Tributes & Stories


First Class Cruise, You Can't Beat It!
How's The Cow?
…And Then There Were?…
The Night I Mooned the Entire North Vietnamese Army
Memories of Chu Lai
The Rescue
Taking Station
Beer Run
The Class of 1965


FIRST CLASS CRUISE; You can’t beat it!

First class cruise was about a six-week period in the summer following the third Naval Academy academic year in which we new first classmen (seniors) could serve aboard Navy ships in the capacity of junior officers. We had spent a like period after our first year, called youngster cruise, in which we served aboard ships in enlisted men’s billets. Both were good training and good experience situations.

While many of my classmates hoped to someday serve in submarines or fly jet aircraft or pound the ground in the Marine Corps, my desire was to go down to the sea in surface warships, preferably in the destroyer force. I had already spent youngster cruise on a destroyer based in Mayport, Florida, the USS Turner (DDR 834).  My class standing wasn’t the best, shall we say, and so I was worried about how I might get assigned for first class cruise. When the list of assignments was posted, I realized my worst nightmare – I was to spend First Class Cruise on a lumbering amphibious ship; not a dashing destroyer.  I was headed to the USS Donner (LSD 20) of Amphibious Squadron 8 (PhibRon 8) in the Mediterranean Fleet. A landing ship dock, the Donner could submerge its stern section enough to let various amphibious landing craft float in and out of its “well deck.”  She could carry two landing craft utility units (LCUs), which are very large, or a larger number of smaller landing craft.  I was greatly disappointed, but still, I was determined to make the most of it to have a good experience.  So, at the age of 21, that’s what I set off to do.


I don’t remember every step of the way that I took to get to my ship, but I do recall that I reported aboard in Palma de Mallorca in the Spanish Balearic Islands.  The port was crawling with American sailors and Marines, since a carrier group as well as the PhibRon was in port.  (An aside:  I don’t know why Marine is always capitalized while sailor and soldier are not, but I don’t object, based on my experiences with them. As to (“airmen”, who cares?)  I found my ship and reported aboard, bubbling with enthusiasm to be part of this enormous Navy armada.

Well, that was my first mistake; bubbling, that is. There were five other junior officers aboard. They were ensigns and lieutenants (junior grade), and they were not bubbling at all about being in the Navy. Then, this brash young midshipman, and one from the Naval Academy to boot, shows up, and he’s asking about career patterns and duty assignments as though they were really good things.  I, of course, was immediately targeted for all manner of jokes, tricks, and other humiliations; quite a lesson.  Nonetheless, I didn’t worry too much about this, concluding that I was probably worth more to the Navy than they were, and resolved to make the most of all of it. I might have exuded too much of that attitude as well as too much enthusiasm. Anyway, the junior officers of USS Donner were soon divided into two groups: five of them and one of me.

When we had been at sea for no more than a couple of days or so, the ship received orders to transit the Mediterranean and join up with the other half of the PhibRon in the eastern Med so that our Marines could take part in allied exercises and for the purpose of providing our two LCUs.  On the day before we were to depart and set off on our own, the captain called upon all the junior officers for navigation training to be conducted by the executive officer (XO) and for the benefit of our junior officer journals.  On many ships of this size and manning level there was no specified navigator position or billet, and so the executive officer served in that capacity with the help of much-experienced and trained enlisted quartermasters, so it was no surprise that the XO would be in charge of the training.

I was no “slash” during second class year, and I had struggled in our navigation course because of all the math involved, as well as the intricate and therefore confusing nature of the process.  I had found navigation; i.e., finding one’s position in the ocean by applying trigonometry to angles between stars and the horizon, much more difficult than piloting; i.e., finding one’s position by reference to fixed objects ashore, such as towers, light houses, and church steeples.  I think I managed a C or perhaps a C+ in navigation, and I was unhappy that I was about to get tested in it, and also with my feeling that the reputation of the academy in the view of the other officers rested upon my shoulders.

As soon as I had some time, I went up to the bridge of the ship to have a talk with the quartermaster, second class, who was on watch. He was a bit aloof, but he calmed me down by assuring me that he would know where to look on the horizon for certain stars and would be with us to help. Still, I decided to borrow the volumes on navigation that included finding the stars and how to use a sextant. Those elements had not really been covered at USNA.  Instead, in our exams, we were simply given the names of stars, the times at which they were shot, and the angles that had been determined. It was then up to us to take this raw data and to seek to get a decent “fix,” or location of the ship at the given time of the sightings. For me, this was not a piece of cake.

I studied as quickly as possible, remembering that there were “nine old men,” or primary navigational stars that were the best to use in the northern hemisphere.  The old men were the brightest of the brightest 57 and they were spaced such that they would give good angles between their lines to the ship, and therefore the lines would cross at good, discernable angles to each other.  I may get my list a little wrong here, but they were basically these:  Vega, Sirius, Regulus, Altair, Denbola, Arcturus, Betelgeuse, Antares, Aldebaran, and Polaris.  Well, Bob, you might say, you seem to have ten old men instead of nine.  Sorry, but I can’t think of any I would drop from the list.  I suggest, then, that Polaris didn’t count as one of the nine, since it was so easy to use and so “standard” to navigation.  Polaris, or The North Star, hangs around within a degree of the celestial north pole year ‘round, no matter where earth is in its solar orbit.  It is not only always available, but if you shoot the height of Polaris above your horizon, you can then just use that number of degrees, subtracted from eighty-nine, to draw a line parallel to the equator and at the resultant number of degrees above it.  Thus, you always have an “anchor line.”

I don’t remember what five stars the quartermaster had chosen for us to shoot, but I do know, for reasons you will learn a little later in this story, that they included Vega.  I also assume they included Polaris, for the reason I described above – hopefully correctly.  So let’s say the others were Arcturus, Denebola, and Sirius.  The quartermaster was not friendly, but he was very efficient. He pointed to where each star should appear, and he quickly described how to use the sextant, a few of which had to be shared. There is not much time to get your shots.  The sky must be dark enough for the star to show, but light enough for you to still see the horizon.  To avoid an error by holding the sextant at an angle, you rock it so that the lowest point of your rocking arc brushes the horizon, meanwhile turning a knob to bring the image of the star in the sextant down to that horizon.  When you do, you mark the exact time, and then you also write down the angle that is indicated on the sextant.  Of course, you must turn your body into a gyroscope to absorb the motion of the ship, thus holding the sextant steady in relation to the star and the horizon.  All of this has to be accomplished five times during the short period when the light is right.  I, of course, had to scramble the most to get my turns on a sextant.  Three of the other JOs only got three or four of the stars shot. Three, including me, got all five.

We were told to work out our results in the wardroom, with no consultations between us.  I was wallowing in self pity and fear, just knowing I would get a “fix” that showed the ship to be somewhere in a multi-hundred-square-mile sector of the ocean, which is not very useful.  First, I plotted Polaris, then Vega, then the other three.  I could not believe my eyes!!  All five of my lines met at a single point.  I had achieved a “five star point fix.”  At first I thought I must have done something wrong, but I could find nothing wrong.  Then, the quartermaster studied my work to see how I might have fudged it, but he could find nothing wrong.  The XO, at first, refused to even look at it or to even consider that I could have gotten a point fix.  Five-star point fixes are achieved as rarely as new-age miracles.  Well, I thought, take it or leave it; that’s what I got, and that’s what I will transpose into my journal, miracle or not.

The next morning, all officers except those on watch, were in the wardroom for breakfast.  As usual, there was lots of chatter around the table.  Then, the booming voice of the captain cut in:  “Mister Andretta, you are the Navigator.  See the XO today for instructions.”  Oh, my God!  I’m to be the man in charge of guiding the ship across the Mediterranean, missing all these little islands, making all the right landfalls, and ending up at the rendezvous point in among a gazillion Greek islands at the appointed hour of the appointed day?  Hey, those five lines’ crossing in one point was just an accident or a coincidence.  Really, I just got a C in Navigation.  I CAN’T DO THIS!!  But, of course, I didn’t say any of this; just “Aye, aye, Captain.”

Right after breakfast, I reported to the XO.  I adopted as calm a countenance as possible, as though this was all very ordinary, to be expected, and well within my capabilities. The XO explained to me the duties of the navigator: dawn and dusk star fixes, noon sun lines, night time calls to the bridge to verify land locations, and continuous dead reckoning, which is calculating the ship’s locations during the day based upon course, speed through the water, wind, currents, and tides.  This data was gathered on the half hour by the quartermaster of the watch, and so I could use it any time I came to the bridge to do so.  My chin became a little less rigid when the XO informed me that the quartermaster second class who had helped with our star fixes would be assigned to be my special assistant.

It was a difficult routine, and I lived in fear of making a major error.  Thus, it was terrific having the quartermaster with me.  It was soon apparent that he had no interest in showing me up; only in ensuring we always knew the location of the ship.  I soon got into a routine and started feeling pretty comfortable with it.  The lieutenant (jg) and ensign who had also managed to calculate based upon five stars, started calling me “Vega,” and while the teasing persisted, theirs became much more friendly.  I began to feel that life aboard an amphib was not so bad after all.

One night, soon after becoming the navigator, I was awakened by one of the sailors on watch on the bridge and told that there was a message in “Crypto” for me.  What’s a crypto?  The sailor explained that whenever an encrypted message came in during the night, the navigator was supposed to decrypt it, and so I should go to the crypto room to do so.  Of course, I had no idea how to proceed.  I went to the bridge and explained the situation to the officer of the deck, who had sent the sailor to wake me.  He had me relieve his junior officer of the deck, and sent the poor fellow down to crypto do take care of the message.  After nearly two hours, he reported back to the bridge that he could not do the decryption.  The XO was notified, and he did it himself. 

Encryption and decryption were confusing, tedious, and very difficult.  The main reason was that so few messages came in encrypted that no one really learned and remembered how to do the decryption, in spite of the fact that most junior officers went to a week’s crypto school at some time or another.  Thus, one would spend an hour or so fighting with manuals and the little rotor machine itself in a tiny, stuffy room that could hardly fit a man at the small desk.  The officer sent down to do the message instead of me was one of the ones who had not managed to sight five stars.  He was not happy with me for this additional humiliation, and ours was a pretty sour relationship throughout my tenure on the Donner.  The XO put me through some crypto training the next day, but I never felt it was good enough.  A year or so later, when I was assigned to a destroyer as a newly-commissioned ensign, I was sent to a week of crypto school.  Nonetheless, I could never really manage the system comfortably.

As the days went by, I became ever more competent and confidant as the navigator, although I never again achieved a point fix.  The rendezvous point was Zakynthos, one of the Greek islands west of the Peloponnese, in that part of the Mediterranean that is called the Ionian Sea. The island is also a province of Greece and its capital town, which is on the bay, is of the same name, but it is also known as Zante.  Navigating and piloting through the Ionian, with all its islands and shipping, was a pretty harrowing experience for the navigator, but we got there without mishap. 

In 1981, a small smugglers’ ship named the Agios Nicholas, which was loaded with contraband cigarettes, washed ashore on one of the prettiest beaches in the bay.  So, the bay was soon being called “Shipwreck Bay.”  It still is today, the ship is still there, and it is the second most visited and photographed point of interest in Greece, following only the Acropolis.  Go figure.  Anyway, I’m glad it was not yet called Shipwreck Bay while I was trying to get the Donner safely there.  Soon after making our rendezvous off Shipwreck Bay, the PhibRon anchored in the bay and enjoyed a weekend in the town of Zakynthos.  This navigator and the whole rest of the crew were certainly more than just ready for that.  For most of the rest of the cruise, it was easier to be the navigator, because we were always cruising in formation, and the flag ship led the way.


After our weekend in Zakynthos, we headed for Pylos, Greece.  Historically known by its Italian name of Navarino, Pylos is a large bay, with a tiny town of the same name at its head, on the west coast of the Peloponnese.  It was a gorgeous location for a visit.  The bay itself was of turquoise water, and it was surrounded by white sand beaches and rocky cliffs.  The town was typical of Greek coastal towns: white washed buildings with red tile roofs crowded together on a hill side, right down to the water’s edge.  I failed to mention before, that my regular duties were as assistant first division officer, thus second in charge of the primary seamanship portion of the crew.  In that capacity, I was in charge on the forecastle for dropping the anchor, while the XO piloted us to our designated anchorage.  Notwithstanding that the water was turquoise when one looked out over it, if you looked straight down into it, the water was as clear as a mirror.  I forget in what depth of water we dropped our anchor, but it was at least 100 feet or so.  We watched the anchor descend, and just as we lost sight of it, a cloud of white sand billowed up from the bottom.  The anchor was down, and the ship backed a bit to set the anchor in the sand.  We were scheduled to spend about a week or so in Pylos.

It was good to be there in time for a weekend, so there would be a break for everyone before the work week’s scheduled operations and drills.  However, my own weekend plans were somewhat different.  Just before we entered the bay, the XO informed me that he had sent a challenge ashore for a football game against a town team.  A reply accepting the challenge came back almost immediately.  The game was scheduled for the following Saturday at the town stadium of Pylos.  If you haven’t guessed it yet, you should have:  I was to be the ship’s football coach and manager.  It was up to me to put together a team and make a good showing in town.  He was confidant that we could do well at our own game.

I was flabbergasted.  XO, I said to the XO, I’m sure the Greeks mean soccer, not American football. They probably don’t even know about American football.  After a while, he realized his gaff, and simply ordered me to make it work.  I had played intramural soccer at USNA for one three-month season, so I was hardly a player, much less a coach.  He had given me no recruitment authority.  And, uh, where exactly are we to practice?

I approached the junior officers and asked them to screen their divisions for soccer volunteers.  Some were more enthusiastic than others, but all agreed to help with the recruitment of a team. By the end of the weekend, I had ten sailors plus the lieutenant (jg) and ensign who were the runners up in the star sightings.  With me, that would make thirteen, the minimum number I felt I needed for a team.  I had also managed to get a copy of rules from another of the ships, and the boatswain’s mates who could sew promised me eleven shorts and shirts in blue and gold.  Finally, I extracted from the XO an assurance that the LCUs would be gotten out of the well deck, so that we could use that space for a practice field.

Our first practice was on Sunday.  I introduced myself to the men who didn’t know me, explained the mission, thanked them for taking part instead of going ashore, and promised them a good experience.  As luck would have it, three of the volunteers had played some soccer before, and all the others appeared to be athletic.  I divided the thirteen of us into three groups and assigned each of the prior players to do some instructing on techniques and skills.  For purposes of soccer, I explained, there would be no protocol of rank and privilege.  That worked well, because all seemed to agree that we needed to learn what we were doing at least well enough to be able to hold our heads up after the match, and part of that success depended upon everyone being able to feel comfortable with each other and also have a good time.

Notwithstanding how busy things got during the week, we managed at least one hour of practice each day.  By the end of the week I was pretty confident that we would at least not look like idiots.  When the big Saturday came around, we went ashore looking pretty smart in our thirteen new uniforms; those bosuns having been super generous with their time and efforts.  We were then transported by bus to a field outside of town.  The “stadium” was an uneven dirt patch with some broken-down seating along one side.  There were school-aged boys playing a pick up game that sent dust clouds across the stand.  We took up a light practice off to one side while, slowly but surely, some onlookers showed up and took to the seats.  A number of officers from the PhibRon were there, both sailors and Marines, and including the commodore.  About a half hour late, our opposition finally made its appearance.  They were a rag-tag lot of very mixed ages.  A referee in a very proper ref’s black uniform came along a little later.  I was extremely relieved; this sight of the opposition was the first real confirmation I had that we were in fact to play soccer; not American football.

The whistle blew. The game was on.  Within seconds, the rag-tags scored.  This would be a long match.  Good grief!  We players from the PhibRon chatted to each other in baseball style to get our spirits up.  The rag-tags’ second goal took almost another twenty minutes.  Not bad.  More baseball chatter.  Almost at the half-time whistle; GOAL for the Americans!  We came off the field in a terrific frame of mind.  The second half proceeded much as had the first half, only there was no early surprise goal for the Pylos team.  They did score again, and then so did we.  This time it was the Lt(jg)’s goal on a good cross from one of the guys who had played before.  Thus, the game ended with a Pylos win of three – two.  Everyone was able to leave happy. The Greeks did not have their pride hurt, and we had not been humiliated.  The commodore was very pleased.  The XO schmoozed with him to make sure he got credit for the wonderful event.

Now back to the previous Monday following our first weekend in Pylos Bay.  The bay had been transformed into a watery Times Square.  Our own LCUs and smaller boats, which had been tethered to four huge booms which were swung out from the sides of the ship, plus at least another 25 landing craft, were all operating between the anchored ships and the beach to the right of Pylos town.  The Marines and their equipment were going ashore, where they would make a dash inland to meet up with a Greek army unit and perform war games for a few days against an opposition unit also provided by the Greek army.  I was the boat officer in a small landing craft full of Marines from the attack transport Francis Marion.  I didn’t know much about being a boat officer, except I was told to make sure things were done right, and that the Marines were brought safely ashore in the right place, each boat having been assigned a landing space on the beach.  The boat’s coxswain seemed to know exactly what he was doing, and the Marines were well-behaved, albeit sick, in some cases.  I adopted a serious manner, said little, and observed.  Whenever the coxswain requested permission to do something, I looked around a bit, and then granted the request.  It all worked very well, and I’m sure we were one of the best landing craft on the day.

Liberty ashore in the evenings was granted each day to two of the three watch groups into which the ship’s crew was divided while underway.  Thus, one was allowed ashore two out of every three evenings.  I went ashore the first night with some of the other junior officers.  We found a nice little café, where we had a good lamb kabob dinner.  Lots of ouzo came to the table without asking for it.  Ouzo is the national drink of Greece.  It’s a clear, anis-flavored and syrupy drink which, I am told, is about 40% alcohol.  It gets mixed one part to two parts of water, whereupon it turns milky in color and goes down a lot more easily.  I didn’t have much drinking experience in my past, like the young officers who went to ordinary civilian colleges and in some cases had already experienced some time or even previous deployments in the Mediterranean.  Nonetheless, Ouzo quickly got easier and easier to drink.

As the evening progressed, we tried a few more cafes and bars.  There, the evening’s drinks evolved into endless bottles of retsina wine.  This is a heavy red wine that has been aged in pine barrels.  It smelled and even tasted like turpentine.  Great Greek bouzouki music helped the evening along.  As time went on, things became ever wilder.  Greeks threw their plates and glasses at the wall, and we had no trouble emulating them.  There was ever more shouting and dancing – mostly just men – and it was all folk dancing to the wild and crazy bouzouki music.  We found we got much better at the dancing as the evening progressed.  I don’t think I ever got sick, which would have been a help.  Instead I just kept all that ouzo and retsina aboard.  I have no memory of returning to the ship, but I assume that I did, since that’s where I awoke the next morning.  Even then, it was difficult to lie in my rack without holding on.  Ouzo is well named, because it leaves you with a brain that seems to be oozing down your left leg.  Retsina, with its turpentine content, simply blinds you with a head ache behind the eyes that has never for me been duplicated.  In that condition I had to face the work day.

So, that’s how the evenings of liberty ashore went.  We often ran into sailors from the squadron, and we didn’t mind socializing with them at all, even though fraternization between officers and enlisted men was much discouraged in the Navy at that time.  Few things seemed to matter in the swirling music, dancing, and glass crashing.  Besides, some of them were great dancers, having been many times to the Greek towns.  On one evening, I decided to break loose early and return to the ship.  I pretty quickly lost my way in the tiny, winding streets, most of which, by the way, were too narrow to support vehicular traffic.  I wasn’t worried, though.  I knew that if I just always went down hill I would get back to the docks sooner or later.  Then I would see where the boats were coming and going to transport sailors back to their ships.

