Sundowner Yankee

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Notes from the Back Seat:

While checking out the great photos on the Catkiller website, I took particular notice of the names on the back of a plaque. I have met with most of the pilots with whom I flew at the reunion in Vegas. At that time I asked about several from my memory bank and nobody seemed to recall their names. I am happy to report that their names are on the plaque and my memory floodeth over. Here are my recollections of three who have not appeared on any Catkiller roster of which I am aware.

Steve Grass—Catkiller 46: Just after arriving at Dong Ha from the Repo Depot, I was assigned to the Sundowners. This was unbelievable for me as I just knew I was going to the bush as a real FO. However, before I could be accepted I had to pass a flight physical. I was sent down to Phu Bai in the back seat of a bird dog driven by none other than Steve Grass. He must have completed his mission and took me back with him. There was another Catkiller in another plane and we were a two ship headed back to the barn. You can all imagine that I was a very wild eyed, young, butter bar who could not believe his fortune that he might just have a job flying. Steve did a few maneuvers to get me sick but I hung in like a champ. He complained a little about a bad case of hemorrhoids and was very nice to me. I really did not know what a hemorrhoid was but I was not going to ask. Now that is a young Lieutenant!

As we approached Phu Bai, Steve called in a flight of two and that is how we landed. I had never spent that much time in a small plane in my life and the views flying south were just simply awesome. This was not a war but an adventure tour of Vietnam by air with a view of the South China Sea thrown in. To have the flight end with a tandem landing was over the top. I recall a mini Navy Break just over the numbers.

I arrived just in time for the club to open and again was in fairy- tale land standing at the bar, drinking with the Catkillers, hearing the cong, and feeling like Errol Flynn was going to walk on set. The beers were ice cold and I took my share of ribbing for being an FNG and then was invited to go to a USO Show. Show time was a few minutes away so we loaded in to an ambulance, taking our beers with us, and off we went. I recall getting quietly drunk and sort of numb with awe at being at this huge club with a live show, after only a few days in-country. I was too new for anybody to want to talk with, truth be told, I was sort of embarrassed at being such an FNG that I really did not want to chat with anyone. Show over, we all piled in the back of the ambulance and headed back; only this time we were all loaded. The flight doc was driving and he put on the siren and we were singing and laughing the entire ride. Someone said there was a rumor of hookers at the air terminal across from the Cat Killers so we checked it out, and finding no joy, we all went to bed.

Bo Boutwell—Catkiller 12: My flight physical was 0730 or maybe 0800 and I had time to get up, hit the pee tube and go to the clinic. Hung–over does my feelings at that moment an injustice and I thought how in the hell am I going to pass a flight physical as just the term meant it had to be very rigorous and difficult to pass.

However my heart lifted a little when I entered the clinic and saw the driver of ambulance from our reverie of just a few hours ago walk in to greet me. He gave me a very thorough physical with a question about my sinus problem. I said doc let me worry about the sinus as this is a great opportunity for me. I would hate to be sent to the bush if I can avoid it. If my sinus is too bad we will know soon enough but please let me give it a go.

He agreed and was about to let me go when he handed me a cup and said fill it up and bring it back. Fill it up, I wondered? I just peed for about 5 minutes and was empty. I walked to where the pee tubes were located and stood there wondering how I was going to pee when suddenly Bo Boutwell steps to the adjacent tube and is about to empty a nights worth of alcohol down the shaft. I quickly handed him my cup and said fill it up as I need to pass a flight physical. He did, and the rest is history.

I think Bo became known [by his nickname], and I may have flown with him only a few times. He seemed to get into a lot of arguments and one time Larry Landersheim brought me back to Phu Bai for a little R&R and Boutwell was getting into a fight at the bar. I went to break it up, and Larry grabbed me, sat me down and stuck a beer in my hand and told me these were big kids and did not need my help. Larry was wise beyond his age.

Joe Tullis—Catkiller 09: My Hootch mate, Sundowner Charlie Douglas, and I felt that Joe was the oldest guy we ever knew. He was 36 years of age when we met him and the smoothest stick and rudder man of all of you. Now you know that is saying something because all of you could fly and we trusted our lives with your skills. Joe was older and must have had several thousands of hours and was mostly a maintenance director by the time he got to the 220th. He had the dignity and grace of an old WO-4 and tolerated the immaturity of Douglas and me. He also had one great gift for us and that was a recording of the song Hurry Sundown, a tune of the day by Peter, Paul and Mary.

We always felt that was our Anthem and when Joe said he had a tape or album with that song on it we just had to get to Phu Bai to hear it. The refrain said it all and was really a prayer for us to make it through to another day: “Hurry on Sundown, Hurry away, weave me tomorrow out of today.” I do not know how we did it but Douglas and I both made it to Phu Bai at the same time and had a great night in the club, finished off by Joe Tullis inviting us back to his room where Charlie and I sat in front of the tape player and sang along with Hurry Sundown for about 20 times or so. Arms around each other’s shoulders, singing and drunk as only brothers can get, Joe knew and just let us be. I think of that moment very often. I also lost a picture that Joe took at twilight near the flight line at the 220th. The light was just perfect and those old bird dogs looked like some WWI fighter planes sitting in the grass. That is another scene that has stayed with me although the picture was lost 35 years ago.

