Excerpt from Volume 2, Chapter 17
Vietnam Tours- Young, Fearless & Bulletproof by Donald Pedrazzini, USA
UO-1, U-6A, UH-1D & H, OH-58, 1968-71
Date of Hire by Western Airlines 8/22/1972
I graduated from high school in Novato, California in June, 1963. If on that day someone had told me that four years and eight months hence I would be a commissioned officer flying combat missions against a hostile force in the Republic of South Vietnam, I would have thought them crazy. I am not sure I even knew where the Republic of South Vietnam was in 1963. I enlisted in the Army as a private on Oct. 20, 1965, shortly after my 19th birthday. A few months into training I was selected to attend Officer Candidate School (OCS) which I completed on December 16, 1966, and received a commission as a Second Lieutenant. While in OCS I applied for flight school which I started in June 1967 and completed in January 1968.
During the next four plus years, starting in the spring of 1968, I would end up spending three years in Vietnam. While there, I flew a variety of different aircraft (fixed and rotary wing) on vastly different missions, from the southern tip of Vietnam (IV Corps) up to the DMZ in the north (I Corps).
On March 10, 1968, I departed Travis AFB, California on a chartered TWA flight sitting next to my friend and flight school roommate, Joseph Wolfe. We had recently graduated from the U.S. Army fixed wing flight school at Ft. Rucker, Alabama.Joe had met a local gal while in school and they were married during our 30 day leave between the completion of flight school and our departure for Vietnam.
We arrived at Bien Hoa Air Base in Vietnam to a blast of humidity and sights and smells that I remember vividly to this day. After a short stay at a replacement battalion I was sent to the 74th Reconnaissance Aircraft Company (RAC) located at Phu Loi in III Corps. Joe was sent to the 221stRAC located at Soc Trang in IV Corps. Sadly, 54 days later on May 5, 1968, Joe flew his aircraft into the ground while making a routine mail drop and was killed. Joe was the first of many friends that I would lose over the next five years.
While flying out of Phu Loi our unit supported all of the American Divisions located in III Corps plus the U. S. Navy in a river patrol mission that operated in the waterways south of Saigon. We flew primarily the O-1 Bird Dog,a small,single engine,tandem two seat aircraft made by the Cessna aircraft company starting in 1949. This was a very old, very slow (80 MPH) aircraft that had great visibility and the ability to loiter on station for a long period of time. Not only did the Army fly this aircraft in Vietnam but so did the Air Force and Marine Corps. Our mission while supporting American forces was as a Forward Air Controller (FAC). That mission included adjusting artillery fire, calling in air strikes on enemy positions, mortar watch, visual reconnaissance, mail drops to isolated base camps, convoy cover, and a host of other non-descript missions.
We also had in our unit a U-6A Beaver aircraft that had a special mission. This particular aircraft is a very large single engine aircraft with a large radial engine and a fuel supply that would allow it to stay aloft for about eight hours at a time. The Viet Cong had been sending rockets and mortar fire into Saigon frequently at night (usually several times a week) when the MACV (U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) commander was General William Westmoreland. The inability to stop these attacks showed our vulnerability and basically gave the military commanders a “black eye” so to speak. When General Creighton Abrams replaced General Westmoreland in July 1968, his first and highest priority was to stop these attacks. To do this, he created what was called the Capitol Military Command. He divided the city of Saigon (even then it was a very large city, many miles across) into sections. These sections or divisions were separated by very prominent geographical boundaries or features. Some of these boundaries were roads, rivers, storage tanks and playing fields. Within each of these large defined areas, a variety of aircraft would operate from sundown until sunup. Each type of aircraft had a specific mission that would hopefully keep the enemy at bay and the city safe from attack at night.
The mission for the U-6A was to carry a crew of four, two pilots and two enlisted crewmen in the back of the aircraft. Behind the pilots in the main cabin on the floor of the aircraft were four large canisters attached to the aircraft by wires that were connected to “D” rings in the floor. Two of the canisters were large parachute flares and the other two were full of “CS” gas, which is much stronger than tear gas and can cause temporary disability, but usually not death. The plan was to have the aircraft fly around in one of these designated areas and if rocket flashes or mortars were observed by the crew,they would fly to that area and the two crew members in back would push out the canisters onto the bad guys.This would disable the enemy and flares would light up the area for the attack aircraft that we would call over to engage the target. To accomplish this,the rear doors on both sides of the aircraft were removed so that the canisters could easily be pushed out. These missions were serious business, not so much because of the enemy but because there were so many aircraft of different types flying in the same airspace. It was very crowded and one had to be especially vigilant.For a pilot it was a mission that you did not like to fly. The selected crew would do it for three consecutive nights before returning to day missions.
