"Baking Soda and Pete"
Category: "Viet Nam"
In the spring of 1971, the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) invaded Laos in an attempt to cut the southward movement of supplies from China and the Soviet Union by interdicting the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Called LAM SON 719, most American air units supported the invasion in some manner.
Those of us stationed at Phan Rang Air Base, located on the coast of the South China Sea, about half way between the southern delta and the 17th parallel that divided North from South Viet Nam, were flying the single engine, single seat F-100 Super Sabre. At the time, the F-100 was the primary In-country jet fighter-bomber. As the ARVN moved into the interior of Laos, we flew top cover and would bomb and strafe any targets that impeded or were suspected of impeding their progress. The missions were not remarkable in any sense, because we seldom hit anything. More often than not, the Forward Air Controller (FAC), when advising us of our Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) after a strike would call out, "no BDA due to Smoilage" (a contraction of the words: smoke and foliage), a polite way of informing us that there was nothing in the area under our attack.
Pick up any novel about that air war and you'll find yourself in the middle of nonstop, industrial strength action. In reality, it just didn't work like that. No one ever writes about the unflagging boredom, or conversely, the most important part of any day: when they ran up the red flag at the post office signaling that the mail was in and posted in your mail container (the term "box" was never voiced because it was and probably still is a euphemism for female genitalia). It didn't matter how desperate or how tranquil a mission turned out to be, if you received no mail, the day was a disaster. It was only once in a while that a harrowing mission occurred and it's those missions the authors dwell on page after page. Most of the novel action actually occurred over the years and changed just enough to suit the author's story line. In fact, many of the stories were familiar to me years before they happened to the rugged, action novel heroes.
As the ARVN rumbled deeper into Laos unopposed, those of us flying top cover were not made aware that the North Vietnamese and the Laotian Pathet Lao were marshaling their troops and armor for a counter attack. When they did, we were all astonished and found ourselves engaged in close combat of the grimmest order. Where we had been carrying iron bombs with delayed fuse settings (so they would penetrate the earth prior to detonation) and taking off from and landing at Phan Rang, we saw a change in tactics. We would upload a mixture of high drag iron bombs with instantaneous fusing [with a retardation device (called "Snake Eye") that slowed their decent and allowed a close-in delivery], napalm, CBU's [Cluster Bomb Units: small anti-personnel bomblets about the size of a pineapplet and delivered by the hundreds], rockets and the usual supply of 20 millimeter cannon shells. We also would launch out of Phan Rang, recover at Phu Cat and reupload. Launch again to the target area and recover at Phan Rang. Phu Cat was about 200 nautical miles closer to our area of operation and allowed us to loiter in the target area for about 20 minutes. If we launched from Phan Rang and recovered there, we had no loiter [called "playtime"] time at all. The playtime was necessary for there were plenty of targets: mostly personnel and gun sites although the North Vietnamese were also using armor.
One day, while waiting my turn to attack, I observed two Soviet made T-34 tanks ambling down a road. It was the first time I had ever seen hostile armor operationally and I remember thinking how arrogant they were because if I could see them, then they could see me and it was our job to kill them. The tanks were destroyed and thus humbled by another flight before my flight was called in to attack. Tanks are not supposed to shoot down F-100s, but one young pilot from Phan Rang was hit by one as he was rolling in for the attack. The tank shot out the F-100s flight control system and since the pilot had the airplane descending and rolling to the right, the bird continued to do so once his flight controls became inoperative. The pilot couldn't eject because the ejection would have driven him into the ground like a nail. The airplane rolled right on around and reached an upright position just as it entered the jungle at 400 plus knots. A friend of mine, observing the pilot's predicament from his loiter position, told me that he could look down into the jungle and see the F-100 smashing along and throwing dust, limbs and other detritus in all directions.
The pilot, not enjoying the jungle odyssey, pressed the "Trim for Take Off" button for lack of a better option. The "trim for take off" button electrically positions the flight controls for light control loads during take offs and had no other known use. But in this instant, it was the proper course of action as it raised the nose of the bird and it came up and out of the jungle, shaking off trees like a dog shakes off water. The pilot rode the bird until it reached its apogee, then ejected. If he hadn't had enough good luck for the day, as he smashed down through the jungle trees in his parachute, there were three American soldiers standing next to a jeep a few feet from his landing spot. The Americans had him back at Phan Rang, uninjured, before nightfall and in time for his welcome home party. Although those of us from other squadrons weren't invited to the party, most of us crashed it in order to touch the lucky young man.
