MEMORABLE STORIES AND
OTHER TID-BITS FROM GREAT EXPERIMENT INTO SAVING INDO CHINA FROM THE GREAT RED
HORDE - Bob Heckman
Well, first the boiler plate:
Arrived in/at Danang 2 July 1970----Departed Danang
9 July 1971
-- arrived at the ripe old age of 33--arrived
as a major.
Executive officer 20th TASS, from Oct 1970 until June
Replaced by Mel Barrett, and you know I don't really
know who I replaced. There was all sorts of confusion and maneuvering--a
good dose of politics thrown in also. It may have been Bill Scannell
Flew 126 missions (more on this later). Call
sign Covey Tango
Awarded 4 DFCs and 8 Air Medals, but the real surprise
out of tour in SEA was to be promoted to L/C
from BLZ based on my last OER which was written in
SEA. I am still surprised at that (not complaining, just surprised).
I am going to highlite some of the things that stick
in my mind from the tour as a line navigator and the tour as the executive
officer for the 20th TASS.
As I remember the pitch we used to give the newbies
we (the 20th TASS) were the largest flying squadron in SEA (during this time
frame), we had 102 airplanes (it varied) 11, 12 or 13 FOL's, depending
who was counting, about 200 rated personnel and almost 1000 enlisted.
I was finishing AFIT in the Spring of 1970 when I was
contacted by MPC as to my assignment to SEA. I had some choice in the
matter and I picked the TASS option as I was told I would probably have
a staff job of some sort. When I became aware that it was some aspect
of the FAC business, I tried to get a better feel of what Navigators did in
what was primarily a pilot operation. I was told that in some units that
many of the pilots were right out of pilot training and they wanted some "old
heads" to fly with them. That was it--the whole justification.
After snake school and arriving at 5:30 AM in Danang
on a very hot and humid July Morning on a C-130 from Clark I walked off of the
back ramp of the aircraft, took one smell of the classic Danang air and wondered
what in the hell I had gotten into.
The rest of the Nav orientation is pretty standard.
10 day flights over various parts of the trail and flight safety, etc.
The Exec part of the tour is another story. I
really wanted to JUST fly the line after I begin the Nav role in 20th, but it
was non---negotiable. Hyrum Keeler was the squadron commander and as I
would take over as the exec about the time the trail dried out, I asked Keeler
that if I could handle the exec duties OK, would he let me fly one or two regular
missions a week ? He was pretty straight forward about it. If I
met crew rest requirements, keep my job requirements current he would let me
try it. Off we went. It was a full schedule though. To make
it work you almost had to do the first go, to get you back around 1AM, debrief
have a beer or two crash and then start the office duty around 7AM. There
were many times I almost said to hell with it, but I also knew it would be my
last active flying tour of any kind and I wanted to do a professional job and
also as many staff types just flew up and down the south china sea coast for
their flying time, I did not want to be pegged with the unpleasant terms that
described their type of flying. I did not get the standard 180 or so missions
that most of the full time line flyers got, but I did get 126 missions.
I also completed 105 over and backs to receive my Over and Back 100 times
patch. I still have it and am as proud of it today as the day I received
it. I felt I did a pretty good job of flying the line, when in fact I
was really designated a staff puke.
Next: What really happened to survive in the
execs job and memorable events and memories from the job. Call this section
PART 1. I know this is longer than you really need, but it
may contain some other facts that don't show up anywhere and you might find
BOB HECKMAN REVISITED
I had so many things happen and those that are significant
enough to mention I will hi- light---they don't need a lot of elaborate discussion.
I do think they might help folks remember what happened to them. When
you review my comments and see anything you might like elaborated on, let me know
and I will be more than glad to do so. --and if you think it does not
contribute to anything, just use the old circular floor file.
Because some things are pretty specific to the exec's
job I will note with an (E), those for line flying (N), and if they pertain
to both positions I will note with a (B).
(E) We had an eager young Lt at one of the FOLs
and he was tasked to bring a O-2 back to Danang for repair --- on the way
back he experienced engine problems and had to shut down one engine. Should
be no big deal except the pins had not been removed and he could not dump the
racks and maintain altitude. Ops notified the commander and he grabbed
me as he ran out the door to drive him to south end of the runway. We
are screaming down the access road when we catch sight of the airplane.
Just then it goes nose down and crashes short of the runway. The attendant
smoke shows up next. I would have expected some sort of concern for the
pilot from the C/O. Nope--all he said was: "Oh shit there goes my command".
He was correct. He was replaced three weeks later. The pilot was
injured, but lived.
(E) Writing letters to notify families and loved ones
of the death of their family member was just tough. (yes, I know it would be
worse if you were the one that died). There was a requirement to have
them written and sent from the squadron with in 24 or 48 hours from notification.--I
don't remember which, but it was very short notice. They had to be absolutely
perfect (this was a career ender if you screwed one up). The exec usually
wrote them, and the commander signed them. The hardest part was to do
the creative writing if the departed member had done something truly stupid
to cause his demise. What is stupid you ask? Well, doing a slow
roll on departure from a FOL and catching the concertina wire is stupid, when
both the incoming and outgoing ALO's are on board the airplane.
