JOHN ERSKINE’S WAR
U.S. Army Captain, Mobile Training Team, 1st Special Forces Group and Medical Operations Officer, 5th Special Forces Group, Nha Trang, Two Tours,1964 – 65
I grew up in Temple, Texas, in the central part of the state south of Dallas. My family was in the lumber business and probably built most of Fort Hood just to the west of us during WWII. Escaping from Europe before that war, a number of Czech carpenters settled in our area before World War II. They were fine artisans with Old World wood-making skills and the “temporary” buildings they built with green Texas pine were still standing until just a few years ago!
My three uncles were World War II Veterans. One of them had been a Naval Officer and commanded the Naval Air Reserve unit in Dallas. In 1955 when I turned 17, he signed me up in his reserve unit and all through the rest of high school and college I went from E1 to E4 and ended up as a plane captain in charge of maintenance on one of the airplanes. I remained in that Naval Reserve unit the whole time I attended Texas A&M and was in their ROTC Program in the Corps of Cadets. My uncle knew what he was doing, because he got the Navy to release me the day before I was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army. That way, I had no break in service and had seven years’ credit for service and seniority the day I went on active duty in August 1962. That made a big difference in my pay.
It so happened that at that point in time the Army’s Medical Service Corps was looking for officers with a civil engineering degree to become environmental engineers, so I was commissioned in the Medical Service Corps, not the infantry or one of the other combat arms, and sent to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio for officer basic, not Fort Benning. From there, my first duty station was at Fort Lawton, Washington, outside Seattle. It’s now closed, but I became the hospital detachment commander and environmental engineer in the old wood-frame cantonment hospital they had there. I had a sergeant who worked for me who had been a Special Forces medic. He kept bringing me brochures and literature on the Special Forces and telling me that as an outdoor guy and a hunter, I would enjoy the Green Berets, so I applied.
Again, I lucked out. The Special Forces were “branch immaterial,” which meant they didn’t care which branch you were originally assigned to (infantry, artillery, engineers, or even medical service), provided you then had Special Forces training; and they were beginning to expand. They created a new Medical Services Corps slot in each Special Forces Group, and there weren’t many guys with that MOS (a specific Military Occupation Specialty, with a title and number that a soldier has been trained in and/or has experience in) to fill it. My orders assigned me to the 1st Special Forces Group in Okinawa, but the odd way they did things back then was to send me TDY, or temporary duty, to a couple of schools I needed, en route to Okinawa. The rest of my training was to be done on Okinawa; Airborne and Special Forces training, which included SCUBA, high-altitude low opening (HALO) parachuting, and training on different kinds of weapons.
After arriving in Okinawa in October 1964 and completing the training mentioned above, one of my first assignments was to a Mobile Training Team, made up from units of Special Action Force-Asia, which was headquartered there.
The main function of the Green Berets, wherever they were located, was to work with the locals and train indigenous personnel in military skills for self-defense. In addition to that, we did a lot of “winning the hearts and minds” by providing medical, public health, and community building services and helping them build infrastructure. We also gathered intelligence, did mapping, and provided weapons.
My Mobile Training Team went on a number of short missions into Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. In Thailand, we worked openly to train the Thai border police. In Laos and Vietnam, we helped train groups fighting communist guerrillas and delivered supplies and weapons to them. In Cambodia, Prince Sihanouk had thrown the Americans out and there was a lot of anti-American sentiment. One day we received an assignment for five of us to go into Cambodia, to Siem Reap, where Angkor Wat is located, and to meet with some CIA people who were working there undercover, to deliver some maps and other items and pick up some intelligence information from them. We sometimes worked with the CIA, and their Air America was often used to fly resupply missions to the guerrilla units working with us.
The team consisted of me, a doctor, and three others. We went in civilian clothes and carried civilian passports. As we walked across the bridge into Cambodia looking like Americans in our nice civilian clothes, we wondered who it was we thought we were fooling. We hopped onto a rickety, overcrowded, old bus and headed off toward Siem Reap: five neatly dressed Americans along with the pigs and chickens. People probably figured we were either spies or black marketeers.
