Ross C. Detwiler
It’s funny when I think back on the day. It seemed to have been characterized by things that went wrong right from the start, but none of them seemed so far out of the ordinary to me that I gave them a second thought. These were things that weren’t necessarily related to flying, but were indicators of a bad day. First, there had been a rocket attack on the base at about three or four in the morning. We didn’t sweat those much and often didn’t even go to the bunkers. Remember what I said earlier about how safe life on those big bases could be. The guys out on the perimeter were at war, and we slept comfortably. God bless them. Waking up early in the morning and sitting there talking to Chris for an hour or so as we determined first that the rockets were not hitting near us, that a cup of coffee would hit the spot, and that we’d have to get together at the club after our two missions that day. This killed enough time that getting back to sleep and getting up again at seven didn’t leave much room for restful sleep.
Then there was the ride to the squadron briefing room. In Misty, there had been a truck to come and pick up the individual crews at their quarters and take them. But there were only about twelve or fourteen guys in the Misty detachment at any one time. There was no problem for one of the intel guys, one of the admin guys, or one of the other pilots to man the van and go pick up guys at their trailers. With a squadron of twenty some pilots, that was impossible. People had to get to the squadron on their own. That was accomplished through bumming a ride with a senior officer who had a jeep, grabbing a shuttle bus or any other truck or van going the mile or so to the building, walking, or as I had done, buying a small motorcycle.
That motorcycle was a laugh. There were probably thirty or forty of them on base. They were all small 90cc Hondas or the like. You merely found a guy getting ready to DEROS (date of expected return from overseas — go home ) and offered to buy his bike. It was a very gentlemanly deal. The going price was fifty bucks. You paid fifty for it when you got it and you took fifty for it when you left.
One guy had a prospective purchaser ask for the title and insurance papers. “There’s no title. There’s no insurance papers. There’s no contract, but I’ll tell you what there is. There’s a line of guys standing behind you, willing to pay the money today. Ya want to ride or you want to walk. Makes no difference to me. Fifty bucks.”
Anyway, that bike was a cold starter. You had to jump on the starter thirty or forty times to get it going, or you had to do what I usually did, which was to start down the long hill before the BX
and hope that it kicked into life before the bottom of it. It always did. Not that day. I had to walk it up the hill beyond the BX and all the way to the squadron.
We briefed. I was the leader of Elect 21 flight. Four F-100 Sabres going to Laos to hit targets found for us by a Misty FAC. Our scheduled take off time was about noon, as I recall.
The second element (Ships 3 and 4) was led by Al Winkelman in the Number 3 position. Al was a friend, a bachelor to this day, a health nut (“I run a mile and smoke a pack a day — that should
be about right”) and most importantly for this mission, an ex-Misty like myself. The two wingmen were Dick Halick, I believe and Lee Gourley, a fellow classmate from the academy who would later be killed on a Misty mission himself. Although a fellow classmate, Lee had gone on to some other program after graduation and arrived about six months behind me at Phu Cat. These two had arrived at about the same time in the 416th and were coming along real fine. In fact, I had been sitting in Mobile one day when an old European F-100 guy and Dick had been caught out and came back to Phu Cat with fairly low fuel and very low weather in heavy rain. We watched the big oval noses come out of the clouds at about 250 feet. Because of his lack of experience, the squadron commander and the supervisor of flying had come out to the mobile unit to watch Dick make his approach. There he was, right on the button. Dead on. That was an accomplishment for a
new lieutenant with about two hundred hours total in the F-100.
So we briefed.
I remember to this day giving the statement about what we would do if Al or I got shot down. How the other would act as the first on-scene commander for the rescue that would begin at the
shoot – down. How we would turn it over to the Misty FAC when Al or I left. I got the names (Al and the FAC and me) wrong and backed up and started over and got the names wrong again. I knew what I would expect to happen, as did the other three because the rescue briefing was the same every time. I finally left it as “whichever one of us is left after the bullets stop flying will be the on-scene commander.” That got Al laughing, and his laugh was infectious. We all left the briefing feeling pretty good.
Little did I know.
After the briefing, we went to the personal-equipment area that was right next to the two briefing rooms in center of the 416th area. The guys in the personal-equipment area spent their entire working time in-country looking out for our emergency needs. The parachutes were lined up on stanchions, each with our number or name on them.
Also hanging on the peg was our individual g-suit, a set of bladders that went around your waist and upper leg, like a girdle, and then zipped tight all the way down your legs. The g-suit bladders filled with high pressure air when the airplane was making high-g turns. The bladders would keep blood from pooling in the stomach and big arteries of the legs.
They served to give you about two g’s more tolerance.
Also on our individual pegs was the survival vest. This was made of a strong mesh material with pockets that contained two survival radios down by the waists, signal flares in the breast pockets,
and various other devices, such as a holster to carry the issued .38 and some extra ammunition. There was also a hundred feet or so of lanyard that you were supposed to use to let yourself down to the ground if you wound up hanging in a tree. The pistol, for some reason, was said to be carried as a “signaling device.” There were various brags around the squadron that ran the gamut from “I’ll never be captured alive” to “Probably the safest thing you can do with that thing is throw it at the enemy so he’d know when he captured you that you never intended to start a war with an entire platoon.” As it turned out, some of the most successful escape-and-evasions were done by guys who did neither of the above, but just dug into the area where they were and laid low until all the troops that were looking for them went back wherever they came from. Each rescue was different. And the discussion of “What I would do?” was never-ending.
