Strange Visitor From Another Planet
(Or “I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in”)
By Raymond Caryl
Late spring ´68 and the chaos of TET had diminished to a dull roar. Dong Ha was back to normal, I think the 1st Cav had taken their travelling circus somewhere else and Tony Keltner, our two AOs and I were languishing in our line shack. The weather wasn’t cooperating—overcast sky with a low ceiling so we weren’t flying. The Unit SOP was clear in stating that we were to have basic VFR weather before we flew, unless there were “troops in contact” and then it was up to the discretion of the pilot whether or not to fly.
Catkillers always flew when there were troops in contact.
At Dong Ha, when the weather was lousy, we would sometimes conduct a “weather check.” One of the guys and his AO would saddle up, take off and head for the beach low level following the Cua Viet River. Once feet wet, he would proceed north to the vicinity of the mouth of the Ben Hai River, arm all four Willie Pete rockets, point the nose toward North Vietnam, pull the nose of the aircraft up and pull the trigger. Hopefully, it hit something that belonged to the NVA, or at the very least, pissed them off. Great fun when you are bored.
I had already done the morning “weather check.” The clouds were solid and down to about 400 ft. AGL and now we were just hanging out in the line shack killing time and waiting for someone to call us and say they were in contact. Suddenly we heard the distinct pop-pop-pop of a Bird Dog descending overhead. We weren’t due to be relieved and besides, none of our Catkiller buds down at Phu Bai would be goofy enough to fly up here in this weather; well, almost none (there were exceptions and you know who you are). Scrambling outside, we looked up to see a hole in the cloud cover right over the runway and a lone Bird Dog spiraling down through it. We stood around outside wondering out loud who it might be. Anyone flying up here from Phu Bai in this weather certainly wasn’t bringing good news.
As we watched, an unfamiliar Bird Dog landed, rolled out, did a 180 and taxied back to our line shack. We knew right away that it wasn’t one of ours even though it had the familiar two rockets under the right wing, it had an M-60 machine gun attached to the bomb-shackle under the left wing. The strange Bird Dog rumbled up, shut down and a tall, lanky, rather confused looking lieutenant climbed out.
“Hi”, he said, looking around as if to get his bearings.
“Hi”, we replied, by now REALLY wondering who this stranger was and what he was doing here.
He paused, no doubt a bit embarrassed, as he formulated his question knowing that he was about to commit the Cardinal Sin of all aviators—admit that he had NO idea WHERE he was.
“Uh, where is this?”
You cannot imagine the glee with which the four of us, to a man, said, “Dong Ha!” In response, his puzzled look told us everything we needed to know about this poor, lost soul.
“You’re about 20 clicks south of North Vietnam. Dong Ha is the northern–most friendly airfield in South Vietnam,” Tony told him with that million–dollar grin and his wood–tipped cheroot clamped firmly between his teeth. “C’mon inside and we’ll show you on the map.”
It was with great satisfaction that we showed our visitor how close we were, indeed, to North Vietnam. His reaction was to quickly slump down on the wooden bench that was attached to a table and quietly shake his head. We offered him a can of semi–cold soda from our little refrigerator and gradually he told us his story.
The lieutenant’s unit, the 21st RAC “Black Aces,” had recently moved into the southern part of I–Corps, and he was on a solo, single ship VR mission to the Ashau Valley. He had departed Chu Lai and climbed above low clouds somewhere back in the mountains south of the Ashau hoping to find a break in the cloud cover and VR the Valley.
This guy had NO idea what could have easily happened to him had he done that. For CatKillers, the Ashau, or anywhere that far away from friendlies, was a two ship mission: A low bird to do the actual VR and a high bird for radio relay and to mark the spot in the jungle where the low bird disappeared if something went wrong.
Not knowing exactly where he was and having consumed over half his fuel, he decided to head to Danang using his ADF. Apparently his ADF wasn’t functioning correctly (or he wasn’t reading it correctly) and he flew past Danang on a northerly heading. Now his fuel was getting critical and he just happened to look down and see the runway at Dong Ha through a break in the overcast. That’s when we heard the pop-pop-pop of his spiraling descent. Looking at the map, we calculated that on his last heading and with the fuel he had remaining, he would have probably run out of gas over Vinh—that’s in North Vietnam.
After some conversation and the lieutenant’s heart rate subsiding below 150 bpm, we helped him fill his Dog up with gas, spent a little time ooh–ing and aah–ing over the “cool” M–60 mounted under his left wing (I was secretly thinking: ‘Trying to use that thing is gonna get you killed’), pointed him toward the beach and sent him on his way. We were kind enough to give him instructions to “turn right when you get to the ‘big lake’ and just follow the beach back to Chu Lai.” We had a lot of fun sharing that story with our fellow Catkillers. As for me, I sometimes wonder if our “strange visitor from another planet” ever did make it back to Chu Lai and when he did, “just what condition his condition was in.”