The C-47
"Puff the Magic Dragon"
by Lt.Col. John (Jack) Haller
USAF Ret.

 

24. A War We Can't Forget


The following chapter was written by

LT. Col. Charles A. Riley.

"Chuck"
to all of us.
Chuck belived in our mission, and poured himself more then 100% into his work.
He knew we could win, and that we should win, for the sake of the South Vietnamese people!

This is his story about his two tours in Vietnam.

The United States officially ended it's involvement
in the Vietnam war in 1974.
For those of us who fought over there
it may never be over!
There are those that say the war was not a war at all,
but a counter insurgency,
fought mostly along the lines of a conventional war.
It was a war.
It was never clearly understood by either our Government
or by most Americans!


Vietnam was a war in where a fully armed Army Helicopter could be,
and often was, shot down by a VC armed with a cross bow!
And the VC might think that he was still fighting the French.
It was a war in which our Commander in Chief, President Johnson,
bragged that "the Air Force could not bomb a North Vietnamese
outhouse without his approval".

To those of us that fought there it was a strange and war, where nothing was normal.
Just a note here in case you feel
I might not know what war is:
This was the third war I have fought
for this Great Country.

What ever happened no longer would surprise us.
It was a war whare our enemy was given support and comfort by our people at home
and by many U.S. Congressmen!

Vietnam was a class on
"American Imperialism in Vietnam."
The class hosted by a U.S. Congressman,
and held in a room of the House of Representatives.
It was a war that American citizens gave open aid to our enemy
and jeopardized the lives
of American Prisoners of War.

They even visited North Vietnam to make them feel important!


Here goes with my first tour.

It was 1963, there were approximately 15,000 US troops serving in Vietnam
in an advisory and support capacity. The war was a little strange even then.
No one seemed very excited about it, not even the South Vietnamese.
At this time it was recognized as a "Counter Insurgency" war,
and the right people were involved.
The Army's involvement was mostly Green Beret.
There was one Air Force Squadron of Air Commandos
that were trained for unconventional warfare.

From the start we were never really sure who the "bad guys' were, until they shot at you!
I remember one bright moon lit night in late 1963, I woke up to see a Vietnamese
crawling through the window at the head of my bunk,
I grabbed him and yelled to have the lights turned on.
When all was said and done it turned out he was "friendly" and not a VC!
Just a common thief!

One night I flew a load of ammo into Tut Hao, back when the runway was grass.
The Vietnamese who met us were a motley looking bunch, but they had a note authorizing
them to pick up the ammo. I told my crew
"Keep alert and keep your weapons cocked and ready!
I still don't know if they were the "right Vietnamese" there was no way to tell,
the VC don't wear uniforms like us.

I picked up three bad looking dudes one morning at Nha Trang,
they showed up just before we departed for Da Nang. They did not speak English,
but had a note signed by a Lieutenant saying that they were authorized to fly on military aircraft.
I was flying a Gooney Bird, with the side cargo door removed.
my Flight Engineer said to me
"I Don't like the look of these guys."
I said "I don't either so put them near the cargo door and if they do anything suspicious,
even just pull out a weapon, I want you to throw their butt's out that door immediately!"
The Sergeant never took his eyes off of them!


I can remember being asleep at Nha Trang when Captain Tom Blake,
my navigator woke me up to tell me that President Kennedy had been assassinated.
Tom was known to joke about things like that, so I said
"don't even say that as a joke it is not funny!
" He told me
"I wish I was joking I just heard it on the Armed Forces radio!

I laid awake for several hours, my eyes were more then a little wet.
It made no sense at all, here we were half way around the world fighting for our lives
and the lives of the Vietnamese, and some crazy man in Dallas kills our President!
What a crazy world! Well back to the war.

It is the day before my navigator and I are going home!
Back to the States!
WOW!
Seems like a dream!

Well OK... one last trip to the Green Beret camp near the Cambodian border.
They need ammo the VC were going to attack tonight, and they need more ammo.
When we arrived it was late afternoon and they helped us get unloaded.
One of the Green Beret tried to get Tom to "accidentally" leave his M-16 rifle,
the Green Beret had not been issued them yet, but they wanted them bad.
Tom said "No way man I need to turn it in to supply tomorrow, I am going home."
The next day we heard that the VC had overrun the outpost
and the Green Beret had been killed, along with several other Americans.
When Tom heard this he was very upset.
He said
"I wish that Green Beret had kicked my butt
and taken that M-16,
it probably would have saved him."


That afternoon Tom and I boarded a plane at Ton Son Nhut and were on our way home.
Tom will never forget his last day in Vietnam, neither will I.

In spite of all this I volunteered for another tour.
Someone has to fight for our country.


It was in the fall of 1965 that I came back.
I was amazed at how the war had changed and escalated!
Now it was a real War!

I had barley arrived back at Ton Son Nhut, for the start of my second tour,
when while I was standing on the taxi way thinking about the last tour, a helicopter took off,
in about three minutes it was back! A VC sniper had shot the pilot right between the eyes!
And the copilot had to bring the helicopter back. He was badly shook up!