As I came around a corner, there was my quartermaster.  He was hard pressed against another sailor whose back was pressed against a wall.  They were kissing! I was then not much aware of homosexuality.  It just was not an issue with me, nor was it much in the press.  The military’s attitude, in these days before “don’t ask; don’t tell,” was simple.  It was illegal for a homosexual to be in the military, and if he was found out he was discharged immediately.  I recall when I got into the Navy, there was a medical screening at boot camp.  I was placed into camp Dewey/Porter/Downs at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center.  Part of the medical screening was to visit with a psychologist who would interview you a bit, and then have you read what seemed a rather silly paragraph from an index card.  I learned later that references to bananas and banana oil in the paragraph were used to see one’s reaction as he read.  Certain reactions supposedly revealed homosexuality or at least its tendencies.  It seemed pretty stupid then, and certainly does now.  Also, I have at least a vague recollection that during my class’s first year at USNA, someone from the class ahead of us was found out and shown the main gate before the end of the day.

I continued back to the ship, my ouzoed brain grappling with my thoughts.  Must I report what I had seen?  Indeed, would it be a career-ending decision to not report what I had seen?  Did it make sense for the Navy to discharge such a valuable sailor?  Was that a matter for me to decide or even on which to entertain an opinion?  Was a discharge just?  Was it fair?  At the personal level, would it make sense for me to destroy the man who had been such a help to me?  How about whether it made sense to destroy the man on whom I must continue to depend? At this time of night, and given my condition, I was sober enough to decide that I was too drunk to resolve my dilemma.

The next day, all ships in the PhibRon were signaled to send their navigators to the flagship for a meeting.  Obviously, the executive officer should have gone.  Maybe the quartermaster should have gone.  However, I was told to attend the meeting on behalf of the Donner.  So, I donned a crisp and clean set of whites and took the captain’s gig to the flagship.  I felt really grand, but I also felt some misgivings about being my ship’s representative in a meeting with the commodore and his staff about navigation.  I was careful to climb the accommodation ladder to the flagship’s quarterdeck with as much dignity and gravitas as I could muster.  I felt like all eyes were upon me and my midshipman’s insignia, whereas probably no one was really noticing.

The flagship was USS Monrovia (APA 31), or attack transport 31.  When World War Two began, the Monrovia had already been christened the SS Del Argentino, a German passenger-freighter being built by Sparrows Point Shipyard in Baltimore.  The US just took it as a prize of war and converted it.  Not much was changed beyond painting everything gray, as it came into service as a US Navy ship, since it was already nearly finished and was sorely needed for the invasion of North Africa.  She had first class staterooms with dial telephones and roll-down windows.  There were rooms the whole length of the superstructure, and the usual living standard was two-man rooms for USN and USMC officers.  Even the senior enlisted men, chief petty officers and senior sergeants, had rooms.  Monrovia rode like a magic carpet compared to other amphibious ships, because she had been designed to carry paying passengers.  Allegedly, #4 hatch was the former swimming pool.  The ship boasted what was reputed to be the largest mess deck in the Navy, the not-much-converted grand salon.  Sweeping up from what had become the embarked Marines’ mess deck, there were matching curved staircases like in the movie about the Titanic.  I don’t remember a domed sky light, but I suspect such a thing would not have been left on what was to be a warship.  The most senior embarked guest was always given “The General's Room,” where George Patton stayed while on board for the invasion of Sicily. It was not much of a room, but it did have its own head and a good view.

The commodore departed the meeting after a few words of welcome and about the importance of good navigation among all the islands in the western Med.  After stating unnecessarily that the commodore really meant the eastern Med, the commodore’s chief of staff then expressed surprise that I was the navigator of one of the squadron ships.  I say “surprise,” but it was really more like disapproval; maybe even indignation.  Did he think I had appointed myself?  Anyway, there was not much right then that he could do about it, and I never knew whether he ever tried.  Clearly, though, he would be reporting my status and position to the commodore. 

We were informed that after our stay in Pylos Bay, we would be transiting the Straits of Kithirai at the bottom of the Peloponnese, into the Sea of Crete, which is more or less the southern part of that section of the Mediterranean Sea that is known as the Aegean.  At the end of the work week, we would put into Izmir bay in Turkey to conduct pretty much the same kind of exercises with the Turks as were being conducted with the Greeks in Pylos.  The real message was that the whole part of the world where we would be operating, including re-provisioning and re-fueling at sea, for five days was spotted with islands and crawling with shipping, much of the latter without navigational lights during night times.  We were to study our charts so as to be familiar with the landmarks and restudy our international rules of the road to ensure we knew how to handle all the shipping, including the darkened fishing boats.  It was emphasized that we could vary from our formation positions to safely navigate and avoid other ships and boats.  As I looked at the charts, I found it all a bit unnerving, and I was glad we mainly just had to keep in formation and let the flagship and its embarked staff worry about the next turn.  Nonetheless, back on the Donner, I did spend a lot of time with the quartermaster, pouring over the charts and getting clarifications on as many of the inconsistencies as we could.  During one of these study sessions, the quartermaster looked up from the chart at me and said, “Mr. Andretta, I just want to thank you very much.”  I had thought a lot about how to handle my special knowledge about the quartermaster, but really not much about what to say to him. I simply answered that he needed to be more discrete.  That short exchange had ended my ruminating, even agonizing, over what to do or not to do, and this story is my first mention ever of my situation regarding the quartermaster.

The Donner had a flight deck over the well deck, which reached back not quite to the transom of the ship, the “transom” of this ship actually being the gates to the well deck.  We carried one helicopter, which I envision in my memory as an UH-1 or “Huey,” but that might be just because I associated with Hueys so much in Vietnam a few years later.  A lieutenant and a lieutenant (jg) were the pilot and co-pilot of the helicopter.  They had no other duties on the ship, and were frequently to be found in the wardroom or sunning themselves high up on the signal bridge.  There was a little resentment that they had so little to do (I mean – can’t they at least do crypto?), but they were jovial and friendly “good ole boys,” and so they were popular with the ship’s company junior officers, especially when ashore.  We also carried a chief petty officer, who was their flight chief, and a two- or three-man maintenance crew.  During the transit from the western to the eastern Med, if there was really good weather, they would take off, fly around in a few big circles, land back on the flight deck, and resume their primary duty station on the signal bridge.

While we were in Pylos Bay, the helicopter and its crew were kept very busy, shuttling officers between ships and land, and especially way inland to the site of the war games, and even bringing back the occasional injured Marine to be tended to on the flagship.  They of course made frequent returns to the Donner for re-fueling and assorted maintenance.  Late in the week, they came in to land on the flight deck, and seemingly landed with one runner over the stern end of the deck.  Consequently, the chopper started to fall over the stern.  The pilot tried to resume flight, but he was too late.  The big machine slammed down onto the well deck gates, and then tumbled into the bay.  The noise and vibrations of all this brought my and many others’ attention sternward in time to see the helicopter plunge from the gates to the water.       

Like all helicopters, ours carried its engine on top, so it was top heavy, and as soon as it hit the water, it turned upside down, and almost immediately sank.  The pilot and the crew chief bobbed to the surface, but there was no sight of the co-pilot.  We watched, feeling helpless, in hopes he would come up, but the longer the time got since impact, the more we knew the truth; the co-pilot would not be coming up.  This was my first experience with death in the line of duty, much of which I would see again in Vietnam a few years later.  However, for me at that age and level of inexperience, the event was shocking and very disquieting.

Our well deck gates were jammed from the impact, and thus could not admit the two big LCUs.  The helicopter and co-pilot needed to be retrieved, and Donner was the obvious base of operations for that.  So, when the rest of the PhibRon departed the bay, we remained, awaiting the arrival of a diving crew and people who could repair the gates.  These were being sent from Naples.  A day or two later, our own shipboard crane was used by the divers and the ship’s crew to first retrieve the co-pilot; then the helicopter, which was lashed down on the flight deck.  A helicopter from the eastern Med’s aircraft carrier came and got the co-pilot.  We were at least another day getting the gates to work again.

When all was ship shape and the LCUs were aboard, it was time to make a dash, or at least all deliberate speed, to meet up with the rest of the PhibRon for replenishment and re-fueling at sea.  I was a pretty tense navigator, and morning and evening cloudiness did not help the navigational efforts.  Still, we got there.  Refueling and re-supplying at sea was a tremendous exercise in professionalism.  The carrier and all its escorts, as well as all the ships of the PhibRon, were catered to by the oiler and the supply transport ships in a brilliant display of choreography, for want of a better word.  Much of the re-supplying was done with helicopters as well as by high lines directly ship to ship.  I always enjoyed these underway replenishments (“unreps”) including through my few years in destroyers after graduation.  Part of the unrep was that we received a new helicopter and a new co-pilot.  The co-pilot turned out to be a close friend of the late co-pilot.  They had gone to flight school together, and had done their share of partying together.  I felt for him, having to take his mate’s place.


Our next location for operations was in Izmir Bay, on the west coast of Turkey.  There, we were to conduct joint operations with the Turkish Army, much as we had done in Pylos with the Greeks.  It was pretty soon apparent that the Turks were a more serious organization than the Greeks, maybe even than our own Marines.  They were fit, well trained, enthusiastic, and serious about what they were doing.  This was the army that NATO would depend upon to fight on the underbelly of the Soviet Union.  We quickly had every confidence that they could do so.

The town of Izmir, sometimes known as Smyrna, was at the head of its namesake bay, but there the geographic similarity to Pylos ended.  Izmir Bay was huge, and along its inland coasts it was spotted with islands.  Mountains soared from the islands and the mainland.  Our Marines had their warm weather stamina cut out for them working with the Turks in the rugged and hot terrain.  As in Pylos, the landing went well, and I enjoyed being a landing boat officer again.  It was nice, though, to come back to the ship rather than schlepping ashore in the surf and struggling up a hot beach with a heavy pack on my back, only to then have to quick march about ten miles inland on hilly and rugged roads.  Well, I surmised, maybe that’s what Marines really wanted to do from the day they enlisted.  Ooo-rah!

The time ashore was also different.  The music in the cafes was similar to that in Greece; maybe even wilder and crazier.  But there was no throwing of glasses and plates, very little alcohol, and zero women.  Some of the cafes served a weak Turkish beer, but there were no counterparts to ouzo and retsina.  Liberty was on the same three-part schedule for those who wanted to visit Turkey.  An alternative was a “wine mess” set up on one of the beaches.  This was a total surprise to me.  Up out of the holds of the normally tea-totaling American warships came cases of beer, wine and booze.  It was served ashore, on our private little beach, at moderate prices, along with endless US-style barbecues.  If anyone drank too much, he was simply bundled back aboard his ship.  There were lots of laughs about the Marines sweating their way inland while we sailors enjoyed our endless beach party.

About half way through the week, the XO informed us at breakfast that one of the operations ashore would be to place three-man teams of US Marines and Turkish soldiers at locations around the peninsula that formed the west side of the bay.  The teams would be dropped at isolated locations distant from each other, and would have 24 hours within which to get to a final destination in Karaburun, a town near the entrance to the bay.  The XO had requested to supply a three-man team of sailors to “compete” in this exercise; never mind that sailors didn’t have the training in such exercises that the Marines had, and certainly not the familiarity of the general terrain that the Turks presumably had.  What the XO wanted to know at breakfast was who to send from the Donner.

To some of us young people, though, the idea and the challenge were intriguing.  Somehow, without much thought about equipment or supplies, the lieutenant (jg) and ensign of star fix and soccer team fame, plus your navigator, went to the XO to say we volunteered for the exercise ashore.  The XO was ecstatic, sensing that he would again get credit for doing something special.  That afternoon, we reported to the command post that had been set up at the landing site for the exercise.  We didn’t even have fatigues and boots, so we wore khakis with tennis shoes.  At the command post, most of the Marines viewed us as hilarious presumed dead meat.  We were glad, though, to find one of the teams had two Marines from the soccer team in Pylos; not that they could be of any direct help.

We were each issued with a canteen of water, a little sack of snacks, and one topographical map of the peninsula for each team that showed the fifteen or twenty drop-off points.  Few roads, towns, or other possible points of reference that could be useful to us were on the map.  Part of the exercise that the XO had not told us about was that search parties would be looking for us.  If we were found, we would be brought in as “prisoners,” and taken to a “POW camp” until the expiration of the 24 hours.  However, we were assured that if we didn’t get arrested or to Karaburun within the allotted 24 hours, we would be quickly found and brought back in.  We left in truckloads, and we sailors were the last to be dropped off from our truck.  It was obvious from the map that we were further from Karaburun than any other team from our truck, and of course we presumed we were farther than any of the other teams from other trucks.  So we started our trek feeling put upon that we were singled out to be given the hardest row to hoe.

It didn’t take long for the summer heat, the rugged terrain, and the uncertainty of our movements to take a toll.  We were wearing out fast in mind, body, and spirit.  We had decided that we had erred for a while, and so we retraced our steps for a few miles, then we went another way.  This was the most disheartening thing we could have done.  As it began to get dark, we discussed the matter and concluded it was just too dangerous to proceed in the dark.  We also discussed whether to try to make ourselves available to the search parties so we could just be brought in and spend the night as POWs, but pride precluded that.  We concluded that we must find a place to sleep where we would not be found, then continue in daylight.

Every midshipman at the Naval Academy becomes a student of Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose most famous of a number of widely-read and highly-esteemed books was The Influence of Seapower Upon History (1890).  Never one to shy away from blurting out what I always viewed as terrific ideas, I suggested that we follow Mahan’s thesis that domination of the sea by naval power was the deciding factor in the outcome of the tremendous competition between Britain and France in the 17th and 18th centuries, and that therefore, control of seaborne capability was critical to the outcome of wars and also little evasion exercises.  Thus, I concluded, we should spend the night on one of the offshore islands.  It didn’t take much convincing, since we were all hot and clammy, and the water really looked inviting.

What a nightmare!!  It was about 100 yards or so out to the chosen island.  The water was indeed cool and soothing.  But it was a difficult passage, because some of it was too deep to wade, and swimming was made difficult by having to hold our wallets and shoes above our heads and by wave action between the island’s and mainland’s rocky shores that made the sea state wilder than it had looked.  The rocky bottom was sharp on our feet.  Also, I am just not a good swimmer.  We got to our refuge island just before it would have been too dark to try it.  We were by then totally exhausted and ready to sleep anywhere, and that’s exactly what the island provided – zero comfort.  Nonetheless, we slept pretty well.

I awoke in my little sandy spot, wedged between sharp-edged rocks soon after dawn the next morning.  I had spent the past two years playing or practicing Rugby nearly every day.  So, I had confidence in my endurance and ability to manage physical difficulties.  However, I quickly found I would have difficulty just getting up.  I was stiff from head to toe, my ankles were swollen and ached badly, and my feet were raw with open blisters and cuts.  The other two guys were the same, the ensign worse off than me, the JG a little better off.  This just wouldn’t do.  There was no way we could get back to walking the rocky coastal terrain in tenny pumps.

There were a few early fishing boats off shore.  They were pretty, almost cocky, in multiple colors of fresh paint.  None looked haggard or worn.  They looked like they were in a perpetual competition for finest appearance in the fishing fleet.  It was time to evoke Mahan again.  We waived and shouted, and a few boats started to make their way ashore to rescue three obvious Americans who were on this remote island for unknown reasons.  When one of them made it first, there were no questions asked or answered.  We piled aboard to the distinct pleasure of the skipper, who was glad to do something other than fish with his sole crew, evidently a teenage son.  They had plenty of water and good things to eat, and we indulged ourselves greedily.  Our sole commonality of language was the name of our destination town – Karaburun.  The man acknowledged that, smiled broadly, spoke excitedly in what sounded like Greek instead of Turkish (but what did we know?) and set off with the coast to our starboard side, thus heading up the peninsula towards our destination.

We made it to Karaburun in a few hours, and our skipper dropped us off within the confines of a small mole that contained many more similar fishing craft.  We gave him some American money, and he went back to sea a happy man.  It took a little while of wondering around and asking questions of those few people who could understand us to find out where a small, temporary headquarters and “prison camp” were to be found.  We were shocked to find that many of the teams were in the POW camp, and only a few had checked in ahead of us; about a third were yet to show up.  A Marine major who was the senior American at the HQ asked how we had gotten back so fast.  Indeed, I am sure he really wanted to know how we had gotten back at all.  I quickly stepped forward and said that we had been dropped near the sea and had followed the coast to Karaburun.  Before he could ask anything else, I told him about our feet, and asked whether there was anything that the three of us could use on our open blisters.  He sent us into another room where two Navy corpsmen were treating many Marine feet with the same problems, plus a few assorted, more serious injuries.  So, to our relief, there were no more questions about how did you do it.

We started getting treated better and better, including getting some good food.  A few truck loads of “POWs” came in and a few more teams straggled in on foot.  Our XO showed up with one of the Donner’s boats, and he took us back to the ship, insisting that we should spend the rest of the day at the wine mess ashore.  He was beside himself with joy, and totally convinced that, all things considered, we had won the competition.  I’m sure he was also convinced he would soon be a full commander.  We three were pretty careful not to say much about how we had gotten to Karaburun from the island, but I said a few prayers for Alfred Thayer Mahan.

When the work week ended, we stayed on in the bay for a two-day marathon wine mess ashore.  Lots of Turks showed up and did a lot of what they couldn’t do, that is to say they drank a lot that they couldn’t drink elsewhere.  They had a great time.  None of us spoke Turkish and only a few of them spoke English, but we got along famously.  Late on the Saturday, two Royal Navy frigates and a submarine showed up and proved themselves to be very adept at indulging in an American wine mess.

We were back to sea at the crack of dawn on Monday.  The first order of business was to replenish and refuel.  I was flattered and excited to be given the chance by the captain to conn the ship during both of these difficult maneuvers.  He, of course, stood beside me, but it was a great chance to take part in this manner in a truly more senior officer’s duties.  I wasn’t to be aboard much longer, and the captain spoke highly to me of my handling of the navigational duties.  In turn, I took the opportunity to sing the praises of the second class quartermaster and mention to the captain that he would be soon qualified by time to take the first class quartermasters’ promotion examination.

A few says later, a few other PhibRon midshipmen, I think all from NROTC units, and I were transferred to the carrier by helicopter, where we linked up with many other midshipmen from all sources who had been in the carrier group and on the replenishment ships.  From there, we were flown to Naples to link up with return flights to the US.  The transport to Naples was in COD lights (carrier onboard delivery) provided by C1A Trader aircraft.  These were not sleek jets, but bulky-looking things with two propeller engines that somehow lumbered on and off the carrier. They were not quite the more romantic aviso schooners and sloops of the age of Nelson, but they provided the same service to the fleet, a reasonably quick link to the Navy’s headquarters in Naples.

There were way too many of us for one flight, and our transport to Naples was not a high priority.  Some of us would have to stay aboard the carrier for a while.  While others scrambled to get the earliest departures possible, I demurred so as to stay aboard the carrier as long as I could.  That turned out to be three days.  I explored every niche and corner of the ship, I watched flight ops, I watched aircraft maintenance and repair, plying the enlisted mechanics, who had to get the aircraft back in service, with endless questions about the engines, electronics and weapons systems.  I even invited myself up onto the flag bridge to watch formation changes.  The most fun, though, was volunteering my services to the navigator and quartermasters.

All parties come to an end, and I finally flew off the carrier (another thrill!!) and on to Naples.  The C1A aircraft was noisy, bumpy and uncomfortable, but for me that just made it all the more fun. When I got to Naples, I opted to take some leave in Europe before returning to the US, and so I spent some time in Italy and then England.  When I got back home, I was still on leave, but I found myself anxious to get started on my last year at the Naval Academy, first class academic year.