It is extremely difficult to hit anything with an iron bomb (sometimes called a gravity bomb or, once we heard of the guided or smart bombs: a dumb bomb). First you had to know the elevation of the target to compute a release altitude; in order to know the target elevation and release altitude, you had to have accurate maps and a current altimeter setting (barometric pressure, like the weather man on the six o'clock news gives you). Next you had to figure out the angle of dive to be used along with the speed at which you would release the bomb. Finally, using known bomb ballistics, you determined a depressed sight setting. All of the above could be figured out on the ground, prior to take off, if you knew where your target was; had accurate maps and were reasonably sure the weather would allow you to make your planned attack. Once in the target area, you had to estimate the speed and direction of the winds that would act on your airplane and your bomb once you released it. The only thing left to do was to place your gun sight [called the "pipper"] on the target, or if there was wind [and there is always wind], place the pipper on an off-set aim point. The difficult part is that dive angle, airspeed, release altitude and sight picture with proper wind correction all had to come together at the same instant. Shallow dive angles, positive "Gs" and slow airspeeds produced bombs that fell short, while being too steep, negative "Gs" on the aircraft and too fast produced the opposite results. Release the bomb when the wings are not level and the bomb will impact short and in the direction of the bank. Compounding all of this, we tried to fly a curvilinear approach to the bomb release point, i.e., constantly descending, accelerating and turning to the release point to provide a difficult tracking problem for anyone trying to shoot us down.
The difficulty of dive bombing can be demonstrated with a pencil and a penny. Sharpen a new pencil and lay the penny on a table. Your hand will become the airplane, the penny the target and the sharpened tip of the pencil the pipper [the F-100 pipper was a dot of light resting on infinity, i.e. as long as you could see the pipper through the square piece of glass that was the sight combining glass, it would always rest on the same point in space, no matter where you moved your head in the cockpit]. Hang the pencil, eraser side up, between the end joint and the second joint of your fore and middle fingers. Swing the pencil tip forward with your other hand, using your two fingers as the fulcrum, to about 45 degrees and do not allow the pencil to move once positioned. Now, using your hand with all fingers parallel, dive in a straight line toward a point in front of the penny until the pencil tip touches the penny. At this point, the pipper is on the target and the length of the pencil represents slant range altitude above the target .If the bomb is released at this point it will hit the target [provided the dive angle and airspeed have been correctly computed and there is no wind]. Note that the nose of the aircraft [your finger tips] is pointed well past the target. This is because you have depressed the sight with a knob in the cockpit.
Now, without moving your arm, rotate your wrist 15-20 degrees to the right and note that the pencil tip no longer touches the penny, but is above the table, pointing at a spot ahead of and to the left of the penny. Now if you back your hand back up the track you just flew down until an extension of the pencil tip is pointing to the penny again [remember the pipper rests on infinity, so in the cockpit the pipper will be on the target]. Roll your hand level and you can see that your hand is actually higher and to the right of the penny: too high usually means too slow; together they mean a short bomb and it will impact to the right of the target because gravity [and wind] are the only forces acting on a dumb bomb once it is released. Often, a dive bomb heading was restricted due to friendlies, terrain, weather or other factors. If so, the number of variables could be reduced [no matter what type of diving delivery was to be made, as we approached the target area, we would increase airspeed to that of the first release, and trim the airplane hands off. It was suppose to help you realize that as you approached the proper bombing speed, no forces were required on the stick]. In order to set up for an attack, one tried to reduce as many unknowns as possible. If, for example, target elevation was sea level, a dive angle of 45 degrees was called for, a pilot would commence his attack from an estimated 10,000 feet out from the target at an altitude of 10,000 feet. The pilot would pick a spot on the ground judged to be about 10,000 feet from the target and fly a ground track along it and plan to make a 90 degree turn to the attack heading. By maintaining a predetermined airspeed and power setting, based on gross weight and air density, prior to the roll in, the airplane's airspeed should be in the ball park at the release point. If the point was actually 10,000 feet from the target, the dive angle would be about 45 degrees. A big problem was judging when to roll in. It was extremely difficult to judge as it had to be led a certain amount. Again, a ballpark crutch was when the target was in the 10 or two o'clock position [the nose of the aircraft was 12 o'clock]. A typical dive bomb run only lasted from three to five seconds so it had to be right the first time. Since the run was so short, most pilots would immediately pickup the pipper as it raced along the ground toward the target. If it didn't look as if the pipper was going to intersect the proper aim point, there was only enough time to make one quick correction [at the same time the pilot was tracking the target, he was also checking dive angle by looking at the attitude indicator; checking air speed building properly by looking at the air speed indicator and watching for the release altitude to come up by looking at the altimeter. To say one could become task saturated is an understatement and I was finally able to understand why the flight surgeons checked your ability to refocus your eyes rapidly]. Circumstances permitting, my roll in technique was to position the target at my 9:30 or 2:30; roll inverted and pull the airplane straight down and then half roll to position the target at the top of my sight combining glass. I could then look down to see what my dive angle was and with the release altitudes memorized, I only had to worry about sight picture and airspeed. My type of roll in was extremely rapid and provided additional time for target tracking.Try this with the pencil and penny: Dive at the table top to the right or left of the penny [remember the pilot is watching the pencil tip]. Oops, says the pilot, I'm not lined up and he banks toward the target. Where does the pencil tip go? In the opposite direction! Inexperienced pilots will continue the bank until the pipper is directly below the target and then roll out. This will put the pipper way over on the other side of the target with no more time to correct. Some pilots get so involved in watching the pipper they don't see how big the ground is getting and fly right into it. This is called "target fixation." It should be called "pipper fixation" or the "terminal idiot maneuver.” Because of the difficulty of correct technique, some pilots would dive in the general direction of the target using the TLAR [that looks about right] method and hoping to "wish" the bombs on target. Rarely did the errors cancel each other out. The FACs usually knew after a pass or two who the professionals were and would transmit "atta boy" when a bomb was properly delivered. If the bomb was off target, depending on the distance and the individual FAC, it was possible to receive an "aw shit." It was generally agreed that one aw shit wiped out 10 atta boys.
