"Trash Hauler Mountain"

Category: "Viet Nam"
Les Gar Frazier on Jan. 9, 2021

The multi-engine C-123K cargo plane disappeared into the clouds almost as soon as it passed the end of Phan Rang's 9500 foot runway. The pilot, in an effort to avoid small arms fire, climbed as steeply as a full passenger load would permit. The surface wind, 15 gusting to 20 knots out of the northeast, assisted the climb, but the pilot, if he were smart, would probably level off at a couple of thousand feet, if cloud tops permitted, as he was only going 26 miles up the Vietnamese coast to Cam Ranh Bay. I had just said goodbye to three of my Wing's fighter pilots who were on their way to Cam Ranh to catch the Freedom Bird back to the world, their one-year combat tour completed; headed back to the wonderful land of round eyes and round doorknobs to new assignments.

One could almost see Cam Ranh from Phan Rang. A deep saddleback in the mountain chain between the two bases provided a low level, direct shot onto their runway. Unfortunately, with the low clouds and the pass obscured, the C-123 pilot would probably edge out to the South China Sea and approach Cam Ranh from the east, over water. The over water approach would add a few minutes to the flight time, but a prudent course of action, considering the trees and dirt lurking in the fast moving, dirty gray scud and stratus piled up between the two bases.

Ten minutes later, when I arrived at my duty location as Chief of the Command Post, my Officer Controller, Lieutenant Steve McLean, told me that Cam Ranh Radar had just called Phan Rang Radar and told them that the C-123 had disappeared from their scope. Since the C-123 wasn't under Cam Ranh's control, having canceled his instrument flight plan, they weren't unduly worried, but were wondering if our people had any contact. The heat and high humidity of Southeast Asia could play dirty tricks on sensitive electronic gear so Cam Ranh's request for information was almost, but not quite, routine.

It only took a few minutes to ascertain that no one in central Viet Nam had any contact with the bird and that he was not responding to any radio calls on normal or emergency frequencies. Only one other base, Nha Trang, was close enough for the C-123 to have landed, and no one there had had any contact with him. Phan Rang tower then called us in the Command Post, telling us, in their best judgment, it looked like the bird was down and recommended that SAR (search and rescue) efforts be initiated. I concurred and Steve called the Joint Rescue Coordination Center (JRCC) at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, located just outside of Saigon, and gave them what little information we had on the missing airplane's flight plan; it's crew, passengers and cargo. Classically, our responsibilities to Higher Headquarters ended there as JRCC had the overall authority and resources to conduct the SAR effort. But since three of our own fighter pilots were on board the missing aircraft, along with twenty-seven other Americans, Lt. Steve McLean wasn't going to let go, not by along shot, he wasn't going to let it lie.

The Fighter Wing Command Post was the commander's focal point for all base activities: if a vehicle had an accident, the CP was notified; if one of the 5,000 or so Air Force personnel on the base had an emergency back home, the CP was notified. All pertinent information, from whatever the source and whatever the nature, was massaged by CP personnel and passed to interested agencies, and if appropriate, passed on to the commander for his action. In addition, command post personnel monitored and controlled all F-100 fighter operations: checking ordnance loads, tail numbers, mission numbers, target locations and crew numbers. If ordnance loads matched the proper target and airplane number, the airplane number was passed to the squadron prior to mission briefing. If it did not, the CP personnel coordinated with the strike planners and maintenance schedulers to find an airplane with suitable ordnance for the target.

Prior to taxi, flight crews checked in with the CP for any changes on mission data and for taxi clearance. When returning from missions and while still airborne, flight leaders called the CP with RTB (return to base) information, including aircraft status and mission success codes. We, in turn, transmitted our local weather, alert status and gave them a refueling spot for shut down.

Eight pilots, two from each squadron, stood five minute alert 24 hours a day. Their F-100's uploaded with a variety of weapons to support ground troops in almost any kind of weather. The CP personnel were responsible for launching the birds and providing them with initial vectors and target information obtained from the TACC (Tactical Air Control Center) also located at Tan Son Nhut. All take off and landing times were posted on large, thick, back lighted, transparent plastic status boards that faced the CP duty controller's radio/telephone consoles in the dimly illuminated CP. A myriad of pilot/aircraft/ordnance information was contained in the grease penciled colors of the four different F-100 squadrons and the Australian Number 2 Squadron, flying English Electric Canberras, who were supposed to operate under operational control of our Higher Headquarters, 7th Air Force. Actually, the Aussies operated in whatever manner suited them best. If it was convenient for them, they subscribed to the U.S Rules of Engagement. If not, they made up their own loose rules and applied them as long as it did not interfere with their desire to make the war as much fun as possible.

Direct telephone lines connected the CP with TACC and with several DASC's (Direct Air Support Centers). The TACC line was our link to Higher headquarters and could, if necessary, put us in contact with CINCMACV (Commander in Chief, Military Assistance Command, Viet Nam) or our higher headquarters commander: 7th Air Force Commander. Our primary use of this line was to coordinate preplanned air strikes or receive the scramble instructions for the alert birds from TACC. Occasionally the DASC would request an air strike and call us direct if time were critical, but usually they would go through TACC to preclude the punishment for using initiative-the result of the air war being run from the Oval Office, as it were.

Direct lines also attached us to our local commander, fighter squadrons, hospital, fire station, Disaster Control and the Control Tower. Other regular rotary dial telephones were used for routine inter-base communications. Each Duty Controller had his own UHF radio, mounted in the console, to communicate with aircraft. A red covered switch activated a base siren system in case of attack. The control tower had a duplicate switch and were usually the ones to signal an attack due to their commanding view of the surrounding terrain. Not that the Viet Cong were constantly attacking, but they would throw in an occasional rocket or mortar just to harass us. I'm not sure we were really harassed; when a rocket/mortar would impact, everyone would rush outside at the sound of the explosion or siren and find high ground to observe the action. My squadron used the roof of our sandbagged bunker, located just outside the main door to our hooch (living quarters), to find the telltale smoke and dust cloud of the explosion. As far as I know, no one ever used the bunker for shelter; we all thought there were snakes in the thing. The attacks provided some excitement and something to write home about and rarely killed anyone.