We got the gear on and reached into the freezer for a frozen bottle of water. As I said in a previous story, these rubber canteens went out as a block of ice and were normally not consumed until after the flight had departed the target area. By that time, they were usually ice water, and they always tasted fantastic.
The same personal-equipment guys who took such good care of us also manned the step van or “bread truck,” as it was known, and took us around the flight line. The planes that were assigned to the flight were posted on the schedule board that was the first thing one saw when arriving in the semi-dark squadron area. Across a little aisle from the scheduling board and ops desk was an office for the CO and an office for the squadron operations officer. The commander at that time was a guy named Paul Davis, and he was a great guy, an ex-European F-100 guy who seemed to know all the more experienced (prior to Phu Cat) guys. Everyone liked him and respected him. Davis had a bad back, but rather than tell the flight surgeon and risk being grounded, he suffered
in silence. I remember walking down the hall in the PE section one day past one of the briefing rooms and seeing him laying on the floor.
“Holy shit, sir, you okay?”
“Relax, Rosie. This isn’t another McKeon ordeal.” He was referring to Jim McKeon, another old-head European guy and a great friend of his who had died of a sudden heart attack one morning after finishing a briefing. “My back hurts so bad that I just had to lay down and straighten it out.” He laid there, smoking a cigar.
We walked through that area and out into the heat. Takeoff was scheduled for just after noon. The planes all had a parking spot next to them on the schedule board, and the NCO from the personal-equipment section knew the ramp well enough to get us all to our planes with only one pass-through.
Talk in the bread truck on the way to a mission is always falsely lighthearted, always about something other than the war it seemed, and always completely unremarkable, except that it killed the time. I stepped out of the truck and shook hands with the crew chief. A guy named
Papenfuhs—Pappy to everyone else. The plane he was crew chief on was “my” airplane. On that particular day, Pappy had come over to help launch me on another airplane. I always liked working with Pappy and the rest of the guys on the line. A preflight usually consisted of merely checking that the bombs were on secure. When Pappy said it was ready to fly, it was ready. I trusted him with my life.
I climbed up the ladder, slung the chute into place, and clipped it to the survival kit that was in the seat pan with the two metal clips on the bottom of the chute harness. Flight cap went into the bottom pocket on the g suit, gloves up on the glare shield, helmet on the top of the canopy bow, and helmet bag tucked into the left rear of the cockpit. There was a routine, and that routine was
followed every day.
After a few words with Pappy and the maintenance guys who gathered around, it was time. Up the ladder, leg over the side, right foot in the middle of the seat, left foot up and over and onto the floor, grab the canopy bow to support your weight and down onto the seat. The crew chief came up the ladder when you pulled the second leg in and helped you by throwing the shoulder straps over the top and down the sides of you. Four-point seatbelt connected, g suit plugged in, helmet on, mike cord plugged in, and you were ready.
“Go get ’em, sir.”
“Thanks, Pap, see ya in a couple hours.”
Engine start was routine. I checked in with the command post before I checked the guys in on the ground-control frequency. When you talked to the command post, you were basically asking per
mission to do the mission. Missions were seldom canceled, but you could get a delay at that point depending on weather or the availability of a FAC or something else “brewing” where they might need the ordnance somewhere else. These missions were generally pretty routine, even the ones to Laos. By the time these missions got to the target area, the drop tanks were usually just going empty. You were not allowed to drop with fuel in the drops, so the timing worked out just fine. You arrived, met the FAC, dropped, and went home. They were a lot easier time-wise compared to
the amount of time that you spent flying a Misty four-to six-hour mission, but not in the location to which you were directed.
“Elect 21 flight check.
Al and I had both come from Misty, where the missions went a lot further north and lasted a lot longer. A strike flight like the one today barely lasted two hours, seldom even needed to refuel, and was pretty simple. I’d become complacent.
Because President Johnson stopped the bombing of the north in November of 1968, the last two months we had spent in Misty had been flown in the panhandle of Laos. We were both very familiar with the area we’d be going to. Most of the targets that the F-100s hit in South Vietnam had nothing more than small-arms counter-fire at that time. Big threats to the slow-moving FAC airplanes and to guys on the ground, but pretty boring moving at over four hundred knots.
In Laos, they were beginning to get quad-mounted 23-mm guns that could throw a lot of lead out and bring down a fighter. Also, there were 37-mm guns. As I said, when the war first turned to Laos in November 1968, there was little to scare an F-100. That had begun to change as the enemy knew that all of North Vietnam was once again “safe.” By early spring of 1969, things were getting a little dicey, and the Misty FACs would soon face some horrible losses in that area of operation.
As ex-Misty FACs, familiar with the area, Al and I had volunteered for and flown several night missions. These were in escort of giant C-130 gunships. Although we didn’t know it at the time,
these airplanes were just becoming equipped with new night-vision equipment and the ability to hit moving targets (trucks) with stunning accuracy. Our job on those missions had been to loiter in the area when the gunship was shooting and roll in on any ground fi re that appeared as flashes in and around the gunship’s target area. Those gunships flew high enough that they were usually out of the threat, but if a 23-mm or 37-mm got their bead, they were playing a pretty deadly game.
