Episode 5
Any Time Any Place – A Call To Glory
Short Stories From Laos 1966-1967

By: Don Moody

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” - Theodore Roosevelt, Chicago April 10, 1899

Imagination, Ingenuity,
Strength, and Honor

The U.S. Ambassador to Laos’ description of an Air Commando fits very well the men I have known over my years in Special Operations. I believe that what Mr. Sullivan really conjured up was a mental picture of General Aderholt, and if this is true then Heinie was responsible for creating hundreds of men in his own image. He was also right on when he said that it takes a special courageous breed of man to be an Air Commando. These guys were tough and all were volunteers. They were always prepared to take extraordinary risks and were very successful in functioning outside normal chains of command. These men routinely made individual decisions of life and death without hesitation. It can all be wrapped up in a simple saying picked up from our Laotian friends that says it all, “Can Do Easy”.

Yes, this describes perfectly the men that I have been honored to know. Many of them have passed on and have joined the rolls of fallen warriors. I was proud to call them comrade and friend. It is not often that a Jim Walls, a Joe Potter, a Glen Frick, a Wayne Landen, or a Jim Rhyne passes your way. I know of no other profession that would expose you to so many heroes and legends. General Aderholt and General Secord are but two examples of the rare type of leadership that has ensured the success of our “Call to Glory”.

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I probably identify best with the operations guys, the combat controllers, FACs and fighter pilots in Special Operations because those were the areas that I was involved in the most. It gave me the opportunity to get to know a lot of different types of people. There was Bob Downs with his big smile and boundless energy, Joe Holden with his superb self-confidence, and Jack Drummond’s ability to do many things well. In the smarts department there was Al Shinkle with his determination and commitment to ideals, and Larry Ropka with the ability to zero in on any problem and define solutions down to the finest detail. These are only a few among many that I admire and call my friend. However, the guys who taught us how to improvise and make do with meager resources to accomplish almost impossible tasks were the NCOs and other talented specialists. Carlos Christian, Jim Cherry, Hap Lutz Jim Stanford and Charlie Day among others were the type of guys that kept the office humming, equipment operating and the airplanes flying, and without them we all would have been up that well-known creek and doomed to failure. One thing can be said about the good guys. You always seem to run into them on all of the hard projects. There is nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer.

Teddy Roosevelt in his “In the Arena” speech said it best: “It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena whose face is marred with sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotions, and spends himself in worthy cause; who, if he wins, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

All My Yesterdays

“Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do.” Pope John XXIII

Everytime I read my journals or look through old photos and momentos, it brings back memories of many events that I have experienced personally or have had the occasion to hear from my association with some great people. It is easy to recall specific events if they represent the finest period in one’s life. I have taken this time and opportunity to put down in vignettes my experiences and stories that have been told to me over the years. Many of them personally involved me while others are just passed on because they are either informative, humorous or have a place in Air Commando lore.

Fort at Dien Bien Phu - 1954
After I returned from the hospital in 1967, my routine had been greatly altered, as I was not supposed to fly for awhile at least until I had finished my recuperation. I found this to be an impossible restriction and soon began to sneak in a little flying time when I could. While I was gone, the little gray airplane (U-17) had miraculously reappeared from down south and was being used quite well by the new AOC commander. It wasn’t long before I was itching to see certain parts of northern Laos again while I still had the opportunity. Time was running out for me at LP and soon I would have to head south and return home. Morbid curiosity made me want to fly over and see the place where my airplane had been parked so unceremoniously earlier in the year. I also wanted to see Dien Bien Phu for a last time. This old French fort from an earlier war had a lot of fascination to history buffs like me.

Early one morning we cranked up the little gray airplane took off and turned to the west and headed for LS 118A. I crossed over the site and turned to the north and began looking for my parking lot. Initially there was some difficulty finding the right spot and the remains of the airplane. The little guys had done a great job in destroying the evidence. I did hear that when they went in to recover Lt Pheuak’s body they also tried to remove the 50s from my airplane. The bad guys had already beat them to it. All that was left was some bomb craters and what looked like the burned-out remains of a T-28.

