The story of the shootdown of Sundog 07, Pep McPhilips, as told by Captain Mike McDermott, the Army advisor Pep was working with, and Pep’s version, illustrates very well that how things are frequently percived depends on your vantage point. In this case, Mike is looking up at Pep, trying to guess what he is doing as he floats down, and Pep tells what he was actually doing, but wondering what is going to happen when he hits the ground.
Bill Carruthers, Webmaster
In the spring of 1972 I was serving as an adviser with the South Vietnamese Army’s 5th Airborne Battalion, one of the three paratrooper battalions that was air assaulted into An Loc during the battle for that city. The 5th Airborne Battalion initially defended a position on the southeastern outskirts before moving into town, and the following events occurred while we were in that initial position. “To Catch a FAC” is a chapter in a soon to be published book entitled True Faith And Allegiance: An American Paratrooper And The 1972 Battle For An Loc.
TO CATCH A FAC
Throughout the course of the Easter Offensive the enemy remained focused on overwhelming and destroying An Loc’s defenders. Although their initial successes had been stalled, the North Vietnamese were able to orchestrate a series of follow-on attacks that reached a crescendo on the 11th and 12th of May. It appeared the enemy was throwing all his available reserves into the battle, but his infantry and tank attacks were disjointed and were shot apart and defeated as they appeared. At the same time the enemy poured a truly massive volume of indirect fire into the town. An estimated 7,000 to 8,300 mortar, artillery, and tank main gun rounds impacted in An Loc on the 11th, and an even greater concentration arrived the following day.[i] That is a crushing weight of shells, and when later asked how the numbers had been tabulated, Colonel Ulmer, the senior advisor to the 5th ARVN Division and the senior American officer in the city answered:
Counting incoming rounds is an imprecise business. Each ARVN
unit was responsible for counting in its own area, and they would
total each day in the command bunker. I guess that 7,500 on
11 May is OK, but it may have been a thousand or so more than
that, depending on what type you count.[ii]
The enemy’s ground attacks became more sporadic and less intense during the next week, although in our case a few surviving North Vietnamese were dug in right up against our defensive wire. They were troublesome because they occasionally fired a few rounds or threw grenades into the position, so they had to be located and dealt with. Small teams of soldiers were organized to move out through the wire to find and kill them. The teams went about their job slowly and carefully, crouching and crawling as they searched among the downed trees and litter, under the watchful eyes and shouted directions from their comrades in the perimeter. It was a bit like hunting snakes in thick deadfall and progress could be charted by an occasional burst of automatic fire.
Shortly before noon on the 14th I was talking to a FAC about an enemy mortar site I wanted to attack. To get a better view of the target I grabbed my radio and ran to the northern edge of the battalion’s battered perimeter, next to the burned over area. The day was very hot with little wind. A few puffy white clouds were floating high above in a clear blue sky. As I crouched beside the splintered stump of a rubber tree I could clearly see the FAC’s aircraft circling overhead.
The FAC and I were discussing the effectiveness of the attack as he carefully directed each fighter plane into the target. Suddenly, from the edge of some jungle about half a mile to the east, a streak of white smoke shot into the sky. I recognized it was a SA-7 missile; very fast, zooming in a tight spiral toward the FAC. I yelled “missile, missile, missile” into my handset as it seemed to streak past the FAC’s airplane. The airplane flew on for a couple of seconds before I heard a dull boom, and then it began a slow roll to the right. That’s when I saw the FAC in the air, falling away from his crippled airplane. He didn’t fall very far before his parachute snapped open, and there he was for all to admire, hanging in his parachute harness four or five thousand feet above the earth.
The FAC had opened his parachute very quickly after he got out of the airplane, which should have given him a lot of time to figure out where he wanted to land, but he just seemed to float until finally disappearing from view some distance to the east of the battalion’s perimeter. He was well away from the city or any other friendly troops, but his mind must have been on other things because he just seemed to ride his parachute wherever the fates dictated. His aviator buddies hadn’t ignored his plight; another FAC was immediately overhead and several fast-movers were soon making runs and putting in bombs to discourage the enemy from getting too close.