Back at the academy there was lots of buzz about the summer.  Everyone wanted to tell stories about what they had done and, of course, the “conquests” they had managed.  Lots of it was BS, and we all recognized that, but it was nonetheless fun to trade the stories.  Through the fog of hyperbole as well as out and out fantasy, one could slowly get an idea of what to believe.  I found myself concluding that, notwithstanding having served my time and efforts on a lumbering amphibious ship instead of a dashing destroyer, I had experienced a terrific first class cruise; better than most of the others I was hearing about.  After all, I had been given tremendous responsibilities right from the start. I had indulged in great adventures and had even created and coached an international athletic team.  Sadly, I had experienced the loss in the line of duty of a well-liked shipmate.  Finally, I had been presented with a moral, ethical, and legal dilemma, and I was satisfied that I had disposed of it correctly. 

How can you beat that?  You can’t. 

Source: Robert A. Andretta, USNA 1965, Lieutenant U.S. Navy (Ret.)
Fed. Administrative Law Judge (Ret.)



How’s The Cow?

Captain Dennis R. Neutze ’65, JAGC, USN (Ret.)

“Sir, she walks, she talks, she’s full of chalk.
The lacteal fluid extracted from the female of the bovine species
is highly prolific to the nth (number of glasses remaining in milk carton) degree.”

We all have different memories - both good and bad - of our years at USNA. One of my happier memories of life in Bancroft Hall involves what has since become a family-favorite breakfast tradition reserved for special occasions and visitors. This breakfast, known in our family as “ the Naval Academy Breakfast”, is a very easy one. It consists simply of a bowl of  cornflakes, a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream (French vanilla if handy), and fresh strawberries. After five to ten minutes, as the ice cream melts and is stirred or mashed in with the cornflakes, the cornflakes take on the consistency of a mushy ice cream cone. Having to wait at least ten minutes before being able to take the first spoonful somehow was never an issue Plebe year. But with no compelling need to wait ten minutes and the benefit of technological advances since  the early 60s, the process can be speeded up a good deal with 20 seconds in the microwave (doing so, of course, before adding the strawberries).

The genesis of this great breakfast treat was undoubtedly the existence of the Naval Academy Dairy Farm, which was once home to as many as 400 cows which provided all the milk requirements of the Naval Academy from 1911 to 1998.   The Dairy Farm was also a logical home for Bill the Goat. The motivating factor behind the creation of the Dairy Farm was a typhoid epidemic in 1910 which affected several Midshipmen. It was thought the typhoid outbreak was the result of improperly handled milk. The solution to this threat to the health of the “spoiled and pampered pets of Uncle Sam” was a safe, reliable supply of milk for the Naval Academy. Thus the Naval Academy acquired the 800 plus acre Hammond Manor Farm in Gambrills, Maryland. The Dairy Farm became operational in 1911 as a subordinate  command of USNA with a Supply Corps Lieutenant Commander as the OIC.  When the last incumbent as OIC retired from the Navy in 1984, the position was civilianized and the former OIC was hired into the position.

During a large part of the Dairy Farm’s existence (and before the advent of BGO Summer Training, the Naval Academy Seminar, STEM Camps and Sports Camps), the Yard was pretty empty during summers, except for the Plebes and the Plebe Detail. But of course the cows continued to produce milk on a year-round schedule. Since the Dairy Farm could not sell the excess milk, production of large quantities of ice cream was a logical  solution which provided plenty of ice cream for desserts throughout the year, but still left over some ice cream for this occasional breakfast delight. I, like thousands of  other Midshipmen of the era, was the beneficiary of this happy circumstance. Although I had never been a big fan of ice cream, I became an avid consumer of this treat.

Upon graduation, I was commissioned in the Supply Corps. Following Supply School, I was assigned to USS Marshall (DD 676). Included among my duties, I was responsible for the general mess.  This meant that the Chief Commissaryman (now Mess Specialist)  submitted the weekly mess menu to me for approval. After being aboard for a few weeks, I decided to make the menu a bit more interesting and added the Naval Academy Breakfast.  The Chief thought I was nuts. As we had a small wardroom, the officers subsisted off the general mess. While in our homeport, our officers typically did not eat breakfast in the wardroom but arrived aboard just before quarters. When the USNA Breakfast first appeared on the menu, the wardroom also thought that I was nuts, but all the officers came aboard early to try this weird concoction. It was a roaring success and all the officers showed up for breakfast whenever it was on the menu.  I quickly learned, however, of a downside to using the Navy Supply System as the source of ice cream.  Ice cream was ordered by the five-gallon container and not by flavor. Chocolate or pistachio ice cream with strawberries does not have the same eye appeal as vanilla ice cream. But the treat nevertheless retained its popularity aboard Marshall.

As one might imagine, local dairy farmers in Anne Arundel were not keen on the idea of this protected dairy farm in their midst. In the absence of the Dairy Farm, they could easily add thousands of new customers by selling their milk to the Naval Academy. Over the years pressure mounted to close the Dairy Farm.  A 1966 GAO Report found that the Dairy Farm was no longer needed from a  health perspective, that it was not a viable entity from a fiscal standpoint, and that the farms operation was contrary to Government policy regarding competition with private enterprise. The report seemed to seal the fate of the Dairy Farm. But not quite.

When DoD began making overtures toward closing the Dairy Farm, Congressman L. Mendell Rivers, the powerful Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, leaped to the defense of this strange Navy outpost. Rivers argued that the Dairy Farm was necessary for Midshipman morale and vowed that it would be closed over his dead body. ( My guess is that the “morale” to which he made reference was code for “ice cream”).  Rivers’ strong opposition led to a rider on a 1966 military appropriations bill, requiring express approval of Congress to close the Dairy Farm.   Chairman Rivers would die four years later, but the Dairy Farm lived on.

Approval to close the facility was not given until 1997 and Navy operations at the Dairy Farm ceased in 1998. When Congress finally granted approval to close the Dairy Farm, it authorized the Secretary of the Navy to lease the land and buildings, giving preference to those with a diary operation. The legislation specifically provided that the Naval Academy Dairy Farm may not be declared as excess property or disposed of by any Federal Agency. And, to satisfy the wishes of Anne Arundel County residents, the legislation provides that the property shall be maintained in its rural and agricultural nature.

Today the farm is leased to Anne Arundel County for $240,000 per year on a lease that runs until 2037.  When the Dairy Farm ceased operations in 1998, it was the last working dairy farm in Anne Arundel County. The land  is currently run by Anne Arundel County Recreation and Parks  with a sub-lease to Maryland Sunrise Farm LLC, which operates the property as an organic farm and hosts seasonal farm events including school and group tours.

But what about Bill the Goat? Military necessity dictates that his whereabouts remain highly classified, especially during late November and early December. However, it has been reported that Bill resides on a farm near Annapolis, where he is cared for by a group of Midshipmen volunteers.

Those who attended USNA prior to the closure of the Dairy Farm will recall the iconic Blue and Gold half-gallon milk containers.  Sadly, we’re unlikely to ever see them again, except perhaps in a museum. But the Naval Academy Breakfast is an easy fix and a delightful way to recall the contributions that the Naval Academy Dairy Farm made to Midshipman life for many years. I am confident that my grandchildren will do their part to help keep the tradition of the Naval Academy Breakfast alive many years into the future. Bon appétit!

Captain Neutze graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1970. Upon retirement from the Navy in late 1992, he remained in London and became a partner in Shook, Hardy & Bacon LLP and later Chadbourne & Parke LLP. He currently lives in Aventura, Florida where is the BGO Area Coordinator for South Florida.


…And Then There Were?…

Tom Murphy, VA-85 off USS KITTY HAWK (CVA-63)

[This is a story from the book THERE I WAS … Sea Stories from the U. S. Naval Academy Class of 1965, a 320-page collection of active-duty memories from 78 classmates published in 2002.]

It was the spring of 1967. Ho Chi Minh’s Pride and Joy, the Thai Nguyen Steel plant, had always been on the US forbidden target list and had never been touched by a bomb. Located 35 miles northwest of Hanoi, the steel plant was the centerpiece of North Vietnamese Industrialization Program. The plant was an ideal strategic target - it was the only plant in the whole country capable of producing steel for railroads and bridges.

Since the KITTY HAWK had been on Yankee Station for a while, we knew the steel plant was in the area assigned to the Air Force, so we never thought we would have to worry about it. We had heard that there were lots of high-level discussions (CINCPAC and above) going on about the possibility of removing the steel plant from the forbidden target list, but those discussions were way too political for those who salute, take cat shots, and carry out their duties as directed. Since the steel plant was so far inland, we were quite surprised when we learned that our A-6s were volunteered to participate when the plant was declared a Must-Hit JCS target.

Even before the new high-level discussions about attacking the plant started taking shape, the plant and its associated railroad complex were already well defended by AAA, and also, it was close enough to Hanoi for mutual SAM protection. When the Air Force was directed to bomb the railroad yards, but not the steel plant as yet, the NVN predictably added even more SAM sites and guns to defend the steel plant.

When the Air Force eventually sent fighter-bomber formations against the steel plant, the cloud cover was too extensive to dive bomb the target with any accuracy. The Air Force lost many aircraft in this repetitive effort because the strike group was required to fly all the way to the target to check conditions before aborting. Thus the Air Force aircrews had to fly through some of the strongest air defenses in the world before diverting to alternate targets. That the Air Force could continue this effort in the face of fierce opposition and daily losses is a credit to the professionalism of their Tactical Air flyers.

However, the Navy A-6s added another dimension to the mission because A-6s were designed for night and bad weather attacks … when they worked. Our first concern was A-6 reliability. To have any chance of success and survival, you needed a good working weapons system. On a mission of this difficulty that meant that at least the main video display, computer, inertial navigation system, search radar and radar altimeter plus the normal A-6 flight and engine systems had to function properly. If the Doppler radar and track radar worked, that was a bonus. Also the Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) and the chaff dispensers had to be operating to survive in the Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) environment. If the weapon system didn’t work you had to abort because you couldn’t find, much less hit, the target using visual means alone.

The NVN air defenses were quite formidable, and were growing by the day as our planning continued. This, coupled with our aircraft reliability uncertainties, increased our concerns as our strike planning continued. We knew that the area surrounding the steel plant was defended by SA-2 SAMs, many radar-directed 85 and 100 mm guns, plenty of 37 and 57 mm automatic flak cannon, and a whole host of smaller automatic weapons.

Then of course there was the issue of aircraft speed vs payload weight. Evading the defenses required high speeds, but at the same time, making a dent in the robust and large steel plant required lots of heavy ordnance. High speed and heavy bomb loads don’t go together that well, especially in the hot and humid Southeast Asia climate. The best A-6 bomb load for the mission was 13 Mk 83 1000 pounders mounted on five triple ejector racks. This maximized the both the number of bombs and the weight of bombs carried on each aircraft, while retaining a 500+ knot potential if the engines were trimmed well. But it meant a max capacity catapult shot at 56,000 pounds at night into the spring monsoon.

At 0030 on 24 April 1967, we completed our final briefings, and left the ready room. When we reached the flight deck, KITTY HAWK was already turning into the wind. It was a strange sensation to note that only our strike package was operating; everyone else aboard was asleep. After the usual greasy slide across the deck and stack gas inhalation, we climbed into our cockpits and strapped ourselves in.

Three tankers and eight A-6 aircraft were launched into the dark, wet night, and began heading northward toward our refueling rendezvous. A straight route from the carrier to the target could have been completed without refueling, but it required a 200 nautical mile trip overland through the defenses. The more roundabout north and then west route cut the overland distance in half, but increased total distance and fuel usage. Unfortunately our late night tanking would also alert the NVN that something unusual in the air war was about to occur.

Five minutes out, one aircraft reported a weapon systems failure and turned back. When we reached the tankers over the water due east of the target, six planes successfully linked up and refueled. One A-6 was unable to accept fuel and returned to the carrier. Six A-6s turned to the west. During the practice attacks, just before going “Feet Dry,” two more aircraft reported weapon system problems, and set a course to home.

The four remaining aircraft split up onto their assigned individual tracks and turned inland at 200 feet above ground level. Two proceeded over the offshore Karst Islands, then into the mountains to the northeast of the steel plant; the other two headed directly across the low-lying delta area south of Hai Phong and southeast of the target.

Once overland, my heart rate increased as I realized that our original eight aircraft were now reduced to four. The more targets the enemy had to deal with, the better were our chances of evading their defenses. Besides the SAM installations, there were estimated to be over 4,000 flak guns in the delta area, with highest concentrations around Hanoi, Hai Phong, and Thai Nguyen. Due to the rugged terrain, there were fewer guns in the mountainous areas, but I was inbound over the delta, heading just north of Hanoi.

I knew it was unreasonable to expect all eight A-6s to reach the target, but I had hoped for six, just to spread the defenses and to increase our chances of getting through to the target. Having only four was a real concern - the only good part about that was that it reduced the chances of mid-air collisions among ourselves, with half the aircraft racing northwest through the delta and the other half going southwest through the mountains. All aircraft would try to egress through the mountains to avoid the now alerted defenses. Our flight path coordination would be made by each crew broadcasting their arrival at each planned turn point. Each crew had all attack routes marked on its chart, so a quick estimate of potential collisions could be made.

The 200-foot run-in altitude should keep our A-6s below the effective level of the NVN’s FANSONG SAM radars and reduce tracking time for FIRECAN AAA radars. The high speed also shortened the tracking time for manually-aimed weapons. These tactics usually reduced the NVN to firing at engine sounds that left a trail of tracers arcing behind the aircraft but no damage. Only when the AAA was fired forward of the aircraft was the probability of damage high. The efficiency of the gunners could be checked by watching the tracer paths over the nose and in the cockpit rear-view mirrors. Judicious low level zigzagging helped avoid the heaviest flak.

The low level run-in would be followed by a rapid pop-up maneuver to 1200-1500 feet, about ten miles from the target. This was needed to avoid damage from your own bombs. At 1500 feet and 540 knots the bombs would release about 1.5 miles before the target. After release the aircraft would be pulled into a 4-5G turn followed by a rapid descent back to 200 feet to escape the bomb blasts … if everything went right.

At fifteen minutes to target, one of the planes in the delta lost its computer system from the jolting ride and aborted. At thirteen minutes to target, one of the aircraft in the mountains had a similar failure and turned back.

There were now two planes, their jet engines roaring, racing each other to their common target. At nine minutes to target, the A-6 in the mountains suffered a radar failure. The crew was now blind while snaking through the mountains at night. At the last second, the crew jettisoned their bombs and bounced off some trees. That A-6 turned back, with green and brown scrapes on the wing.

One plane thundered onward into the blackness …………. Alone.

The weather over the North was poor, low clouds, drizzle and some fog … good for an A-6, so very little antiaircraft fire was seen until reaching the Hanoi area. There the gunners were awake and using their ammo stockpiles to put up a barrier around the city. Quickly the remaining A-6’s track turned north of the city to avoid some of the defenses and try to use the sides of the great Thud Ridge north of Hanoi as protection. But to get near the ridge the aircraft had to climb to 500 feet to clear some smaller hills.

As the plane passed through 300 feet the intermittent sounds from the AAA FIRECAN radars became a constant buzzing. Then the deeper sounds of SAM FANSONG radar could be heard on the ECM equipment. Approaching 500 feet the FANSONG radar moved to high pulse repetition frequency (PRF) and the telltale rattle of a lock-on was heard in the cockpit. This was followed rapidly by the loud shrill tones of the APR-27 missile-warning receiver. Nicknamed the “warbler,” the APR-27 sounded just like a European police car, and the sound increased when the SAM site guidance signal was aimed at your aircraft.

The adrenalin flow in the cockpit was already high from being so far inside North Vietnam, but the rapid DEEDLE-DEEDLE of the warbler pushed the heart rate level up to a “double-pumper” – where both chambers of the heart are pumping at the same time to provide maximum blood flow to the brain. With increased oxygen in the brain, time seemed to slow down just as the night sky lit with the bright flares from SAM launches.

Instead of the normal three-shot salvos, two SAM batteries each fired all six of their launchers. One SAM went ballistic, but eleven SAMs were about to intercept my life.

The normal defensive move with a SAM was to maneuver to place the SAM at your 1 o’clock or 11 o’clock position for good visibility, and when the SAM was about 300 yards out go into a 4-5G barrel roll and dive out under the SAM. The small control surfaces of the SAM usually couldn’t turn the SAM enough for a hit. That worked for the number #1 SAM, and usually for the #2 as well, if you had the speed and altitude. But #3 was often the killer. Eleven SAMs at 500 feet was an impossible task unless you can somehow break the FANSONG’s lock-on. Technically, that meant jettisoning our bombs, radical maneuvers, max ECM, and chaff. Mentally, that meant keen observation and good judgment. Morally, prayers were definitely pouring out of that cockpit. Then there was luck, lots of good luck, and we kept our bombs.

To this day I cannot describe all the gyrations used to avoid the SAMs. I do know that somehow we never reached 1000 feet above ground level. I also know that we ended up about 15 miles off our pre-planned track. I distinctly remember seeing the ground light up in slow motion by the flash from an exploding SAM’s 300-pound warhead. I also have no recollection of pulling any Gs but only high-G maneuvering avoided the SAMs. That’s what a double-pump of blood flow will do for your senses.

I do believe that the low altitude combined with the ECM’s magic reduced the FANSONG’s accuracy so that we could generate a miss with radical maneuvers. At low level the SAMs had to dive toward the aircraft to make a hit, and any kind of miss distance meant the SAM couldn’t pull up so the SAM hit the ground or detonated in passing. All the A-6 received from the ordeal was some holes here and there, plus shrapnel stuck in the engine bay armor.

As my heart slowed back down, the A-6 provided another surprise. Despite all the wild whifferdills, the weapon system was still locked on the steel plant! Even though the aircraft was now well out in the flat delta, away from the protection of the mountains and Thud Ridge, the system was still working and the attack could continue. The SAM sites would have to reload before they became a threat again. Even the ECM was quiet. Following the system’s steering toward the target, I put the A-6 into Attack Mode. Now we were committed to the bombing run as we started a zoom climb to a 1500-foot release altitude. Then the horizon lit up from left to right. I had just enough time to think, “What the hell is that?” when AAA detonated all around the aircraft.

My first reaction was disbelief followed by an instant and intense rage. We had just survived eleven SAMs and now the !@#$%&* NVN were trying to shoot us down with old-fashioned guns. I started shouting: “You dirty *&%#, you couldn’t hit me with missiles and now you are going to try guns, too!!! I’ll destroy your whole @#$%&* steel plant, you *&%#.”

Directly forward through the intensive flak we flew until the familiar shudder of 1000-pound bombs releasing broke the spell. A “Bombs Away” call was followed by 4+Gs of a right break toward the nearest mountains and relative safety.

The initial return toward the coast seemed almost anti-climatic. The route through the mountains was basically empty of guns, and the peaks could hide our position from SAMs and MiGs. My breath became closer to normal as nothing big seemed to have fallen off the aircraft, and no warning lights were lit. The engine power seemed a little low, but the J52-P6 has always been hard to trim to 100% and correct TGT in high humidity. (TGT is Tailpipe Gas Temperature, better thought of as exhaust temperature.)

Then the Air Force did its part to make our night complete. The Big Eye surveillance plane broadcast to the world at large: “Border Violation RED 60 miles north of BULLSEYE (Hanoi).” So now everyone knows that an A-6 is sneaking through the restricted zone near China, and where we are. A quick change of course and lower altitude hid the plane from our friends, but the violation reports continued for some time.

Finally the northern Karst Islands slid under the aircraft, and the A-6 was truly “Feet Wet.” A sigh of relief, turn the oxygen off, and now it’s Marlboro time. We were totally drained after crossing back over the water, but then the black hole at the end of the boat was still waiting for us to screw up if we let our guard down now. Really all that’s left is the hard part - another night trap in the goo. A two wire was okay that night.


