Fear lent wings to his feet. —Virgil
I have three memories of Quang Tri, Vietnam. One, it was the northernmost place I flew to
in Vietnam, about six clicks from the North Vietnam border. Two, I was there less than ten minutes.
Three, it scared the crap out of me.
The day we flew to Quang Tri, you could have fried an egg on my forehead, it was that hot.
And it didn’t matter if I was in the shade or in the direct sun. If I had been a wet sponge and
somebody squeezed me I couldn’t have sweated more. To make matters worse, the olive-green
aluminum of the Caribou soaked up the sun turning the cabin and cockpit into a giant green
furnace. The only refuge was 14,000 feet straight up, where the temperature averaged 50 degrees.
We had a brief respite from the heat on the twenty minute flight from Vung Tau to Saigon
where we picked up our cargo. Lethargy nearly overcame me as I backed a Jeep and trailer into the
oven-like body of the Caribou. After strapping it down and double checking the plane for possible
problems, Gray Tiger ‘99 was ready to go.
“Where we headed?” I asked Captain Bracey.
“A small dirt strip near Quang Tri,” he told me. “You’ll enjoy this one, if you don’t mind
“We’re gonna fly in, drop the Jeep, and boogie out of there. It’s a dirt strip with more VC
than flies on a dog turd. Both engines stay running all the time. Sand, dust, gravel and shit from the prop
wash will eat you up back there.”
“So, what will you and Mr. Stephens do while I’m eating sand?” I asked.
“Sip margaritas in the cockpit until you give the high sign. Seriously though, you won’t have much
time to unload that Jeep.”
“You wouldn’t leave without me, would you?” I asked.
Captain Bracey avoided eye contact. “Not unless we had to,” he said.
We flew out of Saigon at nine in the morning for the four-hour flight. I laid back on the troop seats
and put my mind to other things. I listened to Captain Bracey and Mr. Stephens as they bantered over the
intercom. I genuinely liked them. They had become my friends. I dozed off thinking of Myra Faye back
home and the last night we had spent together.
We were in the back seat of my ‘50 Dodge coupe and making out hot and heavy. Her hands had just
found the zipper in my levis. . .
Click, click. “Wake up, Bill,” Captain Bracey said on the intercom. “It’s crap your pants time. We’re
on approach to Quang Tri. Remember, at the end of the runway we’ll turn around and stop. Engines
running. Untie and off-load that Jeep. ASAP!”
“Roger, sir,” I said.
“When you got it off, jump your ass back on board. Stay in contact. When you give the word, we’re
outta here. Move fast. You got that?”
“Got it, sir. You call someone to get the Jeep?”
“No can do,” Captain Bracey came back. “Mandatory radio silence.”
“If no one’s there?” I asked.
“Leave it and let’s get the hell out.”
“Got it,” I said.
Through rear portholes, I checked the main landing gear for down and locked position. I went back
to my regular seat in the front, sat down, fastened my seat belt and waited. Through a porthole on the
starboard side, I saw the fiery streaks of tracer rounds as they whizzed by.
“Jesus. You see those tracers, Captain?” I asked
“Yeah! Looks hot down there! Got your flak jacket on?”
“I do now, and I’m sitting on the other one,” I said.
“Good man. Those tracers might burn you a new asshole.” I heard him chuckle nervously. “Thanks
again for the steel butt plates you put under our seat cushions.”
“Roger that, sir,” I said. I watched out the portholes for VC. A flash of light. Another tracer. VC, for
sure. I looked out a different port. A puff of smoke. Napalm? Maybe. I pulled my flak jacket tight. All I could
think of was getting to the ground. Damned slow plane. Slow made an easy target to follow. Mother had
been right. You could get shot out of the air.
I looked out a porthole over my left shoulder. Still, a couple thousand feet off the ground. Another
tracer. VC target practice.
The Caribou seesawed left-right, up-down as it fought the rising hot air currents. Captain Bracey
throttled the engines back to slow the plane even more. The nose dipped. I wanted to say, No! Speed up! Let’s
get on ground, drop that damned Jeep and get the hell out of there!
I turned against the pull of my extra-tight seat belt to look over my right shoulder. Movement below.