A shift was comprised of one officer and two enlisted duty controllers working eight-hour cycles. Only those enlisted men with a large intellectual capacity and gusto were picked for CP duty while, classically and oddly enough, the Officer Controllers were drawn, on a temporary basis, from the sick, lame and lazy. Fortunately, at Phan Rang, the Commander let me pick, within a few guidelines, my Officer Controllers. And I only picked the brightest and most energetic. All the young fighter pilots I selected for a three-month tour bitched, moaned and dragged their feet toward their first duty day, but secretly, I suspected they were pleased, in a fashion, for they all knew I took no dipshits. Steve McLean was one of my selectees; an earnest, but quiet young pilot with good hands. He came to Phan Rang directly out of Fighter-Gunnery school. He was of average height with regular features, brown eyes and matching brown hair already beginning to thin although he couldn't have been more than 25 or 26 years old.

In addition to the Duty Controllers, I had a senior non-commissioned officer as my assistant and an administrative clerk. We could all act as controllers, if needed.

After Steve had reported the missing C-123 to Higher Headquarters, he and his two enlisted controllers ran the local checklist entitled "SUSPECTED DOWNED AIRCRAFT, OTHER UNITS." Ordinarily, his checklist action completed both his local and higher headquarters responsibilities in connection with the missing aircraft, but as I said, Steve wouldn't let it lie. When F-100's or Canberras would check in, he would ask them to keep a look out and a listen up for the bird, telling them that if the plane was down, it was probably down on the mountain northeast of the base, between Phan Rang and Cam Ranh Bay.

After an hour or so, the solid overcast began to break up and I went outside to look at the mountain. The CP was located at one end of the ground floor of the Wing headquarters building and had no windows; three sides having been constructed of one foot thick, rebarred concrete with two foot thick sandbags stacked ten feet high exterior to the walls. I could see the base of the mountain and the pass that led to Cam Ranh, but the mountain itself was shrouded in thick stratus layers, obscuring the peak. Three or four aircraft were circling the general area, but the distance was too great to tell the type. I went back into the headquarters building, found a set of binoculars, and identified the circling aircraft as F-100's. Probably guys responding to Steve's request. It was the first of many times in the next five days that I and several thousand other people would look at that fucking mountain.

At around noon, the C-123 was declared officially missing and Steve and his crew ran the appropriate checklist. Phan Rang was a large base, located littoral to the South China Sea, about half way between the southern tip of South Viet Nam and the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone; the northern boundary of South Viet Nam at the seventeenth parallel). The local Vietnamese called the area Happy Valley although it really wasn't a valley, lying on the coastal plain where Central Highlands dribbled out into rice paddies, scrub brush and, surprisingly, cactus.

The 35th Tactical Fighter Wing, flying the F-100, was the host unit, but several other units were headquartered there as well. In addition to the Aussie Canberra squadron, there was a wing of C-123's (Trash Haulers) who hauled in country cargo and also had a "Ranch Hand" contingent: the group who sprayed Agent Orange defoliant on the jungle to expose known or suspected Viet Cong base camps (the missing C-123 did not belong to the Phan Rang unit). A Forward Air Controller (FAC) training school was also located at Phan Rang, flying the venerable O1-E "Birddog." An Army unit, whose function I had never bothered to learn, had replaced the 101st Airborne Division, which had been headquartered there back in '67 when I had served a previous F-100 tour at the base. The Army unit, as far as I was concerned, were a bunch of weak dicked pot heads and couldn't shovel the shit of a 101st Airborne trooper; those Screaming Eagles had been the biggest, toughest, meanest, cleverest and most devious fighting men in country. The Army also had a company of UH-1E "Huey" rescue/evacuation helicopters known universally as "Dustoff." Any relationship between the Dustoff people and the other army unit was never acknowledged. Finally, Phan Rang had the Republic of Korea's (ROK) Tiger Division. Volunteers from that tiny, impoverished nation paid American wages by American taxpayers. The ROK's were responsible for the base security exterior to the hurricane fence surrounding the base -- no man's land which extended up to but did not include the jungle mountain where the C-123 was presumed down -- fast becoming known as "Trash Hauler Mountain" as news of the missing bird spread.

The ROK's performed their security function with brutal vigor. If a rocket or mortar round landed on base, the civil engineers, using the crater, template and known ballistics could trace back to the launch point with a high degree of accuracy. With launch site coordinates, the ROK's would go out, usually find the site, destroy the equipment, which was almost always rigged to fire with a water weight system, and then decimate the village closest to the launch site. Therefore, it didn't matter what the political persuasions of Happy Valley residents might have been, the Viet Cong were not welcome in the Phan Rang neighborhood.

The ROKs also maintained hardened bunkers exterior to the fence as a first line of defense in case of mass assault. During boring night duty, the ROKs would occasionally shoot at planes taking off or landing. Since no one was ever able to convince the troopers that pilots did not appreciate their target practice, they were issued tracer ammunition so that, at least, we could tell we were being shot at by friendlies.

By late afternoon Steve had contacted all of the flying units at Phan Rang, discussed the situation with the senior supervisor on duty and extracted their promise to look over the mountain, weather and mission permitting. Steve had also installed a 1:250,000 scale sectional chart of Trash Hauler Mountain behind his console and was beginning to color in bits and pieces of the mountain which had become visible; had been inspected by an aircraft without success and called back into Steve by the crews. When Steve's shift was over, rather than returning to his quarters, he began to devote full time to calling up flying units from other bases and getting their promise to come over and examine the mountain, if mission requirements allowed.

When I arrived for duty the following morning, well before sunrise, Steve was still there. He had a tall, young raw-boned Dustoff pilot in the CP, whom he introduced as "Dustoff 88." Dustoff 88 had formed up a volunteer crew of four and they were headed for Trash Hauler Mountain at first light. Steve was briefing the chopper pilot on the most likely search areas although the weather was still maximum dogshit. Dustoff 88 was his company's maintenance officer, and because of his position, knew which Hueys were in-commission and available for search. Later, I found out that he was actually stealing airplanes for the search mission and turning away non-aircrew volunteers because he had so many. In the military, one can always find someone to volunteer for the dirtiest, most hazardous tasks imaginable and no one, as far as I remember, thought it unusual that these untrained volunteers would strap on a flimsy, unarmed rotary wing aircraft and launch into desperate weather over hostile terrain to look for people none had ever met. It must have been a terrifying experience for them because I knew professionals in the rescue business, the Jolly Green chopper crews, the Sandy search and ground-fire suppression pilots, the base rescue HH-43 chopper crews and they made no bones about the scared-shitless syndrome they lived with on many rescue missions. All SEA fighter pilots were aware of the huge set of balls the rescue professionals carried around and it was common custom that they drank free in a fighter pilot bar; the definitive courtesy.

