so good!"
"We were soon in the clouds again, climbing in orientation with the direction of the valley to avoid collision with the known, close-by mountains. We broke out on top, finally, heading in the direction of Dalat city. We concentrated on searching for a break in the clouds and spotted a lighted reflection coming from the city below. Checking the horizon left to right we were again over the extensive cloud bank. Suddenly and unexpectedly a small hole appeared exposing the cities lights. We cut power and lowered the nose steeply, making it through the small tunnel of hope, leveling off several hundred feet above the city. We radioed the MAAG chief that we were over the town headed east toward the airstrip and would flash our landing lights. He "Rogered!" had his jeeps flash their lights, and we responded, "Field in sight!""
"The lighting provided by the jeeps was perfect. There were also smudge pots along both sides of the runway, an unexpected assist which helped us in setting up our low approach. We completed our checklist and landed. Upon deplaning we turned the blood over to a South Viet army surgeon. He bowed and we bowed in return to his gesture of appreciation. There were nearly a hundred Vietnamese smiling and waving plus the colonel and his small MAAG contingent. Their reception was heartwarming and happy. There was clapping and excitement. We were made to feel like brothers-in-arms---"BLOOD BROTHERS!"
[End of Jack's story]
[From Jack's "Fire In Flight" Story]
"Our company commander, Captain Bob Felix, sent me to Da Nang to head our detachment of Otter aircraft deployed to support the I Corps effort. It was May 1962."
"One day, on one of our normal resupply and passenger milk runs, we had taken off from a small MAAG (Military Assistance Advisory Group) airfield dirt strip in the boonies northwest of Da Nang. We boarded one U.S. officer and five enlisted men to fly them to Da Nang."
"After takeoff we obtained air traffic control clearance to climb to a designated altitude to make a simulated instrument approach to the Da Nang airfield, for practice. The other pilot, Lou Oliverio, flew with a hood on to restrict his vision to the instruments for the practice run. It was a beautiful VFR (Visual Flight Rules) day with umpteen miles of visibility. All unit pilots practiced simulated instrument flight whenever we could to give us an edge in the unpredictable weather patterns associated with the monsoon rains we frequently encountered."
"Just as our ADF (Automatic Direction Finder) needle indicated we were almost over the Da Nang airfield, still at the assigned altitude of 4,000 feet, our single engine began running rough---sputtering. Engine instruments were within normal ranges for the moment. Glancing behind me, our six passengers appeared calm. I instructed the pilot to begin an emergency descent after he came out from under the hood. I contacted the tower on the prescribed VHF frequency and advised the Vietnamese tower operator that we were experiencing engine problems and asked for clearance to land, requesting crash rescue trucks as a precaution."
"A "Roger, cleared to land," was acknowledged. Still on high downwind we noted the cylinder head temperature gauge beginning to climb, the oil pressure gauge showed a drop, while the RPM needle fluctuated with the coughing engine."
"We set up our approach pattern to land north keeping close to the field to land power-off, if necessary. The engine kept coughing and sputtering but still provided power. We elected to keep it running as long as it agreed. A second call to the tower operator, on high base. Another request for crash trucks which we could see at their fire station, stationary. Another "Roger" from the tower operator but the fire trucks remained in position at the fire station."
"Unknown to us, a U.S. Air Force radar station individual, standing in his radar equipment compound, looked up upon hearing our complaining engine. He bolted to a telephone and called the local U.S. Air Force Senior Advisor, co-located on the airfield, advising him than an Army plane (US!) was in trouble, "On Fire!""
"By this time we were nearing our turn to high final, the engine still providing restrained power. Our feet began to get warm, then hotter, and streaks of fire began to appear in the slots of the paneling between our feet and our knees. We were on fire and apparently the forward and rear firewalls had not been able to retain what had to be a pretty good blaze. We were on high, short final---still no crash rescue vehicles. A third request and a third "Roger!""
"I instructed Louie to pull off the runway at the first taxiway and to shut down the engine. I had the fire bottle in my hand and was ready to use it after touchdown. Using it now would blind us inside the cockpit, even though the streaks of fire coming through the openings were brighter, longer, and hotter. I instructed the passengers to be ready to jump out of the plane as soon as we stopped."
"We landed, turned off the active runway and I reminded Louie again to shut down the engine. I failed to pull the emergency gas/oil shutoff valve. My mind was on the passengers and their safety---to get them out of the burning aircraft and as far away as possible. I opened the right cockpit compartment door, unlocked the restraint system, stepped onto the top step and jumped to the taxiway. My head jerked hard. Forgot to unplug my helmet from the headset cord. The jolt knocked off my glasses. I landed on them and felt the crunching under my boots."
"The fire bottle was still in my hand and I ran around the rear of the aircraft to reach the passenger door on the opposite side. Surprisingly, I beat them to the door, opened it, and as they bailed out they were instructed to run and keep away from the front of the plane. Still no crash rescue. Louie climbed down and he ran. I proceeded to the left side of the engine compartment and was astonished at the size of the blaze. I looked up at the big fire---and down at the little fire bottle---then I ran."
"Looking across the airfield I could see the crash rescue trucks finally responding. I later learned that one of their crew was washing his truck and just happened to see us, on fire, after we had brought the aircraft to a stop. He had alerted the emergency standby crash rescue crew and when they finally arrived they had the fire out in short order."
"Everything forward of the forward firewall was burned or damaged beyond repair. This would require that the engine and all accessories, lines, and wiring, be replaced. It was an expensive incident, even by 1962 standards, but the passengers and crew were all safe, without injuries."
HOW DID IT HAPPEN?
"A little history. All you Otter flyer-types will recall that the Otter engines had been used on the Navy's SNJs and Army Air Corps' AT-6s. When De Havilland of Canada bought up some of the surplus engines after WWII and put them on the front end of their Otters, they had to place metal plugs in some of the carburetor's fuel ports to reduce the fuel and power requirements for the Otter's engine design. A certain gauge safety wire was mandated to keep the plugs from backing out of their carburetor ports. We determined, during the investigation, through a record search, that a 3rd echelon maintenance type had, for some reason, performed unauthorized maintenance on the carburetor. When he put the plug back into its port the wrong gauge safety wire was installed. Over time, the weaker gauge safety wire broke and the plug began backing out of its port. This eventually caused a steady stream of 100-octane aviation gas, about the breadth of your little finger, to shoot out of the now-exposed port, making direct contact with the hot, left side manifold. This raw gas ignited the fire that burned through oil and hydraulic lines, adding to the fire's intensity. So much for the cause!"
WHY HADN'T THE CRASH RESCUE UNITS RESPONDED?
"After seeing that the damaged Otter was towed to our space on the flight line at the Da Nang airfield, I paid a visit to the Senior U.S. Air Force Advisor, who was liaison with the South Vietnamese Airfield Commander. On my questioning as to what communications existed between the Da Nang tower and the U.S. Air Force crash rescue unit, he advised that all calls from the tower had to go through a Vietnamese controlled telephone switchboard. If the switchboard was busy the call placed by the tower operator, even in an emergency, would not receive a response. I couldn't believe what I was hearing."
"Then I asked the Advisor if he had been aware that an Army Otter had landed, on fire. He said, "Yes!" That he had received a call from an alarmed crewman stationed at the local radar unit who had seen an Otter fly over with its engine on fire. When I responded that that was my ship, with eight people on board, the Advisor laughed loudly and said: "Yeah, the same thing happened to an Air Force fighter that landed on fire last week. Crash rescue couldn't be contacted because of the telephone switchboard arrangement." I felt my face flushing with unusual anger and said in a tone unmistakably insubordinate, that if he didn't have a direct line between the tower and crash rescue unit by the end of the week, he'd be reported to his superiors in Saigon. I turned and left his office. The direct line was in the next day. The Advisor called me personally to let me know. Also the next day, a call from my company commander advised me to fly back to Nha Trang, our home field. He related that he had to escort me personally before our Battalion Commander, a Lieutenant Colonel Richardson, in Saigon, whose armchair staff officers recommended I face an Article 15 for improper in-flight emergency procedures."