As the ARVN retreated like a bat out of hell, we were there to cover their evacuation. The U.S. Army was also there and would risk their lives to extract ARVN wounded. Some of the most disgraceful photographs of the war came out during the ARVN retreat, that of their unwounded soldiers hanging from chopper skids trying to egress the battle area. Not quite as well known are the radio transmissions that were supposed to have taken place between an American chopper pilot, attempting to extract wounded, and an English speaking ARVN soldier on the ground: Chopper: "Do you have any enemy activity in your area?" ARVN: "No, there are no enemy soldiers anywhere." Chopper: "Then why are you whispering?" As the retreat became a rout, our efforts could not sustain the ARVN and about the same time they crossed back into South Viet Nam, my Operations Officer called me in. "Frazier, Wing Training just told me that you haven't attended Jungle School
The jungle school, at Clark Air Base in the Philippines, consisted of a few class room days on how to survive in the jungle followed by a few days in the Filipino jungle actually practicing survival, escape and evasion techniques. I had attended classroom training in the spring of 1967 but had not spent any time in the jungle. A lower back disc had been ruptured for some time and by the time we were trucked to the jungle training area, the pain was so intense, I asked for and received permission to return to base for treatment [later that night three of my classmates were killed in a mud slide]. The disc was removed at the Clark hospital and I went directly to my combat assignment [my first tour at Phan Rang] without finishing the jungle school. My recovery was rapid enough to commence flying combat six weeks to the day after surgery.
"Absolutely correct," I said, "It's time I got over to the school and completed my training." Actually, I had no intention of completing my jungle training. We were all tired from LAM SON 719 and I viewed the chance to get over to the Philippines as some unscheduled R&R [rest and relaxation]. Once there, it would be my intention to visit a flight nurse I had known for several years and see a Flight Surgeon and complain of a bad knee [prior to my present Phan Rang assignment, I had been stationed at Ramstein AB, Germany. Towards the end of my tour there, I had attempted to kick down a door in order to kill a young, boneheaded recce pilot. Fortunately for both of us, the door held but I managed to splinter a small bone in my knee cap]. The knee would give way from time to time and this was an opportunity to get it fixed. Orders were cut and I caught a ride to Cam Rahn Bay, a major port of demarcation/embarkation, with an army Loach helicopter pilot. From there, Continental Airlines dropped me off at Clark AB. My jungle school would start in two or three days so I obtained an appointment with one of the Arthopods at the huge hospital located at Clark. He examined me and found a popliteal cyst, about the size of a small pickle, behind my right knee. After examining the X-rays and finding nothing, he told me that he recommended exploratory surgery. "That's fine doctor," I said, "you'll need to sign the paperwork to get me admitted." "Oh, there's no rush. You go ahead and go on through jungle school and come see me when you're finished." "Ah, that probably wouldn't be too wise, muckluking through the jungle on this bad knee." I began to sweat. "No problem, it's dry out there. You won't have a problem." This guy could see through me like a General Electric X-Ray. So I once again attended the classroom drill and hobbled along behind my other classmates out in the bush. The most interesting parts were that I saw no snakes, an expectation I lived with from minute to minute - and the Negrito tribesmen whom the Air Force hired to track us down during the escape and evasion part of the exercise. The little guys, all of whom said they were personal friends of General MacArthur [no one had told them he had died in 1964], found every one of us no matter how well we thought we were hidden. Returning to Clark from the jungle, I visited the doctor again and he was ready to operate once I showed him my jungle school graduation certificate [have they no sense of integrity?]. The operation was painless and they put me in a room with another major named Paul DeMarco who also had had knee surgery. Between the two of us, we were able to sweet talk a nurse into bringing us a quart of Smirnoff Blue Label vodka with which we were able to get absolutely blitzed. Looking back, I continue to be amazed that no one, other than the nurse, knew we were having the best time of our lives. A few days after the operation, we were visited by a Lieutenant Colonel [LCOL] nurse who was the Patient Affairs representative. During the course of our conversation, Paul asked her how many LCOL nurses were stationed in the hospital. She started to name their names as she counted them off on her fingers. About the forth name she mentioned was LCOL Jean Migliorino. "Jean Migliorino, a psychiatric nurse?" I asked. "Why yes she is, do you know her?" asked the colonel
Seventeen years prior and before attending flying school, I had been a Corpsman on a closed psychiatric ward at Sheppard AFB at Wichita Falls, Texas. Jean Migliorino was one of the nurses for whom I worked. I remembered her clearly because there were 400 of us Corpsmen stationed at Sheppard and each and every one of us was madly in love with Jean Migliorino. She was a small, almost tiny beauty with wide, dark brown eyes, matching hair cut short in a bob and an innocent look that reminded me in later years of Sally Fields. She always wore uniforms so starchily crisp you could hear her coming down the hall from 100 feet away. As a second lieutenant she wasn't much older than most of the Corpsman and we all ached for her to notice us. Once, I had clay sculpted a Neanderthal head on boring night duty and Jean noticed it as she was making her rounds. "What's that?" She asked. "It's the head of a cave man," I responded wondering if she recognized my superior talent [and my longing for her body]. "That's nice," she said hardly slowing down on her rounds. I dissected that conversation over the next few weeks and could find no nuances in what she said that indicated she was the least bit interested in my 18 year old body. Occasionally, over the years, I thought of Jean Migliorino and presumed that she had probably married and had a bunch of screaming kids [Whew, glad I didn't get involved with the woman who didn't know I existed] hanging on to her unstarched, grease splattered dressing gown.