If someone was shot down or died while on duty, then the letters were straightforward.
I know we did several letters in my time as the exec.
(B) The DOOM club used to have "entertainment"
on Sunday afternoons. Some of the entertainment really redefined risque!!
There were a couple acts that truly took everyones' breath away. Even
some of the combat veterans walked out. We have come along way on
(B) The army mortuary sat at the north end of
the runway at Danang. After we moved the TASS to the West side of the
base (and before we moved to the West side) we would drive by the mortuary every
morning. We were always told that the incoming (empty) coffins were on
the east side of the mortuary and the out going coffins were on the the west.
I don't know if that was accurate, but you could always tell the severity of
the war based on the number of outgoing coffins.
(E) I had to go to the mortuary several times
to pick up personal things and drop off paper work, etc. Calling the place
a meat market from the appearance of the folks who came from the back to meet
you would be complimentary.
(N) As you were being checked out most of the
pilots very correctly assumed that if something happened to the airplane and
they were injured it would behoove the navigators to have enough flight
knowledge to "bring 'em home". Truncated pilot training may not have been
in the instruction books ,but most of us got a very good dose of level flight
procedures, approach, and landings to get us home OK. The usual "gottcha"
was to hand you the airplane with "full" everything. On one mission over
a very solid cloud deck the pilot looked at me and said: "God, you gottit,
I've got vertigo". He took back control of the airplane just before landing
(E) When the "newbies" showed up the exec briefed
them in and gave them a tour of the base on a base bus. Pretty boring
stuff! When we went by the nurses quarters, I would always say this was
the nurses quarters and we order our nurses by the ton. I would wait
the appropriate pause and the say, "and we get four". --never failed to
get a laugh. I formally apologize from my insensitivity.
(E) About three weeks after we moved into the
offices on the West side of the runway a Claymore was set about 15 feet from
the office. A large piece of shrapnel came through the wall and cleared
the top of the execs office chair by about two inches and was imbedded
in the wall. Makes you think.
(B) Some of the first rate highlites involved
"other" activities. One night the pilot (happened to be Gary Beard) and
I had a really first rate mission with lots of air and several very visable
trucks burning after the attacks. Turned out one of the delivering aircraft
was piloted by the Commander of the Gunfighters. We we got back he called
offered nice comments and offered us both an F-4 ride. The ride from my
point of view was one of the highlights of my career. My only fighter
ride, and happened to be a real mission with refueling and actually strikes.
A real Cadillac after our model T's.
(B) I don't remember who got use invited to Ubon
to join a Spectre mission, but we went. This was another first rate experience
that I won't forget. The first time the 105 fired it felt like the entire
back end of the aircraft swayed. I think we flew the mission go that two
weeks later the aircraft was lost. The fire might have been called sparkle
from a distance, but it was damned impressive being on the airplane watching
it being delivered.
(B) We also were invited to visit the Navy as
part of one of the SEA flight exchange programs. We went to the Bon Homme
Richard on its last cruise. I remember we called the ship prior to the
mission and asked what we could bring out as a thank you. The answer:
"Bring Beer". ---and I thought the Navy was dry. It was a very enlightening
three days. It involved landing on the carrier in a COD aircraft,
visiting the Capt. on the bridge during an ON REP, (had to be broken off because
of rough seas), and eating in the fat mens' mess with real silver and linen--and
this was a war zone!! The highest priority was given to the Reccee missions.
(E) One of the almost impossible things
to accomplish in the TASS was the every three month "unit history". It was
the original plus five onion skins. It was a pain to put together, check
the facts and get people to help you with it. Mid-night requisitioning
of people to help was not out of the question. We were working on one
report when we discovered in the accomplishments of one of the southern FOL's
that they had taken credit for killing two elephants. Even then elephant
killing that was a political NO/NO.
They wanted credit because they were very proud of
the fact they actually killed the beasts. We wisely did not ask for
all of the details,--but we resolved the issue by putting in the history:
TWO MOBILE MOVERS--Nobody ever asked what that meant.
There are a lot of other things that could be
covered, but what I wrote is what sticks in my mind after 30 years. On
last comment. I think it was on the FACNET that I read a very emotional
recount by one of the FACS about the problems he had in trying to visit the
Viet Nam Memorial, Punch Bowl and other Memorials. I sure do relate to
that. Of all the things that happened or I sense was changed in me by
the experience is the almost inability stop from crying and almost weeping at
patriotic events, the National Anthem and similar gatherings. Wish I could
explain it, but I can't.
Hope you find something useful in all of this.
I don't think I could have sat down and written until the last couple of years.