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Delivery Platoon "Good Guys"
Donald "Scotty" McMillan; the original "Good Guy 1
Delivery Platoon; Fort Bragg NC and Saigon, Vietnam, March 1965 to December 1966
To really start this narrative I have to go back to flight school; I graduated with Warrant Officer Fixed Wing Aviator Course (WOFWAC) 63-1W December 1963, we were the first all warrant officer fixed-wing course in the Army. After graduation I attended Caribou (CV2B) qualification course and was designated as a multi-engine warrant officer aviator. I was assigned under secret order to APO 33, San Francisco California. I arrived in Bangkok in early March 1964 and flew mostly solo missions in the U-6 Beaver throughout Thailand for next twelve months; in and out of dirt strips, roads, jungle camps, and almost every airfield in Thailand; little did I know I was practicing for my up coming tour with the 1st Military Intelligence Battalion (ARS).
I arrived at Fort Bragg, NC March 1965 and soon found myself at Simmons Army Airfield meeting my fellow aviators.
The Delivery Platoon (stateside); was commanded by Captain Virgil Blevins, others were Jim Gooding, Jerry Driscoll, Curtis Burton, and later Bud Graves. I was immediately put on the flight-line. We had six O-1 Cessna Birddogs and one Dehavilland U-6 Beaver. Because of my experience (over 600 flight hours in U6) I was appointed by 3rd US Army as an instructor pilot in the Beaver and I also flew the Birddogs. Each week on Monday mornings we would launch all our flyable aircraft, we called it dawn patrol; all six Birddogs were filled with MIBARS pilots and crew chiefs and we would fly to Raleigh Durham (RDU) airport, crew chiefs would ride along as observers as this allowed us to keep the aircraft well maintained and in near perfect operational status. I want to bring up the fact that our fixed-wing crew chiefs were on flight status and were being paid hazardous duty pay; they rode along and "hand" delivered intelligence summaries and photo mosaic maps by throwing them (gently) out the aircraft door or window. Upon arrival at Raleigh we would shut down and go into the airport terminal for an impromptu Delivery Platoon meeting, have coffee and donuts and then return to Fort Bragg. I was also assigned duties as Delivery Platoon aviation maintenance officer.
I was asked to demonstrate the Beaver to several Summer ROTC classes and ended the month of June by landing our Beaver on the 350' upper soccer field at West Point.
The battalion received its classified orders around mid 1965 to Southeast Asia. It was decided to replace our O1's with a total of eight U6's. We were proud of receiving and flying this aircraft and I spent most of late summer training our pilots to fly the Beaver with emphasis on short-field work and spiraling approaches and descents. This was designed to enable us to elude small arms fire by remaining overhead at friendly locations. We spent late summer bringing organization to combat readiness and started turning in our Birddogs and going to pickup a replacement U6 Beaver. As we turned in the 01's we noticed the U6's being transferred to us were not the best so we spent lots of time completing maintenance and clearing aircraft write-ups. We also got approval to replace any high-time components, such as propellers and engines. If I remember correctly we swapped and installed five zero-time rebuilt engines right out of depot storage and came to Bragg aviation field maintenance in sealed containers packed with around ten two pound bags of desiccant to remove excess moisture. Field maintenance then installed the engines, some of which had been hemispherical sealed for years. In fact some engine cases were stamped with overhaul dates of 1948. Everyone called this process "pickling"; I will mention this again.
Alerted for movement, we immediately started applying our knowledge of the environment and facilities in SEA. We started building must-have lists and ordering and packing items to be shipped into CONEX containers; stacks of marine plywood, bundles of 2" x 6" x 8' studs, water coolers, refrigerators, rolls of tar paper, kegs of nails and screws, hand tools like hammers, pry bars, saws. Working with field maintenance we found old documentation used by Air Force for shipping the L-20 (older designation for the U6) in a oversized 42' x 12' x 12' crate. The aircraft propeller, wings, horizontal stabilator, and main gear were removed and fuselage was bolted to floor. The prop, wings and tail pieces were placed in padded stands alongside the aircraft fuselage. After walls and roofs were attached we had access to the aircraft though a small 3' square door, which we could lock, but we also screwed this access door shut. Entry into the crate was near the nose of the aircraft. We built these Beaver boxes out of ¾" marine plywood framed the interior and placed all the aircraft gear inside the airplane in each crate; parachutes, crew chief's toolbox and spare parts. This allowed more room in our CONEX's for our goodies; materials we planned on having immediate access to be what was inside the crates. We planned each step to get our aircraft into flying condition after arrival.
During the period we were alerted and then actual started shipping, most folk scheduled visits home to in-laws and out-laws, so we spent time flying MI staff and soldiers to and from civilian airports.