Bomb damage assessment showed we did hit the plant that night, mostly in the Number One Furnace area, and enough damage was done so that the furnace was out of action. Over the week following this strike, more Navy A-6s and Air Force fighter/bombers completely demolished the steel plant. By then I was in Cubi Point to pick up a repaired A-6 and get special early R&R. 


The Night I Mooned the Entire North Vietnamese Army

Fred Vogel, MACV/SOG’s Naval Advisory Detachment

[This is a story from the book THERE I WAS … Sea Stories from the U. S. Naval Academy Class of 1965, a 320-page collection of active-duty memories from 78 classmates published in 2002.]


It was my privilege and honor to have served three and a half years in the Republic of Vietnam. For about half of that time, I served with US Marine units, with the 1st Marine Division as XO/S-3/S-2 of the 1st Force Reconnaissance Company and as company commander of Alpha Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion near Danang. For the other half, I had the unique experience to serve as a field commander/advisor with Vietnamese units: a Provincial Reconnaissance Unit in the Phoenix program and the Naval Advisory Detachment (NAD) of MACV/SOG (Special Operations Group) operating with the Vietnamese Sea Commandos.

My story deals with MACV/SOG and the sea commandos, known affectionately to the enemy as “Khy’s Rangers.” Together with their PT boat comrades, they were feared and hated by the North Vietnamese as they ranged up and down the coast of Vietnam, from deep in the North and later all the way to the Delta. These were ‘black operations,’ ostensibly non-attributable to either the US or the RVN, where teams infiltrated into enemy territory under cover of darkness, wearing enemy or indigenous uniforms, and conducted raids and ambushes, prisoner snatches, and other intelligence gathering activities. At sea, their Nasty-class PT boats carried on the finest traditions of John Paul Jones, raiding shipping, dueling with enemy warships, and even shelling targets ashore.

During the early years of the war, the PT boats and sea commandos operated extensively in the North conducting raids against the North Vietnamese maritime industry and coastal installations. An important ancillary mission was to foster dissension within the population in the North, by creating an ostensible opposition to the war. Thus was born the “Secret Sword of the Patriotic League (SSPL).” The sea commandos would go ashore from the PT boats and recruit entire villages to the SSPL - they even had their own flag - then enlist the support of the villagers to conduct raids against the NVA forces and installations. Surprisingly, this effort was quite effective, to the extent that the Hanoi government took exceptional measures to suppress it. For example, a number of SSPL villages were completely liquidated. Another example was the effort by the North Vietnamese Navy to interdict the PT boats. In one such attempt, the NVN in hot pursuit of PT boats and sea commandos returning from a mission chased them all the way out to the US fleet. The exchange of fire became known as the Gulf of Tonkin incident which thrust the US into the broader war in Indochina. The rest is history.

Cua Viet Combat Outpost

By the time I joined MACV/SOG’s Naval Advisory Detachment at Camp Fay near Danang in 1971, sea commando operations were generally focused on the DMZ and adjacent areas. While the US ground and air war had been reduced as our withdrawal accelerated, the sea commando operations continued unabated. An important element of our mission at that time was the conduct of operations out of a small combat outpost at the mouth of the Cua Viet River in northern Quang Tri province near the DMZ. Sea commando teams of about 12 combatants with two US advisors were rotated through the Cua Viet COP on a monthly basis. The teams conducted various types of black operations along the coast and along the river, inserting by PT boat, junk fleet or even sampan, to interdict and disrupt enemy attacks against the major US and RVN installations in that area. On one occasion, we even helo’d in to one of the strongpoints on the MacNamara line (I forget which one) and walked up the coast into North Vietnam. Exfiltrating the following day through hostile territory, our NVA-clad sea commandos passed me and my Gunny off as Russian advisors. The locals didn’t believe a word of it - they thought we were US deserters! And this leads me to my story of how I mooned the entire North Vietnamese Army...

Night Action Near the DMZ

“It was a dark and scary night ...” Weren’t they all? We had received intelligence that the enemy was going to attempt an attack against allied forces along the river and our mission was to check out the information and do the necessary to disrupt enemy plans. We launched after dark from the COP by junk fleet, a 12-man sea commando team, the Gunny and me. The sea commando team leader was Chief Minh who had gained notoriety - and the eternal awe of his subordinates - by killing an RVN naval officer who was bilking the troops of their pay - for this, he was summarily transferred from the VN Seals to the sea commandos - tough justice. We proceeded uneventfully for several hours up the river to a small tributary leading north away from the river. At that point, as the junk continued up river, our team slipped unobtrusively into the water and swam up the tributary to an ambush site along a rice paddy dike.

All the sea commandos as well as the Gunny and I were decked out in NVA and VC-style uniforms and heavily camouflaged. For the Gunny and me, this meant the ubiquitous black pajamas worn by the VC irregulars. This was our only real choice since the NVA uniforms generally were too small for Americans - the black pajamas could fit anyone. I can rightly attest that when I wore them at night - and kept a low profile - I could pass myself off as one of the team of VNs - after all I am not a particularly big guy. But I have to tell you, my six foot five two hundred fifty pound Marine Gunnery Sergeant looked downright ridiculous. So the Gunny generally wore some haphazard collection of cammies that reduced a bit his obvious US profile.

And so there we were. If you’ve ever lain in the water for several hours waiting to get into a fight, you can imagine how boring it can get. And the effect on one’s bladder is predictable. At some point during the endless night, I felt the call of nature. I fought it heroically, but it became more and more insistent. Finally, I could stand it no more. I tapped the Gunny on the shoulder and whispered that I was going to pull back a bit and relieve myself. I slipped off only a few yards - after all we were in the water already - and undid the simple tie-ties that hold up the black pajama bottoms. Ah, blessed relief.

Just at that moment, however, I felt a rough hand on my shoulder and an even more insistent tug. The Gunny grabbed me and shouted in a whisper (if that is possible), “Captain, they’re coming, they’re coming!!”

I hurried back to the paddy dike, got into a good firing position, and surveyed the ebony scene before me. In the distance, some hundred meters or so away came what looked like the entire North Vietnamese Army. OK, so it wasn’t all of them - but there were a whole bunch and they didn’t look any too friendly. They were in a classic formation for a battalion with at least three companies on line. Their scouts and point elements far ahead with the companies in formation following. For a Marine, it was a beautiful sight, to see such a professional movement in progress. These guys were really, really good - the best (a year later, these same guys would conduct the devastating Easter Offensive - but without the sea commandos to contest it). I was reminded of an old country tune about the Battle of New Orleans: “We looked down the river and see’d the British come, and there must have been a hundred of ‘em beating on the drums ...” Of course, the NVA were not beating on the drums, but you get the idea.

The country song continues, “we sat beside our cotton fields, and didn’t say a thing.” And so we held our fire until we could get a good lock on their point elements. We couldn’t really engage the entire attack force - there were only fourteen of us - but the plan was to disrupt the attack, pull back, then call in artillery and air strikes. At the appropriate moment, we opened fire with everything we had, shouting and yelling and making as much noise as an entire regiment. One thing we did not want them to do was to realize how few of us there were - we didn’t want any NVA heroes swarming over our position until we could get out of it.

With all due respect to our foes, they took their casualties well, even though in considerable numbers. The point elements retrieved the dead and wounded while firing and maneuvering and conducting their own suppressive fires against our position. It was enough to make us keep our heads down and start thinking about Plan Bravo: pull out and let the cannon-cockers and airdales do the rest. At that moment, however, the enemy did the unexpected. They were the ones who pulled back. Apparently, their own plan was to achieve complete surprise against the US and RVN units. With that surprise lost, they simply withdrew, to try again another day. And they withdrew with the same consummate professionalism as the original movement to objective: fire and maneuver and retire in good order. At the risk of repeating myself, they were really good - good thing they were going the other direction at the time.

But this didn’t satisfy Chief Minh, the sea commando team leader. It wasn’t enough for him to have forced the abort of a battalion or larger attack with in effect a squad of riflemen. The next thing I saw was Chief Minh standing on the paddy dike exhorting the sea commandos to “Follow Me!!” Weren’t the Gunny and I, as Marines, supposed to be doing that?! We - all of us, including the other sea commandos - raced to catch up with Chief Minh. We managed quickly to establish something like a squad on line in the assault. And so there we were, charging across a rice paddy in the middle of the night, firing and shouting and flinging hand grenades and other insults at the enemy. Picture if you will, “the rockets red glare, bombs bursting in air,” sabers flashing in the moonlight, banners held high. OK, so there were no sabers or banners - but there was an awful lot of red glare, firing and burstings in air. Again with all due respect to friends and enemies alike, the professionalism, good order and discipline on both sides continue to amaze me to this day. It must be that good Marine influence - it had to have diffused to the North as well as the South.

But all was not well in River City. As our assault surged forward, I felt something amiss. There was a breeze coming up, I knew not from where, but at some point I noticed a draft around the knees and points further north. I looked down as I strode manfully forward and saw to my chagrin that my black pajama bottoms were down around my knees. Back at the paddy dike, I had forgotten to tie the tie-ties that hold them up. This was not the time or place to call a halt so I could pull my pants up, so I stumbled forward, firing with one hand and holding my dignity up with the other.

All I could think about was that I was about to die out here in this god-forsaken rice paddy and in the morning the NVA would find me face-down in the mud, mooning the entire world. The only good thing that I could think of was that at least it would terrify the enemy. They would think, “these guys are all crazy or they’re all a bunch of perverts.” They would all drop their weapons and hightail it back to Hanoi to avoid - at all costs - capture by the United States Marines.


And that’s my story about how I mooned the entire North Vietnamese Army. As it turns out, they did withdraw and so did we, and the engagement came to an appropriate end as these things go. We had suffered no casualties, except to my dignity, and in good time I did get back into the ‘uniform of the day’ (or night as the case may be). We had succeeded in aborting a major assault on allied forces and my respect and admiration for our Vietnamese allies I found not only further justified but immensely enhanced.

There is no greater honor than to win the respect of your enemy and I have no doubt that the sea commandos were held in every bit as much awe by the North Vietnamese. The enemy generally knew what was going on in our area and they must have known when it came time for Chief Minh’s team to return to Danang. The night before, a team of North Vietnamese Navy sappers swam over to our side and in an enormous blast blew up an old wreck about fifty yards from our combat outpost. It was just their way of saying farewell to an honored opponent - and perhaps a hint of what was to come.


There were many such stories from the Vietnam War. Most of them tragic but many that demonstrate the true heroism and nobility of the human spirit under the most trying of circumstances. It distresses me to this day, and will do so to the grave, how falsely that conflict has been portrayed to the American people. I will never forget - and will swear on the graves of my honored dead - that the War was just and honorable and worth the lives of those finest men who gave their all in its cause. And I can now in the retrospective of history say that my trust and commitment have been vindicated. In truth, we eventually won the war, the War in Vietnam and the larger war against the Soviet Union and its minions. All our national strategic objectives have been achieved and our enemies all dead or dying, including the totalitarian regime in Hanoi. The true history of that era will have to wait until all the nay-sayers of this generation are dead and gone and then perhaps some future historian will shake his head in bewilderment and remark, “How could they not have known?”

And someday I will tell you the story of how I came to be proclaimed “The Peoples’ Hero of Phu Loc.” But that will have to wait for another day.


Memories of Chu Lai

Dave Hunter, VMFA-115 out of Chu Lai

[This is a story from the book THERE I WAS … Sea Stories from the U. S. Naval Academy Class of 1965, a 320-page collection of active-duty memories from 78 classmates published in 2002.]

After The Basic School and Flight School, I accumulated 90 whole hours of training experience in the F-4B in VMFA-251 at MCAS Beaufort, SC. I was determined “combat ready” and in July 1968, after numerous shot lines in Okinawa, I arrived at the air terminal in Danang, RVN. I was still wet behind the ears and in no time soaking wet from the heat and humidity. My first impression of this wartime airfield was one of controlled chaos, getting as many people processed into and processed out of South Vietnam in as short a time as was humanly possible. Processing ruled the day. It took the better part of that day to get out of Danang and down to Chu Lai and VMFA-115, my home away from home for the next year. After the press of humanity and frenetic pace of operations at Danang, Chu Lai was downright laid-back. Oh, there were round-the-clock Marine, Army and transit air ops at Chu Lai all right, but certainly not at the pace of Danang.

When I first arrived in Chu Lai, we lived in wooden shanties built on stilts in the surrounding sea of sand. We called them hooches. When I think of Chu Lai, I think of sand. Sand was everywhere. We wore it, we breathed it, we ate it and processed it through our bodies. We had to vacuum our cockpits so as not to be blinded during negative Gs. One good thing, however, we had an unlimited supply of sandbags which gave some protection against incoming rockets ... frequent incoming rockets. Chu Lai was a large base with Marine Air Group (MAG-13), Army 1st Air Cav elements, and 101st Airborne elements complete with a MASH unit, and others. There was even a Sea-Bee unit. Chu Lai was a prime and frequent target for rocket attacks. The VC mostly targeted flight lines, fuel and ammo dumps, chopper pads and the main runway, but mostly missed. Most of the rockets went elsewhere over the sprawling base, making a distant boom or an overhead moaning, whoosh. Each hooch had a bunker which consisted of a large hole in the sand just outside the hooch door, lined with sand bags, roofed with corrugated metal sheeting and topped with sand bags. Someone would yell “incoming” and the FNGs (me at this time) [Editor’s note: FNG is F… New Guy] and short-timers would dive into the hooch bunker, ingesting twice our daily requirement of sand and suffering more injuries from the “dive” than from the rockets. The more “experienced” relied on the sandbags lining the inside of the walls of the hooch to protect them from nearby rocket hits. It was the rocket you didn’t hear that made the direct hit. There was no protection from a direct hit. Our hooch area took several rocket hits over time and the bunker population would grow for the first few days after each hit. Our more reliable intelligence about upcoming rocket attacks came from the O Club girls, the only three Vietnamese allowed into the MAG-13 compound. You could set your clock for a rocket attack if these girls didn’t show up for work. About halfway through my tour at Chu Lai, we moved into air-conditioned Quonset huts, with cement floors, sandbagged head-high, inside and out. We still called them hooches. No more diving into a sandy bunker. We just rolled out of the rack onto the floor and covered the important parts with a helmet and flak jacket. I was fortunate, I heard all the rockets that came my way. However, it is a sound I will never forget.

On my second day at Chu Lai, I became acquainted with the Chu Lai Two Step. Fortunately, I was still in the process of checking in, getting my gear, etc., and was not on that day’s or the next day’s flight schedule. You got the Chu Lai Two Step from eating at the MAG-13 officer’s mess. For the next two days, you better not be more than two steps from the nearest head. Neither Kaopectate nor sand would stop you up. You must endure. It didn’t happen all of the time, but once was enough. It was greasy O Club cheeseburgers and care packages for me from then on. I can recall waiting on the taxiway for a mission while the RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) in the F-4 in front of me crawled out of the aircraft and squatted in the sand by the side of the runway. The pilots didn’t have that option. Another reason to avoid the messhall.

My hoochmate, Joe, had a more serious encounter with the Two Step, enduring the effects of a serious bout during a night mission. Chu Lai had two runways in 1968-1969, a two-mile long, concrete beauty, and the original STOL strip, consisting of interlocking, perforated metal matting. A slippery and unstable surface at best, the STOL strip was strictly emergency use only for the F-4. The food poisoning hit Joe midway through his mission and by the time he arrived back near the field he was having convulsions and extreme difficulty focusing due to the pain and watering eyes. In this state, he mistakenly began his landing approach to the STOL strip. His RIO was talking him down when they learned of their mistake. The tower, Joe, and his RIO all agreed that at this point in the approach, in Joe’s condition, a landing attempt on the strip was the safest thing to try. They put the airplane down on the strip, off centerline, missed the arresting gear and began skidding down the runway, from one side of the matting to the other. The tailhook finally caught the overrun gear at the end of runway ending what the RIO described as “One Wild A-- ride.” No damage to the airplane or crew, but Joe was taken to sick bay in an ambulance. Later in his tour, Joe and his RIO were killed when their airplane exploded during a close air support mission.

The obvious “social center” of MAG-13 was the O Club. The original O Club was a small, plywood bar and a few tables and chairs set out in the sand under a rickety, thatched roof, overlooking Lake Robert Shaw. Next to the original O Club was a recently built larger replica, with a cement floor, longer plywood bar, a real galley, a jukebox, and an adjacent bunker.

Lake Robert Shaw was a pond with a walkway-bridge across it, overgrown with reeds, cattails and bamboo. Although other creatures lived in Lake Robert Shaw, it was more renowned for being home to a bad-tempered goose named Leroy and his flock. Leroy and his three ladies would cross over the bridge several times daily for freebies at the O Club and woe to anyone trying to cross the bridge at the same time. Leroy would lower his head and charge, leaving green, gooey bite marks from the knees down if he got close enough.

Other than launching Leroy off the Lake Robert Shaw bridge after a few beers, the O Club was fairly quiet and an automatic stop after flight ops. Mostly, we would fly, eat, fly, sleep, and fly some more. For the most part, entertainment consisted of bull sessions with your buddies over a few beers. Entertainer performances, floor shows, at the MAG-13 O Club were few and far between. On occasion, we would be lucky enough to land a non-English speaking floor show doing lip-sync to US rock and roll. Their appearance would transform the O Club into an arena of mass mayhem, with whole squadron table dances and carrier landing competitions, fighter sweeps, Leroy search parties, and worse. Rarely did the show get to complete its performance. Invariably, the entertainers were whisked into the bunker either during or immediately after the show and we never got a repeat performance from the same group. I can recall only one round-eye floor show at MAG-13 during my tour and it was an event to remember, but not in writing. The Army side of the base got the Bob Hope Show on Christmas Day that year and it was well attended by MAG-13 on their best behavior. However, the closest I got to it was a flyby returning from a mission. Merry Christmas!

The best part about being in Chu Lai was the flying. It was the only best part, other than being rotated out of Chu Lai at the end of your tour. The flying was great! The F-4’s dual role as a fighter/attack aircraft allowed for a diversity of mission assignments. VMFA-115’s combat missions ran the gamut from fighter cover and MiG-CAPs to interdiction bombing and close air support for troops in contact. Our available ordnance included Sidewinder and Sparrow missiles, Zuni rockets and 2.75 rocket pods, 250-pound to 2,000-pound slick and snake-eye (high drag) bombs, cluster bombs, napalm bombs, and a .50 caliber machine gun pod hung on our centerline rack. Except for the Sidewinder, I used all of it at one time or another during my tour. Our operations ranged from I Corps (the northern portion of South Vietnam) north to the Gulf of Tonkin and to the West covering the bordering countries of Laos and Cambodia. The VC and North Vietnamese didn’t confine themselves to the borders of North and South Vietnam, and neither did we, albeit “unofficially.” During the first half of my tour, we covered the southern panhandle of North Vietnam above the DMZ until the bombing halt. During that time, we ruled the air and it was open season for secondary targets, if you could find one. There was very little resistance in that area except for the occasional SAM. After the bombing halt, that area was all rebuilt, refortified and rearmed and the western sector was used as staging areas for infiltration to the South over the Ho Chi Min Trail. It always amazed me to see all the lights on the ground at night just north of the DMZ during the last half of my tour.

