August 1, 1969
Getting shot down sucks. Bailing out after getting shot down is worse. If you’re shot down and you get killed, your fight is over. If you’re shot down and bail out, your fight is just beginning. And bailing out over Laos is about as bad as it can get.
A few months earlier, I’d had lunch with a Green Beret Lieutenant, nicknamed Snake, who was doing some Special Ops work, called Prairie Fire, with our squadron. I had worked with him on a few occasions, flying him over the area of operations to find areas he thought would make good LZs – landing zones.
His job was to lead six-member teams, three Americans and three indigenous, into Laos to try to search for aircrew members who had been shot down. The team would be air-lifted to the selected LZ by army helicopters, and they used Covey FACs to help with air support if they got into trouble. And they frequently made contact with the enemy and needed air support.
Since the gomers could hear the chopper when it was inbound to the LZ, it was pretty hard for the team to stay hidden. One way to confuse the gomers was to perform the team insertion – the infil – with one chopper, and at the same time have six or seven other choppers land at decoy LZs. The choppers would land, wait a few seconds, then lift off and leave. Just like a real infil. So the gomers never would know if the LZ was a real infil or a decoy. The team would do the extraction – the exfil – the same way.
Every now and then the team would find a live crewmember, and call for an immediate exfil. Most of the time, though, they would find the crewmember’s remains.
Snake was a tough-as-nails combat veteran on his third tour. I’d taken him up on a few flights to look for candidate LZ sites, and he was absolutely fearless. When we’d get shot at with triple-A, he was as cool as a cucumber. I’d be jinking and maneuvering like crazy, and he’d be sitting in the observer seat looking totally unconcerned. You’d think he was watching television.
But when he would talk about finding the bodies of pilots in Laos, he would really get emotional. His eyes would well up.
“I’ve seen a lot, Hamfist, but I’ve never seen anything like what the Pathet Lao does to the guys they catch,” he said, “You know, we go to the base theater to watch a movie for entertainment. These bastards torture their prisoners for entertainment. That’s their evening movie. One of the pilots we found,” he paused and wiped his eyes, “had his hands cut off and he’d been skinned.”
“On one mission a few months ago, we were outside a small village, avoiding contact, just recon. I had a good view of a few huts, and I suddenly heard the loud yelping of a dog that was obviously in a lot of pain. I looked with my binocs in the direction of the howling, and saw a Laotian woman, probably in her sixties, casually bending back the leg of a small dog. Suddenly, the leg snapped, and the dog howled even louder.”
“These people actually think that if the dog suffers before they kill it,” Snake continued, “the meat will taste better. For all I know, it might, but you can see that these bastards have no compassion.”
“I’ll tell you one thing,” he concluded, “I’ll never let them get me alive. The Raven FACs carry poison pills with them, shellfish toxin, to use if they get caught. I tried to get something like that, but I couldn’t get any.” He reached down into a small leather loop sewn inside the back of his boot and pulled out a .45 caliber cartridge. “This one’s for me. If I’m ever out of ammo and about to get captured, I’m using this one on myself.”
I didn’t carry a .45 caliber Model 1911 like Snake. The Air Force service firearm was the .38 Special, a six-shot revolver, and at DaNang we were issued six rounds plus six tracer bullets, ostensibly for signalling at night. Twelve bullets. That was it. After my conversation with Snake, I decided that if I was ever shot down and had to use my pistol, I would only fire at the enemy eleven times. I would save that last round for myself.
August 1, 1969
I didn’t have any sense of falling, and I had no idea which way was up, or how high above the jungle I was. I initially hesitated, and really considered not pulling my parachute D-ring. End it quick.
Then, like watching a movie in fast-forward, I pictured an Air Force staff car pulling up to my mom’s house in Pensacola. There would be a field-grade officer, probably a Colonel. And a Chaplain. And my mom’s worst nightmare would come true. She would become a Gold Star Mother.
My Aunt Rosalie was a Gold Star Mother. Her son Johnnie, my cousin, had been killed on Omaha Beach on D-Day. Aunt Rosalie never got over it. I was always uncomfortable visiting her house, because it was a shrine to Johnnie.
