by Ed Willer, Shotgun 13, 1965-66

 

I entered the US Army Flight Program through ROTC in college, and earned my private pilot’s license. When an ROTC Department Sergeant heard I was going to flight school, he asked, “How you like Nam?” So, it was no surprise when I eventually ended up there.

Strapped into my 0-1D Birddog in Vietnam, I answered to “Shotgun One-Three.” “Shotgun” was the call sign for the 221st Reconnaissance Airplane Company located in IV Corps in the Mekong Delta. I was assigned to support US Army Special Forces advisors in my area. We called them “sneaky petes,” joked about their attending “bullet proofing school,” and referred to their camouflage fatigues as “hard-to-see-me-suits.”

The Birddog we had in Vietnam was the same we flew in primary flight training at Fort Rucker, except it had a variable pitch propeller (the “D” model). When the Army changed designations on fixed wing aircraft, the Birddog went from L-19 to O-1 (liaison to observation). Cessna built the L-19 for the Army during the Korean War, and 3,398 were produced according to Minard Thompson’s book “The Lovable One-Niner.” Basically a Cessna 172 on steroids, it had the 240hp Continental 0-470 engine, and tandem seats–the pilot in front. A “tail dragger,” this aircraft had the reputation of being prone to ground loop, so a 10-15 lb. lead weight was added to the tail wheel spring gear to make the plane more student-friendly. The idea was to keep the tail from bouncing, which could lead to a loss of directional control. Be that as it may, not pretty or fast, the Birddog served our mission well. It eventually worked its way into the civilian market, an entry-level old “war bird” for those into that part of flying. They are seen at air shows now, painstakingly restored, probably in better than new condition, and you can pay in the low six figures for one.

After Flight School, I was assigned to the 20th Transportation Company at Fort Campbell as a Pilot/Maintenance Officer. My wife and I were watching TV when President Johnson announced in April of ’65 that we were going from 25,000 troops in Vietnam to 75,000. “Uh oh, here I go,” I told my wife, and I had orders a couple of weeks later. While at my parents’ house on the way to Fort Bragg, I dug out a National Geographic and read an article on Vietnam. It provided the sum total of what I knew about the country. I remember reading the Mekong Delta was “heavily Viet Cong infested.” The worst part was getting orders and not knowing what to expect.

I reported to the 221st in the spring of 1965 just a few days before we left as a unit. A part of the first big build-up, we went over in two C-130s. Web troop seats down the sides of the fuselage weren’t exactly luxury accommodations. Our knees were up against baggage stacked in the middle. The day that C-130 rolled down the runway leaving Pope AFB was the day I would’ve left the Army had I not volunteered for flight school. I remember thinking, Willer, what have you gotten yourself into this time!

Our route was Pope, Travis, Hickham, Wake Island, Guam, and Tan Son Nhut Airport near Saigon. When we landed, we’d stretch our legs for a couple of hours, a new flight crew would get on, and off we’d go. We were told we’d have a five or six-hour layover at Wake Island; instead, we were quickly hustled back to the plane. I asked the pilot what the hurry was and he quipped, “Don’t you want to get to Guam before the Officer’s Club closes?” Interestingly, only that crew got off at Guam; we went on with a new crew.

We spent a couple of days at Camp Alpha at Tan Son Nhut, then our sister company, the “Soc Trang Tigers” of the 121st Assault Helicopter Company ferried us in their Hueys to Soc Trang. The runway, an old Japanese training field from WWII, must’ve been 300+ feet wide. Shortly thereafter we ferried our Birddogs down from Tan Son Nhut.

I was Assistant Maintenance Officer for Paul Fath for about two months. One of my early combat operation support missions was during heavy fog. I was on station when I got a call from a Soc Trang Tiger asking me to lead him to the operation location. I hadn’t spotted it yet, but I pulled out my chart, dropped down on the deck, and led them to it. He thanked me profusely, but he got some grief that night at the O Club for needing a Shotgun to lead him out of the fog!

