The heat was suffocating as we got off the Continental charter flight that late summer afternoon in 1966 at South Vietnam’s sprawling Bien Hoa Air Base, but I was more amazed at the incredible activity everywhere. There were other charter planes arriving, constant flights of F-100 and F-5 fighters taking off and landing, lumbering C-130 transports loading and unloading. There was a U-2 circling above the base as it soared to high altitudes for a reconnaissance mission. There were lines of soldiers getting onto another Continental flight, heading home. I soon learned that the thing everyone in the military kept track of, even more than the daily body count, was the countdown to rotating home — “121 days and counting,” someone would say. I was scheduled to rotate home in late 1967.
We were a group of 17 newly promoted first lieutenants, all of us F-100 fighter pilots, now assigned to one of three squadrons at Bien Hoa. We had call signs like Dice and Ramrod (the name of his pet boa constrictor); I was Saber. We had all just completed six months of fighter training, combat survival school and jungle survival school in the Philippines. Pipelined to Vietnam and ready to go. The squadron commanders weren’t sure what to do with us, so very young, too inexperienced. But we learned quickly, and all but two of us survived.
Two days after I arrived, I had my orientation flight in the back seat of an F-100F, a two-seat variant, over the Mekong Delta. The target was water buffalo, which I later learned had the potential to be Vietcong military transportation.
Before dawn the next morning, I approached my assigned F-100 all decked out in a G-suit, parachute, helmet and pistol, ready to go on my first combat mission in my own plane. As I walked across the tarmac I was stopped by a military police officer who wanted to see my ID; he was positive I was much too young to be anywhere near a fighter plane, let alone fly a single-seat fighter. At 23, I guess I did look a little young.
A vast majority of our missions were in the area called the Iron Triangle, near Cu Chi, a Vietcong hotbed northwest of Saigon. On the ground, it was the home of the Army’s 25th Division, nicknamed Tropic Lightning, which had rotated over from its home base of Hawaii. The Iron Triangle was just 10 miles northwest of Bien Hoa; a little farther west were the Ho Bo Woods and the Boi Loi Woods, other areas of high Vietcong activity.
The F-100, nicknamed the Super Sabre, was a versatile aircraft. Sometimes we flew interdiction missions — bombing suspected targets of enemy personnel, supplies and bunkers. At night we would fly so-called Sky Spots — radar-controlled missions in which we dropped ordnance over free-fire zones without seeing our targets.
We also flew close-air-support missions, which involved dropping bombs and firing rockets against enemy units engaged with American or allied soldiers. These were our favorite, since we knew we were directly supporting our troops on the ground. Typically, we dropped our payloads at low altitudes and high speeds, between 300 to 600 feet at 450 knots (about 515 m.p.h.), parallel to the ground forces. Many of these missions were flown from our alert pad. The planes were gassed up and ready, and we had to be in the air within 15 minutes of getting notice.
These missions were not without risk — one wrong move could put us head first into the ground (I still remember a very tall tree in the Iron Triangle that I almost got to shake hands with) and the enemy’s antiaircraft fire came at us fast. One evening I returned to my hooch (tent-like barracks with mosquito netting separating our beds) to find our flight commander going through the personal effects of a fellow pilot, packing them for shipment home. He had been on alert, and on his second mission of the day he had been shot down while dropping at low altitude.
Sometimes we flew alongside B-52 strikes. I once flew a photographer in the back seat of an F-100F to film a strike in the Ho Bo Woods. Three B-52s — enormous bombers that flew all the way from Guam — laid down what must have been 100 bombs each, like a carpet. When you viewed the Iron Triangle from 15,000 feet, it looked like there was a bomb crater every 30 feet. How could anything survive this constant devastation, I would wonder.
Bien Hoa itself was relatively safe, and we didn’t go off base very often. We were warned that pilots were viewed as the ones who delivered death from above, and a person whose relative had been killed might seek us out. It hit a little closer when an elderly Vietnamese man, who for years had cleaned the squadron building, was found planting a bomb under our briefing room. We assumed we must have hit one of his relatives.
Right before Christmas 1966, after I had a wonderful dentist remove my wisdom teeth, the squadron moved to a new fighter base at Tuy Hoa, farther north and right on the ocean. Our mission changed, too. We still flew close air support and interdiction, but then we received a top-secret briefing in early 1967: We would begin bombing in Laos, hitting the Ho Chi Minh Trail just west of the demilitarized zone. We were up against a different enemy, North Vietnamese regulars, who fired back with high-powered ground-to-air defenses. In the first two days, two of our planes were shot down (luckily, both pilots were rescued by helicopters). Quickly we changed tactics, dive bombing and releasing our payloads at 4,500 feet, not 300.
Four months later, I was tapped to become a forward air controller — basically a pilot in a low- and slow-flying propeller plane (in Vietnam, this was usually the O-1, nicknamed, for some reason, the Bird Dog) who hovers over the target area, coordinating with ground forces and directing the attack. Sometimes, though, I went on foot with ground troops, carrying a radio.
My best friend and I (we were in college and the same squadrons together) moved to Cu Chi, operating out of the Army base there. I was assigned to a battalion, call sign Mustang — a very active battalion, given the number of close-air-support missions we conducted. The number of bomb craters in the Iron Triangle had increased even in the few months I was at Tuy Hoa.
One day, as an Air Force liaison, I went with a South Vietnamese foot patrol into the Triangle. They convinced me it would be safe. We patrolled along the jungle paths, and the commander took great pleasure showing me the maze of tunnels his team had discovered. The tunnels were everywhere; some you could stand up in. I finally realized why all those bomb craters hadn’t made that much difference. (The tunnels underneath Cu Chi are still there. In fact, the chief operating officer of my former employer recently traveled to Vietnam as part of his executive M.B.A. program. He visited tunnels, now a museum and popular tourist attraction. Time changes a lot.)
People often ask me if I ever got hit. As a pilot, not once. But there was an incident during a helicopter flight as part of a search-and-destroy mission.
These missions were the order of the day in 1967. Leaflets would be dropped in the days leading up to an assault, advising all good Vietnamese to evacuate. Those who remained would be deemed Vietcong. (I never did understand the logic; why would the bad guys stick around?) Then the assault. Helicopters would land a battalion of troops, who would conduct a sweep through the villages, setting fire to the huts and sweeping out the enemy.
I observed this from the battalion command chopper, hovering nearby — 125 soldiers moving through, 12 helicopter gunships overhead, everyone ready to pounce on the enemy.
Suddenly a figure in black ran out across the rice paddy, way ahead of the troops. The gunships circled and started shooting at him — to no avail, which really upset the colonel in our helicopter. Totally frustrated, he started firing his own M-16 from our helicopter.
I guess the person on the ground finally got perturbed as well. He stopped, pulled out his pistol and fired a single shot at us. The bullet came through the helicopter floor about 18 inches in front of my feet. The lights in the cockpit went off, and we slowly rotated down, crashing softly into the rice paddy. The man ran off unharmed.
In late August 1967, I rotated back to the United States. I flew on United — standby — from San Francisco to Boston. There were a bunch of hippies on standby, too, ahead of me, but the flight attendants moved me ahead of them and seated me in first class. They were very nice to the military.
Wayne Schell, an Air Force pilot, flew more than 300 missions during the Vietnam War. He later worked as an executive for HSS, a security firm.