For those of us in the fighters, the ground guys had no radar, so they fired at the noise. Most of the airbursts we’d see at night were well behind us. It was exciting for us, though, and much more so for the guys in the gunships. Today we were going to an area south of the giant bend that a river made in Central Laos. The target areas were defined by what we called “Delta Points.” We were due to be bombing in the area of Delta 87. Al and I, because of our experience, knew this was, or could be, a pretty hot area.
“Two, three, four.”
“Let’s go, button three [pre-set channel three or ground control].”
“Two, three, four.”
“Phu Cat, Elect 21. Taxi with four Fox 100s.”
“Elect, cleared to taxi to Runway 30, wind-calm altimeter 29.98.”
There wasn’t much need to give any more information. The sky was clear, the temperature about ninety with the humidity close. Another fine day in South Vietnam was well underway.
We taxied down the hill to the arming area, and the munitions guys came out and pulled the pins on the bombs. The old F-100 could only carry four munitions. The 750-pound bombs and the
napalms were the heaviest, both just over eight hundred pounds. In the arming area, the pylon locking pins were checked closed for a final time; the arming wires were checked to be attached at the proper place. As I said before, a general purpose bomb was armed by the air acting on a little propeller in the front of the weapon. Before the bomb was dropped, that little propeller was held
in place by a wire that ran from the pylon, up along the side of the bomb, and through a little bracket on the front of the bomb. This wire kept the propeller from spinning. If necessary—for instance, if you had to drop the weapon on takeoff because of a mechanical malfunction—you could drop the bomb safe. Once in the target area, the solenoid that held on to that little arming wire was activated, and it pulled the wire off the bomb when it left the pylon, allowing the little propeller to spin, thus arming it. The final check was a stray voltage check before the little cartridges that fired the “pushers” on the pylon were armed. The bomb wasn’t just released from the pylon. It was fired off by two pushers activated by these cartridges. The goal was to not have that action happen before reaching the target area. We were ready.
“Elect, go button [preset channel] four.”
“Two, three, four.”
“Elect 21 flight check.”
“Two, three, four.”
“Phu Cat. Elect 21 and flight ready for takeoff .”
“Elect, you’re cleared on and off Runway 30. Winds light and variable. Altimeter 29.98.”
We dropped the canopies together. It’s good to get the flight thinking as a group as much as possible. You may have to count on them being active participants in your struggles, and it’s good to have everyone on the same page at the same times. For this reason, we line up the helmets in the arming area, make the check-ins crisp and quick, and bring the bottom of the canopies to the top of the canopy bow when we have completed all the parking and pre-taxi checks. From that point, we’re one flight. The canopies come down the final ten inches or so together, slide forward an inch, and as the seal inflates, lock into position. We go onto therunway for engine run-ups and checks. When Four is ready, he signals by looking at number three. When number three looks at me, I know he and Four are ready. Looking over my left shoulder, I see number two looking at me, nod, and release the brakes.
On takeoff , we move individually. It’s all the old D-model can do to get this load off the ground in this heat without having to give power to a wingman to maintain formation. There is an engine-pressure-ratio gauge in the lower left. Throttles are at the 100 percent position when the engine checks are complete. Then, the throttle is eased outboard for afterburner and pulled to the
minimum afterburner range. The EPR gauge drops as the fuel control sends high-pressure fuel to the actuators on the afterburner nozzle ring and the nozzle swings open. When the burner lights,
the EPR gauge swings back up to the top of the little marker that we use to show that the old Pratt is pushing all the air it was designed to push. Takeoff in a fully loaded F-100 at ninety degrees requires a great deal of concrete. The roll begins, and by the time the plane goes past the mobile control, about a thousand feet down the runway, the airspeed indicator is barely moving. There is a tremendous amount of noise at this point but not much speed. At about the halfway point of the ten-thousand-foot runway, the speed is up to one hundred knots, but it takes 185 knots to get
this load off the runway. The rotation comes at 170 knots, and the liftoff generally occurs just in front of the cable that serves as a last-ditch abort barrier, about nine thousand feet down the runway. There are a couple of very grim stories of friends who aborted at very high speeds, dropped the tail hook to catch this barrier, and had the hook skip over the barrier. The abort procedure called for the pilot to drop the ordnance (safe) and deploy the drag chute before taking the barrier, but that all took time. The tailhook was on the end of what was really nothing more than a giant spring. When it hit the ground, it often did what springs do, and skipped over the wire. The F-100 would go off the end of the runway at well over 150 knots, and the results were usually catastrophic.
I lifted off just ahead of the wire and snapped the long gear handle to the up position. The plane was very wobbly for the first four or five hundred feet of altitude.
The leader usually went straight ahead until the speed got fast enough to bring up the flaps, and then he climbed at that speed, starting a turn to give his wingmen a cutoff angle to use to catchup. The others caught up by turning to the inside of the turn and staying low, letting their airspeed build until it was fifty to seventy knots greater than Lead had briefed he would fly. Then, trading altitude for airspeed, they pulled up next to the leader. Two always came up on the inside of the turn, and Three and Four went to the outside of the turn.
The old F-100s were heavy at this time, and it took a lot of room to get them going and a lot of room to slow them down when they got in close to the leader. By giving a cutoff angle, they didn’t have to fly at nearly as high an airspeed. I settled in at three hundred knots as briefed, and the three wingmen joined. Lee, the number two, came up first, and then Al and Dick respectively passed under Lee and I and joined on the rightside. We continued in a tight fingertip formation as we rolled out of the left-hand turn and headed for the target.