I can’t say enough about the dedication and support of the men in our squadron that kept us up in the air, doing our job. The maintenance teams, ground support and flight line crews, ordnance crews and others, were motivated, hard working and ingenious, sometimes miraculously having a damaged F-4 up and ready to fly again after a short turnaround. We broke it; they fixed it. The enemy ripped it apart with antiaircraft and small arms fire. Our guys patched it up, fueled it, loaded it for bear, and saluted us back into the fray. Laboring under less than optimum conditions, working long and hard hours, scavenging for parts and making do with what they had to work with, they were as much a part of each mission as the aircrews. They cheered our successes and grieved for our losses as much as we did. Bonds were built between them and the aircrews that would last a lifetime. My plane captain, a twenty-year old Private First Class, not too long out of high school, took great pride in pre-flighting my airplane for each mission. Jimmy would get really upset with himself if I ever found a pre-flight discrepancy he had missed. That was a very rare occasion. He would meet my aircraft after each mission, even on his time off, participating in my post-flight inspection, picking up things I would have missed. I recall one such inspection, after bringing my aircraft back full of holes from 23-mm air bursts, he found a piece of shrapnel the size of a half-dollar that had found its resting place on the floor of my cockpit. He said, “Skipper, this one almost had our name on it!” Jimmy and I shared many a “clandestine” beer together. We quietly celebrated his promotion to Lance Corporal and not so quietly, his rotation back to the States. I still have the piece of shrapnel he found in the cockpit.

The closest of all bonds developed between a pilot and his RIO, sometimes out of necessity. Foul Phil and I were no exception, but it wasn’t out of necessity. We joined VMFA-115 approximately at the same time. After a few flights with more experienced counterparts, and a few flights together, we elected to team up for the duration. Phil was a very good RIO and had a great set of eyes which saved the day more than once during a mission. He and I complemented each other’s skills and together, we became very proficient at our job. He was also a lot of fun, making most flights a pleasure and even the most difficult flights bearable. Phil had an extensive and very expressive vocabulary of opprobrious language, more than a retired Parris Island drill instructor. He was gifted with an uncanny knack of being able to string an amazing number of these words together, accurately describing a situation, and leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind exactly how he felt about it. He was quickly tagged Foul Phil. He was most eloquent during the floor shows and his notoriety spread. The name stuck. Oddly enough, my call sign was “Saint,” a carry-over from some escapade I had in John Paul Jones’ crypt. Undaunted, Phil jumped right on it, designing and then painting our helmet visor shields with an angel of death on each side, riding a can of napalm and flipping Charlie the bird! That became our emblem and I found it painted on the door of my hooch, on the door of Phil’s hooch and a few other places around MAG-13 Phil thought appropriate. The helmet visor shield still rests in a place of honor on the shelf in my library.

It didn’t seem long at all before I had progressed from FNG to Section Lead and had acquired the look ... worn flight gloves, clean flight suits that still smelled, faded jungle utilities and a salty cover, and a Fu Manchu mustache. Shortly after takeoff you were over “Indian Country” and experience and confidence came quickly. Of my 225 combat missions, by far the greatest number of mission assignments were for close air support. Of these, the most satisfying to me were in support of troops in close contact with the enemy. Usually, these missions came while standing Hot Pad assignments. Technically, these were also the most demanding missions, requiring close coordination, limiting run-in tracks, continuous jinking maneuvers and pinpoint accuracy. Typical ordnance delivered during these missions were napalm, rockets and .50 caliber. Compounding the risk inherent in these missions was enemy ground fire, terrain and sometimes weather. All of our squadron’s lost aircraft and KIAs, which sadly were higher than average, were during close air support missions.

Some of my missions were more “meaningful” than others. You know, the kind you really aren’t comfortable talking about unless it’s with someone who has been there, done that. However, writing about some of them has had a certain cathartic effect for me, as the discomfort begins to fade with the telling. Chu Lai, RVN was not only a place, it was a time. It was a time to serve my country, a time of war, a time of passion and compassion, a time of supreme sacrifice, and a time full of moments of living on the very edge of being. I learned more about myself during that year than at any other time in my life. I’m very thankful just to be here to talk about it.

Yet, I’d do it all again in a New York minute!

Hot Pad Missions

For me, Hot Pad missions were the best. Somewhere, the S*** had hit the fan and our troops needed help. We’d leap in our ready F-4s and light the fire. Blasting off the runway in full afterburner, we’d be turnin’ and burnin’ as fast as we could go, straight to the target to kick ass. Kinda’ like, Cavalry to the rescue sort of thing. Great stuff!

However, the real mission heroes were the airborne Tactical Air Controller (TAC) and the ground Forward Air Controller (FAC). The TAC would be in contact with the troops on the ground, locating friendly and enemy positions. He would fly low and slow, usually in a small prop aircraft, drawing all sorts of enemy ground fire. He would brief us overhead the target area and mark specific targets with smoke or incendiary rockets. Sometimes, he would intentionally draw enemy fire at himself to more accurately pinpoint a target. These men rarely completed a mission without taking enemy ground fire. The FAC was usually an aviator assigned to a ground unit. He was in the thick of it, calling in air strikes and ducking his head along with the troops. Neither of them would likely complete their combat tour unscathed.

We stood Hot Pad duty in a small trailer with a cranky air-conditioner, all geared up, and only a short dash away from our F-4s. The duty day was divided into sessions. With up to three Sections of two aircraft each, six aircrews could be crammed into the trailer and six F-4s dedicated to each session. The Sections were prioritized for launch, the “Prime” first, then the second followed by a backup. Each F-4 carried four-inch Zuni rockets nestled along the forward fuselage. The rest of the ordnance was loaded on wing and centerline bomb racks.

Hot Pad ordnance consisted of 250-pound Snake Eye (high drag) bombs, napalm canisters, occasionally 2.75 rocket pods, and a 50-caliber air-to-ground gun slung on the centerline rack. Nobody wanted the gun because most of the time it didn’t work after one shot and just took up needed space. If you got a gun that didn’t work during a hot mission, you had to fight the urge to use the thing as a bomb. The 2.75 rocket pods were of little use when troops were in very close contact with the enemy due to the high probability of one or two errant rockets per pod. Each Section of two aircraft had a mixture of ordnance, “Snake and Nape.” Most of the time, one aircraft per Section was loaded entirely with napalm. All aircraft were pre-flighted, loaded with ordnance, and made ready for a quick start.

In the event of a launch, the Tower would clear the taxiway and runway for an expedited takeoff. Flying at max speed for our ordnance configuration got us overhead most targets within 10-15 minutes from takeoff, which could be an eternity for our troops on the ground. The average length of time for a Hot Pad mission was 30-45 minutes from takeoff to touchdown. The returning aircraft would be given a thorough post-flight inspection and if still airworthy, would be readied for a quick turnaround to go again. If not, another aircraft would replace it. During the Tet offensives, the tempo of Hot Pad operations was almost frenetic.

Prior to beginning our Hot Pad session, we would be briefed by the MAG 13 (Group) Duty Operations Officer, Intelligence Officer and Weather Officer. Then each Section Lead would brief his wingman about how he wanted to conduct the flight and general target tactics. Specific target briefs were given by the TAC or FAC upon reaching the target site. During my preflight brief, I placed special emphasis on hot target environment. Hostile enemy automatic weapons fire required varying run-in headings for each run, continuous jinking maneuvers and short target tracking time for ordnance release. Close proximity of friendly troops demanded exact ordnance release parameters and pinpoint accuracy. If you weren’t absolutely satisfied with your run, you didn’t release. Working a target required close communication between each aircraft and the TAC or FAC, not only for effective ordnance delivery, but also in order to avoid a mid-air collision. Maintaining a keen sense of situational awareness was essential, especially if the target environment was complicated by terrain and/or weather.

After pre-flighting our aircraft, we waited for the Ops phone to ring by playing cards or Acey Deucy, rereading letters from home or writing them, or just trying to catch a few Zs. Our missions were called in from Group Ops and it could get really boring waiting around during a slow day. If the air-conditioner broke and we knew the duty Ops O, we would call him, begging him to find us a mission. However, most days you got launched at least once. Some days you wouldn’t launch at all and some days you could get up to three missions, depending upon the number and intensity of ground operations going on.

I vividly recall two Hot Pad missions. For the purposes of this story, I’ll call the first one “Success,” and the second one “Disaster.”


On the morning of 22 November 1968, I launched off the Hot Pad as Section Lead of a flight of two F-4s. My aircraft was loaded up with napalm and my wingman carried Snake Eyes and the dreaded gun. Our mission was to provide close air support (CAS) for an infantry unit heavily engaged with the enemy near the Hoi An River south of Danang. There had been a significant amount of enemy activity in this area lately and our ground troops had been slugging it out with them, protecting the southern approaches to Danang.

Right after takeoff from Chu Lai, we encountered numerous rain showers and reduced visibility which persisted all the way to the target area. Our first challenge was navigating to the target area and hooking up visually with the airborne TAC. Although there were breaks in the cloud cover, the ceiling was down to approximately 1,000 feet above the ground and visibility was hampered by the rain showers. Nearing Danang, we let down through the weather over the water and made our way across the beach to the target area. Fortunately, I had been in this general area many times and the terrain was fairly level. Farther inland we would have faced rising terrain. Our maneuverability was compromised enough by the weather. There was also a lot of helicopter traffic in this area. As the weather condensed the available airspace, the likelihood of a mid-air collision was a very real possibility. I was thankful for Foul Phil’s great eyes!

We made radio contact with the TAC and shortly thereafter, acquired each other visually. With my wingman in a loose but close trail position, we began a tight orbit over the target area, just under the 1,000 feet ceiling, while the TAC briefed us. Obviously, this was not going to be surprise air attack! The F-4 has a big black smoke trail and makes a lot of noise at 1,000 feet above the ground. Additionally, the TAC had encountered heavy automatic weapons and small arms fire during his recon of the target area.

The infantry unit was in close contact with the enemy, almost encircled. They had repelled several attacks and taken numerous casualties. The attacks, supported by mortar fire, had been determined attempts to overrun the infantry unit. However, they had established a good defensive perimeter and were holding their own for the moment. Due to the proximity of friendly and enemy positions, we would only use my napalm and my wingman’s gun for this mission. The infantry unit wanted us to make multiple runs, working our way back and forth along the perimeter, closer and closer to their own positions. The TAC would mark the target for our first run, then adjust the target based on feedback from the infantry unit. The TAC would re-mark the target as necessary. The TAC also told us to keep a heads-up for air traffic he had seen moving through the area.

This was going to be a very busy mission. All of our run-in headings would be parallel to the defensive perimeter in order to prevent friendly casualties. We would not be able to vary our run-in headings from run to run, so Charlie would know where we were coming from and when we were coming. We would have to jink during our run until the last second or two, yet have a precise delivery. Also, we would have to make very shallow, almost flat, dive angles and keep our pull-offs low due to the weather. We would have to keep our flight pattern as tight as possible in order to maintain visual contact with the target, the TAC and each other. The objective would be to maximize the effect of our ordnance while reducing our exposure to enemy ground fire as much as possible.

The weather was giving us fits and I was already soaking wet from exertion, trying to maintain a tight pattern and remain in visual contact with the TAC and the target area. We had spotted other aircraft nearby, mostly helicopters. A couple of them had already flown through our pattern area. Foul Phil was doing a great job helping me maintain visual contact and calling out these “bogies.”

While the TAC marked the first target, my wingman dropped farther back in trail, allowing me enough time to make my run and pull off before he commenced his own run. This in effect split the tight flight pattern between the two of us, maximizing what little maneuvering room we had. It also gave the TAC just enough time to adjust the next run without us having to make an unnecessary circuit of the flight pattern between runs. With great coordination between the TAC and the infantry unit, and the TAC and us, this mission would run like clockwork, with devastating effect. And except for a couple of glitches, it did. After all, nothing is perfect!

Going in low and slow, the TAC marked the first target with smoke, approximately 150 yards from the infantry unit’s perimeter. He reported taking several hits from heavy automatic weapons fire. Yet, he was hanging right in there to observe our runs and his smoke was right on target. What balls! Certainly, a size extra large jockey shorts. He instructed me to drop on his smoke and I commenced my run.

I was jinking like mad during my run and I’m sure the friendlies were real nervous about where my napalm was going to land. However, it all had purpose, resulting in a controlled flight path to the target with less than two seconds wings level for target acquisition and delivery. Pickling off two cans of napalm, I pulled off the target and began jinking my way around the pattern for another run. I had taken a couple of hits during my run and confirmed the enemy ground fire. However, the F-4 was operating beautifully and a quick glance around the cockpit indicated no immediate problems.

My napalm had made a long, fiery path through the target, obliterating the TAC’s smoke. For good measure, the TAC instructed my wingman to strafe the same area. Following a similar, but not the exact same path to the target, my wingman made his run. However, his gun quit after one shot and he pulled off the target, hoping to get it to work in the next run.

The TAC adjusted the target site so that my next run would place the napalm alongside my first hit, but closer to the friendly perimeter. I made my second run unscathed and right on target, pulling off for another. My wingman made his second run to no avail and he was through for the day with a broken gun. He began a tight orbit around the pattern, maintaining separation and visual contact through the rain showers until I was finished.

The infantry unit, evidently bolstered by the fact that an F-4 can fly a crooked path and drop a straight bomb, asked the TAC to work the napalm even closer to their perimeter. Again, the TAC went in low and slow and marked the target with smoke. This time the target was approximately 100 yards from the perimeter, adjacent to my last drop. This time he only reported scattered small arms fire and took no hits. Maybe Charlie was a “crispy critter” or really deep in his hole. Hope springs eternal! By the way, a “crispy critter” refers to an enemy who has been directly incinerated from the fireball of a canister of napalm. Another casualty of napalm is an enemy deep in his hole under the fireball, but who has been suffocated from the effects of the napalm sucking all of the oxygen out of the air. From what I understand, the greater number of casualties of napalm are from suffocation rather than incineration. Certainly, a distinction without a difference. The fact was, the friendlies were still taking sporadic enemy fire and they had casualties waiting to evacuate.

I made my third run just like the last two, pickled the nape and pulled off the target. I don’t know what got my attention first, the specter of the helicopter filling my entire canopy or Foul Phil screaming in my ear, “Break Right, Break Right.” Anyway, before I could react, there was a thump as we went through his prop wash and he was gone from sight. It was an incredibly close near-miss and wouldn’t have missed any closer. Somewhat rattled, and a whole lot pissed-off at the idiot that flew through our bombing run, Foul Phil and I quickly pulled ourselves together and got back into the mission. What a day!

While I got back into position for another run, the TAC received an update from the infantry unit. The TAC briefed that they had actually heard a lot of screaming in the vicinity of our last hits and were anxious for us to continue working the napalm closer to their perimeter. I had enough fuel remaining and napalm left on board for two more runs. The weather wasn’t getting any worse and the ground fire had “died” down considerably. So, my only real concern was the proximity of the friendlies to the target. Of course, that was everybody’s concern, especially the friendlies themselves. However, they still wanted the napalm dropped closer to their positions. At these distances, they were definitely feeling the heat from the fire.

The TAC marked the target with smoke, approximately 75 yards out from the perimeter. I made my fourth run on his smoke and pulled off for my final run. The napalm did exactly what we all wanted it to do and the infantry unit cleared us for a last run. They wanted it just like the previous one, only a little closer, about 50 yards out from the perimeter. The TAC didn’t have to mark the target for my final run. There was a lot of smoke and fire from my last hits and I just laid my napalm alongside it, slightly closer to the perimeter.

I pulled off the target and collected my wingman. As we were departing the target area, the TAC called us to relay a message he had received from the infantry unit. He said they had told him that the screaming had stopped after our last run. After an uneventful return to Chu Lai, we had a hell of a debrief at the O Club. “...Success.”


Becoming a Section Lead required a series of five evaluation missions. In order to be eligible to “check-out” for Section Lead, the pilot would already have a lot of missions under his belt as wingman. During the evaluation missions, the pilot would conduct the flight as Lead, with an experienced Section Lead acting as wingman and evaluating the mission. Every attempt was made to schedule the pilot for a variety of missions with different evaluators in order to cover a broad spectrum of experience. Hot Pad missions were among the last to be scheduled.

I was evaluating Ken’s fifth and final check-ride for Section Lead. He had received satisfactory evaluations on his previous check-rides, which included two scheduled CAS missions. In fact, I had evaluated his last one. Although he had flown Hot Pad missions as wingman, this was his first as Lead. His RIO, Dan, had been in country longer than I had and was very experienced. Ken was Dan’s second pilot, his first having been rotated back to the States after his tour.

We received the Group briefings and Ken conducted his preflight brief, thoroughly covering all the bases. I had little to offer. So, Foul Phil and I tried to settle into our roles as the perfect wingman. It was a slow day on the Hot Pad. Boring and boring. Fortunately, the air-conditioner was in fine form. Finally, the Prime launched and we were next to go. The Prime returned and we were still there, waiting. I was beginning to think we would have to do this all over again tomorrow when the Ops phone rang and we were off and running. Ken was loaded up with napalm and I had a mixed load of Snake and Nape. Each of us carried the standard load of Zuni rockets.

Everything was SOP to the target and Ken checked us in with the airborne TAC. The target was located farther away than usual, in a remote area northwest of Chu Lai. It was an area of steep hills and valleys and a prime infiltration route used by the NVA. Definitely “Indian” country. A Recon unit had been inserted to snoop and poop and had been discovered by the enemy. The unit’s position was on top of the shorter ridge of an L-shaped ridgeline. The unit had been receiving sporadic enemy fire from the low ground surrounding the shorter ridgeline. By the time we arrived, the enemy had gained the top of the longer ridgeline and were making their way along the ridge toward the friendlies.

The TAC wanted us to cut the enemy’s ridgeline approach at the notch of the L. The proximity of friendlies would require napalm at the notch. We would be able to use our Snake Eyes and Zunis later, further down the longer ridgeline. The TAC had not encountered any heavy automatic weapons fire, but there was plenty of small arms fire. Weather-wise, it was a bright clear day. We had plenty of room to maneuver. However, due to other terrain in the area, either our run-in headings or pull-offs would be real close to the longer ridgeline. Our runs would require a lot of jinking in order to avoid undue exposure to the enemy ground fire.

The TAC marked the notch with smoke. Ken briefed alternating run in headings and began his run between the ridgelines toward the notch. I remained high in the pattern, working my way around to my own run in heading and maintaining visual contact with the TAC and Lead. There had been good coordination over the target between the Recon unit, the TAC and us. Run-in headings had been optimized to reduce exposure of the friendlies to our ordnance and to reduce our exposure to enemy ground fire. Everything was going by the book.

Ken was jinking his run in between the ridgelines, narrowing his approach toward the notch. Just as he was nearing the release point for his napalm, the entire back half of his F-4 exploded into a huge ball of flame and it began to descend into the notch. I immediately yelled into the mike, “Lead, you’re on fire, you’re on fire! Pull up! Pull up!” This was obviously something he already knew. Almost simultaneously with my transmission, both Ken and Dan ejected from the F-4. Still on fire, the F-4 barely cleared the notch and crashed a short distance down the valley on the other side. Upon impact, it burst into an even a larger ball of flame, as the remaining fuel and napalm went off together.

The momentum of the F-4 and ejection carried both men over the notch and into the valley. There were two good chutes, but due to the low altitude, they were in the trees shortly after their chutes opened. They had narrowly missed landing in the fire ball of the exploding F-4. We could see the tops of the chutes hung up in the trees, approximately 100 yards apart and a half-mile from the ridgeline. Instinctively, I switched to the “Guard” frequency and transmitted, “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. Aircraft down. Aircraft down.”

Only seconds had passed since the initial explosion. However, I was already in a tight orbit over the crash site and chutes. The TAC was coming in low, passing over the chutes. Not wanting to disclose their exact positions to the enemy, the TAC continued on. He established a random pattern that included the crash site area and the ridgelines, while still maintaining visual contact with the chutes. I did the same.