A flash. More VC? Ground fire? Another tracer? Shit, I couldn’t tell. The jungle still lay a thousand feet
below. Did Quang Tri have a runway? Would we crash into the trees? I pressed my mike switch and, trying to
sound calm, asked Captain Bracey, “Everything okay, Captain?”
Click-Click. He doubled clicked his mike as an affirmative reply. I wished he would have talked. I
looked into the cockpit. From the back, Captain Bracey appeared intense, concentrated. Mr. Stephens was
adjusting a dial on the instrument console.
I watched as Captain Bracey pushed the throttle levers forward, then eased them back, the engines
screaming, then groaning. Mr. Stephens pulled the flap control lever back. Hydraulic pumps whined, driving
the flaps lower, slowing us even more. We were flying in slow motion. I felt like a plastic duck at a county fair
waiting for some country sharpshooter to draw a bead. An airplane sized bulls eye.
Finally, I saw the straight border of the jungle clearing and the edge of the yellow, primitive runway
in front of us. I heard a Whap! Thunk! at the rear of the plane.
“Holy shit, sir, We’ve been hit.”
“You okay, Bill?” Mr. Stephens asked.
“I’m okay. Scared the crap out of me. Tail section took a round or two. Controls okay?”
He rocked the plane side to side. “Feels good,” Captain Bracey said.
Seconds later the main landing gear touched the dirt strip, sending up a cloud of yellow dust. An
eternity later, the nosewheel touched down. I fumbled for my seat belt buckle. I couldn’t find it. It had
worked its way up under my flak jacket. My hands tore at the snaps holding the jacket together. I found the
buckle, flipped it open, and stood.
The plane sped like a drag racer toward the end of the airstrip. I jumped to the Jeep trailer and bent
down to undo the tie-down strap. Damn. The handle was on the other side. I scrambled across the cargo
deck. As I pulled the strap over the trailer axle, it caught on something. Nothing was going right. We’d never
make it out of here. I whipped the strap. Up and down. Up and down. It flew loose. I hustled to the front of
the Jeep.Time had slowed to a near stop. I couldn’t open the front strap’s ratchet handle. My fingers
disobeyed orders from my brain. The front tie-down finally let go. Even with my fumbling, I had worked too
fast. As Captain Bracey reversed the props to help stop the Caribou, the Jeep rocked backwards, rolling
slowly toward the cockpit. Damn! Had I remembered to set the parking brake? I jumped in the Jeep and
pushed the brake pedal down with both feet as hard as I could. I pulled the parking brake handle. The Jeep
swayed in opposite motion to the Caribou, but stopped moving.
When I heard the props return to normal I ran to open the loading doors at the rear of the Caribou
and pushed the toggle switch to raise the cargo door up and into the tail section. Another switch forced the
ramp door down. Their small electric motors whined in unison.
“We’re there, Chief,” Mr. Stephens yelled. “As soon as I say, get that damned Jeep off.”
“Roger, sir.” From where I stood, at the open cargo door, I could look out without being seen. I saw
nothing but the wall of vegetation that formed the perimeter of the landing strip. We had, it seemed, landed
inside a huge square opening in a green salad.
Burnt avgas from the Caribou’s engines now replaced the smell of fresh sweat that oozed from my
body. My jungle fatigue jacket stuck to my skin. The plane lurched to a stop and Captain Bracey pivoted her
on the port landing gear to turn her around. The starboard engine roared, and the prop spun, slapping the air
and throwing up a sandstorm of yellow dust. We stopped. The engines settled into a coughing rhythm.
“Go, Bill,” Mr. Stephens shouted.
I dragged the ramps down and put them in place. Rumbling engine exhaust noise dulled the usual
clank of metal on metal. Particles of sand driven by fast turning propellers stung my face and splatted on my
fatigues. I tried to forget the Viet Cong.
“Hold her steady, Captain, the ramps are on the ground.”
“Roger,” Captain Bracey said. “Get a move on.”
“I’m unhooking the intercom long enough to get this Jeep out,” I told him.
“Okay, Bill, get it done.”
I jumped into the Jeep. Sunlight through the cockpit window shone on the Jeep’s instrument panel.