As soon as we rolled out on a heading toward Laos, I spread the formation. This was done, without a radio call, by easing back and forth on the rudders. When the members of the flight saw the yaw, they moved out and put about three ship-widths between each of the planes in the flight. This gave more room to maneuver than the fingertip and allowed the guys to clear for other traffic more easily.
“Panama Control, Elect 21 and flight are off Phu Cat heading 330 to work with Hillsboro.”
“Radar contact 21, say altitude climbing to.”
“We’ll be heading to the target at sixteen thousand.”
The Hun wasn’t good for much above that altitude with this much weight onboard. We settled in for the twenty minute or so ride up to southern Laos.
It had been a rough period of time. Cass Casero had bailed out and been picked up. Bullet Bob Bryan had been shot down twice. Lacy Veach and Ron Standerfer jumped and were picked up after some terrifying moments. Guys told Ron he had something to talk about now besides the famous Marion the Librarian New Year’s ass-prints on the ceiling. Ron was a Jersey guard puke (common term—I referred to myself that way when I joined the Guard) who later wrote a great book called The Eagle’s Last Flight about his life in the air force. He was a guard guy, a weekend warrior who, when called, not only willingly went, but went and volunteered for the toughest mission, Misty. Abe Kretz ( Abe’s real name was John, but we all called him Abe because Wells thought he looked like Abe Lincoln) and Cass Cassero were New Mexico Guard pukes (Tacos). Clyde Seiler came from the Colorado Guard and Jerry Edwards from Iowa. These guys didn’t flinch for a minute when called.
Other recent shoot-downs included Noel Duncan, who had jumped out, and another relatively senior major named Rod in our squadron who had jumped. . I think Tom Purcell also took a hit, but made it back without jumping out. Things were getting a little tense, and I was two weeks from going home. There was a CIA post on top of a hill overlooking the river, just to the north of where we would be dropping. I often wondered how these guys got away with what looked like a campsite so close to the most heavily trafficked enemy route in Southeast Asia, but they did, and their doing so helped us immensely. I tuned in to the nav aide that was located near there and started to proceed directly to the location. I knew, as did Al, that our target would be just to the south of that camp, and we would recognize it as we got into the area. We went over to Hillsboro, the airborne command post, in a C-130 orbiting over Thailand and then checked in on the tactical frequency.
“Misty 41, this is Elect 21 with four. We have sixteen 750s for your control with about thirty minutes of play time. Mission number as fragged.”
“Rog, Elect. Misty 41 here.” It was Bob Wilson, with Jack Dickey in his backseat. They had joined Misty about the time Al and I left. “We have a 37-mm gun site for you today. Some ZPU out of the sight and also 23-mm. Random run-ins approved. Nearest safe area is to the east. NKP to the northwest about fifty miles.”
When I think back to how to describe anti-antiaircraft fi re, I would say 37-mm gunfire was characterized by bursts of three shells that traced and then detonated, whereas 57-mm was characterized by long red flashes from the guns themselves and a little less tracing but much bigger airbursts. The ZSU and 23-mm, as I remember, was hard to see if you didn’t see the white puffs of smoke from the actual barrels as they fired.
“Okay 41, we’re in the area of the target now, coming down to ten thousand. What’s your position?”
“Misty is over the river just west of the target point at six thousand. I’ll give you a wing rock.”
The sun caused a flash off Misty’s wing, and I picked him up.
“Okay, Elect, the FAC is at my two o’clock low. Let’s go trail and call the FAC in sight please.”
“Two has the FAC. Three. Four.”
I wasn’t big on attacking gun sites. There was little upside and a lot of potential trouble in so doing. If you killed the target, the enemy hadn’t lost any ability to wage war on the ground. When I was in Misty, I used gunfire to indicate something that the enemy wanted to protect and tried to attack that instead of the guns. But the Misty’s were on to an awful lot of the supplies coming down the trail at that time, and they had taken a tremendous amount of fire in so doing. If Bob was putting me in on a gunsite, there were probably supplies very close that would be hit later.
“Misty is in to mark the target.”
I watched Misty roll in and saw the stream of smoke out the back of his left wing as he let the smoke rocket go. His wing disappeared in contrails as he pulled off the target, jinked hard to the right, and then came back to the left.
“Smoke is good. Hit the smoke.”
We loved to be able to say that when we were FACs. That meant that you had hit the target with your marking rocket and that there was no need to give corrections from the plume of white smoke. Wilson was good.
I remember working with a FAC in a slow-moving O-2 way up north in the Mu Gia pass. This guy had a lot of nerve even sticking his nose in that area, but he was smart also. He let the smoke rocket go way out over the west edge of the line of cliff s that formed the side of the pass and then dove back down to the top of the trees on the higher ground to the west. The rocket eased up in a long arcing flight out over the edge of the pass and then down, hitting the ground about a mile from where he wanted us to bomb. He then talked us in to the target from there by easing up to the
edge and calling the corrections from where the smoke rocket had hit. Misty was fast enough that he could come right into the heavily defended target and hit it on the first pass, as he had done. “Check bombs armed. Leader is in on the smoke.”
I came around to the east side of the target and rolled in, pulling the plane up hard to slow the forward speed, rolling to the left until upside down and pulling the nose of the plane toward the target smoke inverted. This was just like old MacCathun had showed me about eleven months earlier.