As dawn broke on that second day, I was outside to look at the mountain. It was still shrouded in cloud and gave off a distinctive mocking air. With the binoculars, I could pick out an occasional aircraft searching the area. Near my observation position, in front of Wing Headquarters, I could see groups of men, huddled around, talking in low tones, smoking, scratching, and pointing or staring at the mountain.

During the day, the stratus layers would shift, giving searchers brief but unproductive glimpses of the slopes, but the summit remained hidden, as the clouds capping the peak never moved; dirty gray, heavy and full of menace. The routine operation of the CP continued, and without my permission, the other officer duty controllers had initiated a schedule that would leave Steve more time to coordinate his rescue effort. As long as I had crews performing their duties properly, I could have cared less about how the controllers swapped out schedules. From time to time, the commander or other command personnel would drop in to observe or ask about our unit's combat mission performance, but no one seemed to notice Steve and since he was, in effect, running his rescue effort on his own time, I never thought to mention it to the commander.

Air activity increased around Trash Hauler Mountain in the afternoon of that second day although there was no way of telling which search birds were from Steve's efforts or which were birds fragged for the mission out of JRCC at Tan Son Nhut. Steve was able to color in some more small sections of his map, but the one large area having no color was the peak itself-which became more and more our suspected crash site.

Dustoff 88, haggard and gaunt, dropped by the CP that evening and told Steve that his crew hadn't found anything; that the clouds were so thick that they had to hover up the mountain slope with two men leaning out the side doors, left and right, calling out trees. Eighty-eight, his copilot and one other man kept watch forward, literally scaling a portion of the mountain side until they ran out of guts in the thick fog, and then, with the visibility too low to permit a turn, they would then back down the mountain side into sunlight, shift over an estimated 40 or 50 feet and assault the son-of-a-bitch again. Refueling was accomplished at Nha Trang, so the Company Commander could not take his airplane away from him.

By the morning of the third day, Steve had appropriated a controller console for himself and the daily routine of the CP went on around and without him. I had not reported for CP duty as I was flying a mid-tour check ride with one of the pilots and had gone directly to the squadron for the early morning mission. After completing the mission, which was to haul four each 750 pound iron bombs up to Laos and dump them on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, I broke off number three, in the flight of three and chased the leader, to whom I was giving the check ride through an instrument penetration and ground controlled approach. On short final, I broke off my approach, watched the leader land and flew directly over to Trash Hauler Mountain. Like the previous two days, ragged clouds pressed down against the huge trees comprising the jungle canopy, and seeing nothing but a couple other airplanes searching the area, I returned to Phan Rang, landed, debriefed the mission and returned to the Command Post. Someone had set up a cot, in the corner, back of my desk and Steve had gotten some sleep during the night. He had shaved and put on a clean flight suit and was busy at his phones and radio. I asked him how it was going and he told me that volunteer response had been so great that he would beholding a meeting in the squadron hooch that evening to discuss tactics if the C-123 hadn't been found in the meanwhile. Steve's part in the rescue effort had come about so easily and naturally, it had not occurred to me that his involvement had become his holy grail. Nor did it occur to me that his efforts were illegal and without precedence.

At about 1730, one of the duty controllers told me the wing commander wanted to talk to me on the phone. "Frazier, what's this I hear about you running a private rescue effort in my command post?" Thunderstruck, only then did I realize that I had been allowing Steve to pursue a course of action that was totally in violation of all regulations and traditions that mandate that you do your job; let others do theirs and above all, keep your commander informed.

"Ah-bah, ah-bah..." I managed to adroitly stammer.

"God dammit, Frazier, TALK TO ME! I just heard that one of your controllers is running a fucking SAR. Is it true or not?"

"Well sir, Lieutenant McLean has been kinda following..."

"Frazier, you get your ass and fucking 'Jim Dandy to the Rescue' up to my trailer on the double hai-yai, do you understand?"

"YES SIR! RIGHT AWAY SIR! Throwing the phone in its cradle, I shouted, "Steve, grab your maps and notes. The boss wants to see us right away."

"Maybe in a little bit," said Steve, "I'm sorta busy right now..."

"NOW," I shrieked, "he's really pissed!" Visions of immediate and final arrested career progression danced through my head.

The commander, Colonel Walt Turnier, was a small, mean-spirited bastard, whose face took on the color of an eggplant when he was displeased, which seemed to be most of the time. He was totally dedicated to mission accomplishment and would let no one, subordinate or senior officer, stand in his way. For some reason, he enjoyed the loyalty of most of his command. I didn't like him because he had my guts for grits about once a week: CP duty was either done correctly the first time or it was totally and inexcusably wrong; there was no middle ground, either you performed magnificently 100% of the time (minimum acceptable) or the man was on your ass like crabs on a French whore. The phrase, "the only reward we received for outstanding work was reduced punishment," must have originated in a Command Post.

The colonel was quartered in his own 40-foot trailer house, on the side of a hill, above the officer's club and overlooking the base. As Steve and I pulled up in front of his trailer in our Air Force pickup, we could see several uniforms inside. Colonel Turnier opened the door, and sure enough, his face was eggplant purple. The trailer's living room contained four of his senior staff, all full colonels and all scowling.

Colonel Turnier was having his chief henchmen in for a few drinks when their little party had been interrupted by a call from the Mortuary Affairs Officer (MAO) in Saigon: "say Colonel," asked the MAO, "about how many body bags do you think you'll be needing?"

"Body bags for what?" Growled the Commander.

"For the C-123 that went down," said the mystified MAO, who had been taught that Wing Commanders knew everything.

"Well," replied Colonel Turnier," a C-123 did go down near here three days ago, but JRCC handles the kind of things you're asking about."

"Yes sir, they usually do, but we got word that a Lieutenant Steve McLean up there at Phan Rang was in charge."

"WHAT...??"

