Bob Murphy, Col. USAF (Ret.)

The Sundogs

This is my humble effort, although perhaps lengthy, to tell a little about the end of the Mike FACs, and about the Sundogs during the April Fool’s Offensive in 1972. It’s pretty much off the top of my head, but that’s all I had.


This is an effort to tell some of the Sundog FAC story, during the 1972 Spring or Easter Offensive. When I say Sundog, I am including the Rash FACs (formerly FACs with the 1st Air Cavalry Division, which had departed SEA) and the Chico FACs (21st TASS Headquarters FACs-Stan/Eval, operations, command section, etc.), who were an integral part of the action from start to finish. I also include the pilot augmentees from Hawaii and Korea. For the life of me I just can’t remember what call sign(s) they used, but I think Chico. The FAC family also included the dozens and dozens of maintenance troops, radio operators, intelligence and life support specialists, and others, some of whom were actually incorporated into the 377th Air Base Wing at Tan Son Nhut (I believe the 377th Wing was ranked as the 16th largest Air Force in the world, at that time). Even though they officially became members of the Wing, they remained FACs in spirit, and in the pilot’s hearts and minds. Until the offensive, the Sundogs were almost exclusively Cambodian FACs-flying in support of Cambodian Ground Force Commanders. We covered roughly 40% of Cambodia, 24 hours a day, with the rest being covered by the Rustics FACs flying out of Ubon, Thailand. There was some overlap, and a lot of cooperation. Some pilots were French speakers, to enhance communications efficiency with the Cambodians. We also had a group of French speaking USAF NCOs, who flew with the non-French speaking pilots, and carried the pilot’s call sign with a “BRAVO” suffix. They were FACs in fullest sense of the word. We normally had around 40 pilots, but grew to almost 80 pilots during the siege of An Loc, which lasted from early April 1972, to early August. The growth was accomplished by increasing pilot input, stopping tour curtailments, and augmenting the force with TDY FACs from Korea and Hawaii. Our AO had just grown to include all of MR-III (III Corps) and three provinces of northern MR-IV (IV Corps).

Sundog also provided space and support to an OV-10 detachment sent TDY to Tan Son Nhut to cover MR-IV. We shared much camaraderie with our OV-10 partners, and they provided indispensable top cover and firepower to help rescue two Sundogs shot down in Cambodia. Without them, the SAR might not have been successful. An Loc (aka Hon Quan) was our most intense battle area. Intelligence reports indicated we faced four enemy divisions-2 VC and 2 NVA-in the area. The enemy wanted to establish their Capital of South Vietnam in the provincial capital of An Loc-only 60 miles north of Saigon. We battled armor and AAA never before seen that far south. We saw everything from the common .50 and .51 cal, and ZPU, up to the quad 23s, the 37s, radar controlled 57s, and ultimately the SA-7 Strela shoulder fired missile. We covered An Loc 24 hours a day, with three to five FACs at a time in daylight, and normally two at night. And they were extremely busy. The US Navy dedicated the greater part of the aircraft from two Carriers to the Southern AOs, and the Marines deployed two A-4 squadrons to Bien Hoa. The Marines joined the USAF squadron of A-37s already at Bien Hoa. The Hawks (strip alert A-37s) and Raps (preplanned or generated A-37s) had always been the Sundog’s bread and butter. They were close, they were on alert, and they were extremely good! We had nearly exclusive use of the A-37s and A-4s.

We suffered aircraft losses. Over An Loc we lost three 0-2s; two A-37s; three C-130s; One AC-119; numerous helicopters, including three Dustoffs, (white choppers with large red crosses, used for medical purposes); several VNAF aircraft; and one AC-130 was hit by an SA-7, and recovered at Tan Son Nhut. We lost an 0-2 near Bao Loc, not too far from Song Be, and two in Cambodia. The real tragedy, of course, was the lives lost in those aircraft. After a disastrous May 11 and it’s aftermath, we changed our tactics and established 7000 feet above the ground as our minimum altitude, except for emergencies which could require lower altitudes-Troops in Contact (TICs), Search and Rescue (SARs), etc.

