The wind streamed in through the window at gale force. The air was hot, but it’s motion made it helpful. What wasn’t helpful was the ping noises of bullet striking the thin aluminum body and wings of the little airplane I was in.
It was like being in a temporary labor pool except this was the army version of it and I was in Vietnam. I’d found myself at a forward area base of an aviation company having got there literally riding shotgun in a convoy of deuce and a half trucks delivering supplies. Once the trucks were unloaded I asked the lieutenant in charge which truck to ride back in. “These trucks are being dispersed to a variety of places,” he replied. “You’ll need to catch a ride with one of these guys to get back to your company.” He indicated over his shoulder with his thumb, pointing at a line of Hueys parked on makeshift pads of PSP, or perforated steel platform. Strips of metal plates that attached to one another to make a solid surface. With that, he climbed into a jeep and left me standing in a cloud of reddish dust.
I stood there for a minute taking stock of my situation and then headed for a tent lined with sandbags that had the look of command presence. I stuck my head in and came face to face with a few warrant officers and a captain involved in a discussion about their preferences of women’s breast sizes. “What’s up, Ace?” asked the captain, looking at me. I explained my situation. “Well, looks like you’re going to be here for a few days. We don’t have anyone headed towards Phan Rang for the moment. ” He then yelled the name McCalister and a few seconds later a three stripe sergeant came in. Black, tall and lanky, his fatigue jacket had its sleeves removed, turning it into a vest. He wore his rank in black magic marker on his collar. “This gentleman is going to be our guest for a few days.” said the captain. “Get him fixed up with a bunk.”
“C’mon, Slick.” said McCalister and I followed him outside and to another tent surrounded by sandbags. The tent held ten cots, five to a side, and he pointed to one in the middle. “You can use that rack there. You got any gear with you?” I told him no and he led me off to another tent whose inside was stacked with a variety of supplies. “Grab yourself a poncho and a liner, and anything else you figure you need.” With that, he left, off to do whatever it was he did. I hunted around in the tent and found a poncho and liner, a mess kit, a couple of canteens and a utility belt to hang the canteens on. I took my stuff back to the tent and stacked it under the head of my cot, draping the poncho liner over the thin mattress on the cot. It was hot in the tent so I went outside to get some air and take a look around.
I walked over to the line of Hueys, UH-1 helicopters. Most were sitting with their side doors open, I found later to keep the air inside from heating up too much. I walked down the line from chopper to chopper, noting the differences between them. A couple were dedicated Medivacs, a few were set up as gunships, but the majority were slicks, just regular helicopters with machine gun mounts set into the side doorways. As I was walking, a Warrant Officer, his name tag reading Hagar smiled and gave me a wave. “Hey! A rigger, huh? Tolly will be happy to see you!” It took me a second to realize he knew I was a rigger, the rigger wings on my chest were a dead giveaway.
“Who’s Tolly?” I asked. “And why would he be happy to see a rigger?”
“Follow me.” said Hagar, and he led me to yet another tent. We stepped in and he called out “Hey Tolly, look what I brought you!” A skinny guy with horn rim glasses looked at us. He looked at me a moment and his face brightened.
“A rigger? A dyed in the wool, real live rigger? Man, I’m glad to see you!” He stood and shook my hand enthusiastically. “I can’t believe they finally gave us a rigger. Our shit’s so out of date I wonder if I might as well be wearing a lead weight.”
“I’m not assigned here,” I said. “But while I’m here I’d be happy to help you out with any equipment you have.” Tolly, which turned out to be short for Toliver, guided me out of the tent and the opposite direction from the helicopters. Sitting at the end of a cleared area were a pair of Cessna O-1 Bird Dog spotter planes. Small two seat aircraft. They had 200hp motors and flew at a max speed of 130 mph. Bigger units flew the OV-10 Bronco, a twin engine aircraft with twin tail booms and an elevator that ran from the top of one tail over to the other. They were armed and had advanced (for the time) targeting avionics. The O-1 wasn’t armed except for any side arm or rifle carried by the occupants. Tolly led me over to one and reached in the door and came out with a couple of B-12 freeback parachutes. They were used for personnel and activated by a ripcord. These chutes were compressed and sweat stained and looking pretty sorry.