"We flew from Nha Trang to Saigon the following day in our unit 0-1 Birddog. The longest flight I ever made---my career in potential jeopardy. Soon after landing at Tan Son Nhut we were admitted to the Battalion Commander's outer office. My commanding officer was called in while I waited outside. Battalion staff officers were present with the two commanders discussing my fate. The door remained closed a seemingly long time. Finally, I was summoned, reporting as ordered. The Battalion C.O. was patient and even-handed in his questioning. I believed he was treating me fairly. I was asked to explain the sequence of events surrounding the emergency at Da Nang. I explained that we, the two pilots, were really not aware we had an engine fire until just short of turning final. Once we recognized we were on fire I believed it imperative to keep the engine running as long as it was providing power."
"Why hadn't I pulled the gas/oil shutoff valve, even after turning off the runway?" My response was that I had given the pilot instructions to shut down the engine. My main concern was for safe evacuation of the passengers and crew from the aircraft. It wouldn't have made a significant difference whether or not I had pulled the lever at the same time the engine was being shut down, which would have the same effect. He thanked me and excused me. I saluted. The door closed behind me and I was again in the outer office awaiting my fate."
"It wasn't long before my unit C.O. emerged. He was smiling. I felt some momentary relief. On the way back to our 0-1 he said: "Well Jack, we compromised!"
[End of Jack's story]
As one aviator described the situation:
"At Da Nang it was mostly flying over jungle mountains, which meant there was not much danger of ground fire, but if a problem arose there was no place to make an emergency landing except in the trees."
"Flying out of Saigon meant you had to get up every morning at 0400 hours to get to the area of operations. This area was flat, which meant that every VC who had a rifle had a chance to shoot at you."
"In Pleiku and Ban-Me-Thuot you had a combination of mountains and high plains."
[From Jack Serig's - "Otter MEDEVAC" story]
"One mid-afternoon, fall of 1962, on a routine scheduled Otter flight out of Saigon's Tan Son Nhut International Airport, we landed at the dirt strip of Moc Hoa located on the southeastern edge of the Plain of Reeds in the delta region. A company of CH-21 Shawnee twin-rotor helicopters were lined up along both sides of the airstrip. This particular CH-21 unit was the first army aviation unit to arrive in South Vietnam."
"Beneath the overhanging rotors of each chopper were two separate groups seated on the dry grass. Group 1 consisted of the 4-man helicopter crew. The second group a combat-ready squad of South Vietnamese Army soldiers."
"As we taxied down the strip to discharge our MAAG advisor/passenger, we observed a large group of mixed military personnel surrounded by map boards to the north side of the runway. We pulled in to park---engine running---intending to return to Saigon after our passenger drop."
"The 'copter unit's commanding officer, a Major Cherney, approached to ask us if we could remain at the strip and serve as a MEDAVAC ship in the event of casualties resulting from his unit's impending mission. We agreed, shutting down the engine and accompanying the CO back to the group of mixed military. We were advised that his unit was supporting an operation composed of units of the ARVN 9th Infantry Division. The operation included liaison from local Vietnamese artillery and air force units. The maps and other informational data pertinent to the operation contained the normal military symbols and gibberish."
"Our Otter crew accepted an invitation to lunch and joined the long line awaiting the field kitchen chow. An old friend, Bob Corneil, the chopper unit's operations officer, was in the line. Before our pleasantries could be fully exchanged Bob was called away on an urgent recon mission with Bennie Potts, another CH-21 pilot. They and their two enlisted crewmen, were briefed to check out a just-called-in sighting of enemy ground forces. The crew loaded into their ship accompanied by the Senior III Corps Advisor, a Colonel Sinclair, followed by Colonel Frank Clay, Senior Army Advisor to the 9th ARVN Infantry Division. (Colonel Clay was a son of the famed Berlin Airlift Commander, General Lucias Clay)."
"A white-haired bespectacled reporter from a leading New York newspaper joined the other passengers. The recon helicopter took off, Potts and Corneil at the controls. Their profiles could be seen through the clear cockpit canopy as they disappeared to the west. The two enlisted crewmen were standing in the open cargo doors hanging on to the safety harnesses they had snapped into place, personal weapons at the ready, for whatever limited defensive protection they could provide. (Machine guns had not yet been added for door gun protection)."
"Our Otter crew finished a quick lunch and headed back to our ship to convert it into an air ambulance, just in case. When we had completed this task we returned to the military group at the open-air operations area. The operations radio suddenly came alive with excited voices as we approached. The recon CH-21 had been hit by enemy ground fire. There were wounded but the ship was flyable and enroute back to Moc Hoa."
"Eyes and ears strained toward the west for a sighting and the thwump-thwump-thwump of the twin rotors. About ten minutes passed before the chopper came into view. As it came closer we could see that the canopy, housing the cockpit, was broken and jagged from the missing pieces shot out by enemy rounds. The landing was made without mishap onto the center of the dirt strip. Crewmen from other waiting choppers left their ships to render help."
"Colonel Clay jumped out the left cargo door, limping straight for the operations center. He was very excited and bloodied from his head all the way down the left side of his body and legs. He exclaimed that they had sighted the first-ever North Vietnamese troops---regulars, in the delta."
"Bob Corneil, the left-seat pilot of the damaged "banana" was carried by stretcher over to the small medical aid station and attended by an ARVN medical officer. Bob had been shot through the left foot. His wound was cleansed and wrapped. His left boot showed evidence of the small-arms round, entry hole in the sole, exit hole at mid-center of the boot top. Bennie Potts, the right seat pilot who was flying the ship, had taken one small piece of shrapnel in the left side of his back. We watched while the doctor extracted the metal, cleansed and dressed the wound. Bennie was released back to flight duty."
"In the meantime Colonel Clay advised his South Vietnamese counterpart to take advantage of the enemy troop sighting, to load up and go engage the enemy. Major Cherney, ever calm, raised his right hand and made a circular motion. Simultaneously and instantly, all CH-21 crews, waiting beside their craft, jumped into action. The pilots from each ship slipped into their cockpits and began engine start-up. The enlisted crewmen began loading the anxious 9th Division's infantrymen. It was efficient!"
"Colonel Clay was adamant that he would not be treated for his wounds until the operation got underway and the 'copters lifted off. His combat fatigues were bloodied down his entire left side. Only his left facial and head wounds could be immediately observed. His injuries were the result of taking shrapnel when the ship's radios were hit by enemy small arms fire. He had been standing between the two pilots' stations, next to the radio storage area, and was peppered when the radios burst open from the rounds' impact. Bennie Potts injury was also caused by the exploding radios."
"We loaded Bob Corneil on a stretcher and fastened him into the left side of our Otter. Colonel Sinclair, Colonel Clay and the New York reporter sat in the seats on the right. The blood from Colonel Clay's wounds had dried. Although his wounds appeared superficial we were taking him back for a more thorough medical exam. Bill Kaler and I took off and headed for Saigon-Tan Son Nhut, about forty minutes away. We reported to Saigon approach control that we had two wounded on board and requested crash-rescue trucks alongside the runway when landing, a standard unit SOP when flying wounded."
"Turning the aircraft over to Bill, I visited the passenger compartment to check on our charges. I had always carried, in Vietnam only, a small curved, metal brandy flask filled with good brandy, just in case something like this would ever require medicinal treatment. The flask fit snugly in the lower zippered leg pocket of the standard flight suit. The concave side of the flask fit the convex curvature of my leg, so it was never noticeable. I offered each passenger a pull on the medicinal mixture. All but Colonel Clay politely refused. He took a long draw."
"We landed at Saigon, crash-rescue trucks following us down both sides of the runway, and pulled into the passenger terminal where waiting medical crews and ambulances stood by. Our passengers were among the very first wounded Americans during the "61 - "62 military buildup."
"Colonel Clay returned to his duties with the ARVN 9th Infantry Division."
"Bob Corneil was transferred to the 8th Field Hospital in Nha Trang where he recovered from his foot wound. He was reassigned as Commanding Officer of a recently arrived CH-34 chopper unit in Pleiku. He was shot down several weeks after assuming command. He and a South Vietnamese Army major were the only survivors. After crash landing in mountainous and jungled terrain, Bob made his way to a stream accompanied by an enlisted crewman. The crewman complained that he could go no further and sat down by the edge of the stream. Bob kept walking downstream and was spotted at nearly dusk when the last remnants of the sun's rays shined on his bald head, making sufficient glare for rescuers in a searching helicopter to locate him. They lifted him out."