"Jean Migliorino was a nurse on my ward when I was a Medic several years ago. How about telling her I'm here; maybe she'll come visit."
"Right now she's on leave in Hong Kong, but I'll be sure and tell her when she gets back" said the nurse as she left our room. The nurse never returned and in two days both Paul and I were declared ambulatory. We immediately headed for the Bachelors Officers Quarters [BOQ], located in a high rise building [eight floors], called the "White Elephant," near the Officers Club. The BOQ had gone through more than one earthquake and it was possible to see the structural faults climbing the exterior walls like ivy. The BOQ featured a small night club and Paul and I sat around swilling Filipino San Miguel beer. As afternoon slipped into evening and we had not seen any familiar faces [my flight nurse friend was away on a med-evac trip], I said to Paul, "Lets go check and see if Jean Migliorino is in her quarters." We went to the front desk and were told by the concierge that she had just returned and since her key wasn't in its container, she was probably in her room. He told us her room number and we took the elevator to the seventh floor. Jean opened the door at our pounding and my first impression was that the years had been extremely kind to her. Maybe a pound or two heavier, but very trim and her face still held the unlined beauty I remembered. "Bet you don't know who I am," I slurred.
"I've never seen you before in my life," she smiled.
"You were one of my ward nurses at Sheppard some years ago."
"Actually, I've been expecting you. My friend told me you were in the hospital and when I called your ward, they told me you were out on pass. Won't you come in?" We sat around for an hour or so, drinking beer and reminiscing about Sheppard. Our views were so totally different on the assignment, that it was impossible to find any common ground. Paul and I were having trouble putting complete sentences together, so Jean called us a cab with the promise of getting together again. During the next few days, Paul and I attended physical therapy and in the evening, I would get together with Jean or my flight nurse friend. Paul, happily married, was not interested in obtaining a date.
One day I was called to the ward phone and a member of my squadron had gotten through to tell me that Mike McGovern, one of our pilots, had been killed during an ejection attempt from his crippled fighter. Mike was always singing his favorite song about a big black dog and the squadron wanted me to find a big black dog to serve as a mascot in memory of Mike. I looked around and found a family with AKC black German Sheppard puppies for sale. The males were $50.00, an expensive price in 1971, but I purchased a dog. Since I felt I had picked the absolute best one in the litter, I didn't want to leave the dog with the family and run the risk of them exchanging my dog for one of poorer quality, so I took the dog to Jean and asked her to keep him for me. She agreed to do it, but it was clear that she didn't like the idea as pets were forbidden in the BOQ [my good friend, "Ziggy," a wire haired dachshund, lived in my Ramstein BOQ and would often come to my quarters for a visit. If inspectors were in the area, the maids would hide Ziggy. One of the schoolteachers kept a poodle and I assumed the maids hid her dog as well]. Evidently the maids at Clark did not extend the courtesy, so Jean would have to watch the dog carefully; feeding and cleaning up after him. I told Jean it would only be for a day or two maximum as I was due to be released from the hospital in short order. The one or two days turned out to be a week and by the time I was released from the hospital, the relationship between Jean and me had deteriorated significantly.
A.D. Sexton, an old friend, and commander of the Aircraft Delivery Group at Clark, turned his back for me to smuggle the dog into Phan Rang on a AC-119 gun ship [it was illegal to import dogs to Viet Nam].The only catch was that I had to ride back on the same airplane. The flight was interminably long but the dog, sedated with Dramamine supplied by Jean, slept through the incredible racket, wallowing and shuddering without a whimper. The aircraft commander radioed ahead and most of the squadron was on the tarmac to greet me as we shut down. I was surprised to see one of the guys holding a Vietnamese type puppy. "What's with the dog?" I asked, "I've got the mascot with me."
