1st MIBARS In Vietnam!


From The Back Seat

Miscellaneous Memories 

of a Visitor to the Air War in Vietnam

Curious Vietnamese children peek out at the photographer from behind a cinder block wall, 1967

Photo Credit: MIV

Above:  Circle of LifeVietnamese youngsters ponder the American in DaNang

Tall Tales and Other Foolishness

Photo Credit: Wikipedia (Declared to be in the Public Domain)

Left:  The O-1 Bird Dog reconnaissance aircraft as used by the U.S. Army.  Combat versions in Vietnam were generally in the "subdued" color scheme, meaning that the fuselage was painted a flat olive drab green with insignia and other markings in black. [See MIBARS On Patrol for the US Army's 21st Reconnaissance Airplane Company]


For excellent Vietnam War-era and present-day pictures and commentary on this aircraft visit "Talking Proud," www(dot)talkingproud(dot)us(frontslash)historybirddog1(dot)html for "The O-1 Bird Dog -- The Toughest Dog in the Fight."

Vietnam was very much a flyer's war, with the fighter pilots of the US Air Force, US Navy and US Marine Corps clearly at the top of the hierarchy.  And they deserved to be there.  They flew missions that took them hundreds of miles across hostile territory in sophisticated aircraft prone to mechanical and electronic problems, sometimes having to negotiate air refueling and carrier landings in bad weather, while making themselves targets for attack by hostile aircraft, surface-to-air missiles or 37-mm anti-aircraft guns and being subject to capture and murder or abuse after any mishap that brought them to the ground.  Sighted along the flight line at DaNang Main Air Base one day, a USAF Thunderchief -- regrettably left un-photographed -- that had gotten its crew home despite the loss of a great deal of its aft fuselage, underscored the risks that the fighter-bomber pilots took.  But these pilots had the best that the services had to offer -- including steak and eggs 24-hours a day at DaNang Main's mess hall.  It was always a treat to be taken there by a USAF acquaintance.  The chow was great, and it was an experience to see jet jockeys who had just returned from a mission using their arms and hands to describe maneuvers to their compatriots -- just like in the movies!

1st MIBARS Flies Out of Bien Hoa Air Force Base

Photo Credit: Truman "Obie" O'Brien

"I was trained as an imagery interpreter.  When I first arrived at Det A, I was the only person trained on the newly-acquired TTIIF so was assigned to train everyone else.  Got bored with straight II work . . .  Later volunteered for a 'Spot Target' program (photo above).  Got to fly all over III Corps observing and photographing targets.  Best part was the extra $50/mo for flight pay."

Truman O'Brien, "A" Detachment, Imagery Interpretation Section, 1966-1967

On The Hand-Held Camera Program

"I have a recollection of a [a man named] Harper in Detachment B who was shot down while flying with the 21st RAC [Reconnaissance Airplane Company], late '69.  I have photos of the crash, as I was in the high ship [on a two-ship mission] on our way back from Elephant Valley and getting too short to fly much more.  We hung around until an "A" Team was flown in on a Jolly Green [rescue helicopter] that also got shot down, another Jolly Green came in and got everyone out safely, although injured.  The Bird Dog crashed into a [rice] paddy dike and bent the right wing pretty bad.  As I recall, Harper and the pilot were hurt but not KIA's."

Gene Zwarycz, "B" Detachment , Imagery Interpretation,  1968-1970
On The Hand-Held Camera Program

"Ron Harper was shot down while flying a mission in a single engine plane.  I went to the hospital in Tent City to see him.  He was wrapped up like a mummy."

Steve Williamson, "B" Detachment, Reproduction Section, 1968-1970

Given the drama of the air war, it was not surprising to find some of those lower on the food chain seeking opportunities to enhance their participation in the conflict -- or perhaps simply enhance their "war stories."  There were some accounts of Forward Air Controllers (FACs), unarmed except for white phosphorous marker rockets, using those munitions in lieu of high explosive rounds against enemy forces in last ditch efforts to protect Allied ground troops from enemy assault.  The published memoirs of pilots who flew as FACs out of DaNang support these wartime accounts.  In addition, however, and primarily within the ranks of Army ride-alongs, there was much discussion about increasing the effectiveness of the O-1 over the battlefield.  Tales were told about personnel cramming hand grenades in water glasses taken from the mess hall (when the pin was removed, the encircling glass would hold the spoon -- i.e., the spring-loaded safety lever -- in place until it was shattered by impact with the ground) or removing the set-back and the retention assemblies from the bore-riding safety pin of  a 81-mm mortar round, thereby converting the explosive to a small bomb that could be dropped by hand.  It seemed doubtful at the time that many FACs would have been willing to countenance the risk associated with having these jerry-rigged munitions bouncing around in the rear cabin or that, if indeed used, that they would have contributed materially to the war effort.  Anything, however, is possible.