Rolling back out, the bomb sight was just below the target. Starting the roll in from ten thousand feet, I knew the speed would build rapidly, so I pulled the power about halfway back and felt the
first enemy shell hit the airplane.
“Lead, they shot part of your right wing tank off, it looks like.” I didn’t respond. All I did was continue tracking until I reached the release altitude and pickled the two outboard 750s off.
“Lead’s coming off to the right and then back to the left.”
I felt the plane jar as the second round hit it just at the release point. The hard jink to the right destroyed the tracking solution the guns had, but it was too late. I looked at the warning lights at the lower right of the instrument panel. There were about four lights on, but I zeroed in on the hydraulic failure light. The 100 wouldn’t fly well without hydraulics. I checked the number-two system and it was at zero psi. That was the smaller system that controlled only flight controls. That was some relief, and I remember thinking that it was good that I still had the big system left. The big system worked the landing gear, flaps, and the flight controls. I checked it and saw that it was at twenty-two hundred psi instead of three thousand and declining fast. It hit zero about the time that my nose pulled through the horizon in a steep climb. Funny how I remember thinking that something had to be wrong. If there were no hydraulics, I wouldn’t be able to move the controls, but they were still moving. They froze about three seconds later.
“Lead, you’re on fire. Bail out.”
By this time, I was in a steep left turn on the west side of the target with the left wing looking down at the ground. I saw my bombs hit fairly close to the smoke and thought that it would be difficult to explain myself to the folks down there who I had just bombed. The disposition of other fighter pilots who had jumped out in this area was not good. At about eleven thousand feet, I had to do something. Although the flight controls had mostly seized, the rudder on the F-100 was designed to work manually when all hydraulic power was lost, and the tail plane would move to and seize in a position that would give a slight climb, I forget how much, if the pilot held about 280 knots of airspeed. I pushed the left rudder in until the airplane was in a ninety-degree left bank. This brought the nose of the airplane down through the horizon, and then I rudder-rolled the plane to a wings-level position and “cleaned the wing.”This meant that I jettisoned the two remaining bombs, the two fuel tanks, and the four weapons pylons onto which the bombs had been loaded. The airplane was now clean-winged, and I was headed due east. It was about ninety miles to the South China Sea. I decided to go for it rather than try another turn, at minimum control, back over the target. Al came up on my right wing. The other three had dropped their bombs on a high pass through the target area and we were now flying along with Al on my wing and the other two in wingtip formation off to Al and my four o’clock position. All was as it should have been briefed, had I notbeen tongue-tied at the briefing.
“It looks like the fire’s gone out. The right wing has a couple of holes in it, and so does the fuselage. You can see a red streak where the hydraulic fluid ran out down there. There was a lot of damage to the right tank, but that’s gone. How’s she flying?”
“Seems okay. Going to try to make it to the water. Someone out of Da Nang should be able to get me there. Maybe I can land this thing.” “Right.” Al was kind enough not to tell me at that time what a stupid idea that was. Instead, he pointed out, “You’re on fi re again.” I remember looking up and seeing Al bank away from me and take up a position about four hundred feet off my right wing. Probably didn’t want to be caught in the blast.
I’ve always thought that it was interesting the way movies portray a person in a life-threatening situation to be moving in slow motion. I found out that day, and I remember to this one, that there is a reason for that. Your mind speeds up to such an extent that the rest of the world seems to be in slow motion. Another explanation is that your mind takes all the information in, but there is so much that it has to review it at slow speed to absorb all of it.
That phenomenon kicked in for me at the point of the second call of fire. I claim that I said to Al that I would probably have to jump out soon. I can remember looking at a line of thunderstorms
about twenty miles ahead that I didn’t want to fly through on fire. I claim I heard his acknowledgement and then carefully took off my clipboard and stowed it in the left side of the cockpit, sat up straight, and prepared for ejection. I gave it a little thought, as by this time I had climbed to twenty-three thousand feet and wished I hadn’t climbed so high.
I remembered the old gag about how the five steps of an ejection from an F-100 were on a decal on the bottom of the canopy. The first was to sit up straight and put your feet in the “stirrups” as you prepared for ejection. The second was to pull the ejection seat handles up. This blew the canopy, and the remaining three steps in the ejection procedure went with it. You’d better have them memorized. I did. Al claims to this day that I said “I better jump out” and before he could acknowledge, the canopy came off and I came out of the airplane. Back to slow speed. The canopy fired and scared the heck out of me. I remember thinking that right there was the air at twenty-three thousand feet. I was basically sitting in an open cockpit twenty-three thousand feet up in the air.
“No turning back now.”
I initiated step three: pull the trigger levers. I pulled the trigger levers in the handle grips. Nothing. I distinctly remember squeezing the triggers at least two more times, but nothing happened.
Then the seat slowly, and I mean very slowly, started moving up the tracks and out of the airplane. I saw the instrument panel go by. I saw the top of the canopy rail go by, slowly, very slowly. I saw the empty cockpit as I looked down, and I saw the big silver luminescent 13 on the side of the airplane. The airplane was Mike Peloquin’s, and I think he named it “Luck.” I remember thinking that, for tempting the gods of fate, I was going to put a finger in his eye if I ever saw him again.
Then I was just sitting about ten feet above the canopy, flying along with the airplane. I remember a conversation with Bullet Bob Bryan at the Phu Cat club where he said that he tumbled very violently right after the seat cleared the canopy. Bob had jumped out twice and was considered our expert on the experience. I was thinking that the tumbling hadn’t happened yet.