Coming up on the “Guard” channel, the TAC assumed local control of the search and rescue (SAR) operation, giving our location to the Jolly Green SAR unit out of Danang. He established communication links to keep everyone from transmitting over the “Guard” channel. The “Guard” channel is a universal, “open” frequency, established for emergency use only. Our aircraft radios were set up so that we could monitor transmissions over the “Guard” channel, while communicating on other discreet frequencies. The emergency radios carried by aircrews transmitted and received over the “Guard” channel. There had been no transmissions yet from the downed aircrew, but we needed to keep the frequency open for their transmissions. The TAC requested that I switch back to our tactical frequency, which I did, still monitoring “Guard.”

The TAC requested that I provide air cover for Ken and Dan, but first we had to “hit” the notch. Enemy ground fire directed at the Recon unit had become very sporadic. It appeared that the enemy had diverted their efforts from the Recon unit to the crash site and the downed aircrew. However, the Recon unit still wanted us to cover the notch with napalm just to be on the safe side. I was more than happy to do just that! Pulling off my run, watching the napalm incinerate the trees and foliage on the notch, I fervently wished that Charlie had been massing his forces there for an attack. However, I knew he wasn’t. I resumed my orbit, listening for Ken and Dan.

We heard from Ken first. The ejection and tree landing had broken his left shoulder and left arm and had badly damaged his legs. He had been able to get out of his chute, but had passed out from the pain when he fell to the ground. He could barely move and had crawled only a few feet from his parachute. He had heard sporadic small arms fire in the distance and had witnessed my napalm go off. Considering the circumstances, he was in fairly good spirits and very glad to be talking to us. Although the TAC had been talking to him on “Guard,” I couldn’t resist switching back to “Guard” to tell Ken it was great to hear his voice and to hang in there.

Then we heard a weak and garbled transmission from Dan. It was so faint that the TAC, Foul Phil and I couldn’t make sense of it. However, Ken was able to make out some of it and tried to communicate with Dan over the next several minutes. Finally, Ken relayed to us that Dan must have been severely injured and was still hanging in his chute. Dan had been barely able to communicate with Ken.

Now that we had Ken and Dan’s exact positions, the TAC and I began to make plans for the rest of my ordnance. We assumed that the enemy would be making their way to the crash site from the two ridges and may have even seen the two chutes drop. They would be converging on the area from two directions. I wanted to maximize my ordnance, providing CAS for as long as my fuel held out. Hopefully, long enough for the Jolly Green to get there. I began by dropping a single Snake Eye per run, working my way from the base of the ridgelines in the general direction of the chutes.

We were still in radio contact with Ken. Although several calls had been made to Dan, none of us had heard him respond. The Jolly Green was supposedly en route from Danang.

I had dropped all of my Snake Eyes and had begun working my napalm, can by can, around the chute area. Although my fuel state was getting a little skosh, I hadn’t reached “bingo” fuel. I had just dropped my last can of napalm when Ken told us he had heard some small arms fire nearby, in Dan’s direction. Ken didn’t sound so good. He was obviously weak and probably felt very helpless. The odds were beginning to stack up against us and I hoped the Jolly Green would arrive soon.

I began shooting one rocket at a time around the chute area, working them in as close as possible to the chutes, until they were gone. Aware of my fuel state and rapidly depleting ordnance, the TAC had been trying to get back-up CAS to the crash site. They were on the way, but wouldn’t get there before I would have to “bingo.” The Jolly Green had finally checked in on “Guard.” Unfortunately, he was still 15-20 minutes out. Must have gotten a late start! None of us had expected the Jolly Green to take so long, nor the difficulty of getting additional CAS. There was no way I was going to be able to hang around that long.

The TAC had a few rockets left, but he needed them for the SAR operation. I was out of ordnance and the only thing I had left were the bomb racks. I had three of them I could jettison. If I didn’t hit Charlie with one of them, hopefully it would slow his progress. Foul Phil had recalculated a “no nonsense bingo” which would allow us just enough fuel to reach Chu Lai and taxi off the runway. No matter what we were doing, when we reached that bingo number, we were out of there!

I was able to make two, treetop-level runs before we had to depart, jettisoning the wing bomb racks in the vicinity of the chutes. As we were checking out with the TAC, a Navy A-7 checked in. He had been diverted to the crash site to provide CAS and was almost overhead the area. We heard the TAC brief him and he got right to work. Thank God!

During the flight back to Chu Lai, Foul Phil and I went over the sequence of events that started it all, detail by detail. We covered the preflight brief, the arrival at the target, the brief by the TAC, the brief by Ken and his run in to the notch, and the initial explosion. We couldn’t find any flaws and could only guess at what caused the F-4 to blow up. Our guess was that a lucky shot by Charlie caused a napalm canister to ignite.

In the quiet moments of the flight back, and during the days that followed, I asked myself those terrible questions. Did I do enough? Could I, or would I, have done things differently? Was there anything I could have done to change the tragic outcome? Even though I couldn’t come up with anything then, deep down I wasn’t satisfied. Today, I still wonder.

Ken was rescued by the Jolly Green and shipped back to the States. When the Jolly Green reached Dan, he was dead. His body, riddled with enemy bullets, was still hanging in the straps of his parachute. “...Disaster.”



Jerry Robinson, USS HUGH PURVIS (DD-709)

[This is a story from the book THERE I WAS … Sea Stories from the U. S. Naval Academy Class of 1965, a 320-page collection of active-duty memories from 78 classmates published in 2002.]

It was a dark but balmy night, and our destroyer was patrolling the surf line off North Vietnam in the summer of 1968. I was the Gun Boss (Weapons Department Head for you snipes) and had the 0400-0700 watch on the bridge as Officer of the Deck. We were carrying our Commodore and destroyer squadron staff.

Per the Commodore’s and the Captain’s night orders, I had the JOOD wake them both at about 0430, just before dawn - they both grunted and went right back to sleep. We were about 4,000 yards offshore and nothing had happened all night. Our Captain was fast asleep, blissfully entrusting the lives of over 300 sailors in the nervous care of a 26-year old OOD.

It was dark, and I mean really dark. Only red lens flashlights were allowed, making it a hazard to stumble around the pilothouse. I was bone-tired from the previous 12-hour workday, struggling to keep station on the Bird Farm when we were farther out to sea, and to stay on top of everything else going on. Maneuvering board solutions of the dozens of fishing boats passing close aboard had to be done in near Braille-like conditions, because the Captain never trusted Combat to do maneuvering board solutions on their flat tables with normal lighting and fresh coffee. The ever-vigilant bos’n kept kicking the lee helm to keep him awake and the JOOD kept harassing the helmsman to steer a tighter course.

Just as the night baker appeared with a tray of ever-popular rolls, all hell broke loose. There was enough light to barely see the shore and the North Vietnamese were ready for us. They had optically laid guns and we never knew they were there until the water exploded a few hundred yards off the beam. Coffee, rolls, boatswain’s mate and the JOOD went flying in all directions: the JOOD for the Captain’s voice tube, the bos’n for the 1MC, and the baker for the deck. Me – I screamed for left hard rudder and all ahead flank. You bet that woke up Main Control.

The fire control director was in action before we had swung ten degrees and two of the three manned twin 5”/38 guns were in motion right behind them. I brought the ship around, away from land and took off on a zig-zag course as fast as the Snipes could push us. And if you know FRAM short hulls, you know they can step out.

By the time the Captain got to the bridge we were engaged in some serious counter-battery with the director on target even though they had to use optics and the ship was zig-zagging. 5”/38s are hand loaded and they have a maximum firing rate of about ten rounds per minute per gun. The weak link is in the ammo storage rooms where those projectiles and powder cases have to be man handled into the hoists, twice, to get to the guns. The Captain took the deck and the conn, the Commodore hid in CIC, and I bit my nails while silently praying the director onward.

We ceased counter-battery fire at 24,000 yards and 31 knots. Thank goodness all four boilers were on line and split. Since the range of our guns (on a good day) was no more than 18,000 yards, I am sure the North Vietnamese had some chuckles as we blew up 6,000 yards of ocean at the end of the run.

A later count of ammo expended from my Second Lieutenant revealed that the ammo handling rooms had kept up with the demands of counter-battery only by throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the hoists: HE, VT Frag, some WP and ten rounds of BL&P. The BL&P is a projectile with a concrete warhead and no explosives – mostly used for training. I wonder what the NVC thought of the Americans’ ‘weak’ BL&P ammunition?

They Commodore praised everyone for a good job and the Captain wrote in his night orders “no rolls on the morning watch.” Me? – I had to explain in the destroyer nest at Subic why we needed to swap for some of that priceless BL&P.


The Rescue

Harry Hoffman, VA-97 off USS CONSTELLATION (CVA-64)

[This is a story from the book THERE I WAS … Sea Stories from the U. S. Naval Academy Class of 1965, a 320-page collection of active-duty memories from 78 classmates published in 2002.]

Nearly thirty years after the event, some memories have become fuzzy while others remain crystal-clear. The one recollection that remains vivid and foremost in my mind is the bravery and dedication of the men who risked their lives to save me. Consequently, this is their ‘Sea Story’ as well as mine:

As a second-tour Attack Pilot with VA-97 in CONSTELLATION, I felt like a seasoned combat veteran - but not invincible. I can remember writing to my wife and describing the eerie beauty of flak and tracers against the sky on night missions and the paradox of doing something that had become ‘routine’ despite the inherent danger.

Well … maybe I felt a little invincible. But any feelings of invincibility came to an abrupt end on April 3rd, 1970.

I was section-leader of a two-plane A-7A Corsair II mission to ‘seed’ a road segment in Laos. For the uninitiated, the A-7 was a single-seat subsonic light attack jet aircraft – not a fighter. The vintage “A” model was underpowered, but (fortunately) well armored. It could carry a reasonable bomb load. Our usual ordnance was ten 500-pound MK-82 bombs. On this particular mission, however, our task was to ‘seed’ a supply route. This ordnance was designed not to explode on impact, but rather to act as proximity mines that detonated only when vehicles passed nearby. Our radio call sign was “War Ace.”

Did I mention that the United States was denying at the time that we were operating in Laos?
I recall that it was a clear day at the target itself, but the weather had been overcast enroute to the site. The threat of enemy MiG aircraft had long-since been neutralized, and there were no reported SAM (surface-to-air missile) threats in that operating area. Overall, it seemed like a fairly routine and low-threat mission. The only thing we had to worry about was the ever-present AAA threat, consisting of 37-57 mm batteries.

During the Vietnam War, Navy and Air Force strikes were accomplished on such a routine and predictable basis that we used to joke that the enemy probably knew our flight schedule better than we did. Often as we approached a target and checked in with the controlling FAC (Forward Air Controller), we would find ourselves queued up in line like commercial airliners waiting for an approach to an airport in bad weather. Such was the case on this particular mission.

Our FAC informed us that the flight ahead of us was about to make their final runs on target and we should position ourselves to commence attack as soon as they were clear. Usual procedure in this case was to orbit off-target at a slightly higher altitude, ready to roll-in when instructed. Standard tactics were conservative: roll-in at 12,000 feet, release at 6-8,000 feet and ‘jink’ pulling off the target. My wingman and I were ready.

At this stage in the war, most of us just wanted to get on then off-target as quickly as possible and get home to the carrier – no heroics, no unreasonable risks.

As we orbited the target, I spotted the last aircraft of the preceding mission just about to roll-in on his final run. The FAC had marked the road segment with smoke and told us where he wanted our first drops – in this case, two mines per run. I mentally picked a point about 180 degrees opposite the last roll-in point of the preceding flight and we set ourselves up to do our own roll-in as soon as cleared. That’s when things began to go wrong.

Ask any Naval Aviator and he will probably tell you that timing is everything. Perched just right to roll-in at the time and place I wanted, the preceding aircraft came off-target with ‘hung’ (no release) ordnance. Without skipping a beat, the FAC radioed us to make another orbit and roll-in on the tail of the previous aircraft, which was now beginning another run to jettison his ordnance on-target. The problem with doing this is that it gives ground gunners a better chance to ‘zero-in’ on targets. With yet another flight stacked up behind us, the FAC was trying to move things along, however. I was beginning to get ‘that old feeling,’ but made the decision to comply.

As soon as the hung ordnance bird jettisoned his load, I was called in ‘hot’ – right on his tail from 12,000 feet. This is the point where things seemingly began to happen in slow motion – a phenomenon that many describe in similar circumstances. At about 8,000 feet during the run, I felt a ‘thump’ – sort of like encountering another aircraft’s jet wash. In retrospect, it amazes me how efficient the mind becomes when you know you’re in trouble: I made some very quick decisions in a very short time.

Still in the run, I looked instinctively to my right. From the A-7 cockpit you can see most of the outboard wing surface. Mine had the same appearance seen on the exit side of a tin can hit with bullets from target practice. Not a good sign. The adrenalin was beginning to flow, but my thought processes took on a crystal clarity that I wish to this day I could summon on demand.

I keyed the mike button and said, “I think I took a hit – aborting.” Almost simultaneously, I reached out and punched the button on control panel that jettisons all ordnance. Another ‘thump’ as the ordnance released … then a feeling of relief as I realized the aircraft was still flying and controllable. I’m sure my low pullout off-target had some of the defenders ducking for cover. Next priority: altitude and airspeed. I was already pointed east toward the Gulf. The FAC acknowledged the situation and offered stand-by assistance as needed.

Checklists were whirring around in my brain. But, unlike during our squadron safety quizzes, they were now as vivid as black print in my mind. Focused on my cockpit gauges, I heard the FAC clear my wingman to drop all his ordnance, and he was quickly on his way to join-up. Hydraulic pressure was beginning to fluctuate. Another checklist: ISO(lation) hydraulics selected, minimum control movements, etc. But the aircraft was still flying and I began to get a hopeful feeling. It didn’t last long.

During Vietnam, the US Air Force had airborne SAR (search and rescue) assistance monitoring all strike frequencies and was OPR (Of Prime Responsibility) for that mission. To my relief, only moments after heading off-target, the radio crackled with a reassuring voice from them offering assistance and tracking: “War Ace, what are your intentions?”

By then my wingman had joined up and was looking me over. He confirmed my worst fears: I had holes in my wing, the fuselage underside, and was streaming some vapor. I decided my best bet was to head for Danang. I relayed this to the airborne SAR. Within minutes they let me know Danang was alerted, standing-by with local SAR, and could foam the runway if needed.
Things were looking better.

Just West of the Laotian border and the Ashau Valley, luck ran out. With a shudder, the engine seized, electric power (with gauges and radio) went out, and the controls began to stiffen. I popped out my RAT (ram air turbine) in a vain attempt to gain backup power and controls, but nothing happened. I was still straight-and-level, but I knew I was going down.

We had been flying West toward Danang at about 15,000 feet. There was an overcast with tops around 9,000 feet as far as the eye could see, obscuring the ground. The aircraft began a slow roll to the left.

Again in my slow-motion world, decision processing had vivid clarity. I decided I did not want the situation to progress to a scenario with me riding an uncontrolled aircraft into the overcast below. If I was going to eject, it seemed a better option to do it while reasonably straight and level. I had just enough time to look out to my right and give a lame wave ‘bye-bye’ to my wingman as the aircraft continued to roll. I learned later that he got the message and radioed to the airborne SAR, “It looks like he’s going to punch out.”

I pulled the face curtain.

As you can imagine, the wild ride in a McDonnell-Douglas Escapac II ejection seat is at least as spectacular as a Disneyland “E” ticket. The seat worked as advertised. The memory is as one might expect: Chaos! Cold air, pain, g-forces, noise, then, zap! – the reassuring but traumatic opening shock of the chute. The transition from all of this to a contrasting ‘peaceful’ drift downward in a quiet vast open space is a memory that’s etched in my brain. Another is the bizarre sight of the aircraft canopy spiraling slowly away from me toward the cloud tops far beneath between my feet.

Then came one of those rare moments that seem almost absurd in retrospect: I distinctly remember declaring out loud to no one in particular but myself: “Jesus Christ, what the f--- am I doing here?”

I vaguely recall pulling out the PRC-90 survival radio from my survival vest on the descent, contacting my wingman on guard (emergency) frequency and telling him I was OK; but I couldn’t swear to this. The PRC-90 was to become the most valuable piece of survival gear in the whole adventure.

The most unnerving part of the descent was the trip through the 9,000-foot overcast: It was like drifting through a bowl of milk: total whiteout and disorientation. The main disadvantage in this situation was not knowing what was below me or when I was going to hit it. The chute oscillations from the cloud turbulence were no fun, either.

The answer to the above question came too quickly for me to react. As it turned out, the bottoms of the overcast were only about 100-200 feet above the ground. Still oscillating, I hit the ground on a hillside, facing up the hill. There was only a split second between breaking out of the clouds and impact. From my perspective at the time, it seemed like I had landed vertically on level ground. Not so. I impacted at an angle and immediately tumbled backward down the hill, landing on my fanny with an impact that apparently bestowed a compression fracture on my lower vertebrae (in retrospect, this might have occurred during ejection, but who’s quibbling over details?). Years later this would be worth free Purple Heart license plates from the state of Nevada, and back pain on cold winter days.

Looking around, I saw that the top of the hill disappeared into the cloud bottoms. Relieved to find no immediate enemy presence, I got out of my chute and hid it beneath the dark underside of my survival raft, which had broken out of the seat pan. I decided to head for the high ground, but the terrain was thick tropical brush that made movement agonizingly slow, particularly with back pain. In retrospect, the cloud cover probably helped my situation by not allowing my descent to be seen by the bad guys.

The trip up the hillside was exhausting due to the thick tropical undergrowth. I probably only managed to get about 100 yards from where I hit the ground. I picked the thickest foliage I could find and settled in. It was late in the afternoon and dusk was approaching.

With the volume as low as possible, I contacted my wingman on the PRC-90. He let me know that SAR was on its way and he had to depart. That was a very lonely time.

Soon after dusk, the radio crackled: Captain David Wray, USAF, flying “Covey 251” (presumably an OV-10) announced his presence as the on-scene SAR coordinator. He had some good news and some bad news. The good news was that he was there and had a fix on my position. The bad news was that the Marine “Jolly Green” Helos out of Danang had declined the SAR mission because they considered the area I was in to be ‘too hot.’ This was not helping my paranoia at all.

Covey 251 assured me he would be overhead for several hours and was working on “Plan B.” Meanwhile, he advised radio silence. It was getting very dark.

About an hour later, Covey 251 chirped up again. More good and bad news: The bad news was that I was going to have to spend the night. The good news was that the Army was sending in rescue helos at first light. With assurances from Covey that he or his relief would be somewhere nearby overhead ‘most’ of the night, I settled in for the duration.

During JEST (Jungle Environmental Survival Training) one of the points made was that in an evasion situation, the best bet was to stay put and be perfectly still, much like a rabbit avoiding its stalker. It turned out to be some of the best advice I ever had.

I won’t recount the minute-by-minute paranoia of spending a night in Laos under the obvious circumstances, but – suffice it to say – it was no fun. Sounds and sensations become magnified. In the darkness, I could feel things crawling on various parts of my body, but I didn’t want to know what they were. Dewdrops falling off leaves and landing on other leaves sounded like footsteps right by my head. I did a lot of thinking – and bargained with God with a lot of promises…. If only he would get me out of there alive.

Not all of this was paranoia. Since landing, I could hear occasional distant sound of explosions and rifle ‘cracks.’ I just hoped no one knew where I was. They didn’t, but they did try to find out. Several times during the night I heard the nearby sound of voices and an occasional burst of weapons fire. From JEST training I knew that the enemy didn’t have the luxury of flashlights, so this was a technique designed to make the evader panic and break cover. I had no desire to become a hero or a martyr. The thought of a final shoot-out with my trusty .38 police special seemed like a poor option.

