|Title||Living Through the War|
|Date||April 9, 2001|
|Author's Name||Zot Barazzotto|
|Call Signs||Covey 250 / Rustic 55|
|Tour Dates||March 1970 - March 1971|
Time dims memory but it has a positive effect on war stories, which get better with each telling. This tale isn't going to be about war, but about life. Particularly, about the details that made the war bearable by providing something to remember other than death and destruction.
One thing that happens to people sent to war is that they can quickly cop an attitude that makes silly rules hard to enforce. It's hard not to laugh at the threat worse than death - shaving your head and sending you to Viet Nam - when you are already bald and flying combat. That attitude took care of most of the silly rules and the rest were simply ignored if someone tried to make them an issue. So here's the big picture. Pilots were all by definition "volunteers" but that didn't mean we were all happy about being in Viet Nam. But it was for a finite time, a challenge to your flying skills and (if you were "lucky") there would be a better deal when you DEROSed (Date of Estimated Return from Overseas.) Didn't usually happen exactly that way but then hope springs eternal in the hearts of fliers.
In March of 1971 I arrived at Bien Hoa to attend FAC U. FAC U is Forward Air Controller's In-Country Orientation. It was our last formal school and where we received our in-theater assignments. The openings for the week were made available and people sort of bid for what they wanted VS what was available. I took Da Nang and Covey mission so Jose Ortiz (who had two kids) could have the "safer" in-country assignment. Jose was killed during his checkout by a hot rodding pilot doing barrel rolls around a helicopter. There was no rhyme or reason to who lived or died. Welcome to the war.
Shortly after arriving at Bien Hoa I happened to bump into my two roommates from Dayton, Ohio. We had all worked at the same company and they were working as engineering technicians collecting flight loads data so the AF could figure out how fast we were wearing out the planes. They lived off base and invited me to join them for dinner. Since I was new to Viet Nam I didn't have a clue as to how anything worked. When they suggested going out to eat I just hopped on the back of a motorcycle and was off base. I think this was the first rule I broke.
On my last night in Bien Hoa we did what we had often done in Dayton, drink to excess. We quit late and I finally hit the sack in the VOQ. The C-130 flight left early and I only made if because there were several other FACs on the same flight and they didn't leave me. Once airborne I crawled under the web seats of the C-130 and slept the entire flight. When we got to Da Nang I was looking for the rest of the day off, but instead we in processed (more waiting in lines) and then I was finally dumped off in the worst room in the Covey barracks. And therein lies the start of my second career - the Official Covey Scrounger.
Uncle Sam took care of our official needs like food, clothing, shelter, planes, spare parts, munitions and gas. The amenities came through other channels. My room was a dump and the air conditioner didn't work. The food chain applied to rooms, with the new guy getting the worst. The first thing I did was figure out how to get the A/C fixed. With the comfort level for sleeping restored the next item was the lack of décor. I soon fixed that with ceiling tile, a few sheets of mahogany paneling and some light blue paint. It probably helped that I had been involved in building and remodeling projects since I was old enough to hold a hammer, but the hard part was that there were no regular stores from which to get supplies. As Sig Olsen, my Scoutmaster used to say - "Improvise." That improvization took the form of "scrounging." Scrounging is basically bartering or stealing what you need from wherever it happens to be.
My talents at scrounging were noticed and I was identified by John R.L. "Sully" Sullivan as his "turtle." An unwritten rule in Nam was that you couldn't go home till your replacement (turtle) was there and trained. I think they are called turtles because they take a long time to arrive and longer to train. In this case it wasn't Sully's primary flying job, but his secondary job that I was to learn. Sully took me under his wing and shared his secrets as to where all the stuff came from that made life a bit better.
He showed me where the ice plant was and introduced me to the Marine who ran it. That Marine didn't drink alcohol, but for a 6 pack of Pepsi he would be happy to part with a 50lb block of ice. Several Marine mess halls were on Sully's list. In one was a crusty old Sargent who enjoyed vodka. When we ran out of Vodka in Da Nang it was possible to make him forever grateful by importing some from Thailand via someone going on R&R. In return when I was planning a party all I had to do was go over for a visit with booze in the jeep, give him the list of what I needed and be civil while the booze disappeared and the food appeared. Marine supply operations could be similarly liberated of poncho liners, jungle fatigues and boots, all of which we needed in quantity to take care of the new guys and the Navy flyers that would visit us. Taking care of the Navy was very important since it opened the door to our visits to the carriers on Yankee Station and an entirely new place to party.