“Sure. But if I find then unsafe for service I’ll have to red tag them. That means you won’t have a parachute until it’s replaced.”
“Perfect. We tried to get spares but supply won’t send any unless we turn one in.”
“Why not turn these in for new ones then?”
“Because we need a rigger to certify that they’re uncertificated.”
I took one of the parachutes from him and yanked the ripcord. The spring loaded drogue chute popped off the backside and the tightly folded parachute fell to the ground with a splat. Very bad news. It should have fallen out, but it should not stay in a tight wad. I handed the harness to Tolly and grabbed the drogue chute and walked away, causing the parachute to unwrap itself. It made a noise like tape being removed as the S folded nylon played out. As more and more of it was exposed I could see areas of mildew staining the canopy darkly. Once I had the parachute fully extended I unfurled the canopy to see it from the underside. It made the same tape removal noise and resisted being pulled away from the nylon folds. I dropped the skirt and walked back to the harness and pulled the little log book from its pocket in the backpack. Chutes are supposed to be repacked every ninety days, the last date of repack in the log was eighteen months old.
“As far as I’m concerned this is a red tag.” I said. Tolly grabbed my hand and shook it heartily again. He was one of three fixed wing pilots who flew spotter duty, directing artillery and patrolling for enemy movement. An unsafe job to say the least, made a lot worse by crap parachutes. Of course, the low altitudes they flew in didn’t offer a lot of opportunity to use a parachute. It took at least 800 feet at minimum to open and slow the jumper. These guys flew at 500 feet much of the time.
I popped the rest of the parachutes and red tagged them all. But I hung them up and let the sun shine on them and let the breezes air them out. Why? Because the more needed a supply is, the more that can go wrong with getting it delivered. If I couldn’t get a replacement then I wanted these as best they could be. I called the rigger company at Tan Son Nhut airbase and spoke with my former supply sergeant. We shot the breeze for a while and then I gave him the serial numbers for the chutes I’d red tagged. He looked them up and found they’d been issued to I Corps, but couldn’t track them to their eventual company assignments. I gave him the name of the one I was visiting and he updated the record and told me that the aviation company could pick up their chutes the following day at Tan Son Nhut, and gave me the contact there.
I was given a hero’s celebration by the guys in the company, which meant I got to choose which Flavor of C Ration I wanted and was first in line to the tub of lemonade the mess sergeant made. The real celebration happened later, back in the hooch when some of the guys broke out the Seagrams and the pot. I got totally wasted listening to the war stories and felt great camaraderie with the pilots.
In the morning I felt like a herd of water buffalo had stampeded through my head and my mouth tasted like they’re relieved themselves along the way. I groaned and climbed out of my rack and staggered out of the tent into the sunlight. The brightness of the day sent slivers of steel through my eyeballs and my stomach started doing back
flips. I made my way to the edge of the brush surrounding the company area and threw up violently. Once I was done though, I felt a lot better and decided to go see if I could get some toast and coffee to settle my nervous gut. That’s when I found out that it was about quarter past eleven in the morning and the chopper that went to Saigon to pick up the parachutes and at the same time give me a ride home had left without me. He departed at zero seven hundred. I was processing this revelation about the time the Huey came in and landed in a hurricane of dust. I stalked over to the helicopter and ripped the pilot’s door open. “What the hell, man. Why didn’t you wake me up?”
He shrugged and yelled back over the loud whine of the turbines. “We tried, man. You were just too out of it. We couldn’t wake you. We had to go, those planes are grounded until they have chutes. By the way, they’re in the back. You need to inspect them and then sign off on their delivery.”
