Grenades and Birddogs"
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.
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