"The next day a ground party hacked their way to the downed 'copter's position. A. U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, a passenger on the downed ship, who had been alive after the crash, had been given a "coup de grace" by the Viet Cong who had shot down the aircraft. For some reason, the VC who had shot the aircraft down, allowed the South Viet major, also injured in the crash, to live."
"The enlisted crewmember that started down the streambed the day before with his commander was found by the ground rescue team where he was last reported seen by Major Corneil. He had succumbed from internal wounds."
"It was fall season, 1962. The war was young---and so were its casualties!"
[End of Jack's story]
One 18th Aviation Company aviator described his posting to Da Nang in 1962 as follows:
"We were supporting the Military Advisory Headquarters at Da Nang. Six days a week we flew to Hue, Phu Bai, Hue Citadel, Highway 19 (an Australian base), Quang Tri and Khe San. Twice a week we made a side trip to the Ashau Valley to land at Ashau, Aloui and Tabat. This was the morning flight. In the afternoon we went south, to Cung Son, Quang Nai, Khamm Duc and Tam Ky. We took passengers, supplies, mail, or whatever we could fit in the door of the Otter including rice wine, pigs and chickens. On Sunday we did the whole thing over again, except that we took the Chaplain to each of those airfields to hold services."
Stories Section 1963
You say we need some stories about the Otter in Vietnam; well we do, and the people to tell them are the ones who have been flying that old Low, Slow and Reliable, but ugly looking, single engine monster that can land as short as any aircraft, if properly flown, but can take an interminable length of time to get in the air when getting out of a short strip with a load, which the pilot hopes he has correctly figured.
At any rate, we can list facts and figures, total statistics, compute flight time, and set all kinds of records which, when tabulated and put in third person form, will be very impressive indeed to those who are looking for this sort of thing. But, the story of the Otter, as in any aircraft, or for that matter, any military unit, is the experiences of the people in that unit; in this case those of the crew members.
Day by day, these are the people who do the job, with little comment, in usually routine operations; but, occasionally, quite out of the ordinary in an extremely tense and critical situation. Incidental to our operation in Vietnam, which is flying combat support missions, the following is a group of stories that have been coaxed from the Otter crew members, most of which were very reluctant to write about themselves.
It is only a small number of the possible stories that they have in their memories, but each one represents a particularly vivid moment or span of time and it’s highly likely that similar incidents have been repeated time and again, not only by the present crew members, but by those who have been before us.
Mine starts off from Da Nang, a mission to transport a senior ARVN Division advisor, 2 members of his staff, and their counterparts to a little valley next to Laos, which has 3 airstrips. Good weather and no problem skirting a known Viet Cong outpost just East of Ashau. We landed, just as we shut down the engine, one of the Vietnamese who was at the planeside ready to greet our passengers, very excitedly explained to an interpreter that there were some wounded men at one of the other strips in the valley, and could the Otter take them back to Hue.
Apparently, there had been a fire fight with an unknown number of Viet Cong in the hills surrounding that camp the previous night. Since we had no other mission and I was showing this area to my co-pilot for the first time since his recent arrival in the country and there appeared to be considerable concern for this mission, although not scheduled, we left immediately.
On the way to Aloui, the strip where the wounded were, I told the crew chief to put up the seats and install the litter strap since we didn’t know how many wounded there were. To my dismay, he said we didn’t have a litter kit that it had been taken out of the plane the last time it was in Nha Trang for periodic maintenance and that he had left in a hurry and had only thought it was there. So, there we were, not a very good start!
Not wanting to delay the mission, we made a straight-in approach, a little downwind, but no problem since there was over 4000 feet of PSP and a little uphill when landing to the Northeast. We turned off the runway and parked, noticing there was no one to meet us, but thinking nothing of it since we know we were expected and now no activity in the surrounding hills, which was all around, except to the south down the valley. And sure enough, here came a whole group of Vietnamese soldiers out of the camp carrying four litters and accompanied by two walking wounded and the American advisor. We told them we could only take two litter cases and the two walking wounded because of the space limitations.
In the meantime, we had stopped the engine and all crew members had departed the plane so as to supervise the loading, making sure that we loaded the most critical cases. We loaded our 2 litter patients and then found out that there were several non-wounded ARVN soldiers that wanted a ride besides two walking wounded. This is not unusual since American aircraft are about the only way these soldiers have of getting out of the valley. But, it caused a delay in emphasizing there was no room for them.
There were about 30 – 40 people standing around the plane, talking with such gesturing, very few armed, and no one in the plane except the two litter patients, when we all heard 3 distinct shots come from one of the nearby hills.
No one moved, but the ARVN all looked around quite concerned. Nothing more for a few seconds, then a puff of dust kicked up about 20 feet short of the airplane, than a distinct pop! No doubt about that!
This was followed by a few more shots and almost immediately an automatic weapon fired in our direction, with bullets whining over us and ricocheting off the PSP and hard packed dirt in front and around us. Confusion was a gentle term to describe what was happening in the vicinity of the plane. All people were making rapid movement for a 3 foot drainage ditch about 100 feet from the aircraft, leaving the two unloaded litter patients on the PSP to fend for themselves. Bullets, and now tracers were all around us, and I distinctly remember hearing what I thought at the time to be one hitting the ship. Since we were not in the ship at the time it started, and it appeared to be a well planned ambush coming from the hillside about 500 meters away to the Northeast, the crew was in the ditch along with the rest of the soldiers; no rifle, it was back in the plane along with our carbine no one being much of a hero at that time, it stayed there, all we had were the hand weapons and canteens on our belts.
It couldn’t have been over one minute since it started when we heard and saw an explosion quickly followed by another on the other side of the plane, the second closer than the first. Mortar fire; we were in great shape, if the plane hadn’t been damaged already, this would be the end. But not another mortar round came, and I can’t imagine what would have happened because the next one would have been the end of U-1A 707.
When the mortar rounds started, even though there was a sharp crackle of bullets overhead, the ARVN soldiers started running back to their camp some 100 meters to our rear. Most of the firing was directed into the compound to our rear now because no targets were visible near the plane; even the litter patients had rolled off their litters and moved by crawling and rolling to the ditch.
No more than another two minutes could have passed, even though it seemed like ten minutes when we heard friendly 105 fire coming from our rear and outbound. That’s the best sound we heard all day. However, the bullets didn’t stop, even though most were overhead. We were trapped by the Otter between the Viet Cong firing, and several times, I looked up to ascertain what damage had been done to it until a particularly close “snap”, when I involuntarily ducked down again.
I could see no holes, although I couldn’t possible see how it had been missed. The 105 continued firing, and by now the ditch was mostly vacant except for the Otter crew, 3 of us now together, and the two litter patients. The firing on the hill had definitely subsided to just rifle shots, and I estimated there were about a squad firing now. I had to get the plane out of there, if it was still flyable. And I had to find out quickly if it was or not.
There was no oil on the ground under it, or gas to indicate leakage, and still could see no holes. We had a quick discussion; all 3 of us were ready to get out of there. We figured that myself and the crew chief could leave the ditch together, each running for our respective right hand door, since it was the closest side, the co-pilot would follow us by about 3 seconds. There would be no lost motion on my part and the crew chief would close the cargo doors if he could; if not, just release the forward door and brace the litters so they wouldn’t slide backwards. The co-pilot was to put the flaps down. If we found something indicating it wouldn’t fly or couldn’t start it, then we were to vacate it back to the compound. Bullets were still flying overhead. (The Viet Cong must have figured they had already disabled the airplane, since it was apparent they were not firing at it. However, we thought that once movement was spotted around the plane and the prop turned, we’d become targets again).
We started as planned, and I remember thinking that 100 feet is a very short distance, and shouldn’t even notice the effort, but I was conscious of breathing hard when I did reach the co-pilot’s door. Up and over his seat, switches on, gas was still on, fuel pump on, starter and prime at the same time. Good old Pratt and Whitney, only 3 or four blades turned through when it started; mixture forward.