The Mortuary At DaNang Main

Photo Credit: Wikipedia (Declared to be in the Public Domain)

Left:  The O-1 Bird Dog reconnaissance aircraft as used by the U.S. Air Force.  Combat versions used in Vietnam were generally painted in a flat light gray with black markings.

On The Hand-Held Camera Program

"I recall a [man named] "Robin" being shot down in late 1969, shortly after I arrived in August '69.  I also remember hearing the story of the crash into the rice patty dike.  I recall that he was medevaced, but don't remember ever hearing about him afterwards.  I do remember that I started flying recon missions shortly thereafter."

David Thompson, "B" Detachment, Imagery Interpretation Section,  1968-1970

DaNang Main Air Base was fairly close to the I Corps Compound, and "B" Detachment personnel were at the field regularly -- either to fly, conduct other business or just cross over to the Main Post Exchange at Freedom Hill, west of the city.  The air base was expansive -- the parallel runways were surrounded by a racetrack-shaped, circumferential road that allowed vehicular movement around the installation without impeding air operations.

In addition to the many hangers, revetments, offices and maintenance buildings, the military morgue that served I Corps was located at DaNang Main, at the far end of the oval and outside of the roadway.  After processing, the bodies of casualties were placed in casket-like aluminum containers for shipment home.

Most always, shipping containers stacked on wooden pallets were in clear view from the roadway, outside of the mortuary and sometimes secured with cargo netting.  In 1966, two or three shipping containers could be seen stacked on each pallet as one passed by, but in the later months of 1967, the stacks of shipping containers had begun to grow to eight or ten or more.  Passersby could never be certain of whether the stacks were of empty containers just brought in for mortuary use or whether they held processed casualties awaiting shipment out.

Sometimes fighter aircraft would take off above the mortuary -- black smoke and flame accompanying the deafening roar of their afterburners.  And they would fly directly over the pallets which, whether empty or occupied, represented American dead.   This unforgettable vision got one's attention -- it was as if they fighters were off on a mission to avenge fallen comrades.

On The Hand-held Camera Program

"Daryl [Tucker] and I were two of the first to hitch rides with the MIBARS Bird Dog pilots at Marble Mountain, shooting hand held photographs from the air.  Our photographs were getting some attention at the brass level, and soon after the TET Offensive I was relieved of much of my normal photo interpretive responsibilities.  Armed with a Pentax camera, two flak jackets (one to sit on) and an M-16, I was flying in O-1s, O-2s, and Huey missions on what seemed like a daily basis.  Thus started the MIBARs hand held aerial photography operation.  . . . Rob Harper . . . was from  Seattle, [he] arrived late spring or early summer of '68 and had a real interest in flying and photography.  As I was getting short (August of '68), Rob wanted to take over my duties so I trained him as the hand photographer guy.  As I recall, it was within weeks of my return . . .  I got a call from his wife who told me that he had been shot down, evacuated, and later spent several months in Japan in a hospital there.  . . .  Having flown over the I Corps extensively, I remember knowing the area where he crashed just by the coordinates he had given me.  I had flown over it many times and felt some guilt because it was so soon after he had taken over my job he got shot down.  What luck."

John Ripper, "B" Detachment, Imagery Interpretation Section, 1968-1969.  Via E-Mail.

What Everyone Wanted -- But Few Could Get!
A Memory of DaNang Main Air Base

"We came into country together and I went all the way back to Casual Company at Holabird with him.  We were very different and yet on our first day in DaNang when we were riding in a Navy taxi-truck past the Army morgue at the end of DaNang Main runway we both shared the hope that we didn't end up there.  I will never forget that moment we had together.  I know he was as scared as I was and we both acted like it was just a laugh, but I can still smell the formaldehyde that wafted in the air.  We both stopped smiling and looked away.  It really brought the whole thing into perspective for me.  . . . It was on the perimeter road around the base and I am not sure if it was at the South or North end but it was at the corner as you turned to go by the end of the runways.  The ready jets were right there.  I recall going by it in the Jeeps or the 3/4[-ton truck] when we took missions over to the jarheads [Marines] at Freedom Hill.  There were always stacks of aluminum caskets on the side of the building.  Goddamn."

