Grenades and Birddogs"
Submitted by - CPT Garry Forrest, 219th Pleiku, Phu Hiep, Nha Trang 10/67-10/68 and 5/70-12/70
On the Way to Vietnam - During the Vietnam war period, Army fixed wing training was conducted largely in the O-1 Birddog, a tandem seat variant of the tail-dragging Cessna 170. The O-1 was widely used by the Army in Vietnam for reconnaissance and target acquisition. Normal armament was four 2.75” rockets with warheads.
Obsolescent even in 1967, the plane had one feature that partially offset its slow speed: the windows opened a la J-3 Cub. That allowed not only “air conditioning” but also an opening for unobstructed photos – and for throwing things out of the plane.
In June 1967 we were rookie pilots directly out of Army flight school. A number of my class and I were assigned to form a new Birddog reconnaissance company (203rd Hawkeyes) at Ft Sill OK and deploy en masse to Vietnam.
After a few months gathering planes, people and equipment we were directed to deliver our planes to the depot in Stockton CA, halfway across the country. There, the planes were to be partially disassembled and shipped to us in Vietnam. On a September morning, in the pre-dawn darkness (to ensure we received per deim pay for the full day), all 28 Birddogs turned on our red rotating beacons indicating we were ready to fly. One by one we were cleared for takeoff, heading west on a great adventure half way across the country from mid-Oklahoma to Northern California.
Twenty six of the planes formed a gaggle while two ships - a buddy, Gordie Watson, and I (plus a crew chief and tools) - took a separate, more southerly route to visit Gordie's Air Force brother in Phoenix. We stopped in Albuquerque, Show Low, Phoenix, Palm Springs, Santa Barbara and Monterey before dropping the planes off in Stockton.
The PHX - PSP leg was pretty boring. Still is. We followed Interstate 10 then as we do today. From my air-conditioned perch at 10,500', it suddenly seemed like a great idea to chuck that green smoke grenade out the window. Yessir. Pulled the pin and watched it drop, trailing a stream of green smoke heading down. And down. And...the interstate and the stream of green smoke now in the same sight picture. Pucker factor rising rapidly. Grenade heading for the highway. I'm gonna kill someone! Then, the thing thudded down in the median strip! Billowed smoke for a while as motorists went on as if nothing was going on. At my altitude I was praying that nobody would think to look up and by then, I might be outta sight. Phwew!
Dunno where the smoke grenade came from. It certainly was not issued normally. Might have been a half-baked idea to use it as a signaling device should I crash somewhere.
We crossed paths with the gaggle in Palm Springs though. Gordie and I had refueled and were hustling to clear the area before a large dust storm closed in when the rest of the company arrived - like a flock of seagulls, swarming and squawking on the radio. At least one landed on a taxiway, just to get the planes on the ground somewhere as the storm hit.
Gordie and I listened to what sounded like incipient carnage as we spiraled up on instruments till we knew we could clear the high mountains. Dead reckoning direct Los Angeles, but LA was basking under a heavy layer of pink smog. Hmm.
I spied the top of Santa Catalina Island poking through the pastel murk. (“Twenty six miles across the sea/Santa Catalina is a’waitin’ for me/Santa Catalina / the island of romance”) Slight change: climb to 12,500’ to overfly LAX TCA (Class B), direct to the mountain, then right turn direct Santa Barbara where it was clear. (Since we weren't permitted to fly on Birddogs’ instruments, we agreed to not log the time.) Thence overnight at Monterey where the rest of the company showed up again. Fun night there ‘cause the crew chief’s home was in Monteray. In gratitude for the chance to visit, he un-mothballed his Honda 250 motorcycle for us to use.
In Vietnam - A year later – January 1968 - now assigned to 219th Headhunters near Pleiku, Vietnam, I acquired an even stranger accessory: a thermite grenade. Not the best thing to carry around as its purpose was to melt artillery cannons. That accessory stemmed from some work I did for Special Forces at FOB II (CCC) as call sign SPAF 4. One day a team in Laos was being chased down a hillside. The 10 [team lead’s call sign and on a mission he outranked God] asked if there was a way I could start a fire. If so, the fire would burn uphill, toward the pursuers, and also make smoke.
All I had was high explosive rockets and no grenades of any variety. In a blinding stroke of stupidity, I decided that if I flew very low, level and parallel to the slope it might be possible to fire a rocket that would blaze through the dry tall grass before arming and exploding.
Well, that did in fact, work. I was very conscious of the high number of rifle sights likely trained on me - but not a one fired. Like the carnival shooting gallery target where the target moves slowly from right to left. A really dumb maneuver that luckily worked once. What if that hadn't quite worked? Would I have tried the same stunt again?
The fire did, in fact, save the good guys that day. The bad guys had to maneuver left and right away from the smoke and flames and couldn't get to our folks fast enough. The team bought me some beers when they came in.