"Not a problem" I was told, "we're going to have two mascots. Pete and Pussy." They had already named the dog I brought over "Pete." As it turned out, there was a problem. Our squadron was on a 24-hour schedule and pilots arising in the middle of the night found themselves stepping in dog shit [both dogs had the run of our building] and because I was the one who brought Pete from the Philippines, it was to me the pilots bitched. My standard answer was "I was just the messenger, don't shoot me." It didn't seem to matter because the guys still came to me to complain. Finally, I called a meeting and said, " Several of you guys are bitching at me because the dogs aren't house broken. I purchased Pete and brought him here at your request and no one has offered to pay me back the $50.00 the dog cost me. So, as of right now, Pete is no longer a squadron mascot; he's my dog and I'll keep him in my room. Any shit in the hallway will be Pussy's and I don't want any of you coming to me about her." What I didn't say was that I had the promise of three squadron dog lovers who would help me care for and housebreak Pete. Since I was a fairly senior major and was talking to other majors and more junior officers, there were no objections. With the help of the three other pilots, we were able to housebreak Pete in minimum time. He could be left alone for several hours at a stretch and was no bother except for the time one of the Base Flight C-47 pilots brought me back two large Sansui SP-3500 speakers from Hong Kong. Once unwrapped, Pete commenced to chew on the wooden grill of one of the speakers. That was 24 years ago at this writing and I still have the speakers and am reminded of Pete every time I look at the speaker with his chew marks. No dog food was available, so Pete ate what I ate. In the evenings, there usually was a load of pilots headed for the Officers Club for dinner. Since, as Chief of the Command Post, I had use of a vehicle, I would let the guys use it in return for bringing me a dinner order. Many nights Pete and I dined on fried chicken, about the only food the club offered that was edible.
A few weeks after Pete's introduction to the Squadron, I was scheduled for R&R. I flew to Bangkok to meet a teacher friend and when she didn't show, I flew up to Hong Kong. But while in Bangkok, I met three Air America pilots who were with a group that included several airline stewardesses from the U.S. I attached myself to the group for as long as the stewardesses were there.
Once in Hong Kong, I turned on my bar stool and there was one of the Air America guys. There were several school teachers in Hong Kong whom I knew, so after introductions, we made the usual rounds of floating restaurants and hotel bars.
The school teachers were employed by the Department of Defense and stationed around the world at various military posts and Embassies to teach the dependent children of active duty military and diplomatic corps members. In those days, almost all of the teachers were hired in the states and then stationed overseas. The requirements were a teaching certificate, two years experience and an opening. Although many dependent wives held teaching certificates and were already in place, the government seemed to prefer hiring from the states. This was fine with me because almost all of them were young, unattached and had a flair for adventure. In fact, given a three-day weekend, teachers who were stationed in Germany could be found in the Orient sleeping several to a room; sometimes in the bathtub to save expenses.
Two days in Hong Kong were about all I could handle so I flew back to Bangkok for the final two days of my leave. The Siam Inter-Continental hotel was my favorite and I always stayed there if they had room. I had been staying there prior to my trip to Hong Kong and was able to obtain a room on my return. That evening as I turned on my bar stool in the hotel's night club, there, once again, was the Air America guy.
The Air America pilot's name escapes me If I were to look through the pocket calendars that I have been carrying since 1968 I know that his name would be in there. But, I don't believe the guy ever gave me his correct name because no other Air America guy, on other occasions, ever heard of him. There was no doubt that he was working for Air America as when I first met him, his group contained two pilots I knew worked for Air America [since I knew their names, a discussion of a.k.as never came up]. The encounters in Hong Kong and then again in Bangkok must be charged off to synchronicity. I returned to Southeast Asia for two more tours and ran into him each time-always at the Siam Inter- Continental hotel.
The last encounter was at my home in Boise, Idaho, when I was stationed at Mountain Home AFB and married. He just showed up one day and my wife and I fixed him up with a date and he stayed around for a couple of days and said he was headed for Sun Valley. We never saw him again. A couple of years ago, there was a movie titled "Air America" and starred Mel Gibson. According to the movie, Air America pilots were crazy, rolled their eyes a lot and did dumb things with airplanes. While I agree they were a crazy bunch, they certainly were not crazy in any zany or carefree manner as Mel Gibson suggested. They were a brutal, clever and sophisticated closed society who flew into hazardous and remote places [I suspect some flew into North Viet Nam on a regular basis]. Air America pilots were not supposed to pick up downed military pilots but they always would, if they could.
An Air America pilot who hung around Phan Rang from time to time told me that they were not issued survival radios. We were required to carry at least one survival radio in our survival vests every time we flew and considered them sine qua non. As a collector of pilot wings, I traded the pilot a survival radio, given to me by our Personnel Equipment section, for a set of Air America wings. The Personal Equipment Technician included enough batteries that the radio is probably still operational.