One of the funniest things that I’ve ever seen happened there as we were waiting to leave. There was a woman with a small child standing next to the bus. She had a monkey sitting on her shoulder, and the child was making all sorts of noise and misbehaving. She suddenly grabbed the monkey off her shoulder and pummeled the child with it, then put the monkey back on her shoulder. The monkey looked a bit woozy, but it sat there as if nothing had happened. That was Cambodia.
The big temple complex at Angkor Wat, where we met the CIA guys, looked nothing like it does today. There were no tourists, it was completely overgrown with banyan trees and vegetation, and hardly anyone was there. The CIA guys finally located us, we received the Intel they had, and worked our way back to our pickup point in Vietnam.
Based in Okinawa, I commanded the 156th Medical Detachment. Special Action Force-Asia operated in teams, tailored to whatever the local need was, and we would go in and out of a variety of locations for missions on a TDY basis. Special Action Force-Asia was made up of various detachments, including Medical, Signal, Intel, Engineer, and Civil Affairs. The 1st Special Forces Group was the action arm. Teams from these units were put together as needed for specific missions that called for expertise from one or more of them.
In January 1966, as the American role in Vietnam was expanding, I was assigned to the 5th Special Forces Group in Nha Trang on the central coast. It was headquarters for all Special Forces and special operations units in-country. By that time, a long string of Special Forces camps had been built in the western part of Vietnam near the Laotian and Cambodian borders, particularly in areas with local mountain tribes such as the Montagnards, and others. I was a Captain and the Medical Operations Officer for the Group, and I traveled widely all over central Vietnam into camps in all four Corps areas. My main job was to set up “MEDCAP” or medical civil action programs, whereby we sent teams into the countryside near the Special Forces camps to provide clinical medical services, public health, and sanitation for the rural population. Our medics and indigenous nurses were well trained. Many of our medics went on to become physician’s assistants after they left the military. Again, this was part of winning the “hearts and minds,” particularly working with children and trying to prevent communicable diseases.
One place where we set up a MEDCAP clinic off and on was Thuong Duc. When our medics showed up, the local people simply poured in to be treated. We knew the area was VC country, and probably some of the men we treated were VC. After we’d been there several times, the VC attacked the camp, probably because we were making too many inroads with the local people, and we ended up in a firefight. My position was the 4.2 mortar pit, feeding mortar rounds to our heavy weapons sergeant. Special Forces were known to carry an odd assortment of weapons, whatever they preferred. At that time, I was carrying a small, light, 9-millimeter Swedish K submachine gun and used it to shoot a VC rifleman off the roof of one of the buildings. In the process, I was also hit with shrapnel in my leg. We were able to fend off the attack and continue the Civic Action mission.
There was a Special Forces C Detachment in each Corps, with a lieutenant colonel in command and a major as XO, and a small staff. Out in the field, we had C teams, B teams, and A teams. The A teams, or Detachments, were the most numerous, with twelve men – two officers and ten enlisted, each with specific skill sets, in a Special Forces Camp. There were Medical Service Corps officers in each Corps area, with one assigned to each of the C detachments, as Medical Operations Officers.
The main purpose of the Special Forces camps in the west was to train local indigenous militias, the CIDG, or Civilian Irregular Defense Groups. As part of that, the camps built up fortifications so that the indigenous personnel could defend themselves against the VC with our arms and technical training. At the same time, many of them were located along infiltration routes where the NVA sent men and equipment into Vietnam from the Ho Chi Minh Trail running south from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia.
The A Shau Valley was about 30 miles southwest of Hue up in I Corps. It had long been strategically important to the VC as a major infiltration and supply route from the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. It was the site of many bloody battles throughout the war and the name alone can give rise to nightmares in some. We had a Special Forces camp built in 1963 right in the middle of the valley, blocking the roads and trails, something the enemy could not tolerate for long. It was a typical Special Forces A-camp, a triangle with 200-foot-long walls to allow for interlocking fire.
