Sometimes You Just Gotta'

LT Petty Vietnam 1968

Right behind our Headquarters on Artillery Hill in Pleiku, there was a Perforated Steel Planking (PSP) covered air strip that was just big enough that when it was dry, a Bird Dog Airplane could land.  The Bird Dog had changed little from the time they were introduced in WWII.  I'm sure the Army bought a few newer models and upgraded the radios and engines, but they were still the configuration of the pilot in front of a second person.  In our world, it was generally a 2nd Lieutenant and in my world it was generally me.  This is just a few of the tales relating to my time in the back seat of a Bird Dog over the beautiful landscape of Vietnam.

Back Seat of Bird Dog 1968

As we would take off, I would generally watch what was being done and just sit and listen to what the pilot would say to the control tower.  Our little strip had no control tower so the pilot would talk to the tower at Pleiku Air Force base located about five miles to the South and east.  It just wouldn't do for some great big multi-engined airplane to have us pop up out of nowhere.  In most bird dogs, the second set of pilot foot pedals were folded down and laying flat on the floor.  There was generally a second control stick fastened to the wall of the aircraft and the planes were not configured for two pilots but could be made to do so.  On occasion, we would have a mission that would include long distance flying to where we would shoot artillery for some distant unit and the Pilot would have me set the plane up so I could fly.  Many times one pilot in particular would set me up, give me a compass heading and tell me to wake him up in 45 minutes or so. Their flight helmet had a green eye shade and he would lower it and take a nap.  On one such trip, I was having a darned tough time keeping the altitude and airspeed constant.  Finally after about 10 minutes of feeling like I was on a roller coaster, I asked the pilot what the hell was wrong.  He reached over on the side of the plane where he was and trimmed the plane up a little and that cured that . None of the Pilots were so stupid as to let me attempt to land or take off.  Growing up in Wichita and having seen hundreds of planes take off was not a life experience to qualify me for the real thing.  

Vietnam from the air, 1968

Once we were in the air, the green beauty of Vietnam was striking.  To me, being several hundred feet in the air was a super feeling.  Most of the time I had the side windows open and the air just felt crisp and clear at about 90 miles per hour.  I generally had my map spread out on my lap and watched where we went to be able to radio for help if we needed it.  I also had the frequency of nearby artillery units tuned in to tell them we were there if they needed anything.  I went by the call sign Red Leg 23 a lot.   The one thing that I found remarkable was the number of large circles on the ground that almost always had water in them.  They didn't seem to be ponds because they weren't located on natural waterways or contours on the map.  Finally one day as we finished shooting an adjustment mission it dawned on me that most of those holes were where someone had fired Artillery rounds.  Lots and lots of holes...

The plane I flew in a lot, had an elephant painted on the side of the plane like those meatballs you see on WWII aircraft.  I asked him about it and he told me the story about the time an observer fired probably 100 rounds at a VC element on the ground and didn't  really hit squat.  He got tired and just aimed the rocket pod under his wing at the biggest target, an elephant and fired a rocket.  He said that that damned elephant was loaded down with some kind of high explosive and he was damned lucky it didn't blow him out of the sky.  He said there was blood and elephant guts all over the plane and one or two shrapnel holes. I didn't see any elephants while flying but I'll bet we would have hit it with an artillery round as I could read a map and could shoot me some artillery.

Somewhere in an earlier story, I told the story about covering the ambush for my unit as it moved up the road between Pleiku and Dak To.  I won't recount that story but will emphasize that those pretty silver and green tracers I saw in the sky were troops on the ground shooting at us.  Did I mention that the Bird Dog was made of aluminum?  The skin on that bird wouldn't stop a rock thrown at it let alone small arms fire. 

One of our trips west out of Dak To was over towards the Ho Chi Min trail.  I told the pilot that I had never seen it and wondered if it was as big a deal as they made it out to be.  The pilot said that right over the next mountain range was the edge of Vietnam and the trail ran along that border.  He flew right up to the ridge and slipped the plane over the top.  Right there was an area that for about a 1/4 mile had been pounded into red dust and was a scar  in the green of the jungle.  Almost right in the middle of where the B52s had leveled the trees, was a convoy of trucks just sitting there on the road.  At the front and back of that truck convoy was a  ZSU 23 which was a radar controlled machine guns with four 23 mm Machine guns.  About the time the pilot saw the people run to their trucks, and the guns start swinging our way, the pilot slipped that Bird Dog right back over the ridge line and out of range of the machine gun.  I immediately was on the radio and sent the coordinates to the base camp in Dak To and they had a Forward Air Controller from the Air Force on the line and the Air Force shot the hell out of that convoy.  By the time we got back to Pleiku, the pilot landed at his base and we briefed a whole bunch of Colonels and Generals about what we saw.  

On another trip back from Dak To to Pleiku, the pilot said he wanted to get a look at the water fall behind the Montagnard village.   I guess the women used the waterfall as a shower and he took every chance he could get to see naked women.  We had eaten lunch at Dak To and for some reason I just wasn't feeling well.  As we got to the water fall, there were about half of the village women taking a shower and they were naked.  The pilot just kept flying around that damn water fall until lunch no longer wanted to be in my stomach.  I told him that one more time around and I was going to puke in his plane.  He didn't stop and I did puke.  I tried to put my head out of the window but the wind just blew about half of the vomit into the tail of the plane.  Kind of like the time I tried to pee off the running board of a 5 Ton truck driving down the road.  Mostly I had a ring of wet around my middle and should have just wet my pants.  I had a ring of vomit around the inside of my helmet and I'll bet less than 1/3 of the macaroni and tomatoes got out of the plane.  When we landed, the pilot said that if I made the mess I had to clean it up.  The crew chief came over to the plane and intimated the same thing.  I told them both that I pukes only because the pilot had wanted to see some naked women and I gave him fair warning to stop.  If they wanted to make a big deal out of it I would be glad to go into air operations and tell them what the hell we had been doing.   They didn't think that was a good idea and I got in my jeep and went back to my unit.

When I got back to my unit, I went into our operations shop and told them that I wanted to get paid for flying in a Bird Dog and they agreed that there was an aerial observer slot available at the Brigade.  I was sent over to the Air Force Base for a physical and there they said I was damn near so dear that I wouldn't qualify for an Aerial Observer position.  Shit, hell, damn I was good enough to fly but not healthy enough to get paid for it.  Very soon after that I was sent our with the 3rd Battalion 503rd Infantry Abn.  While I was with them, two young officers were assigned to the Aerial Observer positions and were killed.  It seems that they had drawn ground fire and the plane flying low on a high/low mission pulled up and the planes collided. 

I got assigned to a Firing Battery and never heard another word about flying.  The moral of this story is Sometimes you just Gotta' puke. Take it from me you need to try to find a barf bag and not lean out of the window.


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