Runway at Dien bien Phu - 1954
A few days later, I took the U-17 and flew north up the Nam Ou towards Dien Bien Phu, which is located about 135 miles northeast of Luang Prabang. Being that I figured this would be my last operational flight in Laos, I soaked up the majesty of the Laotian landscape. I passed the place where the Nam Bac flows into the Nam Ou and remembered all of the harrowing experiences that Bob and I had at this particular juncture. I looked to see if I could still see that ominous opening in the face of the mountain. It was still there and I wondered if it would ever be possible to put a bomb into that enticing big wide doorway. I flew to where the river bent back towards the west and then turned to the northeast. It wasn’t long before I saw a broad valley along side of Route 41. Then I was able to pick out the remnants of the runway and the fortifications that marked the defeat of the French in May 1954. I knew that the NVA had 37mm AAA in the area so I intentionally maintained an altitude above 10,000 feet while I was looking the place over.

After I had satisfied my curiosity, I turned for home. It was then that I noticed the construction that was underway along the old road trace of Route 19. There were numerous road cuts along the route that showed signs of heavy construction. This was along the old invasion route from Vietnam down to the Nam Ou then along the valley to Luang Prabang. I remember General Ma telling me about being at Dien Bien Phu and that the French graciously released the Laotian paratroopers to go home when they realized that defeat was imminent. I could visualize the Lao walking back to LP along this very route. I noted the points on my map and returned to LP.

As soon as I landed, I notified Vientaine of my observations. They asked me to come down for a briefing. I laid it all out. What I had seen and what I thought it meant. AIRA Intel called up the Embassy and arranged a meeting with the Chief of Station, Ted Shackley. I laid my map out on the table and described in detail what I had observed in the area between Dien Bien Phu and the Nam Ou River. I pointed out where the new road traces were on the map.

I had provided CAS with reliable information in the past, but there was no corroborating reports to back up my current assessments. Shackley looked me right in the eye and said that I must be mistaken; that he hadn’t received any information from any of the teams he had in the area of any major construction effort that was underway by the bad guys.

Air America Porter
We retreated back to AIRA to get help in substantiating my report. I was put in contact with the CAS photo intelligence guys at Udorn who asked me if I could get pictures of what I saw. Pete Saderholm gave me two rolls of film and a hardy good luck handshake and it was off again to Dien Bien Phu. CAS was interested and would provide me with an airplane to use for the picture taking. We felt a Porter was a good choice because it had a bomb bay that opened up in the floor of the cargo compartment. This would allow me to take vertical shots that the PI guys could stereo for a three-dimensional effect.

I grabbed my camera with the telephoto lens and the trusty Swedish “K” and hopped on board the airplane. The Porter is not a speed demon and it seemed like an eternity before we arrived over the area that we wanted to photograph. The pilot was briefed on how to proceed in order to get the best shots of the road. A couple of empty crates had been placed in back for me to sit on while the pictures were being taken.

As we approached the area where the road construction began, the kicker opened up the bomb bay door for me. It would be necessary for me to extend my arms out over the opening in order to point the camera straight down. This was going to be tricky. The box was moved as close to the edge as possible without danger of my falling out. All was going well until that damn Swedish “K” fell off of the box behind me and made a loud bang when it hit against the metal floor. Initially everyone thought we had just been hit by a 37mm. Well it startled me and I almost fell out of the airplane. The kicker grabbed me and held on. It was a good thing the camera strap was around my neck as I dropped the camera to find something to grab. The pilot not knowing what was going on began to take evasive action and that didn’t help us in the back end. Everything settled down when he realized that it was not AAA and we resumed the picture taking. We laughed about it all the way back to LP.

Route 19 Road Construction
The CAS guys at LP sent the film down to Udorn for processing. Pete PI sent me a duplicate set of the prints and said that they had been able to substantiate my report about the Route 19 construction. Word was never received back from Mr. Shackley. I guess he is still trying to figure out why all of those teams of his didn’t know what was going on up around Route 19 and Dien Bien Phu.

