MY DISTINGUISHED FLYING CROSS (DFC) STORY
BY CAPTAIN RICHARD L. KLOPPENBURG
The Distinguished Flying Cross is metal awarded to any member of the United States forces who distinguishes himself or herself in support of operations by "heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight”.
The DFC CITATION was prepared by my commanding officer by Col. Mack Gibson. He was the commander of the 183rd Aviation Company in 1966 and 1967.
The citation reads as follows. “Col. Gibson relates that because of significant enemy activity, it became necessary for Lieutenant Kloppenburg to fly his O-1 Birddog in support of night operations underway near Bao Loc, a Province for which the 183rd Aviation Company was responsible for visual reconnaissance and other missions”. “It should be noted that this particular province was one of the most hostile (and primitive) areas that we were assigned to support”.
The only airport in Lam Dong Provence was the Bao Loc airport, which had a 900 foot dirt runway with no air control facilities. This was not an American airfleld. The airfield was leased from a Frenchman named Beacbeau. He owned the runway and the surrounding tea plantation. There were no improvements at the airport, no radar, no beacon, no runway lights, and deep ruts in the dirt runway. We kept our airplanes in side of sand bag revetment areas. We never went to the airfield during the night. Standard operating procedure was to be in the military compound before night fall.
In 1967 Vietnam, I was a “Lone Wolf”. By that I mean that I was the only U. S. Army pilot in Lam Dong Province, Vietnam. I had no U. S. Army aviation support, except for my crew chief. I was totally on my own. If I “went down”, there was no helicopter to pick me up. They would not know where I was, because the only person, that I could communicate with, was the radio operator at the MACV compound. That all changed later in the year, because they stationed another Army pilot in LamDongProvince. We could then fly “two ship missions”. By that I mean that one aircraft would fly low over the jungle, and the second aircraft would fly at 2000 feet. The mission of the 2nd aircraft was to “watch over” the first aircraft. If the first aircraft was to “go down”, the location could be pinpointed.
During this day, I spent most of the afternoon flying visual reconnaissance, looking for signs of Viet Cong activity. At the end of this particular mission darkness was setting in, with deteriorating weather conditions. It was raining with fog on the surface of the field strip and had absolutely no lighting that would provide a capability for night operations. Bao Loc airfield was a daytime primitive fair weather air strip only.
The details of the mission were as follows. I was conducting a FAC (forward air controller) mission of visual reconnaissance (VR) along highway 20, between Bao Loc and Di Linh, Vietnam. The date was about the 15th of September in 1966. I received a radio call from an American ARVN (Army Republic of Vietnam) ranger platoon leader-adviser. I was told that the platoon was to be on location for the night. The platoon was located about 2 clicks East of highway 20 near the Dai Binh river. The location was about 5 clicks from the sub sector headquarters at Di Linh. river. At that point I could see the Viet Cong swimming across the Dai Binh river. They were moving away from the Rangers in a Northerly direction. At first I did not recognize the black forms in the water. During another flight over the river at a lower attitude I determined that it was a Viet Cong squad size or bigger unit swimming across the river. The American adviser indicated that they were still under enemy fire. He said, “we are taking direct small arms fire”. “We fear for our life tonight”. The Viet Cong had the American advisor and the ARVN forces in an ambush situation. “Stay longer on location and help us pinpoint the Viet Cong”. At that point I also came under fire from the Viet Cong forces. Because of the darkness I could now see the tracers from both forces. I could now see and hear the small arms fire directed at my aircraft. I made two low “passes” over the ambush area. The low passes were made from a different direction each time, because I did not want the Viet Cong to predict my direction of flight. Repeating direction of flight caused the demise of several Birddog pilots. At this point my altitude was so low that I felt extreme distress. The Ranger advisor was the military person that was the sponsor of the my DFC. He was quoted as saying, “the presence of the Birddog caused the Viet Cong to break contact and retreat into the jungle”. The Ranger commander told me that his company would surely have been “overrun”. It was later determined that there were several hundred Viet Cong in the area.
