Traveling to Southeast Asia for Fun and Profit

Traveling to Southeast Asia for Fun and Profit
Submitted by Les Hobgood

In early 1963, I was a First Lieutenant Crew Dog in the 40th MAS (Military Airlift Squadron) flying C-135s outof McGuire AFG, New Jersey.  They kept talking about Operation Jungle Jim around the O'Club and in the squadron operations area, so when I finally caught on, I was afraid that little war in Indochina might not last long enough for me to get in it.  I had been volunteering for every assignment runor that would take me out of the C-135 and into a smaller more maneuverable combat aircraft.  After one of the trips back from a west coast run in May 1963, I got word that my prayers were answered.

When God wants to punish you, he answers your prayers.

I was being assigned to a new start up unit, the 19th Tactical Air Support Squadron, at Bien Hoa Air Base, South Viet Nam flying O-1s. What the hell was an O-1? Oh, an L-19 Bird Dog, now I knew. My first reaction was hot dam, I’m outta here! Then the realization sunk in. All these years I had trained and yearned for combat and now here it comes... a guy could get killed out there. What the hell, they can kill you, but they can’t eat you. Live fast, die young and make a good looking corpse. All that hype wasn’t quite as cute now.

Blew out of Travis for Clark (no time for snake school... immediate need for pilots it Viet Nam) and then Saigon Operationally, the first thing I found out was ... we had no planes. They were on the boat somewhere and scheduled to be assembled by Air Viet Nam once they reached Saigon.

The planes did arrive, were assembled and Major Dooley, the Operations Officer, was sent to Saigon on August 7, 1963, to pick up the first O-1D and fly it back. This was the variable pitched prop model and no one was checked out in it. After what must have been an interesting conversation with the top brass (us lieutenants were never privy to these discussions, only the results), Major Dooley was finally declared the resident check pilot and hence the pick up and check out guy. I flew with him the next day for 35 minutes and was declared fully qualified from both seats. I took a few local orientation flights to get familiar with the area. That’s where two of us were given a plane for the day and instructed not to break it or lose it to ground fire. Don Wolfswinkle and I did have a tester when the throttle linkage malfunctioned at altitude and we could not advance the power once we reduced it. We were lucky to find this out at altitude, so we managed the remaining throttle position to get us to Bien Hoa before we pulled it all the way back to idle. It did entail a long shallow decent and a little sweat time.

The rocket tubes finally arrived, were attached to the wings and we got to shoot rockets for qualification on September 12, 1963. The 19th TASS was then declared operational, the VNAF Observers climbed in the back seat and we started flying missions for real. Our Rules of Engagement were simple. The VNAF Observer was directing the strikes and we, the USAF Pilots, were only Advisors, so somewhere in every strike mission we had to preface the strike advise with "the VNAF Observer advises you hit the smoke... or somewhere near it".
les hobgood photo 1

On September 21, I flew my first mission with VNAF Lieutenant Le Van Trouc and it was the beginning of a lasting relationship. I spent time in his home, met his wife and family and even have 8mm movies of the visits. On another mission in the delta where we had landed at Muc Hoa and were headed for lunch at the Province Chiefs home, we passed some beer can huts with families eking out a living ... he noted that the reason he fights the Viet Cong is so his children will not have to live like that. I lost track of him in all the confusion of the war ending and I can only believe the worst of his fate.

The tradition, as short as it was, was to let you have the day off on your birthday. When mine came up on October 1, 1963, I requested the toughest mission on the FRAG list. Captain Don Curtin was the scheduling officer and woke me at 0430 to make an early takeoff and first light landing at Tay Ninh for a multiple mission briefing. On my 27th birthday, I flew five combat missions in Tay Ninh Province. Proving once again that it doesn’t take much jaw work to overtax your dorsal surface. I did contend that I was safer in the air than I was on the ground, and that’s why I flew so much.

Toward the end of October, I got to go TDY to Soc Trang and fly delta missions. It was a lot simpler to navigate and you could see the VC better. Soc Trang was an Army helicopter base that had a complement of H-19s to transport ARVAN troops to and from the battle area. We flew cover enroute, scouted the landing areas, hung around to direct fire if resistance was encountered and generally shuttled messages. On the 1st of November, Dick Whitesides and I were fragged to Bac Lieu for staging of some sort, but we had just landed when we were ordered back to Soc Trang at all good speed. The coup in Saigon had started and we had to be in an American compound till the outcome was decided. The Diem regime was ousted and the generals took over. On November 3rd, I was fragged to Ca Mau to pick up a Colonel Nhon and deliver him to Bac Lieu. He was promoted quickly to General and went on to the ARVAN Staff in Saigon.