"OK, let's hear it and it better be good." The colonel pulled us into the trailer. Steve unfolded the map, draped it over a coffee table and gave an eloquent ten-minute briefing on what he had been doing and what he hoped to accomplish. No one interrupted him annd the only movement was when one of the colonels would shift position to get a better look at the map with its colored-in segments. When he was finished, Steve fielded several questions about the adequacy of the search effort, weather forecasts and souls on board the missing C-123. No one questioned Steve's involvement.

"Hellova job Steve, hellova job. Keep up the good work. Les (he had never called me by my first name before), keep me informed. You boys want a drink?" Steve declined, citing his hooch meeting, but I stayed around a while and tossed a few back with the movers and shakers of the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing. It was a real pleasure watching the commander's face return to its usual beet red.

When I arrived at the squadron hootch, Steve had his map pinned to a wall and was briefing about 15 men. I spotted one full colonel, a couple of lieutenant colonels and one person, dressed in civilian clothing, whom I knew to be an Air America pilot, a.k.a. CIA, who seemed to spend a great deal of time around Phan Rang. The rest were an assortment of army and air force uniforms, including a few senior enlisted men. Most of the group, including the full colonel, were taking notes. Steve had divided the mountain into sectors and was appointing units who would have primary control for SAR in their respective sectors. Dustoff 88 was on the edge of the crowd and I eased around to him and asked how his search had gone that day. "Nothing but thick clouds and tall trees, I'm beginning to wonder if that god dammed mountain will ever give up."

"It's only a matter of time," I said, "the weather is suppose to begin a clearing trend in a couple of days. Oh, by the way, is your commander still giving you shit for stealing his airplanes?"

"Yeah, he's grounded me, that's him over there. The black guy who just asked about radio frequencies."

"What's he doing here?"

"He's taking a bird up in the morning for a look-see."

"Jesus, he's come full circle in three days? Well, you look like you've been beat with a stick, you can use the rest."

"No way," bristled the chopper pilot, "Steve's getting things put together the way he wants them and I promised to take him with me tomorrow."

"Christ lieutenant," I counseled, "you're asking for big trouble, disobeying your commander's orders."

"Yeah, right major. What the fuck's he gonna do? Send me to Viet Nam to fly unarmed helicopters?" Stumped for an answer, I wandered over to where a group of my squadron's fighter pilots were drinking and watching Steve manipulate the crowd of SAR volunteers. The squadron commander was there, a lieutenant colonel, whom I thought to be a flaming asshole and a complete dipshit. He had come to F-100's out of years flying fighter-intercepters, and didn't have any idea about how to run a tactical fighter squadron. To make matters worse, he couldn't hit his ass with both hands on a bombing mission and the squadron schedulers tried to keep him off missions where friendlies were near the target area. He came up to me, shaking his head, "I can't believe McLean is running this show."

"Believe it Buddy, believe it," I said, "his idea; his show."

"Sure and I suppose JRCC knows all about this cluster fuck? Steve's working for you and you're going to get your fucking balls cutoff." Buddy didn't like me much either. "Jeez, Buddy," I smirked, "I don't think JRCC knows about it," secure in my knowledge that Colonel Turnier did know about it and had given his approval. Any higher headquarters flack, if they found out about our SAR, would now be fielded by Colonel Turnier and he seldom lost an argument with anyone.

The forth day was a repeat of the third day and, at sundown, the participants who could, met again in the hooch with Steve coloring in several more small areas on his map and reassigning search sectors. As always, most of the mountain and its peak were unavailable for search due to heavy cloud. Both Dustoff 88 and Steve looked like they'd been strained through a barrel of barbed wire, having spent the entire day climbing and descending through heavy cloud. Dustoff 88 and his commander were standing together and I assumed the chopper unit commander had given up on the rehabilitation of 88's propensity for stealing Huey helicopters.

I was returning from an in-country combat mission late in the morning of the fifth day when radio traffic, in the Phan Rang area, seemed to indicate that a sighting had been made. I could see Trash Hauler Mountain and it was as obscured as ever. Rather than add to the radio chatter, I landed and called the CP on the telephone. "Dustoff 88 and his crew smelled dead bodies," said Steve, "and JRCC found an open spot and inserted a ground team. They're hacking their way up the mountain right now; following their noses."

The ground team, consisting of four especially trained American recovery experts, and several Vietnamese soldiers, located the wreckage, near the peak, in the late afternoon. The Vietnamese immediately began looting the bodies until warning shots were fired by their officer and the Americans.

The aircraft had split open and strewn bodies, in the trees and undergrowth, along a short gouge the aircraft had made through the jungle.

At first, picking through the bodies, the recovery team had thought the entire crew and passengers were black service men until a corpsman pointed out the deep color was due to decomposition, heat and time. Although the team existed only for jungle insertion and body recovery, and had on numerous occasions, entered the jungle to recover bits and pieces of Americans, none had ever been exposed to such mass, non-combat carnage or partial decomposition.

Two survivors were found (all three of our pilots perished). Both conscious but with multiple broken bones. One had been standing in the cargo doorway when the aircraft impacted and had been, more or less, thrown clear. The other had been strapped in, with passengers on either side of him, and had no idea how he survived. Neither had been able to move due to injuries, but were in reasonably good shape despite their broken bones; insects had tormented them, but no large animals or Viet Cong had arrived on scene. Neither was particularly thirsty due to the moisture in the air and one, who had been holding his water for five days, fretted over his inability to position himself to urinate. "You go right ahead and pee in your pants," said the team leader, "we don't care and we're going to take care of you better'n anyone has ever done in your whole life." The two men were gently stretchered down the mountain until they found a spot clear of clouds and were winched up into a JRCC Jolly Green helicopter and immediately evacuated to Cam Ranh Bay where the medics predicted a full recovery for both; save a stiff knee for one.

The C-123 almost cleared the peak; another 30 or 40 feet was all they needed when the bird started clipping off treetops. Neither survivor recalled a change in engine sound prior to impact, indicating the pilots were probably at maximum power or were on full instruments and didn't realize they had a problem until the trees started beating the aircraft apart.

I don't have any way of knowing, but I suspect neither survivor was ever aware of the efforts expended by Lieutenant Steve McLean, Dustoff 88 and all the other volunteers who participated in the unauthorized SAR. In fact, when the sighting was confirmed, the aircrews involved quietly slipped back into their everyday routine without fanfare.

