Thursday, March 31, 2011

They Said It... - Doc Clement and a Trial by Antiaircraft Fire

From 1968-1969, a select group of aviators strapped into the cockpits of their two-seat, propeller-driven Cessna O-1 Bird Dog airplanes and went to war in Vietnam. As forward observers, they flew hundreds of feet above one of the deadliest battlefields in modern history, all in an airplane no larger than a small pickup truck. Their work was crucial in finding and stopping the enemy before they could attack American troops, and supporting those troops with artillery and air strikes when the battle was joined.

Of the many army Bird Dog units in Southeast Asia, none operated in as hostile an environment as the “Catkillers” of the 220th Reconnaissance Airplane Company. Their tactical area of operations was up against the Demilitarized Zone in I Corps, the northern-most combat zone in South Vietnam.

In the following account from A Hundred Feet Over Hell, Catkiller Doc Clement, describes the chaos he and his observer, Steve Bezold, experienced after getting caught in an overwhelming battery of enemy 57mm antiaircraft fire during an ill-advised mission detour near the South China Sea and the village of Dong Hoi.
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"We could see the (USS) New Jersey steaming wide open, but she couldn't fire because we were on the gun target line, up to our ass in smoke from the triple-A and just trying to get the hell out of there. 

"I had that O-1 pulling everything she had. I would spiral down in a 360 and slam the stick back in my lap with full throttle in a forty-five-degree bank, then slam it to the side, then slam it full forward in a turn and pull the power back, each maneuver lasting not more than two to five seconds. I was doing everything I could -- not thinking, just reacting. 

"Steve was hanging on to anything he could grab when his map was sucked out the window. It was like having a swarm of killer bees after you, and you're running with nowhere to hide, and they just keep coming and coming until they get your or someone just gives up. The cockpit was full of the smell of explosives. It was like the films of Kamikaze pilots trying to get through the flak to hit American ships during World War II. 

"Steve was on the radio to the New Jersey shouting, 'We're going down! We're going down! Keep us in sight!' If I had been in the back seat, I'd probably have thought we'd been hit, the way I was flying the O-1, pulling all the Gs the airplane could take."

[After what seemed an eternity, Doc crossed the beach and dove for the water, still throwing the Bird Dog through uncoordinated maneuvers as he made desperately for the New Jersey.]
"It was really quiet on the way back...When Bezold and I walked around the airplane, we couldn't believe there wasn't a single hole in it. Someone was looking after us."

Photo courtesy of Don Long, from 100 Feet Over Hell: Flying With the men of the 220th Recon Airplane Company Over I Corps and the DMZ, Vietnam 1968-1969 by Jim Hooper.

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