Sometimes we’d get mortar attacks in the middle of the night. Sirens would scream; we’d pile out, grab our weapons and helmet, and hustle to an assigned bunker where we set about protecting the inner perimeter. The ARVN’s (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) manned the outer perimeter. I was usually under my cot before I realized what was going on. Later at Vinh Long during one attack, I jumped out of my bed and broke my little toe. It was an embarrassing moment. During another attack at Vinh Long, I ran down the runway when a dud made a big splash about 25 feet away in the dredge canal. One night in the Officer’s Club, the CO of a just-arrived mortar defense team was introduced. He stated that with a radar hookup they had, he would be able to get off an outbound mortar round and hit the VC mortar before the first in-coming landed. He intended to put a stop to mortar attacks. He received a huge round of applause, but I was never aware of any good they did.

The first USO show at Soc Trang was George E. Jessel. Usually there was one entertainer with a song-and-dance back up, and a band. They were always welcome. Jessel was most impressed by the shrapnel holes in the hanger where he was performing. After I returned home I had the opportunity to meet him and told him I’d seen him in Soc Trang. He remembered the shrapnel holes!

The first time I got shot at (that I was aware of), I was flying recon when an outpost began misbehaving. My ARVN observer and I went over to take a look. Small arms rounds make “popcorn popping” sounds when they pass. It’s the shock wave of the round breaking the sound barrier that you hear, but believe me, you don’t need an explanation, you’ll know! When you hear it over the aircraft noise, it gets your attention. I turned away and it stopped; came back around and it started up again.

After a couple of months at Soc Trang, I was assigned to 1st Platoon at Vinh Long where Art Goto was Platoon Leader. I had the good fortune to be Platoon Relief Pilot, so I got to spend a week or so at various places all over the Delta. There were no American units in the Delta then, so when we were flying we talked to American Advisors, and our Vietnamese observers talked with ARVN troops.

Soc Trang and Vinh Long were well established bases, and were “nice” facilities–everything considered. Each had an O Club, dining hall, PX, barbershop, theater, and chapel. When the barber in Vinh Long suddenly disappeared, we learned he was a VC plant and was “dealt with” by the local district chief, who was a Cambodian and much bigger than typical Vietnamese. The Vietnamese didn’t like Cambodians. One of my observers said, “We no like Camboats.”

One of the two helicopter units in Vinh Long had been there since 1963. Probably 200 troops including seven Shotgun pilots and our crew chiefs were there by 1965. There was also a Catholic Orphanage run by Irish nuns. They did our laundry and we supported them with our business, and sometimes raised money for them. I’ve wondered what happened to them after we pulled out.

I often flew in support of a Special Forces unit at Cao Lanh north of Vinh Long on the Mekong River. The airfield was outside of town and unsecured. It didn’t even have “White Mice” standing guard. We called the Vietnamese police “White Mice” because they wore white uniforms. Before I landed, the Special Forces guys always drove up and down the dirt runway to make sure the VC hadn’t mined it the night before. They kept sandbags in the bottom of their jeep and joked about it. After I landed they took me to their compound for briefings. The advisors liked us because it got lonely out in the boonies. When I left for Vietnam, my father-in-law gave me a Bo Randall “Model 14 Attack” fighting knife with my name engraved on it. It was the knife of choice for “sneaky petes.” I always wore it on the left side of my pistol belt and without fail, the advisors recognized it for what it was. Fortunately, the only thing I used it for was to cut open coconuts.

On December 5, 1965, I was Officer of the Day at Vinh Long and in the Control Tower. Around midnight I got a call from Captain Goto informing me of the birth of our first child. It took the Red Cross three days to get me the message, “Both Mother and Daughter are doing fine.” Both still are! That certainly made the OD duty memorable, and my daughter has heard my “Officer of the Day story” on her birthday over the years ad nauseum!