Very early the next morning, 0330 hours, I was ready to go to bed.
That meant that I needed to ride in the back of a "crew pickup",
a pickup truck with wire all around the back, except over the tailgate area
used to transport troops from one side of Saigon to thier quarters.
This truck was driven by a Vietnamese.
Because of the time there was no other traffic on the road.
All of a sudden a small French car raced up behind us.
I say us because there were four other GI's in the front, with the driver, and me in the back.
The passenger in the car held a grenade!
I realized that he could very easily throw it into the back of the truck!
I was getting very nervous about now!
I did have my sidearm in a Air Force issue shoulder holster, out it came
and I aimed right between the passengers eyes!
I figured that if his arm came out the window I would fire before he could throw the granade
So here we have a Mexican stand off, he has a grenade and I intend to shoot him
if he even looks like he might throw it anywhere!
I could tell that the driver and the "bomber" were talking back and forth.
I can just imagine their conversation.
"Driver": I speed up along side him, you throw it in the back.
"Bomber" If you do that he will shoot me, not you, I will not do that!.
Or at least words to that effect anyway!
Well they followed me for about 100 yards, then slammed on the brakes
and turned and disappeared into the night! That was fine by me!

This was typical of the war. You could not tell who was on your side.
in fact the Vietnamese that was on your side today, would slit your throat tomorrow,
because a VC told him to, or the VC would come and kill his family!
To make matters worse our own troops would sometimes use us for target practice!

Let me illustrate.

While flying a Puff the Magic Dragon one night I heard another Puff call Paddy Control.
The other pilot was a friend of mine, Major John C. Haller (Jack). The message went like this.

"Paddy Control, this is Spooky 42,
the outpost below is firing at me,

we have tracers from a fifty coming our way,
directly from the center of the outpost.

"Spooky 42. this is Paddy Control, that is impossible,
that outpost is controlled by our Army and is friendly."


Jack came back, his voice a pitch or two higher, and very mad.
" Friendly, hell, you tell them they have ten seconds to stop firing at me
or I will fire back.
And I guarantee I will not miss."

I turned my Puff and headed in Jack's direction,
I figured that it would take me about three minutes to get to him,
and I could help him out.
Of course we would both face a Court Martial,
but I was not going to allow him to go down without my support!
Well, twenty seconds later I still had not seen any tracers from his Puff,
and so I called Jack,
"Jack are they still firing at you? If so I want a piece of them too!
" His answer was " No Chuck, they have quit,
I guess they get to live to fight another day.
Thanks for the support."


What happened to "Jack" was not that unusual in Vietnam. In fact a few month's later,
Jack was landing at the Marine base at Dong Ha when we received incoming fire
from one of OUR tanks!
Not just once but three times as he tried to land they wound fire towards him!
He was supposed to stay on Dong Ha to help defend them when they came
under attack from the VC.
The third time he just landed and turned his guns toward the tank
and had the Base Commander woke up to come and have a "chat" with him
or he was going to fire all three guns at once, that would have ground up that tank,
at that range, 40 feet, into scrap metal, and turned everyone inside into hamburger!
I have no doubt that Jack would have fired had the Base Commander not arrived
and calmed everyone down.
Jack did turn his aircraft around and immediately left Dong Ha,
That was the last Puff crew assigned to defend Dong Ha.

The war was full of this type of crazy stuff at all levels of Command.

We had Colonel Jack Broughton facing a Court Martial because he tried to protect his men.
They were in the heat of battle and suddenly this Russian ship, in Cam Pha Harbor,
started to fire at then. They immediately fired back. For this he deserved a Court Martial?
I don't think so. In WW II or Korea he would have been called a hero
for such quick judgment to save his men!


Then there was General John D. Lavelle, U.S. Air Commander.
He was forced to retire because he authorized air strikes into North Vietnam,
against heavy Anti Aircraft (AA) gun emplacements, to protect his (our U.S.)
bombers and give them a better chance to come back from a bombing run,
but did not get the local Vietnamese civilians permission.
He was just trying to help bring home more U.S. Airman alive.
The North Vietnamese were building stronger defenses each day!


I believe it was General Douglas McArthur who said
"A Country that goes to war without the will to win is making a grave mistake."

I personally believe that for our government to have sent men to war
and not allowed them the means to win is nothing short of criminal.


Note:
Lt. Colonel Charles A. Riley, USAF Ret.
served 25 years in three separate branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.
He is a Veteran, as is Lt. Colonel John C. Haller,
of World War II, Korea, and of Vietnam.
Lt. Colonel Riley is a Command Pilot, a Master Parachutist and flew 307 combat missions
in Vietnam in the AC-47 "Gooney Bird", Also called Puff the Magic Dragon.


Many of us wholeheartedly agree with Lt.Col. Riley's analysis of the Vietnam war
and we were often frustrated by the stupid rules of engagement
that we had to put up with every night.
Many times I would deliberately draw enemy fire,
even if I had to drop down almost to the tree tops, so that I could return fire,
to save the outpost from being over run or to save a patrol form being killed.
All because I couldn't get an immediate clearance to fire,
from BOTH the American Commander, and the Vietnamese Commander.
Sometimes the Vietnamese Commander would leave orders
not to be disturbed until morning!
There would be no way to get clearance then!


The first four months that I was in Vietnam we could not fire
even if we were fired on, unless we had authorization first!
At least I was able to change that.


Yes... this war was hard to understand,
apparently there were no real rules of engagement,
no Geneva Convention rules,
just do whatever one wanted as long as you killed the enemy!
IF you had local authorization!


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