The glare blinded me. Was that starter switch on the left or right of the instrument cluster? Sweat beaded on
my hand and my fingers left wet streaks on control knobs as I groped. Moments passed before I found the
switch and flicked it to start. The engine turned over and over and over. Panic!
I had done this a hundred times before and the engine had always started right away. I tried to
remember the sequence for starting. Hit starter switch, pump gas pedal. I smelled raw gas. Carb flooded. I
pushed the accelerator hard to the floor. Engine turning. It coughed. Blue smoke. Engine started. Rough,
now smoother. I pulled the gearshift to first position. G-G-G-Grind. Stupid. Push the clutch pedal down.
First gear. Ease the clutch. The Jeep crept forward. Forward, tilt, down, off.
A figure ran from the dense jungle, handgun ready. Viet Cong! Shit! My gun was on the plane. I
froze. No, too tall to be VC. Thank God! It was a camouflaged Green Beret. I exhaled in relief.
He looked at me, “Thanks, guy.” His hand grabbed the edge of my flak jacket and pulled my
stunned, unmoving body out of the Jeep. “Sorry,” he said. “In a hurry.” He stepped into the Jeep, roared off,
and disappeared into the foliage.
I tossed the ramps into the cargo bay. They left huge gouges in the wood decking. I didn’t care. I
jumped into the plane and closed the ramp door. The cargo door was still up, no matter. I sat down and
hooked in my headset. Blat-blat-blat. Small arms fire.
“Ready, sir. Let’s get the hell out of here.” My uniform dripped with sweat. I fastened my seat belt.
“You got it,” Captain Bracey said. I watched his hand push the throttles as far forward as he could.
The twin engines screamed and strained as the props cut through the hot, heavy air. The plane crept forward
before picking up speed. It shook and shuddered as if trying to jump off the ground. From where I sat in the
back of the plane, I watched through the open cargo door for VC. The flak jacket I usually sat on had slid off
my regular seat up front. It lay on the floor now. Fifteen feet away. I wondered what it would feel like to get
shot in the butt.
Through the port across from me I watched the main gear tires roll. One revolution, two
revolutions. Three, four, five, faster, faster. We sped toward the end of the runway until that momentary
feeling of weightlessness as we lifted off. Inertia tugged the untied loading ramps back to the ramp door
much like the dead mayor’s coffin on my first mission. Screw it, if they slid out, that was just too bad. The
jungle shrank behind us. We climbed. Higher and higher. The hydraulic pumps groaned once again as the
flaps rose. Then the landing gear doors closed with a soft thud.
“Gear up, sir.”
“Thanks, Chief, you done good.”
“I thought we’d never get out of there,” I said.
“It took us thirty seconds from power up to wheels up,” Mr. Stephens announced. “Just three
minutes from landing to takeoff.”
“Any more tracers, Captain?” I asked.
“Didn’t see any,” Captain Bracey said. “The VC must’ve wanted that Jeep more than they wanted
When I was able to stand, I went back to the tail section, dropped the cargo door into place and
looked up. I saw a small hole on the tail’s port side and a larger ragged hole high on the starboard side. A
pointed piece of sheet metal flapped in the upper opening. No cables or control rods had been damaged. We
seemed to be all right.
I resumed my place at the front of the Caribou. “No big deal on that hit,” I told both pilots. “Only
sheet metal work.”
“Great, Bill, How you doin’?” Captain Bracey asked.
“I’m okay, ‘cept for the smell.”
“What smell?” Mr. Stephens asked.
“I think I crapped my pants,” I said.
“Me too,” said Mr. Stephens.
“Me too,” said Captain Bracey. “Anyway, good job.
“Roger that, Captain,” I said.
On the way back to Vung Tau, I wrote home:
Dear Mother and all,
I thought I’d write before you cut me out of your will. Not
much going on here, and boy, is it hot. Only 150 days to go and
I’ll be home. I’ve changed my allotment to $250 each payday.
By the way, have you heard from Myra Faye recently? Would you
call and find out if she’s all right?
We flew to Quang Tri today. That’s about as far north as
you can go in South Vietnam. We delivered a Jeep. No big deal.
I’ll tell you about it when I get home. Well, I just wanted you to
know that I’m still kicking. I’ll write again as soon as I can.
Your Loving Son, Bill