Mike Garemko, "B" Detachment , Imagery Interpretation,  1969-1970

Almost everyone in any way involved in, or witness to, air operations in Vietnam wanted one thing -- a ride in the back seat of the awesome F4 McDonnell Phantom II, even if it was only on a post-maintenance check flight.

Among such persons, hope sprung eternal.  Contacts were developed among counterparts in the US Air Force (USAF), the trading of scarce commodities and contraband to curry favor was carried out or proposed, and accommodations were anxiously granted to persons believed to have the necessary influence to arrange a flight.

Unfortunately -- or perhaps fortunately as it turned out -- flight in jet fighters required one to be certified in the operation of the ejection seat.  Considered by hopefuls at the time to be an unnecessary bureaucratic requirement, the unknowing clearly did not understand the risks of the powerful emergency escape system.  The Martin-Baker ejection seat was nicknamed  the "back-breaker" ejection seat by pilots because it could do serious injury to the spine and extremities if used improperly.   Therefore, despite the fact that scrounging was honed to high art in Vietnam, attempts to wangle a flight in jet attack aircraft -- including those made by a "B" Detachment photo-observer and a supportive USAF lieutenant colonel fighter pilot -- were doomed to failure.

As an alternative, a flight riding shotgun with the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) on an air strike was a real possibility.  The VNAF flew the Douglas A-1 Skyraider -- a propeller-driven aircraft -- in close support of ground operations.  VNAF pilots were known for their tenacity (i.e., recklessness) and the A-1 was known for its strength and durability.  However, the mental image of flying in  a VNAF aircraft -- some variants of which had peculiar extended purple or green tinted rear canopies, at the time assumed to be additions made by the Vietnamese, together with the assumed absence of direct USAF maintenance support and operational back-up, and the possibility of not being able to communicate effectively with the pilot -- left that option somewhat less appealing than the fantasy of streaking across the sky in a Fox-Four-Charlie at full military power!

Photo Credit: Gene Zwarycz, "B" Detachment, Imagery Interpretation, 1968-1970

Above:  In a "B" Detachment II Van in 1968, an Imagery Interpreter prepares for a noon-time game of touch football.

The Oscar Deuce -- Two Engines; More Loiter Time Over Target; Faster Pull-Outs From Target Marking

Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force Via Wikipedia (Declared to be in thePublic Domain]

Left:  The Oscar Deuce, or 0-2, reconnaissance aircraft as used by the U.S. Air Force.  "B" Detachment photographer-observers were taken aloft in these craft beginning in mid- or late 1967, although 0-1's were still in use.  Like the 0-1, the Oscar Deuce was painted in shades of light gray with black markings.


See the Oscar Deuce in the air with Vietnam War-era markings in the American motion picture, Bat 21.

OV-1 Mohawk -- The Technology Advances

Photo Credit: Terry Wheeler, 45th Military Intelligence Detachment, later 1st MIBARS,"E" Detachment, 1967-1968

Photo Credit: U.S. Army

Above, Left:  Two OV-1 Mohawks on the ground, center, at the air strip at Phu Bai, next to a line of five (5) parked 0-1 Bird Dogs at the top of the photograph.  Right:  A U.S. Army photo of the Mohawk in flight.  Word of the 0-1's deployment in Phu Bai reached "B" Detachment in DaNang in 1967.  It was nick-named "The Flying Brick," because of its weight and stubby wings, characteristics that limited the aircraft's  glide ratio.  It was rumored that an 0V-1 lost power on take-off shortly after deployment in Phu Bai and crashed, burying its nose and cockpit in the soft ground and killing both crew members.  

The Old Order Changeth . . .

"The Grumman OV-1 Mohawk is an armed military observation and attack aircraft, designed for battlefield surveillance and light strike capabilities. It is of twin turboprop configuration, and carried two crewmembers with side by side seating. The Mohawk was intended to operate from short, unimproved runways in support of Army maneuver forces.