Although he had just been shot down, it actually turned out to be his lucky day. The battalion’s water patrol was down at the creek, generally in the direction his parachute had disappeared. We radioed the patrol leader to look for him. They hadn’t seen his parachute and there was no telling if they’d ever find him. But because the missile had been shot from that direction we knew there would soon be a competition with the FAC in the unenviable position of being the prize. But then, within about fifteen minutes we got a call back; the patrol had the FAC and he appeared to be OK. I radioed Colonel Taylor in An Loc to relay the good news to the Air Force, and within another half hour the returning patrol was approaching the battalion’s trench line with the FAC in tow.
Several incoming rounds had smashed into the area in the meantime, and I was back in the security of my hole. But I stuck my head out as the patrol filed along the zig-zag path through the defensive wire and saw the FAC when he was about fifty yards away. He was wearing his flight suit and was bare headed. It seemed his helmet had been discarded at some point, although he was clutching a hand-held radio. The FAC was carefully picking his way across the ground, moving slowly and with exaggerated care through the wire. I climbed out of my bunker and waved to attract his attention. He may have glanced up as he came into the position but he was in sensory overload and hadn’t focused on me, so I shouted at him. The FAC slammed on the brakes and his head came up like a bird dog as he recognized an American voice. Then he saw me and began to run, picking up steam as he approached. At about fifteen feet he launched and succeeded in delivering a full body tackle. We rolled around on the ground to the vast amusement of the whole battalion, and it took a couple of minutes before he was willing to pry himself loose.
I soon learned my newest best friend was Lieutenant Pep McPhillips, and he had a story to tell. It seemed that after a comfortable night of crew rest and a leisurely and tasty breakfast in the officer’s mess he had proceeded to fly around An Loc talking to people like me and bringing dismay and confusion to the enemy. Pep had been transmitting to the fighters and was unable to hear my call when I’d tried to warn him of the missile, so he was totally unprepared when the thing went off just behind his ear. He’d been flying an O-2 Skymaster, a two-seat aircraft with two propellers, one that pulled from the front and another located between the twin booms of the tail which pushed from behind. Normally there would have been two pilots in the aircraft, but on that day Pep was flying alone and it was probably just as well. The missile came up from behind and zeroed in on the heat signature of the engine exhaust. The explosion tore the tail boom loose and blew out the windshield. The crew compartment was immediately full of wind and confusion, but since there was no one else to get in the way Pep had quickly scrambled around and dived out.
Pep later told me he could not remember pulling the ripcord to activate his parachute. I had to assume he didn’t enjoy the freefall sensation because he had certainly been very quick to find that ripcord. And then, after a seemingly endless ride he hit the ground, scratched and shaken but without apparent serious injury although his right ankle was tender. Pep was in a brand new world.
My new FAC friend was a bit disoriented when he finally caught his breath. Not having any idea where to go, he pulled his parachute together and sat on it out of sight under a big elephant ear plant, and waited. Within a few minutes he heard someone walking toward his hiding place. Then a Vietnamese soldier lifted the leaf and smiled at him. None of the soldiers in the patrol spoke English and Pep couldn’t speak Vietnamese, so while the paratroopers couldn’t communicate effectively they did know who they were looking at. All Pep knew for sure was that he’d been found by Vietnamese soldiers, and it wasn’t immediately clear if he’d been rescued or if he was about to start a long hike north to the Hanoi Hilton. Pep later told me he was holding his pistol in one hand and a radio in the other when he was uncovered. Thank goodness he didn’t reflexively squeeze off a round because there would have been an immediate and deadly response if a soldier in that hard-bitten and jumpy patrol had gotten winged. Pep also mentioned that several of his saviors immediately whipped out knives and began carving up his parachute, eager to make use of an unexpected but welcome gift.
So Pep joined us in the 5th Airborne Battalion command bunker, but only for a few hours. He enjoyed all the hospitality the house had to offer, including overhead cover and warm creek water liberally laced with iodine purification tablets. The lunch I offered was something of an exciting change from the Air Force haute cuisine he was no doubt accustomed to. I could tell it took an act of faith on his part to sample some of my favorite fare, rice and mystery meat mixed in an aluminum canteen cup. I’d been hoarding a small can of C-ration peaches, and considering the novelty of a drop-in guest it seemed only appropriate to dig out the can and share. Pep experienced the briefest possible exposure to life in the infantry, but I soon sensed he was not excited about the prospects of staying dirty, unshaven, sweaty, frightened, and bug-bitten.