Now it was time for me to pack my things and head South in preparation for my return back stateside. Before leaving Vientaine I dropped by the Victor AOC and met Joe Holden for the first time. He was a good friend of Bob’s and Bob had told me how crazy Joe was and how he would fit right in with our shenanigans. The trusty Swedish “K” was handed over to Joe for safekeeping, as I wanted to find it a good home before I left. In return, a pristine AK47 that I had left there on my way to the hospital was retrieved for me to take over to NKP as a gift for Heinie from his guys up country.

Once Upon a Time When We Were Warriors

Yes, I fly fighters...
Why do you ask?

Bob was right, Joe Holden is a true warrior. When I met him he had already been to SEA several times as a special operator and later on he was to go again as a civilian working in Laos. His good humor makes him a lot of fun to be around. He is a lot like Bob as he can get you into more trouble than most people can stand in any one day. He had the reputation for being a better than average fighter jock who could shoot the eyes out of a "dirt dobber" at 1,000 feet, but like a lot of Air Commandos, he had a tendency to be a little reckless at times. This was very prevalent when you needed him to show good judgment in keeping his buddies from busting their butt.

One day at Savanahket Bob asked Joe if he would show him how to fly the O-1. Bob had never flown a tail dragger in his life, and at the time he didn’t know whether or not Joe would take the time to check him out in the airplane. They drove down to the airfield and went through the procedures of starting the engine. Joe then gave Bob a quick Commando style briefing on the power settings and airspeeds for take off, climb out, cruise, approach and landing. Then he explained that take off, climb out, and cruise would not be a problem. He emphasized the need to land that little hummer in the loose laterite fill dirt just short of the runway, and to make sure that the stick was kept full back into the gut on touchdown. Joe rode through a couple of landings with Bob and decided he couldn’t take it any more and told Bob to let him out. He told Bob that he should now be able to handle it on his own. Then he added, “when you think you’re getting really good try touching down on the paved part of the runway.”

Bob's first O-1
Joe packed-up and left and it was assumed he wanted to enjoy a couple of cool ones. Well, after six or seven landings Bob was impressed with his progress and was feeling pretty cocky and felt ready for a bigger challenge. On the next approach, he lined up with the runway and planned to touch down about 25 feet down the paved runway. The approach was good, flare was excellent, and the touch down was perfect, he even kept the stick full back into his gut. The aircraft bounced - - then skipped - - and then it turned 90 degrees to the runway. Bob said afterwards that he vividly remembers looking out the right side of the aircraft and the runway was exactly 90 degrees perpendicular to the nose of the airplane.

No amount of rudder, not even full right rudder could slow down the rotation of the nose of the aircraft to the left. With a powerful surge of adrenaline flowing through his veins, and with his heart beating 90 miles a minute, Bob suddenly came to the conclusion that this was not a good situation to be in and he was going to crash if he didn’t do something quick. Joe Holden, that son-of-a-gun, had suckered him in again. Another example of an Air Commando buddy trying to put one over on a friend that almost had a bad ending. With a burst of energy, hard left stick and full right rudder, the throttle was slammed full forward. Once the power was applied, the nose of the 0-1 began to align somewhat with the runway, and a recovery was initiated and he was on his way. Up until then, Bob didn’t have the slightest idea what a ground loop was.

This turned out to be the most spectacular "touch-and-go" in a tail-dragger you ever saw, or you might say a "bounce-and-go". To this day, no one would be surprised if Joe wasn't sitting back in the bushes laughing his head-off. Bob said that he knows that the throttles were bent well past the full power position, and that he redlined the RPM on the engine. Also he was fearful that the O-1 had to be badly misaligned after that tough-and-go. The right side of the aircraft had to be considerably longer than the left side. All because of how he jammed in full right rudder with a lot of gusto. The firewall must also be three inches further forward after the throttle made a permanent indent into it.

Anyway, following the near ground loop, Bob was able to make four good landings on the paved runway. He taxied in and parked the airplane, and tied it down with the help from a little Lao guard. He kept looking at Bob very strangely and couldn't keep from laughing. Bob began to see the humor in Joe’s little joke and had a good laugh too. The little guy didn’t understand a word that was being said especially when he was asked not to tell anybody about that awful landing - - then neither would Bob. When Bob got to the bar Joe met him with this great big grin on his face and says, "Well how did it go?" Bob answered with a smile and said, "Just great you should have been there to watch all of my great landings." Then everyone broke out laughing and a few more cool ones were had by all.

