Welcome home, sir, and thank you for your service

They weren’t given a welcome back then. About 2.7 million Americans – almost 10% of their generation – served in Vietnam. Fifty-eight thousand names are on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

This isn’t a political rant, though. It’s just a story.

One of the American survivors, an Air Force pilot, left Vietnam on the so-called “Freedom Bird” on July 4, 1970. He landed in San Francisco and flew from there to Chicago’s O’Hare Field for a morning flight to Oklahoma City. Lacking cash for a hotel room, he stretched out on a bench at O’Hare. He slept soundly until a janitor working in the area dropped a metal bucket on the floor with a loud crash. The pilot was underneath the bench before he was fully awake.

Anyone living in a forward operating location was attuned to the sound of incoming mortar rounds. Those reflexes were basic survival skills.

This particular pilot was a forward air controller (“FAC”) in Vietnam, flying a plane designated 0-1E by the Air Force. It is a high-wing, tail-dragging airplane, less than 26’ long, able to take off and land in less than 600’. Crew: one person, protected by an armored plate under the pilot’s seat. Armament: eight smoke rockets, four under each wing. The sight for aiming the smoke rockets? A grease pencil mark on the cockpit windscreen to mark the horizon in level flight, installed by each pilot to his individual specifications – a function of the pilot’s height.

Here are a couple of pictures of the plane, one in the air and one on the Bien Hoa flight line at sunset.

These particular planes and the pilots who flew them, plus the supporting ground and radio crews, were part of the “Red Marker” unit. Red Marker FACs flew in close air support of the Vietnamese Airborne Division, elite Vietnamese paratroopers who went wherever in the country they were needed — the hot spots.

The O-1E FACs flew at about 1,500’, directing air strikes and occasionally ground artillery fire. That means the FAC would locate a target, call in a flight of fighter aircraft, make a low pass to fire a smoke rocket to mark the target, then clear each fighter to bomb with the characteristic radio call, “you’re cleared in hot … hit my smoke!”

The Vietnamese Airborne called the FACs “angels in the air.”

The ground living quarters for FACs at forward location bases were well-fortified. Here is an example.

The Song Be residents did not lack for a sense of humor …

And the Red Markers did not lack for pride.

The pilot who returned to U.S. soil on July 4, 1970 wrote a book about the Red Markers. His radio call sign was “Red Marker 18.” He only included a couple of his own stories in the book, because he didn’t want it to be “a personal memoir.” The following is a small supplement.

The propeller story

A so-called “tail-dragging” airplane (see above photos) has its third gear under the tail, as opposed to a tricycle gear plane, which has its third gear under its nose. Consequently, when a tail-dragger is on the ground, the pilot’s line of sight is slightly elevated – he cannot see the ground immediately in front of him.

If a pilot was in a hurry to refuel, reload rockets, and turn around for the next mission, and had been flying 2 or 3 flights a day for some time and was exhausted, he might take a short cut through a small ditch running alongside the runway. If there happened to be a metal runway marker between the runway and the ditch, he wouldn’t have been able to see it. This might be the result to the runway marker and the propeller …


The night landing story

The longest day Red Marker 18 had was 11 hours flight time on three separate missions. Long days were common, especially during the Cambodian incursion. One evening, he didn’t get back to his home field until after dark. Runway lights in forward operating locations weren’t standard domestic airport issue. Instead, “runway lights” were what you would call smudge pots — bulbous metal pots with sand in the bottom, filled with diesel fuel and then lit. The duty for lighting the pots rotated among crews. It wasn’t, apparently, popular duty: it may have interfered with beer call.

Red Marker 18 returned to Phouc Vinh one night, low on fuel. The pots weren’t lit, and he didn’t have enough fuel to land at an alternate field. His Red Marker radio control was unable to round up a crew to light the pots, so he took his jeep to the beginning of the runway and parked there with his headlights on. (Not a small heroic feat itself.)

When the 0-1E passed over the jeep and flared for landing, the pilot couldn’t see the runway ahead in the dark. So the jeep chased the plane all the way down the runway, illuminating it for the airplane with its headlights.

The mountain landing story

The 0-1E’s smoke rockets weren’t “armed,” i.e., live, while the airplane was on the ground, for obvious reasons. Before a flight, a crew chief loaded each rocket into a firing tube, four under each wing. Each tube had a safety pin at the rear which prevented an electrical connection needed to fire the rocket. Each pin had a red ribbon attached. Before the FAC took off, the crew chief pulled the pins and handed the ribbons to the pilot through the plane’s window, assuring the pilot that his rockets were ready to fire.

Unfortunately, Red Marker 18 and his crew chief each apparently had a bad day at the same time. About halfway to a pre-designated target area, he realized that his smoke rockets were not armed. The pins were still in, red streamers flying in the breeze. He had three choices. He could return to base to remove the pins, although he would then miss a scheduled rendezvous with a flight of fighters. That would effectively cancel the mission. Alternatively, he could mark the target for the fighters by throwing smoke grenades out of the airplane’s window. (I am not making this up). Of course, the fighter pilots would see the red ribbons, and he would never hear the end of jokes at his expense. His third alternative was to salvage the mission (and his reputation) by doing something which, in retrospect, was really, really ill-advised.