When it came time to leave Bangkok, there were no military flights into either Saigon or Cam Ranh Bay, so I hopped an Air Siam 727 into Saigon's Tan Son Nhut Airport. Since I was on a civilian flight, it was necessary to clear customs. The custom's shed was a low tin roofed building with pumice block sides. Other than a few closed off offices, the entire building was one large stifling room with a few rows of tables on which to put luggage. Since I was seated near the front of the airplane and one of the first into the shed and since American customs agents never looked through my luggage, I expected to be out of the blistering building in short order. It surprised me when one of the uniformed custom agents began to open my bags [we called the police "white mice" because of their white uniforms; the custom agents were dressed identically and were probably Saigon policemen]. When the agent came to my shaving kit, he unzipped it and I could see a look of surprise come over his face.
Back in my smoking days, I brushed my teeth with baking soda. Since the cardboard containers did not hold up in the high humidity of SEA, I had been using a Planter's peanut can with the yellow plastic top. My supply of baking soda had run out some months before and I had complained to a school teacher friend, Nancy "Bird" Bishop, who sent me enough American baking soda from Germany to last the entire year.
The look on the face of the white mouse clearly asked, "why does this shifty looking Caucasian have a can of peanuts in his shaving kit?"
He popped off the lid, saw the white power and I knew I was in deep trouble. He wet his finger and dipped it into the baking soda and tasted it [the entire time, I was frantically making tooth brushing motions]. Barely perceptibly, I saw him nod his head as if to say to himself, "this is a taste I recognize, probably from dope smuggling school."
"Oh shit, you dumb sonuvabitch," I yelled, "of course you recognize it, it's baking soda!!"
Paying no attention to me [he spoke no English; I spoke no Vietnamese], the mouse commenced to shout, which must have been something like, "I've captured one!" All the other white mice, about 10 or 12, left their inspection stations and surrounded my baking soda can; dipping their fingers into my toothpaste and tasted it, tested it, chatting excitedly. From time to time they would look menacingly in my direction and adjust the pistols at their hips as if to say, "run for it and you're dead." The other passengers, all Asians, started to yell, unappreciative of the fact that they had been left standing in the hot stinking building with their baggage yet to be checked or scattered on the inspection tables. The mice ignored them and took up a position facing me; watching me; calculating how much of a bonus would be theirs if they were the one to shoot me down. My peanut can had disappeared and I began to contemplate life in a Saigon prison. After about 15 minutes, an older Chinese gentleman, dressed in a t-shirt, suit coat, slacks and slippers flopped his way through the phalanx of mice with my peanut can in his hand. he spoke sharply to the mice who returned to their screaming clients; commanded something of my inspector [I'm sure it was, "you idiot, get that guy out of here."], handed me my peanut can with what might have been an apology and shuffled off.
With my bags flying, I ran from the building to a taxi stand. Usually, in Saigon, the price of the ride was agreed upon before you entered the vehicle. Ignoring protocol, I shouted for the cabby to take me to the military terminal and dove into the rear seat. It wasn't the white mice that concerned me; they had been cowed by the Chinese honcho. I'd just left about 100 really pissed off passengers in the customs shed and I certainly didn't need another confrontation.
Getting an in-country ride to Phan Rang took only a few minutes. AC-123K "Ranch Hand" spray plane crew were preflighting their airplane and agreed to give me a lift. The Ranch Hands sprayed the defoliant, "Agent Orange," over selected jungle areas and we escorted them on their missions.
Much has been written about the health hazard of Agent Orange. Personally, I think it is a swindle brought about by whining veterans looking for a free hand out. If Agent Orange was a health hazard, the investigators should have concentrated on the health of the crews who mixed up the defoliant, poured it into the containers in their airplanes and then sprayed it over jungle areas where no Americans were known to be. The Ranch Hand mission was a dangerous one because their defoliant was meant to open up the jungle where the Viet Cong were either known or suspected to be. They took many hits and some of the hits would break the lines carrying the spray to the under-wing spray bars. A crewmember would have to crawl out of the steel protective box where he rode during the actual spray and repair or patch up the line, often getting soaked in the stuff. The Ranch Hand crews were never quite rid of the smell; they reeked of the stuff when they were in the club. Years later, spraying pecan trees, the smell came back to me as the active ingredient in pecan spray is the same as Agent Orange; pecan spray just didn't come in an orange barrel, which is where Agent Orange got its name.
When the Ranch Hands commenced their four ship echelon spray runs, we, in our F-100s, would set up a pattern parallel to their heading, alternating sides. We usually used three fighters and would set the pattern to have an airplane flying by them, at their altitude during the entire spray. If the C-123s took fire, a crewman would throw a smoke grenade overboard and we would come back and bomb the area one kilometer behind the smoke. Since this was one of the few missions where we were cleared to expend ordnance without a FAC, one could be sure no friendlies were in the area. The jungle was three tiered. The top layer of trees reached almost 300 feet above the jungle floor and usually was so thick it was impossible to see the ground. I've flown over defoliated areas and noticed that about a week after spraying, the top layer of leaves turned brown and stayed that way for another week or two. A month after spraying, it was impossible to tell the sprayed area from virgin forest.
