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.
As an operations officer, Grayson Roulston and his company were providing support for the Vietnamese army and had to think tactically with their rounds as they defended the perimeter. One time, while flying through enemy territory, Roulston was hit and feared he might be taken down. Luckily, his aircraft stabilized.
He was a helicopter pilot who had crashed. She was a nurse who took care of him. They had grown close during his healing, but it was time for him to go home. When the goodbye was underwhelming for her, Judie made sure to stay in touch with Ron until the deal was sealed and they became the Richtsmeiers.
The North Vietnamese attacked across the DMZ with everything they had. Bill Camper was an advisor to the ARVN unit stationed there in the wake of the American drawdown and barely got back inside the perimeter as two battalions on a maneuver were lost. The enemy artillery barrage was relentless, and after four days of fighting, the South Vietnamese commander decided to surrender. Camper was having none of that.
11 frightening days in the Battle of Dak To, and the bloody fight for Hill 875. When a Marine F4 misses its target, a 500 pound bomb takes out an entire encampment of wounded GIs. The South Vietnamese Civilian Army prepares a Thanksgiving feast, but the meal does not sit well with the American palette.
Richey describes coming home as a difficult experience. Colonel Fulton wrote that Vietnam soldiers were as brave as anyone but were under-appreciated. Richey could not agree more. While in the hospital at Fort Knox, Richey told his parents to come by themselves to pick him up. The following events understandably overwhelmed him.
Dennis Haines had done the reconnaissance on a village at the Mekong River, so he manned the listening post overnight as his unit prepared a cordon operation. He thought he saw movement in a doorway, then a muzzle flash as he took two rounds to the head.
The Kit Carson Scouts were Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese soldiers who had defected to the South. Many of them worked with American units to give insight to the tactics of the enemy and Owen Ditchfield was in charge of the program in his division. He would take them to fire bases where one of them would give a startling demonstration to the American soldiers.
Tom Reilly’s Vietnam service took a new direction when he took an assignment as a war correspondent. He carried a camera along with his rifle, and documented the action for Stars and Stripes and the Army Times.
It was New Year's Eve, ours not theirs. Before the night was over, Frank Cox had tackled a belligerent Marine who was hacked off at the infantry camped nearby, and placed his own battalion commander under a watch after confiscating his sidearm.
Frank Cox had a friend from Marine officer's basic school named James Egan. Egan, a talented and popular officer from Notre Dame, disappeared when his reconnaissance patrol was attacked and has never been found to this day. Fortunately, the talent was deep in that unit.
It was a hurry-up assignment. Bill Camper was sent to Quang Ngai to advise the civilian administration and he was so rushed, he had no radio or vehicle when he got there, but he went right to work. He had to put together a reaction force of locals armed with whatever they could find and he had to deliver medical and infrastructure assistance.
A sense of humor could get you in a little trouble in Vietnam, says Rick Marotte who painted some questionable things on the helicopters. Back home, he managed to avoid the abuse suffered by some returning veterans and concentrated on graduate school and his family. After thirty years, the men from his unit began to find each other.
It was already late and Jim Benson had a river crossing to deal with. Once there, he called for the rope, a vital piece of gear for the crossing. Private Dewey had forgotten the rope. Private Dewey was a train wreck, but when the shooting started, he was the man you wanted by your side. The next day, after a sleepless night with the listening post reporting movement, they made a startling discovery.
Helicopter pilot Fred Mills was "really busy" flying medical evacuations in Vietnam. When trees prevented a landing, he dropped a chainsaw to troops, and he used a map with no borders to evacuate from Cambodia. It was "the dirty part of the war."
Dennis Haines and his friend Jack Kirchner came across a Viet Cong bunker that they thought was empty. After Kirchner fired a shotgun round through a port, he turned to leave and was nearly cut in two by enemy rounds.
Marine Corps helicopter pilot Bill Cunningham served a ground tour in California, where he set up a second training location for pilots. The Marines needed many more because Vietnam was heating up and helicopters had become vital to their mission. During this time, he had an interesting excursion to Thailand, where he trained Thai pilots.
He was flying in a Chinook, in transit to pick up some Kit Carson Scouts, when an enemy on the ground sprayed the aircraft with automatic weapons fire. Owen Ditchfield was leaning over reading a book and that meant that the bullet that hit him in the head did not kill him on the spot.
Doug Garner talks about how prevalent booby traps were in the Mekong Delta, and how a Vietnamese scout unknowingly triggered one particular trap, giving Garner a grenade shrapnel injury for which he received a Purple Heart.
The missions were continuous, one after the other. When they were out, they were totally alone, nowhere near any installations, so the River Rats had their food dropped right onto the boat by helicopter. John Wilhite's weapon was the M-60 machine gun and he used it both on the boat and in defensive positions on shore. Once, he overheated it and the breach popped up and smacked him in the face.