On the sixth day, you couldn't find a cloud within 50 miles of Trash Hauler Mountain.

The multi-engine C-123K cargo plane disappeared into the clouds almost as soon as it passed the end of Phan Rang's 9500 foot runway. The pilot, in an effort to avoid small arms fire, climbed as steeply as a full passenger load would permit. The surface wind, 15 gusting to 20 knots out of the northeast, assisted the climb, but the pilot, if he were smart, would probably level off at a couple of thousand feet, if cloud tops permitted, as he was only going 26 miles up the Vietnamese coast to Cam Ranh Bay. I had just said goodbye to three of my Wing's fighter pilots who were on their way to Cam Ranh to catch the Freedom Bird back to the world, their one-year combat tour completed; headed back to the wonderful land of round eyes and round doorknobs to new assignments.

One could almost see Cam Ranh from Phan Rang. A deep saddleback in the mountain chain between the two bases provided a low level, direct shot onto their runway. Unfortunately, with the low clouds and the pass obscured, the C-123 pilot would probably edge out to the South China Sea and approach Cam Ranh from the east, over water. The over water approach would add a few minutes to the flight time, but a prudent course of action, considering the trees and dirt lurking in the fast moving, dirty gray scud and stratus piled up between the two bases.

Ten minutes later, when I arrived at my duty location as Chief of the Command Post, my Officer Controller, Lieutenant Steve McLean, told me that Cam Ranh Radar had just called Phan Rang Radar and told them that the C-123 had disappeared from their scope. Since the C-123 wasn't under Cam Ranh's control, having canceled his instrument flight plan, they weren't unduly worried, but were wondering if our people had any contact. The heat and high humidity of Southeast Asia could play dirty tricks on sensitive electronic gear so Cam Ranh's request for information was almost, but not quite, routine.

It only took a few minutes to ascertain that no one in central Viet Nam had any contact with the bird and that he was not responding to any radio calls on normal or emergency frequencies. Only one other base, Nha Trang, was close enough for the C-123 to have landed, and no one there had had any contact with him. Phan Rang tower then called us in the Command Post, telling us, in their best judgment, it looked like the bird was down and recommended that SAR (search and rescue) efforts be initiated. I concurred and Steve called the Joint Rescue Coordination Center (JRCC) at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, located just outside of Saigon, and gave them what little information we had on the missing airplane's flight plan; it's crew, passengers and cargo. Classically, our responsibilities to Higher Headquarters ended there as JRCC had the overall authority and resources to conduct the SAR effort. But since three of our own fighter pilots were on board the missing aircraft, along with twenty-seven other Americans, Lt. Steve McLean wasn't going to let go, not by along shot, he wasn't going to let it lie.

The Fighter Wing Command Post was the commander's focal point for all base activities: if a vehicle had an accident, the CP was notified; if one of the 5,000 or so Air Force personnel on the base had an emergency back home, the CP was notified. All pertinent information, from whatever the source and whatever the nature, was massaged by CP personnel and passed to interested agencies, and if appropriate, passed on to the commander for his action. In addition, command post personnel monitored and controlled all F-100 fighter operations: checking ordnance loads, tail numbers, mission numbers, target locations and crew numbers. If ordnance loads matched the proper target and airplane number, the airplane number was passed to the squadron prior to mission briefing. If it did not, the CP personnel coordinated with the strike planners and maintenance schedulers to find an airplane with suitable ordnance for the target.

Prior to taxi, flight crews checked in with the CP for any changes on mission data and for taxi clearance. When returning from missions and while still airborne, flight leaders called the CP with RTB (return to base) information, including aircraft status and mission success codes. We, in turn, transmitted our local weather, alert status and gave them a refueling spot for shut down.

Eight pilots, two from each squadron, stood five minute alert 24 hours a day. Their F-100's uploaded with a variety of weapons to support ground troops in almost any kind of weather. The CP personnel were responsible for launching the birds and providing them with initial vectors and target information obtained from the TACC (Tactical Air Control Center) also located at Tan Son Nhut. All take off and landing times were posted on large, thick, back lighted, transparent plastic status boards that faced the CP duty controller's radio/telephone consoles in the dimly illuminated CP. A myriad of pilot/aircraft/ordnance information was contained in the grease penciled colors of the four different F-100 squadrons and the Australian Number 2 Squadron, flying English Electric Canberras, who were supposed to operate under operational control of our Higher Headquarters, 7th Air Force. Actually, the Aussies operated in whatever manner suited them best. If it was convenient for them, they subscribed to the U.S Rules of Engagement. If not, they made up their own loose rules and applied them as long as it did not interfere with their desire to make the war as much fun as possible.

Direct telephone lines connected the CP with TACC and with several DASC's (Direct Air Support Centers). The TACC line was our link to Higher headquarters and could, if necessary, put us in contact with CINCMACV (Commander in Chief, Military Assistance Command, Viet Nam) or our higher headquarters commander: 7th Air Force Commander. Our primary use of this line was to coordinate preplanned air strikes or receive the scramble instructions for the alert birds from TACC. Occasionally the DASC would request an air strike and call us direct if time were critical, but usually they would go through TACC to preclude the punishment for using initiative-the result of the air war being run from the Oval Office, as it were.

Direct lines also attached us to our local commander, fighter squadrons, hospital, fire station, Disaster Control and the Control Tower. Other regular rotary dial telephones were used for routine inter-base communications. Each Duty Controller had his own UHF radio, mounted in the console, to communicate with aircraft. A red covered switch activated a base siren system in case of attack. The control tower had a duplicate switch and were usually the ones to signal an attack due to their commanding view of the surrounding terrain. Not that the Viet Cong were constantly attacking, but they would throw in an occasional rocket or mortar just to harass us. I'm not sure we were really harassed; when a rocket/mortar would impact, everyone would rush outside at the sound of the explosion or siren and find high ground to observe the action. My squadron used the roof of our sandbagged bunker, located just outside the main door to our hooch (living quarters), to find the telltale smoke and dust cloud of the explosion. As far as I know, no one ever used the bunker for shelter; we all thought there were snakes in the thing. The attacks provided some excitement and something to write home about and rarely killed anyone.