Let me throw in a note about jungle fatigues (now called BDUs or Battle Dress Uniforms.) They may be a fashion statement to some but basically they are ugly and don't fit well. There were more than a few good Korean tailors around Da Nang who for a few dollars would basically rebuild them into something rather natty. I had a set custom made with the top looking like an Ike jacket and zippers replacing the button down flaps. It was like a two piece flight suit, totally out of regulation so most people wore them.
Scrounging is an interesting hobby, like a manual E-Bay. And like all hobbies after a while you get to know the values of what is involved. We were not supposed to have weapons in our barracks because the AF was afraid that someone might get hurt. Never mind that there was a war going on and the base was often attacked. But heaven forbid that we should be able to shoot back if our compound was ever attacked (which is wasn't while I was there.) That led to a desire on the part of certain parties to have a weapon, which led to a value on weapons. One of the operations the Covey's supported was Prairie Fire, which were Special Forces teams that would often end up in Laos or out in the boonies of Viet Nam. Sometimes they ended up with captured weapons, which occasionally found their way into my hands.
The highest value weapons were the ubiquitous AK-47 and I had a standing order for all the AKs that I could get. They would occasionally appear in my room and I would trade them for things we needed. One day I returned to my room to find a large bundle wrapped in a poncho on my bed. It looked like a small body. I quickly opened it to find several crew served machine guns. I wasn't supposed to have ANY weapons, much less machine guns. So I rewrapped them, tucked them under my bed and quietly traded them to people who had no more need for them than I did, but gladly gave me something I wanted.
We would party at any excuse. It was a way to take our minds off things like the ever growing stack of aluminum caskets by the morgue that was near our operations building. Partying could take many forms, from drinking at the club to squadron parties. The better parties were accompanied by good food. Yes, Uncle Sam did feed us (and the mess hall wasn't that bad.) We also had an Officers Club (the DOOM Club - Da Nang Officers Open Mess - in the same compound as our barracks) and right next to the club was the nurses barracks that had a kitchen with a 4 burner stove.
Civil Engineering had put a rather large addition on the DOOM club but they quit before finishing it. As my construction and scrounging talents were honed I was "volunteered" to finish the party room. This involved a lot of ˝" plywood which was used as paneling and I even sent an order on the base Rest & Recreation C-47 shuttle to Hong Kong for dark stain so I could finish the trim in a contrasting shade. Since the project had official sanction I was given permission to get material that I needed for the job from Civil Engineering.
This was a wonderful opportunity to liberate a lot of stuff that found homes in places other than the club. Part of it went for a jeep that had been run over by a tank. The back of the jeep was history but the front was intact. The Army guy who controlled the dead jeep wanted to fix up his room (tent) and if we got the parts from someplace other than the motor pool, we didn't have to report our bent jeep as an accident - a win-win situation. He ended up with the same kind of plywood in his room as in the party room of the DOOM Club and the Squadron didn't have a reportable accident. The Club's party room was finished in time to hold the first Covey party of my tour. We christened the room by throwing dinner rolls and calling "incoming" as they were thrown.
We had a few others who could cook, but none better then the Flight Surgeon, Capt, Dr. John Lapani (AKA Bac See - Vietnamese for doctor.) John and I hit it off well because we were both Italians from NYC. One day he gave me a list and said if I had the ingredients to him by noon, dinner would be in his room at 6:00 PM. The list included liverwurst and a beef roast, but I found it all. At the appointed hour he served up the best beef Wellington I've ever had. The amazing part is that he did it all on a two burner hot plate.
John was a good doctor but one of those people who would have been somewhere else if he had a choice. After some time in country he was sent orders promoting him to Major. Saying he would rather be a civilian, he sent the orders back to Saigon. They sent them again and this time he put a set of Majors rank insignia in a jar of Vaseline, wrapped the orders around the jar and returned it all to Saigon. Eventually, he did pin them on..
As my scrounging talents were honed I ended up with a part of a walk in freezer box to store the loot. My 25% share of the freezer condo eventually held a 6' stack that included everything from hot dogs to oysters with steaks, beef roasts and turkey rolls in between. This led to my third career, Resident Chef in the Nurse's Quarters. After the DOOM Club gig I was in the good graces of the Club Officer. That meant that he could be called upon to do the heavy cooking (of roasts) while we did the other stuff in the Nurse's Quarters. Nurses were a key element in our sanity plan since guys seriously outnumbered round eyed women.
