Excerpt from Volume 1, Chapter 9: One Hell of a Ride, by Mike Doyle, USMC
A-4C, A-4E, TA-4F, 1966-1967
Date of hire by Western Airlines: 9/3/1968
CHU LAI MORTAR ATTACK
Chu Lai was built as an “expeditionary airfield” for the Marine Corps which meant it was originally planned for 30 – 60 days of operation, but the base lasted the duration of the war. In 1966 the base perimeter security consisted of 3 layers of concertina “razor” wire, sand bagged bunkers and trenches for the Marine security force, and cans in the wire to alert them to any attempted breach of the perimeter. There were also several Marine tanks at Chu Lai and we could hear them rumbling and clanking around the base while we were trying to sleep. It was pretty primitive for a front-line Marine Corps fighter base. The tanks would fire their guns for H & I (Harassment and Interdiction) when they had a target spotted outside the wire, but that required coordination to be sure they were not firing on friendly patrols.
The VC (Viet Cong) and NVA (North Vietnamese Army)would fire an occasional mortar round or a 122mm rocket at the base, but it was usually more of a nuisance than anything else. There was one major rocket and mortar attack that occurred on a night when I happened to be working at group (MAG-12). In addition to writing the “frag order”that night (the schedule for the next day’s flying), one of my responsibilities was to sound the air raid type siren to alert everyone in the event of an attack, so they could get in their fox-hole type bunkers. I remember hiding under my desk with my hand reaching up to the table and my finger on the button setting off the siren. At the same time the VC/NVA mortars were “walking” across the ramp and flight line, heading for the operations office. The enemy got pretty good at “walking” or “free tubing” their mortars, moving the tube slightly with each firing rather than using a spotter to adjust their targeting. The end result of this attack was the destruction of several airplanes, several buildings, including the officers’ shitter (latrine), and damage to the fueling area and bomb dump. I was glad the VC blew up our new latrine, as I had recently stolen the door to make myself a new bed. No one knew who had stolen it, and that had become a mystery and a source of rumors.
The enemy was trying to terrorize us, but it didn’t work with Bob Tieken, who was lifting weights in his hut and refused to leave. A mortar hit a tree just outside his hut and he was slightly wounded. The Marine tanks rumbled into position and had the location of the mortars “zeroed-in” with their guns, but due to the ROE (Rules of Engagement), they were still awaiting permission to fire when the attack was long over. I will never forget the sounds: a soft “thwunk” as the mortar was dropped in the tube followed by a scream, “F###ing Incoming” followed by a loud “ker-blam” seconds later (they were that close to the wire) and the clanking of the tank tracks as they maneuvered through the sand and mud.
There was a lieutenant colonel attached to MAG-12 who was notorious for his weak pilot skills and bad vision. He wore “coke bottle lens” glasses and was only allowed to fly when he was least likely to get himself or anyone else in trouble.On this particular day he was returning from a harmless trip to the Philippines where we sent our airplanes for occasional modifications. I was sitting in the cockpit of my aircraft in the arming area, which sat adjacent to the parking revetments and at the end of a 4000 foot long, 35 foot wide taxiway made of aluminum matting.I was being fueled and loaded with ordnance, with my engine shut down, my canopy open and my hands up and visible to the armorers who were swarming under my aircraft, arming my bombs and charging a round into each of the 20mm cannons. I happened to look to my right and saw an A-4 that was preparing to land, except he was lined up on the taxiway for landing! As he got closer and closer I thought surely he would realize his mistake and move over to land on the parallel 8000 foot aluminum runway. On he came, touching down on the taxiway heading directly for me, and there was nowhere for me to go. All of a sudden a huge cloud of smoke and sparks billowed out from beneath his aircraft as he hit the brakes. He flattened and shredded his tires and ground off the bottom of his wheels on his way down the aluminum taxiway. He came to a stop barely 20 feet from my aircraft in a cloud of smoke and flaming sparks! The vision that will always stay with me is of his aircraft bobbing up and down on the nose gear oleo strut just feet from my cockpit. He managed to “arc weld” the main gear wheels to the aluminum matting and the maintenance crew had to use blow torches to free them and remove his aircraft from the taxiway.