Turning in the Birddogs proved to be a challenge, as they were not certified for flying in weather conditions, the summer storms played havoc with our schedule while we were trying to turn in the Cessna aircraft at the Atlanta depot. We got behind and had to rush our scheduled turn-ins to make deadlines. We got around the weather problem by flying an escort Beaver with several Birddogs in trail to Atlanta. The weather was overcast with about 800' from cloud bottom to the ground so we would fly on top of the clouds with one O-1 following the Beaver and as we passed the radio navigational beacon, transmit to the birddog to begin its descent through the clouds on a heading towards the airfield. The Birddog would "breakout" after coming out of the clouds at 800' and proceed to land visually at the depot.
We repeated this procedure until all Birddog aircraft were on the ground at the depot, and then the Beaver would land and after picking up all the pilots, return to Fort Bragg. We finally reached a point where everything was packed and moved to Wilmington NC to be loaded on the ships.
We had eight Beavers in crates (Beavers in Boxes), along with our vehicles and all our CONEX's. I went to California to settle my wife in a rental house and visit family. I caught a military hop from Long Beach airport to McGuire AFB, NJ and then on to Warner Robins AFB, GA and then a train back to Fayetteville, NC. After waiting a week, we flew out on commercial contract airplanes from Polk AFB to, you guessed it, Long Beach airport.
The cruise to exotic South East Asia started with a bag drag and compartment assignments and after leaving the dock extreme boredom set-in. It was cool when we left California but within three days it started getting warmer, a hint of what lay ahead. I took on the task of marking our daily progress with a grease pencil on map in "passenger dayroom". Within hours of getting onboard a pinochle game started in the dayroom, it never stopped and as far as I remember, lasted 24/7 until Guam. Guam was really a fresh breeze, however after weeks on the ship we were introduced to San Miguel beer at the small navy club along side the pier. Almost everyone ended up sleeping in the cool green grass on the pier side lawn; it was wonderful, the beer, the sun and no movement of the ground.
Guam faded into the east and as we approached Viet Nam, it was decided we would depart some detachment folk at Vung Tau, which the French called Cape Saint Jacques. It looked like a WWII Marine Corp landing with our soldiers going over the side and down nets into waiting landing craft. We thought we would depart next; however we were restricted below decks as the ship proceeded up the Saigon river, something passenger transport ships had avoided doing for months because of RPG and small arms attacks. Trying to look like a tramp cargo ship, we arrived in Saigon Harbor and moved through shuttles of trucks to Tan Son Nhut airport and into tent city near the golf course.
Things got very busy as we moved into quarters on the economy, unloaded and positioned our crated aircraft, established a maintenance area across from civilian terminal near Hotel three (the morgue). We were located next to 18th engineer flight operations and in front of Vietnamese Air Force ramp. We placed our CONEX's and one expandable M292 van and then started grunt work of getting our aircraft ready.
There was a big speed bump trying to assemble the Beavers, first we had 8 crates as big as a semi-truck and no space to open the crates up. We finally found an area near the departure end of the only runway available. We were located within 60' of the edge of the runway and got to watch every take-off.
The re-assemble went like this: retrieved crew chiefs toolbox from inside crate, rigged cables to four corners of the crate, lifted crate from lowboy trailer, drove trailer out from under crate, lowered crate to ground, wrecker crane kept tension on crate cables, unbolted roof and set it aside, unbolted one side and front of crate and set them aside, rigged cable to lifting shackles on aircraft and raised fuselage high enough to attach landing gear, lifted fuselage from crate and moved it to a cleared area, attached prop to engine, attached wings and horizontal stabilator to fuselage, placed all engine and trim panels into truck, and towed aircraft to MIBARS ramp. We then completed technical inspections, checked torque on all bolts making sure they met specifications, installed all inspection panels, fueled aircraft and checked the oil.
We also unloaded items shipped inside each aircraft, 12 parachutes, all seat cushions, tie-downs, and such. We completed a detailed preflight inspection of aircraft, filed a flight plan and test flew the aircraft along with a maintenance pilot from 34th Group field aviation maintenance. We were using "Army and aircraft serial number" as our call-sign (Army 16859).
As aircraft were completed, we started flying to our detachments and placing one Beaver, pilot, crew chief and a CONEX at each detachment site; Can Tho, Nha Trang, Da Nang, and for III Corps, Saigon. We then went on to fly to our supported units to get a feel for what our daily routine would be; this also gave me an opportunity to complete an in-country pilot qualification check on all pilots assigned to MIBARS.