The Sundog’s Cambodian operations continued throughout the enemy offensive. Our contacts with 7th Air Force command/control agencies (Blue Chip, the command post, and the Direct Air Support Centers-DASCs), to obtain fighter support and target clearance, make reports, etc., were all made through Sundog Alpha. Sundog Alpha was a radio relay site located on the top of Nui Ba Den Mountain (the Black Virgin), near Tay Ninh City. Charlie owned the base of the mountain, and we owned the top-USAF Radio Operators rotating from Sundog radio operations, protected by a company of Vietnamese Regional and Popular Forces-irregulars affectionately known as Ruff Puffs. Rumor had it that there was a large VC hospital inside the mountain. The 5th Special Forces Group had tried to control the mountain a few years before. They held parts of it for a while, got their nose bloodied, and finally departed. Our mountaintop was partially overrun by Sappers once during my tenure. None of our ROs were badly hurt. My visits to the site found morale pretty good, but most ROs weren’t anxious to rotate up there. Sundog Alpha stayed in operation throughout the offensive. Without Alpha, communications from Cambodia was quite difficult, for the Rustics as well as the Sundogs. Finally, this effort is almost totally from memory. I (stupidly) kept no diary, and very few notes. I did use Chris Hobson’s book, Vietnam Air Losses, to refresh my memory on some of the dates. I apologize for any misspellings or factual errors, but I think I’m pretty close to the mark, and this is the best my remaining brain cells can do. I also found it necessary to include some Mike FAC, and some non-FAC information. My feeling is that it helps amplify the processes, describes the atmosphere, and allows me to more cogently tell the story. My intent is not to dwell on Bob Murphy, but on the dedication, gallantry, heroism, and superb efforts of a small group of very brave, very young men, who constantly showed maturity far beyond their years. Perhaps a little immaturity once in a while, too, but that’s all part of the game, and helps let off steam! Hit my Smoke!

The Story

From where I sat, the summer and fall of 1971 were relatively quiet in Vietnam. Nixon was President (with my vote again, of course), and his Vietnamization process was being committed with impunity all over Vietnam. Charlie (the Vietcong or VC) and the North Vietnamese regular army forces (NVA) weren’t very active. Of course the politicians attributed that to successful U.S. and South Vietnamese military operations, and the South Vietnamese readiness to successfully take over their own defense. That was their story, and they stuck to it to the end.

American ground forces were being sent home wholesale, and even some tours of USAF people were being curtailed. Shortly after my arrival in-country, in the fall of 1971, the GI Joe comic strip in the good ole’ Pacific Stars and Stripes showed Willie and Joe peering over the edge of a foxhole. Two F-4’s were flying overhead. Willie said to Joe and said, “There’re our replacements!” It turned out to be a prophetic statement.

My orders had taken me to Phan Rang Airbase, where the 21st Tactical Air Support Squadron (TASS) was then located. (It later re-located to Tan Son Nhut). My orders simply read Forward Air Controller (FAC), 0-2A aircraft. Nothing more. To set the stage, I was a brand new, young, and tender Major, fresh out of Air Command and Staff College (ACSC) and the Auburn University MBA program. When the flesh peddlers at MPC started discussing assignments with me, they wanted to know which headquarters and what type of job I was looking for, after all that great schooling. It was a given that I was headed for Southeast Asia (SEA), because, although I had two B-52 Arc Light tours under my belt, I didn’t have a SEA tour. Fair enough. And I have to give the assignments guys credit-they worked with me, and even offered choices! When I told the MPC troops that I wanted a cockpit, not a desk, they seemed happy. (It pays to keep them happy!) They offered either an F-4 or FAC (aircraft as yet unspecified) job. It was a tough choice for me. I had always wanted to fly fighters (in my time frame, Basic Pilot Training Classes didn’t get many fighters-SAC took a big chunk), and this was probably my last chance. I initially wanted the F-4, but when we compared the training pipelines, I started to change my mind. It would take 9 to 12 months to get to SEA in an F-4, while I could be there in three to four months in an 0-2 or OV-10. There were other factors. Not being born and bred as a fighter guy, chances are I would never be a real member of the Tactical Air Forces (TAF) club during a SEA tour, even if the conflict lasted long enough for me to complete a full tour. Flying #4 or #2, with perhaps a shot at #3 after I got a bunch of experience, wasn’t terribly appealing, either. And after my tour, I would most likely end up at SAC Headquarters (which is what I wanted if I had to take a staff job), and depart the TAF permanently. Besides, I knew guys who had been FAC’s, and I was well familiar with the job. It sounded like a job you could get your teeth into. And, as a Major, I stood a great chance of stepping into a supervisory or command role, especially in the 0-2. All the senior guys seemed to want the 0Vs. So, the Flesh Peddlers and I settled on the 0-2 as being the best choice for me. Actually, it probably meant that they had more 0-2 slots, 0-2 slots were harder to fill, and they had Charley Tuna Murphy hooked and convinced that the 0-2 was the best thing that could ever happen to him. And, you know, they were right!

