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Captain, U.S. Army, Forward Air Controller

183rd Reconnaissance Airplane Company

Phan Thiet, 1969-70

There it was, a flicker of light about a mile away in the distance.

I was in my O-1 Bird Dog returning from a tree-killing mission in the middle of January 1970. That’s what we called them because that’s mostly what we killed. The Navy had a destroyer positioned a mile off the coast of South Vietnam. Each day our job was to find targets for the ship to shoot at. There were three ways for us to bring fire on the enemy. One was to see him and request permission to fire. This was usually denied for whatever reason. Next was to draw fire from the enemy, then shoot at him or radio his coordinates to artillery or the destroyer. This is what happened most often.

Last was to be in a free-fire zone, where the civilians had to be told that anyone seen in the area would be shot. Since the VC would also know this, we didn’t ever see any VC in there. So the trick was to hit the tree that the VC were hiding under. Water was the key. We would study maps and find old trails crossing rivers or streams and locate a level spot near it, then adjust naval gunfire on it. It was amazing how often we were lucky.

Within 30 seconds of spotting the flicker of light, I was flying over it—a campfire still within the free-fire area. Fifty yards to the east was a 200-foot cliff falling off into the South China Sea. The jungle was 100 yards away in all the other directions. On the south side of the campfire stood three grass hooches forming a tight semicircle. I had them! They could not have escaped to the jungle.

I radioed the destroyer: “This is Seahorse 21, Fire Mission, enemy in the open. These are live targets, over.” As they repeated my orders, I could hear them calling general quarters on the ship in the background.

I called in: “Grid coordinates Hotel Gulf 4327-6792. This shows an abandoned village on my map and should on yours also. Fire for effect, over.” “21, grid coordinates Hotel Gulf 4327-6792, same on my map. Fire for effect, over.”

In just a few seconds the rounds from the destroyer were exploding 100 meters north of the target. I called again: “Left 100. Over.” When these rounds hit, they were 100 meters south of the hooches. Now I had a bracket. The correction of “right five zero” was given. Unfortunately, these rounds hit in the same spot as the first.

As it was nearly dark and I was low on fuel, I decided I would put a rocket in the center grass shack and go home. “This is 21, request two flares over target, over.” As I waited for the flares, I pulled the safety pin from the trigger on the stick of the Bird Dog and reached up and flipped the toggle switch on the master arming panel. Without looking, I could see the amber glow of the arming light. Last, I selected the left outboard rocket and could see the red glow, meaning that rocket was armed and ready to go.

Looking up, I could see the two flares from the destroyer swinging under their parachutes, lighting up the area. As I began the dive on my rocket run, I noticed the first flare getting too close to my right wing tip. Slipping left, I avoided it but now the flare on the left was too close. Slipping right and approaching 200 knots in my dive, I was back on course. I had no sights on the little airplane, but when the target was on a certain spot on the windscreen, I knew I could hit it and that is where it was now. I felt like the whole U.S. Navy was watching me from the destroyer. I couldn’t screw this up, so I held my dive for one more second.

I had target fixation—the cause of death of many combat pilots. It’s when a pilot concentrates on hitting the target so much that he flies right into it. It was about to happen to me! I pulled the trigger and a millisecond later pulled back hard on the stick. I heard the crack of the rocket firing in my left ear and saw its red glow as it flew into the open doorway of the hooch at knee height.

The next seconds and minutes transfixed and terrified me, bringing me face to face with my own mortality.

Apparently, the VC were planning a major attack in the area and these three hooches were chock-full of rockets, mortars and no telling what else. When my white phosphorus rocket detonated in the middle hooch, it ignited a massive explosion. As the nose of my Bird Dog passed just over the grass shacks, I was in engulfed in the blast.

People say that when a traumatic event happens, time passes by in slow motion. That’s not true. Your mind actually shifts into hyper speed.

The explosion was the most spectacular thing I have ever seen. First, the striations of light streaked up in front of the aircraft. Then a flash of brilliant, pure white light shot through the windscreen. “There goes the windshield!” I thought. The light hit me in the face and pushed my head back hard against the seat, casting shadows of red, orange and black. The searing light pierced into my eyes, and I could feel it burning my optic nerve, shooting into my skull, and then the white light with orange blobs was floating between my skull and my brain.

Then, suddenly, everything went black. Not everyday black, but the kind of black that you would get if you built a wooden box, lined it with black felt, crawled in and put the top on so tight that no light could get in at all. The entombing darkness was accompanied by absolute silence, no noise of any kind. I had no feeling in my body.

I immediately thought: “I must be dead. Is this what death is like?” I thought of my wife, Jane, and how sad she would be and how her life would change. Then I thought of my parents and how unfortunate this was—they would not even have a body to bring home and bury. I began to wonder: “Am I the only one out here? Is there anyone else here in this blackness of Vietnam? Will I be here for eternity?”

It was then I heard a faint sound, like an insect off in the distance. It began to grow louder. Finally, I realized it was the airplane engine. I was alive! But I was still blind. By the whine of the engine I could tell that my Bird Dog was in a slight left-turn climb, heading out over the South China Sea.

After several more seconds, my eyesight began to return. I turned north and tried to focus on the attitude indicator showing where the horizon is. Because the stars were reflecting off the sea, I couldn’t tell which way was up.

The radio began to crackle: “Seahorse 21, what in the world did you hit? That was a tremendous explosion.” Still trying to recover my wits, I replied: “This is Seahorse 21. End of mission, returning to base. Out.”

As I headed the Bird Dog north toward home, I started thinking about how close I had just been to death. My body began to get hot and my skin started feeling like it was on fire. Now sweating profusely, my body began to tingle all over and every nerve ending began to pulsate. And then, I became extremely cold, so cold my teeth started to chatter and I began to shake uncontrollable.

Deep in my bowels, I felt something big and heavy—like a cannonball with a rat in it that had died about a week ago— and I could feel the fumes crawling up from my stomach. As I got closer to Phan Thiet airfield, the fumes were flowing from my throat into my mouth as I began to salivate faster than I could swallow.

“Phan Thiet tower this is Seahorse 21 two miles south, low on fuel, request straight in approach. Over.” “Seahorse 21 you are cleared straight in on runway 03. Over.” The runway was 3,000 feet of perforated steel plank—interlocking 30-footlong, two-foot-wide steel planks that had a hole every two feet. I began heaving as I glided over the first thousand feet. The second thousand feet fell away because of a 10-foot dip in the center of the runway. At the end of the third thousand feet was a 200-foot cliff above the South China Sea. I touched down on the last section of the runway and as I rolled into the company area, I started throwing up. My trusty crew chief, Carl Forgey, was there to help me from my Bird Dog into the hangar.

I had scared myself so badly that I could not fly for three days, but soon after that I was back in a Bird Dog. A few weeks later, just as I was preparing for a mission, I suffered a grand mal seizure that left me unconscious for more than one hour—and ended my flying career forever.


Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here