The camp was manned by ten American Green Berets, and 210 of our CIGD troops. On March 7, 1966, the camp was reinforced with a MIKE Force Company, a militia of indigenous tribesmen consisting of Chinese Nungs and commanded by a Green Beret. The Nungs were a tribal ethnic group from northeastern Vietnam, Laos, and China, which the Green Berets organized and worked closely with, like the Hmong, Khmer, and Montagnards. We knew the enemy had troops in the area and that they were closely watching the camp. We soon received intelligence that detachment A-102 in the A Shau Valley was going to be attacked by as many as four battalions of the NVA 325th Division.
We moved quickly to reinforce the camp, and I was sent to Danang to handle medical resupply for the detachment. On March 8, the attack began. On March 9, a heavy mortar attack damaged the camp’s communications and reduced many of the defensive positions to rubble. That afternoon, an AC-47D “Spooky” was sent in to attack the enemy formations, but it was shot down and three of the crew were killed. On March 10, the enemy launched another attack that penetrated the perimeter. For three hours, it was hand-to-hand combat in many places. The defenders drew back to the north of the camp while US Marine and ARVN units hit the enemy positions hard. Later that day, the orders were given to destroy all the equipment and weapons and evacuate. Unfortunately, the ARVN troops on the ground panicked overwhelmed the helicopters, and two of them were shot down.
In the end, only 172 of the 368 non- and Vietnamese irregulars were able to get out. Of the Americans, five were killed and twelve were wounded. Four of the American bodies were wrapped in ponchos and cached, or temporarily buried in the camp. One who was severely wounded died during the evacuation. His body was also wrapped in a poncho and buried.
After the camp was overrun and abandoned, it was decided to mount a recovery detail to reclaim the bodies. As the senior medical operations officer, I led the recovery. As we approached the A Shau, the helicopters began to take fire from the surrounding area. We landed, set up a perimeter defense, and entered the camp to search for the bodies. The Special Forces camp had been totally demolished by airstrikes after it was abandoned and getting around and searching for the bodies was extremely difficult. However, working slowly, we were able to recover all four bodies that had been buried inside the camp. Unfortunately, we were never able to locate the one outside.
There are many “stories” that are told about innovative or even amusing incidents that happened in Vietnam. Each A-Team had one or two demolition guys. One of them, “Joe,” was very clever and a little crazy. He would go out on the Ho Chi Minh trail with a small team and some coils of “det cord,” a highly explosive cord which was wrapped around trees to cut them down. Joe loved the stuff. One of his favorite tricks was to lay det cord down the drainage ditch along each side of a trail. His team would then lie in wait, sometimes for hours or even days until a good-sized enemy unit came up the trail. They would shoot the lead guy, and when the VC jumped in the ditches for cover, they would blow the det cord. It was very effective!
In addition to det cord, Joe loved cameras. One day, he hitched a ride down to Saigon, stashed his tactical gear in a Special Forces safe house in town, went to the PX, and bought a top-of-the-line Nikon camera with all the lenses and attachments. He put them in the Nikon shoulder bag and went out walking, taking pictures of Saigon. That was when two “cowboys” on a motor scooter flashed by, grabbed his bag, ripped it off his shoulder, and sped away into the crowd.
Joe was not someone to mess with like that. He went back to the safe house, dug a hand grenade out of his pack, went back to the PX and bought another camera bag and some fishing line. He put the hand grenade into the bag with the fishing line attached to the pin and his wrist, and went out walking again, with the camera bag over his shoulder. Sure enough, a motorcycle with two cowboys flashed by and they grabbed his new bag. The last thing he saw was the pin from the grenade as he ducked into a doorway. “Boom!” The motorcycle exploded in pieces, and the rear wheel came bouncing back down the street. He yelled “Incoming!” and walked away. When I heard about it, I asked him whether he thought they were the same guys who stole his bag the first time. He just looked at me and said, “Two cowboys got my camera and I got two cowboys – we’re even!”