A shift was comprised of one officer and two enlisted duty controllers working eight-hour cycles. Only those enlisted men with a large intellectual capacity and gusto were picked for CP duty while, classically and oddly enough, the Officer Controllers were drawn, on a temporary basis, from the sick, lame and lazy. Fortunately, at Phan Rang, the Commander let me pick, within a few guidelines, my Officer Controllers. And I only picked the brightest and most energetic. All the young fighter pilots I selected for a three-month tour bitched, moaned and dragged their feet toward their first duty day, but secretly, I suspected they were pleased, in a fashion, for they all knew I took no dipshits. Steve McLean was one of my selectees; an earnest, but quiet young pilot with good hands. He came to Phan Rang directly out of Fighter-Gunnery school. He was of average height with regular features, brown eyes and matching brown hair already beginning to thin although he couldn't have been more than 25 or 26 years old.

In addition to the Duty Controllers, I had a senior non-commissioned officer as my assistant and an administrative clerk. We could all act as controllers, if needed.

After Steve had reported the missing C-123 to Higher Headquarters, he and his two enlisted controllers ran the local checklist entitled "SUSPECTED DOWNED AIRCRAFT, OTHER UNITS." Ordinarily, his checklist action completed both his local and higher headquarters responsibilities in connection with the missing aircraft, but as I said, Steve wouldn't let it lie. When F-100's or Canberras would check in, he would ask them to keep a look out and a listen up for the bird, telling them that if the plane was down, it was probably down on the mountain northeast of the base, between Phan Rang and Cam Ranh Bay.

After an hour or so, the solid overcast began to break up and I went outside to look at the mountain. The CP was located at one end of the ground floor of the Wing headquarters building and had no windows; three sides having been constructed of one foot thick, rebarred concrete with two foot thick sandbags stacked ten feet high exterior to the walls. I could see the base of the mountain and the pass that led to Cam Ranh, but the mountain itself was shrouded in thick stratus layers, obscuring the peak. Three or four aircraft were circling the general area, but the distance was too great to tell the type. I went back into the headquarters building, found a set of binoculars, and identified the circling aircraft as F-100's. Probably guys responding to Steve's request. It was the first of many times in the next five days that I and several thousand other people would look at that fucking mountain.

At around noon, the C-123 was declared officially missing and Steve and his crew ran the appropriate checklist. Phan Rang was a large base, located littoral to the South China Sea, about half way between the southern tip of South Viet Nam and the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone; the northern boundary of South Viet Nam at the seventeenth parallel). The local Vietnamese called the area Happy Valley although it really wasn't a valley, lying on the coastal plain where Central Highlands dribbled out into rice paddies, scrub brush and, surprisingly, cactus.

The 35th Tactical Fighter Wing, flying the F-100, was the host unit, but several other units were headquartered there as well. In addition to the Aussie Canberra squadron, there was a wing of C-123's (Trash Haulers) who hauled in country cargo and also had a "Ranch Hand" contingent: the group who sprayed Agent Orange defoliant on the jungle to expose known or suspected Viet Cong base camps (the missing C-123 did not belong to the Phan Rang unit). A Forward Air Controller (FAC) training school was also located at Phan Rang, flying the venerable O1-E "Birddog." An Army unit, whose function I had never bothered to learn, had replaced the 101st Airborne Division, which had been headquartered there back in '67 when I had served a previous F-100 tour at the base. The Army unit, as far as I was concerned, were a bunch of weak dicked pot heads and couldn't shovel the shit of a 101st Airborne trooper; those Screaming Eagles had been the biggest, toughest, meanest, cleverest and most devious fighting men in country. The Army also had a company of UH-1E "Huey" rescue/evacuation helicopters known universally as "Dustoff." Any relationship between the Dustoff people and the other army unit was never acknowledged. Finally, Phan Rang had the Republic of Korea's (ROK) Tiger Division. Volunteers from that tiny, impoverished nation paid American wages by American taxpayers. The ROK's were responsible for the base security exterior to the hurricane fence surrounding the base -- no man's land which extended up to but did not include the jungle mountain where the C-123 was presumed down -- fast becoming known as "Trash Hauler Mountain" as news of the missing bird spread.

The ROK's performed their security function with brutal vigor. If a rocket or mortar round landed on base, the civil engineers, using the crater, template and known ballistics could trace back to the launch point with a high degree of accuracy. With launch site coordinates, the ROK's would go out, usually find the site, destroy the equipment, which was almost always rigged to fire with a water weight system, and then decimate the village closest to the launch site. Therefore, it didn't matter what the political persuasions of Happy Valley residents might have been, the Viet Cong were not welcome in the Phan Rang neighborhood.

The ROKs also maintained hardened bunkers exterior to the fence as a first line of defense in case of mass assault. During boring night duty, the ROKs would occasionally shoot at planes taking off or landing. Since no one was ever able to convince the troopers that pilots did not appreciate their target practice, they were issued tracer ammunition so that, at least, we could tell we were being shot at by friendlies.

By late afternoon Steve had contacted all of the flying units at Phan Rang, discussed the situation with the senior supervisor on duty and extracted their promise to look over the mountain, weather and mission permitting. Steve had also installed a 1:250,000 scale sectional chart of Trash Hauler Mountain behind his console and was beginning to color in bits and pieces of the mountain which had become visible; had been inspected by an aircraft without success and called back into Steve by the crews. When Steve's shift was over, rather than returning to his quarters, he began to devote full time to calling up flying units from other bases and getting their promise to come over and examine the mountain, if mission requirements allowed.

When I arrived for duty the following morning, well before sunrise, Steve was still there. He had a tall, young raw-boned Dustoff pilot in the CP, whom he introduced as "Dustoff 88." Dustoff 88 had formed up a volunteer crew of four and they were headed for Trash Hauler Mountain at first light. Steve was briefing the chopper pilot on the most likely search areas although the weather was still maximum dogshit. Dustoff 88 was his company's maintenance officer, and because of his position, knew which Hueys were in-commission and available for search. Later, I found out that he was actually stealing airplanes for the search mission and turning away non-aircrew volunteers because he had so many. In the military, one can always find someone to volunteer for the dirtiest, most hazardous tasks imaginable and no one, as far as I remember, thought it unusual that these untrained volunteers would strap on a flimsy, unarmed rotary wing aircraft and launch into desperate weather over hostile terrain to look for people none had ever met. It must have been a terrifying experience for them because I knew professionals in the rescue business, the Jolly Green chopper crews, the Sandy search and ground-fire suppression pilots, the base rescue HH-43 chopper crews and they made no bones about the scared-shitless syndrome they lived with on many rescue missions. All SEA fighter pilots were aware of the huge set of balls the rescue professionals carried around and it was common custom that they drank free in a fighter pilot bar; the definitive courtesy.