Army accommodations in Vietnam were not exactly great compared to the other services. We had no air-conditioning which made sleeping during the hot daytime hours tough. Also during the daytime hours Vietnamese hooch maids were allowed to come on base and clean our rooms, shine our boots, and wash our uniforms. The Vietnamese banter back and forth between these maids and the hot temperatures made any form of sleep impossible. The enlisted crews,however,loved the mission. In the very back of the aircraft, behind the canisters on the floor, was a large canvas covered bench seat that extended from one side of the aircraft to the other, and it was perfect for sleeping. Before takeoff, the enlisted crew would strap themselves into the aircraft with seat belts and put on helmets connected to the intercom system. It didn’t take long after takeoff for them to be dozing off to dream land on the all night mission circling over Saigon. By the time we returned to base after sunup, the enlisted crew was well rested after sleeping all night and the pilots were exhausted after hand flying for eight hours during the hours of darkness. While the pilots tried to get some sleep, the enlisted crew had the entire day off to do as they pleased knowing that the following night they would be back in the air sleeping again.
On one of these missions that I had flown many times before, things went horribly wrong for the strangest of reasons. I was the aircraft commander and we were at about 6,000 feet circling around somewhere over southeast Saigon. It was a very dark night and you could see a million lights from the city below and a multitude of other aircraft flying around in their own designated area. All aircraft, military and civilian, have navigation or position lights on the aircraft. On the left wing tip is a red light and on the right wing tip is a green light. This makes it easier to tell at night what direction an aircraft that you may see is traveling, based on the color of the light that you see. I was in the left seat hand flying the aircraft (the Army did not have autopilots in any of their aircraft) when I looked to my left and saw the red and green position lights of an aircraft off in the distance. Based on the position and color of the navigation lights, the aircraft appeared to be headed towards us but the lights were close together which indicated it was quite a distance away. I turned my attention forward again to the instrument panel since I was hand flying the aircraft.
A moment later I became concerned when my copilot leaned forward and looked to the area where I had initially seen the other aircraft that appeared to be approaching. My reaction was to turn to see what he was looking at with such intensity. To my horror, the aircraft that I had seen was now coming directly at us and was very close.It appeared that we would have a mid-air collision. My reaction was to shove the control column forward to change altitude immediately in the hope that we would get below the other aircraft. I would guess that we dropped about 1,000 feet in a matter of seconds, and then I pulled back hard on the control column to stop the descent. I was shocked when I looked out the side window again to see the other aircraft was still bearing down on us. In disbelief, I again shoved the control column forward causing an immediate and steep descent. I yanked back on the control column to stop the descent but this time when I looked out the window I realized what had just happened. What we had both experienced was an optical illusion created by moving lights at night. What had really happened was that two separate aircraft off in the distance were passing each other. What we saw was the green light from one aircraft and the red light from the other. As these aircraft passed each other the lights initially appeared to be close together which would mean it was a long way off, but as they passed and the lights separated they appeared to be getting larger meaning they were getting closer. In reality no aircraft was near us.
All of this took only a minute or two, but it was a minute or two of terror. About this time I heard a scared, high pitched, heavy breathing voice from the back of the aircraft. It turns out that our other two crew members in the back had in fact been asleep when this all started. In order to make themselves more comfortable they had both disconnected their seat belts and were only connected to the aircraft by gravity and the communications cord on their helmets. When I initially pushed forward on the control column, they woke up to find themselves weightless and starting to “float” out of the aircraft in the space where the doors had been removed. They said that they grabbed at the fabric insulation around where the doors normally were to keep from floating out into space. The four canisters were experiencing the same weightless condition and did float outside of the aircraft. This was about the time that I pulled back hard to stop the first descent which slammed the two crew members to the floor.The wires attached to the now falling canisters became taught and pulled the pins, causing the flares and gas canisters to ignite, fortunately, outside the aircraft. Then came the second sudden descent.After feeling relieved that they were still alive after the first weightless experience, they went weightless again. This was followed a short time later by another slam to the floor of the aircraft when I leveled off and realized what had actually been happening.
Being so involved in what had been going on while trying to avoid the illusion of an aircraft, I had no concept of what had been taking place in the back of my aircraft. Stupid but relieved was how I felt after hearing what had happened. What could have happened and almost did is really unthinkable; fortunately we didn’t have to go there.
