"HOW TO ACQUIRE CAMBODIAN PILOT WINGS"
Category: "Viet Nam"
This is the story of a rather unusual combat mission. The fact that I acquired a set of Cambodian Pilot Wings as a result of the mission is ancillary, but it's a good story and a true one.
In 1970, I was posted to Phan Rang Air Base, Republic of Vietnam, flying F-100Ds. It was my second combat assignment to Phan Rang in the F-100 and my third In-Country tour, having flown the L-19 out of Phouc Long Province back in 1962-63. We had an Alert Pad at Phan Rang with eight Huns uploaded, in flights of two, on five-minute alert. The object of the alert pad was to provide immediate air cover for friendlies needing it or for high priority targets that could pop-up and need prompt attention.
My first tour on the alert pad was as the number two man in a flight of two. Although I probably had as much combat time as my young leader had total time, the regulations stated that you couldn't lead off the pad until you followed at least once. I didn't have any problem with that as my leader, although a relatively inexperienced lieutenant had a good set of hands and was aggressively disciplined.
We reported to the pad early in the morning, relieving the night alert crew, and preflighted our airplanes, uploaded with four 500-pound Mk.82 high-drag snakeyes.
The high-drag snakeye had a steel umbrella that opened on release, slowing its speed considerably. This did two things: it allowed the pilot to get in close to the target and allowed him to egress the fragmentation envelope before the bomb detonated. Our birds also had all four 20 millimeter cannons loaded with a high-explosive incendiary and armor-piercing incendiary mix.
We sat around all day and finally received a scramble order late in the afternoon. We were airborne within three minutes and copied target information as we climbed out. All we were told was that our target was boat traffic on the Mekong River in Cambodia. Nothing to write home about.
We usually worked with a Forward Air Controller (FAC), a pilot of a slow moving aircraft who spotted targets and controlled the fighters attacking the target. When we were within radio range, my leader contacted the FAC, Rustic 08, and told him who we were and what ordnance we carried. Zero Eight told us that our targets were two 100 foot camouflaged ships, nestled in the trees, up against the western bank of the south flowing Mekong. He included other information such as the position of the nearest friendlies (none around), target elevation, altimeter setting and recommended attack heading, which was from east to west. He correctly determined that it was impossible to visually acquire the targets on any other heading. However, an east-west run-in would have us attacking directly into the sun in the late afternoon of a high humidity day with associated haze. Adding to the attack problems was a 50% cloud cover at the altitude best for commencing the attack. Zero Eight also recommended that we circle to the north after each attack, as a huge mangrove swamp north of the target would preclude bad guy harassment as we set up for the next attack.
At one point my leader asked Zero Eight how he knew the ships were unfriendly. He said that he had a Cambodian pilot in the back seat of his OV-10 Bronco and that the Cambodian government had declared the ships unfriendly. We were all jaded enough to realize that the target could be a business rival of the local commander, but ours was not to reason why...
When Zero Eight said he had a Cambodian in the back chair, I jumped on the radio and asked if he could get me a set of Cambodian pilot wings since I collected military pilot wings.
In a fighter flight, protocol dictated that everybody in the flight keep his mouth shut, except for leader, but, I wasn't about to miss a chance to acquire a set. After some discussion with the Cambodian, Zero Eight said that he would take care of my request if I called him that night. I made sure that they understood I wanted pilot wings and not hat brass, air force insignia, stickpins or whatever, got his phone number and we proceeded with the mission.
We set up our switches for bomb-single, took spacing and Zero Eight rolled in and marked the ships with a white phosphorus smoke rocket. Zero Eight moved away from the target and told leader he had him in sight and he was cleared to drop on his smoke. All total, we probably made seven or eight passes, dropping all of our bombs. We damaged the ships but did not sink them, and I could truthfully say that I never saw the targets. But, one of our bombs opened up the jungle just west of the ships, exposing an oil storage depot. Clearly now, these were the bad guys.
I saw Rustic 08 pull straight up, hammerhead his Bronco around into a ninety degree dive, and drill a rocket straight into the middle of the depot. The depot started to explode and burn and Zero Eight cleared us in for gun attacks. Almost as an afterthought, he said, "move it around, the guns are up." What he meant was that he had taken ground fire, and suggested that we keep our flight paths unpredictable. We made several passes, adding to the general morass, when leader attacked the depot amidst tracer fire from south of the target. I told him he was taking fire, and went back to pulling my airplane around for another pass when leader transmitted, "OH SHIT, I'VE JUST HIT THE TREES!" I aborted my pass and asked him his position. He said he was turning north and losing hydraulics. Rustic Zero Eight transmitted that he had him in sight and was taking up a chase position. To do so, he had to fly across the guns, which shot at, but missed him. I remembered thinking what a gutsy FAC, to have flown across hostile guns to assist a Hun driver he had never met and couldn't possibly catch. A few seconds later leader transmitted, "My hydraulics are gone; I'm stepping out." I still couldn't see him and asked his position again. He said he was north of the target, headed southeast. I knew he was over the mangrove swamp and if he jumped out, he'd spend the night there, if he survived the landing. I asked him if the bird was still flying, and he said that it was, but his control stick was frozen. I told him to stay with the bird as long as it was flying.
Zero Eight gave him distance and heading to Bien Hoa Air Base, the nearest suitable landing field. About that time, I spotted Zero Eight and eyeballed a line-of-sight directly ahead of him. About 10 miles ahead and high was my leader. He was just a tiny speck in, and amongst, the clouds. Without taking my eyes from him, I slammed in the afterburner and closed rapidly. I came aboard at about Warp Nine, threw out the speed brakes and performed an energy-losing maneuver (called a high-speed barrel roll) around leader. I matched his 240 knots, which was over 100 knots slower than his best climb speed. But leader, with no airspeed indicator, had no idea what his air speed was.
As I eased onto his right wing, I was shocked to see the entire bottom section of the fuselage missing from the main wing's trailing edge to the tail. I could see the entire engine and various accessories attached to it. F-100 Pratt & Whitney J-57 engines were shoulder mounted and, for that reason, it was still positioned correctly within the fuselage. The rest of the airplane was garbage: the wings and horizontal stabilizer were torn up, the nose was bent and the pitot tube (airspeed measuring device) was missing and tree branches driven vertically into the underside. I had seen other F-100s that had hit trees and returned to base. They all had foliage buried in the wings leading edge. For that reason, I hadn't thought my leader had hit the trees. Rather, it looked like something had blown up underneath him and ripped his airplane apart. Leader told me he had some control. By varying his engine power, he could raise or lower his nose sluggishly, and the rudders still worked. About eighteen years later, Captain Al Haynes of United Airlines would face a similar dilemma, as he and his crew heroically guided his passenger filled DC-10, onto the runway at Sioux City, Iowa.
With the sun setting, we dived, zoomed and skidded our way through the clouds 147 miles to the South China Sea. Leader had decided that he did not want to eject over the jungle if he was able to make it to water. The entire time, Rustic 08 had given us the best information he had on our position, safe bail out areas and weather data. I had called up SAR (Search and Rescue) and we managed to make one large circle, while the Jolly Green positioned himself below us, just off the coast of Vietnam, near Vung Tau. Leader successfully ejected from 12,000 feet, and the chopper picked him up immediately and took him to Bien Hoa. Needing fuel, I landed at Bien Hoa right behind Rustic 08. The ground crew took me to his operations, where I thanked him for his superb support, and gave him my address for the wings (which arrived in a few days). I then went to the hospital and checked on my leader, who was uninjured.
A couple of weeks later, the Phan Rang newssheet carried an article about the rescue. As always, they listed name, rank, age and hometown of the article participants. The information about me was correct but no hometown was listed. This didn't surprise me because I wasn't interviewed for the article. But, the hometown of the rescue pilot was listed: Walla Walla, Washington, which is my hometown. As Chief of the Command Post, I had extensive communications available to me, so I located the pilot who was now flying out of Danang, and thanked him for his efforts. I asked him if he really was from Walla Walla. He said yes, and named an uncle, Lester Keen, who still lived there. Lester Keen, of course, was my dad's best friend and the person for whom I am named.
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