“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
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.