I was flying with Joe on the eastern Z when Ron Goldberg came up on guard, sobbing and with urgency letting everyone know he was flying around the smoldering, downed helicopter in which is his hooch mate Larry Landersheim had just been killed. Joe flew us back to Dong Ha as slow and easy as if we were in a funeral procession. Both of us were in shock. I offered to fly with him to the shoot down site to see what could be done but Joe knew better and just dropped me off and headed home.

Warren F. Metezler—Catkiller 42: "Fred" was not with the Cat killers for long. I seem to recall there was a new policy that prevented the buzzing of san pans in the South China Sea, made more fun when John Hillman would announce before his buzz—job that the "yellow man fished in red man´s ocean." Maybe Fred was not a red man and got reprimanded for his low level passes. That may not be the case, but that is how I remember it. I think Fred was from Chicago. I flew with him a few times, one of which still haunts me. The Sundowners were not yet given the mission to fly the western half of the Z so I was surprised while in flight to be ordered to check out a grid just north of Khe Sahn. Fred was the pilot for that afternoon mission and there was some importance to the grid as I was told it was “priority 1.” That term had never been used before but we had a new S-2 so I assumed he had his shit together. The mission was made worse because we did not carry the 1:25,000 for that area but had a map with smaller grids that covered a larger area, like the entire DMZ. There was no need to carry any other map because up to this moment we had never flown west.

So off we flew out to Khe Sahn. We were both very quiet and enthralled with the new sights and thoughts of the recent history of Khe Sahn and the Priority 1 that awaited us. I was still in college when that battle took place and so I thought I would find a bombed out scene, void of landscape and any type of life. We flew out past the Rock Pile and along the Highway 9 and oh so easily there it was, the strip at Khe Sahn laid out east-west with an afternoon sun casting a slight shimmer on the still in place PSP and a warm glow to the emptiness. We flew right down the old active and got our bearings and even debated for a few minutes if we should do a touch and go. I was honestly looking for a monument.

I got the map oriented and Fred and I prepared ourselves to find the priority 1 target that now seemed very spooky because we were the only friendlies out here. I did not think our 175 guns from JJ Carroll could reach this far. But my god a priority 1 had to be that important for us to risk being here alone. The grid we were after was in the hills north of the active and the only way to get to it using my skimpy map was to follow the little steams that were on the map and thankfully on the ground as well. As we got our adrenaline up and started following the streams, thin layers of clouds started blowing across and down the hills and into us. I was talking Fred into the target by saying follow this stream and at the next intersection take the stream to the right and while doing so, we were engulfed in clouds and all we could do is hold it steady until they dispersed enough to see. We were very, very close to the side of the hills and pulled out to regroup. Back down to the active, then back into the series of streams and wispy clouds. We did this three times, and by now were encouraging each other over the intercom, “Ok, Babe, you and me, hang in there, we can do this.”

On the third time we finally got near the grid, clouds overhead and about 100 feet AGL flying across the down—slope of the hills and I think for sure we are going to die when we come upon this priority 1 as we are just too damn low and too exposed to survive what must be a well guarded position. I said to Fred (coming up out the left window), "mark, mark," and he tilted the plane so we are both looking directly down on this Priority 1—and absolutely nothing. It can’t be. So we pulled out, regrouped and took a more direct route to the same grid and nothing. Nada. It was a great piece of flying by Fred and we gave it all we had and nearly paid dearly for it.

When I got back to base I went immediately to see my new S-2 and asked about the Priority 1. He said, “Oh, that. Didn’t somebody tell you to forget it? It was nothing. Some side looking radar saw some movement there but nobody knew what it was.”

The new S-2 was a major and this was his first tour in Vietnam. To add insult to an insult, he was too weak to counter another Major, the S-1 who hated the Sundowners and all the slack we were given for getting shot at. The S-1 was after us for routine REMF crap like serving on courts marshal boards and reports of survey and other regular army stuff that kills the warrior spirit. Sundowner Kilo and his predecessor had kept us from the clutches of the very unpopular S-1 but new S-2 was just too new to know. And deadly! It seemed odd that an officer would never have gotten to Vietnam until the rank of Major. However, by that time in the war, Vietnam was a place for career officers to get their tickets punched so they could move up the ranks. Every 6 months leadership changed for commanders, but the troops had to endure at least two new commanders during their one time tours. It never seemed right to me and was a sorry way to treat enlisted men who were often drafted and had no choice in their fate. Once put on motion, the big green machine keeps rolling along and makes up new rules to suit its career members.

[Sundowner Yankee: Joe Brett]