Put down the Budweiser – a Vietnam flying story

Phu Cat Air Base, RVN April 28, 1971.

There was no one in Operations when I got back. After landing and taxiing in to the parking area, I followed the lighted wands of the marshaling crew chief on duty that night; set the parking brakes and shut the two Continentals down. There was nothing to write up in the 781 for the flight – it was a routine, uneventful rocket patrol, flying around the area surrounding the perimeter of Phu Cat for two hours at 1,000 ft.

I signed off the bird as being airworthy and noted that I had deployed the four parachute flares that had been loaded onto the hard points on the wing prior to the flight. I enjoyed the patrol as a nice change of pace from the daylight VRs (visual reconnaissance flights) and the preplanned airstrikes that I had grown accustomed to during the previous months in country.

Phu Cat base
Home (for another month) – Phu Cat Air Base.

I was not distracted by the fact – I didn’t dwell on it, but it was always there in the back of my mind. My year was up, I was leaving Nam next month – I was short – I was going home. I thought about the Animals’ song and internally smiled. I threw the parachute and the AR-15 into the back of my jeep and drove the 400 or so yards to the 21st TASS (tactical air support squadron) detachment operations building, parking it out front. After opening the “secure room” door, I dropped off my rifle, chute, and survival vest, leaving the flack vest in the back of the Jeep to take back to the hooch and put under my bunk for “just in case.”

The wooden stairs creaked as I climbed them en route to the command center which was just one room – basic and minimal: desk, chairs, the assignment whiteboard, and over in the corner, the stack of radios. There was a “debriefing refrigerator” over in the far corner. I erased my name in the column titled “Today’s Missions,” reached into the fridge, and popped open a Budweiser that had a layer of rust on the top of the steel can from being left out in the rain over in the BX parking lot.

I was now in my comfort zone. I pulled up one of the chairs, recalling the uneventful mission, filling out the paperwork after taking three quick chugs of beer. Soon, I would be over at the O Club, catching up on all the news from my fellow pilots there, whether they be F-4 drivers or Electric Goon (EC-47) ones.

CRACKLE – CRACKLE. The little speakers at the radio rack announced an incoming call.

“Tum Ops, Tum Ops, this is Herb 13, anybody home – over?” It was Jim Becht, a fellow FAC, 0-2 driver. [Editor’s Note: The O-2 is a military version of the Cessna 337 Super Skymaster.] I put the beer can down on the table – where it would remain for some two hours getting warm, and picked up the mike.

“Yeah, Jim, this is Tum 31 – – – you caught me just before I was about to leave. What’s up – over?”

“I’ve got a problem here – I’m putting in a ‘TAC E’ [tactical emergency] air strike over here, between just south of the ‘Go Boys’ [mountain range] and the base. I’ve got enemy and friendly ground forces engaged in a firefight and ‘chicks’ orbiting overhead and I just got a firelight on my number two engine [which was the rear engine in the aft of the push-pull airplane and invisible to the pilot in the forward cockpit].

“Okay, Jim, I’ll launch ASAP! What is your altitude and what radio freq are you using?”

“I’m using 123.75 – hurry!”

O-2 Skymaster
O-2 pilots couldn’t see the rear engine, so a fire light could mean bad news.

“Hey Sarge,” I exclaimed after pulling up and jumping out of my Jeep, “Do we have any birds on Alpha alert, already loaded with Willie Pete’s [2.5 inch folding fin white phosphor rockets, seven per canister on each wing]?”

“Yeah, 029, over there in the revetment. What are you going up? You’ve got back!”

“Yeah, I know – Lt. Becht is in trouble. He’s in the middle of an airstrike and he just got a rear-engine firelight!”

“Hope it’s a false indication…”

“Yeah, so do I,” I said as I quickly, and I mean quickly, did a walk-around preflight, flashlight in hand.

“Is the arming crew still on duty, out at the end of the runway?” I asked as I began the complicated procedure of getting into the O-2 cockpit from the right-hand door, parachute on back, survival vest in front, and carrying a flack vest.

“I don’t know. I’ll call EOD [explosive ordnance division] now,” Sgt. Conover said, picking up his “brick,” his handheld two-way Motorola radio.

