With the exception of the last of these stories, I have first-hand knowledge for each of them involving my good friend, Charlie Yates. The last story was told to me by Charlie’s son at his funeral.
Charlie and I were both lieutenants flying OV-10 Broncos as Forward Air Controllers (FACs) in Southeast Asia. Charlie initially operated from Da Nang Air Base in Vietnam with the 20th Tactical Air Support Squadron (TASS), known as the “Coveys.” On his missions, Charlie used the callsign of Covey 25.
I met Charlie when the Coveys were disbanded as US involvement in Vietnam ended in January of 1973 and its pilots joined the 23rd TASS, known as the “Nails,” at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Base in Thailand. My callsign was Nail 49, Charlie’s became Nail 50. He was a good friend to all and was known for his video productions as well as for the pranks he pulled.
On YouTube you can watch a 45-minute video Charlie produced that accurately depicts the FAC mission in Southeast Asia. Although grainy, as it was filmed using an 8mm camera, the radio chatter was all recorded during actual combat missions. Watch it to the end and you will see my name appear in the credits when Charlie filmed our squadron’s OV-10s with the pilots’ names painted on them. One name you will see is Lt. Tully Baskum, a pseudonym Charlie often used.
Charlie always carried a harmonica with him and would use it when giving a DF steer to help rendezvous with the fighters sent to support him. A national magazine reporter for either Time or Newsweek recounted how he had overheard a harmonica being played on the radio during the last day of the US involvement in Cambodia (August 15, 1973). We knew it was Charlie as the reporter stated he had heard “Turkey in the Straw” being played; that was Charlie’s favorite tune.
One day, Charlie pulled off a memorable prank when he was flying over the Ho Chi Minh Trail (HCMT). The HCMT was a system of dirt roads through the jungles of Laos over which the North Vietnamese moved men and materiel to the battlegrounds of South Vietnam. We Nail FACs called ourselves the Laotian Highway Patrol; our mission was to find and interdict the materiel and troops moving along the HCMT.
On that day, Charlie contacted the Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center aircraft (A-B-Triple C – an EC-130 with the callsign of “Cricket”) to report that he had spotted a hen-way moving along the HCMT. The controller asked for the location of this hen-way, which Charlie dutifully passed using the Universal Transverse Mercator coordinate system. The controller told Charlie to stand by as he confirmed the target, its position, and got some fighters headed his way to bomb it.
The radio then went silent as Charlie waited. After a minute or so, the controller came back on the air and said, “Nail 50, Cricket here, with a question. What’s a hen-way?” Charlie cheerfully replied, “About a pound and a half.” He then chortled over the radio. The radio went silent for a few moments and the controller finally responded, “OK, Nail 50, we got it. We’ll cancel the strike.” Cricket never lived that one down; we FACs who overheard this exchange made certain of that as we gave them numerous “Attaboys!”
Charlie’s most memorable prank came years later when he was stationed in Alaska flying the F-15 Eagle during the Cold War. During that time, the Russians tested our air defenses by flying one or more of their bombers just outside of the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) surrounding our sovereign airspace. By intercepting and escorting them along the ADIZ border until they had to return home, we let them know they weren’t going to get away with these provocations!
The Eagle pilots flying these intercepts sat alert at Galena (GAL) or King Salmon (AKN) airports and carried cameras to capture images of the bombers they intercepted. These images were exploited by intelligence analysts to determine if the bombers were sporting anything new or unexpected – things such as new antennas or new weapons being carried externally.
The Russians carried their own cameras to capture images of our interceptors for much the same reason. What they didn’t count on was what happened when they took a picture of Charlie’s F-15 as he made one of these intercepts over the Bering Strait.
After intercepting the bomber, Charlie tucked in close to the observation bubble on the fuselage of the bomber through which the Russian crews were known to take their pictures. As the Russian cameraman readied his equipment, Charlie turned his head away momentarily to raise his helmet visor and unhook his oxygen mask. When he turned back, he could see the shutter flicking open and closed as the Russian operator took numerous pictures.
I can only imagine the surprise when those pictures were developed and shipped back to Moscow for their intelligence operatives to pore over. With his head turned, Charlie had slipped on a pair of what are commonly called “Groucho glasses.”
