Submitted by - Cpt David Farenbach, Headhunter, Kontum Aug '67 - Aug '68
About mid-afternoon on day three of the Tet Offensive I landed at Dak To for fuel and rockets. I’d been in the airplane since just after dawn and had logged nearly twenty hours in the two days before this one. The 2nd Platoon of the 219th Reconnaissance Airplane Company (mine) had to relocate from Kontum Airfield to Holloway under great duress the day before. And that night, the Kontum airfield along with a temporarily resident American Huey company, had been overrun and our platoon’s entire physical plant--ops shack, revetments, POL and ammo dumps, everything—went up in a huge explosion that lit up the sky sufficient to be visible 30 miles away at Holloway, over the mountain range that rose 4,000 feet exactly half-way between the two towns. On that day, the North Vietnamese Army was very much in control of everything in the city of Kontum except the MACV compound where I lived with a couple of hundred Americans, and the Province Chief’s residence. (He kept all the tanks.) I remember feeling very tired, filthy and scared to my toenails. The fact that Dak To was out of rockets didn’t help. And that was my emotional footing when I first heard his voice.
I was up on the step pumping AVGAS when I heard him ask if I was going anywhere near Dragon Mountain, the 4th Infantry’s base camp somewhere South of Pleiku. I’d only heard about it—didn’t even know if the place had a runway. I explained in what must have sounded like a royal wimp-out that I was going in that general direction, that this load of fuel would last until just after dark, that the airplane needed to be at Holloway for the night, and that what we would encounter on the way was anybody’s guess. I did mention that good ole’ 690 been accumulating bullet holes for the last three days and things were still pretty iffy where I was headed. He said that was fine. He said, “You see, sir, I got separated from my spare pair of glasses in a firefight in the bush yesterday and I can’t see shit. Gotta get to base camp to get a coupla more pairs.” It would soon be dark in the central highlands and he’d be one helluva lot better off at Holloway than Dak To. I told him, “Jump in.”
The only clean thing he brought with him was his M-16 which we tied next to mine behind the door. His boots and web gear were funky and his personal persona was pretty ripe from being in the bush for a little over 3 weeks; his fatigues hard-caked mud sheets at the knees and elbows. He was one of those people whose face seemed frozen in a permanent smile, which when combined with his myopic squint gave him an air of optimistic intensity that you had to see to appreciate. Since this was the first time the observers’ seat was to be occupied in at least three days it was, therefore, the first time I had reason to inspect the only observer’s helmet on board—and found it wanting. All padding, save the earmuffs, was AWOL. His smile seemed to imply that the dirty bandana surrounding his head would suffice just fine and where did you plug this thing in? We had a little chat about how to drop stuff and took off.
My memory of what happened over the next 3 hours has become a somewhat fuzzy over the last 43 years. But for the sake of brevity it can be summarized by saying that we played out a version of a standard scenario common to countless Birddog pilots throughout the Vietnam war: somebody on the ground was in a bind; two other Headhunters showed up, helped out and we were able to make the difference that got the job done and a few dozen innocent people got to go on living. But in doing so, there was a lot of yanking, banking, low flying and dropping stuff. Years later, it occurred to me that I had had in my backseat an observer who could see nothing and had every right to be scared to his toenails, too, but if he was it surely didn’t show. He performed like he did this every day and every time I glanced at him in the mirror the look on his face said, ‘Man, if you gotta go to war this sure beats the hell outa what I been doin’. In short, he was in hog heaven, thoroughly enjoying the experience and this was going to make one helluva good story to tell the folks back home. Or not. I remember thinking that this chap was much more comfortable in my world than I would have been in his.
After we landed at Holloway, he donned his pack, picked up his M-16, said, “Thanks for the ride, sir”, and started out across the PSP. Needless to say, I never saw him again. But the man’s slightly crazy smile has never left my mind in all these years and I’d surely give a lot to be able to buy him a beer. I don’t think I even asked him his name.
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