One of the first missions was a delivery of photo intelligence to Duc Hoa, a small dirt strip west of Tan Son Nhut that included US forces. About three miles from airfield I called "Duc Hoa Advisory" was told that I could land; however, "One Shot Charlie" had been active on the NE side of the field. I called back "Hey I am a Good Guy do not shoot at me". When I landed, I taxied to the operations ramp and without shutting down the engine handed the intelligence summary packet to the airfield NCOIC. I noticed a sign near operations which stated "Please Do Not Shoot Our Charlie". The NCO said their Charlie could not shoot straight, so if he was killed they were afraid he would be replaced by some Viet Cong that could shoot straight. Later that day I returned to Duc Hoa and upon establishing radio contact was asked if I was the "GoodGuy". The call-sign stuck and the delivery platoon adopted it as "our" call-sign. Hence forth we used "GoodGuy with last three digits (GoodGuy 859) of the aircraft serial number" as we made radio calls.
Aircraft were required every 25 flying hours a minor maintenance inspection. These were completed by the flying crew chief at the detachment, however the next inspection, at 50 flying hours required that we flew in to the detachment and picked up the aircraft and flew it to Saigon for the major maintenance inspection, leaving a fresh aircraft at the detachment. At Saigon we averaged four 50- hour inspections per month, plus we would swap aircraft with a detachment if something difficult needed to be fixed at Saigon delivery platoon headquarters.
In Saigon we relocated to a Villa next to the Vespa factory just outside Tan Son Nhut airbase near USARV morgue and 3rd Field Hospital. By the end of February 1966 we had developed several delivery techniques for getting intelligence packets to locations that did not have an airfield, such as a tennis court or soccer field. These required removing antennas from aircraft flying as slow as 50 knots and throwing intelligence information out the door. Our crew chiefs were very successful as I only remember one film canister that missed hitting a drop zone. It was near the New Zealand compound. Near My Tho. While we were dropping several film canisters in a tennis court and chatting over the radio with the advisors on the ground, a major battle was under way and this was our third delivery of the day. The guy on the ground said "who do I thank for all the information?" I told him we were the GoodGuys.
As it was just down the block, we found that breakfast at the 3rd field hospital was a good chance to unwind. One Sunday morning I was there with Bud Graves and Curt Burton and mentioned the request for our unit identity from My Tho advisory folk. We decided we needed to place something in our intelligence summaries packets that said who we were. Picking up a white paper placemat and using some government magic markers we got from the 3rd field hospital staff officer, we sat down and I drew the famous stork delivery platoon patch. If you look you can see the basic marker colors; black, yellow, red. We added the colors of Vietnamese flag along the edge. We took the placemat to the flight line and showed it to our maintenance crew and they seem to like it. Bud Graves said it looked like a tall bird carrying a purse, so as an afterthought I inked in "Film" on the "purse". The headquarters ES-38 bunch, if I remember correctly, Larry Letzer got the patches printed in color, quite a feat for him at that time. When it was completed, we included a patch in every delivery pouch.
About this time I started hearing complaints about one of our aircraft, serial number 51-6859. Pilots were saying that it was really a pig and lacked power, so after several squawks from the detachment pilots I pulled the aircraft back to Tan Son Nhut to see what was wrong. Normally we launched maintenance test flights early in the morning when there was not much air traffic around Saigon airfield, somewhere around 0430, as I remember it was cooler at that time. I flew 859 several times and could not duplicate any problems. We then turned aircraft to 34th aviation maintenance and they could not find anything wrong. Then I flew the aircraft with the 34th maintenance test pilot, but we still could not identify any problems. We then decided to fly this aircraft on missions out of Saigon. I thought there might be a problem with aircraft weight so to reduce total weight we removed four bomb shackles, drained the wingtip fuel tanks and only filled the rear tank half full. The Beaver has a forward, middle and aft tank. This weight combination would move the center of gravity forward and provide the aircraft better handling characteristics; remember this point.
Fixed-wing aircraft require a startup and an engine run up every three days. 859 had been run up three times over a ten-day period and it was scheduled for the next requested flight. We received a request to fly four of the headquarters staff to Can Tho for an inspection, so around 0745 we loaded the aircraft, I started on the aft tank and then taxied out using the middle tank to runway, while holding for take-off I completed an engine run up on the forward tank. It was the rush hour and we were still holding for a release after 30 minutes. An Air Force F4 had blown a tire and was blocking the main runway and at least ten larger aircraft were waiting for the long runway to clear. That is when operations brought one more individual to the aircraft for the trip to Can Tho. We now had a total of six persons on board; five passengers and one pilot. I remembered that we were lighter than normal, and had minimum fuel in the rear tank, so I accepted the passenger.