Then it did happen. I tumbled so hard that I thought I would pass out. When it stopped, I was now sitting twenty-three thousand feet in the air on a chair, just falling. The lap belt was supposed to have opened automatically, but it hadn’t.
I thought to myself that maybe it was lucky I had jumped out so high, as the seat didn’t seem to be functioning correctly. I waited for the lap belt.
I waited some more, and still nothing happened. I started to go for step four: open the lap belt manually. I reached down to do so and saw a small puff of smoke right in front of my belly button, and the two sides of the lap belt and the shoulder straps floated away from the middle of my stomach, very slowly.
If that belt opens at all, it opens one second after the seat triggers are pulled. It takes that long for the residual charge to work through the tubing that connects it to the seat. It takes one second. All that I’ve described since pulling the triggers takes one second, or it doesn’t happen at all.
It’s funny, but at that instant an unrelated thought went through my mind. I had had three days in Hong Kong the week before with a beautiful Pan Am stewardess. She was a Swedish blonde who I first saw walking down the street in Taiwan in a miniskirt with that sort of “can’t touch this” gait, and I, as Vince had described his thoughts about Linda, damn near passed out. She was that sexy. Legs like that and a miniskirt would open the hormone gate on any man who’s breathing. Like many good-looking European women, she had her blouse unbuttoned all the way down to between her breasts, and it looked like one or the other would fall out at any minute, but they never did.
I walked up to her figuring I’d think of what to say when I got there, but I knew I had to say something. I had been looking for Dave Jenny. He was ferrying an F-100 to Taiwan, and we were going to hook up and have a couple of drinks talking about old times. I said to myself, “Wherever you are, Dave, good luck.” He never entered my mind for the next three days.
“Do you have any qualms about drinking with strangers?”
Great line, out of nowhere. I congratulated myself.
She looked at me and complimented me on a great pickup line and then walked off . I thought I had detected a smile, so I reengaged. She kept complimenting me and then walking off. I kept coming after her like a hound with a nose full of something that smelled awfully good.
The next day, she was doing a Saigon turn, flying from Taiwan to Saigon and returning to Hong Kong for a two-night layover. How in the hell would I get to Hong Kong? The answer to that was simple: swim if I had to. I caught a Cathay Pacific flight, no orders, no passport, no nothing but horny determination and a verbal okay to be away from the base for a few days.
I was waiting at the Kowloon Sheraton Hotel when she checked in and just sat there and watched her read the note I had left for her. She smiled. I went up to the room and waited, giving her time
to check in. We spent two of the most romantic nights in my early life alone in Hong Kong. The first night, when we got back to her room, she sat down on the bed. When a woman sat in the short short skirts they wore at that time, the skirt generally pulled up high enough that there wasn’t much left to the imagination. I was virtually hypnotized. Remember, there were no women at Phu Cat, and I’d been there for almost four months since returning from R&R.
I sat down next to her, leaned over to kiss her. She moaned quietly and leaned into me. I quickly got around to touching her on one of those beautiful legs. I slowly slid my hand up that appendage. I thought my head would explode.
All of a sudden, she stood up and said, “Let’s not do this.”
“Oh. Let’s not do what?”
“Let’s not wrestle for fifteen minutes getting our clothes off . Let’s just take them off and get in bed.”
God bless Sweden.
We dined one night in the Hong Kong Hilton, which had a restaurant on the top floor called the Eagle’s Nest or something like that. We ate there with about twenty violins playing, and I thought I was in heaven.
Two days later, she and her crew left.
We continued the romance as soon as I got back stateside, spending more time in a little berg, just north of San Francisco, each time “leaving on a jet plane” after about two or three days together. I went on to my next assignment in Selma, Alabama. When she came down there to visit, she was a big hit with all the student pilots.
Eventually the charm of our meeting location and the initial response to San Francisco wore off. Besides, there were a couple of other nice gals I knew, one from Texas and the other from upstate New York. After a year with virtually no women around, I was like a kid in a candy store. The whole deal got pretty jammed up. As is the case when a man tries to have it all, I wound up with nothing from the three of them but pleasant memories.
We broke up on mutual agreement, but what a weekend that was in Hong Kong.
As I sat in that seat at twenty-three thousand feet, convinced I’d never see her again, my only thought was, “What a waste.”
So there I was, no lap belt or shoulder harness buckled around me anymore, just sitting in the seat still. I remember thinking that the seat kicker wasn’t working either. The kicker is a strap that is connected to an inertial reel behind the pilots head and then runs down the back of the seat, under the pilot’s rear end, and connects to the front of the seat between his legs. When that inertial reel is fired, it winds up the strap and separates the pilot from the seat.
Figuring that the seat kicker wasn’t working, I thought about pushing away from the seat and started to do so when I felt the seat peel off my butt and fly away. It didn’t kick me out. It peeled
the seat off me. The air charge that fi res that kicker is the same one that opened the lap belt and shoulder harness. It had continued through the tubing and fired the kicker half a second after the
belt opened. It happened half a second later, or it wouldn’t have happened at all. Every thought that I described about my romance in Hong Kong and all the thoughts from when I looked down and saw that puff of smoke as the lap belt opened happened in half a second.
Falling down over Laos now, shoulders low, with only the parachute on my back, I remembered the story Dave Jenny had told us, and I previously mentioned, about how he jumped out over the ocean on a Misty flight. He had been hit while working in North Vietnam and decided to head for Da Nang as an emergency divert.
