Officially, I wasn’t there. As far as the official records show, I was stationed at Pleiku AB, RVN (really) and, presumably, flew my missions in and around that geographic area. Located in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, Pleiku was much cooler and drier than the delta and coastal regions where most US bases were located. Once a resort area for the French and a major plantation area for rubber and bananas, it was now my base of operations.
Where I wasn’t, was Laos, Southeastern Laos, to be exact. Since I wasn’t there, I couldn’t tell my wife or family what I was doing. Fortunately, U.S. News and World Report was accurately reporting just what I wasn’t doing. I could tell her the story in the latest issue was of particular interest and she could pretty well figure out what it was I was doing and where.
My “AO”, area of operations, started in the very southeastern tip of Southeast Laos called the “Tri-border” because Cambodia on the south, Laos on the west and Vietnam on the east all touched at that point. The area went westward as far as Attapo (Attapu on some maps) and the Bolevens plateau. The northern limit was well south of Chavane, Tchepone and Saravane. The farthest north I usually went was the major east-west branch of the Ho Chi Minh trail, which entered Vietnam somewhere between Da Nang and Pleiku. Covey FACs out of Da Nang covered the area north of this limit. The eastern and northern parts of the AO were very rugged mountains and steep valleys covered with an impenetrable triple-canopy jungle. The central and west area opened into a broad valleys where the rivers came together at Attapo and flowed the southwest to join the great Mekong, eventually reaching the ocean in the delta area of South Vietnam. I had to surrender all my maps when I left Vietnam; they were “classified” as we still weren’t there officially, so the exact limits of my area are not well defined in my mind at this distance in time. The huge plateau of the Bolevens was a potential “safe” area if we could not get a damaged aircraft to a safe base. There was a navigational aid, a TACAN I believe, located there and at least one CIA airfield, which was usually occupied by “friendlies” – or so we were told.
My job was to fly over the area day and night, looking for enemy troops, vehicles, supplies; anything which might provide a target. The catch was, and there were lots of them in this “war that wasn’t”, I could only direct air strikes against targets within so many meters of the defined road. Any other target, no matter if they were vehicles with the NVA flag painted on their sides, must be cleared and approved before ANY action could be taken. Day after day, I flew the area until I could detect even subtle changes indicating movement of troops or vehicles. In heavy jungle areas where the road “disappeared”, a very slight change in the color of the foliage could reveal the road’s location by a light coat of dust on the leaves stirred by the trucks moving below. Wet dirt on one side or other of river fording areas could show recent use of the ford. Early in the morning, a “haze” or whisp of campfire smoke might give away a truck “park” or troop concentration. At night, the smallest glimmer of light could be a campfire or even the headlight of a truck. A navigator usually flew with us in the right seat at night, scanning the ground below with a “starlight” scope. In the days before Night Vision Goggles, a low-light imaging rifle-mounted starlight scope, minus the rifle, was our best hope of finding the enemy, especially on a moon-less night where the MA1A eyeball was useless. (Pilot humor – “everything” in the military had a military designation, so why not our eyes)
The job was much more difficult at night, even with the Nav’s help. Most significant landmarks were not visible, except the rivers. Use of the rivers, and the few electronic navigation aids, became a fine art. Significant bends in the river became “The Dog’s Head” (Charlie Brown’s Snoopy), “The Bra” (no explanation needed), “The Parrot’s Beak” and so on. Such descriptions were invaluable in identifying a target area to fighters orbiting overhead or to pass on information to my replacement when my shift was over. These landmarks were also critical to keeping oriented and knowing my position at night or on undercast days where the ground would only be visible through breaks in the clouds. In these days before GPS, coordinates were useless unless they could be matched to terrain features!
One of my favorite movies is “Air America” starring Mel Gibson. While fiction and comedy, there is enough truth, especially the “we are not really here” lines, to be particularly poignant to those of us who were really “not here”. The airplane scenes alone are worth seeing the movie and, a bit later in my Air Force career, I flew the C-123K, Fairchild “Provider” which financed Mel’s “retirement”.