The usual routine was for the Chief Nurse (Kay) and I to figure out when we had the same day off and schedule the party the night before. I usually flew the first OV-10 hop in the morning (the O-2A flew the night missions) so I'd start cooking by noon. I'd also be consuming adult beverages while I was cooking. By the time everyone was fed I was way ahead of them on the party scale. A dinner like this might include 50-75 of my closest personal friends and it was group effort. Drinks went into blood coolers full of ice, people shared goodies they received from home, the Club would handle the roasts and the nurses and I would slave over a hot stove to do the rest. This evolved into a routine that worked so well that I even did it for Thanksgiving and Christmas Dinners. The Christmas dinner actually happened while I was TDY to Bien Hoa to fly as a Rustic.
By Christmas Larry Hull (James Lawrence Hull) was my roommate and was being trained as my scrounging turtle. When I hopped back from Bien Hoa for Christmas I gave Larry the list of things I needed from the cooler and headed off to fly a hop in someone's back seat. John Browning and Norm Monig had stumbled upon the world's biggest bomb dump (on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos) and the Covey's were having fun beating it up. I survived my joy ride unscathed (although Larry Thomas and John Lapani did take a hit that almost got them shot down while working on it) and returned to supervise the evening's festivities. The next day I caught a hop south to Bien Hoa to become a Rustic again. All that traveling was done without orders. Soon it was New Year's Eve and we had another excuse to party, this time at the Rustic barracks in Bien Hoa (where I was temporarily assigned.) This party ended shortly after midnight when someone with an M-16 managed to shoot out a high voltage power line and turned out the lights on our side of the base.
January 2, 1971 started out as an ordinary day. Jerry Dufresne and I were scheduled to fly a routine Rustic mission to Cambodia. The Rustic mission was different than the Covey mission in that it provided American air power to support the Cambodians against the Communists. When we pulled out and the good guys collapsed it resulted in the genocide. Close air support requires close coordination and the Cambodians were much more fluent in French than in English. Jerry was a French speaking radar technician when 7th AF "requested" him to fly as an interpreter. He learned the Forward Air Controller mission in the fire of battle, but he had limited experience and training on the OV-10 or its systems.
We launched early in tail number 67-14626 (the OV-10 now in the Memorial Air Park at Hurlburt Field, FL.) and headed west. It was a quiet morning until Jerry told me that he had the smell of very hot electrical wire in the back cockpit. Becoming pedestrians in Cambodia wasn't on our list of things to do that day so I headed to Phnom Penh. A few radio calls alerted others to our problem and then I turned the electricity off as we headed to the airport.
Once on the ground I was faced with an interesting problem. We knew that the Cambodians were very friendly, but by definition there were not to be any ground troops in Cambodia (since the incursion was over.) The smell had cleared so I turned the generators back on long enough to charge the batteries. Phnom Penh didn't have a 28V start cart for the OV-10, so if we couldn't start on batteries we would be really stuck.
I was a flight test engineer before entering the AF and had been flying maintenance test hops in Viet Nam so I was pretty sure I knew right where I'd find the melted wires. When I looked I couldn't find anything wrong. Faced with the decision to stay or go we decided to go home when we got a message from 7th AF. It said not to depart until a crew chief looked at the plane. What a deal, stuck in Phnom Penh.
Since we would be there for a while the Cambodian AF guys borrowed the Colonel's old Mercedes and took us downtown. We fed the royal white elephants and did some other fun stuff (all the while trying to look like something other than pilots in our flight suits, GI sunglasses and crewcuts.) We had given our secret codes, survival vests and guns to the Cambodians to hold. We finally ended up in a souvenir shop, where they were going to buy us one of everything in the place. Not wanting to seem greedy, I suggested one item that they could purchase for us and then we did an illegal exchange of a US $20 for some local currency and bought a few other things. While we were in the shop two Cambodian Army guys that we knew from their previous visits to Bien Hoa showed up. The next question was what did we want for lunch? We were offered French, Chinese and just about anything else we wanted, but since Cambodia was not on our regular itinerary, I asked for Cambodian food.
We were soon off to a nice restaurant and about to be seated in the main dining room when we were whisked to a back room. Here we met many Cambodians who probably owed their lives to the Rustic operation. Even though I had only been with the Rustic operation for about a month it didn't matter, we were instantly honored guests. We were offered drinks and I took orange juice because I was sure that I'd be flying back shortly. I cleared Jerry for brandy and soda. I told him that I'd make sure he was strapped in. I figured that he would sober up when I punched him out if we had to go (the seats are set so if the pilot goes the passenger goes .1 seconds before.) We spent a pleasant few hours just talking (and yes, I found a few pilots that had been trained at Williams AFB who spoke English.)
