DAY IN THE LIFE - DECEMBER 1970 ( Jim Roper)

Shoebox, an alias of Army Sergeant Ken Carpenter, and I spent a long hot morning over southern Laos covering Special Forces reconnaissance teams in a mission we called Prairie Fire.  North Vietnamese Army fire chased us from a total of five planned landing zones. We finally inserted one team, and extracted another. Some days the tri-border area of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam seemed to have more NVA per square foot than North Vietnam. 

I had pulled my O-2 off the Pleiku's runway at five a.m.  By one p.m., I felt exhausted.

We passed words to our replacements in an OV-10 and landed at Kontum.  A soldier climbed from a waiting jeep, signaled me to hold, and spoke briefly with Shoebox.  I recognized Plastic Man’s thin brown hair and large mustache.        

He climbed into my airplane.  “We have to go back.  The coordinates Shoebox reported are screwed up.  I need the right numbers for the report.”  Sergeant First Class John Plaster was a perfectionist.

I sighed.  My back ached after eight hours in the seat.  I wanted to go south, not north.  “Okay.  But we have to stop for fuel at Dak To.”

As we approached the tiny airstrip, I switched to the frequency for the uncontrolled runway to report my intentions in a blind broadcast.  “Attention aircraft at Dak To.  Covey five-nine-one is an O-two on forty-five to left downwind for landing to the east.”  I turned hard right to parallel the runway.

As I rolled wings level, another O-2 passed us belly-up from left to right, about thirty feet out in front.  He had come up from below the nose of my craft. 

Holy shit. 

“Where the hell did he come from?”  Plastic Man was now wide awake.

“Probably made a pass down the runway and pulled up.”  With no time to react I ended up in left echelon formation with the O-2.  I crossed under to his right.

When he lowered his landing gear, I lowered mine.  I matched his flap settings.

When he turned left to land, I turned right and circled while he landed and cleared the runway.

Finally, I turned back.  Unlike the other FAC, I announced my intentions. “Attention aircraft at Dak To.  Covey five-nine-one, left base, gear down, full stop.”  Thirty seconds on final approach were uneventful.

I touched firmly and applied max braking, committing the aircraft to stopping in the remaining distance.

Suddenly, a green deuce-and-a-half-ton truck pulled across the runway ahead of me.  A hundred feet ahead, he moved slowly from right to left.  Collision seemed certain.

“We’re gonna hit.”  Anger and dread swelled up inside me simultaneously.

Hueys blocked the left side, so I veered off the right side of the runway.  My brakes screeched.  I saw a terrified Vietnamese face in the truck driver’s window. 

“Son-of-a-bitch,” Plastic Man said.

My left wingtip cleared the truck by about a foot.  Then, we stopped.

“I’ll get that ARVN bastard.”  Plastic Man jumped out of the aircraft and drew his forty-five.  He ran after the truck, now pouring out black smoke and accelerating away.

I turned around and taxied to the fuel bladders, stopped, and jumped out.

A tall lieutenant with curly blond hair was refueling his O-2.  He smiled as if nothing was wrong. “Hi.”

“Do you know how close you came to hitting us during your little airshow?”  My anger peaked.  I wanted to hit somebody.

“No.”  The lieutenant knew nothing or pretended to know nothing.

“Thirty feet, moron.  What’s your home base?  Do you know the uncontrolled radio frequency?”

"I’m a Herb FAC at Pleiku.  I don’t know the frequency.”  He climbed down from the ammo box he was using to reach the fuel tank openings on top of the wing.

  I prepared to kick his crotch. “Make all the normal traffic pattern calls on six-eight-point-three.  If the choppers know you’re coming, they’ll flatten their blades. Would you like me to carve that number on your forehead?”  I yelled, “Sixty-eight-three.”

“Gee, I’m sorry.”  He stepped backward.  His naiveté appeared genuine.

To cut through any act, I made my face look livid and stepped forward.  “If you’re here when that Green Beret gets back, he’ll break your arms and legs.  And I’ll help him.”

His eyes widened.  I could now see they were blue.  Then, he squinted toward Plastic Man, who trudged, pistol still drawn, from a quarter mile away.  “I’m really sorry.”  The lieutenant quickly put down the hose, started engines, and departed.  

I pumped about thirty seconds of avgas from the large hose into each wing. 

Plastic Man holstered his weapon.  “The truck got away.”

"The lieutenant played dumb.  Let’s finish this mission as quickly as possible.”

  Back in the sky, we crossed into Laotian airspace, and I armed a rocket pod.  “The clearing six or seven miles ahead has a finger of trees in the northeast corner. I’ll fire a stand-off rocket.”  I pulled the nose up thirty degrees and mashed the red button.


Miraculously, a ball of white smoke appeared on the correct clearing.

“Nice shot,” Plastic Man said.  “Yeah, these numbers are wrong.”  He studied the terrain and made notes on his map.

I descended along a high ridge near a friendly outpost called Leghorn. The listening post sat on a mountain peak near the border.  Protected by mine fields, the site complemented the Coveys’ twenty-four-hour listening watch over recon teams.

“Here’s a low-threat rocket pass to mark where we found the team.”  I pulled the nose up and rolled right, to inverted.  Then, I waited for the nose to fall to the target.


  Plastic Man turned to me with wide eyes.  “Is that what I think it is?”

 "Fifty caliber machine gun.  Directly behind us on the ridge.”  I moved the controls, but they weren't effective at forty knots.

  The popping continued.

“Damn.”  I pushed power to maximum and cranked in full elevator and left aileron. When the controls became effective, they were set to pull us away from the bullet stream. As the nose fell, I sliced down into the deep valley.  “See the pink panels?”

  “Tally the friendly location.”

  “Have you seen enough?”