Dawn brought another crackle on the PRC-90. Covey 251 told me that three UH-1 “Cobras” from the 101st Airborne Division out of Hue Phubai were on the way. The weather was still low overcast and Covey told me to start making my way to a clearing about 100 yards from my position. There was no sign of enemy activity in the area. Things were beginning to look better.
Within 20 minutes or so, the first radio call from the UH-1s came over the PRC-90.

The flight estimated they were five minutes out. What I didn’t know at the time was that the lead Helo in the Cobra flight was the only one with a working homing beacon to zero in on my PRC-90. Another problem was that his attitude gyro wasn’t working and he had to fly under the 200-foot overcast, using nothing but treetops for attitude reference (all the while with two trusting UH-1 wingmen tucked in close to his side). I still thank my lucky stars for the courage and determination of these guys.

I was poised at the edge of the clearing when I heard the first sounds of helo rotors. The Cobra lead advised that his homing instruments were becoming erratic, so he requested ‘steers’ from me using his rotor sounds. I gave him reciprocal bearings from my survival compass as best I could. I don’t have to tell you the absolute joy of seeing that first UH-1 come into view from the other side of the clearing. I called my visual contact and popped my orange smoke flare. In another 30 seconds they were hovering overhead the clearing.

A new problem quickly became apparent: the ‘clearing’ was not totally clear. Very tall bamboo plants populated the entire clearing, preventing the helos from landing. The lead chopper hovered overhead and I could see the crew clearly. Next they dropped a rope with two “D” rings on the end. I learned later (no one had bothered to let me know at the time) that the usual mission of these helos was to extract Special Forces from operating areas by hooking them up to this rig and dangling them underneath until they reached a ‘safe’ area. That’s what they were expecting to do with me.

I just stood there like an idiot with stupid look on my face, trying to figure out the rig. The Cobras had no time for this. They waved me off, retracted the rope, and things began to look bleak again.

Realizing they were dealing with a clueless Navy pilot, the Cobras exercised the next option: with blades swirling, the lead chopper began to descend, chopping off the tops of bamboo plants (I swear, it’s the truth!). When they were low enough, out the side door came a rope ladder. THIS I knew what to do with! Deciding that I was too dim-witted to know what to do even with this approach, one crewman began to descend the ladder to assist. I met him mid-way up the ladder and literally crawled over him on my way into the chopper.

I sprawled onto the helo bay floor and we sped away to Hue Phubai.

I learned after-the-fact that by the time we were exiting the scene, our activity had attracted some enemy activity on the periphery of the clearing. The Cobra gunner described it as a “Mexican Standoff”: the bad guy raised and pointed his weapon, but never opened fire. The gunner returned the courtesy and we were gone.

After the usual Flight Surgeon check at Hue Phubai and a restless night’s sleep in the “Q,” I was returned to the CONSTELLATION via COD (Carrier Onboard Delivery). In my scrap heap I still have a copy of a bill made up by the 101st for $2,557,946 (one each, A7-A aircraft) and $2,343 for flight time (3 UH-1s and one OV-10).

True to my promise to these brave men whom I will never forget, I rooted for Army during the second half of the next Army-Navy game.

True Story.


Taking Station

Dick Zimmermann, USS CHARLES H. ROAN (DD-853)

[These are a few stories from the book THERE I WAS … Sea Stories from the U. S. Naval Academy Class of 1965, a 320-page collection of active-duty memories from 78 classmates published in 2002.]

Preface: To you purists out there who still remember signals from the signal book and will therefore question the one that comes in over PRI-TAC in this story, I offer the explanation here rather than in the middle of the story’s heated action. I’m assuming that the signal book is still classified, as it was in 1967 when this story takes place, so I’m using a fictitious signal which orders our destroyer to take station 2,000 yards astern of the carrier.


“SWEEPERS, SWEEPERS, MAN YOUR BROOMS!!” Yackabovicz, our Boatswain’s Mate of the Watch, was in his usual fine voice today – he could have easily filled in for the guy with the dramatic booming voice at the Indianapolis Speedway who orders the drivers to start their engines. You could almost hear the machinery roaring and see the gasoline exhaust gushing as our sweepers put their brooms into high gear.

Yackabovicz continued booming “Give the ship a clean sweepdown fore and aft! Sweep down all topsides, lower decks, ladders and passageways! Dump all trash and garbage over the fantail!” We were on station five miles on the starboard beam of USS AMERICA (CVA-66) in the Med, in a circular screen with seven other destroyers around the carrier. It was the summer of 1967, and I was the OOD. Back then in 1967 it was still OK to dump our trash and garbage over the fantail in broad daylight, but I hear that now you can’t do it anymore and that it can be a risky proposition even on a moonless night. But I digress.

Suddenly PRI-TAC came alive. I started moving from the port wing toward the radio handset over by the Captain’s chair on the starboard side of the pilothouse as the radio transmission thundered in, “Eskimo, this is Greased Lightning, IMMEDIATE Execute, Station Zulu Six, I say again, Station Zulu Six, Standbyyyyyy, ….... EXECUTE!!!, Over.” I immediately answered “This is Eskimo, Roger, Out” and shoved the handset back into its receptacle.

My JOOD had just come aboard two weeks ago, out of ‘67, and I wasn’t about to trust him yet in this situation, not when ROAN’s reputation for smart shiphandling was on the line and this guy could very well have flunked his YP class. I had the conn.

As soon as the handset was back in its home on the starboard side of the pilothouse, I began my mad dash to the port wing so I could safely give the order LEFT Standard Rudder to Predovich at the helm. This would get our bow over and start us moving toward our station astern of the carrier smartly, thereby maintaining ROAN’s reputation as a ship who knew what the hell she was doing out there and was on top of everything that really mattered. But since I was still on my way to the wing and not yet ready to give the rudder order, rather than waste time I went ahead and gave my order to the lee helm, “ALL ENGINES AHEAD FLANK, indicate turns for 25 knots.”

Keeping my eyes fixed on the carrier as I continued toward the port wing, I unfortunately failed to notice that Yackabovicz, having finished his duty of getting our sweepers off and running, was now getting ready to show Mariano at the lee helm the brand new tattoo he had just gotten. As I was to learn later, his tattoo was truly magnificent, a shapely unclothed lady perched on the back of a blue dragon, with the inscription “Ride ‘em Cowgirl” and a few other incredible features I won’t go into because they’ll just bog down the story. He had just gotten the tattoo in Naples three days earlier, and now he was showing it off to anyone who couldn’t get away from him fast enough. The lee helmsman, who was securely tied to his post with sound-powered phone cords, was the ideal victim.

To give Mariano the best view possible of this marvelous work of art, Yackabovicz was in the process of extending his left arm fully while holding his coffee mug in the hand that was attached to that very same arm. I was moving at breakneck speed toward the port wing to make sure I didn’t hit anybody in the process of coming left on my way to station. Now when I say I didn’t want to hit anybody, I sort of had other ships in mind. But Yackabovicz’s coffee mug and the binoculars hanging around my neck arrived at the same point at the same time.

“LEFT Standard Rudder,” I yelled to Predovich from the wing, with coffee dripping from everything I owned. Predovich was our UNREP helmsman and he could drive a nail into a tiny wooden block with our bow. “LEFT Standard Rudder, AYE, Sir” he boomed back to me, and I let the turn continue as I leaned against the pelorous, carefully studying the carrier and our heading to decide what course to steady on. “My Rudder is LEFT Standard, Sir,” Predovich told me, and I gave him a “Very well; steady on course 040.” “Steady on course 040, AYE, Sir,” he echoed back.

A quick five-second puff of black smoke when our main engine throttles started opening and our boilers began answering the turbines’ call for more steam had been enough to show the carrier we were really serious about taking station – by now our stack gas had returned to its normal light haze. The forced draft blowers were turning faster and faster, and getting louder and louder, while their pitch was going higher and higher, approaching that musical but steady high-pitched whine that so majestically screams “25 KNOTS!” while the bow surges forward slicing through the water faster and faster.

The ship began to pitch gently in the slight waves as our speed continued to build, and spray started coming up over the bow. The spray increased in intensity with each successive downward plunge of the bow, but remained a fine mist the whole time. Salt spray in your face on the way to station always made an exhilarating experience even better.

We continued our onward rush to glory for several minutes, as I kept a close eye on the carrier’s bearing drift to make sure it continued only ever so slightly to the right. Too much right bearing drift meant that we would end up in a stern chase, having to keep “pouring on the coals” later just to catch up to the carrier because we were steering too far to the left during this earlier part of the maneuver. I always disliked having to use speed merely to compensate for my poor shiphandling, so I watched this carefully. Usually I would have to make a few course adjustments to hold the bearing drift rate where I wanted it, but this time for some reason the initial choice of 040 was proving to be perfect. And Predovich, our all-star helmsman, was holding up his end of the bargain, keeping our heading within one degree either side of the ordered course.

We were coming in beautifully, broad on the carrier’s starboard quarter at 2,400 yards with spray flying and forced draft blowers howling. The final adjustment easing us into station astern should be a piece of cake, and I started my trip across the pilothouse toward the starboard wing to make that final turn and to slow the engines back to 15 knots to match the carrier’s speed.

Wallin, our Quartermaster of the Watch, smoked Pall Malls and had just bought a brand-new Zippo lighter from the ship store before coming on watch, one emblazoned with the ship’s crest. He had been filling it while Yackabovicz was deploying the sweepers, and you could smell lighter fluid all over the place. Wallin was using the chart table to perform his fueling operation because he didn’t want to risk messing up his Quartermaster’s Notebook on his own table by dribbling lighter fluid all over it. Now I don’t know where the chart table on your ship was, but on ROAN it was right by the door that goes out to the starboard wing.

This meant that to reach the starboard wing for my final adjustment into station, I first had to navigate safely past Wallin and his shiny new Zippo, now flush to the gills with lighter fluid. Normally I didn’t worry about things like that, but after my collision with Yackabovicz and his coffee, I didn’t want anything else screwing up these last delicate steps of the maneuver. Wallin was getting ready to light up as I was coming back into the pilothouse from the port wing to make my transition over to the starboard wing, so I watched him just as carefully as I watched the carrier, and successfully made it past him and out to the wing.

Now I’m not going to reveal in a public forum any of my secret maneuvering thumbrules on just how I knew exactly when to put the rudder over and precisely when to slow to the carrier’s speed. But they worked perfectly and we slid smartly into our station without having to fishtail or back down, or any of those things other ships had to do when they started creeping up way too close to the carrier because they didn’t know when to cut their speed and wound up grossly overshooting their station.

At that point, with the ship right on station, I called my JOOD over and asked him if he would like to take the conn for a while, sent the messenger down to my stateroom to get me a clean shirt, and bummed one of Wallin’s Pall Malls.

The Midwatch

I was sound asleep in the port side upper berth in the ‘JO Bunkroom,’ a four-man stateroom of ensigns and jg’s on the main deck back aft. It was about 2320 one night in 1967, and I was dreaming about the previous weekend in Capri, when the Supply Officer and I had taken a couple days off from the ship which was Med-moored in Naples. We had met a couple of ladies on tour from Finland in one of Capri’s discos, so it was a pleasant dream. Suddenly someone was shaking my mattress and shining a red flashlight into my eyes, and it wasn’t any lovely Finnish damsel! It was Kowalski, the bridge messenger, telling me I had to get up so I could go relieve the watch. I told him it was supposed to be Mr. Young’s watch, but Kowalski wouldn’t fall for that old line. Bob Young, who slept in the starboard side upper berth of this same bunkroom, was already on the bridge anxiously awaiting my arrival so he could get off the bridge and into his bunk.

I got washed up and put on some clean khakis in case someone important came onto the bridge during the midwatch. Nobody important had ever done this, but these were the days when Isaac Kidd was in his glory, and I’d heard a story separately from two guys who probably didn’t even know each other that Kidd had once come up behind an OOD during a midwatch on a destroyer and said “Hi, I’m Captain Kidd.” The OOD was said to have replied, “Hi, Captain, I’m John Paul Jones.” And both sources swore this story was true, and furthermore that the OOD really was named John Paul Jones, but I’m still not sure I believed either one of them.

As I walked forward through the main passageway on my way to the wardroom for our delicious midrats, I passed the firerooms which were both gushing unbelievable quantities of hot air upward, and I silently cursed the snipes down below who were responsible for this. Being the CIC Officer and hence always accustomed to air conditioning, I thought of the snipes as being good only for making hot air and black smoke, as well as losing the load, always at the worst possible time. Had I known that in a couple of years I would be the Officer in Charge of Hot Air and Black Smoke Production and the Leading Load Loser on another ship, I probably would have been more kind in my appraisal of those hard-working guys down below.

In my clean khakis, I slumped into a chair in the wardroom, which was all lit up in red so as not to impair our night vision, which we would need in just a few minutes. Then I looked to see what sort of delectable midrats Flauta had prepared for us. They were our old standby, non-Kosher bologna sandwiches, which I had gotten very tired of over the past several months. So I went into the wardroom pantry to see what I could make myself. At the risk of ruining my night vision, I turned on the white lights, and saw the roaches scurrying for cover. I think we had more roaches in the pantry than we had men on the ship. Ah, great! There was some bacon left over from breakfast earlier that day (at least I hoped it was from that same day), and lots of tomatoes, lettuce, and even some cheddar cheese in the reefer. So I made myself a couple of BLTs, even though the bacon probably wasn’t any more Kosher than the bologna that I didn’t care for. But at least it was a break from that same old stuff. It always amazed me that the coffee for the midwatch was never fresh, even when Flauta swore up and down that he had just made it five minutes earlier.

I finished my second sandwich at 2340 and went up the ladder to the bridge, which had the same red lighting scheme as the wardroom. Since my night vision was already in full swing despite my stop in the pantry, I had no trouble finding the OOD Bob Young, who was leaning on the Captain’s chair and intently watching the SARATOGA 2,000 yards dead ahead. The moonlight accentuated the luminescence of the carrier’s wake which would have been visible even without the moonlight. I never understood why the wake seemed to glow all on its own like that. When Bob finished his rundown of the situation, I took the deck and the conn, and Bob beat a hasty retreat to the ladder on his way back to the bunkroom I had just left just a few minutes before.

As soon as he left, the SARA started an unannounced slow turn to starboard to take her course for flight operations. The radio was blaring with the chatter of all the aviators getting ready to land when the carrier steadied on her upwind course. By alternating rudder commands between right two degrees and amidships, I was able to stay just on the inboard edge of the clearly-visible wake for the whole turn.

I checked via the sound-powered phone talker to make sure the plane guard crew on the foc’sl was manned and ready, and did the same for the guys back at the motor whaleboat. Then I called the Captain to tell him the carrier was about to start flight ops. He came out just as we could see the first plane way back on our starboard quarter roll into the landing pattern and start his descent to the flight deck.

As crazy as it sounds now in 2002, that stuff sure seemed like fun.

Those Other Ships

One of my earlier sea stories described, among other things, how we ship drivers on CHARLES H. ROAN knew precisely when to reduce our speed while taking station astern of a carrier. In that story I explained how “we slid smartly into station without having to fishtail or back down, or any of those things other ships had to do when they started creeping up way too close to the carrier because they didn’t know when to cut their speed and wound up grossly overshooting their station.”

I later found out that there were several other ways in which the ROAN differed from those other ships. For example, I learned that most of those other ships, such as the FORREST SHERMAN, did something strange when they were preparing for their periodic admin inspections. They had some sort of weird practice with a funny name that we on ROAN had never heard of until we had to deal with those other ships. I think that what they called it on those other ships was ‘gun-decking.’

As the guys from those other ships explained it to us while we stood there in utter amazement and disbelief, they didn’t really keep up with all the paperwork that we were all supposed to keep up with over the year, things like training records, equipment maintenance data, and the logs of what movies had been shown in the wardroom on what dates. And since they didn’t keep up with this paperwork in what is now called ‘real time,’ they had to go into some kind of crisis fix-up mode right before the upcoming inspection to convince the inspectors that they had been keeping up all along.

These guys on the other ships like the WILLIAM R. RUSH even went so far as to use a bunch of different pens with different colors of ink when they were catching up on their long-neglected logs and other papers. The intent of this clever ruse was to throw off an inspector who might notice that everything was done in the same ink color, and would therefore be able to tell they were guilty of gun-decking without even going to the trouble of TRYING to fool anyone. Apparently gun-deckers had to be very clever to avoid being trapped by eagle-eyed inspectors who knew all the hidden tricks like noticing that everything was written in the same handwriting and with the same pen, a dead giveaway of pathetically amateurish gun-decking.

Another way we differed from the other ships was the way we kept our ship painted and presentable, and I mean all the time. There were actually stories out there, all of which came from guys on those other ships like the JOSEPH P. KENNEDY, about how they occasionally had to do something crazy like paint only their port side because they knew that in two days they were going to have to render honors to some big shot somewhere, and they wanted to have their port side looking good for such a ceremony. I have no idea how they knew two days ahead of time which side they would render honors to. Not having a clue as to how to make such a prediction is probably why my next shipboard billet after the ROAN was Chief Engineer in another ship.

Being down in the enginerooms and firerooms, I didn’t have to worry about knowing which side we’d be rendering honors to, or painting whatever side we would eventually figure out was the one that would be seen. For that matter, I didn’t even have to worry about what would happen to that particular side of the ship when we blew tubes.

But I did have other things to worry about.



Bruce Kallsen, VA-115 off USS MIDWAY (CVA-41)

[This is a story from the book THERE I WAS … Sea Stories from the U. S. Naval Academy Class of 1965, a 320-page collection of active-duty memories from 78 classmates published in 2002.]

It was the 24th of October, 1972, and I and my Bombardier/Navigator (B/N), “Bix”, were returning to the USS MIDWAY in our A-6 aircraft from a night low-level bombing mission over North Vietnam. Life was as good as it could be under the circumstances - we’d flown a noncombat flight earlier in the day, a maintenance check flight which required 15 minutes of system functional checks, and then allowed two hours of acrobatic play amongst the clouds, while waiting for our recovery time on the aircraft carrier. We both commented it had been the most enjoyable flight of the cruise to date. In addition, Bix was to leave the ship the next morning on two weeks of well-deserved leave. This was Bix’s first combat cruise, my third, and we genuinely liked each other and enjoyed flying together. Bix was a quiet, well-built, and likeable individual who somehow played a decent guitar though hampered with pudgy wrestler-type fingers. He was an exceptional B/N and good friend. My own leave date was only a few days away. But this was to be a night recovery unlike any other, before or since.

Upon contacting the ship, we informed them we had two “hung” 500-pound bombs, ordnance we had tried in vain to drop. It was the ship’s call as to whether we brought the ordnance aboard upon landing, or jettisoned it at sea. The disadvantage to jettisoning was that it required jettisoning the Multiple Ejector Rack (MER) as well. The MER was a $5,000 piece of equipment that transformed a single wing station into one capable of carrying up to six bombs, and MERs were in short supply. Complicating the matter: the bombs were hung on station 5, farthest outboard on the wing. Their combined weight and moment arm put the aircraft right at the limit of maximum asymmetric load for an arrested landing. Since naval aviators as a group are quick to volunteer in difficult situations, decisions such as this were left to the ship/airwing/squadron representative, and were based upon the circumstances and individual pilot’s prior landing performance. The powers that be directed that we bring the bombs aboard.