I certainly enjoyed the company of another American, particularly one who was able to bring recent news of the outside world. I could tell I was losing my FAC, however, when he learned the brigade’s command bunker in the city had tons of overhead cover rather than the more modest protection the battalion’s accommodations could offer. Pep appeared positively anxious to change his address when he realized the bunker in the rubber trees was not his only lodging option. In fact, there was no holding him back even though there was no way for him to leave An Loc and rejoin his squadron until the battle eventually wound down.
I notified Colonel Taylor that Pep and I were going to hike his direction when we got a lull in the action. Even though my FAC had a sore ankle he assured me it would not hold him back and we set off for town a few minutes later. About half way there we were met by a very nervous Vietnamese who had been sent to give Pep a lift on a small two-lung motorbike. My new Air Force friend quickly climbed on behind the Vietnamese and off they went in a small cloud of red dust and rackety exhaust as I turned back to rejoin my battalion.
Although Pep had evidenced very little enthusiasm for the more earthy life of an infantryman, I still missed his entertaining company. The fact that he had been able to move on to a more congenial circumstance, and I could not, dampened my spirits for a bit. Our bonding might have been brief, but I still enjoyed listening in from time to time as Pep chatted with his high-flying squadron mates orbiting overhead. I couldn’t help but notice, however, that when he exchanged greetings with his Air Force comrades he always managed to sound a bit abandoned, despite the relative luxury of his accommodations deep in a big, secure bunker in the city.[iii]
An O-2 Skymaster of the type Lieutenant Pep McPhillips was flying, affectionately known
in the FAC community as the suck and blow because of the two push and pull propellers.
Photo courtesy of Lieutenant Bill Carruthers.
[i] Mortensen, The Battle of An Loc:1972, p. 47.
[iii] Pep McPhillips has been kind enough to discuss this event from his perspective with me several times, but since this is my story I get to tell it my way.
And this is Pep’s version.
Henry “Pep” McPhillips- Sundog 07 and Pete Collins- Rash 05
Memories of 14 May 1972 – Mother’s Day
The Battle of An Loc, RVN
Mother’s Day 1972 began with great sadness as we had lost several of our FAC, Fighter, and Helicopter brothers on the 11th of May to enemy ground fire. The Russian-made SA-7 Heat-seeking Ground-to-Air Missile and several larger caliber AAA guns had been introduced into the battle, so we were all on top alert to be heads up in our AO (area of operations) and to keep an eye on our fellow FACs’ adjoining AOs. (We had split the town into four quadrants, with a FAC in each putting in simultaneous airstrikes, with one C-in-C (Command and Control) FAC passing out the incoming fighters to the four quadrants.) This worked very well since the fighters were coming from everywhere and were almost always low on fuel and had to be utilized quickly. The C-in-C was always a very experienced “old head”. At the time, I was working two separate sets of Navy fighters… A-7s and F-8s, beating down Arty and AAA positions that were harassing the ground troops and the fighters. Number 2 of one set just couldn’t seem to see the target, so I had to re-mark the target several times…getting lower in altitude every time. As I was trying to climb back up to altitude…a very nose high attitude…an SA-7 got me right in the rear engine. The detonation blew off the propeller, which cut the entire boom off and blew out the front windshield. The over-pressure also shattered my Air Force sunglasses…more on that later. Because I was solo, the aircraft just flopped down to almost level flight, in a slight right hand turn. As I got my stuff together, I saw that the rear engine was on fire and determined that I had no elevator or rudder control (no boom). So….no chance of landing the beast. I went through the bailout procedure, but the door on the right side decided to stick closed…so I went for the pilot’s left escape window…for some reason I looked back and saw that the door was gone, so I did the jump thing. I did the four-line release on the chute and did some steering toward the only green spot I saw, but it was hard with a gun in one hand and a radio in the other…which is what caused me to do a really bad PLF (parachute landing fall) into the rice paddy… and, unknown at the time, broke my foot.
