The Birddog Fighter Plane A story by Norm MacPhee
Norman S. MacPhee, sales formerly CW2, US Army, 220th Aviation Company Catkillers, nurse Danang 1966/67
I was in the first group of replacements to arrive in the Danang Platoon of the 220th in February of 1966.
My assignment to the 220th was my second after flight school at Ft. Rucker, WOF/WAC class 64-3 fw.
The first assignment was a great one…Navy Lakehurst, NJ…our Army unit was housed in Hangar 5, outside of which the Hindenburg burned. We had 54 aircraft, including 4 DC-3’s and 2 H-37’s and they all fit in ½ of 1/3 of the hangar….big building. We flew in support of Ft. Monmouth, the US Army Signal Command, which had no airfield, mostly providing an aerial platform for testing electronics.
Upon arrival at the Danang Platoon we were assigned to live in an old French compound at 9 Gia Long, eating meals at the MACV Officers club, a 4 block walk away. Some of our pilots also lived at 2 Yen Bay and our enlisted troops billeted at the Danang Hotel.
For the first week, we flew out of Danang Main airfield, home to mostly Air Force aircraft. We then moved over to a small airfield shared with the USMC near the beach….Marble Mountain airfield. We shared this airfield with other army units on the west side…"Black Cat" UH-1’s supporting MACV, the 18th Otters and transient aircraft. The east side was occupied by USMC helicopter units.
I Corps, the northernmost military division of the Vietnam conflict, was run by a USMC General…General Walt at the time. Combat operations were carried out by USMC, ARVN (supported by MACV) and Special Forces with a "B team" in Danang, near Marble Mountain and several "A Teams" scattered throughout the mountains in the western edge of I Corps.
Our missions were many….we had two extra aircraft in this platoon to perform a twice per day "coastal recon" mission….to prevent use of water re-supply for the North Vietnamese….we sent one ship north to the dmz and one south to II Corps early morning and late evening every day…this was mostly a prevention mission, but it worked. Another mission was to respond to any requests by a Special Forces Camp for recon services. We also, early on, dropped leaflets on the way to perform other missions. Most of our missions were, however, conducted for the USMC and ARVN, providing general recon services and responding to any conflict quickly.
We had a great relationship with the USMC….they provided "back-seaters" who were real pros….all were "Forward Observers" who had spent 6 months with a ground unit as their artillery specialist….then, they transferred to another unit, calling themselves "AO’s"….and they were our partners. We usually split the duties when the going got hot….they would communicate with the ground troops and adjust arty, while we would fly and run any air strikes. Our strike aircraft were nearly all USMC A-4’s or Phantoms…..and they were located very close…at Chu Lai…within sight of Danang once airborne.
We flew 6 days per week, 2 missions of about 3 hours each day. About twice a week we would get these calls….."Any Catkiller, Any Catkiller this is 4-6 alpha"….another USMC unit in a fight…..we would check our fuel to see how much time we would have to help them, then head their way….I could hear my back-seater getting his brief, and, if they were under fire, would get an air strike headed our way…. We could specify weapons and always asked for 20mm and napalm….no bombs near friendly troops….
Another duty we had, every 2 weeks or so, was to be the "duty pilot"….waiting ready at the airfield to go on a special mission or to relieve another Catkiller who was low on fuel…..I was on this duty when the following happened…..this is the story, the above is background information.
I was sitting outside our operations shack when I saw one of my favorite AO’s, Captain Tully running across the psp with his flak jacket flapping….I noted that this was the first time I ever saw him run…..the aircraft was already pre-flighted, and I loaded up, waiting for him…..upon arrival he gasped….we gotta launch…..emergency….so, I taxied out, waiting for him to catch his breath….the tower cleared us off and I turned west and asked him where we were going….he told me to head west of Danang Main airfield about 6 miles where the General (Walt) had ordered the shoot down of an Air Force Bird Dog!!! Wow, I asked if he was joking….he was not….I then asked how we were supposed to shoot down anything….he asked me to look up….there were four Navy Phantoms with those white air to air weapons under their wings…..Tully related that they were there to do the deed, but, they could not locate the Birddog….he gave me a contact frequency for the Phantoms and I visited with them briefly….making sure that they were aware that we were in a Birddog too, but a green one…..it did not seem to matter to these guys about such things….I think they could envision another step on the way to ace or something……What had been happening is that an Air Force (white) Birddog had been firing rockets off and on all morning at a USMC ground sweep operation….they were unable to contact the Air Force aircraft on any of their nets, so, Walt ordered the Shoot Down…..wow…..what is this anyway…..we arrived on scene and, no other Birddog to be seen….we orbited for, maybe 45 minutes….nothing….the Phantoms (I never knew why they had four) kept leaving from time to time to go to a tanker…..the ground commander then released us as we all thought this was over…I turned toward Marble Mountain and was about to send the Phantoms home when the ground called us and said "he’s back….he’s back…and shooting again"….we turned around and sure enough, there was the White Birddog quite a bit higher than us, firing a rocket….we climbed up to their altitude and I started to close in on their left side…..we got pretty close before they noticed us….there was obviously an American in the back seat and a Vietnamese in the front seat…..the American finally saw us and waved…tapped the Vietnamese on the shoulder and pointed at us….we tried contacting them on "Guard" or emergency frequency….nothing….then we pointed back at Danang Main….the American shook his head no…..and I handed my M-16 to my Marine AO and he pointed it at them while I again motioned to leave for Danang…this time it worked…they turned back for their home……we followed them back, not yet releasing the Phantoms above….and I contacted the tower at Danang telling them not to allow any more Air Force Bird Dogs to depart Danang until we gave the OK….the tower operator asked "under what authority"… I told him to look up at the Phantoms still orbiting….and shared that the Corps Commander had ordered a shoot-down….they complied….We both landed and taxied in…..when we arrived at their tie down area (I had never been there before) there were, maybe 15-20 USAF and VNAF officers gathered there…..upon shut down I suggested to my AO that, since he probably had a career, to let me have a go at this one….. All the USAF officers were majors, LC’s and a Full Bird….I walked up to the obvious leader and asked if he was in charge of the Birddog unit….he said he was…..I said to him…sir, I don’t know how to tell you this in any easy way, but, if you look up, you’ll see four Navy F-4’s that were sent here to shoot down Air Force Birddogs that have been firing rockets at Marines all morning…..he went white….I told him that this was by order of General Walt….more white…..I asked if he could stop this….he said he would. I thanked him and shared with him that we had put a restriction on any take-offs by Birddog aircraft with the tower…and that this would be lifted immediately….that was it….end of story…..they were training Vietnamese to shoot rockets and had never looked at the ground…..I never did learn of injuries on the ground over this….and never heard any more about it.
One last thing here….we had a very poor relationship with the USAF at this time in I Corps….caused, I think, by several things…mostly way above my pay grade….we were not allowed, as Army Pilots, to run air strikes with Air Force aircraft….so, we didn’t call them…simple…..we called the Marines and they came. There was also the argument, again above my pay grade, over who should have what aircraft…specifically the Caribou…..but, I think, a real basic reason was that we never mixed with the Air Force Pilots at all….they went to meals and a club on Danang Main and ours was the MACV club or we ate at times with the USMC…..I think that, if we had mingled more, a solution at low levels would have surfaced…..but, ours is not to wonder why…..this one ended well, but, could have been a tragedy….