Joe recalled that Bob's eyes got real big when he got out of the airplane. He told Bob that when he had checked out in the O-1, the Lao Major who was his IP didn't speak any English at all. That at least he had the benefit of being instructed how to fly the airplane in English. But of course Joe had the benefit of several thousand hours of tail dragger experience that conveniently was not mentioned. As "John Black” would say, "It hasn't been a really good flight unless the crew chief had to fill out the forms because the pilot’s hands were shaking so badly that he couldn’t write. “

They Say One Is Born Every Minute

Flight to Attopeu
The time has come for Bob to fly his first operational mission in an O-1. Joe Holden put him into an O-1F; a type of airplane that he had flown previously only once, and this flight would be the first since Bob's initial checkout in the airplane the day before. Joe and Eli Shorter hand Bob this out of date French map, which was all they had to give him. It had most of the areas marked on it as unknown and told him “don’t get lost.” The gallant warriors then took off as a two ship from Savanakhet and head off towards Pakse and Attopeu. The route took them down the river to an area where some very large whirlpools were observed. They are huge, so large that 30-ft boats in the river had to avoid them.

Anyway, the two aircraft were flying at about 50 ft or so off the ground and Bob’s airplane was in extended formation approximately a thousand feet off to the side. Suddenly Joe departs from the route of flight and darts into a blinding rainstorm. It was raining so hard you couldn't see the nose of the aircraft. Now, Bob never expected Joe to make this unannounced turn into that thunderstorm and having lost sight of them, was forced to pull out his handy-dandy little French map they had given him to find out where the hell he was.

Rough Looking Terrain
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Well the map showed there is a huge 5,000-ft high mountain in the center of the valley dead ahead. Well this mountain didn’t show up where the map says it should be and has shaken Bob’s confidence in the accuracy of the map. It was now raining like gangbusters, and he decides that his best bet to miss this mountain, if it should really be there, was to skirt around the very south edge of the Bolovens Plateau. Try to visualize Bob maneuvering this little airplane in this challenging weather he suddenly found himself in. He was trying hard not to bust his butt up against the side of the plateau, and his only consolation was that he didn’t have to listen to Joe and Eli critique his flying.

All the while, Bob was flying in unbelievable weather where you could barely see the wing tip of the airplane. He is skirting in, out and around ridgelines on the very edge of the Bolovens. The rugged mountain walls at times were no more than 10 feet from the left wing tip. Eventually, the aircraft breaks out of the weather just a few miles north of Attopeu. There had been no radio traffic during the entire flight, only silence. He lands at Attopeu and Joe and Eli are rolling on the ground laughing, but they didn’t let him in on their joke. Of course, Bob acted as if everything was normal, nothing to it, all in a day's work for the typical Air Commando.

Lima Site on the Bolovens
This intrepid group now took time to have some soup in the local market place, where they talked with the Lao Army Colonel responsible for the area that was having some problems with the bad guys. After lunch, it was decided to go out and locate the friendly forward positions and possibly put in a T-28 airstrike should a target be located. After a lot of radio chatter, Eli got this one friendly outpost up next to the Bolovens to answer his repeated calls. To locate the friendly position, Eli asked them to throw out a red smoke grenade. Eli and Joe had both said that often as not the bad guys would throw out red smoke too. This would add a lot of confusion to the situation.

Bet You Five Bucks You Miss
Joe’s plan was for Bob to drop in low over the smoke to determine if this was really and truly a friendly position while they held high to watch for ground fire. Cannon fodder situation if ever there was one, but being game Bob rolled in on the target area. Low and behold, when he is about half way down the chute there is this huge explosion that erupts on the ground right in front of the airplane. This was followed by a lot of screaming on the air for him to get out of there. Bob immediately thought to himself, is this what real combat is supposed to be like? Bob broke hard to the left and turned to the northeast. While in this hard turn, he looks back and sees T-28s rolling in and dropping bombs on the very area Eli and Joe had wanted him to check out. Guess this red smoke belonged to the bad guys.

