An observation plane pilot’s chilling encounter epitomized the perils and uncertainties of warfare in Vietnam.
“Damn generals,” I muttered to myself as I climbed into the cockpit of my Cessna O-1 Bird Dog at Nha Trang Air Base on a sunny morning in late May 1969. I had only been in Vietnam for a short while and was about to head out on one of my first missions as a member of the 183rd Reconnaissance Airplane Company.
A few days earlier, one of the military policemen at Nha Trang was practicing his quick draw and blew a .45-caliber hole in his own leg. As often happened in the wake of such a screwup, the brass overreacted and ordered that no one was to have a loaded weapon on the base unless he was on perimeter guard duty. That included us pilots who carried side arms with us on our missions above enemy territory in our small observation planes. I was pretty sure none of them had ever had to pull a pistol from under the seat belt straps and load it while trying to fly an airplane.
On this day, my assignment was to cover a truck convoy that was slated to leave Ban Me Thuot for Nha Trang around 8 a.m. My mission was to recon the road through the mountains to look for any ambushes, and then land at a designated point along the route to wait for the convoy to reach me. I would then provide cover and radio relay for the convoy on the rest of its journey to Nha Trang. There were typically 35 to 50 vehicles in a convoy, and in some places along the route the road was so crooked that the radios at the front could not communicate with the ones in the back.
After takeoff, I headed north and soon spotted the east-west road as it neared the South China Sea. Turning west, I guided my Bird Dog above the winding road and took it up to 6,000 feet as I passed through the Duc My Pass. At the bottom of the other side was a very small village.
A large and dusty plain stretched out to the north and east. To the west was a winding dirt road leading to Ban Me Thuot. On the south side was a 1,000-foot-tall ridge with its thick foliage coming down to less than 100 yards from the jungle landing strip where I would touch down and await the convoy’s arrival.
This setting worried me because I could be overrun here very quickly, and my only defense would be my .45, which was no match for an AK-47. The landing strip itself, marred with potholes, was in reality just a wide area in the dirt road. At about 2,000 feet long, it was very short for any fixed-wing aircraft.
I first made a high recon at 1,000 feet and saw three cows standing on the runway. On the right side of the road was the village, with about 25 grass huts. I came around on a low recon at about 50 feet and succeeded in scaring the cows off. Everything appeared to be OK, so I touched down and taxied to a parking spot. I positioned the Bird Dog at the east end of the runway so I could make an emergency takeoff down the road as far away from that ridge as possible in case I came under attack.
There were no wooden structures here, no vehicles, no Americans, no South Vietnamese soldiers. Just me. This was no place to walk out of. We sometimes had to wait for hours for the convoy to arrive because they might have started late or had some trouble or breakdown along the way. While on the ground, I had to turn the plane’s radios off because they would run the battery down.
With the temperature hovering around 110 degrees, I settled down in the only shade I could find, under the wing of my O-1. I had been on the ground for only a short while when I noticed a group of kids, ranging from toddlers to about 10 years old, huddled on the other side of the road.
One by one they trickled over from the village and gathered around me in the shade beneath the wing. It was all quite innocent enough, but we pilots had heard the scary stories about women and kids throwing hand grenades in airplanes. It was often said that children of a Viet Cong family would be considered heroes and would bring honor to their family if they killed an American officer.
The kids began pointing excitedly to the two rockets under the wing and jabbering away about everything. Some of them approached the propeller and started walking under the rockets on the other side. I began to get a bit wary as I tried to keep tabs on all of them and finally felt it was getting too dangerous so I ran them all off. “Di di mau, di di mau!” (Go, go quickly!) I shouted as they crossed the road.
My threats, however, had limited effect, and before long they began to stroll back over to the plane. I decided to take up a position at the tail of the aircraft where I could keep my eyes on the entire machine. When the kids reached the wing, I chased them off again, but back they came.
They got themselves under the wing again, and as I was about to chase them off one more time I noticed a new boy coming through the group of about a dozen kids. The other kids seemed to back off as he walked through the group. He looked to be about 10 years old and was just over 4 feet tall. Barefoot and clad in khaki pants and a brown plaid shirt that was unbuttoned and tied in a loose knot at the bottom, he had his hands cupped around something inside the shirt.
I pointed to his hands and shouted, “What you have?” Slowly, the young boy opened his hands and revealed the top of a hand grenade. Stunned, I watched in horror a second later as the kid pulled the pin! In an instant, with instinctive fear and rage propelling me, I rolled over the tail section and came up with my .45 aimed at the boy. I knew that in slightly over four seconds the grenade would explode, igniting the two white phosphorus rockets and gas tanks above him. Then the ones on my side would explode.
I didn’t know if we were going to heaven or hell, but I did know that the boy was going to get there a couple of seconds before me. As I peered down the barrel of my .45, I could see the fear in the boy’s eyes. The bullet would take out the right side of his heart and sever his spine. He would be dead before he hit the ground. I gritted my teeth and squeezed the trigger. The next sound I heard was a loud metallic “click.” In that split second, I realized I had forgotten to load the pistol after I took off from Nha Trang.
Drained of hope, I thought about my wife and parents and how the blast would not leave a body to send home.
Then the boy’s arms fell open and I braced myself for the final act. The grenade fell out of his shirt and onto the ground. Nothing happened when it hit. It was only the top of a grenade fuse assembly. It was a joke! The boy was just playing a practical, almost deadly, joke on me. I was going to live!
I was so shaken, I could hardly stand. If I had killed that kid, I would have been given a one-way ticket to Long Binh Jail, and then would have had to carry that guilt around with me for the rest of my life.
Transfixed by the grenade pieces on the ground, I didn’t even see the boy and other kids scatter and disappear. As I stood there, trying to process what had just happened, I heard a growing rumbling sound approaching. The convoy’s lead vehicle was rolling toward me in a cloud of dust. When it came to a stop, a sergeant jumped out and stared at me for a second before saying, “You look like you just saw a ghost!”
“I did—my own,” I replied.
Sometimes, in the quiet of the night, I can still hear that loud metallic “click.”
Donald Tyler flew O-1 Bird Dog observation planes during his one-year tour in Vietnam starting in April 1969. He left the Army in 1972 as an infantry captain.
Originally published in the August 2010 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.