A Marine AO Diary
by J. D. Richards, USMC AO, 1965–66
Lt. Col., Retired
Transcribed and edited for publication by Dennis D. Currie
Little did I know that my education at Franklin College in the heart of Indiana was going to lead me on a journey that would forever change my life. Attending Marine Corp Officers School in 1962, I finally found myself as a 1st Lieutenant attending Marine Aerial Observer School in the spring of 1964. Fate has a strange way of playing out our lives, and my activities with the Army’s 220th Aviation Company “Catkillers” unfolded. Beginning approximately 15 November 1965, and ending when my tour of duty was completed, approximately 30 May 1966, I went on the joy ride of my life.
The Marine AO’s had intially been attached to VMO–2, a marine reconnaissance unit located at Marble Mountain, outside of Da Nang, from May 1965 to October of 1965. Initially we flew in older model L–19’s; however, they were in such terrible condition and so unreliable that when VMO–2 acquired the new UH1E’s we were assigned left seat for our missions. In the summer of 1965, we moved from the south end of the Da Nang runway when Marble Mountain was completed. It was at that time we had adopted our squadron mascot, “Just N. Case”. I’m not sure what drew us to him at first, beside the fact that he was an incredibly cute monkey. However, we discovered very quickly that he would take out his pent up sexual tensions on just about anything that we would throw for him to chase down, including beer cans and the pictured football. It was our accumulated opinion that the attached photo, was indeed, the inspiration for that famous quotation that is used to describe every ridiculous situation that man finds themselves in, spinning their wheels, accomplishing absolutely nothing, while making an absolute fool of themselves!
On October 26, 1965, VC sappers conducted a very successful and devastating raid on our facilities, destroying approximately eighteen UH1E’s, including our Medevac helicopter on the tarmac and inflicting many casualties among our personnel. The only UH1E that survived was the commanding general’s UH1E, which was parked at the 3rd VMAR Division Command Post at Mainside.
First Lieutenant Dave Grinstead, the Officer–In–Charge of MMAF Security, had repeatedly asked in writing for additional concertina wire, land mines and night vision equipment to cover access from the beach at Da Nang. Repeatedly, he was advised by Command that his request for these security measures were unnecessary and that, “The VC would never come at us by the beach.” Lt. Grinstead had to do a “rug dance” in front of the CG; however, he produced his documentation for his requisitions and the letters denying his requests. The colonel responsible for the denials was relieved of duty and sent home, and Lt. Grinstead’s career was saved.
Since all of the UH1E’s were out of service, our AO Unit was assigned to ride left seat with a CH–34 Unit. Unfortunately, the passage of time does not allow me to recall the unit designation, however, the CH–34 was the Korean conflict work horse of the Marines, carrying troops and gear to landing zones. It was clear from the beginning that it was functionally unsuited for use as an observation aircraft. It was in a CH–34 that 1st Lt. Jon Schmid was killed in action, while conducting aerial observation southwest of Da Nang.
In the middle of November of 1965, an agreement between the Army and Marines resulted in the Marine AO’s being allowed to fly rear seat with the 2nd Platoon, 220th Aviation Company. What a difference, we were now flying in brand new, up–to–date, shiny L–19’s. Our unit could not have been more joyful, because by this time, in addition to Lt. Schmid, we had suffered the loss of Major Reilly a VMO pilot and another AO, Bobby Cole, who was wounded in action. This reassignment was a great day for our AO Unit and a morale booster that was sorely needed.
The professionalism of the 220th pilots, and the warmth of their welcome and assistance were well received by the AO’s as the first merger took place on the West End of the runway at Da Nang. Flight after flight occurred and the personalities, characters and camaraderie emerged as one happy family. Our friendships solidified and evolved at our favorite watering hole, a night club in downtown Da Nang, called the “China Night”. Our reserved room in the back for Pilots and AO’s was a welcomed relief where we shared our stories over a few bottles of 33 Beer.
The flights for me in the new L–19’s were such a pleasure after the experiences in the CH–34’s. One such mission flown with 1LT Jim Morris was covering the withdrawal of a battalion of Marines southwest of Da Nang, just west of a railroad and bridge. We were flying north and just east of the railroad and bridge when we observed three NVA crouched at the Southeast end of the bridge, watching the Marines retrograde movement. So intent on watching the Marines, they failed to see us. Jim circled to the right, and we began retracing our steps, flying in such a manner that when we saw them again they were still huddled close together watching the Marines. In–the–meantime, I possessed the new AR–15 assault rifle, and had it pointed out the window on the left side of the aircraft, set to full automatic. I need to mention that the AR–15 was such a pleasure to hold on target while firing full automatic, so while beside them, I let them have it with a healthy burst. One died where he sat, another slid down the railroad embankment headfirst on her back and the third enemy escaped into a small village nearby. Jim and I wanted to get a closer look at the KIA’s , so we made another pass to view the bodies. The soldier who slid down the embankment appeared to be female, with long hair and breasts. I was devastated. Our training was always towards enemy soldiers and not women. In our society, women were to be revered and loved, not abused and killed.
I was unsure, so I asked Jim to make another pass to see if my observation was as I initially saw it. Never in my experience or training was I told that personal combat, up close would include the killing of a female. Jim intuitively knew I was devastated, and understood that air strikes and artillery were not personal, however this was and he knew it bothered me. I credit Jim for saving my sanity and self worth as a human being through the questions he was to ask of me. I have thought about this for the past 46 years and will be forever grateful for the “rescue” questions he asked that day. “Let me ask you, are you married?”, I replied “yes”. “Do you have kids?”, I replied, “yes.”, “Is your wife happy that I was here?”, I replied, no”. “Would she be sad if you were killed?”, I replied, “yes”. “Would it make her feel any better to know that a woman killed you?”, I realized in that moment, as if I had hit a home run, that Jim’s point was made and that reality and sanity rules. Instantly, and from that point on, I was indebted to Jim for helping me to see what I should have known, a soldier is a soldier regardless of gender. Most importantly, I was at peace with myself and never again, when we were in these little firefights, did I fret about the “unconventional soldier”. To Jim, well done, well said and thanks!
