7:28 | Forward air controller Mike Leonard went up to Ban Me Thuot to help out for a few days. The first night, as he settled in with a cold beer, the radio crackled with pleas for help from a nearby special forces camp. They were under siege. Part 1 of 3.
Keywords : Mike Leonard pilot Forward Air Controller (FAC) Vietnam Gia Nghia George Lattin Ban Me Thuot Bao Dai Ed Bullard Duc Lap Ted Nagy
When he was a kid, Mike Leonard had a neighbor who was a Marine and drilled the neighborhood boys with wooden rifles. Between that and going to a military high school, the seeds of a military career were planted.
New Air Force lieutenant Mike Leonard was assigned as a weapons officer at a ground radar site. When he found out that the same job paid more flying in the back of a Lockheed Constellation, he signed up for that. At first, he was flying off the California coast but it wasn't long before he was flying missions in the Gulf of Tonkin.
The Lockheed Constellation would fly at about 50 feet above the water just out of Haiphong harbor. In the back, weapons controller Mike Leonard noticed that enemy radar was attempting to lock on. It turned out there was an anti-aircraft battery on a small island.
He wanted more money. Mike Leonard had been a crew member in the back of Lockheed Constellations and, when he found out how much flight pay for pilots was, he had to become one. He was accepted and headed off to flight school.
During flight school, Mike Leonard was on a check ride in the T-38 trainer. He was demonstrating recovering from different situations when he managed to have a flame out on both engines. This was a real situation.
After flight school, Mike Leonard returned to the crew of a Lockheed Constellation, this time as a pilot. Based in Cape Cod and for a while in Iceland, he flew active air defense missions, no matter the weather.
Mike Leonard was an Air Force pilot but he also had a growing family to support. When he met a forward air controller and heard all about flying the O-1 Bird dog in Vietnam, he signed up for that just to get the raise in pay. He got through FAC school just fine but he ran into a little trouble in survival school.
On his way to jungle survival school in the Philippines, Mike Leonard, along with a rowdy plane full of pilots, nearly was detained by the base commander at a refueling stop. The hijinks didn't stop until they were all out in the jungle trying to hide. At least, some of them were trying.
On his first tour of Vietnam, pilot Mike Leonard lived in relative luxury in Saigon, enjoying barbecues and water skiing. His second tour was shaping up to be very different. This time he was flying a Cessna Bird Dog as a forward air controller at a forward operating base.
Bird Dog Pilot Mike Leonard wound up in a small village near the Cambodian border. It was a tight knit group of pilots and the head of the unit would take new guys up for an orientation flight. On one of these, they got a little too close to the border and the North Vietnamese anti-aircraft batteries.
Long periods of boredom interspersed with moments of stark terror. That was the life of a forward air controller flying in a small Cessna over Vietnam. FAC Mike Leonard describes these missions and the array of communications gear he used for different purposes. He also describes what it was like to coordinate a defoliation mission.
You couldn't call in jet fighters to help the besieged camp because of the cloud cover. Forward air controller Mike Leonard was in the air trying to help the Americans below. Two helicopter gunships made it to the action and the pilots proceeded to ignore his instructions. When one was shot down, he used his smoke rockets as weapons and even leaned out the window of the Cessna and fired his carbine. Part 2 of 3.
It had been a long fight and the Bird Dog had been in the air past it's rated aloft time. Pilot Mike Leonard used every trick he knew to nurse the plane home. He had been at an action in which a downed helicopter crew had been rescued and, decades later, he got a surprising phone call that, once again, brought the incident to the forefront. Part 3 of 3.
Air Force pilot and FAC Mike Leonard offers his thoughts on the debate over the justification of the Vietnam war. His experiences in his combat tours, especially one incident in which he helped rescue some downed airmen, led him to write his book, An American Combat Bird Dog Pilot: From the Battlefield of Vietnam and Beyond.
At every level, says Larry Jordan, you have an officer teamed with a non-commissioned officer, and the officer is getting trained. He kept a good relationship with his men by not elevating himself. He recalls the time shared with men in Vietnam and a wary chaplain at his base camp.
Mike Law remembers some of his more memorable kills over the jungles of Vietnam and some of the funny events that can come from that. Building camaraderie overtime was very easy as the guys got used to serving next to one another.
Even in the field, Rody Conway enjoyed the South Vietnamese food and the French coffee provided by the troops he was advising. His first operations were uneventful, since any North Vietnamese troops were usually passing through and gone.
Fighter pilot Barry Howard finally got the assignment in Vietnam he wanted, flying out of Udorn in Thailand. After receiving a DFC for blowing up an ammo tunnel, he went on to receive a Silver Star & Bronze Star (pinned on him by Admiral John S. McCain, Jr.) for disabling some 37mm guns that were causing trouble for reconnaissance aircraft.
