Captain, U.S.A.F., Forward Air Controller
23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron,
504th Air Division
I lived on the family farm in Hammond, Indiana, my first 17 years. When I was 8 years old, I got to fly with my dad in his L-2 Army Air Forces trainer. I couldn’t take off or land, but he let me fly it in the air. The first in my family to go to college, I joined the Air Force ROTC and got a private pilot’s license through the flight program. When I graduated in 1964, I went on active duty in July and wanted to be a fighter pilot, like everyone else. I had six months of training in the T-37s, Tweety Birds, and the T-38, which I really liked. You had to stay ahead of it because it was supersonic.
I was assigned to the KC-135 at K.I. Sawyer AFB, Mich., and volunteered for every mission I could, to build up my hours. The best were Young Tiger missions out of Thailand, which were over the Gulf of Tonkin and Laos, refueling fighters headed to North Vietnam out of U-Tapao and Takhli. We’d have a gaggle of 16 tankers to top off the F-4s and F-105s before they entered Laos, and on their return. The tough part was when only some of them came back. We knew they were trying to take out bridges or certain targets, but it seemed stupid to keep going the same route and hitting the same sites. It was a death trap for the pilots—and the North Vietnamese kept on infiltrating.
In 1970 I became a forward air controller in the OV-10 Bronco and deployed to Vietnam. While at Bien Hoa for a three-week indoctrination course, a mortar hit right outside my room. I ended up sleeping under my bunk, with an M-16 and a helmet on. The next week, I elected to go to Thailand and fly out of country for Nail FACs, figuring I’d get shot at during the day, but at least not at night while I was sleeping. In 1970 all the action was in Laos. The Communists were taking supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and were infiltrating Cambodia and Laos. A key role for the FAC was to keep track of the enemy and try to stop them.
The Trail was lined with guns, and one of the first rides we took was to check out what it was like to get shot at. We also learned how to jink—changing heading and altitude at the same time every four seconds so the enemy couldn’t lock on to you.
We got pretty good at taking out NVA 23mm, 37mm and 57mm guns, especially when we brought in the 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs. We’d troll for the guns, and when they fired, we’d mark them and bring in the fighters. Finding the target and then keeping it in view so that you could tell the fighter where to hit was challenging. When they made their run, you had to get out of their way and then do an assessment of the first guy’s bomb and get ready for the next guy.
On April 28, 1970, I found a key gun battery on the Trail that had shot down one of our aircraft earlier that week. We were pretty sure the NVA had radar-directed guns there. I beamed a laser onto it and cleared a fighter in hot. Using my binoculars, I saw the bomb hit the radar and five 37mm guns around it. All hell broke loose as enemy guns opened up. It was like Fourth of July fireworks. I told the fighter pilot, “You hit dead center and uncovered Pandora’s Box.” I marked all the guns, and we ended up taking out four more batteries and damaging a couple more. In three hours, we brought in well over a dozen fighters. I received a Distinguished Flying Cross for that action.
By then, I was realizing that I might have a passion for living on the edge. The rest of my tour as a FAC I volunteered for all the special missions that came my way.
Two months later, the CIA’s Raven FACs lost five pilots in one week, so I volunteered to fill a spot until they got new guys. We painted the OV-10 gray, I locked up my ID, flew in civilian clothes and moved in with the Air America pilots at Udorn. We supported troops in Laos on missions involving lots of strafing and intelligence gathering. Back on base, my crew chief would fix up the airplane while I was in the bar swapping war stories. By the time I was done, two months later, we counted 309 AK-47 and .50-caliber bullet holes in my plane.
Next I went to U-Tapao for missions over western Cambodia. Then back at Nakhon Phanom, I became a Prairie Fire FAC, supporting sanitized Special Forces on missions into Laos to capture NVA deserters.
I was involved in the November 1970 Son Tay raid, to search for the prison suspected of housing John McCain III, though we did not know it at the time. We got orders in the middle of the night to escort helicopters into North Vietnam, but we weren’t part of the raiding party. By the time we got to the site, they’d already moved on.
I left Thailand right after that for Hawaii where, because I was involved in the raid, I was chosen as Admiral John S. McCain Jr.’s pilot. In 1974, I went to Wright Patterson AFB as a program manager. I then had to go back to SAC to fly in the Iranian hostage raid.
Though I initially aspired to fly fighters, I’m glad I ended up in the OV-10. The 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron was a great squadron. We still lost one or two airplanes on average every month, and eight pilots, but most everybody got out. After a while you got so that you didn’t think it was going to happen to you…just to the other guy.
Excerpted from the Oral History Project at Texas Tech University’s Vietnam Center and Archive, www.vietnam.ttu.edu/oralhistory.