On November 6, 1963, I committed the cardinal sin of FACing and lived to relate the tale. Lt. Trouc and I were fragged to Bac Lieu in support of a search and destroy mission with the ARVAN. The ground element was running four APCs full of infantry troops and a command jeep to see if they could stir up any targets. Our job was to get out in front and watch for ambush or terrain problems. The US Army had an O-1 out there too as additional liaison. There was a flight of two B-26s with a full compliment of napalm, hundred pounders and 50 Caliber loitering at about 5,000 feet just in case we needed them. Right away the Army O-1 reported suspicious activity and asked me to confirm personnel quickly evacuating a village. They had hidden in the rice paddies just along a tree line and I came in to take a look. It only took one pass to confirm the personnel were old women and children. No real threat and I kinda felt good that we skirted them and the ARVAN didn’t start shooting at them.

About 20 minutes later, the Army O-1 reported some more suspicious movement that appeared to be armed VC heading for a rice paddy. With the previous sighting of suspicious personnel fresh in my mind, I sort of assumed the same results... old women and children. We passed over the suspect rice paddy and didn’t see a thing. The Army O-1 pilot assured me that we were over the right spot, so we dropped down to about 500 feet and took another look. I didn’t see anything, but Lt. Trouc said he saw what looked like a foot sticking out of the rice. Well now, then we commit the sin... we dropped down to less than 50 feet to make a third pass over the invisible unidentified personnel. That enticed them to stand up, identify themselves and started shooting just as I was about 50 meters away at less than 50 feet above the ground and headed straight for all 25, or so, of them. Enough bar talk and hangar flying had prepared me not to immediately pull up and turn away. All that would do is present me as a larger and slower target. The engine and battery in front of me gave me a little more protection, but not much comfort. Now I am at full throttle going right through the middle of them with Lt. Trouc yelling "they shoot, they shoot" and all I could say was "no shit, no shit". You could see those guys up close and personal as we imitated a VC skeet flying by. The O-1 was even painted "clay pigeon" gray at that time. It was so close that I could see the empty shells ejecting from the chambers of their weapons and long streaks of flame and smoke belching out the muzzles. No whites of the eyes. The rounds slammed into the paddy dikes and splattered mud all over the side of the plane... then maybe that was Trouc and I leaving a trail. We passed through that shooting gallery and never took a hit.

A couple of hundred meters and a tree line later I pulled up to reaquire the now hostile target and marked ‘em with a Willie Pete (white phosphorous) rocket. I was "calmly" communicating (more like squealing and hollering on the radio) with the two B-26s on CAP inviting them to come on down, join in and hit my smoke. They did and by that time the VC were on the run trying to get out of the rice paddy and into a better defensive position. The first pass was napalm by both B-26s and it caught most of the VC still in the paddy. Then each 26 expended their load of 100 pounders and about 1500 rounds of 50 cal into the remaining runners. In between each pass by the 26s, Lt. Trouc was standing up in the back seat and firing his M-1 Carbine out the left rear window of our O-1. The expended shells were hitting me in the back of the head and you guessed it, one of them went down the collar of my flight suit. It was hot and caused immediate concern. It did take a couple of seconds to figure out what the discomfort was, but I felt a whole lot better when I discovered I wasn’t shot. The whole time Lt. Trouc is shooting, he’s yelling "number ten VC ... number ten VC" at his targets. Later, I asked why, and he replied "they couldn’t even hit us when we were that close and that slow ... they were number ten gunners". I personally was glad they were not more accurate. The jeep and APCs soon arrived and took charge of the situation. Out of the thousands of VC, OK maybe 25, which had us surrounded in that paddy, they only found about 11 bodies or parts thereof. The rest of the day was just your routine tourist run over South Viet Nam. On the way back to Bac Lieu, we saw a wedding procession making its way along the paddy dikes to a small village. All that bombing and shooting didn’t seem to bother them. When we finally touched down back at Soc Trang, Lt. Trouc and I had logged 4 combat missions and flown 7 hours and 25 minutes. After that day, I never crossed another unidentified target again on a third pass. I did however get low and stay low on numerous times thereafter.