Dave punched out. But he had been a skydiver, and he regaled us with his story of the sixteen-thousand-foot skydive he accomplished.
Why not try skydiving? I thought now.
I tried to roll over on my stomach and do the normal picture of skydiving, and all hell broke loose. I tumbled so violently that I remember seeing red. I said, “Dear God, get me out of this and I promise I won’t fuck with it again.” I immediately found myself in the same position as before, falling with my head low and feet high, on my back.
I didn’t fuck with it.
Another point worth reviewing here is that when you jump out above fourteen thousand feet, you’re supposed to pull the lanyard on an emergency cylinder of oxygen that is strapped to the side of your survival vest. This feeds oxygen through an auxiliary line to the oxygen mask and lets you breath while you’re falling from such a great height. If you don’t pull it, not only do you not get the supplemental oxygen, but a valve on the mask never opens to let you breath at all. I never pulled it. I breathed ambient air, against the closed valve, the entire way down. No problem. The next thought was that somewhere around twelve thousand to fourteen thousand feet, the chute was supposed to open automatically. This was important, as the terrain in the safe area over which I thought I had jumped was at about forty-five hundred feet. I wanted this to work, obviously. I found the ripcord handle on the chute and put my hand on it. I thought that when I could see squirrels jumping around in the trees, I would pull it.
That would have been cute. Pull, crash, dead. It would have been way too late. Anyway, the chute opened automatically at about twelve thousand feet, and I was swinging like a pendulum below a huge canopy. All had worked as advertised.
We had a procedure for cutting the four rear risers of the canopy (two on each side) if all the rest were okay. Risers were the little ropes that came out of the ends of the four harness straps, two in
front and two in back of the pilot and led up to the canopy. This was to let the air flow out the rear of the canopy instead of bubbling out first on one side and then on the other as the chute would swing back and forth. The four-line cut went perfectly. I stowed the knife used to make the cut and reached down and deployed the life raft in the seat pack under my rear end. It fell to the end of a twenty-five-foot lanyard and inflated. Later, the procedure was changed to maintain this raft in the seat if it looked like you were going into the trees. You’ll see why shortly.
So with the chute working, the seat pack deployed, and me drifting down into a “safe” area, I thought, why not do the cool thing and talk to Al on the survival radio? I pulled it out and made several comments to him. I heard him say that the Sandys (other A-1s out of Nakhon Phanom where Vince would later be killed) and the Jollies (Rescue CH-53 helicopters out of Da Nang) were on the way. I thanked him and stowed the radio. How cool could I be?
This is a dividing point in the story, because from here on I stopped doing everything right and started doing everything wrong. At about four thousand feet, I began to notice that the “safe” area was covered with trails into and out of the jungle and into and out of lots of clearings that were evidently being worked. I drifted over a small settlement at about three thousand feet and continued in toward the jungle. The deployed life raft caught in the trees, stopped my forward movement, dumped me into the triple canopy, and let go when I hit.
When I sort of bounced up off the tree canopy, the chute came in on top of me and wrapped around me, and I was cocooned upside down in the branches, about twenty feet off the ground. Panic set in.
I struggled to get my first radio out of the upper left vest pocket and make a call. I did that and pushed down on the transmit button so hard that when I released it, it flew off the side of the radio. I stowed that radio and pulled out the second radio. I pulled at the antenna to extend it to transmit and pulled the antenna out of the radio. My gun fell out of the holster to the ground below.
Easy, big guy. I fought myself for composure. Slow down. I heard and saw Al fly right over the top of me, no higher than fifty feet. That felt good. I knew he knew where I was. I could no longer talk to anyone, but I did have a method of responding. I pulled out the first radio again and, when anyone asked for an acknowledgement, I pulled the antenna on the first radio out to the fully extended position. This caused the radio to emit an automatic beep-beep sound that could be heard on the guard frequency. I would push the antenna back in to stop it. After about the second time I did this, I heard Al say, “Roger your acknowledgment.” Good.
The Sandys checked in and buzzed over my position. That was good. I heard the clattering of those huge radial engines and felt they knew where I was. There was no ground fire in the area. Al and the flight would leave for fuel and be back if needed.
The lead Sandy ran a string of 20-mm down about two hundred yards from my position. It seemed that the friendlies were on the way from the village out to where the chute had landed, and he wanted to find an effective way to keep them away from me without hurting any of them. He had done just that, and in so doing caused me sheer terror. The sound of 20-mm high-explosive incendiary bullets going off within a few hundred yards is still with me. When I figured out what it was, I again settled down.
I was stuck. I wondered for a second if there could have been many guys who, like me that afternoon, had safely escaped their airplane only to get fouled up and die on the ground. I could literally not move enough to free myself. I remember getting a leg free and down to a branch on the tree below me so that I could get my head higher than my stomach and that felt good, but the leg was cramping badly. I put the dying thought out of my mind and waited for a little brown face to appear below me or a helicopter above me. Fortunately for whoever would show up below, I had nothing I could shoot them with, so they’d be safe.
The helicopter showed first.