My Special Forces assignment to Southeast Asia was only for 30 months from the date I first entered country. That ended later that year, after seven months on this tour, and I returned to the States. I was assigned to the John F. Kennedy Center for Special Warfare at Fort Bragg, where I served as an instructor and later as the Medical Operations Officer of the 6 Special Forces Group.
Following that, I attended my branch Advanced Course at Fort Sam Houston and then stayed on as Deputy Chief of the Enlisted Training Branch. After that I went to the Command and General Staff College and also picked up a master’s degree in Environmental Engineering from the University of Oklahoma.
Because I had a very unusual and technical MOS in environmental engineering coupled with command time and my Special Forces training and combat tours, I could fit in some odd niches. I was sent to Germany on the staff of the Engineer Command in Frankfurt as an Environmental Engineer. That command closed after a year and I was reassigned to the HQ, U.S. Army Europe staff in Heidelberg. After a short time there, the opportunity for a battalion command arose, and I was called in for an interview by Major General Myers, the Commanding General of the Third Infantry Division, who was looking for a new commander of his Medical Battalion. He wanted someone who was a CGSC graduate and had command experience. I told him I had never commanded large units, just smaller Special Forces units, but he seemed quite content with that answer and hired me! I had some great people working for me in that battalion and was truly blessed to serve with them. Many of us are still friends. We supplied the medics and other medical facilities that fell under the division. In Special Forces, you are taught to give people a job and let them do it, so we all got along just fine. Our battalion also ran an excellent Expert Field Medical Badge training program. For its outstanding performance in all areas, the battalion won a trophy as “Best Battalion in Europe.” No doubt that pleased General Myers.
I later served on the staff of the Army Surgeon General in the Pentagon and as the first Deputy Commandant and Associate Professor of Military Medicine at the new Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS). Following that came another tour in the Pentagon, this time with the Deputy Chief of Staff for Engineers. Attendance at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, a senior service school, was next and selection as the Brigade Commander at Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Denver, CO. My final assignment was as Chief of Staff of the Army’s Medical Research and Development Command at Fort Detrick, MD. I retired from the Army as a Colonel in 1987.
During my career, I was awarded the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, the Meritorious Service Medal w/ Oak Leaf Cluster, an Air Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm, the Vietnam Service Medal with 3 Bronze Service Stars, and the usual array of Vietnam service medals. I also earned the Special Forces Tab, the Combat Medical Badge, Senior Parachute Wings, Freefall Parachute wings, SCUBA Badge and the Expert Marksman Badge.
After I retired from the Army, I entered the security business, serving as Vice President and Branch Manager of Neidiger/Tucker/Bruner, Inc., a regional brokerage firm headquartered in Denver, Colorado, and later joined my wife by becoming a travel agent. She has been very active in the Daughters of the American Revolution; I’m a member of the Sons of the American Revolution and active in a number of Veteran’s groups, church, Operation Shoebox, Villagers for Vets and other local charities.
I am currently being evaluated for an Agent Orange-related disability, the same that so many other Veterans have. I also found out a few years ago that I was supposed to have gotten a Purple Heart for the shrapnel wound I receive at Thuong Duc. I was treated by a field medic, but those things are rarely documented. Fortunately, I was later treated in a follow-up visit to make sure the wound had not been infected. Those papers were finally found, and it’s my understanding that my records will now be corrected, and I am hopeful of receiving it soon.
JOE SCHVIMMER’S WAR
U.S. Marine Corps, Captain and F-4B Phantom Electronic Warfare Pilot, Marine Composite Recon Squadron 1 and Marine Air Base Squadron 11, Tan Son Nhut and Danang, Two Tours, 1965-67, 1969-70, with 450 missions over North Vietnam
I’m a city kid. I was born in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and attended PS 16 and then PS 233 in Flatbush. In the summers I went to a farm in Parksville, New York, to relieve and eventually cure my bronchial asthma. My father and uncle bought a business in Trenton, New Jersey, and that’s where I graduated from high school. I joined the Marine Corps reserves and did that on weekends and summer camps, becoming an 0311 infantryman and then a BAR-man. I attended Penn State University and graduated from Temple University. Already being in the Marine Corps reserves, they accepted me in the Marine Platoon Leader Training Course during my last two summers, and I received my commission as a Marine 2nd lieutenant when I graduated from Temple in 1962.