The Ranch Hands and trash haulers [cargo airplanes] were using the south side of Phan Rang while those of us in the F-100 were assigned the north part of the base, so once again, I had the aircraft commander call ahead so that I could be met. Since I dropped by my command post first, I didn't get back to the hootch [living quarters] until late afternoon. Pete had been staying with a lieutenant in the room across from mine. When he handed Pete to me, he pointed out a scratch on his muzzle and said he had no idea how he got it; that the scratch hadn't been there the day before. We both agreed that Pussy probably took as swipe at him when the lieutenant wasn't looking. I was exhausted from the day's customs activities, so I asked one of the pilots headed for the club to bring me a double order of chicken. When it arrived, I filleted half of it for Pete and we had our dinner and listened to my stereo.
After a troubled night rehashing the day's events, I awoke early and took Pete to the command post with me. It was his third month's birthday and since rabies was so rampant in SEA, any dogs kept by military members had to be vaccinated on that birthday. All stray dogs were shot on sight. Pete was also working his jaw like a chicken bone might have been lodged in his throat and since Phan Rang had a veterinarian, I wanted him to check it out.
Veterinarians on military bases were a powerful force. While they would check small animals, give them shots, prescribe and dispense medicines, the main function of the vet on military installations was to supervise and inspect any and all food handling operations [some years before, while stationed at Misawa Air Base on Northern Honshu, in Japan, I came into possession of a hog. I hired a Japanese farmer to raise it for me, intending to serve the hog up at some function. When it came time to butcher the hog, I approached the base veterinarian for permission to have the farmer do the butchering as the Officers Club had agreed to cook it for me. The vet fixed me with a cold eye and said, "if you have the farmer butcher the hog, I'll have you put in jail." Japanese butchering facilities did not measure up to American veterinarians' health standards. The hog was dispatched by one of the squadron pilots, Russ Violett, who because of his Montana ranch upbringing, was also able to prepare the critter for roasting].
While waiting for the vet to open his office, the duty photographer, who came by the command post each morning and photographed the flying status boards for permanent record, took a picture of Pete for me [see attachment 3]. The vet examined Pete and said it looked like he might have contracted strep throat and gave me some pills to administer to him. Because of the possibility of strep throat, the vet wanted to hold off a few days on the rabies shots. I took Pete back to the hootch and put him in my room with cheese and water. No one locked their rooms and I knew if anyone wanted to play with Pete, they would come in and get him. Later in the morning, one of the squadron pilots dropped by and told me Pete wasn't acting "right," so at noon I went by the hootch to give Pete his pills and found him still working his jaw and, somehow, looking emaciated. I stuffed a couple of pills down his throat and left him in my room. I called the vet after I returned to the command post. "If its rabies you're worried about, don't be," said the vet, "he's too young to catch it. Bring him by again in the morning and we'll have another look." When I returned to the hootch that evening, several of the guys had Pete in the communal area trying to get him to drink some water. He did not look well at all. His back was humped up and he kept slinging his head around like he was trying to bite himself on the back. His coat was distinctively lusterless and his mouth seemed to be locked open slightly. I reassured the guys that Pete didn't have rabies and would take him back to the vet the next morning.
During the night, Pete deteriorated rapidly.
There was a Vet Tech on duty early the next morning before the vet arrived, so I dropped Pete off and went to the command post. When my duties allowed at about 0900, I walked over to the vet's office to check on Pete. "The vet's not here," answered a Vet Tech, "he's over at the hospital getting his rabies shots."
"Rabies shots?" I asked, "because of Pete?"
"Yes sir, there's about a 95% chance the dog has rabies."
Pete was in a cage outside. It was already hot and he had no water. I told the Vet Tech to get him some and he said, "no sir, the Vet left instructions to stay away from him."
"Well, can't you do something to make him more comfortable?" Pete was howling, growling and crying.
"No sir, if he has rabies, he needs to die from it. We get a better autopsy reading that way."
Still not believing Pete had rabies, I walked over to the hospital and all my doubts were eliminated. The vet was huddled in a corner outside the immunization room, white as new linen, visibly shaking. "That goddamned dog has rabies, have you touched him?"
"Well, yeah doc, I've been stuffing those pills down his throat like you told me to."
"Let me see your hands," he commanded. He peered closely at my palms and turned them over and searched the backs; "not even a hangnail."
"That's good isn't it?" I asked.
"Yes, the rabies virus needs an opening to attack your system. That doesn't mean you're out of the woods though." I noticed he had a few healing scratch marks on the back of his hands and fingers. About that time, the hospital commander came out of the immunization room with a large needle and a small bottle of clear fluid.