I kept thinking of Jim and what was going through his mind, with so many things on his plate, only to have that little red light on his forward instrument panel suddenly come on. I was taxiing so fast to get to the arming crew that had I pulled back on the yoke there would have been instant results – not becoming airborne but that nose would definitely be going up. The arming crew was waiting for me and quickly removed the pins and streamers from the rockets and I was soon airborne.

“Herb 13, Herb13, this is Tum 31. I just launched off of [runway] 33, will be there in just a few. Any changes in the light, or anything?”

Gerry Hawes by O-2
The author sits on the wheel of an O-2.

“No, light is still on but let me brief you while you’re en route so I can ‘didi’ out of here when you arrive. I have two sets of two, call sign Yellow Jacket, F- 100s from Tuy Hoa. They are at 2000 and have been briefed on the general info and they’re on freq. When you get here, you’ll see a ‘fire line’ from the bombs that were expended on their first pass before my fire light came on. The friendly force is 128 strong. I have no idea about the bad guys except where they supposedly are. You should use a run-in heading of 290 degrees and mark your rockets just north, just beyond the fire line. Yellow Jackets have already been briefed. Any Q’s?”

“No, Jim, I think I have it. Didi Mao RTB [hurry up, return to base]!”

As I rolled in for my first pass at the target, Herb 13 must have been watching because I sure didn’t see it. I lined up the pipper on the target and “pressed,” a little too much, I’m afraid. As I looked at my altimeter in the darkened cockpit, I saw that it read 450 feet but that was pressure altitude – I was really only 300 feet above the ground! Just then Herb 13 yelled over the radio,

“Tum, Tum, Pull up, pull up! You’re taking heavy ground fire and your lights, your nav and rotating beacon lights are still on!”

I pulled up and Jim went home. I had a bunch more rocket passes to make, with the lights off this time, the Huns delivered their ordinance and we both went home. There was no BDA [damage assessment] because it was pitch black out and weather was moving in – I would have to wait for the next day. Intel came back and reported that the airstrike had been very successful and that many friendly lives have been saved. I hope so.

I have wondered many times as I look at the DFC medal and citation, underneath the large, official USAF 18” x 12” O-2 photo hanging on the wall of my library, how luck and happenstance determined, or also could have determined differently my fate that night. Minutes away from leaving ops, a little red light that illuminated, and also the big red lights that somebody forgot to turn off.

Just now, I looked closely at the framed picture of the O-2 in all its glory – two hard points, under each wing both carrying 7.62 MM mini gun pods capable of firing 1500 rounds each. An O-2 strafing a target? Are you kidding me? Thankful to be home and alive, still missing some of my friends that never made it back. Was it worth it? All I can say is this – times were different then.

My best to you always, my fellow birdmen.

30 Comments

  • Gerry, great story! That was my era. Never served myself, but had a younger brother do two stints as an AF K9 MP perimeter patrolman. Not sure of his bases, but know he was at Tan Sa Nuet (sp?) for part of it. You guys did a hell of a job over there and didn’t get the credit you all deserve. I can just imagine the episode you described in your piece. You have all my respect!

  • Great Story!! Thank You for all you did!!

    This old Marine chopper guy served a couple of tours, mostly North of Marble Mountain. And while my brother was underground during the Khe Shan mess.

    But I never was nearly good at writing a #1 story! I’m more of a 10,000 writer.

    • Thanks, Michael—-for reading it and your kind words.
      What kind of chopper and where was Marble Mountain?
      Thank you for your service—Semper Fi !
      Blue Skies, my fellow bird man,

      Gerry Hawes

    • Thanks Frank—-for reading it and your kind words and I think that given the same circumstances, you would have done the same thing. Last weekend was our 50 year reunion—a total blast. And Adam Weinberg is the best thing to happen to Denison in a long time!
      Blue Skies my fellow bird man,

      Gerry Hawes

  • Ah, Yes, Good ol phu kitty. We were there in 68-69 with our ‘C’ model huns. Best base in VN, we had Koreans for base defense and they took no prisoners. Thanks for your story……Great Job……..