It was now dark and I was in the monsoon rain and extreme low visibility. Very, VERY bad flying weather. I was about 40 plus miles from Bao Loc airfield. I had no choice but to tell the American Ranger advisor that I had to return to the airfield at Bao Loc, because I had a severe LOW fuel situation and NO safe flight visibility.
I turned South toward Bao Loc. After about 10 miles, I had to descend to the top of the jungle and follow the Highway 20 back to the Bao Loc airfield. At that point I determined, because of the darkness and low visibility, I must have help in finding the 900 foot runway. I then called Specialist Gilbert Hartzog, my crew chief, on the jeep radio. I told Hartzog to position the jeep, with the lights on, at the North end of the runway so that I could, number one, see where the airport and number two, see the runway as I was landing. I told my crew chief, “Don’t turn on the jeep lights until you can hear my airplane”.
The area of operation was called “Lam Dong” Provence”. Lam Dong is like a state and is about the size of King County Washington. There was no navigational aids, no runway lights, and very little security at the airport. There was NOT one other airplane in the air and especially no helicopters. There was not one helicopter anywhere in the Provence. If I “went down” there would be no one to pick me up. Helicopters could be called in the next day, from another Provence. That means that I would be on my own, if I survived the crash. I did have a survival radio, but I would have had no one to talk to until the next day. It was a well known fact that in the vicinity of Bao Loc, there was reports of 2000 Viet Cong in the area. Their mission was to “overrun” Bao Loc and kill or capture all of the American personnel. There were only approximately 30 Americans in the area, including 2 Air Force pilots and 2 Army pilots, and no helicopters. At that point in time I was the only Army pilot. After dark there was NO flying to support the ground operations. We all retreated to the U. S. Army compound and locked the gate. This fact gave rise to the saying, “Charlie owns the night”.
Vietnam is very VERY dark at night. There are no road lights, no house lights, no farm house lights, no lights period, except in the large towns and cities. As a matter of fact, flying at night, is so spooky that it is hard to fly in the dark hours. In the United States, no matter where you fly, you can always see the light of a farm house. If there is a light in the jungle, it probably would be a Viet Cong campfire. You could see the campfire flickering thru the jungle, if you were to fly directly over the campfire. The campfire was used for cooking their rice. The Viet Cong would cook only once a day and take the balance in their knapsack for the other meals of the day.
There was no alternate airfield (I had to land at Bao Loc). Bao Loc had no navigational facilities. I flew time and distance in the skud, while maintaining level flight and altitude. I had Highway 20 memorized and therefore knew exactly where I must turn from the road to the airport. When I believed that I was near the airfield, I gained altitude and turned toward the airfield. I then entered IFR. Otherwise known as low clouds and rain. I had no forward visibility. The airplane was then in IFR conditions. After only a few seconds I determined that the time was OK to descend. I descended and the airfield was within sight. I did not have the altitude to fly a normal pattern down wind or a base and was very low on fuel. I may not have had enough fuel to make a “go around”. I was only 150 feet above the jungle. I was not on a straight in approach to the airfield. I could not go around and did not want to bale out. There were mountains approximately 1800 feet near the runway. If I missed the airfield, there would be “NO” go around. I probably would have had to “force land” into the jungle. I had to immediately slip the aircraft to slow the aircraft down and lose altitude. I had to land the aircraft in a crab, and thus almost lost control. I knew that I had only one chance at a landing---THIS HAD TO BE IT.
IT WAS NOT OVER! We still had the 1 1/2 mile jeep ride to the MACV compound. The road was not was secure at night. We had been known to be shot at during the drive to the Frenchman’s airport. Night flying was a no go, because of the non-secure highway and no navigational aids.
The only NAV aid was radio contact with an Army Specialist on the radio at the compound. Bao Loc had no nav aids. No radar, no beacons, nothing. With low cloud cover over the airport, I had been known to have the MACV shoot up a flare, thru the overcast”, to determine where the airport was located. Then we had to find a hole in the overcast. There were mountains in the vicinity of the MACV compound. We had to land on the non-secure road or fly to Phan Thiet, which was located on the South China Sea. We did have a pilot land on the road. I did fly to the coastline twice, because of being caught in severe weather condition. I could not get back to the Bao Loc airfield to land. This was during the day light hours.