So, in a case of another similar “fire mission,” one that might not get me killed, came the thermite grenade.
Eventually, I did drop that thermite grenade. Late in that tour – August or September 1968 - while flying around and fighting boredom, I decided to drop it on a random field. As advertised, the thing really burned. Quickly caught the dry rice field in a roaring blaze. As I circled, I saw a Vietnamese man standing, shoulders slumped, looking at his harvest go up in flames, then looking up at me. If the man was not a Communist sympathizer that morning, by evening he certainly was. Score minus one in the tally of winning hearts and minds.
"Surprise!- Close Call"
Submitted by - CPT Robin (Obie) O'Brien, HH16, 219th Pleiku
In early 1967 I was assigned to the 219th Aviation Company as a FAC (forward air controller). I was returning from a mission to a Special Forces Camp south of Pleuku, Vietnam. I had an artillery observer in the back seat of the O-1 birddog I was flying. Seating is somewhat cramped and his knees were touching my back. We had been conducting "visual recognizance" while returning to our home base. While flying at aproximately 800 to 1000 feet elevation we sighted a group of 8 - 10 Montagnards about 500 yards off to one side of our flight path. They were running in a straight line parallel to us. Two of them in the middle of the group had a large "Bengal Tiger" hung beneath a bamboo pole. Normally the Montagnards did not run from us. I felt we should take a closer look to see what type of weapons they had and perhaps find out why they were running from us. I planned to circle around and cross the trail at a point where I thought they should be. I dropped down to ground level so the wheels were almost touching the ground and the prop was stirring up dirt. We were flying with the windows open so I instructed the observer to get his rifle pointed out the left side of the aircraft and I would look out the right side. As we crossed the trail I heard a gun shot and smelled burnt gun powder. I thought the observer had fired his gun inside the aircraft. I pulled up and attempted to talk to him on the intercom. The radios had quit working so I pulled up higher and turned to look back at him. He was white as a ghost and very shaken. Later he told me that as we crossed the trail a little man had stood up from behind a small bush and ducked as the wing of the aircraft passed over his head. He stuck out his rifle and pulled the trigger. The bullet passed between us and as it went in one window and out the other the blast was caught in the aircraft as we flew by. I'm not sure why the radios failed as they came back on about ten minutes later. I never did see any of the men but I did feel the bullet pass by the back of my neck.
Submitted by - SGT Don Jordan, 219th Co Clerk, Pleiku
1967. I was a back-seat observer on many O-1 flights out of Pleiku from January to May 1967. I remember one flight in particular in which one of the O-1s in the air with us was hit by some kind of explosion or other ground fire. I remember that it was damaged but kept flying. We heard the Mayday call and rendezvoused with it somewhere far from base. I don't remember the extent of the damage, but I think it had a flat tire, and a hole in the right side fuel tank. Not sure though! Anyway, it could not make it back to Pleiku. So we provided an escort to some Special Forces base where it landed safely. We followed it down to the ground, and then left for home. Does anybody know anything about that incident? I never did hear what really happened, or who the pilot was.
"When I First Met Arlie Jan 7, 1967"
Submitted by - SGT Don Jordan, 219th Co Clerk, Pleiku
I met Arlie Deaton for the first time in a bunker at 01:30 hrs on January 7, 1967. We were rudely awakened that night to the sound of explosions at various locations in our compound at Pleiku, South Vietnam. “Charlie” had decided that we had had enough sleep for one night and decided to stir up a little trouble for us. I knew him then as Captain Deaton. After all of these years, my memories of that night are a little hazy. So I had best just quote from my own personal memoirs of that first encounter with Capt Deaton.
“…During a let-up in the deafening explosions I decided to make a run for the Command Bunker (CB) located about a hundred yards away just outside of our Orderly room. The CB was where all of the company officers and administrative personnel went when under attack. Well since I was the Company Clerk, I figured I was administrative personnel too. And since there were mortar rounds exploding all around us, I was pretty damn well sure we were under attack! It didn’t take three months of basic training to figure that one out.
So with the equipment and clothes that I had hastily gathered up in the dark, I darted out of the door and started running for the Command Bunker. I figured that it would take too long to lace up my boots, so I just carried them along with me. I arrived within a minute or so and found that some of the company officers and a few enlisted men were already in there. It was a comical scene at best with five or six Lieutenant grade officers all standing around half dressed trying to figure out who out-ranked whom. The highest-ranking officer in the bunker had to assume command until our Field Grade Company Commander arrived. And nobody wanted to admit that he out-ranks anybody else. It was proper Army protocol, but comical nonetheless.
I was just standing there wide-eyed and scared to death watching these proceedings when in ran an out-of-breath Captain Deaton from our company. When he arrived the other young officers seemed instinctively to know that Deaton was the highest-ranking officer. A Captain out-ranks a Lieutenant! It appeared from the looks on their faces that a great weight had been removed from their shoulders.