I hit feet, knees, and face, in that order…my helmet rolled off on contact. As soon as I could think again, I dumped my parachute harness, left the helmet, and went to the “cover” area I was going for. I got my camo stick out and fixed my face and hands, put the earphone jack in my radio, and dug in by pulling dead brush on top of me.
Pete Collins, Rash 05, my buddy doing the C-in-C thing, came over and gave me top-cover. I popped a “smoke” so he knew where I was. He had his fighters hose down some of the enemy locations to slow them down as they tried to come get me. He also told me when the good guys had gotten to me, had me surrounded, but couldn’t find me. He finally convinced me to stand up and not shoot anyone…so I eased off the trigger of my .38 and stood up. They were in fact all around me…I knew I was OK when they all started laughing.
Your guys policed me up and brought me to you. As we were heading to your location, I seem to remember a couple of the troops cutting up the parachute for hammocks. I remember the peaches, because you told me about how they were in a large C-130 air- dropped pallet that landed on the last operational jeep in An Loc during a re-supply mission. Also, didn’t you pick out the glass from my sunglasses that exploded from the over-pressure when I got hit…and I had ground the pieces into my face putting on the camo.
I also remember the cycle ride with the very small Vietnamese soldier…and you telling me to be sure to keep my knees in tight when we got to the very narrow, steel post gate on the South side of town…because the soldier was NOT going to slow down going through.
That’s when I met Col Art Taylor (then LtCol), Col Bob Corley (thenLtCol), and MajGen John Howard (then Major), and others. First thing was to take me over to meet the ARVN Commanding General who had his personal doctor look at my foot. He had no X-Ray but said it didn’t look bad. He advised to tighten the boot (do not remove) and stay off of it. I do remember that the underground hospital was totally full and that the surgeons were operating without any anesthesia and very little pain killers. The walking wounded were on the front lines. I will never forget the smell of those poor souls. The General did give me a nice shot of brandy to make me feel better. Little did I know what a sacrifice that was. Talk about a “dry county”. The first attempt to get me out the next day was hampered by 15 enemy 105 rounds on the LZ …8 of which were duds. We were on the LZ with the “worst wounded” who were going out with me…3-4 litter cases. I also got to see/feel a B-52 Arc Light strike within 1- KM of the LZ …the ground shook for quite awhile. We beat feet/limped back to the command bunker and had a big POW WOW….and determined that it was too dangerous for the Army Slicks or Air Force Jolly Green’s to come into the area. Sooooooooo…LtCol Taylor issued me a steel pot, flak jacket, M-16, and a map. I was given OJT on the radios and code book and assigned the night shift for doing the airstrike thing…A Ground FAC. The night before I left, the gang broke out the last bottle of Matsu wine. Must have taken us two hours to sip that bad boy. Finally, five days later, I beat everyone to the helicopter as it hovered about two inches off the ground. I jumped in, threw the helmet and flak jacket out the other side so they could be re-used. Before I left the command bunker, LtCol Taylor gave me a packet of Top Secret material to take to the 7th Air Force Director of Operations. It contained maps and a grid system we began using that decreased the time required for us FACs to locate a target. As a confidence builder for my ride out he told me…”if the helicopter gets shot down, make sure the bad guys don’t get the packet”. Boy, was I ready to go after that….
At the time, it did not feel like it, but this was one of my “Great Adventures”. I will never forget the brave and honorable men who kept me safe and became my friends for life. They are true Warriors.
May 1972 was an extremely difficult time for the people on the ground, but an extremely hazardous time for the FACs and support people trying to support the ground troops. The NVN Army had introduce heavy anti-aircraft (37mm and 57mm, in addition to the ever-present 51 cals.) guns and for the first time in history, heat-seeking SAM-7 missiles for use against slow-moving propeller-driven aircraft, such as the O-2A Cessna, and the A-1 Skyraider, as well as small helicopters, like the AH-1B Cobra.
Until those early days, we FACs operated at low altitude, rarely over 5,000 feet, and frequently 2,000 – 3,000. The SAM-7 changed the game.
Needless to say, the pressure was ON. In April, 1972, we had just stopped the main push
of NVN divisions by knocking out about 40 Russian T-54 and T-76 tanks – mostly by LAW missiles from inside An Loc, but also by substantial airstrikes, from Army Cobras and jet fighters.