On Christmas Eve ‘65, I was assigned to adjust Navy guns off the coast near the mouth of the Mekong River. The gunnery officer told me to be careful of their range, as their azimuth was good, but range varied a lot. He was right. Perhaps the roll of the ship threw them off; nevertheless, I had to change my flight pattern. After we finished, I made a couple of low passes over the destroyer. I razzed them a little stating I had to hurry home because Eddie Fisher and Jackie–what the world needs now is love–DeShannon were appearing at a USO show. I got several hoots for that remark. I wished them a Merry Christmas and headed back. Jackie came out on the semi-trailer stage and sang her signature song in jeans and T-shirt with no bra. Jackie had the physic for the T-shirt, and the guys went nuts. After the show, Eddie and Jackie came by the EM and O Clubs for enjoyable visits. Wayne Newton came later with a good show, as did Ann Margaret.

One night at Vinh Long I had “flare patrol,” which was either a helicopter or a Birddog in the air for airfield security. Four parachute flares were mounted where we usually had rockets. We flew with our nav lights on and dropped an occasional flare to show we were there. One night I noticed tracers that appeared to be skimming the treetops below me. The tower called and said, “They’re shooting at you, Shotgun One-Three.” I told them I didn’t think so, and they said, “Oh yes they are!” I turned my nav lights off and the tracers quit. To test the tower’s theory, I circled, turned my lights back on, and sure enough, the tracers started again. At least they weren’t close enough for me to hear them.

Our Vietnamese military counterparts invited us for a cocktail party one evening in Vinh Long. My observer (my counterpart) explained to me that the Vietnamese considered mice a delicacy, but assured me they didn’t eat house mice that “ate anything,” but just field mice, as they “ate only rice.” Fortunately, he said they’d decided we might not appreciate their tastes and left it off the menu in our honor. I thanked him.

Over New Years I was assigned to Long Xuyen in An Giang Province while the regular pilot went on R&R. We had a bash at the BOQ and invited some Australian nurses who were assigned to a nearby detachment. It was pleasant seeing Caucasian women for the first time in six months.

In the spring of 1966, I was assigned for two months to Rach Gia (“rock jaw”), a fishing town on the Gulf of Siam. We used a secured landing strip that was bisected through the middle with a road at the edge of town. On take offs and landings the “White Mice” stopped traffic. Nearby, some officers, including three pilots, lived in an old mansion where we even had “French” chefs. We had a houseboy, a maid, and a full-time barmaid. We sometimes sent the houseboy downtown for an order of stone crabs–a big platter cost us a dollar. One time, one of the guys was sitting on “the throne” when it collapsed. The broken porcelain cut a gash that required stitches on the back of his thigh. We called it the “VC Toilet.”

1LT Norm Svarrer, the assigned pilot at Rach Gia when I went out to help, was a bachelor with an intense hatred for communists. Norm received the Distinguished Flying Cross, and was nominated for two more that were downgraded to Air Medals with a “V.” A witness told me about the DFC deal. During a battalion-size ambush by the VC on the local ARVNs, Norm adjusted artillery, and after he’d shot his four 2.75 inch rockets (with High Explosive heads – like a 105 shell), he and his observer expended all their M-16 and 45 ammo by shooting out the window at low altitude. After that, he was seen “low leveling” over the rice paddies trying to hit VC in the head with his landing gear! Norm was a laid back and normal guy on the ground, but in a Birddog, he was intense. Evidently he couldn’t get enough–he extended his tour for six months. He was one of the most decorated Birddog pilots of all. Norm had a great looking Snoopy on his Birddog door. He scrounged up an extra door that he could swap out anytime he went to the Company Headquarters at Soc Trang, because he was afraid the Old Man would make him take it off. Working with Norm was special. A hero in my book, he exemplified the real warrior. I talked with Norm recently. He did extend in Rach Gia for six months and then went on to a career in the Army.