The next day I met the American Ranger advisor in the Bao Loc compound. The advisor indicated that I saved his unit from the certain ambush situation. He indicated that many lives may have been saved. The Viet Cong broke contact and retreated across the river, because of seeing my airplane. The Viet Cong knew the capabilities of a Forward Air Controller airplane. The VC knew that when a forward Air Controller was seen, they were in risk of airstrikes, artillery, more troops coming in support and etc.
The only airport in Lam Dong Provence as the Bao Loc airport, which was a 900 foot dirt runway with no air control facilities. This was not an American airfleld. The airfield was leased from a Frenchman named Beacbeau. He owned the runway and the surrounding tea plantation. There were no improvements at the airport, no radar, no beacon, no runway lights, and deep ruts in the dirt runway.
Bao Loc was in LamDongProvince in the central Vietnam highlands. Highway 20 is the same highway where U.S. Army Captain Linus Chock was shot down and KIA. Chock was the Army pilot that took my place, when I was on R & R. Chock was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (the second highest military award). This is the same highway that an Air Force FAC named Captain Wilbanks was shot down and KIA and consequently awarded the Medal of Honor. Both Chock and Wilbanks died approximately in the same location as my ARVN Ranger incident.. The day that Wilbanks was KIA, was the day that I cannot remember the actions of the day. I think I was adjusting artillery. We now know that there was a Viet Cong, 2000 man main force located in this area. Highway 20 between Bao Loc and Di Linh was called “death alley”, because many people were KIA during convoys. When Chock and Wilbanks were KIA there was many soldiers, including Americans and ARVN’S, killed when the individual convoys were attacked and overrun by the local Viet Cong forces.
The 0-1, or L-19 pilot before my tour in Bao Loc was KIA. Captain Chock was KIA while I was on R & R. I would have been flying that day. Captain Wilbanks was KIA while covering an attack of a convoy between Bao Loc and Di Linh. Captain Sawyer, my replacement was KIA near Bao Loc.
The only NAV aid was radio contact with an Army Specialist on the radio at the MACV compound. He was only qualified to write down my latest location. We took a French Contour map of the entire Province and created squares with numbers in each square. The grid interval on the old French map was 300 feet. Small mountains would not show on the map. I could not believe this was our only method of determining our location in LamDongProvince (a province Is like our state, but smaller. Lam Dong is about the size of KingCounty). We then radioed the Army Specialist our location or square number. Remember that Bao Loc had no navigation aids. No radar, no beacons, nothing. With low cloud cover, we had been known to have the MACV personnel shoot up a flare to determine where the airport was located. Then must find a hole in the overcast. Some times we would let down thru the overcast. Hopefully there were NO mountains in the area of the “let down”. There were mountains in the vicinity of the MACV compound. If the airport was obscured, another option was to land on the highway 20. The subsequent Army pilot did land on highway 20. Captain Roger Sawyer was KIA on another mission a few months after I came back to the United States. Another option was to go to the top of the overcast and fly to East to the coastline. I did fly to the coastline on two occasions This will be another story in the Vietnam Chronicles to follow at a later date.
The reason for the delay in the presentation of the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) was because of the citation was issued after I left Viet Nam. The paperwork was then lost because of a fire at the military records section in St. Louis, Missouri. The entire file was resurrected by Col. Mack Gibson 5 years ago. I had 2 presentations of the DFC, one during a reunion of my flying squadron in WashingtonD.C. and the second presentation was at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
The following quote was from the DFC presentation at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. “What does Charles A. Lindbergh, Admiral Richard E. Byrd, and Amelia Earhart all have in common with Captain Richard L. Kloppenburg”? “They all have a Distinguished Flying Cross, DFC”?
Captain Richard L. Kloppenburg
U.S. ARMY FORWARD AIR CONTROLLER (FAC) ALL COPYRIGHTS RESERVED