Gate to Savanakhet
After this close encounter, the two O-1s pulled back from the target and let the T-28s have at the target. There was a lot of scrambling around and some unhappy conversation ensued. Apparently Joe was very concerned and didn't like having the good guys dropping their bombs on the O-1s. Meanwhile, once things became more settled, Joe cooled down and the flight now turned back towards Parkse. The rainstorm had cleared and there was no mountain out in the middle of the valley as depicted on the map. The mountain that so much effort had been put into avoiding just wasn't there. It then occurred to Bob that the mountain not being there was what Eli and Joe had been laughing about so hard earlier at Attopeu. Being such good buddies they had not bothered to tell him either. After landing at Savanakhet that evening, Joe was still visibly upset over the friendly fire. It was Lt. Attachon that said the bad guys put out the red smoke not the friendlies. A good deal of heated discussion followed and Attachon said that the good guys reported 15 or so bad guys KIA, and a few days later several old derelict guns were brought in as evidence it had been a good strike. This was probably just a face saving gesture. I'm sure that Joe and Eli could have different versions of this story, but their veracity is in question. Bob could then say that he was a fully vested O-1 warrior.

Incredible Journey

A Pair of Aces
It was at Udorn in June or early July in 1966 that I saw Bob for the first time since my training at Hurlburt. Bob had been sent over TDY to serve as an advisor to the RLAF at Savanakhet and spent a lot of his time helping Eli Shorter, the resident Spook at Savanakhet, look out for General Ma and marking targets for the T-28s in MR-III. On this particular day he had been on a routine cross-country flight from Savanakhet to Udorn when the U-17 he was piloting suddenly lost power because the throttle linkage had become disconnected. This created an interesting problem for Bob in more ways than one.

When Bob took off from Savanakhet he had Eli Shorter, Doc Nichols, plus three passengers on board. In addition, Eli had brought along some weapons and ammo that the Embassy had asked him to remove from Laos and he was taking them to his detachment at Udorn. With the six soles on board (one being Eli’s young daughter) plus baggage, two cases of M-16s, and three cases of ammo it overloaded the airplane a mite. This should have been a signal to rethink what they were about to do.

The flight was proceeding direct from Savanakhet to Udorn, and as the airplane was passing just south of Sakhon Nakhon the airplane engine suddenly went to Idle and lost power. The engine was running but not responding to throttle movement. The first thing that Bob saw was a large lake off to the right and he zeroed in on what looks like a road right below him. When he got closer, the road appeared as though it had just been hacked out of the jungle. It was to late to find another one, so he set up a forced landing pattern and brought the airplane to a stop just short of the end to the construction.

His troubles were just beginning. Bob got out and opened up the engine cowling and saw right away what the problem was. The throttle linkage had become disengaged. It was easy to put a fix on the problem and he just happened to find a screw that fit the linkage. The needed screw came from Eli’s seat – says something positive about common parts mass production.

Thailand - Laos
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Before Bob could get the airplane started and leave, several Thai army trucks drove up. The airplane was suddenly surrounded by a lot of Thai soldiers. Seems as though they had been surprised at the sudden arrival of a Laotian marked airplane with several Americans on board. They really got excited when they found the guns and ammo. Bob had unknowingly flown into an area that restricted overflights by foreign aircraft. The Thais informed him that they needed to detain the group as they wanted to question them a bit further to determine if there was any hostile intent to their being in Thailand. It seems as though the bad guys had been using this particular part of Laos to resupply and insert insurgents by helicopter. Also, the cargo on the U-17 had made the occupants highly suspect.

Shorter began speaking to the leader of the group of soldiers in Thai and explained that the guns and ammo belonged to the US Government and it was important for the airplane to be released so that they could resume the flight to Udorn. It was finally decided that the soldiers didn’t have the authority to release the airplane. Bob was given instructions on where he needed to go, and to ensure that our intrepid group followed the Thai Officer’s instructions, he would send a man with them. The officer indicated that they needed to fly the couple of miles remaining to Sakhon Nakhon where the Provincial Headquarters was located. To no avail, silver tongue Eli was unable to convince the Thais to let the airplane go.