After getting the situation under control, I determined that everyone was fine and the aircraft was not damaged. BUT, on the way back to base I did ponder how I was going to tell the operations officer that I had somehow dumped two flares and two canisters of CS gas somewhere over Saigon. Since there was no point in continuing the mission with no flares or gas we headed home while it was still dark. I vividly remember that it was well past daylight before I finished writing my operations report. I remember thinking for many days after the event that we would hear from up the chain of command about the “gassing of Saigon” but we never did.
FLYING WITH THE COLONEL
One of the American Divisions that the 74th RAC supported was the 9th Infantry Division in IV Corps down in the Mekong Delta. The 9th Infantry mission was one of the most disliked in the Company. First of all it was very dangerous due to the enemy situation and again it involved flying at night,then trying to sleep during the day. On January 4, 1968, just weeks before I arrived in Vietnam,one of our pilots, Lt. Thomas Babin, and his 9th Infantry observer, were shot down, captured and executed while flying this mission. That incident raised the level of anxiety when you were assigned this mission.
Dong Tam was a very dangerous place. It was at Dong Tam and on this mission that I received my first airplane full of small arms bullet holes. It was located right on a major river which caused fog to form overnight. All of our flying was at night on mortar and rocket watch. The base had perimeter lighting and everything outside the perimeter was a “specified strike zone.” That meant that anything moving outside the wire could and should be considered hostile and we could engage that target without any clearance. The mission was to take off right at sunset and fly over the base until sunrise. The only problem with that concept was that the O-1 could only fly for about four and a half hours before it needed to be refueled.
The base had a pierced steel planking (PSP) runway that was about 4,000 feet long. It ran due north and south but had no lighting of any kind. Off to the west side of the runway was a very large fuel tank holding thousands of gallons of aviation fuel. The 74th RAC had been flying this mission for a long time and the VC/NVA (Viet Cong/North Vietnamese Army) knew the drill. At sunset an O-1 would take off and fly around for hours and then would come around and land for fuel. They would watch and wait until the aircraft would turn on their landing light and they would be ready. As soon as the light came on the rockets and mortars would start to fall on the base and the airfield. I can tell you for a fact that it is not fun to be out on the wing of your aircraft in the middle of the night pumping fuel, while being right next to a huge fuel storage tank with mortars and rockets falling at random in the area. I know that we were all thinking:“I hope this isn’t the night my luck runs out.”I am sure that was one of the fastest refuel operations in all of Vietnam. As soon as humanly possible, we fired up the aircraft and returned to the sky only to have the incoming mortars and rockets stop abruptly. We would fly around trying to find the spots that they were fired from, looking for smoke or small fires that were started by the rocket motors.
We carried eight 2.75 inch folding fin high explosive rockets on the wings (a pod of four on each sideof the aircraft), and we usually took a case of hand grenades with us as well. Actually, with practice we got pretty good at targeting with the hand grenades. At the altitude of around 500 feet if you pulled the pin and threw it out the window, it would travel in the direction that the aircraft was going but the fuse time would run out before it got to the ground and you would get an “air burst” which served no practical purpose. We wondered how we could get around that problem and found if we put the grenade securely in a paper cup from the mess hall and then pulled the pin, the grenade would not detonate until it hit the ground and the paper cup ripped open. Worked like a charm. We did have to use extreme caution, however, coordinating the placing of the grenade in the cup, pulling the pin and throwing it from the aircraft at a time and place of our choosing in the dim glow of the cockpit lights. Dropping one of these inside the aircraft would not be a good thing.
There was one mission where we carried an observer from the 9th Infantry with us. Usually it was a First Lieutenant. One foggy night when my observer showed up he was a full Bird Colonel! Our mission was visual recon (VR), and to accomplish that you have to have eyeball contact with whatever you are looking for. There is no such thing as “climbing to on top.” If there are clouds or fog, you have to be below them or you can’t see a thing. The bad news was that there was fog but the good news was that this part of Vietnam was all rice paddies and very little high terrain. On this particular night with the Bird Colonel in the back seat we blasted off at sunset staying below the fog layer. I would guess that we were about 300 to 400 feet above the ground. The Colonel said that he wanted to go out to the west of the base camp and zig zag back and forth over that area.