I did, from time to time, amaze myself with my own luck and blind natural skills. On November 25, 1963, Lt. Duc and I were flying Combat Observation (looking for targets in all the wrong places-an idea for a song copied later by a Country and Western singer) out of Kien Giang in the Mekong Delta Area. This particular day, we were armed with four colored smoke rockets and a sack full of Willie Pete marking grenades. Smoke grenades were not one of our favorite marking devices since they had to be delivered at close quarters with the target and if one was dropped in the cockpit after arming, it could get dicey. We spied a small recently constructed huch on the bank of a canal with a couple of sampans were on the bank and one appeared to have automatic weapons on board. A closer look at the huch revealed radio antenna protruding through the thatched roof. Duc gets on the air and asks if the ARVN have any activity there. None. All of a sudden, black pajamed VC show up and unload automatic weapon fire in our direction. How did I know they were VC? They were shooting at me... that was the first and most positive form of identification. We called for air. No air. We called for artillery. Same answer. We watched as they packed up the goodies and put ‘em in the sampans. We discuss our dilemma and decided we needed to at least mark the target. One sampan is already under way and the other is being loaded by the last departee. Lt. Duc holds the grenade outside the aircraft and arms it. There’s a reason for that. I roll in for a marking pass. The last departee makes a bee line for the huch and dives in. Having calculated windage, altitude, azimuth and airspeed, I call for Duc to release the grenade. It obediently follows the VC into the huch and explodes, blowing out the walls and erupting into a white fireball fueled by munitions still in the structure. Lt. Duc was duly impressed with my attack skills and I was absolutely dumbfounded. Log entry "sited VC command post, destroyed same." That was not my last KIA.

There were more good days than bad in Viet Nam, but December 20, 1963, pegs the fun meter to maximum negative. I flew with Lt. Duy on a river boat escort west of Ca Mau. The boats got in a firefight and we helped out with Lobo Flight, two T-28s. They took out one hut and four san pans. The navy reported the enemy was neutralized, but they did not go ashore to check out casualties. All this was just a "ho hum" day until Lt. Duy and I RTBd at Soc Trang for the debrief at the alert trailer. Don Mollicone, United States Naval Academy 1960 and Bill Coley, Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College 1960 were hanging around the trailer since they had dropped into SCT to trade out one of our airplanes that needed scheduled maintenance back at Bien Hoa. Don and I had gone through pilot training at Laredo and I met his fiancée (became wife) at graduation in September 1961. We formed the Don & Les Desk Manufacturing Company at Bien Hoa and built several desks out of packing crates and moving pallets. The cost to the purchaser varied from a bottle of Cherry Herring to a couple of beers at the bar. A modest cost for such a functional piece of furniture. Bill was a new guy that took a lot of heat for being a graduate of Texas A&M. They departed the trailer and headed for the plane for preflight and takeoff. The departure of an O-1 is not an event to draw a crowd, so we started for the bar. About the time we got beer in hand at the O’Club, all hell broke loose with ambulance and emergency vehicle response. We took off on foot in hot pursuit to find the O-1 in a ball against the side of a drainage ditch at the departure end of the runway. Both Don and Billy were killed on impact and I arrived on scene just in time to assist in the unpleasant task of extracting the bodies.
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The account of the incident that I remember was given by the Army tower operator who cleared them for take off and observed the aircraft make an abrupt pull up after lift off and start a turn away from the field. The engine seemed to quit and the aircraft stalled in a nose high attitude. The plane impacted the ground still inside the airfield perimeter, skidded across a drainage ditch and slammed into the wall of the ditch on the other side. Investigation of the incident revealed that both wing tanks were near empty of fuel. Remembering the O-1 fuel gage set up, that was primitive at best, the full mark and the empty mark were right together, separated by a little peg on each circular dial. Right of the peg was empty -- left of the peg was full (as I remember anyhow). The gages were mounted into the wing tanks on either side and displayed into the cockpit just above the windows. At a quick glance, the gages could appear to read full when the tank was really empty –that’s why the preflight check list calls for a visual fuel check through the filler caps on top of each wing. The theory was that there was obviously enough fuel to start, taxi and take off, but the abrupt pull up maneuver uncovered the electrical fuel pumps in the tanks and the engine quit from fuel starvation. Not a fun day at all.

One young Lieutenant in the 19th TASS used his idle time (that should have been more usefully spent at the bar) to decorate the local landscape with humorous signs and drawings.

Background

The huches (ten-man open living dormitories) were wooden structures sided with screen fabric and covered with wooden louvered shutters that could be raised for ventilation in good weather and lowered during inclement periods to keep the inside dry. This was the highest possible measure of human comfort available to combat aircrews in Southeast Asia during 1963. To keep the rains from flooding the floors of the huches, a small drainage ditch was cut around the parameter of the structure and redirected the monsoon rains to a larger ditch that led to a nearby canal. As water collected in these small ditches, amphibious and insect life developed. The frog was the most vocally apparent during the night and would croak mightily just a meter or so from your bunk. Misquotes also thrived in the small ditch. The frogs only saving grace was that they consumed misquotes, the constant bane of huch living. During this time there was the Air Force re-labeling campaign to use the word "aerospace" in every moniker possible. Examples... Aerospace Power Unit (APU) which supplied starting and prestarting electricity to the aircraft. Aerospace News which was a movie short about Air Force Units and Programs.