The U-17 was a good little airplane but seems as though the guys had abused her a mite and to add to the already overloaded situation, there was now another passenger. This little guy was sweating profusely and scared to death and the only place for him to sit was on Doc Nichols lap who was sitting right behind the pilot. The soldier immediately made everyone uncomfortable when he took out a hand grenade and held it in both hands with his right index finger hooked inside the ring attached to the pin. The final instruction given to the soldier was that his role was to prevent the airplane from turning right and returning to Laos. This dedicated individual had every intention of carrying out his orders.

Sakhon Nakhon
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Bob surveyed the road he had just landed on, as he would now have to use it for takeoff. The road was basically oriented east and west. The Thai Officer had indicated that he should take off heading east and turn to the left towards Sakhon Nakhon. The improvised airstrip as previously stated looked as though it had just been bulldozed out of the jungle that day. It was an unfinished, rough, and unleveled short little dirt road. Even after backing the airplane up as far as it would go Bob saw right away that it would be necessary to negotiate a 45-degree turn back to the right if the airplane didn’t have enough speed to take off at that point. Sure enough when the airplane reached this point there was insufficient airspeed to takeoff and he was going too fast to make the turn without cutting off the corner a little bit. Well when Bob started that turn to the right our little Thai friend went ballistic and started hollering “no-no go straight” and holding up the hand grenade. There was no way that Bob could go straight or turn left without crashing into a bunch of trees.

At this point Bob couldn’t abort and told Doc Nichols to grab that sucker. Doc wrapped both arms around him clamping both hands around the guy’s hands and the arming ring of the grenade and applied a death grip on the little guy. At near takeoff speed, the airplane went off the road, down into a deep ditch and bounced back up onto the roadway having successfully maneuvered around that sharp right turn in the road. Then the U-17 had to cross over a very narrow one-way traffic bridge before getting airborne. No one wanted to think about what would have happened if there had been traffic coming from the other direction. The U-17 rode the stall as it staggered into the air.

Infamous Swedish "K"
After the airplane finally got airborne, Bob pulled up the flaps and turned to a heading for Sakhon Nakhon. Each person could now breath a little easier and everyone except Doc Nichols could relax for a few minutes. The flight to Sakhon Nahkon was short and across the street from where the U-17 finally came to rest was a large government or military headquarters building. Eli was again allowed to practice his Thai on the Army commander there. The Thais here were a lot more understanding and the airplane was released to continue the flight to Udorn. Doc Nichols still had a death grip on the Thai passenger and Eli finally convinced him it was all right to let him go so they could leave.

This little gray airplane was involved in many of our stories. For weeks Bob and I flew it around with no right brake; just didn’t have time for AA to fix it. In order for us to turn right we would have to make a 270 degree turn to the left and lock the tail wheel when we wanted the airplane to straighten out. At one point it had so much duct tape covering up bullet holes that it flew wing low.

Postscript – Beyond Glory

Near Attopeu
Special operations and commandos have always been part of military history ever since colonial times. In every conflict since the Revolutionary War, we have employed special people, tactics and strategies to exploit an enemy’s weakness and limitations. These remarkable people with myriad meaningful skills will always be there to carry out these operations. It only takes a little imagination and ingenuity.

Some of our most dedicated Air Force professionals have been at the core of these special and unique capabilities. They are the officers and enlisted personnel trained in the skills exclusive to the Air Commando mission. These elite troops have become seasoned and tested with real-world operational experience. It has always been essential for the Air Commandos that the right people are found, selected, and trained for the demanding role of Special Operations “Any Time and Any Place.”

“Upon the plains of hesitation bleach the bones of countless millions, who at the dawn of victory sit down to rest and resting died.” - This quotation was on the wall behind the desk of an Assistant Air Attaché in Vientiane.

It means never let up on your enemies until they are all dead and the war is won. Something that we forgot somewhere along the way in SEA in the 60s and mid 70s.

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