I wanted to fly. At the end of flight school at Pensacola, Florida, you get slotted into further training on specific aircraft according to class rank and interest. I had an interest in photography and electronics, so they said, “Here!” and sent me to Cherry Point, North Carolina, for the electronic warfare officer, recon systems officer, photo analysis, and intelligence officer courses, where I ended up as an Electronic Warfare Operator and an 0202 Intelligence Officer. We flew the Douglas EF-10-B Skyknight, a twin-engine, fixed-wing, carrier-based, all-weather night fighter. It dated back to the Korean War but had been adapted by the Marine Corps for electronic warfare and proved effective, replacing some older prop planes.
This was still the Cuban Missile Crisis era, not yet the Vietnam War era, and we were busy keeping tabs on the Russians and the Cubans in the Caribbean. I was part of Marine Corps Squadron VMCJ-2. The C stands for composite, which means several aircraft tailored to a specific mission. We were based at Cherry Point, North Carolina, and did both photographic reconnaissance and electronic warfare. They would rotate groups of us to Key West, Florida, to overfly Cuba and the surrounding waters. Our EF-10 Bs would be paired with RF-8 Crusaders. The Crusaders would streak across the island taking photographs of military installations and suspected missile sites, and we would go in behind with our electronic warfare planes and do our thing on the Russian and Cuban electronic signals and communications.
In 1964, they assigned me to VCMJ-3 at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in Irvine, California.
In October 1965, I went to Vietnam on my first tour, which lasted 16 months. I was part of VMCJ-1, another Marine composite reconnaissance and electronic warfare squadron, based at Danang. The specific unit names and numbers we were assigned to changed from time to time, from VCMJ-1 to Marine Air Base Squadron 11, all under Marine Air Group 11, but our job did not. I was still flying the EF-10B Skyknight and later the RF-4B Phantom and the EA6A Intruder. We would head straight north to Haiphong and turn inland over Hanoi, providing electronic countermeasures and flak suppression for our fighter-bombers, while trying to locate SAM sites so they could be destroyed. We would provide electronic cover for the Air Force 105 strikes out of Ubon, Thailand, for Operation “Iron Hand,” for SAM suppression flights, for Navy Alpha Strikes from the carriers, for Rolling Thunder, and whatever.
For a month or so at a time, I would be assigned TDY to the 7th Air Force Headquarters at Tan Son Nhut. I’d work with photo analysis and be responsible for putting out the “Night FRAG,” or the list of electronic countermeasure missions to support both the Navy and Air Force bombing missions for the next day in Operation Rolling Thunder. The problem was that the Navy and Air Force never talked to each other. We were in the same headquarters, in the same area, conducting bombing missions in the same general area, yet the two staffs would come in each day, go to their separate areas, and never talk. So, I had to go around and call on each of them and find out what the missions were for the next day out of Thailand, Danang, and the aircraft carriers, chart them all on my big board with a grease pencil, noting the overlaps, and telling them what we could support and couldn’t support.
After each TDY assignment to the 7th Air Force, they’d send me back to my squadron and Danang. Despite doing all that mission planning, I was also able to get my own flights in, primarily around the local areas in the southern part of North Vietnam, north of Mu Gia Pass, the Red River Valley, Vinh, Thanh Hoa, Hanoi, Haiphong, Laos, and Cambodia. I did enough flying to be awarded seventeen Air Medals.
The South Vietnamese government wasn’t the most stable thing in Asia. During that tour, as a Marine Corps officer, I was also assigned as a Security Company Commander in charge of security around the base and at Hai Van Pass and Cam Lo Bridge. At one point, the ARVN Air Force was actually fighting the ARVN Army. The Vietnamese Marines were headed to a Vietnamese Air Force base to attack them, but we got in the way at Cam Lo Bridge and managed to talk them out of that. There were always a lot of political issues and uncertainty in that country.