It was now pitch black under the fog, we were flying 300 to 400 feet above the ground in an aircraft that was built in 1949 or perhaps the early 1950’s, and is not certified for any kind of instrument flight. It was like being in a totally dark small closet with the door closed. I didn’t think that this was really a grand idea and asked the Colonel what we were looking for. His reply from the backseat was, “an NVA battalion!” I yanked back on the stick and applied full power to zoom climb through the fog to get on top above the fog. Perhaps he didn’t know what I knew – that all it takes is a couple people with small arms firing up into the sky at the sound of our engine at that low altitude and we would be toast. He was a colonel and I was a lowly 1st lieutenant, but I used some pretty harsh words when I told him what I thought about this mission. After that it got very quiet in the cockpit and we had to fly around for hours before the marine layer started to break up and I was able to get back into Dong Tam. When he left I didn’t salute and no words were exchanged. I found out later that this individual had made a public statement that he was going to come back from Vietnam as a General or in a body bag. I never found out which of these two possible scenarios came to pass.
A MEMORABLE BIRTHDAY
In August 1968 I had been reassigned to the second platoon and was flying the Bird Dog out of Xuan Loc, in support of the 18th ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) Division and its American advisors. Xuan Loc was in the boonies and we loved it. We operated as a completely separate unit and only had minimal contact with our company headquarters. We had three aircraft (O-1s), three crew chiefs, and four pilots. Our airfield was not far from the hooch but it was outside the compound, so when you left the compound for a night flight you always wondered what was out there in the dark. No fences, no guards, no lights, no nothing. We called it Xuan Loc International, essentially a wide spot, cut out of the jungle, with a dirt runway.
August 1968 saw a lot of enemy action in and around Xuan Loc, and I flew a lot of day and night escort missions, flying low over the troops and scouting ahead of them for possible ambush sites. When our troops were in contact with the VC/NVA the mission was to call in artillery support and air strikes, both Air Force fighters and Army Huey gun-ships, and medivac helicopters (call sign Dustoff) when necessary. This particular action went on for several days, and dealing with the ARVN commander, who basically outranked his senior American advisor, was frustrating to say the least. Communication was often a problem and determining the exact location of friendly troops when calling in artillery and air strikes became critical.
After several days of round the clock flying, returning to Xuan Loc to refuel, finding bullet holes in my aircraft and launching again, the next day, August 19, 1968, was my birthday. The events of the previous days and nights had me ready for a little celebration and Major Bravaro was ready to help. Major B was a great guy and lived in the pilot’s hooch with us. He had really pissed “someone” off in the recent past and I’m sure he told me how and why, but my memory of it has faded over the decades. He was an Army pilot who, after ruffling someone’s feathers, was sent to Xuan Loc as the Air Field Commander. In case you missed it earlier, this was a dirt strip with no lighting, no communications, no anything. It was a wide spot in the jungle and it certainly didn’t need an Air Field Commander. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that this was Major B’s last assignment in the US Army.
Major B and I celebrated my approaching birthday with copious amounts of Mateus wine from Portugal. The next day, my actual birthday, I could have felt a little better but it was my turn to go, so off I went. The enemy that we had engaged over the previous days had disappeared into the jungle but the ARVN division and its American advisors were moving forward. Forward meaning a direction and not a speed, as moving in the jungle it can take a very long time to go a very short distance. The weather was great with no clouds. I can’t remember how long I had been flying over the area but I was still trying to spot some of the “bad guys” that we thought were still there.
After a while I heard a couple of non-distinctive thumps that I had not heard before, but I continued to fly around, talking to the troops on the ground and looking for bad guys. At some point I looked down and noticed that my oil pressure was headed in the wrong direction, and although I thought at first that I was imagining it, it continued to head toward zero.I was only 15 miles from Xuan Loc International but I was afraid that if the engine seized before I got there, I could find myself in a real fix. Highway 1 (not a real highway) was just north of my position and was pretty straight in this area. I figured that it was better to attempt a controlled landing on the road rather than crashing in the jungle if the engine quit completely. I did have friendly troops perhaps 100 yards away, slowly moving through thick jungle, but the bad guys were going to be between the friendlies and where I intended to land. I radioed my 8 digit grid coordinate to operations and asked them to send a recovery team. In hindsight, I was really cool, but really stupid not to make a mayday call. Had I done that, I would have had every aircraft in III Corps circling overhead before I got on the ground.
I put the aircraft down on a straight part of the road, and after getting it stopped, my first action was not to get away from the aircraft but to look at the engine. It turned out that several bullet holes in the oil pan were the culprits. Now I had real concern for my well-being. I needed to get far enough away from the aircraft that if the bad guys got there first they wouldn’t find me, but not so far that when the good guys got there they could find me. I took my M-16 and a big can of ammo and headed for the bush.