Story

... One evening we were sitting outside the huch telling lies when one of the less verbose mused "I guess I’ll have to ship my rod and reel home"... to which we all gave deep thought and one brave soul replied "what the hell for" to which he gestured toward the corner of the huch where the louvered wall of the huch and the ditch joined. There posted inconspicuously at the edge of the ditch was a small "NO FISHING" sign.

There was also an "Aerospace Garbage" sign pasted on the side of the dumpster at the theater. Then after an evening of singing and drinking, some of us were chastised for keeping some of the more senior personnel awake. A sign was posted on the O’Club door "No loud singing or Fun allowed". Similar signs continued to appear all through the tour, or at least while Lt. Miles Kaspar was still there.

Delivering the newspaper is not normally an airborne maneuver! I’m not even sure it’s at all recommended. It just so happened that Major Don Schell, one of our senior officers in the 19th TASS, had a brother in the ARVAN Special Forces compound near Tay Ninh and he didn’t get mail but once a month. Don worked out a scheme with his brother to have newspapers delivered by any FAC that happened by there on an almost weekly basis. The plan was for Don to call ahead and let his brother know we were on the way. The week’s worth of papers from the Stars and Stripes collected around the compound at Bien Hoa was usually supplemented by near current copies of the New York Times and any other media rag available. This rolled up into a tidy delivery package. The supplemental papers were rolled up on the outside of the package mostly for protection, but it usually weighed out at approximately 10 pounds. The procedure was for the FAC to buzz the compound to alert the folks of the impending delivery. The VNAF Observer was in charge of dumping the package out the rear window at the command of the FAC. Well I got to deliver the papers on what turned out to be the last informal paper drop. We buzzed the compound and curious onlookers peered up and cleared an area in the open center of the triangular fort. On the next approach, I alerted the Observer that we were approaching the drop area. He mistook the preparatory command as the command of execution and released the 10 pound package. Turned out to be a short round and penetrated the very center of a hutch on the fort perimeter. The "package" went clear through the hutch and came out the other side in an explosion of paper that looked a lot like chicken feathers being blown out of a large floor fan. Needless to say, the occupants of the hutch vacated the structure in a hurry and extended digital gestures in our direction. The good news was that no one was hurt; bad news was there would be no more airborne delivery of the news.

Hepatitis was supposedly running ramped in the theater so the Flight Surgeon asked the Group Commander to order all pilots not on the schedule that day to report to the dispensary for the dreaded hepatitis shot. That gamugloblin put a knot on your butt the size of half a baseball... and it did hurt. Well I’m standing in line at the Flight Surgeons when I get a yell from Operations just down the hall that I had a phone call from Saigon. I gladly gave up my place in line and took the call. It was Lt. Anthony H. Long, a past roommate from Camelot, Class of 60 classmate and damn good friend. He was at Tan Son Nhut with a C-135 crew on an Ops Stop and had a couple of hours to kill. I remembered one of the mornings briefed Frags was an Admin run to Saigon to drop off sensitive reports for 2nd Air Division. A quick trade of green stamps with the assigned FAC and I’m off to TSN in a trusty O-1. Delivered the package and then taxied on over to the MAC parking area on the ramp. Found Tony and we hooted and hollered for a while. Told lies and in the process, a sort of plan developed. Those O-1s didn’t have a hobbsmeter and no one would know if we flew a local. He piled in the back and off we went for a local tour. To impress Tony on the "up close and personal" brand of flying we did in the 19th TASS, I kept it low and fast... well at least 95 MPH or so. We trolled the Mekong River buzzing boats in the harbor and then went upriver looking for trouble. Yep... found it in no time at all. Took some ground fire from some agitated folks in black pajamas. Now since I didn’t have a VNAF Observer, no marking devices and no real reason for being there, those VC only received digital response.

As the time went on in Viet Nam, I recorded less and less in my makeshift logbook. It got down to takeoff and landing times, aircraft number, observers name and date. After almost 40 years, the memories are hard to jog. I’m just glad I took the notes I did. My last two combat missions in Viet Nam were logged on July 27, 1964, each one hour long. Don’t have a clue what I was doing or why. As of that date, I had flown 508 combat missions, logged over 750 hours of flight time and hadn’t taken a single hit. The 19th TASS was in the process of turning over all our O-1s to the VNAF since we were winning the war and the South Vietnamese were going the do it on their own now. I do know that I left for the land of the big BX on August 2, 1964, after a 24 hour mechanical delay in Saigon. The first paper I picked up in California a few days later related the satchel bombing of the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon the evening of August 2, 1964. That was where we spent the night on August 1st due to the mechanical. My luck continued. There was also some unrelated story about some North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacking a US Navy ship out in the Gulf Of Tonkin.

I may not have learned much in this world, but one truth seems to keep constant and that is my perception of reality is not always the same as other folks interpretation of the same piece of reality.