The Mohawk began as a joint Army-Marine program . . . for an observation/attack plane that would outperform the Cessna L-19 Bird Dog.  In June 1956, the Army issued [specifications] which called for the development and procurement of a two-seat, twin turboprop aircraft designed to operate from small, unimproved fields under all weather conditions.  It would be faster, with greater firepower, and heavier armor than the Bird Dog, which had proved vulnerable during the Korean War.  The Mohawk's mission would include observation, artillery spotting, air control, emergency re-supply, naval target spotting, liaison, and radiological monitoring. The radar imaging capability of the Mohawk was to prove a significant advance in both peace and war. The SLAR [Side-Looking Airborne Radar] could look through foliage and map terrain, presenting the observer with a film image of the earth below only minutes after the area was scanned. In military operations, the image was split in two parts, one showing fixed terrain features, the other spotting moving targets.

In addition to their Vietnam and European service, SLAR-equipped Mohawks began operational missions in 1963 patrolling the DMZ separating North and South Korea."

From Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Paper Sacks and Piddle Paks 

The transition from ground trooper to aerial ride-along required some adjustments.  It generally took only a couple of flights to develop a reasonable tolerance to the motion of flight and the occasional episodes of weightlessness and "g"-pulling accompanying normal climbs, dives and turns.  Exceptions were the case during air strikes, however, when FACs marked targets and remained over areas for extended periods.  For the photographer-observer along for the ride on such flights, there were some precautions to be taken.

The O-1 was unarmed except for four 2.75-in white phosphorous rockets that were used to mark targets with white smoke.  FACs -- those of the USAF in particular, some of whom were also experienced fighter pilots -- would roll in to the target and pull out at near vertical, or so it seemed, so as to present as small a profile as possible to shooters on the ground.  This could be a gut-wrenching maneuver for those not used to it.  Some observers, therefore, appreciated the limit of four rounds which seemed to stop just short of the threshold of nausea.  A fifth marker rocket often seemed enough to push the back-seater over the line and into sickness.  While not a glamorous aspect of the Hand-held Camera Program, the truth is that a paper bag tucked into the photo-observer's pocket was a necessity for avoiding embarrassment in the event of nausea -- a big courtesy particularly for aircraft crew chiefs who would have had to deal with the results of vomiting inside the plane.

A second factor had to do with temperatures in Vietnam, which could be boiling on the ground but much milder in the air.  Cooler temperatures, combined with the pulse-pounding excitement of watching an air strike or simply being aloft in the war zone, could work against anyone who was unwise enough to drink too much liquid before a flight.  At altitude, there was nowhere to pull over for a rest stop, and asking the pilot to put down on a dirt landing strip out in the boondocks simply to take a "whiz" was unthinkable.  Therefore, fluid intake had to be watched carefully.  Along with the paper sack, a Piddle Pak was a useful addition to the observer's accessory bag.  A plastic bag, shaped somewhat like a urinal and containing a dry sponge, the Piddle Pak could be sealed with a wire closure after use and dropped out of the window -- a further assault on an unsuspecting enemy!

In the course of their daily patrols around DaNang, some U.S. Air Force FACs became acquainted with ground troops occupying isolated static positions around the city's perimeter.  The FACs would occasionally pack and, making a low pass, air drop requested items -- like fresh milk, snacks or the newspaper The Stars and Stripes -- to soldiers and Marines providing security for the city and the air base.  In such cases, even from the back seat of the 0-1, solitary figures could be seen in the distance, moving out into the open on distant ridgelines or hill tops, making their presence known and patiently waiting for the aircraft to arrive and make the anticipated drop.

Photo Credit: Daryl Tucker, "B" Detachment, Reproduction Section, 1967-1968

Above:  A US Air Force 0-1 Bird Dog, flying low and parallel to a US Army armored column, gets a "thumbs up" from a trooper in the convoy, demonstrating the ground soldier's feeling of kinship with the Forward Air Controllers who could assist in a firefight by bringing down defensive fire from the sky or directing rescue and extraction operations.  This photograph was taken in 1971 by a former 1st MIBARS trooper who served a second tour of duty with a US Army engineer command in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

Hand-held Camera ORIGINS

First Mission

First Results

Flying With the FACS

Instructions From The Pilot

On Patrol With the 21st RAC

Wings Over DaNang

The A Shau Valley

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