One time, a guy I knew from the squadron back when I was in California showed up flying a white airplane with Swiss markings. We knew he had left to take a job with “World Airways,” a CIA front. He proceeded to have the airplane loaded with sacks of rice, ammunition, and weapons. There was a civil war going on in Laos between the Royal Laotian Army and the Pathet Lao communist guerrillas. We were backing the Royal Laotians, and he was flying supplies and weapons into Laos to the Nung tribesmen who were also fighting against the communists.
He asked me if I wanted to go along, so I asked my CO if that was okay and went. They had cleared a small runway for us. Somehow, he got that plane in there, and we unloaded the supplies. Back then, the Nhung were heavily involved in growing opium, and part of the year they’d be harvesting it and selling it down in the capital, Vientiane. It was that opium trade that helped pay the troops in the Royal Laotian Army. There were also Chinese bandit groups up in the mountains, part of the old Chinese 8th Route Army that ended up there, and they were all involved fighting each other over the drug trade. The whole place was like the old comic strip Terry and the Pirates.
When we took off to go back to Danang, he threw a burlap sack in the back of the plane and we stopped off in Vientiane. He told me to just sit there while he took the sack and said he’d be back in a little while. For all I know, there was a brick of opium in there that he was going to sell, but I didn’t ask.
That mission was strange, but probably the weirdest mission I flew was the “Hanoi Christmas Toy Drop.” The Pentagon had ordered one of those annual one-sided Christmas truces when we stopped bombing North Vietnam and they used the time to rearm and bring in more SAMs. Lyndon Johnson decided that to show what a kind-hearted humanitarian he was, we were to drop a bunch of toys over Hanoi for the little kids for Christmas. So they loaded up a C-130 with bundles of toys to be dropped over Hanoi by parachute. The Air Force wasn’t totally stupid. They tagged two of us to fly our EF-10 Bs and provide electronic and antimissile cover.
When we got up there and turned in toward Hanoi, the C-130 pilot got on the radio and asked us to pull in close so that we were under his two wings. We didn’t think much of the idea, but we complied. But when he started to descend toward the target, we found ourselves looking up at those two big C-130 engines and I finally asked the other pilot, “How long are the propeller blades on a C-130?” At that point, we dropped back a bit further. When we reached Hanoi, the guy dropped his rear ramp, but he had lights on inside the cargo area.
“Turn off those Goddamn lights!” I screamed at him over the radio. He was lighting up the sky with the jump lights and we could be seen for miles.
“I can’t,” he answered.
“You got a boot, don’t you? Kick them!” The light stayed on, but pretty soon they had shoved all the pallets out the rear ramp, and we got the hell out of there.
A similar story. The Air Force took one of those big target drones they used, added some electronics, turned it into a photographic drone, and wanted to see how it would work. They asked us to go along and provide electronic countermeasures to protect the drone. We said sure, we can stay up around 10,000 feet and cover it. “Oh no,” they said, “we want you down there, flying next to it.”
“So, you want us to get shot down, so your drone doesn’t get shot down?”
We went along and made it back, but we didn’t think much about that plan, either.
During my second tour they sent us up to cover an Air Force night bombing mission, but they also sent along a flight of a half-dozen Marine Corps fighters, whose CO must’ve been new. We got up over North Vietnam, and the Marine fighters were flying in tight formation. They kept turning their lights on and off, doing radio checks, and counting to make sure everyone was there. They were the brightest thing in the sky with those lights on, so we edged away, knowing they would make a very large target.
Anyway, one time when they were counting off, instead of six planes, there ended up being seven. A North Vietnamese MiG had slid into their formation. When they realized what was going on, suddenly you heard, “Break! Break,” and they took off in all directions. We were glad we were the hell away from them.
Between tours, I went back to Cherry Point North Carolina and worked with the RF-4, the recon version of the Phantom, and served as the Assistant Operations Officer for Training for the Air Group. With the new planes coming out, we were trying to figure out how much training people needed for specific jobs. Years later, I did the same thing for the Department of the Navy. It was industrial engineering, but this was before the advent of computers. We had it all on graph paper hanging on all four walls of the room.