The co-pilot just started pumping down the flaps, the throttle went forward and we moved, the tail wheel unlocked, brake around a 60 degree turn, throttle to about 35 inches, on safety belt, take off flaps, and we were down the runway; fortunately, going downhill away from the shooting.
Once airborne, and loaded for a short strip only about 3 minutes away where if anything did develop we could land, we also started looking around, and getting strapped in, radios on and notifying the Hue Headquarters so some support aircraft could help the defenders. Could see no bullet holes, gauges were O. K., so we climbed up and headed to Hue to discharge the litter patients.
Landed with no problem, ambulance met us and whisked the wounded off. A detailed check of the Otter revealed absolutely no holes or scratches; I’ll never understand why, but I do know that some One up there was looking out for us. Later on we learned the mortar fire had resumed shortly after we left and had killed 11 men in the camp and wounded a greater number.
It had been a quiet Sunday in August in the usually serene atmosphere of the MAAG Compound at Pleiku. It was a time for reading and relaxing, and by the late afternoon we were anticipating Steak Night at the Club.
Then came the call. There was an emergency Med-Evac to be taken to the 8th Field Hospital at Nha Trang immediately. I grabbed the nearest other pilot available, we changed, made a quick trip to the airfield by jeep, and 34 minutes later we were airborne with our precious cargo. There wasn’t time for a written flight plan, elaborate weather briefing or other normal preflight planning. A hasty pre-flight inspection of the airplane, a quick consultation with the medics and we were off.
The diagnosis for our patient was a possible broken back incurred when making a parachute jump. He was a young American Captain and was obviously in a great deal of pain. We tried to make him as comfortable as possible lying on a standard army litter on the floor of our U-1A “Otter”.
The flight from Pleiku to Nha Trang usually takes about an hour and a half. But when we were barely fifteen minutes out of Pleiku we could see in the distance a formation of clouds directly in our flight path. It became increasingly more obvious as we approached it that the only weather in a radius of about 100 miles lay directly over the coast in the vicinity of Nha Trang. But flying out of Pleiku during the Monsoon Season, we were well acquainted with flying in bad weather and at the moment it didn’t concern us too much.
My flying partner, a Warrant Officer with several thousand hours of flying experience, but lacking an instrument ticket, was in the pilot’s seat. Figuring that we might “top” the weather, he continued his climb until we were at 11,000 feet. As we got to within 50 miles of Nha Trang, it was obvious we couldn’t top it all, and we were forced to alter our course to the east to stay VFR.
By this time we made contact with the tower at Nha Trang and asked the controller for Nha Trang weather. The tower operator was Vietnamese. He answered and gave us the weather, but we were unable to understand him, due in part to the breaking up of the transmission over the rough terrain and in part, to the inability of the tower operator to speak English distinctly. After several attempts to have him repeat the transmission, I asked him to call an American to the control tower. I didn’t know whether he understood me.
By this time we were approaching the coastline north of Nha Trang and the sun was just on the horizon. With the increasing darkness, we could see flashes of lightening more distinctly, and to our dismay, most of it was coming from the area which we knew to be our destination.
As we turned south along the coast the clouds in front of us became more dense. It was not certain that we could not top the thunderstorms which appeared to build up to about 20,000 feet. We began to descend along the coastline which was now barely visible. Our hope was to continue to follow the coast underneath the cloud deck to Nha Trang, which was now only 20 miles away.
We descended to 500 feet over the South China Sea, and in the last remnants of twilight we were able to find our way between several cells of the massive thunderstorms to about 5 miles further south. But by now daylight had run out and the ragged coastline and hills were just shadows contrasting them from the sea.
Our mission seemed to us to have been a futile effort. We were within 15 miles of our destination. It was impossible to get there on top. It was too dangerous to be wandering around at any low altitude with terrain ranging to 7,000 feet within ten miles of our position. We had already used up two and a half hours of our fuel, and the time had come for us to decide whether to go on or return to an alternate airport before we ran out of fuel. Our efforts to communicate with Nha Trang tower had become more frustrating, since the tower operator, now sensing the gravity of the situation, was even less coherent for his concern. Our patient, though showing extreme courage, was visibly in deep pain as he lay on his back on the litter.
Yet as we considered our dilemma, there was nowhere for us to go, other than our destination, if we were to help our patient. He had already been examined by a qualified physician at Pleiku. His decision had been to evacuate him. Nha Trang was one of two hospitals in Vietnam and the only one within our range.
As we began ascending in a clear area over the coast we were relieved finally to hear the voice of an American on our FM radio. It was our operations officer at Nha Trang. He asked us our position and we gave him what could now be only a good estimate.
Our Automatic Direction Finder (IADF) instrument gave us a general bearing to the beacon at Nha Trang, but with thunderstorms all around, it moved continually from one flash of lightening to another and back to the beacon.
Later, as we talked about the flight on the ground, our operations officers told us of having looked in the direction of the position we had reported to him, to his horror, all he could see was a giant thunderstorm.
Our only hope now was to get around or between the thunderstorms based on information we received on the weather as seen by our people on the ground. We asked them how it looked between their location and ours. Not too good. How was it to the East – the West? How about going around to the south? It was all the same. The thunderstorms literally surrounded Nha Trang on all sides.
We decided to attempt to “probe” the weather between us and the beacon at a safe altitude above the terrain to see if we could get there between cells. It should be noted that “probing” of thunderstorms is not recommended as a technique for getting between cells. Anyone who has flown anywhere near thunderstorms will attest to the foolhardiness of such a maneuver. It is a fact; however, that when flying close to thunderstorms at night it is impossible to tell whether a lightning bolt is 2 miles or 20 miles away. It was entirely possible that as the storm system was moving, it could have moved over the field by this time. It was our intent to find out. We would fly several minutes and when the turbulence began we would turn around and try at another place. We could not risk flying into a cell and its inherent turbulence with a patient with a possible broken back aboard.
Now our problem became more complex. We were flying with a non-instrument rated aviator in the pilot’s seat. His lack of experience flying in actual weather conditions caused him to get vertigo several times. I would give him a heading to fly, he would hold it for a few seconds, and then as I would be checking my chart, I would notice him in a turn, an obvious case of vertigo. I would tell him to turn back to the heading, he would hold it again for awhile, and then he would be back in a turn, climb, dive or some combination attitude. Since he was outwardly calm and responding to instructions, I allowed him to continue to fly. This allowed us to monitor our position as closely as possible.
After several unsuccessful probes we turned directly west and flew out about 10 minutes to give it one more try. Our intent was to try to follow the storms since they were moving eastward. Then we turned back toward the beacon and in 5 minutes saw the welcome sign – 1 180 degree turn of the ADF needle indicating our position directly over the beacon and the field at Nha Trang. We were still in the clouds, but the turbulence was very light and it was now only a case of flying an instrument approach to the field.
I talked the pilot through the descent in the holding pattern above the beacon, and as we were descending through 6,000 feet we broke out into the clear. We could see the lights of the city below us and faintly make out the runway lights far below. We discontinued our instrument approach immediately and began a rapid VFR descent over the field.
As we landed we could see the ambulance and several other vehicles awaiting us. One vehicle drove out to escort us to the taxiway. Our patient was quickly transferred to the ambulance, we bid him farewell, and he was on his way to medical care at last.
It had taken us three hours and ten minutes, forty of which were at night and in weather, to make the trip from Pleiku. We hadn’t had time to notice now nervous we really had gotten; but as we stepped out of the airplane, shaking hands to congratulate ourselves on having accomplished the mission and to have “survived”. Old terra-firm had never looked better.
Kenneth L. Heikkinen
Captain, Corps Engineers
With pride I have watched the DeHavilland workhorse Otter aircraft and crew perform outstanding jobs in tropical Viet Nam. Faithfully it has plowed through weather and war through-out this worried little world. From rugged jungle covered mountains to rice paddies range 177 airstrips from which the reliable Otter may operate. Each airstrip has its own pile of problems which range from snipers to odd winds or obstacles. Some are even hard to find. One such strip is Ba To. It drops off about (50) fifty feet straight down on both ends and is only eleven hundred feet long. We stepped it off and lost a little faith in a publication which listed it at fourteen hundred (1400) feet. This strip is also surrounded by hills and has its own personal cloud and patch of fog.