All the while the group grew larger, eventually including a former province chief who was now a cabinet minister. Finally we head for lunch and the main dining room was now all ours and it was arranged in a banquet "T." The Cabinet Minister took the center position, I was to his right, Jerry to his left and we were flanked by Colonels and then in descending order by rank to the corporals. Lunch was all local food starting with dried fish and green mangos, snake and turtle salad, raw tortoise eggs (of which I ate 3 after nearly gagging on the first,) and lobster soup. All the courses were mixed with toasts and they gave both Jerry and me more gifts.
About the time lunch was over LtCol Dick Wood arrived to rescue us from our "terrible predicament." Given that Dick was a LtCol and I was only a 1st Lt we went through another round of gifts and a toast with very expensive champagne (of which I did participate - I may be crazy, but I'm not stupid.)
Finally Dick dragged us out of the party and on the ride back to the airport pumped me for the story. I told him what happened and said that I would take my broken plane and if anything happened I'd just kill the electrical power and jump on his wing for the trip back to Bien Hoa. Dick made a command decision and said that he would take the broken plane, which was okay with me. We arrive to find that the crew chief couldn't find anything wrong and I strap them both in and headed for the other OV-10.
All the Rustics knew the stories of the Cambodian's hospitality so an overnight stay was a desired condition. Disappointed that we were so close, I carefully strapped Jerry in the back seat. After starting Dick's OV-10 I noticed that the boost pump light on #1 wouldn't go out normally. 7th AF had a rule that we weren't supposed to fly a broken plane and the boost pump pressure problem made it a broken plane. After a few radio calls we were told to stay. The bottom line is that we didn't get back until January 3rd and the Cambodian's reputation for hospitality remained intact.
Returning to Bien Hoa we didn't get a hero's welcome and in fact I was in trouble twice. The first for staying over and causing an international incident. How do I know it was an international incident? Because after coming back to the States (and being assigned to Castle AFB in Merced, CA) I had a chance to spend a weekend in San Francisco. While talking to the bartender in Joe DiMaggio's restaurant we found out that he had been an Army Intel specialist in Saigon at the same time Jerry And I were vacationing in Cambodia. He remembered briefing the General on my side trip. The second major penalty was from a really bad case of tourista. All in all I'd say it was worth it and shortly after the incident my services were no longer required as a Rustic at Bien Hoa and I was sent back to Da Nang.
One spectacular party I remember in Da Nang was a DEROS party. That started off with me cooking a barbecue at the squadron and then we moved it back to the compound and inside the Covey barracks. The prime drinks that night was "Yucca," which isn't as much a recipe as it is a happening. Everything goes into a big pot (or garbage can with a plastic bag liner) and that's what you drink. Sounds bad and it is. When it came time to actually move we put the Yucca pot and two people on the hood of a Jeep, loaded it with a bunch more and headed home. This trip alone violated more than a few rules. Jeeps had a limit of 4 people because that was all the seat belts. We had 13 in and on it. The driver probably wasn't too steady because none of us were, and as we pulled in the compound the gate guard stopped us. I was on the drivers side of the hood and I handed him a glass of Yucca and said, "Have a DEROS drink." He took the drink, shook his head and the party continued, after all, what could they do? - Shave our heads and make us fly combat? In the morning as we were cleaning up we found a pair of men's briefs, one sneaker and a rubber snake in the pot. Only the snake was known to be in the pot and it was there because Arch Battista had taken a bite from it during the latter stages of the party
I think one of the reasons we partied hard was to block out the fact that we were in a hazardous job. It took a long time for me to recognize this fact and be able to talk about it. While working on the web page and formatting all the names from the Memorial it became clear why. Two out of the 11 people who were in my OV-10 training class died as did several other from the Da Nang Covey operation, including my roommate, Larry Hull who died shortly before I came home. We always talked about those that died in terms of them having made a "mistake" VS the randomness of war. Why? Because then we could deny that we were as vulnerable as the next guy. A little denial goes a long way to protect sanity, but not long enough for some who really went into the bottle or even committed suicide when they got back.
I've recently become involved with the local chapter of the Viet Nam Veterans. From listening to the other vets I've concluded the no two people were in the same war. Even people in the same unit and doing similar jobs had a different experience, thus making their experience as unique as snowflakes. Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) is the term for people who are messed up from war or other trauma. The bigger the trauma the greater the chances of getting PTSD and the worse it will probably be. War is tough, but people survive by a variety of means. Partying and denial help me and a lot of others to return not too much worse for the wear (although I still have a lot of trouble with silly rules and those who would enforce them.)