"We got another one?"
"It's my dog." I answered, the impact finally reaching me.
"Did anyone else have contact with the dog?"
"Several guys in the squadron. And I think he was running loose for part of yesterday."
Now the hospital commander turned white. "Oh shit," he murmured and life in a Saigon prison began to look like an attractive alternative. "OK, get everyone who had contact with the dog, and I mean everyone, down here as soon as possible. I'll get you two started on the shots right away."
In 1971, rabies shots were given for two weeks daily in the stomach cavity with a duck embryo. Every time I read about some poor soul having to take the shots, they were invariably referred to as "painful rabies shots." The initial shot was painless, because I had other things on my mind: since I was Chief of the Command Post, as the hospital commander was aware, it would be my duty to inform the Wing Commander of the rabies crisis as well as rounding up the people who had contact with the dog.
The Wing Commander, Colonel Greg Nolen, was an acquaintance from my Misawa days and we had an excellent working relationship. Although I wasn't sure, he probably was aware that I smuggled Pete in from the Philippines but had never said anything about it. The Security Police had German Sheppards, but around the hootch, Pete was a novelty and Wing Commanders never miss much. Now I would not only have to tell him about the rabies, he was sure to nail me to the cross for smuggling [as it turned out, he never once mentioned it. I'm convinced he assumed I had enough problems].
Once one started on the rabies series, it was necessary to complete the entire two-week program without a break; this meant that pilots could not fly combat missions as a shoot down would very likely interrupt the series.
Additionally, taking the shots may well have resulted in physiological implications that I was unaware of. Most of our pilots had volunteered to come half way around the world to fly combat and with very few exceptions did not receive the grounding news enthusiastically [rumor had it that one - possibly two pilots who had no contact with Pete claimed that they did]. The hospital commander convened a rabies board to track those of us who were taking the shots. All of this had occurred in the first 48 hours after my return from Bangkok but potential victims had already slipped away on R & R, returned to the States or were off base for one reason or another. All had to be located and asked if any had contact with Pete. None did [movies and TV gave most of us our introduction to rabies, i.e., the maiden trapped in a corner and a huge wolf-like creature slowly approaches her growling and slobbering. Pete never attempted to bite anyone, but he was slinging saliva around and it is in the saliva where the rabies virus thrives. Contact with the saliva made one a potential candidate for the incurable disease].
Twenty-three of us received the shots. Every day we would line up at the hospital, receive our bottle of duck embryo, and when our turn came, go into the immunization room, lie on a table and receive the shot. One of the shootees came out of the room one day and announced that the shot didn't hurt. We all gathered around him and asked what he did that was different. It was finally narrowed down to his rolling the embryo ottle back and forth in his palms. It was only a short step to figure out that heating the embryo prevented the pain. We also found out that certain parts of the area around the navel were not as sensitive as others and we would take the shots in the less sensitive parts [it was obvious that the hospital commander would write a paper on the subject and I've often wondered why the general public was never made aware of how to preclude the pain if going through the series was necessary].
At the time, it was the second largest mass inoculation for rabies in history. The largest was an Afghan camel caravan attacked by a pack of mad dogs. The caravan was several days from medical help and had no communication with the outside world.
According to the hospital commander, several members of the caravan died. None of us did, although due to our high risk potential, one other fellow and I had to take additional shots up and down the arms, from finger joints to shoulder joints. Both of us contracted serum sickness and spent a few days in the hospital. During my stay, I developed migratory arthritis and thought I was dead [by coincidence, the fellow in the hospital with me, our assistant aircraft maintenance officer, and I received the same follow-on assignment to Mountain Home AFB. Whenever he saw me at that station, he went the other direction].
Pete died the same day as we received our first shots. His head was cut off and the vet packed it in ice and brought it to the command post for shipment to Long Binh where a final determination could be made on the cause of death. I had the control tower broadcast in the blind for any airplane available for courier duty to the Saigon area to give us a call. A C-130, flying through our area, dropped in and I took the head to the aircraft commander.
The call came in at about 2300 confirming what the vet and hospital commander already knew. Pete had died of rabies. When I returned to the hootch, the pilots told me that the Security Police had come through the hootch area and shot all the dogs. The dogs were all squadron mascots and all had had their rabies shots.
Whenever I see someone from that duty tour in Viet Nam, the subject of "Pete the Pooch" always comes up. Except to the maintenance officer and to me, the reminisce takes on a humorous aspect. Even Col. Nolen harbored no ill will and asked me to accompany him to his next assignment at Ramstein [having an F-111 assignment, I declined].
Most of the 23 were pilots and because we couldn't fly, it fell to our comrades to fly combat missions for us. Fortunately, no one was lost during the two weeks of shots.
Who could have ever guessed that baking soda and rabies would result in two separate crises 48 hours apart?
They were unusual experiences that will stay with me for several more years.
Back to the list
You need to be signed in to like or leave and read other users comments. Sign in here.