My introduction to Ba To came in the form of a medical evacuation mission. Fully aware that this hamlet area had been hit only a few hours before, at day break we circled down into the Ba To valley, and there was that stationary aircraft carrier, but without a catch line or catapult.
We landed in an area of a couple hundred feet. There came a truck with two (2) stretcher patients and three walking wounded. We loaded them in with haste for this was no place to visit. Then the families of the wounded jumped aboard. We had to play the “Ugly American” roll and drag them away from their loved ones. They did get to leave their little bundles of food and clothes though.
We noticed the wind wouldn’t be much help so we thought we could use every inch of this optical illusion we were on. The brakes were held and all the power the book would allow was put in. Then the expected jerk and surge released disappointed in me as the half way point went by and extra flaps went down. Then the Otter, doing what the Otter does, began to fly, harnesses became unlocked and all was well with the world.
On the light side, I heard an Otter pilot call, “Tower Saigon, Turning Base.”
You would have to know the source to appreciate this one, in reply to Paris controls question if he had a parrot aboard, an Otter pilot stated no, but he had some pigs, wild chickens and a bunch of Vietnamese.
The “O” Ring & Pin
On the 28 Dec 63 the following incident occurred.
I (SP/4 George B. Osenga) crew chief on U-1A number 58-1717, had for a mission the transporting from Pleiku to Nha Trang thirty seven (37) jumped parachutes in their bags. One (1) Special Forces sergeant with a carbine & personal survival kit with two (2) M-26 anti-personnel grenades strapped to the sides.
Prior to this boarding I checked the pins & found them to be secured. Upon arrival at Nha Trang I again checked the grenades & found them to be still secure.
The sergeant then exchanged the parachutes & we returned to Pleiku. Upon arrival at Pleiku we unloaded the new parachutes on a Special Forces truck. I passed the sergeant his weapon, survival kit & the two (2) grenades.
I then proceeded to clean the ship. Upon reaching the rear of the ship, I found an “O” ring & pin. I checked my smoke grenades & found my pins intact.
PFC Jolly Whelder & I then got in our truck and chased the Special Forces truck and told them about the grenades with the missing pin. They then proceeded to replace the pin.
The next day I was sitting in my room, when one of the Special Forces men that replaced the pin in the grenade came and asked me if I knew that the striker had already gone forward & hit the cap. I said no.
SP/4 GEORGE B. OSENGA
Crew Chief “Otter” 58-1717
The Postage Stamp
In Sept 1963 I arrived in Vietnam eager to go to work after a month of leave, but yet was rather scared of the uncertain future before me. I was assigned to the 18th Aviation Co (FWLT), located at Nha Trang. Being assigned to a new unit did not bother me. However, the thought of flying the U-1A Otter, which I was not qualified to fly, gave me butterflies in my stomach. After a few days of processing and becoming acquainted with the unit, I was scheduled for my first hour of check out. It wasn’t long, thereafter, that my 25 hours of check out were completed and I was full of confidence that flying the Otter was a cinch.
The day came when the operations officer said, “I want you to go down to Cam Ranh Bay to pick up three passengers and return to Nha Trang”. (Cam Ranh Bay is located south of the Nha Trang within 15 min of flying distance). So off I went in Otter 254, fat, dumb, and happy, along with the crew chief, who was unaware of my limited experience with the aircraft. Within fifteen minutes, I sighted the airstrip at Cam Ranh Bay. It was a PSP runway 1000 ft long with no barriers on either side, just ocean. I had been in this strip with an Instructor Pilot during my 25 hrs check out so I said to myself. No sweat, Torres, just do like you’ve been trained in power approaches and everything will work out.
I flew down wind, slowed the aircraft to 75 knots, dropped some flaps, and turned base, the same time descending. Upon turning final, my set up was acceptable to me, except that the strip no looked like a postage stamp. I slowed the airplane down to approach spread, came over the threshold and began the round out it was then that the aircraft floated down the runway. I decided that any second I’ll touchdown in a three point attitude and will stop before I completely ran off the postage stamp.
However the aircraft continued to float and I was reluctant to make a go around when something from my previous training said, “Go around”. I pushed the throttle forward as the end of the runway was coming up rather rapidly. To my surprise the engine coughed and my heart jumped up to my throat. I wanted to kick myself for not having executed the go around earlier, but at this moment my eyes were focused on the end of the runway and the beginning of the ocean.
Luckily the engine caught again giving full power to lift the aircraft off the runway. I quickly built up the airspeed, gained altitude and commenced the second approach. Only this time, every muscle in my body was alert and ready to respond. My second approach was successful. I picked up the three passengers and flew off the airstrip. At a safe altitude I turned back for one last look at the postage stamp. A little voice then told me “Let his be a lesson to you; never stop gaining experience”.
That’s your problem chief!
One fine day while two young energetic aviators from the 18th Avn. Co. were supporting the cause, hauling supplies to Bee Sop, it was requested that they wait a few minutes in order to transport 2 local evacuees to the province hospital at Song Ba. Together they replied of course they would wait. Upon the arrival of the patient to the aircraft, the crew chief was informed that the woman was ten months pregnant and having labor pains at two minute intervals. Upon hearing this crew chief’s drastic reply, “Oh my gosh sir, what will I do if she has it in the airplane”?
We took off from Saigon on a Special Forces resupply mission. The flight was to go to Moc Hoa and An Long. While on the roll out at Moc Hoa we heard a weak Mayday call over the radio. Army 898 was telling the world they were going down 10 miles East of Moc Hoa. We taxied into the parking area the crew chief brought six bundles of blankets out.
While he unloaded we learned from a MAAG major that 898 was a UH-1B. By the time were in the air the UH-1B was on the ground and transmitted he was 5 miles East of Moc Hoa. We told the downed helicopter we were coming and relayed his location to Paris control.
As we flew over a light brown grassy area a red flare shot up and arched over leaving a white smoke tail. The first flare was followed by a second. We made radio contact with the downed aircraft, told Paris we were over the aircraft and turned on our transporter to emergency. While orbiting at altitude we notified the helicopter company at Vinh Long on their FM frequency, they were a little closer than Saigon to the downed UH-1B.
25 minutes later a UH-1B came from the East and landed next to 898. A third armed UH-1B arrived over the area and flew in a circle around the two aircraft on the ground. An Air Force L-19 control plane arrived about 30 minutes after we had initially contacted Paris. We then continued on our way and completed our original mission.
THE DAY OF THE COUP
On the morning of the coup Mr. Schuman and I were scheduled for a 05:30 departure from Tan Son Nhut, at 05:45 as we watched the assault on the palace from the balcony of the Afana Hotel we were reminded that we’d be late for the flight if we didn’t hurry. Since the buses and military taxis weren’t running it was suggested that we take a blue and white cab. After hesitating until 07:00 and still finding the streets deserted we managed to bum a ride to the aircraft with a Vietnamese soldier. When we arrived at the airfield we found ourselves the only ones there. Everyone in operations had been kept in their hotels. About 10:00 people began to trickle in. About 12:00 we took off. That day we went into three strips; were fired upon at all three, at one strip we were fired at six times. But all in all it was just another day in Viet Nam.
THE OTTER AND EVIL SPIRIT
While transporting the I Corps Artillery Inspection Team to various artillery sites in the Da Nang area I learned another interesting sidelight concerning the habits and customs of the local people.
After completing a low recon of this particular strip and establishing an approach, which was completed to the point of touchdown, one of the local citizens who had been watching from the side of the strip, suddenly ran in front of the aircraft. The aircraft passed the man so close that I couldn’t understand how we could possibly have missed him. In fact I was convinced that we had hit the man.
When I had parked the aircraft, and learned much to my relief that it had only been a close call, I questioned one of the local advisors about the incident. The advisor calmly explained that the man only wanted to get rid of his evil spirit and felt that if he ran in front of an aircraft or some other vehicle and came close enough, that the aircraft would surely hit and kill the evil spirit that was following him. As close as this man came to tangling with the prop I have no doubt in my mind that his evil spirit was killed.
BAN ME THOUT TRAIL
Come along boys and listen to my tale,
As I tell you of my troubles,
On the Ban Me Thout trail.
Come and park your Otter in a tree, in a tree,
Come and park your Otter in a tree.
Set out on the trail on Sept 21st
Set out on the trail with a burning thirst.
Put down the flaps, pour on the power
You’ll be home in another hour.
Goin down the runway, airspeed low
Looked at the clock, said time to go
Goin down the runway, RPM high,
Said it’s time to grab some sky
Got off the ground, headed for the trees,
Said, Oh Lord! Some power please.
I looked at Burroughs, and said it’s a sin
But this here Otter is goin in.
We hit the ground, but with a thud
I smelled for smoke, I looked for blood.
I smelled no smoke, that was fine
The only blood, it was all mine
I counted noses, and gave a shout.
5 souls on board, 5 souls walked out.
That’s my story, sad but true
If you fly those Otters, it could happen to you.
NO LIGHTS AT PHAN THIET
t Funk and I were flying #254 out of Di Linh Special Zone HQ. On this particular Thursday our schedule included many stops. Finally, a short while after 1800 we landed in Di Linh and received an urgent message from the senior advisor, a Strategic Hamlet had been overrun that afternoon and several ARVIN troops had been seriously wounded. Could we take them to the Vietnamese Hospital at Phan Thiet? Sure could – where are the wounded? A Huey had gone to the boonies to pick up 3 and would meet us at Bao Loc. Sunset was at 1830 and we touched down at 1845. As we shut down I could hear the Huey approaching rapidly. During the trip from Di Linh SP/5 English did an efficient job of rigging the litter racks so our loading time was cut to a minimum. Even so, by the time the Huey had cleared the strip and we began our take-off roll, only the mountaintops were visible. How far to Phan Thiet – 70 miles and downhill all the way.
We had called ahead and requested transportation and an ARVIN ambulance to rendezvous at the airfield. Now all we had to do was find the damn thing. Our ADF pointed the way and pretty soon lights were visible in the distance. Only there must be some mistake; the lights were 20 degrees to the left of our ADF bearings which way should we go now? About this time I started to mention this to Dan, he said, “I don’t think those lights are the town, they look more like a fishing fleet. His hunch was correct and in a few more minutes we could make out some lights in Phan Thiet, the shoreline, the Decca Tower next to the airfield. The fishing fleet lights were 10 miles out at sea but were brighter and more numerous than those in town.
As we descended, we began to encounter a haze layer and soon our only landmark was the radio tower. From memory we made a letdown, feeling for the airfield every foot of the way. Then we lost sight of the town, shoreline and everything but the small circle of ground illuminated by the landing lights. Dan thought the strip was to the left and I thought it was on our right.
Our calculations had been near perfect and our descent brought us very close to the end of the runway. The MAAG advisors had placed a jeep at each end of the airfield, headlights converging toward the center. Dan was so careful I could barely feel the wheels kiss the welcome runway.
Suddenly we noticed how we had perspired during that 40 minute flight. We parked and shut down at 1945 and unloaded the wounded; the Vietnamese did men would not assist, but finally consented to drive the ambulance to the hospital. Shad detected a combat odor when we had unloaded our wounded passengers, a mild scent of burned flesh, sulfur, and a lot of sweet. They had been shot full of morphine; I learned a day later that one had eventually died from his wounds.
The MAAG advisors talked excitedly of our night landing and how we really had earned our flight pay. We didn’t earn much; just another day with an exciting ending. We sure didn’t have much trouble falling asleep.
Flying from Saigon to Nha Trang is usually a routine, unexciting task. To further avoid any unnecessary excitement when the weather is bad inland and the buildups are numerous, I very gladly sacrifice the five minutes or less in additional time enroute it takes by flying the coastal route to Nha Trang. So it was one day last August that I was on my way to our company headquarters when I witnessed the most dramatic sight of my tour in Vietnam.
CWO Johnson and I were flying together and we were about 60 miles out of Saigon on a heading that would take us north of Phan Thiet on the coast when I saw an ominous column of black smoke rising to our right. Since it was only a short distance away and we were at the comfortable altitude of 8000 feet, I told Mr. Johnson to bank over to the south so we could take a closer look at the source of the smoke. As we turned the jungle growth parted slightly and revealed a thin line that was a narrow dirt road.
We descended gradually, wanting to retain a nice safe altitude and yet wanting to get low enough to see clearly, as we approached the column of smoke with the now discernible but still undistinguishable source of the foreboding smoke. Our fears for what we would see as we got closer increased with the descending miles and altitude. Now we were close enough to see three objects quickly taking the shape of vehicles stopped on and near the road. From one of these vehicles the horrible, black smoke was rising. The bright, darting orange and red flames were pushing the contrasting dark smoke skyward from what now could be distinguished as a 2½ ton truck. A ¾ ton truck and a ¼ ton jeep were the other two vehicles that were stopped one in the middle of the road and the other on its side in a shallow trench running along the road way.
When we reached the ambush scene we were at about 4000 feet. We quickly decided not to go too much lower by the presence of many figures.
Service Platoon Sergeant - SFC (E-6) A. B. Holly, Jr.
[From Jack Serig's - "Those Magnificent GI's" Story]
"Not long after our arrival at Nha Trang, South Vietnam, our 18th Otter Company Executive Officer, Captain Doug Brandon, advised me to report for a meeting with him and the Commanding Officer, Captain Bob Felix, at company headquarters. I was Platoon Commander of the Service Platoon, which performed aircraft and vehicle maintenance, aircraft refueling and servicing, crash rescue, and aircraft flight testing."
"Captain Felix advised me that I was to lead a small "secret" task force for our unit's first ground mission into potential Viet Cong territory. "
"The mission: To transport 1,500 gallons of aviation fuel, in our unit fuel truck, from our Nha Trang base camp to a military unit at Duc My (Zook Me) about 50 kilometers northwest of Nha Trang. I was to select sufficient personnel and weaponry to insure the mission's success."
"The following day I directed my Service Platoon Sergeant, Sergeant First Class A. B. Holly to form the platoon. All platoon members were present. I explained to them that I needed a few volunteers to form a small taskforce to tackle a highly secret mission. I was not able to provide any details. The mission was simple and doable if we weren't attacked. There was no guarantee that there wouldn't be casualties if we encountered enemy forces as we would be traveling through unprotected territory. That's all I can tell you at this time!"
"Upon bringing the platoon to attention, I asked: "Volunteers, take one step forward!" The entire platoon, in unison, took one step forward."
"I hadn't expected one hundred percent to volunteer. I should have known better! "All aviation types but magnificent GI's", I thought."
"I thanked the platoon members for their outstanding spirit and willingness to volunteer, then began the tough process of selecting the few men who would make up the taskforce."
"On the appointed day of the mission I briefed the commanding officer and executive officer on how our small force would attempt to accomplish the task. I got a surprise. We were to take a guest with us. Jack Foisie, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, A last minute change! I was advised, Foisie was a VIP, because his sister was married to Dean Rusk, Secretary of State."
"Mr. Foisie accompanied me to the two-vehicle convoy, the refueling truck and the jeep with trailer-mounted machine gun. Weapons and ammunition were checked again. All personal effects were left behind. This was double-checked. Identification tags were checked. Our uniform was fatigues and jungle-type combat boots, each man carrying their assigned weapons and other weapons they felt comfortable with, such as jungle knives and side arms. Protective armored vests completed our combat-ready wardrobe."
"The mission briefing began. I explained, using the unmarked map, where likely ambushes could be. Where a bridge had been sabotaged over what was thought to be a fordable stream. The jeep would take the lead through the city by the pre-determined route I had selected. Several kilometers after passing the city's north gate on Highway 1, where we would begin an uphill climb, the refueling truck would take the lead. If necessary, the fuel truck would attempt to breach roadblocks by crashing through them. The jeep would drop behind by several hundred yards to provide covering fire if the fuel truck was attacked. Everyone's additional mission, if it appeared the fuel would fall into enemy hands, was to concentrate on blowing up the fuel. Tracers and matches had been distributed for that purpose."
"We departed Nha Trang city without incident, passing the last South Vietnam Army's occupied guard post, onto a narrow bridge, heading north on Highway 1."
"Finally, we could tell we were getting close to Duc My when we observed Vietnamese walking and on bicycles. Eventually, we entered the MAAG (Military Assistance Advisory Group) compound without incident. 50 klicks in less than an hour! It seemed much longer!"
"We refueled the two CH-21's never learning a word about their top-secret mission and said our good-byes to Mr. Foisie. Reversing our route for our return to Nha Trang was more suspenseful. We were at an even higher level of alert now, as we all recognized we may have tipped-our-hand."
"We could have given the enemy time to set up ambush sites if they had spotted us on our initial jaunt to Duc My. But we returned to Nha Trang without incident."
"The 18th Aviation Company's first ground mission into potential enemy territory was a success."
[End of Jack's story]
[from Jack's - "A MEMORABLE"BLOODY" FLIGHT" Story]
"The 18th (Otter) Aviation Company's mission in South Vietnam, after our arrival in early 1962, was simple. We were to provide Otter support to each of the then three ARVN (Army of Vietnam) Corps' U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Groups. Company headquarters was established at the Nha Trang airfield and provided logistics support to the three detachments located at Da Nang (I Corps), Pleiku (II Corps) and Saigon (III Corps). Each detachment commander was responsible for establishing daily scheduled flights within their respective Corps area of responsibility."
"One such scheduled flight departed the Saigon-Tan Son Nhut airfield on a VFR (Visual flight rules) morning heading, eventually, deep into the Mekong Delta. An Army chaplain from one of the isolated delta camps had signed on as a passenger. Several stops at delta airstrips were scheduled before the chaplain would reach his destination. It was common in those first months of our U.S. military buildup for members of isolated units to make grocery purchases wherever groceries could be found. The chaplain had made such a purchase, for his unit's compliment, at the Saigon commissary. Our Otter crew had assisted the chaplain with the loading of his groceries. The seat across from where the Padre sat was empty and several bags of his precious commodities were placed in that seat."
"After several uneventful landings and takeoffs, the Otter lifted off from a small strip and established a new heading on climbout. Suddenly, an unfamiliar "crack" was heard by all on board, instantly followed by a small explosion within the aircraft's passenger compartment. Minds were working furiously to determine the cause of the unexplained interruption. It was immediately obvious to all on board that the "good father" was the victim of whatever it was that had occurred. The pilot looked back over his shoulder and was astounded to see the chaplain's face and upper body covered with blood. The crew chief was at the chaplain's side in an instant, ready to provide first aid and assist with the bleeding "father's" wounds. No one else appeared injured so all eyes and thoughts of crew and passengers were riveted on our wounded "Man of God." The crew chief took a few moments to check the bloody face and torso."
"All on board were rooting for the chaplain's well being. You could sense the silent, well-meant prayers of these suddenly religious souls. The pilot looked back again and activated his intercom. "How is he?" "How bad is it?" The aviator's mind-set was running through the SOP (Standard Operating Procedures) he would follow for a wounded passenger. After a few more moments the pilot could see a smile emerging from his crew chief's face. He also observed the chaplain smiling through the bloody morass that distorted his facial features. The crew chief was ebullient in his response. "Sir, he's covered with ketchup!"
"There was a short moment of silence as the new, positive piece of information registered in the minds of these concerned soldiers. Then smiles, then clapping, acknowledging the relief each person felt. Then, hard, belly-deep laughter when the realization hit each one that they had a great, funny story, which had just occurred in their presence. A story to be remembered a lifetime." "A Vietcong round had penetrated through the belly of the aircraft, upward into the seat holding the chaplain's groceries. Of all the grocery items, the round picked an isolated bottle of ketchup. No one had been injured by fragmented, flying glass. The other groceries surrounding the ketchup bottle had successfully contained the glass. But the liquid ketchup sought out an unsuspecting adversary, our "Padre.""
"In the thirty-plus years since this incident occurred, I have often pondered: "What if......the crew had placed the groceries on the opposite seat and the chaplain had been in the seat that took the round?" Somewhere it is said: "The Good Lord works in mysterious ways!""
[End of Jack's story]
[Jack Serig's "Low Slow Reliable" story continued]
"Within the allotted time our Otters were in Alameda and the rest of us found ourselves winging our way to Oakland, California airport on a nonscheduled Lockheed Constellation. We landed at Oakland, California and were whisked away to an awaiting "pocket" flattop named the USNS CORE and within two hours we were on deck waving goodbye to the dusky skyline of San Francisco, California."
"Two weeks later our ship docked on Guam Island for 24 hours to take on fuel and provisions. Enroute from Guam to the Philippines Islands we were informed by our Commanding Officer, Captain Felix, that our final destination would be Vietnam."
Stories Section 1962
First Year in Vietnam
"All 18th Otter crew members were thankful for the discoveries which led to our rebuilt engines, especially when they saw the extensive mountainous and jungled terrain we would be flying over and the monsoon rains we would be flying in throughout South Vietnam. Our unit, having experienced 13 forced and precautionary landings in the previous 18 months, had only 2 during our twelve-month tour, with no injuries and no damage to aircraft. "
[End of Jack's story]
Jack Serig on the deck of the USNS Core.
Stories Section 1961
[From Jack Serig's "Low Slow Reliable" story]
"As a result of extensive, and intensive, priority research our team developed evidence of three separate, potentially dangerous problems. First, in some power losses, records revealed cracks between the spark plug holes in the engines' cylinders. Second push-pull rods were bending beyond tolerances or ball ends were failing. And third, cylinders were not factory stamped with the number of hours they had accumulated at their previous overhauls. Consequently, total cylinder hours could not be determined and cylinders, aged beyond their design limits, were failing."
"It was decided between our unit's staff and the staff of our third echelon maintenance support company, the 339th, with the concurrence of the battalion commander and staff, that we would tear down three Otter engines, those with the most hours since rebuild. The 339th crews, supported by the Otter crew chiefs, began day and night crew shifts to expedite the process of determining the existing condition of our fleet of engines, nineteen in all. Within several weeks we had indisputable evidence that our research findings were supported by the engine teardown findings learned in the 339th shop. An average of 33% of cylinders and/or push-pull rods failed to meet the criteria spelled out in the technical manual. This average remained constant for all engines upon teardown inspections."
"During the above events a new commanding officer reported to the 18th, Bob Felix. In his Otter solo checkout, in the pattern, shooting touch-and-go landings; he experienced engine failure resulting in another successful dead stick landing, NUMBER 13. When he walked through my office door, the first time we met, the expression on his face reminded me of the proverbial "bull in the china shop." He let loose with a predictable gnashing and lashing wanting to know what was wrong with our maintenance. Fortunately, the information was opened up, spreadsheet fashion, on my desk. He calmed down when we advised him of our findings to date and our efforts to correct the problems. He became immediately supportive and remained so throughout our association."
"As a result of our findings I recommended that all our Otters be grounded. This was approved by the company and battalion commanders with the knowledge of the 1st Infantry Division Commanding General. A recommendation for worldwide grounding of all Otters in the Army's inventory was also approved and sent to appropriate commands."
"Remember, you 'ol Otter crew members---the year was 1961! However, this worldwide grounding recommendation fueled a feud between our command and the "powers to be" in the Aviation Material Command, the De Havilland people and the Pratt and Whitney experts. They didn't believe us, initially. But we were proved right in our assessment after many heated meetings when our substantiating evidence was presented."
"In short order, between the initiatives of the 339th crews and the backup support from the Army Depot at Eagle Mountain Lake, Texas, all of our engines were rebuilt within a few months. In effect, we had the equivalent of new Otter engines."
"Our unit commander approved another recommendation to perform night maintenance, once our aircraft were returned from engine overhaul. By performing the majority of maintenance at night our aircraft availability and daytime flying hours, we believed, should be significantly increased. That's exactly what happened."
Some of these engines were rebuilt with new cylinders of an upgraded specification, which provided a more reliable operation, which was just as well as in December 1961, the 18th Aviation Company was selected for duty in Vietnam, becoming the first Army fixed wing unit to serve in that country.
"We were a Strategic Army Command (STRAC) unit, ready to be deployed anywhere in the world on short notice. When the Pentagon staff saw our aircraft availability rate had increased well above that of all other existing Otter units, we had a visitor, Major Ken Mertel. He was apparently convinced with what he saw. We were not fudging! Shortly after he returned to the Pentagon we were ordered to Southeast Asia, country unspecified."
[Sid Perrine's story about the alert and deployment]
"During a routine early morning alert on Dec 26, 1961 the company was informed by the Commanding Officer, Bob Felix, that this was not a routine alert and we had been activated for movement to a classified overseas location and would be preparing all company TO&E items for shipment including 9 of our U-1A Otters to the Alameda, California shipyard within the next two weeks."
[End of Sid Perrine's story about the alert and deployment]
Stories Section 1960
[Jack Serig's "The General and the Conductor" story]
"During a permanent tour at Ft. Riley, Kansas, early 60's, with the 18th Otters as a first lieutenant, I was ordered to the Pentagon for temporary duty, to serve as escort for the Deputy Chief of Staff, Intelligence, Army of Bolivia. During my Pentagon briefings the importance of this VIP's visit was repeatedly emphasized. Our government was trying to improve seriously strained relations with the Bolivian government."
"My charge, (DCSINTEL-BOLIVIA) would be the first senior official from Bolivia to accept our government's invitation in several years. My duties to the DCSINTEL-BOLIVIA were similar to that of aide-de-camp, translating for him, insuring we met our local briefing schedules and getting him to and from the many far-flung military installations on our itinerary, on time. The DCSINTEL Bolivia was considered important enough to be hosted, personally, by the DCSINTEL, U.S. ARMY, and his lovely wife."
"A semi-formal cocktail party and dinner were held at the Army-Navy Club the night before we departed Washington for our next installation visit, which was to be accomplished by train. Much to our surprise, especially after the many goblets of fine wine served with the seven-course dinner the night before, the DCSINTEL, U.S. Army, a two-star general, personally showed up at the train station to bid adieu to DCSINTEL, Bolivia."
"The general accompanied us on to our car and engaged us in conversation. The "All aboard!" sounded. The DCSINTEL, U.S. Army didn't debark. The train began lurching slowly forward. The general made no attempt to leave. The train gained momentum. A conductor appeared. The DCSINTEL, U.S. Army, said to the conductor, "Stop the train!"
"The conductor said, "No!" A heated argument ensued. Neither side would give in. The train was picking up speed. The DCSINTEL Bolivia, and I, were having the rare privilege of seeing a American two-star general, no less than the DCSINTEL U.S. Army, being dressed down and stood-up-to by a stubborn civilian train conductor."
"The general reached up and pulled the "emergency stop" cord. The conductor soundly berated the general "who was in Class A uniform with two shining stars attached to each epaulet" in a furious verbal barrage. The train screeched to a slowing halt. The general shook hands with the Army of Bolivia's DCSINTEL a final time, said Goodbye! - with a warm smile, as if nothing had happened, and left our passenger car, which was the final car of the train."
"The last we saw, through our car's rear observation window, of the United States Army's 2-star DCSINTEL, he was walking along the tracks toward the train station about four blocks away, head proudly held high."
[End of Jack's story]
STORIES ABOUT LIFE WITH
THE OTTERS OF
"LOW - SLOW - RELIABLE"
AT FORT RILEY, KANSAS
AND IN VIETNAM
FROM THE MEN WHO WERE THERE
Stories Section 1959
18th Aviation Company Is Only One of Its Kind in 5th Army
1LT Carl C. Yoder
The lieutenant opened the door on the deserted barracks that first day of May 1959. He entered a room furnished only with two slightly dusty desks and matching chairs. To the right were two small offices which could be entered through either of two doors. A door on the left opened to a larger room containing two long tables, a desk and a chair. The officer strode through the room and peered through a not-too- window onto the expanses of Marshall Army Air Field.
This barracks was to be the home of a unique flying unit and the officer would be the lone member of the new group for about six weeks. The aircraft around which the new company would build is a amazing addition to the Army stable of planes with the dubious nickname "Otter".
On May 1, 1959 the Continental Army Command activated the 18th Aviation Company and assigned it to the Fifth Army with the home base to be at Fort Riley, Kan. The lone officer assigned was 1st Lt. C. C. Yoder, a veteran of Korea with the 7th Infantry Division and a former pilot with the 1st Aviation Company, 1st Infantry Division.
Lt. Yoder had been a standardization instructor pilot for the 1st Aviation Company and his duties were to remain the same with the new unit. However, since he was the only soldier in the new unit, he had to assume all off the duties of a complete company staff. By the middle of June, Lt. Yoder duties were somewhat relieved by the assignment of a company commander, Maj. Robert D. McClanahan.
A perfectionist in flight, it was the duty of Lt. Yoder to arrange for, direct, and conduct a training program aimed at the transition of Army pilots from various aircraft to the unique "Otter". He was the lone instructor in the transition program until mid August when three other pilots became qualified as instructor. He now holds the position of supervisor of instructors and Standardization Instructor for the 18th Aviation Company.
The story of the 18th Aviation Company is not a run-of-mill tale of a newly activated group. From its minute beginning as a one-man company to the pre-strength of 22 officers and 48 enlisted men, there has been a succession of long, tedious hours of work, study and practice.
The "Otter"- officially designated as the U1A-is a fixed high wing cargo and troop transport. It is of such unusual heritage that a complete familiarization program is necessary to convert a pilot into a proficient-AND-apt-navigator of the craft. Presently the largest fixed-wing Army plane of its type, the ship is built by De-Haviland of Canada exclusively for the Army. Statistically, the "Otter" cruises at 130 miles per hour and has a range of about 500 miles; it can carry a total of 3000 pounds of cargo, fuel and passengers; it will cruise for 7 hours on 213 gallons of gas.
Unit recently, the largest plane authorize for Army use was limited to a total of 8000 pounds, plane and cargo. The "Otter" nearly reached that limit including the 4900 pound weight of the plane.
The amazing characteristics of the "Otter" become evident in the practical use of the craft. Under full load it can take off in less than 300 feet and land in less distance. Although it is a large plane, it can hop over hedges and drop into small valleys in a manner reminiscent of the "Barnstormers" of old or the crop sprayers of today.
Tactically the value of the ship is demonstrated by comparison with the Army's largest helicopter. The 'Otter" has a much greater range than the helicopter and it is able to carry more cargo.
The special type of pilots demanded by the versatile 'Otter" can only be produced by an intense training program. Pilots who are assigned to the company may, at the outset of the training, be either a pilot fresh from flight school or seasoned liaison flyers. Regardless of their background, the new pilots undergo a rigorous transition program.
The training program consists of both classroom study and practical application. A prospective "Otter" pilot spends 40 hours in the classroom studying the construction, capabilities and tactical employment of the U1A. In addition the practical application and training-transition flying-involves 50 hours of flight time including 10 hours of solo flight.
The flight training is more than mere familiarization with the craft. It consists of detail studies of cargo loads distribution; practice in power approaches over barriers; choosing landing strips in rough terrain, and night proficiency flying.
The training program is wrapped up with an orientation on instrument navigation before the final test. Upon completion of the training, a pilot is checked out by the Standardization Instructor Pilot and approved as a qualified "Otter" pilot.
The qualification as a specialized pilot is not the end of training for the new pilot. Before he can be qualified to carry passengers on his ship he must have 300 hours of first pilot time in an aircraft. And even after that tallying that much time, continuous proficiency flights are made to insure that the pilots will always be ready for a mission in peace and war.
The 18th Aviation Company is the only unit of its kind in the 5th Army area. Its primary mission is training and equipping a company of combat-ready Army pilots for utilization and transportation of supplies and men and evacuation support for the Fifth Army and the 1st Infantry Division.
In peacetime the mission is similar and the company has a long record of flights in support of Army activities over the whole nation. The 16 "Otters" aircraft have been lending assistance to the First and Second Armies in addition to their regular duties in this area.
Under the command of Capt. Richard Murray, the 18th Aviation Company is growing both in resources and value. Activated to fill a need in the new concept of highly mobile fighting Army, the company continues preparing itself should the day come when defense of our country is the foremost concern in our minds.
Such a flying unit with an aircraft of such versatile value is further proof that minds, men and materials are always prepared to protect the freedom we prize.
18th 54th 18th CAC Aviation Association
General Duong Van "BIG" Minh