The landing was further complicated by additional factors: There was no natural wind, so the aircraft carrier would have to create the wind over the deck through its own speed through the water. Since the landing area was angled 13 degrees to the left of centerline, this meant there would be a crosswind coming from the starboard side. Additionally, it was a dark, moonless night, with no discernible horizon, the bane of the naval aviator. Maintaining wings level on final approach would be a challenge. Also, the aircraft had been approved in the previous year for increased “maximum weight” arrested landings. The new limit was 36,000 pounds, vice the 33,500 pounds previously authorized. Our predicted landing weight was 200 pounds under the new maximum. Finally, the flight deck was “heaving,” slowly rising and falling with the swells of the sea. All night carrier landings are difficult, but this one would be especially tricky.

The approach to the ship was normal, and at 3/4 mile, Bix called the “ball,” indicating we had acquired the “meatball” landing aid and were commencing our visual approach. Nearing the midpoint of the approach, the ball went high, the LSO (Landing Signal Officer) called me high and I had already made the correction he was calling for to put us back on the optimum glide slope. Another “you’re high” call was made, and I corrected again. At the time I thought the second call was also from the LSO, but it turned out Bix had made it, something he had never previously done. The touchdown brought with it the immediate realization that things were not normal….WE HAD CRASHED!!

Unknown to us at the time, the starboard axle had sheared upon contact with the flight deck, and it was now an uncontrolled missile careening up the flight deck. The stub of the starboard landing gear was dragging on the flight deck, causing a pronounced right-wing-down orientation. My reaction was the normal for all arrested landings; I applied full power in the event the aircraft failed to engage the arresting wire. Unfortunately, the starboard stub caught the arresting wire, the cross-deck cable normally snagged by the tailhook. As the wire minimally slowed our forward progress, the aircraft tilted far over to the left, threatening to roll inverted. Flashes of being upside down under a burning aircraft crossed my mind, but as quickly as the crash had occurred, the wire slid down the length of the landing gear, and released its hold on our badly crippled conveyance. The aircraft fell back to a right-wing-down attitude as I continued my efforts to power the aircraft off the angled deck. It was apparent we were going too slowly to have adequate flying speed if we left the flight deck, but I felt we could get the aircraft off the deck and then eject. Unfortunately, the laws of physics demanded otherwise.

As the right landing gear stub continued in a howling screech to drag up the flight deck, it caused the trajectory of the aircraft to slowly arc to the right, out of the landing area, and into the pack of aircraft at the front of the flight deck. Immediately in our path was the F-4 just landed by our Air Wing Commander (CAG), with CAG climbing out of the cockpit. Undeterred I continued at full throttle, with the aim of shoving the F-4 off the flight deck, following it, and ejecting. Again physics intervened, and the result was the dismembering of the left wing and tail of my aircraft, and a forward displacement of the F-4, breaking CAG’s leg rather severely. By this time it was apparent our aircraft couldn’t leave the flight deck, so I shut down the engines to decrease the velocity and severity of our imminent impact.

During this chaotic ride, as my aircraft drifted out of the landing area, we entered the area of the flight deck occupied by previously landed aircraft and the personnel attending to them. The reactions of individuals confronted with my uncontrolled aircraft ran the gamut, from frozen disbelief as I ran them over to instinctive leaping to the side, apparently warned only by the sound of my screeching landing gear, or perhaps the abnormal vibration of its contact with the flight deck.

As all of this was happening, my awareness was rapidly closing down - initially I was concerned with the entire flight deck, the aircraft and personnel thereon, then I focused upon just my aircraft and the F-4 I hit, and finally I concentrated on just where my portion of the cockpit would come to rest. Undoubtedly, Bix was reacting in like fashion: the next events that caught my attention were two bright flashes to my right. I looked to the right expecting to see the bombs exploding; instead, I was shocked and angered by what I DIDN’T see … Bix was gone!! I couldn’t immediately grasp that he had ejected, and wondered how the heck he’d gotten out of this hellish ride. I have since been reminded that anger is the most common manifestation of fear, and it’s safe to say fear was riding that cockpit with me. Bix had obviously seen that his portion of the aircraft was going to impact a parked A-7 rather severely, he would undoubtedly be seriously injured, if not killed outright, and he decided to eject from the aircraft, although we were outside the then-limits of the ejection seat. Conversely, my little portion of the cockpit appeared headed for an opening between two aircraft, and it appeared survivable. I chose to ride it out. Our separate and individual decisions could easily have been reversed.

The aircraft came to a jarring halt as it struck the parked A-7s, crashing my remaining wingtip through the canopy of an A-7, leaving a furrow in the helmet of the squadron commander, who was unstrapping, having just parked his aircraft. He barely had the room to duck out of the wingtip’s path. In contacting the parked aircraft, the cockpit accordioned around me, squeezing the console between my legs together, and puncturing and confining my left leg. My first thought was to jettison the canopy, but pulling the jettison handle had no effect; it was no longer attached to the activating apparatus. Failing this, I pulled my ditching handle, which would release me from the ejection seat, but this left me attached to the seat pan upon which I sat and the survival gear it contained, a very cumbersome configuration for climbing out of and over aircraft in reduced visibility. Hurrying my efforts were the reflections of my tail aflame from the spilling hydraulic fluid and fuel. Finally, I unstrapped in the normal fashion, grabbed my left leg with both hands, jerked it from its confinement, and crawled out the hole left in the canopy by Bix’s unannounced departure.

In the meantime, the crash and rescue truck (every carrier had one after the ENTERPRISE fire of 1969, which I had observed from the air) had fallen in behind me as my aircraft careened up the flight deck with flames trailing from my broken fuselage. The brave crashcrew had the fire entirely quenched within 90 seconds, a testimony to their skill and courage.

Crawling over the A-7 and down into the catwalk, I hurried back to the island as the firetruck pulled up behind my aircraft spraying fire retardant foam. My main concern was to be sure the powers that be were aware Bix had ejected, apparently over the side, and a search must be commenced. I hurried to the island, down the ladder and into our wardroom. As our duty officer caught sight of me, the blood drained from his face, and he turned white as a ghost. He had assumed I was killed, and couldn’t believe his eyes. I urged him to report Bix’s situation, and sat for a few minutes collecting myself. As the adrenalin rush eased, my legs slowly began jumping uncontrollably, and a squadron mate accompanied me as I walked down to Sick Bay to attend to my injured leg.

Sick Bay was a bedlam of activity as the surgeons triaged the accident victims upon their arrival, seeing to the needs first of the most seriously injured. These were individuals with lacerations and broken bones caused by careening aircraft or their severed parts. One man had been refueling an aircraft as it was struck, breaking the fueling hose connection and immersing him in a spray of jet fuel, much of which he ingested, later succumbing to its poisonous effects. With a relatively minor wound, I was one of the last treated, having been given a Valium to calm me as I had witnessed the carnage. CAG was lying there with his broken leg, awaiting his turn at treatment. I took the occasion to apologize to him for the damage caused. He looked at me with a large smile, and said no apology was necessary. His injury was his ticket home and out of the war. This was our fearless leader, and his attitude was a testament to the confusing and contradicting nature of the Vietnam conflict.

An extensive search was conducted for Bix, but he was never found, apparently having been pulled underwater by his parachute, a common occurrence in those days if one was unlucky enough to not free oneself from the parachute immediately upon water entry. Four other sailors were killed that evening by careening aircraft parts or fuel ingestion. I suffered a puncture wound and surprising muscle soreness from the exertion expended; but I was incredibly lucky. I sent a Red Cross telegram to my wife to let her know of my injury, and wellbeing; unfortunately, the ship had informed her I had injured my right leg, so when I reported my left was hurt, she assumed I was so traumatized that I couldn’t tell right from left. After ten days of recuperation, I started flying again, delaying my leave until after I had proven I would be able to continue flying from the carrier.

The aftermath: As with all aircraft accidents, an investigation followed to determine the cause. Also as in most accidents, more than one thing contributed to the mishap. Primary cause was the starboard crosswind was outside acceptable limits, and I should never have been allowed to land under those conditions. The crosswind contributed to the aircraft touching down in a right wing down attitude, causing the right axle to bear the major load from my asymmetrical bomb load. Additionally, the flight deck was coming up as I touched down, adding to the extreme nature of the event. Jettisoning the bombs and the $5,000 MER would have been very good choices in retrospect. Contributing also was the fact that my approach was not optimum; I received a “Fair” grade for the approach, equivalent to a B in academic terms, or perhaps a B-. A perfect pass might have prevented the accident, but the consensus was that, given all other factors, and primarily the extreme crosswind, the approach was probably impossible to be made in a safe manner …. little consolation for the deaths of five shipmates.

Night landings on an aircraft carrier were always extremely challenging, but prior to this mishap, they were sometimes fun and exhilarating, especially on moonlit nights. After this night, however, night carrier landings held a new dread, which never entirely left me.


The Beer Run

Bull Durham, VF-194 off USS ORISKANY (CVA-34)

[This is a story from the book THERE I WAS … Sea Stories from the U. S. Naval Academy Class of 1965, a 320-page collection of active-duty memories from 78 classmates published in 2002.]

Real fighter pilots have an intimate appreciation of Isaac Newton. We were constantly subjected to forces (read afterburner) acting on our masses and accelerating them, usually in a controlled fashion. We were often kept upright at happy hour by the equal and opposite force of our buddies leaning against us. And sure enough, once we spotted a fair member of the opposite sex, we proceeded in a straight line toward her until acted on by an external force, usually her boyfriend. This story goes to show how tenuous are the higher brain functions that process these physical laws.

Navy ships are, of course dry. Booze is not allowed in any form, thanks, we’re told, to Josephus Daniels. However, if we let our imaginations soar, and assume against all the evidence that someone were to smuggle spirits aboard, say, the USS ORISKANY, cruising in the Gulf of Tonkin back in the late 60s, an offense punishable under the UCMJ and an act which no naval officer would think of committing, then this story would be true. As it is this story is just made-up, and it will stay that way until I see proof the statute of limitations has run out.

We had been in the Gulf for a good five weeks. It gets really hot and thirsty. The beer we’d stocked in the mini-fridges in our staterooms had long since been drunk. Some photo pilot (they didn’t have to fly at night) produced a bottle of 151 proof rum which he mixed with bug juice from the wardroom. This was too much for even the most committed boozers among us, so we started looking for some excuse to bingo into the beach to replenish our supplies.

The opportunity came for me during a normal day recovery. An F-8 from our sister squadron cut in front of me in the pattern and I had to go around. Still fuming over his bad manners, I turned down wind. Abeam the ship, I looked over and was surprised to see he was still in the landing area. It turned out his nose gear had collapsed on landing, and there he sat with the nub of his strut dug into the flight deck. Better yet (from my point of view), the broken strut had damaged the cables, and they would have to be replaced. There was no tanker airborne, and I heard those magic words: Gear up, hook up, your signal Bingo!

So off I went to Danang to refuel and make the next recovery. Plenty of time to hit the Air Force O Club and stock up. I bought a grocery bag full of loose cans of Bud and headed back to the ramp.

Uh oh. Problem here. The F-8 doesn’t have a luggage compartment. When we took cross countries we’d jam all our gear in the 20mm ammo cans behind the cockpit. But, surprise, surprise, we were in combat, and the ammo cans were full of - ammo. I briefly considered getting the ordies to unload some of it, but figured that might be a little hard to explain when I got back to the ship. So into the cockpit with me it went.

Uh oh again, another problem here. The full bag was too big to put in any one place in the cockpit. I couldn’t hold it in my lap because that’s where the stick had to go when you wanted to make the houses get smaller. So, genius that I am, I took the cans out and placed them in strategic locations on the left and right consoles. A few knobs and such were hard to get to, but I made sure all the shiny ones were clear.

And so off to the ship. I have no idea where my head was as I came into the break, turned down wind and dirtied up, turned into the groove and called the ball. Not even a peep from that part of my brain that must have known that when I caught the wire, the airplane would stop but the beer cans would not. Not right away, at any rate.

So imagine my surprise when I trapped and all these red and white missiles came flying by my elbows, smashing into the instrument panel and dropping down to the floorboard. Rolling around ...

And getting jammed behind the rudder pedals.

This point is significant, because you need to move the rudder pedals to control the nose-wheel steering. I rocked back in the gear, raised the hook, folded my wings, and started to taxi forward. I could move the pedals scarcely an inch, and had to steer by locking one brake or the other and adding power. Not very elegant. The air boss could see I was having trouble getting out of the landing area. The tower windows angle outward, and I could see him leaning forward trying to get a better look at what was going on in the cockpit. I keyed the mike, laughed nervously, and explained that my nose wheel steering must have failed.

To this day I think the air boss must have seen the beer cans rolling around. Every time I saw him afterwards he just looked at me, shook his head, and moved on.

But it all worked out in the end. I managed to get the cans back in the bag before the plane captain got up to the cockpit. That night I was a bit of hero to my pals, although we all agreed the beer run was the dumbest thing I had done, which was saying some.

Astoundingly, I was soon thereafter promoted to Lieutenant. How about that?


The Class of 1965

by Roger Sherman

This section is the Afterword of the book THERE I WAS … Sea Stories from the U. S. Naval Academy Class of 1965. This is a 320-page book of active-duty memories from 78 members of the Class, which was published in 2002.

On June 28, 1961 we were appointed Midshipmen in the United States Navy. We stood in front of Bancroft Hall, raised our right hands, committed to an oath of service, and were sworn in on that warm and sunny afternoon. We came from all walks of life and from all fifty states. Most were fresh out of high school. Some like myself came to Annapolis after a year of college (Cornell University in my case). Others came from the enlisted ranks of the Navy and Marine Corps. And a few came from Naval Academy Preparatory Schools or other military prep schools.

For the most part we were young and naïve as to what lay ahead. We came to Annapolis for different reasons. We had a goal to become Navy or Marine Corps officers, but different events triggered that objective for each person. For some it may have been watching the Victory At Sea TV series. For others it may have been Hollywood movies about Navy and Marine action in WW II. Still others were there because of fathers or relatives who served in the Navy or Marines in World War II or Korea. Some were sons of men who were at that time still in the US Navy or US Marines. Others were there because the education was free and their family might not have been able to afford a private education at a prestigious university or college.

There were over 1,200 young men sworn in that warm and sunny June 28. Four years later, on June 9, 1965, 802 would graduate. So 33% of those who took the oath in 1961 departed for various reasons during our years as Midshipmen. Some could not handle the mental and physical stress of Plebe Year, some could not handle the academic workload, some became physically unfit, and some decided the military was not for them.

Much would happen to us during our four years as Midshipmen. They were formative years. We would learn much in the classroom, in the communities around Annapolis, Washington D.C. and Baltimore, on summer cruises or other assignments, and of course on liberty in ports around the world. And as we grew and matured from our youth to become young junior officers in the US Navy and US Marine Corps, the world was rapidly changing.

In June 1961 John F. Kennedy was our President and John B. Connally was the Secretary of the Navy who signed our Midshipman Appointments. No one knew what would happen to these two men a couple of years later on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. I can remember when we heard the tragic news. It was very quiet in Bancroft Hall and throughout the entire Academy Yard. A year earlier, in October 1962, we experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis as Midshipmen. There was much activity and discussion on the subject at the Academy. My Russian language instructor was pulled for special assignment for the duration of the crisis. During the summer of 1964, while vacationing in Europe following my First Class cruise in the Mediterranean Sea, I remember seeing the headline in an English language paper (probably the London Times) in Copenhagen, Denmark, that two American warships, the USS TURNER JOY and USS MADDOX, had been attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats and the US had retaliated with air strikes from aircraft carriers.

How many of us knew in the summer of 1964 that many of us would be influenced and affected by the events of that fateful day? Perhaps a few knew, but not the majority. We prepared for our First Class year and anticipated graduation and getting our commissions as Ensigns and Second Lieutenants. We knew we were in a “cold war” with the Soviet Union, but not the beginning of a “hot war” in Southeast Asia. Vietnam was in the news, but not as major headlines. We read of a group called the Viet Minh, communist guerrillas in South Vietnam supported by North Vietnam. The United States was sending a few military advisors to the area but no one predicted the large-scale US involvement that would commence in 1965, the year of our graduation.

Some of our classmates would soon be killed in action in Vietnam. Of those who went into the US Marines, Ron Meyer was killed in action just one year after graduation, in June 1966, and two more were killed in action less than two years after graduation, Dick Piatt in April 1967, and Bill Grammar in May. Others who went into Naval Aviation were killed in flight operations supporting the Vietnam War, including Bill Boles in January 1968, Mike Travis in February 1968, Barney Broms in August 1968, and Bill Covington in January 1969.

Some classmates died in the early years after graduation in the line of duty far away from Vietnam and live combat. Laughton Smith was on the submarine USS SCORPION that sank in May 1968. Several Naval Aviators died in the line of duty during non-combat operations, including Dean Sedar, March 1966; Keith Hansford, July 1966; Dave Driver, June 1968; Craig Taylor, June 1968; Clarence Miles, September 1968; Al Jones, June 1969; Doug McCarty, April 1970; Steve Erickson, June 1971; John Lindahl, January 1973; Gary Simkins, April 1973; Dick Pierson, November 1973; Richard Bayer, October 1977; Gay Parrett, January 1980; Paul Nelson, September 1981; Phil Reed, November 1981 and Hank Kleeman, December 1985. Gerry Zopf died in May 1967 inside a BOQ that caught on fire and he had no way out to safety.

Prior to our commissioning and joining the Fleet or the Marines, we had much to be proud of as a Naval Academy Class. We beat Army in football three out of our four years. Our Second Class year in the fall of 1963, we beat Notre Dame. We were the last Navy team to accomplish that feat, and on New Year’s Day, 1964 we played Texas in the Cotton Bowl for the national championship title. The Longhorns won, but our Roger “The Dodger” Staubach received the Heisman Trophy for that season. As our yearbook, the Lucky Bag, states when pointing out Roger’s phenomenal football success story at Annapolis, “Rog will be remembered far longer by all of us for his humility, sincerity and deep religious faith.” I can personally attest to that.

In 1963 our 150-pound football team was the national champion. In the fall of 1964 the 150-pound football team won all but one game. Unfortunately we lost to Army 0 to 6. In the fall of 1964 our soccer team went undefeated and won the NCAA championship. In the spring of 1965 our Lacrosse Team was undefeated and won the national championship; it has been written up as possibly the best lacrosse team ever to play the game. No matter what the sport and at what level, from varsity to intramural, Annapolis Midshipmen always played to win.

We graduated feeling proud. We had made it through Plebe Year, hard physical training and a tough academic curriculum. We proudly wore our class ring with the class crest that has the word HONOR below an eagle and shield. We left the Academy going to all points of the compass. Some to immediate ship assignments, some to temporary duty awaiting flight training, others to the nuclear power program, others to the Marine Corps, a few very smart classmates to an advanced science and engineering program, a few to the Civil Engineer Corps, others to the Supply Corps and Ron Bancroft, our Brigade Commander, to a Rhodes Scholarship. A handful went into the Air Force and a couple went into the Army.

Following our graduation on June 9, 1965, many of the Class went on to make the Navy a career and of those several made it to the rank of Rear Admiral, Vice Admiral or Admiral. Others left the Navy after meeting their minimum obligated service requirement. Some departed for other personal reasons over the years. Those who left the Navy or Marine Corps went on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, business managers, bankers, consultants, airline pilots, entrepreneurs, FBI agents, etc.

The stories in this book cover a wide range of activity including flying off aircraft carriers operating in the Gulf of Tonkin on combat missions over North Vietnam, working as naval advisors in the coastal support groups in South Vietnam, operating with Marine ground units in the northern most sector of South Vietnam (I Corps), serving on surface ships providing naval gunfire support off the coast of South Vietnam and search and rescue operations in the Gulf of Tonkin, manning submarines operating under the polar ice cap and elsewhere in the depths of the oceans, performing underway ship replenishments, and making visits to numerous ports of call around the world.

The stories in this book are active duty service recollections of the US Naval Academy Class of 1965, men who served their country with honor.