I also worked with the EA-6, the prototype electronic warfare version of the Prowler which the Navy and the Marine Corps used, the RF-4B, which the Air Force was using, and the F3-D, which had electronics equipment plus four 20-millimeter cannon. Those cannon were very powerful, but you had to be up close to use them, pretty much like a 20-guage shotgun. All the services were looking for something with more of a stand-off capability combining the electronics with missiles. That was where the Air Force’s Wild Weasels came in. They had the ECM plus missiles and were specifically designed to take out radar for AAA and SAM missiles.
It was during my second tour when I reached a total 450 missions over North Vietnam and had earned twenty-seven Air Medals that they pulled me off of those electronic countermeasure flights and put me back to headquarters doing staff work. I did a lot of things from supervising maintenance, Air Base security, supervising the mess hall, industrial relations officer, running the civilian work force, and a lot of that kind of stuff and flew electronic warfare missions part time.
Over in Laos, the North Vietnamese had a Russian KS-19 100-millimeter radar-guided antiaircraft gun located near Tchepone, right on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, that was causing a lot of problems for our guys when they went over to bomb there. Dating back to World War II, it was big, deadly, and well hidden. A good crew could get off up to fifteen rounds a minute. I volunteered to take a Douglas T4-A Skyhawk attack plane, go in low and slow to find them, and mark the gun with smoke. We had an A-6 that would circle up above with the bombs and rockets that would then come in and take it out. Ours was the two-seat version.
Well, it turned out that North Vietnamese gunner was a really good shot. He blew us out of the sky. We bailed out. The other guy landed up on a little ridge, and I ended up in a dry riverbed. That was one scary night, I can assure you. They sent some A-1 “Sandys” in to see what they could do to help us. They were old World War II Skyraiders, slow prop planes that carried a lot of bombs and machine guns and were really good at close air support, but it was getting dark. There were bad guys in the area looking for us; so when the A-1s made contact, I told them if they couldn’t pick us up, to stay away so they wouldn’t give away our position. In the morning, they came back with one of the big Jolly Green Giant rescue helicopters that got us out. The other guy ended up in a running gunfight with five NVA. I hid out, but still ended up with one guy coming after me whom I got rid of.
Another time I flew a mission over a uranium mine. I guess the government wanted to know what might be going on there. Anyway, we flew cover for photographic planes, jamming the SAMs that were covering the mine, and sending out deceptive signals so that the NVA thought they were being attacked by fighter-bombers, not photo planes.
When I returned stateside, I was assigned to the Flight Intelligence Center, Europe and
Atlantic, as the Amphibious Warfare Officer in Charge, and then I taught Amphibious Warfare
Intelligence Operations at the Marine Amphibious Warfare School in Little Creek, Virginia.
In 1975, I got out of the Marines. With the reduction in forces after the war ended, they were letting a lot of guys out. I only had thirteen years’ active duty and at that point I wanted to get a twenty-year military retirement. I went down to the Army reserves and joined them in an intelligence capacity and then went to transition school for helicopter flight training. That’s how I became an army Huey pilot at Willow Grove and Fort Meade.
While I was getting my military retirement – thirteen years in the Army reserves and later another thirteen years – I retired as a Colonel in the Maryland State Guard. I went to work for the Naval Manpower and Material Command in Norfolk as a manpower engineer determining staffing levels on new naval vessels and shore facilities such as ports and harbors. I became a security officer and was transferred to Crystal City in Washington, DC, as a security inspector and went on to work for Admiral Rickover inspecting submarines. Eventually I transferred to the Department of Energy and became the head of helicopter security operations with collateral duty designing methods for the transportation of nuclear material.
Now, I am retired and living in Florida. I don’t fly anymore, but I enjoy diving, sailing, boating, and skeet shooting.
All things considered, like bullet wounds, shrapnel, and PTSD, the only disabilities I have to deal with are my bad back, esophagus, diabetes, and bad hearing from being around too many jet engines and gunfire.
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