As dawn broke on that second day, I was outside to look at the mountain. It was still shrouded in cloud and gave off a distinctive mocking air. With the binoculars, I could pick out an occasional aircraft searching the area. Near my observation position, in front of Wing Headquarters, I could see groups of men, huddled around, talking in low tones, smoking, scratching, and pointing or staring at the mountain.

During the day, the stratus layers would shift, giving searchers brief but unproductive glimpses of the slopes, but the summit remained hidden, as the clouds capping the peak never moved; dirty gray, heavy and full of menace. The routine operation of the CP continued, and without my permission, the other officer duty controllers had initiated a schedule that would leave Steve more time to coordinate his rescue effort. As long as I had crews performing their duties properly, I could have cared less about how the controllers swapped out schedules. From time to time, the commander or other command personnel would drop in to observe or ask about our unit's combat mission performance, but no one seemed to notice Steve and since he was, in effect, running his rescue effort on his own time, I never thought to mention it to the commander.

Air activity increased around Trash Hauler Mountain in the afternoon of that second day although there was no way of telling which search birds were from Steve's efforts or which were birds fragged for the mission out of JRCC at Tan Son Nhut. Steve was able to color in some more small sections of his map, but the one large area having no color was the peak itself-which became more and more our suspected crash site.

Dustoff 88, haggard and gaunt, dropped by the CP that evening and told Steve that his crew hadn't found anything; that the clouds were so thick that they had to hover up the mountain slope with two men leaning out the side doors, left and right, calling out trees. Eighty-eight, his copilot and one other man kept watch forward, literally scaling a portion of the mountain side until they ran out of guts in the thick fog, and then, with the visibility too low to permit a turn, they would then back down the mountain side into sunlight, shift over an estimated 40 or 50 feet and assault the son-of-a-bitch again. Refueling was accomplished at Nha Trang, so the Company Commander could not take his airplane away from him.

By the morning of the third day, Steve had appropriated a controller console for himself and the daily routine of the CP went on around and without him. I had not reported for CP duty as I was flying a mid-tour check ride with one of the pilots and had gone directly to the squadron for the early morning mission. After completing the mission, which was to haul four each 750 pound iron bombs up to Laos and dump them on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, I broke off number three, in the flight of three and chased the leader, to whom I was giving the check ride through an instrument penetration and ground controlled approach. On short final, I broke off my approach, watched the leader land and flew directly over to Trash Hauler Mountain. Like the previous two days, ragged clouds pressed down against the huge trees comprising the jungle canopy, and seeing nothing but a couple other airplanes searching the area, I returned to Phan Rang, landed, debriefed the mission and returned to the Command Post. Someone had set up a cot, in the corner, back of my desk and Steve had gotten some sleep during the night. He had shaved and put on a clean flight suit and was busy at his phones and radio. I asked him how it was going and he told me that volunteer response had been so great that he would beholding a meeting in the squadron hooch that evening to discuss tactics if the C-123 hadn't been found in the meanwhile. Steve's part in the rescue effort had come about so easily and naturally, it had not occurred to me that his involvement had become his holy grail. Nor did it occur to me that his efforts were illegal and without precedence.

At about 1730, one of the duty controllers told me the wing commander wanted to talk to me on the phone. "Frazier, what's this I hear about you running a private rescue effort in my command post?" Thunderstruck, only then did I realize that I had been allowing Steve to pursue a course of action that was totally in violation of all regulations and traditions that mandate that you do your job; let others do theirs and above all, keep your commander informed.

"Ah-bah, ah-bah..." I managed to adroitly stammer.

"God dammit, Frazier, TALK TO ME! I just heard that one of your controllers is running a fucking SAR. Is it true or not?"

"Well sir, Lieutenant McLean has been kinda following..."

"Frazier, you get your ass and fucking 'Jim Dandy to the Rescue' up to my trailer on the double hai-yai, do you understand?"

"YES SIR! RIGHT AWAY SIR! Throwing the phone in its cradle, I shouted, "Steve, grab your maps and notes. The boss wants to see us right away."

"Maybe in a little bit," said Steve, "I'm sorta busy right now..."

"NOW," I shrieked, "he's really pissed!" Visions of immediate and final arrested career progression danced through my head.

The commander, Colonel Walt Turnier, was a small, mean-spirited bastard, whose face took on the color of an eggplant when he was displeased, which seemed to be most of the time. He was totally dedicated to mission accomplishment and would let no one, subordinate or senior officer, stand in his way. For some reason, he enjoyed the loyalty of most of his command. I didn't like him because he had my guts for grits about once a week: CP duty was either done correctly the first time or it was totally and inexcusably wrong; there was no middle ground, either you performed magnificently 100% of the time (minimum acceptable) or the man was on your ass like crabs on a French whore. The phrase, "the only reward we received for outstanding work was reduced punishment," must have originated in a Command Post.

The colonel was quartered in his own 40-foot trailer house, on the side of a hill, above the officer's club and overlooking the base. As Steve and I pulled up in front of his trailer in our Air Force pickup, we could see several uniforms inside. Colonel Turnier opened the door, and sure enough, his face was eggplant purple. The trailer's living room contained four of his senior staff, all full colonels and all scowling.

Colonel Turnier was having his chief henchmen in for a few drinks when their little party had been interrupted by a call from the Mortuary Affairs Officer (MAO) in Saigon: "say Colonel," asked the MAO, "about how many body bags do you think you'll be needing?"

"Body bags for what?" Growled the Commander.

"For the C-123 that went down," said the mystified MAO, who had been taught that Wing Commanders knew everything.

"Well," replied Colonel Turnier," a C-123 did go down near here three days ago, but JRCC handles the kind of things you're asking about."

"Yes sir, they usually do, but we got word that a Lieutenant Steve McLean up there at Phan Rang was in charge."

"WHAT...??"