There were several occasions where all the safety rules and procedures were waived for a tactical emergency, usually involving Marines in heavy conflict with the VC/NVA. One situation lasted nearly 3 days with the ground action taking place less than 10 miles southwest of Chu Lai. A Marine reconnaissance patrol of about 20 men had been surrounded by a much larger enemy force and they were literally fighting for their lives. The enemy force was large enough to prevent Marine reinforcements from being landed by helicopter, so we flew round the clock, night and day, dropping bombs, napalm, firing rockets and flares at night, and strafing with our 20mm internal cannons. We would fly mission after mission, not leaving the cockpit but just taxiing to the flight line, leaving the engine running, and parking while the fueling crew pushed up a roll away stand and brought the fuel hose up to the aircraft. They refueled us through the inflight refueling probe by putting an attachment on the fuel hose that allowed them to clamp it on the probe,fueling the aircraft with the engine running. At the same time the armorers were under the aircraft loading and arming “napes and snakes,” they were reloading the ammunition for the 20mm cannons. (Napes and snakes: napalm and snake-eye retarded fin bombs.We were dropping bombs from such a low altitude that the retarded fin slowed their trajectory and let us fly away before they exploded.) There was only one ground casualty, when an A-4 caught on fire during refueling and the pilot was killed. All of this was being done in front of the “No Smoking” signs on the ramp!
At night we dropped flares and had the beleaguered Marines flash strobe and flashlights and flick their Zippos to mark their positions for our bombing and strafing runs. The battle went on, 24 hours a day for nearly 3 days, and it was a helpless feeling hearing the Marines on the ground begging us to drop our ordnance closer and closer and finally on top of their positions as they were being overrun by the enemy. The last day we asked them to pop a smoke canister to mark their position, and the last voice we heard told us to drop right on the smoke as they were fighting the enemy hand to hand and the voice said “we’re finished.” My recollection is that of the 20 Recon Marines, some of the toughest of the tough and the bravest of the brave, very few survived. It was a very sad day for all of us.
When I went to work for Western Airlines in September 1968, my class was split in half with one group training to be flight engineers on the Boeing 707/720 and another to be flight engineers on the Lockheed Electra. I was assigned to the Electra group and ended up based in Seattle. The only Marine Corps Reserve unit in the Seattle area was a squadron flying the C-119 at Seattle Naval Air Station, so I signed up and flew with them for a short period of time until I was able to arrange a transfer to VMA-133 at Alameda Naval Air Station flying the A-4C.
Marine reserve units in the early 1970s were an interesting mix of officers, who were mostly Vietnam veterans, senior enlisted men, a good percentage of whom were also Vietnam veterans, and very junior enlisted men who had joined the reserves, for the most part, to avoid the draft. 90% of the unit was made up of “squared away” Marines but the 10% caused us a lot of problems that we never experienced in the active duty Marine Corps. Long hair that had to be tucked under their hats and an attitude toward the war and the military in general were at the top of the list of disciplinary problems.
One time in the summer, around 1970, we were on two weeks of active duty at NAS Fallon in eastern Nevada. We were using the gunnery and bombing range, practicing for the next war. Most of our “plane captains” were young enlisted men, many of them a part of that 10% who were against the Vietnam War. I was just getting strapped into my aircraft when I noticed an “unauthorized attachment” to my gunsight. The gunsight was located right in the center of the wind shield, directly in front of the pilot, and one of the ground crew had attached a peace symbol to it. The peace symbol was a pretty thing, a small bunch of flowers. I knew the perpetrator was one of the “plane captains” and the entire group on the ground was watching to see my reaction. I ignored the flowers and went through the procedures for starting my engine. I gave the signal to the ground crew that I was ready to taxi and picked the flowers off the gunsight, admired them, then proceeded to eat them. I made sure my eating the flowers was visible to those on the ground. Bill Wilson was in the aircraft next to me, watching the whole thing and laughing his head off. After that we went out to the desert and blew stuff up. It was a great day on the gunnery range!