(I asked Don about the ammo. He said he always carried a big ammo can full of magazines, loaded with one tracer round for every three as opposed to the one in six or seven which was normal. The can was really heavy and he was constantly refilling it as he frequently fired out the window at suspected targets. Don said it looked like a hose of red coming out of the weapon but it tended to overheat, with the barrel eventually glowing red and the weapon jamming. However, you sure knew where your rounds were hitting. He said the crew chiefs would really get pissed if you brought an aircraft back with “brass” all over the floor and didn’t clean it up.)
The elephant grass that was alongside the road towered over me and I found that strange, as I had always envisioned it as being only 3 feet or so tall when I looked down from the air. In reality it was way over my head. In this environment it would be very easy to get lost, so I didn’t go very far. I found a spot and sat down in the grass and remained very quiet. Then the wait started. I would be lying if I said I knew how long I was there by myself, but it seemed like a really long time. It was very still and quiet and I don’t remember hearing birds or anything else. Then I heard muffled voices and I strained to identify the language – thank goodness, they were Americans.
I got up from my position and headed back to the airplane, now sitting alone on the road. Just about that time the cavalry arrived and started coming out of the jungle to the south. I was really glad to see them, as they spread out and formed a large perimeter around the airplane. These were the guys that I had been supporting through some tough times in the previous week and there was no doubt that they were very appreciative of my efforts on their behalf. It was kind of a surreal scene – big smiles, handshakes and lots of pictures taken of my aircraft, with various individuals posing next to it.
The celebration ended when “Pipe Smoke” arrived overhead. Pipe Smoke was the call sign of the two aircraft recovery team, consisting of one Huey and one CH-47. The Huey checked in on the radio to confirm that the area was secured, and then landed nearby. A crew of riggers got out and started working on my aircraft. They strapped long boards, I think standard 2x4s, to the leading edge of the wings while one rigger climbed on top of the aircraft to attach a sling harness. On top of my aircraft were four permanent hooks that the sling harness was attached to, while at this time the CH-47 hovered directly over the aircraft.
A cable was lowered from the large helicopter and was connected to the sling harness by the rigger standing on top of my airplane. When the connection was accomplished and the cable pulled taught, the rigger returned to the ground and the CH-47 started to move up and forward. The wings on the little bird underneath couldn’t produce lift because of the boards on the wings, and the vertical stabilizer kept it streamlined with the direction of flight of the CH-47 overhead.All of us standing on the road watched, as it headed to the west, back to our main headquarters at Phu Loi where all of our maintenance was accomplished.
The Huey that the rigging crew had arrived in was still on the road with the engine running, and the “plan” in a situation like this was for the downed pilot to get in the rigging Huey for a ride back to safety. But,I was an Infantry Officer and always wanted to see what it was like “out in the bush,” and although my superiors thought ill of my plan, I saw this as my perfect opportunity. I told the Huey pilots that I was going to stay out with the ground troops and I would find my own way back home. After all, it was my birthday! They pulled pitch and away they went.
This was not really the “bush,” as we were on a semi-paved road and the trees on both sides were cut back 100 yards or so. However, it was a combat zone and there were bad guys around.The bullet holes in my engine oil pan were ample evidence. This was one of the most memorable days of my three years in-country, as I got to see it like I never had before and never would again. Things really look vastly different from zero feet as opposed to even 100 feet. The trees are larger, the grass deeper, and the road more twisted. The next day, after an overnight engine replacement, I was back in the air again.
Five months down, two and a half years to go! I had two more tours in my future but just didn’t know it at the time. The second tour was also flying fixed wing aircraft and the last was in helicopters and fixed wing. As one can imagine I was involved in many more memorable incidents during the three year period but those will have to wait for the next edition of Bruce’s book.
Don separated from active duty in the Army on 12/16/1971 and was hired as a pilot by Western Airlines on 8/22/1972. He retired from Delta on 8/1/2005 flying as a Captain on the Boeing 757/767. I’m sure he will never forget his 23rd birthday.
As for my 23rd birthday, 3/31/1968, I celebrated just before I went to Vietnam, and what a celebration it was. Home on leave, my family and I watched on TV as LBJ announced that he would not be running for a second full term as president, “to bring the country together and end the war in Vietnam.”
Unfortunately, the country never came together and the war would last seven more years.