How Hamfist Got His Name

Chapter 19

January 1, 1969

When I arrived at DaNang it was about three in the morning. I had no idea where I was supposed to go, or what I was supposed to do. All I knew was that I would be in the Covey Squadron. Every FAC had his own call sign, and the call sign for each pilot in our squadron was Covey plus an identifying number. I was to become Covey 218.

To my surprise, there was a Major at the terminal holding a sign with the names of the three of us who were assigned to DaNang.

“Welcome to DaNang, welcome to Covey Squadron, and Happy New Year!” he beamed, “I’m Walt Walters, the Covey Squadron Ops Officer.”

We took turns shaking his hand.

“We’re really glad to see you guys. We’ve been under-manned for over a month, so you guys will be getting all the flying you want. Come with me. I’ll take you to the squadron first, then we’ll get you set up in your hooch.”

We followed him to a beat-up Jeep. It was a standard GI Jeep, and it looked like it had been left over from world War II. It might have been.

The squadron was surprisingly abuzz with activity for the middle of the night.

“We operate around the clock here, so there will always be someone at the squadron if you need anything,” he remarked. “The boss will be here in about an hour.”

Major Walters called out to a Captain who was arranging some photos on the far wall. “Hey, Speedbrake, come and take care of our FNGs.”

The Captain walked over and introduced himself, “Welcome to DaNang. I’m Speedbrake Kane. How about you guys come over here with me, so I can take your picture. Then I’ll show you around the squadron.”

We followed Speedbrake over to the wall that had a large Covey Squadron plaque, a picture of Snoopy on his doghouse making a rocket pass. We individually posed by the plaque as Speedbrake took a few pictures of each of us with his battered Nikon F.

“I’ll get these processed as soon as the base photo lab opens, and then you’ll be on the wall with the rest of the guys.”

I looked over at the wall that had all the pictures. They were arranged into the four units, called Flights, that comprised the squadron. Altogether, there were about 90 photos, with about 25 each in A Flight, C Flight and D Flight. There were only 15 in B Flight.

“Why is B Flight so small?” I asked.

“We’ve had a run of bad luck with B Flight. Two guys got shot down and never made it back, one was injured in a rocket attack and medically evacuated back to the world, and we had three DEROS last month. So all three of you will be in B Flight. The B Flight Commander is Major Withers. He’s on R&R right now, so you won’t get to meet him for about a week.”

Lieutenant Johnson, one of the other FNGs, asked, “What’s a DEROS?”

“It’s when you go back to the world. It stands for Date Eligible to Return from Overseas. It’s an official military acronym. It will be exactly one year from when you left the States. When’s your DEROS, Johnson?”

“Christmas.”

A Lieutenant, wearing Navigator wings, overheard him as he walked by. “If I had that long to go, I’d walk through a minefield,” he quipped. “Wearing snowshoes! I guess that would make you our FNGs. Welcome to DaNang. I’m Clink Clinger.”

We were in the midst of making our introductions when the siren sounded.

Everybody in the squadron stopped what they were doing and quickly walked out the side door. They didn’t scramble, but they didn’t take their time, either.

“Come with me,” Speedbrake said.

We quickly followed him out the side door of Covey Ops and into the nearby bunker. It was a structure about ten feet high, with plywood walls surrounded by sand bags, and corrugated steel sheets topped with sand bags on the roof.

Several of the guys inside had flashlights, and I could see that the interior of the bunker was pretty austere.

I could feel my heart racing, and I was glad it was dark enough that no one could see how scared I was.

“You’ll get used to this,” Speedbrake commented. “The gomers lob rockets at us pretty much every night. Not too much of a big deal, really. They’re not very accurate.”

Just as he said that, we heard a deafening BANG, followed a few seconds later by an even louder explosion. After a few more seconds, there was a slightly softer report, and then a final explosion from what sounded like far away. About a minute later the siren stopped.

“That’s why DaNang is called Rocket City,” remarked a Lieutenant. “I guess they were welcoming you. Hi. I’m Balls Balser.”

In the dim light, I could make out a very young-looking, tall Lieutenant. We made our introductions, and followed everyone back to the Ops building.

“One last thing about rocket attacks,” Speedbrake added. “If you’re in your rack, don’t get up to go to a bunker, just roll out and get under your bed. The guys who get hurt in rocket attacks are the ones who stand up.”

When we got back inside, Major Walters said, “I’d like to visit with each of you separately for a few minutes. Lieutenant Hancock, come with me.”

We went into the small office with the sign “Operations Officer – Major John Walters” on the door, and he motioned me to a leather chair.

“Too bad about Mitchell,” he said. “I hate it when an FNG gets shot down. We didn’t even get a chance to know him.”

He looked through the pages of a manila folder he was holding. “Looks like you were DG in your pilot training class. We don’t get many of those.”

“Sir,” I asked, “I noticed the sign on the door said your name was John, but you introduced yourself as Walt.”

“It’s this way, Lieutenant. Everybody here has a moniker. It’s kind of like a nickname. We typically use their real name to come up with something that sounds similar, or else we use something unique to come up with a name. You met Balls Balser in the bunker. And, of course, you met Speedbrake, our squadron welcome officer. Walt Walters seemed like a natural for me.”

“What kind of name is Speedbrake?”

“Oh. During his first tour he was flying thuds. He came off a target over Hanoi and was rejoining his flight with a lot of overtake. He extended his speed brakes to slow down for the rejoin, and forgot to stow them. He almost ran out of gas on the way home because he needed so much power to stay in formation. He picked up the name Speedbrake after that, and it stuck. It even followed him here.”

He paused for a moment, deep in thought. “I guess we’ll call you Hamfist.”

I was dumbfounded. “Hamfist” was an aviation term that referred to a person who’s a really poor pilot. “Sir,” I stammered, “I’m not sure why you’re calling me that.”

“Well, the way I see it,” he answered, “we can either call you Handjob, because it sounds like Hancock, or Hamfist, because it sounds like Hamilton. Your call.”

It didn’t take me long to decide. “I guess I’m Hamfist.”

Major Walters got up, opened the door to his office and stood in the doorway. “Gentlemen,” he called out. When Major Walters started to speak, everyone pretty much stopped what they were doing and looked our way.

“Let’s have a hymn for Hamfist Hancock.”

As if on cue, in unison, everyone in the room intoned, “Hymn, hymn, FUCK HIM!”

Then everyone cheered.

I was now officially a Covey.