But May 11, 1972 introduced a new level of intensity and danger for all, as the NVN made an all-out attack on An Loc. Two more mass attacks occurred on May 12 and 14.
The following account is from the Virtual Vietnam Wall discussion regarding Barry Allmond, one of our instructors and most respected FACs: On 11 May 1972 the city of An Loc, SVN, came under attack by 3 Divisions (35,000 troops) of North Vietnamese forces during the so-called Spring (or Easter) Offensive. US air power was used extensively in defense of the city, and five aircraft were lost that day:
- A-37B serial 69-6345, 1st Lt Michael J. Blassie, 8th SOS
- O-2A serial 68-11000, Capt Barry K. Allmond, 21st TASS
- O-2A serial 68-11004, 1st Lt John H. Haselton, 21st TASS
- AH-1G serial 68-15009, Cpt Rodney L. Strobridge and Cpt Robert J Williams, F/79th ARA
- A-1 Skyraider, RVAF, pilot and circumstances unknown.
During this time, sappers had also destroyed the main radios at the US Tactical Operation Center outside Saigon, and there was no assistance or organization provided to the FACs and fighters, who were left to organize the fight as best they could. We organized the air war over An Loc, with up to 10 sets of fighters holding in orbits above and outside of An Loc. We decided to set up a single (“CIC”) FAC to fly above the fray, to organize and direct the fighters to the FACs who most needed them, based on the fighter’s fuel on board, and time remaining. As Pep says, we split An Loc into 4 quadrants, running airstrikes all around the town.
I was that CIC FAC on the day Pep got hit. I was putting in a strike just east of Pep, and there were 3-4 strikes going in at all corners of An Loc, including Quan Loi, with 4 different FACs running the strikes in different directions. The radios were electric.
I do not recall seeing the SAM-7 hit Pep, but was called to the scene immediately by ground commanders. I came in from the Southeast, and saw Pep’s parachute, as he floated down. Shortly after he got on the ground, I established radio contact with him. Two Navy F-8 (Call sign “Nickel”) air-to-air fighters (with no gun sights for bomb delivery and virtually zero accuracy), begged for permission to drop their 2 Mk-82 (500lb) bombs around or near Pep, so as to keep the bad guys away from him. I was certain that they would kill him by mistake.
When Pep popped a smoke marker, the F-8s saw the smoke, and assumed we had just marked a bad guy position. They rolled in, to drop bombs on the smoke. Fortunately, they followed my “Knock it Off” call, as they were about to bomb Pep. Immediately thereafter, bad guys popped two additional smokes, just North of Pep’s position, in an effort to confuse us, but they effectively highlighted their positions. I had the F-8’s strafe those positions, slowing them down, and hopefully giving our guys time to get to Pep. I recall that Rap or Hawk A-37’s from Bien Hoa came in from nearby orbits to help the recovery effort.
I don’t know for sure how long Pep was on the ground, but it seemed like a half-hour. Pep was helping to direct the airpower, at the same time giving direction to the approaching good guys, as if he were directing an airstrike. Pep’s adrenalin must have been pumping pretty hard, since we didn’t know that he broke his foot until much later. Very impressive. I had reports on FM radio from the ground guys, telling me where they were and how far they were, etc. We all knew it was a race to see who got there first, with the good guys coming west to east, and the bad guys all around, but mostly from the north. At that close range, there was very little airpower could do for Pep. Bullets everywhere.
Then, finally, we got a radio call that the good guys had recovered him. We covered the entire area where the SAM-7 originated with Mk-82s and strafe. Pep continued to work the radios for a couple of days, directing strikes, and sounding very secure, although he really was not. This was without question the most intensive 2 weeks of my tour. I estimate that we put in 600 daylight airstrikes and 100 nighttime airstrikes in a one-week period immediately in and around An Loc. Experienced FACs frequently took double flights, up to 8 hours in the cockpit, and putting in 15-20 airstrikes each day.
(During this period, the entire B-52 fleet was assigned in and around An Loc. There was an Arc Light strike every 55 minutes for three days. Some were within 1,000 meters of the An Loc perimeter.)