BY DONALD E TYLER
The morning was almost over. I had reconed the coast and was returning to base along the foothills. I was flying an O-1 Birddog in the 183rd Reconnaissance Airplane Company out of Phan Thiet, Vietnam. In my back seat was a Vietnamese observer whose name was Bang. It was January, 1970 I had seen no sign of any bad guys and had not been shot at as I know of. It was Saturday noon and all was quiet. As I followed QL1, the main north and south highway, I noticed there was little traffic. Up ahead I noticed a Lambretta, a three wheeled scooter with a box on the back that would hold four Americans or ten Vietnamese. It had stopped in the middle of the jungle.
I had heard of the Viet Cong setting up tax collection points. They would stop all vehicles and charge each person ten dong or a chicken or pig. That’s how they helped feed their troops. The question now was how to tell if it was a tax collection point from one thousand feet in the air? Instead of asking my observer ,who was setting there like a knot on a log, I decided to try something. I would fly directly over the Lambretta. If someone ran from the jungle to the vehicle, they were using the ample restroom facilities . If they ran from the vehicle to the jungle, it was a tax collection point.
As I flew over the little vehicle, a man in black pajamas ran into the eight foot tall elephant grass as fast as possible and crawled into a spider hole and the Lambretta sped away. I HAD THEM! "Sector this is Seahorse 21, I have a tax collection point. Over" I reported. I gave Sector the situation report. A few minutes later, a slick came by with his door gunners. I briefed the crew and we talked about getting infantry soldiers to capture the one VC. A few moments later another Birddog pilot, CWO Bobby Beall, and his artillery observer, Lt. Bud Domagata, called to say they were coming to help.
"Seahorse 21 this is Sector, We have artillery hitting your position in two minutes, will you adjust. Over". "Sector, this is Seahorse 21, I will adjust. Over". In just a few seconds people began to come out of the elephant grass onto the road. They looked very young. This was just after all the publicity about Lt. William Kelly and the Me Lai incident. Right or wrong, He got all the blame and was in prison.
"Sector, This is Seahorse 21, Cease fire, these are civilians, we cannot fire on them". "Negative on the ceasefire, artillery will impact the area in one minute". I was in charge. If these were civilians, I would be in the same cell with Lt. Kelly. There was only one thing to do and that was to go down and take a look. As I did a wingover , Bang was terribly upset and yelling something from the back seat. I did not have time to worry about him now, I was too busy.
When I passed by the group at fifty feet , I noticed they were all looking like teenagers. None of them had any weapons. They were all dressed in a boy scout uniform. I waved to them and they all waved back with big grins. "Sector, This is Seahorse 21, we must have a cease fire. These are civilians". I did not know, but Sector had the Lambretta stopped and found that everyone there was VC sand NVA. As I did a 180 degree turn and came down the other side of the road, these kids reached into the elephant grass and pulled out their AK47s and machine guns. It was a company size ambush and I had just flown into it. I could hear the bullets breaking the sound barrier as they passed by the cockpit and I was so close to the guns that I could hear them firing. The bullets began to hit the metal skin of the Birddog and they sounded like a mule kicking a tin barn.
It takes six seconds to fly out of range of an AK47 in level flight and eight if you try to climb. I only had one second to live unless I do something different. The only thing to do to save our lives was to get on the ground and behind something. There were no trees, only elephant grass. So I dove down into the elephant grass, hoping not to hit a tree stump. The shooting slowed as I got below the top of the grass and I could not see where I was going. After a couple of seconds, I flew into a clearing and again I heard the sound of bullets tearing the metal skin of the airplane. It came from the VC in the spider hole. In front of me I saw two people on a motorcycle . My rockets were armed but all I wanted to do was to get out of there alive. The airplane was so low that I had to pull up to get over them.
Once the shooting stopped , I gave the birddog full power and pulled hard back on the stick. The little airplane stood on its tail and climbed straight up. It was then that I noticed light between my feet. It was a bullet hole. I looked up for the exit hole and there was none. There were none on the sides either. The only thing in the middle was me. There was no blood on my legs or arms and nothing hurt, but the missing bullet was a mystery. It was then that I realized that Bang was still screaming in the back seat. Had he been hit? He was screaming, " Itayounofrylownva and kept repeating it. When I finally got him slowed down, he was saying "I tell you no fly low nva". He could not speak good English when excited and I could not speak much Vietnamese any time. We communicated by drawing pictures on the windows. Now I was getting mad. I drew a picture of the jungle and the spider hole. Bang agreed with the location. At two thousand feet up , I put the birddog into a steep dive. At one thousand feet , I put the left outboard rocket into the spider hole. It had a white phosphorus warhead on it and it burned all around the hole.
It was then that Bobby Beall and Bud Domagata showed up with two gunships , our friends the Tiger Sharks. Bobby called "Seahorse21, I have two people escaping to the north on a motorcycle ". " Everyone is enemy" I replied. Bobby had no rockets on his airplane, so he dropped down on the road. As he passed over the two, he swung his landing gear and knocked them off the cycle. One dropped an M-1 carbine. When one of the Tiger Sharks say that , he fired his rockets and destroyed the cycle and both vc. Bobby Beall was credited with getting two unofficial kills with his wheels.
The birddog was very low on gas so I headed back to LZ Betty. I declared an emergency. You never know what has been damaged, even a flat tire would be bad. When on final approach, I noticed the rudder was hard to push and the rudder cables were dragging. After a good landing , my crew chief , Carl Forgey , inspected the bird. He found the missing bullet. The viet cong soldier had fired it up between my landing gear at point blank range. It had smashed the rudder pulleys. It then hit the thin aluminum plate beneath my feet. It ran out of gas after making a hole there. Our planes had no armor on them. I still have that bullet with my name on it. A great souvenir.
You may think this is the end of the story, it isn’t.
Sunday of the following week I flew to our company headquarters at Dong Ba Thin. There at a safety meeting of all the pilots, I had to explain the situation and talk about a better solution. The following Saturday , I had the same mission. Low and behold, there was a Lambretta stopped in the same area. I kept flying by just like I had’ t seen it. "Sector, this is Seahorse 21, I have a tax collection point, over". I told them that I wanted American infantry troops and gunships . In about thirty minutes, we met over whiskey mountain and I gave them a situation report. Then I led them to the site.
I went in first, marking the target. Next the gunships, the Tiger Sharks, rolled in. There was a lone tree about twenty meters east of the road. Two VC were hiding under it. One made a break for the jungle. Captain Wiley turned his miniguns on the runner. I don’t know how the runner survived for so long because the bullets were hitting all around him but they finally got him. When Captain Wiley flew over the tree, VC soldier fired at the helicopter, wounding the co-pilot in the hand. Captain Wileys wing man fired rockets into the tree, killing the enemy soldier.
Then the slick with the infantry troops landed on the west side of the road, throwing red Smoke grenades. They assaulted across the road to the east. Seeing all this up close, I started laughing so hard that I could barely control the airplane. It wasn’t funny, but that’s the way my emotions came out. When the smoke cleared, there were six dead enemy soldiers on the ground