As one of the smallest recruits in Boot Camp, Mark Kramer works hard to earn respect during combat training. He attends administrative school in Camp Pendleton and is shipped out to Da Nang. Kramer reflects on the training he received vs. the training Marines get today.
New Marine officer Frank Cox was assigned to an artillery battery and was soon in Okinawa training for Vietnam. He and his buddies were dismissive of the enemy there when they saw television coverage. The cocky new Marines weren't very kind to the Naval officers, either, on the voyage to the war.
"We don't want your equipment!" Communications engineer Mac McCahan was trying to improve military telephone service in Vietnam and he had to repeatedly reassure units that he wasn't tying to take over, just trying to make the system work better.
Frank Cox recalls the frustration and anger felt by many in Vietnam due to the ineptness of the war effort and the difficulty in the field. Channeling this anger fueled a successful career for him later, but there was an incident on patrol when he let the anger get the best of him.
Once you kill someone, there's no going back. That's one reason Joe LaBranche feels he left his soul in Vietnam, and since so few have served in battle, he also feels that almost no one can understand what veterans have gone through. Based on strategies used in Vietnam, which still persist today, he wonders what value is placed on the soldier's life.
John E. Walker enlisted during the Vietnam era and got the specialty he wanted, aviation mechanic. The dreary weather on the day he departed should have been a clue. His first test in the war zone, monsoons. Next, the task of cleaning the aircraft after medical evacuations.
Being trained in unconventional warfare, Ted Cummings and his division learned about going behind enemy lines and causing massive disruptions in their ongoing processes. In special forces, the key was to train so that there was a fully developed team effort so that the company never had to rely on a single person.
Jim Lawrence could only watch as A-1E Skyraiders turned the tide at the battle of Landing Zone Albany. He'd been shot in the head and couldn't move his legs. After evacuation, the first doctor he saw had a bedside manner that was lacking. Part 5 of 5.
His feeling was that we needed to be involved in Vietnam to stop the spread of Communism. Citadel cadet Joe Bruckner knew he would be going to the war. He recalls his training experience, especially the sobering night ambush exercise.
Paul Jacobs, who commanded several ships during the Vietnam War, muses over the need to kill the enemy in the course of his job, as well as the need to pivot towards humanitarian duties when required. The sorry spectacle of politicians managing wars when it should be left to the military is a sore point with him.
Already a capable engineer and a pilot, Al Matheson moved into classified work when he joined the Air Force and was soon flying huge circles in planes full of electronics. This sophisticated operation led to a grand scheme known in the Kennedy administration as the McNamara Wall.
Henry Dunn's life when he returned from Vietnam was a whirlwind of marriage, career and children, so he was too busy to process his war experience. That changed when accounts of the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley were published and he began to reach out to fellow veterans.
He wanted to be a company commander, but Kenneth Moorefield's experience as an ARVN advisor was an eye opening experience which gave him insight to the Vietnamese people and their precarious position, caught in the middle of a war. He developed great respect for his advisory unit and they became a band of brothers like any others in combat.
Pat Richardson's helicopter was blown up at Phu Loi, but he wasn't in it and it wasn't the enemy that blew it up. While it was up on the rack for maintenance, from out of nowhere a rocket screamed in and it erupted in a huge fireball. As the men on the base scrambled for cover, it became clear that it wasn't Charlie shooting at them.
Army engineer Jack Martin was offered his choice of assignments. It could be Korea or Vietnam but he hated cold weather so much, he chose Vietnam. His first assignment was at a desk in Long Binh, but his career got a boost when he was offered command of a battalion. He jumped at the chance and faced a host of challenging situations. (This interview made possible with the support of BARBARA SHELDON in honor of Joseph Graham.)
After his Vietnam tour, Arthur Hurst continued stateside as an Army Air Traffic Controller. Then he had to go on temporary disabled status when he developed lung problems from handling Agent Orange at air fields in Vietnam. He responded to new medications but was forced to retire form the service. He describes how he was exposed and how he could spot booby traps when he was there.
Newly commissioned out of ROTC at Dartmouth, Beirne Lovely went to the basic school at Quantico where he received a lot of grief for switching over from the Army. Soon, he and fraternity brother John Feltner were on their way to Vietnam, concerned that all the combat jobs would be gone before they got there. Not a problem, as it turned out.
A Viet Cong bullet had failed to keep him out of the war. After recovering from that misfortune, Marine helicopter pilot Bill Cunningham began his second tour by assuming command of the MABS-16 squadron, which was responsible for the operation of the base at Marble Mountain.
While setting up base camp, communications officer Bud Alley had to take on extra duty as mess officer, taking over from his friend John Howard. When the commander heard that Alley was asking to go out on combat patrols, he told him to assemble a squad from all the headquarters and support personnel and give the cooks a taste of life outside the wire. He also accompanied medics making sick calls to the local civilians.