I also have a great deal of admiration for the chopper pilots going into hot LZ’s and particularly the medevac “Dust Off” crews. I considered myself a professional soldier doing what my government trained me to do, so I didn’t worry about whether or not we were “doing the right thing” in Nam, as some did.

Regional Vietnamese Forces lived in strategic hamlets scattered throughout the Delta, and had the reputation of working for the VC at night and us during daylight. Rach Gia was in the Ken Giang Province and was ‘hot’ with VC. It was there that I took my only hits during my 12-month stay. We were supposed to stay above 1,000–1,200 feet which was out of effective range of small arms, but I was low-leveling when “he saw me before I saw him.” My plane was caught in a spray of automatic fire. Douglas McArthur said once, “Anyone who thinks the pen is mightier than the sword has never seen automatic weapons fire.” I agree. I was so low that the first round came through the top of my slightly-low left wing tip, and two more came through the left cockpit window between my observer and me. There’s an electrical wire that goes to the flap motor, and one of the rounds cut it in two. As Birddog pilots know, the flap motor is right behind the pilot’s head. That was too close for comfort. I have memory of a white flash, which was the Plexiglas exploding. When that happened I was pushing on the throttle as hard as I could! Our mechanics always gave pilots souvenirs when they could, and they gave me that window with the two bullet holes. I brought it home, cut it down and used it to frame my military patches and wings. I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to do, which is how you can get hurt before your time. I was lucky that day; nevertheless, the Plexiglas with the bullet holes is a great souvenir. No one was hurt, but evidently my ARVN observer was not amused because I never saw him again! I was more cautious after that. There’s lots of testosterone in a bunch of twenty-something’s walking around in flack jackets with 45’s strapped at their hip. Winston Churchill once said, “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at with no results.” He got that right!

On a routine recon flight north of Rach Gia, we spotted a grouping of six or eight sampans, later described as a VC meeting. My observer got excited and started shooting his AR-15 out the back window. That’s not something we wanted observers doing, but he shot up his ammo before I could get his attention. I decided to see what I could do with one of my 2.75” HE (high explosive) rockets. Two men were visible in one sampan–the others had disappeared. I went into a dive and fired my outside left rocket, one of four onboard. It went wide to the right, although in line with the sampan. Huey gunships were on the way, and the two VC were paddling like hell! I then fired the outside right rocket–it went wide left. I was running out of altitude so I armed the last two rockets and fired them together. Accuracy wasn’t easy because there was no mechanism for sighting the rockets. We used the bolts on the metal strip that held the two halves of the windshield together for a sight. They crossed in the air and one went right into the sampan. Bull’s eye! The explosion blew the VC out of the boat; one onto the left bank of the canal and the other on the right. The gunships gave me two confirmed KBA’s (killed by air). It was the only time I actually saw my “body count.”

There’s an island about 40 miles off the coast of Rach Gia called Phu Quoc. Teddy Roosevelt is said to have hunted tigers there, and it’s also the home of the famous Vietnamese fermented fish sauce called “nuoc mam.” A US Navy riverboat repair base was at the southern tip of the island. The Navy is notorious for good food, and if you finished a mission in time, it was fun to drop by An Toi for strawberry shortcake. Occasionally a Birddog was known to go out to An Toi just for dessert. I happened by there one day and met Jim Druey, “The Virginian,” and his USO troupe. They performed at Rach Gia that evening.

Frank Rojas, a Navy LTJG at Rach Gia, invited me to go out to meet a Vietnamese patrol boat and pick up a US Navy officer. Out of boredom I decided to go. We got into a little 14’ flat-bottom, metal boat with maybe a 10hp motor, and off we went toward the rendezvous point about a mile out into the Gulf of Siam. Trouble was, it was pitch-black dark with huge ground swells probably ten feet high. I’m not real fond of the ocean and I‘m thinking, what am I doing here? Frank was bitching because the patrol boat was running with its lights off. All of a sudden that boat loomed in front of us, and I was startled! We plucked the Ensign off and made it back to the harbor. I remembered why I’d avoided the Navy.