In a frump I pulled back the side door and grabbed the chutes, piled on the floor of the cargo area. It was obvious these were brand new equipment. I signed the receipt and hauled the parachutes over to Tolly’s tent and dropped them at his feet. “Here you go, stud. Four each working and certified parachutes.”
“Keep one of them,” said Tolly. “Until you go back you’re riding with me. We’re short on people and we’ve been flying alone. That makes the office load pretty heavy, especially in the shit.”
And that’s how it was that I was sitting in the rear seat of an O-1 Bird Dog hoping the rounds fired at us from ground troops kept hitting us in places that weren’t critical to our continued flight. I was reading from the charts I was given and was on the radio talking to the artillery squad stationed at a nearby TOC, or tactical operation center. A field position where battled were directed from and patrols issued out of. I watched the results of my handiwork as 105mm rounds slammed into the ground in the area I designated as a target for the shooters. Unfortunately for me, before they trained me as a rigger, the army trained me as a cannon cocker, and forward observation and target designation was one of the crafts I was taught. When this knowledge got into the hands of the air group, my fate was sealed and I was “given something to do” while they worked at gettig me sent back to Saigon. I have to say that being short handed as they were, having someone qualified to read charts, call in artillery and take care of any number of loading and aerial delivery functions didn’t make returning me a high priority.
Back at the forward base, our late afternoon was spent riveting patches over the fuselage and wing holes from a morning of experiencing the Viet Cong express their appreciation for our directing air strikes. But that first time up was the worst of the trips I made with the pilots. Sometimes in a Bird Dog and other times hanging out the door of a slick, door gunning with a m-60 machine gun to cover the LZs as the rest of the choppers dropped infantry into areas of operation.
There was a great flight, one that apparently posed us no danger as we called in fast mover jets to drop naplam and then be followed by a C-26 loaded up with side mounted 20mm Vulcan cannons. These morbidly beautiful weapons fired so many rounds that even with a tracer round every seven shots, their gunfire looked like a neon lariat whiipped and lashed the ground ferociously. The following day ina Bird Dog, we did a BDI, battle damage inspection and saw that the leaves had literally been blown off the stalks and brances of their trunks, leaving the ground a cratered post-apocalyptic appearance. There was no question that there were no survivors.
I’d been with the aviation battalion for two weeks and was starting to settle in. Tolly and Givens, the two primary warrant officer pilots had even been teaching me to fly the Bird Dog. Years later that would help to encourage me to get a pilot’s license and then a commercial license. It was kind of depressing when Givens came to tell me to pack my goods and load up into 48, a Huey slick. In spite of his being mostly a fixed wing guy, he was qualified and very proficient with the Hueys as well. He volunteered to be the one to return me to Saigon where my Co was anxious for my return; so he could transfer me to the 2nd of the 327th Infantry.
He let me steer the Huey as we flew, and I handed control back to him when the city of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City showed in the forward windscreen. He landed and extended me a hand. “If you ever want to transfer to aviation….” he said. I nodded and smiled. Taking my gear from the back of the ship strode off back to the company area as Givens raised to taxi altitude ad disappeared down the tarmac.
During a couple of patrols during my infantry stint I happened to run into Tolley. Both times he was commanding one of the slicks taking us to an LZ for an op. We smiled and shook hands, but then there wasn’t much to say and I needed to take my seat so we could depart.
Almost a decade later as I was getting my private pilot license, I flew little tandem seat aircraft that reminded me a lot of the old Bird Dogs. In my free time, that is, when I was just out flying and not getting instruction, I would fly the little planes down low, flying the nap of the earth -contour flying they call it. In a Walter Mitty way, my imagination could hear the radio calls between myself and the bomber flights, artillery crews, and command channels as I zipped around the treetops at a leisurely 90 miles an hour. My air experience in Vietnam was short but interesting and I count it among the positive memories of the war.