Fortunately Capt. Deaton had a good since of humor. He could sense the fear and apprehension in the room, and could tell from the looks on our faces that we were waiting for someone to do something. We were all just staring at the door as if waiting for “Charlie” to come busting through any second. So Capt. Deaton took a deep breath, stood up straight, and said in his best Captain’s voice:
“Well I guess you’re all wondering why I called this meeting?”
Laughter broke out, and everyone knew who was in command!
Since no mortar rounds had fallen in the last few minutes we had a chance to assess our situation. I was standing there half dressed with my shirttail hanging out, my fly open, my helmet on with no helmet liner, my weapon in one hand and my boots in the other. After Capt. Deaton scanned the room for a moment or two his eyes stopped on me.
“Put your boots on soldier, and do you have any ammunition for that weapon?” He asked.
“Yes sir!” I said sheepishly. “One clip!”
“Then load it!” he said in a calm but firm voice. We’re in a war here you know!”
“Yes sir.” I replied, and began fumbling in my pockets for my one and only clip of ammunition. It never occurred to me to load the damn thing! After a few seconds I found it, inserted it into my rifle, chambered a round, and then made sure that the safety was in the “On” position.
Now that I was ready to defend our county with my 5 bullets, I figured it was time to get properly dressed. After all if I were attacked I wouldn’t want to be caught with my fly open. Why I didn’t put my boots on first I’ll never know. But I didn’t! I went about sticking in my shirttail, buttoning up my fly and tightening my belt.
About that time Capt. Deaton looked at me again and said:
“Jordan . . .you’re the new Crew Chief aren’t you?
“Yes sir” I answered. I didn’t think to tell him that I was recently promoted to Company Clerk!
“Then you don’t belong in the Command Bunker! You belong down on the line guarding the airplanes with the other maintenance personnel. Get down there!”
“Yes sir.” I replied, and out the door I went!”
Those are my memories of Arlie Deaton. I flew many hours in the backseat of Capt. Deaton’s O-1D Birddog. He was a fine man and a superb Army officer quick to do his duty when the need arose. We, in that bunker, needed Arlie Deaton that night. We needed someone to lead us, and Arlie Deaton was that man. Rest in peace Sir…
"Target Fixation & Other Hazards"
Submitted by - Charley Barnes, Cpt, Headhunter 36, Pleiku May '67-May'68
After arriving at the 219th in May 1967, I was assigned to the 4th Platoon at Camp Holloway, under command of Major Vic Weber, which supported the 4th ID. It was very quiet initially, with little if any enemy contact. After two or three months, I made my first significant contact with the enemy. While on recon just northwest of Pleiku, I spotted a squad of NVA soldiers hiding along a trail. After confirming there were no “friendlies” in the area, I decided to engage with my HE rockets. Rolling in from altitude, I aligned the sights, then threw the arming switches to hot. When I pressed the trigger, nothing happened. I looked out at the wings and saw several of the wires flapping loose in the breeze. With the ground rapidly approaching, I armed the other two and fired. They worked, but I found myself pulling out below tree level and flying through my own shrapnel. Target fixation almost killed me early in my tour.
Something I had been warned of during my orientation flights was not to recon up a valley. A Birddog pilot could find themselves in rising terrain without room to turn around if they did this. But what they didn’t tell you was to make sure you looked out the window on the uphill side of a mountain. While this may seem pretty self-evident, one of our pilots, WO1 Ted Fiedler, managed to fly right into the side of a mountain in VC Valley by doing the opposite. Fortunately he and his observer were not seriously injured and were safely recovered.
But it was dropping grenades out the window at low altitude that probably killed more Birddog pilots than anything besides enemy action. This was really just another form of target fixation. Scared myself a few times that way too, as well as low altitude stalls while engaging “VC” water buffalo.
Lastly, there was an aircraft-related way to be killed by pilot error. The Bird Dog had two fuel tanks, one in each wing. When one was almost dry you switched to the full tank. Forgetting to do this caused several harrowing moments for me, especially at low altitude. Most of the time the engine would cough and sputter, giving you a few seconds warning, but sometimes it would just quit. On one very memorable occasion I went through several restarts before the engine started. I’ll bet there were very few Birddog pilots who didn’t experience this at some time during their tour.
Submitted by - Cameron Sutherland, Cpt, Headhunter, Pleiku May '67-May'68
Tour: 1967-68. On this particular day, Captains George Frazier and Bill Taylor, both from 1st Platoon, were on a dual-ship mission along the western border of Pleiku Province, an area in triple canopy. I was up doing a Visual Recon (VR) mission south of those two. About an hour into my mission, Bill, probably flying low ship, comes up on the company net & yells, "George, George, I've got a VC down here behind this tree". There was an extremely long pause and then George came back with, "any particular tree Bill". I thought my observer (Special Forces type out of Duc Co) was going to have a heart attack in his kidney.
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