He landed on an abandoned air strip on a mountaintop. In the middle of the jungle in Vietnam. In the middle of the jungle in Vietnam. Alone, for heaven’s sake. He got out of his plane to pull the pins, but did not turn the engine off for fear that it might not restart — possibly the only sensible thing he did that day. This created a problem, because the brakes didn’t prevent the plane from creeping forward. Red Marker 18 had to hold on to the plane while removing the pins on each side of the aircraft.

When Red Marker 18 returned from that day’s mission, he handed the ribbons to the crew chief. No words were exchanged.

There are many more stories, of course. Every person who served in Vietnam, or any other war, has stories to tell.

If you by any chance meet a grizzled old Vietnam vet, please extend your hand and offer the appropriate greeting: welcome home, sir, and thank you for your service.

Here is a picture of Red Marker 18 with his airplane. I am grateful to have him home every day.

Happy 52nd anniversary, June 7, 2019.

See you on down the road.


In memoriam … Capt. Samuel L. James, USAFA 1967; Lt. Thomas L. Lubbers; Lt. Kennard F. Svanoe, USAFA 1967; Capt. Douglass T. Wheless, USMA 1968.

13 thoughts on “Welcome home, sir, and thank you for your service”

  1. I knew who that was from the beginning, or at least had a really good idea. Amazing that any of those guys survived, and many didn’t. Please thank Gary for his service!

  2. Amazing heroics. Thank you for your service, Gary. I found your book when I unpacked. Now to read it!!!
    The tribute entices me for more!!!

  3. Thanks for reminding us, on this major anniversary of D-Day, that those Americans who served and died in Southeast Asia deserve tributes just as much, as do all those who fought against tyranny in far off places. God Bless America.

  4. I’m so proud to be the son of the writer and subject of the story! Love you both, and happy anniversary!

  5. The best ATC story I’ve heard in a long time.

    The first time I heard one was after an IG inspector told a salty old Missile Warning Systems instructor that he had to personalize the right hand column of the generic instruction plan with his own personal notes.

    The next day, he saw all the items had A.T.C hand written in the right hand column. When he asked what A.T.C. was supposed to mean, he replied Adapt To Circumstances.

    Jim Young

  6. Gary and Robin, like you stated, we all had varied experiences. Congrats on your Anniversary, I feel like a newlywed but not far behind you. We will celebrate 50 years in November. Monday I am visiting the Vietnam Wall in D.C. with one of my granddaughters. First time for the real wall. I am sure it will be a very humbling experience.

    1. Doug, Thanks for your comment and congratulations to you as well. Be sure to take several handkerchiefs with you to The Wall. Best to you and your family.

  7. Thanks Gary.

    You are one of the bravest men whom it has been my pleasure to know, even though it has been only through exchange of messages. Although the fighter pilots were the glamor boys of the air, the real courage was shown by those who piloted the flying tin buckets, as you did, and those who flew the helicopters to rescue and ferry the wounded to safety.

    Once again, I thank you, and I wish you and Robin many more happy years.

    1. Thanks, John.
      I would have included a story about a place dubbed “MEDEVAC MEADOW,” but it would have required a diagram and about 10,000 words. The short story is that it involved TWO downed helicopters, one of them a MedEvac rescue chopper that you are talking about. The first MedEvac was there to pick up wounded but it was shot down. MedEvac wouldn’t send a second chopper in because it was too hot. So a volunteer crew in another chopper went in and was also shot down. The incident produced a Medal of Honor winner, a Red Hat advisor to the Vietnamese Airborne named Sgt. Louis Rocco. There were VietCong on three sides of the meadow, the Vietnamese Airborne on the fourth. Gary thinks there were five FACs there in sequence, including both 0-1Es and one O-2A “Push Me Pull You.” A friend of Gary’s in the 0-2A used all 14 of his smoke rockets in one mission. It ended the next day when the VC pulled out. I can’t write tis stuff without weeping …

      Now I wish I had tried to tell the story.

  8. I’m so sorry it took me so long to read this magnificent tribute to Gary’s work in Vietnam. You knew I would enjoy it, finally I read it and I’m even more impressed with both you and Gary.
    I laughed out loud at the idea of throwing the smoke bomb out of the window, and felt a chill at the thought of Gary having to hold onto his plane as it tried to inch forward at a deserted field in the middle of a raging war. Everything Gary did in Vietnam was scary to this divine coward, but being alone on a hill at a deserted air field, having to get out of an anxious plane that wanted to GO, and accomplishing what he landed for is the most amazing story to me. A lesser man would have turned back or opened the window to hurl forth a few smoke bombs hoping for the best. Gary chose the most dangerous maneuver because he HAD to do it to not cause the mission to default. You deserve all the praise you and Gary received in the previous comments. So glad to know you both. WOW!

  9. To Gary Willis:
    I am an amateur genealogist researching my family (Willis) tree that extends into Maryland via my great grandfather John Willis in the early 1800s from about 1832 to 1860. He died in Washington DC in 1883. I recently came upon the Willis project in Maryland that you are directly involved with and would like to collaborate with you and the project to expand my research. Any help you could provide would be greatly appreciated.

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