So, in July, I finished my Auburn comprehensive exams, we sold our house, packed up our stuff, and my beautiful bride of 7 years and our 3 delightful daughters (aged 6 years, 4 years, and 9 months) headed for Fort Walton Beach for the second time. My first assignment out of pilot training had been to the SAC 39th Bomb Wing, which was located on Eglin where the 33rd TAC Fighter Wing now resides. Our first daughter was born there on May 11th, 1965, on my fathers fiftieth birthday. May 11th will become a highly significant, very dark day for many, in 1972. This assignment at Hurlburt AFB would be very different from our assignment at Eglin.

At that time of year, the weather was gorgeous, the beaches were great, and the training regimen wasn’t terribly demanding. I was busy with classes, studying, and flying, but nowhere as loaded up as I was over the last year. So we had time to socialize and play, which was great for the family, and for me, especially with a year’s separation hanging over our heads. The atmosphere, however, was strange and strained. There was a definite lack of visibility into our futures, both for those of us in training, and for the permanent party-our instructors and all of the Special Operations folks. Uncertainty over what would actually be happening over the next several months was rampant. Rumors abounded. We 0-2 types had some classes in common with the 0V-10 guys, in the Air Ground Operations School (AGOS), but didn’t see much of them otherwise. They flew out of Hurlburt, while we flew out of Holley Field. We were pretty much by ourselves, and the bulk of the class were Brown Bars (Second Lieutenants). I remember Vinnie Pastore (I hope the spelling is correct) who was also a Major. I don’t remember where Vinnie went initially, but I’m sure he became a Raven. I don’t remember any others who weren’t Second Lieutenants. There probably were some, but I particularly remember three Second Looies-Dick Christy, John Haselton, and Mike Jewell. We spent some time together through Hurlburt and Snake School (Jungle Survival School). Dick and John became Sundog FACs at Tan Son Nhut, and I maintained contact with them. Mike went up-country somewhere, and I lost track of him.

One day in particular remains imbedded in my memory. Near the end of our stay at Hurlburt, my family was having a picnic on the Eglin Officers Club Beach. It was a breezy day, and the surf was running a bit. Dick, John, and Mike showed up, and we had a great time body surfing, and were joined by a group of Manta Rays. It made a lasting impression on our daughters, also. A few years later, we were reminiscing, and someone mentioned that day on the beach surfing with the handsome Lieutenants and the Manta Rays. I think the first time our girls actually realized the seriousness of their Dad’s business was when they learned that two of those young guys, Dick Christy and John Haselton, didn’t make it home alive.

Now, that the stage is set, we return to Phan Rang, which is where all 21st TASS FACs got their STAN/EVAL checks at that time. While there, the Squadron Commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Carey called me in and asked if I wanted to become the ALO (Air Liaison Officer-leader) of a FAC group in a special mission. He couldn’t tell me much about it, because he wasn’t briefed on the mission. But if I accepted the assignment (burn the tape afterward), I would go down to Tan Son Nhut for my in-country checkout with the Sundogs. I would then go to downtown Saigon to be briefed into the mission by MACVSOG (yes, the Studies and Observations Group), and then ferry an 0-2 from there to Ban Me Thout East Field (BMTE) to take over the Mike FACs. It all sounded good to me. So, after completing the Saigon stuff, I packed all my belongings into the back of a trusty 0-2A, and headed for the Central Highlands. After dodging thunderstorms, using the BMT ADF (I still hate ADF) I got into the area. The weather wasn’t great, night was approaching, and there were no published approaches into BMTE. I checked in with Mike Ops to let them know I was almost there, took a long look at the BMT downtown field, and found the BMTE air-patch. There were a couple of Jeeps near the runway when I landed. About half way down the great 6,000-foot asphalt strip in the middle of nowhere, I went IFR. Someone had smoked the runway.

I managed to make it to the end, where there was nothing but an 8-foot wide ASP snake track running off into the smoke, and a couple of jeeps full of people. A sturdy guy with curly blond hair, bright blue eyes, Camo trousers, a blue Polyester short sleeved shirt, and a red bandanna around his neck opened my right door, jumped in, stuck out his hand, and said, “Hi, I’m Jim Getz, welcome to Ban Me Thout. Come on, I want to introduce you to Martha Ray.” MACVSOG hadn’t included any of this in their briefings! As an aside, it was the real Martha Ray. She periodically traveled alone around the theater visiting the various Special Forces locations. The SF troops had a big dump truck rigged up with a sign saying, “Maggie, The Meanest Mother in the Valley.” They drove it around, with stops at the watering holes. Late (very late) that evening, someone in the front seat raised the dump box. Maggie wasn’t hurt, but the SF First Shirt broke (Sergeant Major) his arm. I don’t think that deterred Maggie from her rounds. She loved it, the Special Forces, and all of us involved with them.

You former Mikes wouldn’t have believed BMTE in late 1971. The only US presence remaining was the quarter-mile square SF compound. The arty unit was gone (they left a couple 175s and/or eight inchers for H&I fire), and the 5th SFG troops were down to a dozen advisors, led by three Majors (Ops, Logistics, and Intel). There was a distant US Special Forces Colonel who visited once-in-a-while, and an ARVN Colonel Camp Commander. Perimeter security was provided by the ARVN, but we all had assigned positions in case of attack. No US troops were allowed on the ground out-of-country. All teams were comprised of Montagnards, with ARVN leadership. We carried an interpreter (Covey Rider) in the right seat to talk to the teams when there was no English speaker on the ground (most of the time). They could talk to the teams very handily, but communicating with the FAC, especially when the situation on the ground turned dicey, was often very difficult.

We also operated out of a second location-Quan Loi-in the Rubber Plantation just north of An Loc. The deactivated Pretzel FACs had operated from Quan Loi, and there was a Special Forces detachment there. Generally, Quan Loi teams handled the Southern part of our AO, and BMTE the Northern part. All O-2s would RON at BMTE for security reasons, and normally one or two FACs would deploy to Quan Loi daily. We kept a crew chief and a radio operator at Quan Loi.

The USAF 20th SOS, with their (twin engine) N Model Huey helicopter gunships, were detached from Cam Ran Bay, and maintained three to six birds at BMTE. They were our bread and butter top cover-our instant first responder firepower-and were super to work with. We had high priority for TAC Air in an emergency, but the Green Hornets were always the first on the scene. The slicks to carry the teams were ARVN Hueys. The US Marines, except for one Major advisor, were gone.

We weren’t privy to all of the Intel collected by the teams. Sometimes our Intel specialist picked up tidbits of information, but most of the time we were involved primarily with tactical considerations. I did get indications that larger numbers of bad guys were being observed, and that the teams were seeing some armor, but how the information was collated and interpreted, and who got it, was somewhat of a mystery. The Mike mission nearly always hired experienced FACs, who were volunteers. Since we were faced with a couple of DEROSs downstream, I asked Christy and Haselton if they were interested. Both were doing well, and building strong reputations with Sundogs. They agreed, Sundog agreed, the TASS agreed, so we scheduled the transfers.

It was not a particularly busy time. Charlie was quiet, and US forces were winding down. We ran road watch teams into Cambodia and Laos, and for the most part got them in and out without a lot of trouble. On the 17th of February 1972, I was covering a quiet team, and doing a little VR work. A SAR came up on guard, and the call sign it was working to rescue was Dick Christy’s. It was a long SAR, with difficulty locating the downed flyer. But they got him out. I was relieved, but after my return to BMTE, I got a call from John Haselton. The SAR forces used Dick’s call sign, but in fact they had been working to rescue the right-seater. Dick had been killed in the aircraft by ground fire. The right-seater flew it as long as he could, and then bailed out. Weeks later, during the siege of An Loc, a Cambodian aircraft flew into Tan Son Nhut with Dick Christy’s remains, covered by the Cambodian flag. They had risked their lives to recover him. They thought that much of him. Dick never became a Mike FAC, but John did, for a short time. Then one day (later in February) a team out of Quan Loi got into deep trouble. Tom Case was the primary FAC, but I think more than one FAC worked the team’s exfiltration, because the attempts to get the team out lasted for hours. They did a superb job. The team (remember, all indigenous forces, no US-tough communications) was running and suffering casualties. Our guys finally got them out, and since they were all wounded, they recovered at BMTE because of our medical facilities. I remember this particular mission for two reasons. First, our Maintenance Chief and I were helping unload the wounded and equipment from the recovery chopper. He reached into remove an M-16, picked it up by the barrel, and for some reason it fired, right between us. Fortunately, no one was hit. I’m thankful it wasn’t on full automatic! The second reason is intelligence from the team. They reported many, many enemy, with significant numbers of armored and other vehicles. I’m convinced now that they had discovered some of the forces that attacked in April.

I’ve often wondered how the VC and NVA could take us by complete surprise, again. Perhaps, this time, the fact that we were in such a hurry to “Vietnamize” affected the process. We were directed to shut down the Quan Loi operation late February, and the BMTE operation in early March. All US forces departed. The Special Forces went their own way, the Mike FACs became Sundogs, and I became the Sundog ALO. It still was not a particularly busy time. Once I completed the inquiry into why a secret document was found in one of the desks shipped from BMTE. Even Cambodia was pretty quiet. Fancy that.

Tour curtailments were continuing, and I decided to take my two-week break and visit my wife and daughters in Denver. We had relocated them to Denver because my wife’s parents and other family lived there. At the end of my leave, obscure news reports about some kind of offensive by enemy forces, across the DMZ and “other places” started to surface. I didn’t know much when I left Denver, but I learned a bunch in a hurry when I returned to Tan Son Nhut, I think on April fourth. Loc Ninh had already fallen, and An Loc was under increasingly heavy attack. I wasn’t on the schedule, so I jumped into Tom Case’s right seat to get a look, early the next morning. To say all hell had broken loose is an understatement. Quan Loi had been overrun, and An Loc was under a combined Armor and Infantry attack. There were a handful of US Army advisors on the ground. Friendly forces pulled back into defensive positions in the southern two-thirds of the town. And we almost ran out of gas.

We were on our way home and the gages showed plenty of gas, but the front engine quit. I went for the tank selector, but all switches were in the proper position. I cycled the switches; we got the front engine started, and began to climb, just in case. We were not far from base, but not over friendly territory by any stretch. Just as things seemed to be settling down, the rear engine quit. Same drill. Cycle all pertinent switches, and the restart worked. We declared an emergency. Tom maintained altitude, and when the landing was assured, slipped down to the runway. If memory serves, the front engine quit in the flare, and the rear quit just after we cleared the runway. The gages still indicated plenty of fuel. When maintenance drained the fuel lines, we had only around a very few quarts of trapped gas. I don’t recall ever finding out why the gages malfunctioned. I’d rather be lucky than good, any day. So, the Sundogs had become in-country FACs, but we still had our Cambodian commitment. We were spread pretty thin, and the added resources from the Mike mission were a real boon, both in numbers and in experience. The ground battle ebbed and flowed, and we got all the fighters we needed. The A-37s were augmented by Marine A-4s and Navy air from the carriers increased. We needed all of it, but there was so much to handle that we assigned a High FAC, to make initial contact with the strike aircraft, brief them, stack them up, and ultimately hand them off to the FAC who would expend them. This was during daylight hours, when most of the action occurred, and was especially important to handle the Navy. Aircraft Carrier operations require that they launch the force all at once, and then recover it all at the same time. So when the Navy came, it came big time. We called it the Navy glut, but we loved it. American FACs, and USAF, NAVY, and Marine fighters kept An Loc in friendly control. The enemy attacks were beaten back with heavy casualties.

The ground troops fought well, too, and there were B-52 Arc Light attacks, especially later in the siege, but let there be no doubt. An Loc withstood the initial onslaught of VC and NVA forces, and survived the siege, because of US airpower-primarily that airpower provided by USAF Forward Air Controllers and the fighters from all services, which they controlled. Period. Another crucial element for An Loc was re-supply. The town was under siege, surrounded, with very little of anything getting in or out. A helicopter could slip in once in a while, and quickly depart. Enemy mortars and artillery had zeroed in all landing zones, and the ground fire was ferocious. Medicine, ammunition, and food were running out. Wounded were extremely difficult to evacuate. C-130s from CCK, Taiwan were brought in for the re-supply mission. We worked with them on threats, ingress and egress routes, drop zones, and everything else they needed. But we never got a C-130 in across a drop zone and out unscathed. And as more missions were flown, the situation got worse. They were using a low level Container Delivery System (CDS) procedure, and the low altitude made them very vulnerable to ground fire. They were game, and they tried their best, but they were flak magnets. The gunner’s learning curves, and communication nets improved rapidly. They already knew where the Hercules was going, and as soon as they detected one, they just tracked it in and hammered it all the way. If I remember correctly we lost three C-130s, and the entire crew of one.

Low altitude delivery was definitely not the answer, so specially equipped 130s, from Little Rock AFB were brought in. They were dubbed AWADS birds, the All Weather Air Delivery System. Essentially, they had an old B-47 RADAR Bombing System installed. They bombed with pallets, and it worked-from 10,000 feet and higher. There were some initial problems with rigging the parachutes that first stabilized, and then softly lowered the pallets of supplies to the ground. That problem increased our workload, requiring us to blow up errant supply pallets before the enemy got to them, but it was quickly solved. As April waned, the action around An Loc slowed and became much like trench warfare, except we didn’t know where the enemy trenches were. The town was taking from hundreds, up to several thousand rounds of mortar and artillery fire each day. It was a war of attrition, and we were looking for and hammering Charlie as we found him. He made probes, but was no longer on the attack. We would soon learn he was just biding his time, and had something up his sleeve.

Up to now we had seen some pretty heavy AAA, including 23 and 37mm, but things changed on May 11th, when another major attack began. I wasn’t flying that day. In the morning, Bob Goree was the High FAC. Barry Allmond, a Chico from 21st TASS Headquarters, was controlling a pair of A-37s, one being flown by Mike Blassie. They were working along the edge of the rubber trees, and Mike suddenly took heavy ground fire, and crashed. No chute, no beeper, and no indication that Mike bailed out. A short time later, Barry took a 37mm hit (reported by forces on the ground in An Loc), and crashed. No chute, no beeper, and no indication that Barry had bailed out. There were some VNAF operations nearby, and I believe a VNAF A-1 was shot down, as well as a VNAF C-47. A US Army Cobra helicopter was also lost. Later in the day, John Haselton moved out of the way for a reported Arc Light strike, and we lost contact with him. Reason unknown. There was some suspicion that missiles had been fired on the 11th, but it didn’t take very long for positive confirmation that missiles existed.

On the morning of the twelfth, I was relieving Tom Case. Tanks were driving into buildings in the town, and letting them collapse around them, for camouflage. While Tom was updating me on the situation, I suddenly flew through a vertical smoke trail. All I saw was the smoke trail, and then I heard a shout, “BREAK LEFT,” and you know I did, HARD. Very shortly after that, I heard, “BREAK RIGHT,” which prompted a HARD reversal. At this point, I was almost out of airspeed, at a lot lower altitude, and ideas were difficult to come by. The bad guys had fired three Russian SA-7 Strela, heat seeking missiles at me, in quick succession. I’m very lucky they didn’t fire a fourth. I don’t know why the first one missed me, and I never saw the second or third, just the smoke trails, and the smoke on the ground. I simply listened to Tom Case’s “break” calls, and did what I was told. I’d rather be lucky than good any day. By the way, even the Intel community now believed that there were SA-7s in the Saigon area. The Strela had some unusual and unique characteristics. Along with the missile’s smoke trail, there was an expanding donut of smoke on the ground. Guess what (or should I say who?) was near the center of the donut. I don’t know how many of the shooters on those bulls eyes we actually nailed, but because we almost always had strike air on tap, almost all of the Strela launch sites were immediately hit. I hope we nailed them all. I’m sure it made them a little nervous, knowing that we knew where they were and that they were our next target. In the case of the three who shot at me, I’m not sure exactly what happened next. I was too busy trying to regain my composure, some airspeed, some altitude, and come up with an idea or two. I think Tom got some air on the launch sites. I wrote the aircraft up for excessive “Gs” when I landed after the mission (which was certainly true) but it wasn’t bent. Those little machines were, if not very fast, pretty tough.

