In 1968 I was an Army Infantry 1LT flying an O-1G (Cessna L-19) "Birddog" Recon and FAC airplane out of Camp Coryell, Ban Me Thuot, II Corps (Central Highlands), South Vietnam. Camp Coryell was home to the Pterodactyls, callsign of the 3rd Platoon, 185th Recon Airplane Company (RAC). I was Pterodactyl-33. The Grunts called us "Skeet" but we all knew who was at the real pointy end of the spear.
While the usual altitude was treetop level in trying to find those little badasses in black jammies, when working a "TIC" (Troops In Contact) it was usually most effective to get waaaay up to 1,000 or even 2,000 feet -- "nose-bleed" altitude -- for the sake of getting the big picture of what our beloved Grunts (always capitalized) had stepped into.
That, and to get out of the way of the helicopter gunships we might be directing, the artillery that we might be adjusting, or the Tac Air (fast-shineys) that we might be working as their FAC (Forward Air Controller). Sometimes all three on the same shoot-em-up. It was nearly always a "take what you can get" deal, and seemingly always make-it-up-as-you-go semi-controlled chaos.
On one TIC event in Darlac Province over by The Trail and sometime in late 1968 (Sep-Oct?), I had the rare pleasure of being accompanied by a back-seater. Rare = less than a dozen times was there any "Observer" in the back seat in the tandem seat Birddog for my whole 'life in the year' as a Pterodactyl. It was nearly always a solo gig. This day, my backseater was 1LT Tom Carstens, a fellow Pterodactyl who just wanted to see a different corner of Darlac Province than the haunts he usually covered in his own solo Recon sector.
The Grunts had stepped in it pretty bad. Impressively outnumbered, they were pretty much in hunker-down mode while I was calling every available frequency trying to rustle up some aerial assets. They were outside everybody's artillery fan.
Still well before any Huey gunships or air-to-mud Tac Air was in range, the Grunt Six started pleading for any sort of aerial support I could muster. Well, all the Birddog packed was four 2.75-inch Willie Pete (white phosphorous) rockets that were intended for marking the target for the aircraft with the real ka-boom ordnance, but the Grunt CO was pretty adamant that if they didn't get something dropped in between them and the bad guys -- like RIGHT [expletive] NOW -- there might not be anybody left for Tac Air to support.
At that time we had friendly ROKs (Republic of Korean Army) working in the neighborhood so we were supposed to get clearances before doing any shoot-em-up, but this situation called for some expediency. The call had already been made back to the TOC (Tactical Operations Center) for clearances, but there was no time to wait. I armed a rocket and pulled power to start a rocket run glide only to have Tom bellow over intercom that we didn't have clearance to be doing that, and that I'd better wait.
Well, screw it. There's a time for protocol and a time to leave The Book on the shelf. So, I put a Willie Pete between our Grunts and Charlie, and still had enough altitude on the glide to arm another rocket and put it where it needed to be -- smack-dab in between The Good and The Bad.
As it turned out, the two Willie Petes probably did more psy-ops damage than physical harm to the attacking force, because the Grunt Six started laughing giddily over the radio saying that the bad guys were hauling ass away from them, back into the deep jungle. The bluff worked. In all likelihood, Charlie (actually, they turned out to be uniformed NVA) presumed those marking rockets were to be followed real soon by some Snake n' Nape or some other serious badass ordnance and decided that they just didn't want to be there when it arrived.
That bought enough time for helicopter gunships and slicks to arrive on the scene. I had Tom work the radio freqs to extract the Grunts with the Slicks (155th AHC "Stagecoach") while I talked to the Gunships (155th AHC "Falcons") to seek out any scattered Charlies not savvy enough to beat feet back into the jungle with the rest of their outfit.
It ended well after all.
The movie "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" had only come out in the US less than a year ago and was still getting some late run theater and drive-in play, so it was still plenty fresh in nearly everyone's memory.
And for all the "by-the-book" fretting that Tom so dutifully expressed about not chatting it up more with the TOC before shooting at anybody, it was he who recognized the similarity between what had just happened and the "When you have to shoot, SHOOT, don't talk!" scene in that movie. So, for the remainder of my tour as Pterodactyl-33, I was tagged with the moniker "Tuco."
Sadest of all, it was only a short time afterward that Tom was killed in a jeep overturn accident. RIP and a solemn Hand Salute to a good Recon Aviator, cracker-jack wit and a sorely missed ol' friend.
Recommended! An excellent piece of work by and
about one of our fellow RACs, the 220th "Catkillers."
Also available at Amazon.com. Hooper does a fine
job of telling the Army RAC story for us all.
And then of course there's our favorite bumper sticker
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