    • Thanks, Gary– for reading it and your kind words AND for your service. Were the Huns for ground attack or were they “Misty” FACS? Agree on the base especially since I was transferred there from Land Zone English in the highlands–a country club it was—still have the life preserver hanging on the wall behind me now—from the olympic sized swimming pool. Oh yeah, forgot about the skeet range and the Aussie and Filipino bands on Friday AND Saturday night—“Na-na-na-na, na-na-na-” and “We gotta get out of this place–“. Good memories—

      Blue Skies, my fellow bird man,

      Gerry Hawes

      • Gerry, We took 18 ‘C’ models and one, or two, ‘F’ models to Phu Cat. One of our pilots volunteered to be a ‘Misty’ driver over the north. He survived the night runs, but Bud Day did not. You remember, Bud was POW for about 6 yrs. Our ‘C’ Huns did a great job with the ground support mission. Amazed the ‘D’ drivers with our ability. ‘C’ Huns didn’t have flaps so takeoff and land speeds were much faster than the ‘D’ Huns.

        • Gary,
          Beautiful bird especially in the T-Bird colors and I loved the one flying “slot”, the one with the black vertical stabilizer from the other guy’s exhaust. What base did you guys come in from?

          Thanks for the note,
          Gerry Hawes

  • As a controller at Takhli I certainly had my moments. A hundred birds airborne returning from the north. Bingo fuel or damaged. Remember jack broughton ? 1966-67. Quite the year.

    • Marty, thanks for reading and responding. I didn’t know Jack Broughton—did you? I just googled him—wow! I had a bunch of classmates from AF pilot training that flew Thuds at Takhli in ’67—some amazing stories!

      Blue skies, my fellow bird man,

      Gerry Hawes

  • Jack brought on authored two books. Thus ridge and going downtown. Good reads especially for the politics of the war.

  • Good story Gerry; I was Army 2/17th Air Cav on Camp Eagle, Quang Tri, 101st AB @ Phu Bai & lastly 1/1st Cav @ DaNang’s Marble Mountain Airfield. 71-72. Appreciate USAF that got down in the dirt; had a good work friend years ago that was USAF FAC.

  • Well written story. I was stationed at TSN in ’69 with USAF medics and had tech school classmates who went to Phu Cat that same year and had some adventures there to say the least. We were first medic class to go straight to Vietnam and got to choose from 6 or so locations based on class ranking. I chose Saigon which seemed safer.

    Later, in 1980, about eight years out of the service and with a pilot’s license, I interviewed with Cessna for a writing/pr/marketing job and they gave me a tour of the assembly line and I saw a nearly completed USAF O-2 which brought back memories. Part of my job would have involved flying new planes to locations so magazine writers could do stories. They asked if that was okay with me. 🙂

    BTW, the Cessna 140A I learned to fly in–and had bought before my lessons–had been owned by my next door neighbor who had also been at TSN in ’69, flying a C119 gunship and had previously been with SAC and after Vietnam was a jet instructor at Enid, Oklahoma. He told me some hair-raising stories. My young crop dusting flight instructor had been a submarine crewman during Vietnam era.

  • Great story, I am the owner of and in the middle of the restoration of ship 67-21427, an O2A, she served from 67-71 in Nam, off and on with the 21st TASS. If any of you FAC’s have any photo’s you would like to share or stories of flying her please let me know!

  • Former 58-09N student. C-119, B-47B instructor navigator, would love to have a O-2 in civilian life but thanks to exposure to agent orange I got skin cancer, heart disease, diabetes and old age 79. God speed brother.

    • Hey, Stanley,
      Thank you for your email and especially for your service to our country. I am saddened to hear of your Agent Orange exposure and your related problems. I am a lucky pup–came home unscathed except for an occasional nightmare that came from a rocket that exploded next to my hooch in the middle of the night—rather insignificant wouldn’t you say? I imagine the VA is giving you disability, right? And do you think that the VA is is as bad as is reported?
      I have a favor to ask of you and “no” is a good answer. I have just completed my first novel which revolves around the life of an ordinary man, an airline pilot whose life is anything but. I have started work on another book which includes a B-47 pilot in the late ’50’s that was on the recon flight that was attacked and hit by Migs but was able to limp back and land in England. I would like to be able to use you as a consultant about little known or publicized life of a SAC B-47 crew. What do you think?