Jim and I flew several missions together and among them that were notable was a reconnaissance mission south of Da Nang. We were making a pass over a possible VC village when we received a one round salute. We decided to make another low level pass over the same area, just to see. We violated the most basic of cardinal rules, “never make the same low pass over the same area”. As we flew low over the village, our lesson was to become evident, when the entire village opened up on us with automatic weapons fire and other weapon types as well. I was holding two red smoke grenades outside the window, with pins pulled, when the rounds hit our aircraft. Jim yelled, “ I’m hit!” I dropped the grenades and grabbed Jim’s harness to keep him from falling forward on the control stick. I recall talking to the 9th Marines, telling them I was leaving the area, the artillery unit/mission was cancelled. I also informed the DASC, (Direct Air Support Center), in charge of keeping track of the tactical aircraft in the area that we were covering.
Jim needed first aid, and he was bleeding from his left arm. He somehow moved his arm around to the back of his seat for me to apply first aid. While bandaging him, holding his harness, talking to all of these people on the ground, in addition to anticipating that I may have to fly this plane and land it, this was approaching an overwhelmingly busy time. We were just about five miles south of the Da Nang airfield when I contacted Da Nang tower, advising them that I needed a straight in approach with a wounded and bleeding pilot. As I recall this was the exchange with a Vietnamese air traffic controller. Vietnamese ATC, “Be advised C–123 on final. Go around.”
Jim had now recovered somewhat, and he said, “Request straight in, I’m wounded and bleeding!”
Vietnamese ATC, “C–123 on final, go around.”
Jim again, “Request straight in, I’m wounded and bleeding!”
Vietnamese ATC, “Go around C–123 on final.”
The C123 pilot cut in at that point responding, “We’ll pull off, Take her in—God speed, son.”
Finally an American ATC responded, “Bring it straight in, emergency equipment will meet you.”
As we bounced to a halt, I remember the medics taking Jim out and putting him into the ambulance. Reflecting back on this mission, despite the painful wounds, heavy bleeding and being in shock, Jim skillfully landed our aircraft. In retrospect, I should have put him in for an award; however, it didn’t occur to me at the time. Someone should have!
Later, after meeting with Captain (CPT) Chancellor, Ben Hartman and others, we tried counting the number of bullet holes in the fuselage. I don’t recall how many, only that there were a lot. There was one bullet hole that we discovered which entered through the bottom of the plane just in front of my seat. However, we could not find an exit hole anywhere above. The trajectory of the bullet was directly between my feet and if I had not been looking either right or left, the round would have conceivably caught me underneath my chin and through the top of my head, it was that close! The mystery remained, while neither the crew–chiefs, other pilots, or myself were able to determine where the round ended up. The mystery was solved a few weeks later when I noticed my flack jacket had a small tear in the bottom seam, on the left side of the zipper. Actually, it was a good sized hole that I hadn’t noticed until then. As I looked and prodded at the opening, suddenly a bullet fell out of the hole. To this day I am so happy that I was looking out the right hand window, instead of straight ahead! Somewhere, in my war souvenirs, I have this bullet as a reminder of that mission. Ben would fly me out to that same area, where we called in artillery, a “Fire–For–Effect’ (FFE) to eliminate future threats from that village.
Digressing a bit from the missions, I thought about the impact of our military training and having to multi–task several things while our drill instructors screamed at us at the top of their lungs. Trying to accomplish your lessons while under stress, threats and pain, was well worth it. While I was taking care of Jim, talking to the folks on the ground, thinking about getting back, and landing if Jim couldn’t, I never panicked or choked. I performed what I had to do, not to brag or extol myself, but to praise the value of realistic training. The harassment, and screams of the DI’s to get a weeks worth of work done in thirty seconds or less, worked for me and will continue to work for others. A special thanks you to Sgt. J.J. Winstanly, my DI, and other trainers. While Jim and I broke one of the cardinal rules of flight, we lived to make the experience a lesson for future pilots and AO’s, “Don’t do it.”
I remember Thanksgiving and Christmas with the 220th; poor CPT Chancellor succeeded in getting everyone to Christmas Dinner, scheduling around flights and duty officer, a job well done by our captain. However, the weather had begun to enter the monsoon season and we were grounded for several days. It was during Operation Harvest Moon that Tom Murray and I flew in support of a re–supply mission to the 9th Marine Battalion southwest of Da Nang. All went well during the first portion of this operation. The next morning, on the nose of a ridge running south to north, we found an AAA site on the south end of the ridge. The NVA had dug an elaborate AAA emplacement with supporting trenches going north, uphill into a forest. The AAA was playing havoc with the re–supply helicopters. There was a flight of A–4 Skyhawks on station, in case Tom and I located the gun. We saw the muzzle flash approximately a mile away, as we were way east of the nose of the ridge. I called the Skyhawks and told them we had found the AAA site and that we would mark it with red smoke. First of all, I had to make sure the Skyhawks had me in sight so that they could follow my path and see the red smoke drop. Tom put the L–19 into twisting, snakey turns as we descended in a shallow dive towards the nose of the ridge, allowing the Skyhawks to get us in their sight. At approximately 500 yards, the NVA gunner spotted us and was placing tracer rounds all around us. Tom kept the aircraft moving towards the ridge, diving below the fixed downward capability of the gun. At this point we were flying fast, well below the ridge line as we flew over the AAA site. I dropped the smoke within fifty feet of the gun, as we flew down the ridge and away from danger. The Skyhawk pilots saw the red smoke and confirmed the location. I told them to hit the smoke, since it was just fifty feet north of the AAA gun. The Skyhawk pilots had a ball strafing and bouncing 250–pound bombs and rockets on that target. The site was thoroughly destroyed, and we didn’t see any movement around that area for the next two days.