Bob Goree took a triple shot, I believe later that same day, and didn’t get hit. He also put a few “Gs” on his bird. But on May 14th, Pep McPhillips got nailed with a Strela. He wasn’t hurt, but had no control over the aircraft, so he stepped over the side. As I remember his story, he hit the ground running, and took cover. As he hid there, holding his all-powerful .38 Combat Crew Special revolver, some Vietnamese troops ran toward him. He had two choices. He bet on friendlies and he won. A little luck always helps. But, they took him into An Loc, which, at that time, was taking up to 7,000 (yes, thousand) rounds of rocket, artillery, and mortar fire a day. Every time I checked in with Tunnel 10 (the head US Army Advisor in the town, I believe a Lieutenant Colonel at the time) or Tunnel 10 Alpha (the deputy), Pep would come up on the horn. He always said the same thing, “Hey Boss, when are you going to get me out of here? Unfortunately, I couldn’t even drop him a toothbrush, let alone get him out. I don’t remember how long Pep was on the ground, I believe nearly 2 weeks, but the Army finally slipped him out on a chopper, and returned him to us. He was limping a bit, and said his ankle hurt. Since all who are shot down go to the hospital, regardless of their condition, they checked him over and found a fractured ankle. Pep had run for cover, he ran into An Loc, and he stomped around for several days with a broken ankle. Those Citadel guys… He returned to duty shortly after his release from the hospital. I also don’t remember exactly when we changed our minimum operations altitude for the An Loc area to 7,000 feet AGL, but it was around the time Pep got nailed. When we did make the change, many of us wondered how well we’d be able to do the job from “way up there.” But the change was necessary, primarily to give us room to dodge the SA-7. We learned how to use binoculars without making ourselves sick. We re-learned how to control airstrikes, and do it very effectively from higher altitudes. In reality, we learned how to do the job a lot safer. We also started carrying flares, with the parachutes disarmed, to use as IR decoys if SA-7s were fired at us. We did launch some flares, and a couple of them were even to counter Strelas. The switchology was kind of tricky, especially in the heat of battle. I can’t confirm that an SA-7 ever tracked one of our flares, but it was a comfort factor for some of us. I can confirm that the Strela will track on the heat from a Specter gunship’s spotlight. A Specter over An Loc took an SA-7 in the tail section, early one evening. The story is that one of the gunners tried to track the missile with the aircraft spotlight. They were at relatively high altitude, and when the missile turned toward them, the gunner recognized the error of his ways, and turned off the spot, too late. The missile poked a pretty big hole a couple of feet from the spotlight, but the opposite side of the aircraft looked like a sieve. I’m amazed that the aircraft didn’t go down, but they recovered at Tan Son Nhut. It was, I believe, the only Specter in theater with Big Bertha (the 105 MM Howitzer) mounted at that time. One had been lost on the Trail not too long before. Within 12 hours, the gun had been removed and flown back to Thailand, mounted in another Specter, and was flying again in around 24 hours. The stricken bird sat on our ramp for months. I don’t know if anyone was injured in the incident. I believe before the Specter incident, an AC-119 Stinger gunship took a 37mm round in the wing, and lost most of it. The pilots flew the bird long enough for the others to get out, but at least one of them didn’t make it. Terrible Tom Milligan saw it happen, logged the location of the shootdown and of all the crewmembers who bailed out, and ran the mother of all SARs to recover each and every one of them. By now, we had learned that a lull in the action didn’t mean anything more than a lull in the action. It was more of the same every day. We’d kill the AAA guns and more would surface. Missiles were still fired, and the bulls eyes were bombed. The enemy would make thrusts. We’d beat them back. We had lost our last 0-2 over An Loc, but not our last 0-2. On the fifth of June I launched for An Loc, but was having trouble with my FM radio. You couldn’t operate at An Loc without the ability to talk to the ground forces, and that was what the FM was for. While fiddling with the radio, and notifying Sundog that I might have to return for a spare, I picked up a call from a C-130 on Guard that a FAC aircraft was down up around Song Be. I talked to the 130, got a TACAN cut from him, and notified Sundog and Blue Chip that I was not able to operate at An Loc, and was heading north.