      Again, thanks for your email.

      Blue Skies,
      Gerry Hawes

  • Gary – well written article, we’ve all had a screw-up like leaving the lights on somewhere during our career, not all of us talk about it though.
    The greatest honor for me was being asked to serve as a trustee on the Pete McCullough fund, (the one you started).
    Smooth sailing my friend – you’ve hit the big league.
    R/ Tim

  • Gerry,
    Trying to search for your book The Albatross (hard to find) I came upon this post. Wow, not often one gets to read and to tell stories with the likes of us.
    It was April of ’66, with my new silver bar, that I landed at TSN AFB; having taken another’s “by name” assignment, to join a small “special Aerial Spray Flight” with the crazy name of “Ranch Hand”. After 18 months of flying around in circles in the EC121 AWACS, single, 25, I was looking for some action…
    After only 3 months in country, on a spray mission SSE of Danang (we’d rotate TDY there for a week at a time,) over “The Pineapple Forest”, took a hit in the left prop gov. With the oil gone, the prop ran away. Totally uncontrollable, couldn’t feather. Cut the mixture to shut down. Oops, bad decision! With one P&W R2800 at max pwr, and the other engine dead with a flat pitched prop, and the plane at 150 ft AGL, one would continue to fly around in smaller and smaller concentric circles until you flew up your own A-hole. Locked my shoulder harness, leveled the wings at the stall warning horn and went in straight ahead. Me and the flt Mech in the back yelled OK’s to each other as the dust cleared. Pilot in the right seat was out cold with head wounds and hand lacerations. Grabbed my M-16 and went out my open window and managed to get him loose and out on the ground. Mayday’d in the blind on our guard-only (I believe) UHF hand-held that we carried in our flak jaks. And I got an immediate answer! A chopper had just dropped his marines at the LZ, and was empty, heading back to base.
    Our air cover was still circling overhead. They were B-57 Canberras. And due to the ammo shortage at that time, all they carried were 500 Lb’ders to keep Charlie away. Although it seemed like forever, we three were airborne in the chopper within 20 minutes after our “TouchDown”.
    The flt Mech and me stayed the night with the Marine docs and my right seater was med-evac’ed, first to Danang and then home, the same day. The next morn, a Ranch Hand UC123 brought us back to Danang to fly another spray mission that day…
    I later went with Pan Am. To be furloughed two years later. Spent 4 years as a CFI on Long Island,NY, and then, 10 years with Saudia in Jeddah on the B737 and the A300/600. Pan Am recalled in ’86! Two years in Berlin, then JFK. And finally, in ’91 I went to DL when they bought the Trans Atlantic European routes from PAA as a turnkey operation. And since seniority was not considered, and the only criteria was an A310 type, I got to go. I retired in ’04.
    Seems like we could have passed each other in a hallway sometime, somewhere.
    I too have wondered as I looked at the S-Star and the 2 DFC citations what if I hadn’t done that?
    I loved what you are thankful for at the end of your story. Couldn’t have said it better.
    Thanks for the memories. Keep the shiny side down.
    Steven

  • OK Gerry, read your “beer ” article….so not sure I worked you as a FAC from the deck of the USS Hancock…VA164 A4F, Magic Stone call sign.

    looking to kindle your “Albatross” book.

    Keep the ball in the middle.
    Eagle

  • Gerry –
    Magnificent story and a heartfelt thanks for your service.
    I was air force but before the war broke loose into full conflict, I was discharged late ’65.

    My doctor until recently (he retired the end of ’17) was Carl Leviseur. He flew the O-2 FAC in Vietnam. He told me that a lot of the time they would fly ‘crabbed’ in order to be able to look at the ground ahead.
    That took iron cojones what you did; I’ll even forgive you for letting the beer get warm and flat. 😉

    Bob H.
    USAFSS “In God we trust, but all others we monitor”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *