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April 20, 2005

"I have the worst job...

“ the entire world.”

Except for the lucky few, we’ve all thought that at one time or another, right?

Just to help you keep things in perspective…

TINS* [This Is No Sh*t--standard War Story Alert]

When I first joined the Guard after the South East Asian Unpleasantness, our aviation det was strictly Old-Guy (WWII vets) and New-Guy (Vietnam Vets). Thirteen pilots, thirteen aircraft--good times, except when the weather was uncooperative.

One Saturday morning, it was uncooperative. Three of us--Norm, who flew Scout ships with the First o’ the Ninth in RVN, Bill, who flew B-24s out of Libya in WWII, and yours truly--were sitting in Ops, drinking coffee and keeping each other company. The talk gradually turned to the been-there-done-that…

Part I

Norm took a sip of coffee.

“We were working the Iron Triangle and the world opens up on us. I beat feet about a klick away and C ‘n’ C [Command and Control aircraft—a Huey with three additional FM radios] calls for an airstrike.

"About ten minutes later, I hear a fast-mover call ‘On station,’ then C ‘n' C vectors him for the strike. I look ‘way, ‘way up and I see this B-57 at about 5,000 feet, and just as I start to think, ‘He can’t even hit Vietnam from up there,' he rolls on his back, noses it over and comes screaming out of the sky like a Stuka.

"Straight down.

"So, he’s coming down and the green basketballs are going up and I think, 'Oh, man--am I glad I don’t have that job.'

"He drops a coupla 500-pounders and pulls out and the bombs hit and there’s smoke and flames and green basketballs following him back up into the sky. He gets up to five grand, rolls and noses again and comes straight down through the basketballs. He pickles the load and pulls out. The whole grid square jumps fifty feet into the air, then falls down again.

"No basketballs.

"C ‘n’ C sends me over for a BDA [Bomb Damage Assessment] and I’m flying through dust and smoke and leaves and I see what’s left of a good-sized base camp. I start calling in so-many bags of rice burning, so-many bunkers destroyed, three .51 cals destroyed, and I start looking for bodies.

"Now the B-57 pilot asks C ’n’ C if he’ll be able to get a BDA to his Ops within the hour. C ‘n’ C says, ‘If you hang around for about a minute, I can give it to you now. I’ve got a guy in there already.’

"B-57 pilot says, ‘Do you mean to tell me there’s actually somebody down there in that mess? Oh--wait a minute, I see him. Gawd, I wouldn’t want that job.’ “

Part II

I put my coffee down.

(Click on Extended Entry for the rest. It's a bit long, but a fast read...)

“I'm flying swing ship [each Province in the Delta received a UH-1 for daily admin support--everything from hauling mail to hot-LZ medevacs, but usually a ho-hum mission] out of Ca Mau and we're just topping off. A Captain advisor-type comes running across the runway and hollers that there’s a Marine Tiger Team that’s just been overrun and chased out of their mud fort, Charlie’s in the fort, and the Marines and their Viet platoon are holed up on the other side of a canal.

"They’re also out of ammo.

"Captain points to the far end of the runway, where I see a flurry of activity. He says that’s the ammo for the re-supply--he tells me to load up, then fly north and look for a mud fort full of bad guys and a canal dike with a bunch of friendlies on the western bank.

"I love a detailed briefing.

“I hover over, and the Viets start tossing ammo crates on board faster than the crewchief and gunner can stack them. We're getting so heavy that the Huey’s skids are settling, so I tell the crew to wave off the Viets and we take off.

"The aircraft is sluggish as hell, and I’m thinking they must have loaded some cases of grenades on board, too, ‘cause small arms ammo doesn’t weigh that much, and we’ve gotta be at max gross...

"I find the fort and call the Marines--there are no good guys in or near the fort. I brief the gunner and start the approach. At 500 feet, I tell the gunner to begin suppression. At a hundred feet, the gun stops and the gunner announces, ‘Wind jam.’ We touch down hot ‘cause of the extra weight and the crewchief starts passing crates to the friendlies.

“We’re less than a hundred feet from the fort, just on the other side of the canal. I’m watching this Marine to my right front, about my age, all crouched over, hollering and gesticulating and getting things organized. He looks up at me and grins.

“*pok* An AK round comes through the windshield, careens through the electrical panel, pops out, smacks me in the helmet and spins out the window. I must’ve reacted pretty radically, ‘cause the Marine’s eyes are now the size of saucers.

“*pok* *pok* We're taking fire, don't have an operable doorgun, and we're still not unloaded. I’m on the controls real loose, so my reflex action won’t yank us into the air if/when I get hit...

"The crewchief hollers through the intercom, ‘Sir, the crates weren’t marked--they loaded us full of 81mm mortar rounds. Gyrenes say the tubes are still in the fort. There ain’t a solitary 5.56 or 7.62 in the lot. Whadda we do?’

“Abject misery.

“*pok-thwack* into my doorpost.

“Bloody hell. It’s gonna be one of those days.

“ ‘Give ‘em your sixty and all the doorgun ammo we’ve got. Give ‘em all the mags for your M-16s except for two--we might need ‘em. Tell ‘em we’ll be back in ten minutes.’ I look at the Marine to my front and sign ‘Back here in ten, ammo’ with my left hand. He thumbs-up, then gets his guys distributing the presents we left.

"He's stuck in the middle of nowhere, no ammo, bad guys running through his house and he’s gotta take it back with the same troops who just got their butts kicked. I'm glad I don’t have his job.

“I figure we’ll return with the ammo, then hang around and suppress the fort when they assault. I'm tired of being shot at and not shooting back.

“I pull pitch and give Ca Mau a holler, explaining the screwup and tell them I want 5.56 and 7.62 and nothing else. We land, and the Viets start loading more mortar rounds. Both crewchief and gunner unass the aircraft, chase everybody away, toss out the mortar rounds, and run over to the pile of crates, rooting around for small arms ammo.

"Paydirt. They get the Viets into a bucket brigade and we’re soon full of the things we should have had on the first trip and enroute back to Tiger's location. One mile out, the gunner says, ‘Gun’s operational.’ I tell him to begin suppression as soon as I give the word.

“Five hundred feet, on the approach.

"Muzzle-flashes. *pok*

“ ‘Suppress the fort.’

“We land in the same spot and offload the ammo. My crewchief recovers his M–60 and the Marine gives me a thumbs up. I motion him over, then holler, ‘We’ll fire the fort up whenever you’re ready.’ He looks at his guys, tells me ‘Three minutes’ and steps back. Gives me a big grin and a salute. I grin and return it.

"*pok* right through the motor for the windshield wiper--it breaks loose and hits me in the arm. The Marine turns quickly and moves off to his troops.

"Three minutes later, the friendlies are ready to assault. The gunner and crewchief are now both on the right side of the Huey and ready to thank Charlie for putting holes in the helicopter.

“They stop shooting just as the good guys storm over the walls of their fort to take it back.

“We circle the fort, then return to Ca Mau, land, refuel, shut down and open our cans of lunch. The Captain saunters over and says, ‘Tiger says thanks. He also says he wouldn’t do your job for love or money.’ “

Part III

Bill’s just gotten a refill on his coffee and takes a slow sip.

He tells us about the raid on Ploiesti, in August of 1943. He talks quietly about his squadron arriving late, after the early arrivals set refineries and storage tanks ablaze, alerting and fully-arousing the defenders.

He mentions, almost as an afterthought, watching three B-24s fly into a cloud of black smoke and seeing only one fly out the other side.

He talks of flying so low the gunners in the flak towers couldn’t depress their guns low enough to hit him, and he grins as he describes the look of frustration on their faces.

He’s flying a damned B-24 close enough to see their faces…

Norm and I glance at each other, and I know the same thought has just hit both of us--"Geez—I could never do anything like that.”

Bill takes another sip of coffee and describes dodging steel structures in the refineries, of hitting a chunk of debris that took out an engine. His assigned target’s completely obliterated by smoke, but he climbs slightly, drops his bombs and egresses, still at low-level.

He watches three fighters in the far distance, beating up one of the raiders. It explodes in mid-air.

He describes the hours-long return trip over the Mediterranean on three engines, with avgas leaking into the wind from a flak hole in one wing. He runs out of fuel on final approach and his aircraft belly-lands because the nose gear collapses.

He finishes his coffee and says, “But you could put a gun to my head and I wouldn’t have the nerve to do the things that you guys did.”

See? It all depends on your perspective…