1LT Hershel Gober, an advisor at Rach Gia, was a singer and song writer. ABC put out a 45rpm record of his that had “I Need You So” and “Proud American” on it. He sang and played his guitar for us, but I’m afraid he was one-upped by Sgt. Barry Sadler and “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” Gober’s best song was “10 Clicks is a Mighty Long Walk in Charlie’s Land.” He knew first hand about that.

Accomplishing the mission is the first concern in tactical flying, and generally by its nature it’s not very smooth. There are many abrupt maneuvers, dives, rapid descents, and wild and crazy approaches. Mac McMonegal, our Check Pilot at Vinh Long, taught us what we called the “Mac Approach.” To reduce our exposure on final, Mac’s theory was to stay at pattern altitude until we were almost over the end of the runway, then pull off power and put down 60 degrees of flaps. The Birddog had a “lot” of flaps that helped short-field landings considerably. After you got your bird slowed and flaps down, you shoved the stick forward as far as it would go and held it there. It was not easy because the nose had a tendency to come back up, but as Mac said, “the most speed you’d pick up was maybe 65 mph.” She would shake and rattle as you aimed for the end of the runway, and the speed would bleed off as soon as you started to round out. It felt and looked like a slow dive. We tried to not fly the same landing pattern every time, because Charlie was not stupid and might be waiting for you. Sometimes we would low-level in from several miles out and at various angles to the runway. It was fun to call final on a low-level approach and see how long before our tower buddies spotted us. It was a little fun one-upmanship. After I returned to civilian life and continued my interest in aviation as a hobby, I had to unlearn my military tactical flying habits–they scare civilians to death, particularly wives.

Hawaii was on the approved list for seven-day R&R and my wife and I had plans to meet there, but for some reason it was taken off the list before I could get it, so I went to Tokyo with Mike Tuttle. We flew in a C-130 and landed at night at Tachikawa. It was socked in zero-zero. I’ll swear you couldn’t see the wing tips. The pilot did a great job considering he was AF!

I think most officers decided, as I did, to stay out of bars. I figured if I had to buy the farm I wanted to go out with guns blazing and not get my fanny blown off in some bar. I knew some EM’s who were lost that way at Vinh Long. But, sometimes we would put on our “tourist hat” and go “downtown” for a shopping trip, or get a pass for a couple of days to visit Vung Tau or Saigon. Vung Tau, a resort town at the mouth of the Saigon River, was called the “Riviera” of Southeast Asia. One evening my roommate, Bill Allen, and I were eating at a cliff-side restaurant probably 100+ feet above the water overlooking the mouth of the river. There must have been a dozen ocean-going ships at anchor waiting to go up river to Saigon, all with their anchor lights on. It was a magnificent sight, a visual feast! The French Onion soup that night was the best I’ve ever had. While we were there Mother Nature called so I found “the little boy’s room.” It looked more like a cave than a restroom. The urinal was sort of a trough that ran down the edge of the sloped floor. As I was standing there, a rat the size of a fat opossum ran across my feet. It happened so quickly that all I could manage was an expletive.

In Saigon there was a well-known floating restaurant along the Saigon River. Upscale Vietnamese and foreigners dined there. Before our arrival in-country, the VC tossed a hand grenade in the street and set off a claymore mine beside the gangplank, which mowed down several people as they clamored to the street. Twenty-eight were killed including eight Americans; 100 were wounded. We studied the tactic in ROTC, so the first thing I did when I got to Saigon was go to the Me Kan floating restaurant. The food was great. I learned to drink beer on ice in Vietnam. It’s not too bad. They had ice, but no coolers for beer. “33” was the popular local beer; GI’s called it “Bomb-de-ba.”