Aunt Rosalie was frozen in time. When I was a kid, we visited her about once a month. Her house was always dark, and there was a clock on the mantle that made a loud ticking sound that seemed to dominate the room whenever there was a pause in the conversation, which was often. The photo of Johnnie in his uniform, probably taken during basic training, was illuminated by a spotlight in the ceiling that always remained on. There was a black ribbon around the frame. His face in the picture, it seemed to me, had a look like he knew he was going to die.
There was another picture on the mantle, of Aunt Rosalie and Uncle Sam with Johnnie, taken at his high school graduation, probably just a month or two before he enlisted. Aunt Rosalie and Uncle Sam looked so thin and vibrant in the photo. Now, Uncle Sam was no longer around – he had died from a heart attack when I was just a young kid – and Aunt Rosalie was at least a hundred pounds overweight. When she would reach out to hug me, the fat on the bottom of her arms would flap like a butterfly’s wings.
Every time we would visit, every time, Aunt Rosalie would find a reason to bring out Johnnie’s final letter, written on June 5th, 1944. Aunt Rosalie would always hold the letter with trembling hands, and start reading in a soft woice.
“Dear Mom and Dad,
By the time you receive this letter you’ll have heard about the special mission I’m about to go on…”
Every time she read the letter, at this exact point, her voice would trail off, and she would read the rest of the letter silently, her lips moving, silent tears streaming down her face.
Cousin Johnnie had died before I was even born, and Aunt Rosalie’s world still revolved around Johnnie. I didn’t want my Mom to be like that.
And then I pictured Samantha. How would she even find out about me? She was in Tokyo, and, as far as the Air Force was concerned, she didn’t even exist.
Visualizing this took, at most, a second or two.
Fuck it. I wouldn’t be giving up that easily. Like Sergeant McCoy had said back at Clark, “Never give up. Make them earn you.” I reached for my parachute D-ring, found it, and gave a mighty pull.
My chute opened with a jolt so hard my helmet came off and fell into the darkness. Off to my left I saw what was left of my airplane, wildly spinning and trailing flames. It continued spinning, and then was swallowed by the triple-canopy jungle about a hundred meters from me, with a loud explosion.
I swung a few times, and then immediately felt myself crashing into the trees. I crossed my arms in front of my face, crossed my legs, tightened my body the best I could, and waited to come to rest.
The sound of breaking tree limbs immediately triggered a cacophony of jungle sounds. Birds, monkeys, and other unknown animals made loud, screeching sounds to warn of an invader.
And then the area near me was silent. I found myself hanging from my parachute straps in total darkness. The lack of illumination, and the quiet, were actually strangely comforting. The same animal sounds that had registered alarm when I had invaded their sanctuary would warn me of any approaching enemy soldiers. Off in the distance, perhaps a half mile away, I could hear the sound of trucks.
I had no idea how high up in the trees I was, and it would have been foolish to attempt to lower myself with my Personnel Lowering Device – PLD – in the blackness. I decided that all I could do was wait until daylight, and try to get rescued.
I was fairly certain that my parachute had been swallowed up by the jungle, and would be invisible from the air. And it was highly unlikely that there would be any attempted SAR before daylight. Especially after the experience of Jolly 22 and his Spads when they worked that night SAR several months ago. I was fairly certain that the fighters I was working, Gunfighter 33 flight, would have reported me going down, and would have contacted King, the Rescue Coordination Center.
I listened intently. From the silence, I was pretty sure there were no gomers nearby. I had to pee in the worst way. I cautiously unzipped my flight suit from the bottom and relieved myself. Still no sounds below.
Far, far above, I could hear some aircraft. They sounded like F-4s. Probably Gunfighter 33. I felt around in the pockets of my survival vest until I found my URC-64 transceiver. I extended the antenna to turn it on, turned the volume knob as low as it would go, and held the microphone part of the radio up against my lips. I whispered into the microphone.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday. This is Covey 218 Alpha, in the blind, on GUARD. I’m hung up in some trees now, and I believe I’m uninjured. I’ll try to lower myself and make radio contact at daybreak. Covey 218 Alpha going radio silent.”
Up above, I heard an F-4 light his burner momentarily. He had heard me!
My parachute harness was really starting to cut off the circulation to my legs. I tried to shift my weight a bit, but it was no use. I would just have to wait until morning.
This was going to be a long night.