Tom was the master of the air that day. He was so calm and cool, maintaining a quiet and professional attitude that his peers and I appreciated. I wrote Tom up for a Bronze Star. My supervisor downgraded it to a Navy Commendation with a V–Device. His rationale was that Tom’s actions, diving into the muzzle of the AAA gun while maneuvering the aircraft into and out of the cone of fire, was not deserving of the Bronze Star. I believed he deserved the Bronze Star at minimum.
I’ll take a moment here to describe what was developing in this area of I–Corps during this time frame. Operation Harvest Moon had its beginnings in November 1965, when the 1st VC Regiment, with all three of its battalions, the 60th, 80th and 90th, overran Hiep Duc District Headquarters and the South Vietnamese reported 174 of the defenders missing and 315 weapons lost. By early December, three Marine battalions – the 2nd Battalion 1st Marines, the 3rd Battalion 3rd Marines, and the 2nd Battalion 7th Marines – were deployed to an area midway between Chu Lai and Da Nang to relieve the pressure on South Vietnamese forces that had been hit hard by the 70th Viet Cong Regiment. On the 18th, the 80th Viet Cong Battalion ambushed the 2nd Battalion 7th Marines, although the Viet Cong gained fire superiority in the beginning, the Marines turned viciously on the enemy. Harvest Moon was the last of the Marine's big battles in 1965. These large–scale efforts had become a regular feature of the war for the Marine forces. During the last half of its first calendar year in country, III MAF conducted fifteen operations of battalion size or larger. American intelligence agencies indicated that during 1966 the Marines would face even larger enemy forces as North Vietnamese troops entered South Vietnam to join their Vietcong comrades.
It was near the end of November and the close of Operation Harvest Moon that CPT Chancellor and I began covering the withdrawal of the 3rd Marines in their march out of the battle area, towards Highway 1. Prior to our going out on this mission, CPT Chancellor stated that there would be “no shooting out of the plane allowed. You’ll shoot my tires.” I thought, S**t! So we joined the exodus of the 3rd Marines, when all of a sudden they were receiving sniper fire and other sporadic rounds. CPT Chancellor and I spotted two VC/NVA in a ditch, one wearing a robin–egg blue shirt, while the other wore a tan shirt and shorts. I don’t believe they saw us; however, the next thing I heard was an order from CPT Chancellor, “JD, get that gun out the window and let’s get those guys! Don’t shoot my tires!” As we flew low, directly over them, CPT Chancellor put the plane into a slide, but we were too close for a good shot. I let a burst go, but missed all around them. They got up and ran into a large field surrounded by huge hedgerows. They were running approximately 100 feet apart and we were right behind them. CPT Chancellor then said, “I’ll put this in a side skid and you’ll have a better shot at both of them.” As CPT Chancellor put the plane in a skid, the VC were coming to the end of the field. At the end of the field was a small opening of about five to eight feet wide. They both entered the opening, close together, side by side and that’s where they died. I got them both with one burst. CPT Chancellor remarked, “JD, you got both of them, good shooting! Check my tires!” I thought, ‘Good flying Cap.’
One of my final missions at the 2nd Platoon in Da Nang was a day of routine stuff. The pilot was CPT Pepe, and we were west of Hoi An when we spotted two tan–shirted NVA running into a zigzag trench. I suggested the AR–15; however, CPT Pepe denied it. Instead we called in artillery on two people? Ok, so I contacted the artillery and got a mission and gave them the target, then I received an FFE. Splash, splash, wait, and I observed artillery rounds all over an acre of field. It appeared to me that it was a spread sheaf. I then requested a converged sheaf and here it came! Splash, splash, wait and on target. One round landed right on top of the two NVA, leaving nothing more than a very large hole in the trench where they had been. My KE28A camera was being repaired, so I was unable to take pictures of that action. Anyway, Merry Christmas, Nugyen!
On January 1, 1966, I was transferred to Phu Bai to support the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Division and fly with the 220th at Phu Bai International Airport. However, before checking out of the Da Nang area and the 2nd Platoon, I was given a run–down of the company area at Phu Bai. What stood out for me was a pilot whose name was Woodhurst. He was described as a super pilot who seemed to be always getting into scrapes, firefights and other skirmishes. A legend, from the standpoint that his skills in locating VC and rendering appropriate measures preceded him. It seemed to me that he had a personality of a “bullet magnet.” I thought at the time that this would be great, in that I had printed on my flack jacket, “Magnet Ass”. My assessment was that we would get along very well. The following photographs are included to frame the missions that I was to undertake with many of the pilots at Phu Bai. While I found Vietnam to be a deeply religious country, the enemy was not below using this to his advantage when taking up sniper positions.
I was billeted in the 2nd Battalion area, in a squad tent, with cots on the ground. My daily flights required transportation, everyday across Highway 1 to the Phu Bai airfield. I checked in with the 220th RAC late in the morning on January 2, 1966, at the personnel tent and was directed to Major Schmale’s office. Major Schmale knew I was coming from the 2nd Platoon in Da Nang, and he was very anxious to hook me up with CPT Charles Woodhurst. I was really needed, since I found out that I was the only school trained, experienced AO in northern I–Corps. CPT Woodhurst and I finally met and a great professional bond grew between us. It seemed that we both thrived on action, danger and close in combat, aimed at clearing the world of VC zombies. Neither one of us figured we would make it out of the Republic of Vietnam alive. The following narrative has remained with me for almost 50 years.