I started making radio calls as soon as I got into range, still not sure what or who I was looking for, and got Craig Dunn up on frequency. He was on the ground, and I called for the SAR forces, that had already been alerted. Then I got to put the tactic they taught us at Hurlburt into practice-do you hear my engine? Is it getting louder or weaker? Tell me when it’s the loudest. It worked! I had what turned out to be a pretty good fix on Craig. The only problem was the cloud deck between us. So, I started looking for holes, and there were some. Two A-1 Sandys and two Jolley helicopters were on the way, and I was having a little trouble understanding Craig. I had to remind him every once in a while to talk slower. He had crash-landed, but miraculously was not in bad shape. He was mobile, and luckily there was no sign of enemy activity. I briefed the SAR forces on their way in, and when they arrived we descended through a hole in the clouds. We were in mountainous country, not far from Dalat, and in a valley with mountains disappearing into the overcast. It looked like a white canopy supported by rugged, ragged, gray granite pillars. There was a beautiful waterfall at the high end of the valley, near where the pillars entered the clouds. It was a bit crowded with five aircraft in the valley, and we couldn’t locate Craig. I was considering climbing back up on top of the clouds, when one of the Jolleys hit a downdraft, and was blown down into the trees. I could see treetops flying, and the Jolley struggled up, out of the trees, and over to a meadow, where he landed to do damage assessment. His blades were pretty badly nicked up, and he had moderate or worse vibrations when he flew, so he was out of the fray. He made it to Dalat, but I heard later that he was there for a long time awaiting repairs. I climbed out, leaving the two Sandys and remaining Jolley in the valley. It turned out that Craig was above the cloud line, so we got him walking downhill, until he got below the clouds. I was getting very low on gas, there was a C-130 King bird on the way, and so I headed south. Craig had launched at, I believe, 0600. I had launched at 0930. By the time the SAR forces got him below the cloud line, located him, picked him up, and got him back to Tan Son Nhut, it was almost dark. It was a long search and rescue effort, but no enemy involvement. When he stepped off the Jolley, his face was swollen to almost twice its normal size. He had a pretty badly broken jaw, but I don’t remember any more serious injuries. I’ll never understand how he could talk so fast with that broken jaw. He was Air-evaced to Guam for treatment, and returned to duty with us before my DEROS. It’s great to be lucky!

The war in Cambodia was still on, too. On June 27th, Sundog Alpha lost contact with Dave Baker, just a few miles across the fence. He disappeared without a trace, but was later released from captivity. I saw his release, at Loc Ninh, on television, but didn’t know Dave was one of the released POWs until later. I think he was the only pilot who became a POW in Cambodia to ever be released. In the final analysis, he was another lucky man. The two pilots shot down over Cambodia on July 1st, our last 0-2 loss, were luckier than Dave. Bill (better known as Bubba in those days) Brooks, one of the Sundog instructors was giving Bob Vincent his dollar ride. They were just across the border, when a 37mm hit them, these guys had time to tell Alpha they were bailing out. They could see the bad guys hot-footing it toward them while they were descending in their ‘chutes. Our OV-10 troops from Tan Son Nhut were the first on the scene, followed shortly by the ever-present A-37s from Bien Hoa. The OV-10s were allowed to self-expend (with their 7.62 cal guns) in a SAR, and they did. When they were out of bullets, they ran through dry, to keep the bad guys heads down. Rumor has it that they had grass stains on their bellies, but that’s probably just a metaphor or a simile, or some such thing. Bubba and Bob will tell you that they really kept the bad guys heads down. The A-37s kept the bad guys away, too. At one point, Bubba was giving them GCAs to their bomb release point, and calling the drops. This is one of those many, many cases where you have to love Army helicopter crews. If any pilot went down in-country, or near in-country, his chances of being rescued by an Army helicopter were far greater than by any other means. There were a lot of them, they were always around, and they had big, brass ones. There weren’t as many around at this point in history, but enough for Bubba and Bob. I don’t remember the exact sequence, but one chopper was shot up. They limped away, crash-landed and set up a defensive perimeter. A second chopper picked up Bubba, dropped him off in a safe place and went back for Bob, and part of the downed chopper crew. A third chopper picked up the rest of the downed crew, and one of them picked up Bubba. Through it all, the OV-10s and A-37 were all over the bad guys.

All returned safely to TSN. One of the chopper gunners had taken an AK-47 round through the knee. When I visited him in the hospital, he was hurtin’, but grinning. He knew, I knew, everyone knew, those chopper guys had done one Hell of a job. They’d bearded the lion in Cambodia, and rescued two FACs. As the CAV troops always say, “If you can’t hover, you ain’t s—.” Bubba and Bob were in great shape. When I told Bob his tour was half over, he said, “Major, I hope the second half lasts a whole year!”

The action over An Loc waxed and waned, but the war of attrition had taken a far higher toll from the VC and NVA forces than from ours. Four of their divisions were badly battered. The siege was broken in August, when a heavily armed convoy fought its way in from the south. The bad guys slunk away with their tails between their legs. But they didn’t quit-they just waited until 1975. US airpower had saved the day, and the pointy end of the spear was the Forward Air Controllers of the 21st TASS-primarily Sundog, Rash, and Chico FACs. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder with US advisors, and Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine aviators, They rose to all occasions, got their noses bloodied, and asked for more. We celebrated our successes, and mourned our losses then, and still do so today. We make no apologies-to anyone. I cannot imagine a finer, braver, more magnificent group of warriors. With them, I’d attack the gates of Hell. After all, who else could replace GI Joe?