I could see the crewman in the door and the para-rescue man coming down on a jungle penetrator, a large yellow teardrop-shaped metal object that had three paddle-like arms that could fold down from it and provide seats. The noise of the helicopter was deafening, and the rush of air was blowing all sorts of debris around. I found out later that the elevation of the pickup was so high that the pilot had to pull maximum power to hover. It took so long for the para-rescue guy to cut me out of the mess I was in that the pilot ran the engine into the red to complete the pickup. Bless the Jollies. One of the things that always inspired me was the way the leadership would stop the war if necessary to make every effort to pick up a downed airman. Misty FACs had worked many rescaps, and now I was the object of one of those missions. It felt good to be covered. I was free. I felt the last riser let go and grabbed onto the waist of the para-rescuer still upside down. We rode the penetrator to the ground and the first thing to hit was my head.
No pain at all.
I turned around quickly and sat down opposite the rescuer on one of the metal penetrator paddle seats. I lifted my arms as he ran the strap under me, and we held on to each other as the lift started up. We had just cleared the trees when the chopper started moving forward. The pilot had to get moving to cool that baby down (a CH3, as I recall, the smaller of the two commonly used
We had been trained not to reach for the helicopter. Just sit on the seat and wait for them to pull you into the fuselage of the helo. I did that. In fact, I didn’t let go until we were inside the helo
and both laying down.
“You can let me go now, Lieutenant. We’ve got you.”
“Oh, oh yeah. Of course.”
And so the rescue was over. We were about seventy miles from Da Nang, so the ride would take about forty-five minutes. The medic did a quick once-over to check and reported to the pilot that
I was okay.
I heard one of the pilots say something about “Thank God for the Misty’s. Their pickups are usually easy.”
That comment made me feel good. It had been easy. But the point to remember is these guys would’ve have come, in that big cumbersome slow helicopter, wherever I had been shot down. The Jolly Green Giants were the backbone of morale for us. They’d come for you. They’d get you if it were humanly possible, and sometimes they’d die if it were not. Thanks to Charles Lowry, Bruce Prouse, James E. Jenereaux, and John Eldridge. Eldridge is the man who left the safety of the helicopter and came down on a sling to rescue me. If you enjoyed this book so far, thank him and the rest of that crew.
Someone must have told them I had been a Misty. I know that we had worked a lot of rescues where the pilots had jumped out right in the area where they had been shot down. Sometimes this was due to panic, sometimes it was due to the fact that there were no other options. Nevertheless, those were difficult pickups. I took it as a matter of pride that I had stayed with a bad airplane until I got to a known safe area and caused no casualties in my rescue. Most all of the Misty’s who could do so, did the same.
When we landed at Da Nang, I remember the flight engineer and the para-rescue men asking me if I wanted to be carried to the ambulance or wanted to walk. My legs and lower body were pretty beat-up from the ejection, and I had a cut on my left arm where it had smacked against something during the episode.
I told them that I intended to walk in. As the door came down on the back of the chopper, I noticed that a crew of girls from Pan Am had stopped by to see the “fighter pilot who had just been rescued.” “Why don’t you carry me, fellas.”
They did carry me, smiling all the way as they stopped in front of the ladies to let them administer a little appreciation. When we got to the hospital, I walked in.
I had been through a normal mission brief, normal departure, normal egress to the target, normal procedures for bombing, a moment of terror when the plane was hit, ten minutes or so of emergency procedures—executed calmly and perfectly—and then I arrived in the trees. There I demonstrated ten minutes of near panic, thirty more of waiting for rescue in the trees, elation at
seeing the helicopter, and now I was back in the land of the big BX and beautiful women. I had made it. I was safe. I returned to Phu Cat the next afternoon on a Caribou. Doc checked me out. I was fine, but sore from the ejection. Most of us kept the crotch straps on the parachute quite loose during missions in the F-100. The thought was that if we ever bailed out, we would tighten them first. I hadn’t tightened them.
So along with the blue crotch that I got from the opening shock and the injury to the arm came a Purple Heart. Sort of a weenie one when you think of how bad some guys get shot up for one, but I took it and took it with pride. Not at the lack of extent of my wounds, but the fact that I had stuck my nose in the enemy’s face, taken a shot, and survived.
I made it, and so many good guys didn’t. People will tell you that this wears on the psyche of guys and causes them grief. I never felt that way for a minute. I was and am eternally thankful that I made it. I was and always will be eternally sad that others didn’t make it. I don’t know why. I only know I made it and will forever be grateful for that.
I’ve told you the story. See if you have a reason. Think of the sadness as friends and families visit Tom’s, Scotty’s, Lee’s, and Vince’s now grassy gravesites at the academy. Think of the sadness that fifty thousand other families, groups of friends, and even acquaintances feel as they visit the black marble wall in Washington.
I went to a recent reunion of my 1962 high-school graduating class. This was the first reunion we’d had in nearly thirty years. One of the girls from the class, who like me had missed the 1967 and 1972 reunions, came up to me and said, “I’m glad you’re okay. I heard you were killed in Vietnam in 1969.”
I had a very funny feeling when I thought about that comment. For thirty years, she thought I had been killed but had given it no more thought than “too bad.” There was no reason for her to feel
more, I guess. We had never been close friends. She moved to a distant state, and we lost track of each other. A life or death struggle of one person can be a moment’s thought in the afternoon to
He went, he got killed, and that’s too bad. What’s for dinner? The vast majority of guys don’t talk about their “war years” at meetings or in church or at gatherings of friends. They just go on, knowing they gave it their best shot, still disappointed at their performance sometimes and proud of it at others.
The Great Muckrock and Rosie
Ross C. Detwiler