My older brother was a career Air Force pilot and was assigned TDY from Japan to Vietnam in 1963. He flew the ARVN Birddogs in the Delta putting in air strikes out of Tan Son Nhut. Two and a half years later, here comes little brother doing the same thing. My parents, who were on a “retirement trip,” got a visa to go into Vietnam to visit my brother. I can just hear my mother, back home in our small, southern town, telling her bridge club about sitting in the rooftop bar of the Caravel Hotel listening to bombs and artillery in the distance! Saigon was a pretty city with Royal Palm-lined streets. Most of the country’s buildings had a slight mildewed look, but other than that, it was nice. Vegetation was lush and the countryside pretty.

The terrain, basically sea level to 10 feet above, was our friend in the Delta. What wasn’t in rice production was mangrove swamps. There was an area of 1200-1500 ft. rock outcroppings called Seven Mountains, but if you stayed away from them, no problem. The roads were generally straight and usually constructed by dredging up dirt from the rice paddies. If you were under the overcast, all you had to do was go down to treetop level with no worry about running into anything. Flying IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) meant “I follow roads.” We had one non-directional nav beacon at Can Tho, but never used it because navigation in the Delta was easy. We did have one instrument-training model aircraft, which we used for taking our annual instrument proficiency check rides.

Our safety record was remarkable–40,000 hours that first 12 months and all the pilots got home. It is remarkable that in all that flying time, no pilot ran off the runway, ground looped, or anything else. We did lose a sergeant and one enlisted man, and four NCO’s were wounded in a November mortar attack at Soc Trang. One hooch, I believe, took a direct hit. There was a Birddog pilot killed in a mid-air with an ARVN Birddog just before we arrived. Sadly, he was my former next-door neighbor at Fort Rucker, Chuck Getman. One pilot was also lost sometime later.

Morale was excellent and support personnel did a great job. There was a real ‘can do’ attitude, and a strong spirit of camaraderie among pilots, crew chiefs, mechanics, cooks, medical personnel, and others. GI ingenuity was always impressive–those guys could make do with anything, and there was always humor to lighten things up. No matter how crappy things got, like incoming mortar rounds, someone was always cracking a joke. There’s nothing like comic relief to ease tension. Names like Allen, Tuttle, McMonegal, McDuffy, Goto, and Fath are all special. I hope to reconnect with them.

I was on the Captain’s list and would’ve made it in a couple of weeks had I stayed in. I said “no thanks” as I had other plans. I’d had enough adventure. On my way home in July 1966, I spent a night at Camp Alpha. The tent city of a year ago was now permanent buildings. I dropped by the Tan Son Nhut O Club bar that last night, and as I sat down right beside me was a fellow I’d gone to high school with! It is a small world.

When that big World Airways 707 broke ground to leave Vietnam, there was a loud round of applause! We stopped in Anchorage for fuel then flew to McGuire AFB, New Jersey. Some of us were to be out-processed as soon as we arrived, but we were told that, since it was the Fourth of July weekend and the civilian staff had been working overtime, they were going to give them the long weekend off–we’d have to come back the next week. You can imagine the groans…ok, expletives!

I boogied on down to Philadelphia to try to get a flight to Orlando for a reunion with my wife and see my daughter for the first time. It was crowded and I didn’t get on the first flight. I told the clerk at the Braniff counter where I’d been and how much I wanted to get to Orlando. He put me on the next flight! I told him I was hand-carrying a VC weapon in a cloth carrying-case (that the Nuns in Vinh Long had made for me), because word was that stuff like that might get stolen if it was in your regular baggage. He let me carry it on the plane, but asked me to give it to the pilot for the duration of the flight. Imagine that today.

I out-processed the next week. “Welcome Home” were great words to hear. I was happy as a clam to be back in one piece, and it suited me fine that I wasn’t Shotgun One Three anymore.