The airfield opened the short North-South runway to Army aircraft; the usable runway was less than 2000' long. Army aircraft were being cleared for take-off every ten-seconds and I was number four behind a U-1A Otter and a Caribou with the wind almost a direct crosswind from the right at 15 knots. This meant that turbulence from the departing aircraft would be blowing to the left and downwind. After takeoff I moved the aircraft to right to avoid wake turbulence from the Caribou in front of me. Passing 190', I detected a change in engine noise and scanned my gauges, switched fuel to middle tank, increased engine fuel mixture to full rich and applied heat to the carburetor. The engine continued to lose speed but did not quit so I lowered the flaps to increase available lift but continued to lose power and I was losing altitude. I started a turn to the left and all I had in front of me were several C-130's unloading what I learned later 750# bombs. I then turned right 180 degrees and identified what was a Hawk missile site directly in front of me along right side of runway. I then turn left 90 degrees to align with runway, planning to land on the grass along right side of runway, but looking ahead I realized that end of runway was only 300' ahead and there was a ditch and there were rows of barbed wire across the ditch and what I suspected were mine fields in front of a 12' concrete wall.
I decided to lose altitude by lowering my left wing and applying right rudder, a technique called "slipping". This placed my right wing higher and it blocked my view to the right. I landed in waist high grass, along side the paved runway. I immediately turned off the engine, fuel, fuel mixture, and master power switch. Ground speed was around 20 MPH when we clipped the corner of a Buddhist grave that had been hidden in the grass. The standard Buddhist grave has a burial crypt inside a square rock wall with higher acorn shaped posts at each corner. We hit the rock wall just to the right of a corner which turned the aircraft 90 degrees to the right. The engine then hit the inside edge of the wall and tilted forward. As the aircraft spun to the right the acorn shaped post cut through all three centerline fuel tanks and released approximately 60 gallons of high-octane aviation fuel into the grave. It got very quiet; I turned and asked if everyone was all right and got several Okays. Major Esterline was in the co-pilot seat and he had on a short sleeve Tropical Worsted uniform.
The U6 Beaver was designed to be used with floats to land on water. At each wing tip and on the tail are small low-wattage lights that are switched by a switch marked "Mooring Lights". It is located on the lower right instrument panel, just in front of the co-pilots knees. When on floats you switch off the master battery switch and just before closing the doors, you switch on the mooring lights; this means that mooring switch is always hot! By now you are realizing what was about to happen, the spilled fuel was reaching proper fuel-air ratio, and as the engine started to fall forward the hot wire to mooring switch snapped and touched metal causing a spark and causing a slow explosion. The explosion over-pressure caused the windshields and upper windows to blow out, the flame train came under my helmet and I remember watching my helmet slowly flying through the windshield opening towards the front of the aircraft.
About this time my mind goes blank, I do not know how I did it but I was outside the aircraft opening the left rear door as all four aft passengers fell out of the plane. Major Esterline had moved to the front right wing-tip of aircraft, but then walked back to the cockpit and stuck his arm into the cockpit and tried to retrieve his shaving kit which was on the floor. Aviation fuel burns almost clear and is not easy to see, so Esterline's arms and face received burns and his throat started closing because of the flames he inhaled. The next hour was a blur as the Major was evacuated, and we licked our wounds. Other than bruises minor burns and some burnt hair we were lucky.
Later that day I flew a currency check ride that is always given after an accident. In the officer's club that evening I was asked by an Air force pilot if I knew an Army aircraft had crashed and everyone on board had died. The Air Force pilot then noticed that my eyebrows were missing, burned off and I had a 3" wide part in my head hair that had been burned away and blisters on my forehead and on the tops of both ears. "Say, what happened to you"?
Now the rest of the story: the engine was pulled and sent back for teardown and analysis. They found one of the magnetos had failed, sort of like losing half your sparkplugs. The carburetor heat door would not fully open, resulting in a partial formation of ice in the air intake, and finally there was a two-pound bag of desiccant lodged in the intake manifold. No wonder this aircraft lacked power. Finally, only in this aircraft could you expect to complete 360 degrees of turns while losing power at 200' above the ground. What a great airplane, thanks to Dehavilland of Canada. On a normal day we flew morning and afternoon missions, each involved 10 landings and take-offs, I logged an additional 800 flying hours during 1966.
The rest of 1966 fell into a routine; we tried some experiments using HF radios installed in the aircraft to receive ISUM information and send the next-days mission requests. By November I was ready to try something else and get out of Vietnam. I received a "Westmoreland commission" to a signal 2nd Lieutenant and departed for Signal Officers basic course and Avionics Maintenance Officer course at Fort Gordon where I was then assigned to 3725th VIP flight Detachment Heidelberg AAF, later the 207th Command Airplane Company. I returned to Vietnam in 1969 and was the signal officer for 212th aviation battalion and 1st aviation brigade headquarters, back for signal officers advance course, then taught at Infantry school for three-years, back to Germany as a NATO ATC officer, then my final assignment at Fort Ord California as airfield operations officer. All these were flying assignments.
I retired as a Major at 21 years and joined civil service. I continued with the Army for a total of 50 years and now serve as the academic department head for Navy's Air Training Wing Five at NAS Whiting Field near Pensacola.
Cheers, Scotty McMillan