"OK, let's hear it and it better be good." The colonel pulled us into the trailer. Steve unfolded the map, draped it over a coffee table and gave an eloquent ten-minute briefing on what he had been doing and what he hoped to accomplish. No one interrupted him annd the only movement was when one of the colonels would shift position to get a better look at the map with its colored-in segments. When he was finished, Steve fielded several questions about the adequacy of the search effort, weather forecasts and souls on board the missing C-123. No one questioned Steve's involvement.

"Hellova job Steve, hellova job. Keep up the good work. Les (he had never called me by my first name before), keep me informed. You boys want a drink?" Steve declined, citing his hooch meeting, but I stayed around a while and tossed a few back with the movers and shakers of the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing. It was a real pleasure watching the commander's face return to its usual beet red.

When I arrived at the squadron hootch, Steve had his map pinned to a wall and was briefing about 15 men. I spotted one full colonel, a couple of lieutenant colonels and one person, dressed in civilian clothing, whom I knew to be an Air America pilot, a.k.a. CIA, who seemed to spend a great deal of time around Phan Rang. The rest were an assortment of army and air force uniforms, including a few senior enlisted men. Most of the group, including the full colonel, were taking notes. Steve had divided the mountain into sectors and was appointing units who would have primary control for SAR in their respective sectors. Dustoff 88 was on the edge of the crowd and I eased around to him and asked how his search had gone that day. "Nothing but thick clouds and tall trees, I'm beginning to wonder if that god dammed mountain will ever give up."

"It's only a matter of time," I said, "the weather is suppose to begin a clearing trend in a couple of days. Oh, by the way, is your commander still giving you shit for stealing his airplanes?"

"Yeah, he's grounded me, that's him over there. The black guy who just asked about radio frequencies."

"What's he doing here?"

"He's taking a bird up in the morning for a look-see."

"Jesus, he's come full circle in three days? Well, you look like you've been beat with a stick, you can use the rest."

"No way," bristled the chopper pilot, "Steve's getting things put together the way he wants them and I promised to take him with me tomorrow."

"Christ lieutenant," I counseled, "you're asking for big trouble, disobeying your commander's orders."

"Yeah, right major. What the fuck's he gonna do? Send me to Viet Nam to fly unarmed helicopters?" Stumped for an answer, I wandered over to where a group of my squadron's fighter pilots were drinking and watching Steve manipulate the crowd of SAR volunteers. The squadron commander was there, a lieutenant colonel, whom I thought to be a flaming asshole and a complete dipshit. He had come to F-100's out of years flying fighter-intercepters, and didn't have any idea about how to run a tactical fighter squadron. To make matters worse, he couldn't hit his ass with both hands on a bombing mission and the squadron schedulers tried to keep him off missions where friendlies were near the target area. He came up to me, shaking his head, "I can't believe McLean is running this show."

"Believe it Buddy, believe it," I said, "his idea; his show."

"Sure and I suppose JRCC knows all about this cluster fuck? Steve's working for you and you're going to get your fucking balls cutoff." Buddy didn't like me much either. "Jeez, Buddy," I smirked, "I don't think JRCC knows about it," secure in my knowledge that Colonel Turnier did know about it and had given his approval. Any higher headquarters flack, if they found out about our SAR, would now be fielded by Colonel Turnier and he seldom lost an argument with anyone.

The forth day was a repeat of the third day and, at sundown, the participants who could, met again in the hooch with Steve coloring in several more small areas on his map and reassigning search sectors. As always, most of the mountain and its peak were unavailable for search due to heavy cloud. Both Dustoff 88 and Steve looked like they'd been strained through a barrel of barbed wire, having spent the entire day climbing and descending through heavy cloud. Dustoff 88 and his commander were standing together and I assumed the chopper unit commander had given up on the rehabilitation of 88's propensity for stealing Huey helicopters.

I was returning from an in-country combat mission late in the morning of the fifth day when radio traffic, in the Phan Rang area, seemed to indicate that a sighting had been made. I could see Trash Hauler Mountain and it was as obscured as ever. Rather than add to the radio chatter, I landed and called the CP on the telephone. "Dustoff 88 and his crew smelled dead bodies," said Steve, "and JRCC found an open spot and inserted a ground team. They're hacking their way up the mountain right now; following their noses."

The ground team, consisting of four especially trained American recovery experts, and several Vietnamese soldiers, located the wreckage, near the peak, in the late afternoon. The Vietnamese immediately began looting the bodies until warning shots were fired by their officer and the Americans.

The aircraft had split open and strewn bodies, in the trees and undergrowth, along a short gouge the aircraft had made through the jungle.

At first, picking through the bodies, the recovery team had thought the entire crew and passengers were black service men until a corpsman pointed out the deep color was due to decomposition, heat and time. Although the team existed only for jungle insertion and body recovery, and had on numerous occasions, entered the jungle to recover bits and pieces of Americans, none had ever been exposed to such mass, non-combat carnage or partial decomposition.

Two survivors were found (all three of our pilots perished). Both conscious but with multiple broken bones. One had been standing in the cargo doorway when the aircraft impacted and had been, more or less, thrown clear. The other had been strapped in, with passengers on either side of him, and had no idea how he survived. Neither had been able to move due to injuries, but were in reasonably good shape despite their broken bones; insects had tormented them, but no large animals or Viet Cong had arrived on scene. Neither was particularly thirsty due to the moisture in the air and one, who had been holding his water for five days, fretted over his inability to position himself to urinate. "You go right ahead and pee in your pants," said the team leader, "we don't care and we're going to take care of you better'n anyone has ever done in your whole life." The two men were gently stretchered down the mountain until they found a spot clear of clouds and were winched up into a JRCC Jolly Green helicopter and immediately evacuated to Cam Ranh Bay where the medics predicted a full recovery for both; save a stiff knee for one.

The C-123 almost cleared the peak; another 30 or 40 feet was all they needed when the bird started clipping off treetops. Neither survivor recalled a change in engine sound prior to impact, indicating the pilots were probably at maximum power or were on full instruments and didn't realize they had a problem until the trees started beating the aircraft apart.

I don't have any way of knowing, but I suspect neither survivor was ever aware of the efforts expended by Lieutenant Steve McLean, Dustoff 88 and all the other volunteers who participated in the unauthorized SAR. In fact, when the sighting was confirmed, the aircrews involved quietly slipped back into their everyday routine without fanfare.

On the sixth day, you couldn't find a cloud within 50 miles of Trash Hauler Mountain.

 


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