I’m sure the Russians knew then that the Cold War was lost because, “Those American pilots are CRAZY!”
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Where do we get such people? A very fine tribute to what sounds like a very memorable airman, who embodied the best of who we are.
Hey Steve, you wouldn’t believe how memorable Charlie was and that he indeed embodied the best of who we are. I miss him dearly, but his memory lives on with those of us fortunate to have known him and had the opportunity to fly with him.
Unfortunately, Charlie was killed in an aircraft accident when flying as a CFI as he was training another pilot to also become a CFI. On their initial takeoff, the engine failed and then struck some trees off the end of the runway. Charlie survived the initial impact while the other pilot was killed immediately. Knowing he was a man of God, his friends from the airport, who were the first to arrive at the scene, asked him to quote his favorite scripture verses, which he did. Charlie made it to the hospital where his wife found him comforting those who were working on him, the trauma team and the chaplain. However, they couldn’t save him, so Charlie went home to The Lord. It still saddens me, but I can always smile when I think of Charlie’s chuckle, his warm smile, and his love of life.
There were just over 2,200 FACs over the time of the Vietnam war. I’m immensely proud to have been one of them. Of the thousands of FAC stories and dozens of books by FACs, not one is boring. We mostly flew alone, unarmed, and with a bounty of gold on our heads if we were shot down. Because we were hated that much by the enemy. It is now an extinct occupation, having become largely unsurvivable as flown then.
Rocky, numbers I have heard is that while we FACs were about 3% of the Air Force manpower over the course of the Vietnam War, we were 12% of the AF KIA. Says a lot about the mission and those who flew it knowing the risks we undertook. I was inspired to become a FAC during UPT by both my T-37 IP (Evan Quiros) as well as my T-38 IP (Jack Exon). I finished high enough in my class that I was able to take the only OV-10 in our ‘block’ of assignments. When I made my selection, there were audible gasps from some of my classmates. I would do it all over again, but only if I were in my early 20’s! Welcome home, bother!
Enjoyed your story, but can’t believe that your buddy Charlie actually got any satisfaction from pulling that old “hen-way” gag on the A-B-Triple-C people. (And when I say “old”, I really mean “as ancient as some of your own earliest ancestors” – i.e. as ancient as the Hills!) Or to explain what I mean another way, as I recall I personally heard that one for the first time (and I doubt that it was new at that time, either) when I was in public school – and I’m in my 70s now! I don’t imagine anyone had ever tried to get a copyright on the gag, but do you happen to recall if Charlie ever claimed (in after-action discussions) that he was its originator?
John, You have to understand, this happened in the very serious nature of war where a little comic relief was welcome! We FACs were trained to observe conditions on the ground and to find and target the enemy’s movements. The ABCCC (callsign Cricket, Moonbeam, or Hillsboro depending on the time of day and the area you were working) was there to support us when we reported enemy activity so we could strike it. The ABCCC was comprised of a battle staff and some young radio operator took our requests and passed them up the chain as they came in from a very fluid situation. They were constantly handling requests for airstrikes while also coordinating the movement of fighter aircraft with their bombs to support us. They had to clear those possible targets we called in through intelligence channels, making certain we hadn’t stumbled on ‘friendly’ forces (Royal Laotian troops or Thai mercenaries) moving through the area. So, in the heat of the moment, Charlie pulled this admittedly old joke out, and it worked. As they say in comedy, timing is everything and Charlie was good at reading the audience. We FACs always had the ABCCC tuned in on one of our five radios, so we all heard it and had a great laugh at Cricket’s expense — and Charlie never claimed to be the originator of the ‘old as the Hills’ line, but it worked!
Trust me, if (when) you screwed up, you were going to hear about it — I once left my Intel briefing and forgot to pick up my Classified when I went to the airplane (this was all the code words and base numbers along with a list of frequencies for the day). I openly admitted it and another FAC contacted me, and he and I went on secure voice on one of our VHF/FM radios (we had two) and he passed all that information to me. When he was finished, I got a TON of ‘ATTABOYs” from my fellow FACs.
Chalfarly Yalfates … a great friend … and sorely missed by all