Woody and I departed in his O–1 and were told to look around the villages in the Co Be, Than Than area for NVA activity. This area had the reputation for a VC safe area and home to an NVA Regiment. In this one particular village there were more than a few green and tan uniforms that scattered upon our arrival. We flew low and fast and we were in and out before anyone knew we were coming. In the village there was a very large haystack sitting adjacent to an equally large square pit, approximately 10X10X10 feet in scale. In addition, there was a ladder leaning on the side, with an apparent tunnel leading under the haystack. What initially drew Woody’s and my attention in this particular pit was that there were two people inside the pit, one an NVA soldier with his weapon beside him on the ground, and his back towards the southwest corner of the pit. The other individual was an orange robed Buddhist monk, on his knees engaging in a sexual act with the NVA soldier, in violation of Article 125 of the UCMJ. In addition to the other military intelligence we procured that day, included in my report to the 4th Marine S2/S3, was this observation Woody and I had made regarding the Buddhist monk.
Little did I know that my reports were sent to G3, 3rd Marines Division in Da Nang, as well as to the Vietnamese general in charge of I–Corps, whose headquarters was in Dong Ha. Apparently, when the Vietnamese general read the report, he had to inquire as to what an Article 125 UCMJ was. When he was informed that it was sodomy, he went livid and had a temper tantrum. Based on what I had heard, he called the S2/S3 and wanted me arrested and confined for trial, with the intent to have me executed or imprisoned for insulting a revered representative of the Buddhist religious sect. He bitterly complained to the G2/G3, 3rd Marine Division . It was made clear to me that these Monks were revered and that their reputations were not going to be besmirched. I was informed that this report was developing into an international incident, and the G2/G3 advised S2/S3 to warn me to not venture into the cities of Hue or Dong Ha for any reason since I had a mark on my head. Now, I had to not only protect myself from the enemy, I had to watch out for friendly Vietnamese as well.
It appeared that things were quieting down after a couple of weeks as I had heard nothing further regarding this incident. However, I’m a believer in co–incidences, and while I have no proof, I strongly suspected that my next mission was staged for disaster. Prior to every mission I was always briefed by S2/S3 on where to go and what we would be doing. On this particular mission, I was told to check out specific coordinates for a specific NVA regiment , exactly at 1400 hours, not one minute before nor one minute after, but exactly 1400 hours. The rationale that required this precise timing was that the NVA communications would be monitored, triangulated and copied for further use. This area was just northwest of the City of Hue. I went to the airfield, picked up Woody where we were briefed on what the Army needed and we took off on our mission.
We tooled around the area west of Phu Bai and all of the while the term, “exactly 1400 hours”, rattled around in my head. “Exactly!” At approximately 1358, Woody and I headed for the coordinates and at 1359 hours, approximately one minute early, we flew over the coordinates at tree top level. There were people scurrying around as we flew overhead, and at the same time we were receiving voluminous automatic weapons fire. Given that we were flying so low and so fast, the gunners were unable to get a bead on us.
Because of the volume of AAA fire, I dropped two red smoke grenades to mark the area and give the NVA something to talk about. We continued West for approximately one–quarter mile and made a U–turn and began to parallel our original track. We were about four to five hundred yards south of the red smoke as it was beginning to rise above the treetops. Woody and I were looking at something on the right side of the aircraft away from the red smoke, when all of a sudden we heard terrific explosions as our aircraft rocked violently from the shock waves. Woody began screaming, “B–52’s! Arc Light! Arc Light!” As I looked out the left window I saw the explosions from the bombs engulfing the red smoke that I had just dropped no more than 30 seconds ago. I realized then that those bombs were on the way down when we had dropped the smoke.
Two things crossed my mind immediately at that point, one was funny, the other quite sinister. Had we been flying over the spot at exactly 1400 hours instead of 1359 hours we would have been in the center of the target area that was being destroyed. I firmly believe to this day, as circumstances strongly suggest, that I was intended to be over that target area at that precise time. 1400 hours—exactly—not early— not late, sending a single engine observation aircraft into the lions den wearing a pork chop overcoat was clearly intentional. Those planning this mission clearly knew that if the ground fire didn’t get us the Arc Light would, and we had to be exactly on time for the plan to succeed.
Can you imagine the surprise and shock of the NVA commanders, gunners and others who tried to shoot us down as almost immediately after firing on that little airplane who dropped the red smoke, that within 30 seconds the worst bombardment of their lives would occur? I can hear the NVA commanders now, “Don’t shoot at those little planes any more, they will bring a B–52 strike!” When this occurred I had thirty days left in country and I wondered, ‘What else, what next?’ I firmly believe that Charley and I, up to that time, were the closest Americans to a B–52 strike that survived.
In November of 1965, the Ashau Valley was the scene of some of the most intense fighting during the Vietnam War. By the spring of 1966 the Americans, ARVN and Nungs had abandoned the camp. However, Woody and I decided to take a trip to the Special Forces camp to see what remained. Our mission was to perform reconnaissance in the area and identify trucks, tanks, elephants or anything that would indicate NVA supply—or simply something to shoot at. West of Ashau we had spotted two, three–man patrols of NVA soldiers. Since Woody and I were always up for a fight, we got the first rounds off and killed everyone in both groups. We then flew parallel to the runway, the camp was totally wrecked , bombed out and abandoned, except for a few hundred NVA soldiers that Woody and I found. They were tightly packed under the camp runway. We observed them flying at between 100 to 150 feet altitude and about 100 yards south of the runway. There were hundreds of faces looking at us as we flew the entire length of the runway. “Hundreds!”
My first thought was, &lsquo"They are all in range, and I could get a lot of them.’ However, I then thought we were also in range and strongly outnumbered. I don’t know why they didn’t open up on us, since the odds were definitely not in our favor. We were basically sitting ducks, so we gained a little altitude, and I radioed the Direct Air Support Center (DASC) and was informed that there were no planes available. I further explained that I had several hundred NVA cornered in the open and received the same response that no planes were available to be scrambled to our target.
We then flew to Aloui, the next Special Forces camp in the Ashau Valley, were we spotted several AAA emplacements, camouflaged mortar pits, and dozens of NVA soldiers who were lounging about in the open. Once again, we were low, slow, sitting—duck targets, and still they held their fire and so did we. Since we were outgunned, out manned and an easy target we flew on to Tabat, the last Special Forces camp abandoned in the valley. Again, we spotted AAA pits, mortar pits and crews of NVA soldiers lounging around, who also held their fire. At this point, I rationalized that they had heard about our reputation as a scout for B–52 strikes and were terrified of what we could bring on them, if I dropped red smoke on their position. As we left the area, Woody and I developed a plan. The last group of NVA was in a small clearing next to a heavily forested woods. We would fly close to them, let them have it, and then disappear over the line of trees. It worked beautifully, at least four to six NVA soldiers fell as we made our pass. Did I mention that I love the AR–15? It stays steady on target on full auto.”
On our way back to Phu Bai we heard a “Mayday, Mayday” and saw an Air Force Skyraider circling around a descending orange and white parachute. They were a flight of two and had been working on a AAA emplacement on a ridge on the south edge of the Ashau Valley. Now, the circling Skyraider was strafing the NVA to keep the NVA off of his wingman. I informed Woody that I would handle this and answered the Mayday. The Skyraider was attempting to raise SAR but “no joy.” I explained to him that I had a helicopter squadron at Phu Bai and that I would attempt to get them. Woody at this time had to gain altitude to obtain line of sight to Phu Bai so that we could contact HMM–163.
They were monitoring their frequency, and I informed the operator that I had a Mayday, a downed American pilot and provided him with the coordinates. I continued to explain that I had the pilot in sight and his wingman was keeping the NVA at bay with strafing runs. I emphasized that we needed them here ASAP, or else “he’ll be killed or captured. Advise.” In a stunning reply the operator stated, “We won’t be able to take the mission.” Once again, I reinforced the issue and the situation the downed pilot was in and proceeded to say things unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. At that point, had I been an enlisted man, I would not have been eligible for a good conduct medal—nor would I have received a sportsmanship award for my outburst. However, there was silence, followed by a calm, collected and mature voice that I have remembered for the past 46 years. My call sign was Rosemont Golf, “Rosemont Golf, be advised that we are turning up now and will be there in fifteen minutes. “My God, the relief Woody and I felt!”
Prior to being shot down, HMM–163 had actually been flying at approximately 10,000 feet and had photographers photographing the Skyraiders bomb the AAA positions. However, as they returned to Phu Bai, Major Wyman Blakeman, the operations officer for HMM–163, gave the returning pilot the turn up sign and informed the pilot that one of the Skyraider pilots had been downed by AAA fire. After refueling, the H–34’s returned to Ashau, and I notified the Air Force wingman that help was fifteen away. At the same time the wingman was directing the downed pilot to move up hill while he held off the NVA. Woody and I joined the attack as we circled the pilot, picking off NVA as they tried to get to the top of the ridge to cut off the downed pilots escape route.
My concern with the Skyraider was that it was like a flying dump truck; however, the pilot assured us he had three to four hours of fuel left, plenty of ammunition, and a couple of bombs. We decided bombs were not advisable in this situation. It was at this point I heard a very welcome sound, “Rosemont Golf where are you? We are in the area.” I saw in the distance three H–34’s and immediately answered, “Make a left 45, then straight, I have you in sight.” The H–34’s saw our aircraft and entered the area. I then turned the rescue mission over to the Skyraider and HHM–163. What I observed, as an eternity, was described by the actual helicopter pilot in the following narrative:“We flew back out at altitude, and contacted the O–1 Bird Dog pilot, who directed us to the downed pilot, I instructed my wingman to stay as high as he could, and try to keep us in sight. My co–pilot, 1st Lt. Joe Weiss, and I flew east, descended and approached the pick up point in defilade, keeping the hills between the AAA guns and us. I did a hover check and found we could not hover at that weight and altitude. I instructed the downed air force pilot on his survival radio to try and move down hill, while we flew off and burned off some fuel. About 45 minutes of flying in full rich mixture, at high power setting, plus throwing out the life raft, survival gear and toolbox, and anything else not fastened down finally did the job. We returned for the pickup, spotted his smoke flair, and came to a hover for an out–of–ground–effect, hoist pick–up. With Weiss on the throttle/collective, looking inside me, and with me on the cyclic and rudders, looking outside, with our wheels in the treetops, we made the pickup in the red paint on the 100 feet hoist cable. We got the pilot, Major Buzz Blaylock, USAF, and scooted out of there, with Blaylock hugging my feet from the cabin below. My wingman joined up, followed by the Skyraider wingman. I led the flight into a right echelon, left break over our camp at Phu Bai at 300 feet. The squadron, on stand down, alerted by Blakeman via the loudspeaker, welcomed us home.”After watching the horse collar being lowered into the trees and then hearing “He’s in it!” has to rank as one of the most impressive events I’ve experienced in my lifetime. Since Woody and I were anxious to congratulate the rescued pilot, the rescuers, as well as the Skyraider pilot, we went directly to the officers club tent, where the celebration was in full swing. As Woody and I approached the air force pilots, we explained who we were, and we were greeted with the most vitriolic, rude and crude comments you would imagine. Given that it was a tough day for Woody and I, after all we had kicked up a lot of action for the day, we decided to leave and let the celebration prevail. This rescue still represents a high point in my career and I would still like to meet them now to shake their hands. I continue to hope that they successfully survived the remainder of the war.
Wednesday, April 6, 1966, the Stars & Stripes printed an article about Woody and me. The article titled, Pilots Pin Down VC With Pistols, Rifles documented our efforts on this mission. Unfortunately, they incorrectly stated that I was from Barkersville, Louisiana, instead of Barquesville, Indiana, as well reporting the body count incorrectly. However, on that day we were patrolling an area that was the beginning of the foothills of the mountains to the west of us. To the east lay flatlands of scrubs, short vegetation, bushes and swamps. We had flown over this area several times before and had noticed well used paths going from east to west. Woody was looking front and left and I had the right and rear, when Woody begins to scream several times, “VC!, VC!, beaucoup VC!, beaucoup VC!” I looked out the left window and saw approximately 100 to 200 VC tan and black uniforms carrying long bamboo poles with green camouflaged parachute cloth acting as a container, loaded with equipment and supplies. There were approximately five to seven of these poles with a VC on each end, heading east toward Dong Ha. Woody could not talk when he was excited, he simply yelled. The more he yelled, the higher pitched his voice became, and as he grew louder, he talked faster. Over time I became better and better at deciphering him as time went on.
As he made a U–turn, he switched on his rockets and began his dive, from what seemed like 100 feet, shooting into the middle of the pack. I began calling DASC for air support, and then they called for me to “stand by.” A few seconds later, DASC replied, “two flights of F–4’s are on the way.” A flight consists of two aircraft, with bombs, rockets and napalm. Also, a flight of two B–57 Canberra’s were dispatched, loaded with ten 500 pound bombs of napalm. I informed DASC of our location and requested that the F–4’s, call sign “Condol” contact me. I told Woody it was going to be a “hot time in the old town tonight.”
While waiting for air support to arrive, Woody and I, with my trusty AR–15, began picking off the VC attempting to hide and or flee. I had ten magazines and had used them all, trying to prevent the VC from retrieving their bundles. When I ran out of 223 ammunition for my AR, I resorted to my side arm, a S&W Highway Patrolman .357. Oh, did I fail to mention how much I loved my AR on full automatic, and that it holds steady and true on full auto? Well, I had 24 rounds in a pouch, so I did have a few reloads. I don’t recommend a revolver as an assault weapon, except of course when it’s a last resort—much too slow! Even with today’s speed loaders, the process takes too long. My idea is a fresh magazine, ready to go. I fired the remaining of my 357 rounds into the groups below and then proceeded to use Woody’s 45 with two extra magazines until that ammunition was exhausted. Finally, I resorted to my backup, which was a 1934 Beretta, .380 caliber with two extra seven round magazines. After using all but one of my magazines, I determined that no one was getting up and running and the bundles were still on the ground.
Suddenly, I heard, “Rosemont Golf, this is Condol 2 dash 2 with a flight of four F–4’s. “Your location?” I immediately dropped four smoke grenades using red and yellow to mark the length of the convoy. I then talked the F–4’s to a position directly over me, where they could see the smoke. I informed them that their target was large and to hit the red and yellow smoke on either side to about two to three hundred yards. The four F–4’s used up about 200 each 2.75 Zuni rockets all over the target area. In addition, they had ten napalm canisters each, which were used to incinerate the bundles on the ground, and completely destroying the area. When they finished, the B–57’s came in, and I had them hit the adjacent areas surrounding the site, anticipating that any survivors would be caught up in this strike. I was surprised to see as the Canberra’s began to work the target perimeter. How many VC had escaped the F–4’s? Unfortunately for them, they didn’t get far enough, as the Canberra’s uncovered and destroyed those remaining.
I’m not in the habit of bad mouthing our sister services, but showing up as the F–4’s were leaving, was a silver observation aircraft. As he entered the area directly in front of us, and very close I might add, the pilot informed us that he was now on station and that he was taking over and that we could depart the area. CPT Woodhurst advised him to go away and that we were not leaving. The air force pilot replied, “I told you to leave the area, I am a major, what is your rank?” It must have been a Canberra pilot that interjected, “Rosemont Golf is working with us, you leave the area. I’m a colonel!” He left—way to go colonel! As the Canberra aircraft finished their work and joined up to leave, the Canberra pilot told us that this was a very successful and fulfilling mission for them, having worked a target directly against the enemy. “Good job!” At that time the DOD was concerned heavily about body count and we tried to count bodies as best we could, and we came close to 60 KIA. The air force pilot did complain to the Army brass at Dong Ha that we wouldn’t let him control his own plane — wahhhh!!!
On many of our flights out west, I would see elephants. Not just any old elephant, but elephants which were orange in color, about the color of red Georgia clay. Sometimes I would see them loaded or pulling carts surrounded by their caretakers. In my reports to G–2, I wrote that I observed elephants that were orange in color and posed the question as to where they may have come from. Where would elephants bath themselves in orange clay, Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos? I sent black and white photos to the 3rd Marine Division G–2 along with my reports. Unfortunately, my KE28A camera at the time did not have color film available. So, G–2 and others at Headquarters, despite verification by 220th pilots, thought I may have been drinking and flying. G–2 was concerned! The Bastards!
It came to a point that upon my return from a mission out west to debrief the S–2 Chief that a very stocky, M/Gy/Sgt Lucero would ask, “Did the Lieutenant see any orange elephants today?” To give this picture a little more life, Master Sergeant Lucero, was a power lifter, with a very out going, good natured and humorous disposition. As he asked the question, he would lower his voice so that all who were in the debriefing tent as well as those on either side of it could hear. “What was the Lieutenant drinking?”, “How can I see them?” Sgt. Lucero was so humorously disrespectful that he never offended me because we both knew what he was doing. However, after each question there was a deep, hearty “Har! Har! Har!” Good times were had by all.
During one mission out west, Jim Harris, an African–American pilot, and I were on a two aircraft mission, “way out west,” where we came upon what appeared to be elephants grazing on bales of hay. We surmised that it was their corral and several elephants were lined up and attached to carts and backpacks for an expedition. Jim and I determined that this was no time for them to re–supply, so Joe Hamm, flying the second aircraft, and Jim armed their rockets and rolled in on the lead bull elephant. Jim’s rocket hit the elephant squarely above the base of the tail, killing it instantly. It put the heels of his hind feet right behind his ears. Joe and Jim scattered the herds, leaving the carts, back packs and equipment scattered all over the target grid.
We continued our mission, returning with no further incidents. As we debriefed, the new 220th Aviation Company commanding officer [probably MAJ Estes], a very large native Cuban with a similar sense of humor, interjected himself as Sergeant Lucero, asked about the “elephant hunt.” As the officerturned to Jim, he said, “Lieutenant Harris, you have done well, expert marksmanship, one enemy elephant KIA and possibly more, but still I can’t call you a great white hunter!” Sergeant Lucero had a great time with that one. I have always felt sorry for the elephants; however, at that time they had become tools of war by the enemy and we had to destroy their means to wage it.
One day at the S2–S3 tent, the S2 major stated that G2 was sending an observer to verify what I was observing. I had been reporting:
- Orange pack elephants
- Truck tracks–vehicle uncertain
- AAA emplacements in the trees on our side of the DMZ
This information was vigorously refuted, and I was called a fabricator or a liar. Also, to note, the pilots and I were accused of drinking. Reliable reconnaissance has been refuted since Braddocks defeat and death in the French and Indian Wars. The phrase, “There aren’t any Indians out there,” rang true in WWII when the American and British paratroopers jumped into an area surrounded by German tank divisions, dug in and ready. Photographs from the previous afternoon showed them there; however the brass stated the very next day when evidence was shown that, “The tanks really weren’t there now.” In addition, around Long Vei, reconnaissance and Special Forces reported seeing tank tracks and hearing tanks in their area. This information was communicated up the chain of command, and in a loud forceful denial a very high ranking officer stated with finality that there were no NVA tanks in South Vietnam. The General didn’t listen, he didn’t believe his troops, he knew it all. I hope he was sent home! In memory of the KIA’s, WIA’s and POW’s at Long Vei caused by a NVA tank.
A Major Judas (not his real name) from Da Nang, 3rd Marine Division, was sent to Phu Bai to fly along with me in another aircraft. He informed me that he was to verify everything that I had been reporting. We did not hit it off well, since he was a skinny fellow, with dark beady eyes that sat too close together and a large hook nose that looked like he could open cans with. He also displayed a haughty distrustful countenance, displaying feigned disgust and disbelief in everything I said and did.
I had a flight later on in the day, but the major wanted to be briefed by the S2. When I arrived at the airfield, I briefed Woody on the next days two–aircraft mission and Major Judas’s task. I loved the 220th for the support they gave me the next day! The commanding officer became angry when he heard of Major Judas’s mission and responded by saying that he would personally brief him in the morning. So when Woody and I returned from our mission, and were debriefed by S2 and Major Judas, Gunnery Sergeant Lucero was in rare form as he lit into me and placed Major Judas on guard. “Har, Har, Har, orange elephants, good booze and now a ‘truth detector!’” As he later stated, “Life is good at the front!” Har, Har, Har!
I briefed the major on the next day’s mission—two aircraft, west of Hue, Laos and Khe San, on our side of the DMZ. I explained that the major would be flying with Warrant Officer Joe Hamm, and Woody and I would be in the lead aircraft. When I arrived at the S2 tent in the morning, Major Judas was all decked out in an orange flight suit. I didn’t say anything, and we went to the airfield and arrived at the commanding officer’s office. Upon arriving, there was a new major that was only briefly talking to the CO and Woody. I introduced Major Judas to the CO and the major, whereupon the CO and major jumped his ass about the orange flight suit. In my opinion, he looked like a sissy cowboy at a dude ranch. It was clear he wasn’t going on this mission in any 220th aircraft dressed like that. The CO stated, “We will find you something else to wear.”
Major Judas, in defending himself, stated that he represented the 3rd Marine Division G2, and his job was to observe what I said, what I did and what I saw and reported. God love that 220th major, as he lit into Major Judas and told him that everything I saw and reported was true based upon verification of the 220th pilots. “If you and your G2 skulls are calling JD a liar, then you are calling my pilots liars!” Major Judas then stated that based upon his report, G2 would then decide whether I was replaced or not. At this time I was still the only trained USMC AO in northern I–Corps. The major then responded in a lengthy speech about my virtues, and his as well as the G2’s lack of intelligence. The final motivation for Major Judas tickled me so much when the major stated, “If I find that you have lied to your superiors and made JD and the 220th look bad, the entire U.S. Army Command in RVN, I–Corps, will be on your head and will prove you lying.” In addition, he said, “I will personally fly an L–19 up your ass!” The majors final comment, “JD has planned an interesting flight for you today, I hope you survive.” Major Judas was then handed a dirty green set of coveralls that would have been too large for PFC Castleberry. What a start to a glorious day!
We flew west of Hue, and the first thing I told Major Judas was that I had been seeding these trails with cashews to attract the elephants. At that time none were in sight, and when we spotted truck tracks I asked WO Hamm to take the low aircraft position to allow Major Judas get a good look. We then flew him to the VC rest areas, cleared over sides of hills with large openings into the hillside, with trails that resembled roads in rural America. They were much larger foot trails than those we saw as we started out. I had taken many of the first hand held photographs in the spring of 1966 of improvements that were being made on a daily basis.
As I had mentioned earlier, I usually had snacks with me, such as jellybeans, cashews, and peanuts to lunch on during our missions. As we returned to the area where I had salted the trail with cashews, I swear to my readers that there were elephants on that trail! I made sure that WO Hamm’s passenger got a good look at the orange elephants, making absolutely sure he answered me in the affirmative as seeing the same elephants I saw.
I had photographs of AAA emplacements on our side of the DMZ with reference points along the Ben Hai River that were difficult to refute. However, my photographs were called phony, doctored and borrowed from the Air Force, since the Air Force had a photo reconnaissance squadron at Phu Bai as well as a large photo development trailer. I routinely developed my KE28A film at this photo lab. As we flew to the DMZ, I made sure Major Judas saw those reference points. WO Hamm was the low plane on the edge of the trees under which the AAA emplacements were located, and had passed through the area before most of the gunners had a chance to get into their pits. Finally, one gunner did get off a few rounds at WO Hamm’s aircraft as he took evasive measures and “unassed the area”, a military term used to explain a retrograde movement to a place called elsewhere.
Upon returning to the airfield at Phu Bai, we went directly to the commanding officers tent for a debriefing. I’m sure Major Judas didn’t approve of the army debriefing, but he had no choice, either wait outside or join the discussion. We reported what we had seen, all that we had accomplished, as well as any other information that seemed relevant to our mission. Major Judas was asked, “ Do you agree with the reporting? This is the way we do it, do you have any comments?” “None,” was the reply. Master Gunnery Sergeant Lucero must have laid awake for several nights scheming on the borderline of humorous disrespect and ultimate humiliation. As we arrived at the S2 tent, Sergeant Lucero had been watching for us, as he asked Major Judas, “Did the major see orange elephants? “Har, Har!” When Major Judas admitted that he did indeed see the orange elephants, Sergeant Lucero laughed and asked, “What have you been drinking Major?” “You have been in the lieutenants booze locker!” “Good for you! Life is good! Har! Har!” Only Sergeant Lucero could have pulled this one off as he did.
There seemed to be a significant change in the Major Judas after being subjected to that day’s activities. All that he observed, he finally believed! He experienced the fear of hostile fire, and the possibility of escape and evasion through the jungle. He finally understood that we knew what we were doing and that this day was a typical day in the life of the 220th pilots and attached AO’s. I firmly believe he was humbled by his experience. Since I had an early flight the next day I returned to the 220th area. The next day after, returning from the flight, he had departed and I never heard from him or the G2 again.
After stewing about that situation and Major Judas for almost 50 years, I finally have let it go. It has been therapeutic to write it out. Now, as I look back, I hope that maybe G2 would have more confidence in other intelligence gatherers, both in the air and on the ground. Maybe the walrus–type senior staff officers will get sent home with all of their medals and make room for officers who could be relied on to be believed.
The tour at Phu Bai was great, as I was exposed to the finest pilots in the army. Time and time again, their skill, bravery and professionalism impressed me. I was always glad to fly with Bob Jordan, Jim Harris, Joe Hamm and others whose names I can not remember. Practically every day for the past 50 years I have thought of these men in one way or the other and the great memories we formed.
By June of 1966, I was applying for a 6th grade teaching position in the Indiana school system. While I loved the work, I was drawn towards a career in law enforcement, and by 1968 I had applied for a position with the Indiana State Police. By April of 1970, I was in training and finally assigned to Northeast Indiana as a patrolman. In July of 1972, my father passed away and I requested a transfer back to my hometown to help my mother. From the period of 1972 to my retirement from the state police in 1994, I was to also retire from the USMC Reserves achieving the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1988. However, after my military retirement I started training at the state police Tactical Intervention Platoon. Utilizing my military background, I realized that I could help improve the effectiveness of this operation and began redesigning the program. What developed was Indiana’s version of a SWAT Team, or as it was referred to, Emergency Response Team. We trained in tactics, and one notable skill I am proud to have transferred to this effort was the art of rappelling. Now this is not something that one naturally takes to, and I sensed a lack of will among my men. However, to motivate them I used my secret weapon— my ten years old daughter, Beth. She was fearless and could rappel with the best. All it took was for my men to see her rappel with ease, and they were on board. My proudest achievements, during my tenure in the state police, were the 110 missions, resulting in 105 apprehensions with no shots fired, when I retired in 1994.
My law enforcement career was hardly over, as I ran for sheriff of Johnson County in 1995. Once again opportunities abounded as I took over the helm and ultimately serving two terms as sheriff. My continuous improvement mentality resulted in the establishment of a new jail, upgraded computers and the implementation of a SCUBA program to our list of skills. However, for me, the highlight of my sheriff’s career occurred during the 2001 World Police and Fire Games. Of the over 3087 elected sheriff’s in the United States, I was the only one to enter as an athlete at the age of 62. I am proud to say that I won the silver medals in the Senior Division, in the 300–pound bench press event and the 450–pound dead lift event. Since I retired from the sheriff’s department in 2002, I continue to serve in a voluntary capacity through various Indiana state legislature activities.
While not my final chapter, I am fulfilling a journey that has certainly taken me onto a new path in life. It began quite innocently, as I was collecting eagle feathers for a Native American friend on a fishing trip. One thing led to another in our conversation, and I made what I thought was an offhand remark about having Native American ancestry in my past. I had never been able to prove this, one way or another, and probably decided that it was never true. However, throughout my life I had an insatiable interest in our native history. My friend quietly researched my family genealogy to discover that my great, great grandmother was full-blooded Shawnee.
Currently, an Indiana Shawnee Remnant Band of the Piqua Tribe, which is one of five major tribal divisions in the Shawnee Nation, is home to the Turtle Clan. So, with the news that I did in fact have Native American blood flowing through my veins, my family and I were given the opportunity to be adopted into the Turtle Clan. It was an honor to be received into the clan and receive our new family names. I became Blue Feather, my wife Wanda River Spirit, my daughter Beth became Silver Star, and finally my son Andy became Raven of Manitou.
The Piqua Tribe has the responsibility for religious and tribal rituals, governing rules and regulations and finally enforcing the treaties and keeping the peace. As I embraced my new found culture I had a Native American tattoo artist place the Turtle Clan totem on my left arm. The significance of the feather attached to the lower left of the turtle is the warrior feather for my service in Vietnam. Ultimately, I will be eligible for three other feathers, which will represent events spanning my law enforcement career. I speak of this to say that my background has provided me the opportunity to assume the role as the chief’s bodyguard when he travels around the nation, conducting Shawnee Nation business, as well as becoming the tribes firearms instructor. My fearless daughter Beth has also undergone the tattoo artist needle and has the Turtle Clan totem discretely applied to her body as well.
Now, with the discovery of the reunion, I’ll get to see the heroes of yesteryear and be in the Catkillers one more time. We all look back over the passage of time to see who we were, and finally who we have become. When I look in the mirror, I still see that 20–something marine, who despite all of his foolishness got me home and to where I am today.
I only wish that Woody and Ben could be here. “Semper Fi, Rosemont Golf Out!”