There I Was . . .

There I was at six thousand feet over central Iraq, two hundred eighty knots and we're dropping faster than Paris Hilton's panties. It's a typical September evening in the Persian Gulf; hotter than a rectal thermometer and I'm sweating like a priest at a Cub Scout meeting.

But that's neither here nor there. The night is moonless over Baghdad tonight, and blacker than a Steven King novel. But it's 2004, folks, and I'm sporting the latest in night-combat technology. Namely, hand-me-down night vision goggles (NVGs) thrown out by the fighter boys. Additionally, my 1962 Lockheed C-130E Hercules is equipped with an obsolete, yet, semi-effective missile warning system (MWS). The MWS conveniently makes a nice soothing tone in your headset just before the missile explodes into your airplane. Who says you can't polish a turd? At any rate, the NVGs are illuminating Baghdad International Airport like the Las Vegas Strip during a Mike Tyson fight. These NVGs are the cat's ass. But I've digressed.

The preferred method of approach tonight is the random shallow. This tactical maneuver allows the pilot to ingress the landing zone in an unpredictable manner, thus exploiting the supposedly secured perimeter of the airfield in an attempt to avoid enemy surface-to-air-missiles and small arms fire. Personally, I wouldn't bet my pink ass on that theory but the approach is fun as hell and that's the real reason we fly it.

Continued below...

We get a visual on the runway at three miles out, drop down to one thousand feet above the ground, still maintaining two hundred eighty knots. Now the fun starts. It's pilot appreciation time as I descend the mighty Herk to six hundred feet and smoothly, yet very deliberately, yank into a sixty degree left bank, turning the aircraft ninety degrees offset from runway heading. As soon as we roll out of the turn, I reverse turn to the right a full two hundred seventy degrees in order to roll out aligned with the runway. Some aeronautical genius coined this maneuver the "Ninety/ Two-Seventy." Chopping the power during the turn, I pull back on the yoke just to the point my nether regions start to sag, bleeding off energy in order to configure the pig for landing.

"Flaps Fifty!, Landing Gear Down!, Before Landing Checklist!" I look over at the copilot and he's shaking like a cat shitting on a sheet of ice. Looking further back at the navigator, and even through the NVGs, I can clearly see the wet spot spreading around his crotch. Finally, I glance at my steely-eyed flight engineer. His eyebrows rise in unison as a grin forms on his face. I can tell he's thinking the same thing I am. "Where do we find such fine young men?" "Flaps One Hundred!" I bark at the shaking cat. Now it's all aimpoint and airspeed. Aviation 101, with the exception there's no lights, I'm on NVGs, it's Baghdad, and now tracers are starting to crisscross the black sky.

Naturally, and not at all surprisingly, I grease the Goodyear's on brick-one of runway 33 left, bring the throttles to ground idle and then force the props to full reverse pitch. Tonight, the sound of freedom is my four Hamilton Standard propellers chewing through the thick, putrid, Baghdad air. The huge, one hundred thirty thousand pound, lumbering whisper pig comes to a lurching stop in less than two thousand feet. Let's see a Viper do that! We exit the runway to a welcoming committee of government issued Army grunts. It's time to download their beans and bullets and letters from their sweethearts, look for war booty, and of course, urinate on Saddam's home.

Walking down the crew entry steps with my lowest-bidder, Beretta 92F, 9 millimeter strapped smartly to my side, I look around and thank God, not Allah, I'm an American and I'm on the winning team. Then I thank God I'm not in the Army.

Knowing once again I've cheated death, I ask myself, "What in the hell am I doing in this mess?" Is it Duty, Honor, and Country? You bet your ass. Or could it possibly be for the glory, the swag, and not to mention, chicks dig the Air Medal. There's probably some truth there too. But now is not the time to derive the complexities of the superior, cerebral properties of the human portion of the aviator-man-machine model. It is however, time to get out of this shit-hole . "Hey copilot clean yourself up! And how's 'bout the 'Before Starting Engines Checklist."

God, I love this job!

AC130A Barrel Roll

I'm new here but wish that I had seen this webpage years ago. Over the last 40 years I had many flashbacks to 1972-1973. One came after reading an article that 'rumor has it that a Spectre gunship did a barrel roll in combat'. I don't know which event was referenced but after Capt. Paul Gilbert had volunteered to take the place of another A/C and was shot down, I was assigned to his regular crew, Crew 3. One of my first sorties with Paul's fine crew was as Spectre 13 to relieve Spectre 11 in the area of Kapong Trabek in southeast Cambodia. On the way south we passed Spectre 11 heading back to Ubon, and they warned us that they suspected a Strella SA-7 group in the area. We were flying at 7,500 feet MSL when we reached the given coordinates. Guns were ready as we went into orbit. I was looking past the gun-sight when I saw the launch flare on the ground and steepened the bank to shield our engines with the wings. The missile passed us and exploded above us at around 9,500 feet. By the time I looked at the flight instruments again, we were passed vertical. Reversing the turn was taking a chance of stalling the aircraft, going negative G, and spilling our ammo out of the racks. I was not about to do that and continued the roll and concentrated on pulling steady positive G forces. We lost about 3,000 feet in altitude when we we wings level again. Col. Ed Hughes, our Table Nav, asked for a heading of South, into Vietnam and then RTB Ubon. With that flight, the Spectres' operating altitude was changed to 9,500 feet which later was raised even higher. I still have the plaque that the Gunners gave me later, and when I read "To Captain Marx - One Hell of a Pilot" I smile but I know that we are all alive because of the skills of Paul Gilbert's crew. To them I am thankful.

-Peter Marx, Capt, Spectre Aircraft Commander

A most amazing story that started at Nui Ba Den Mountain, Tay Ninh, Viet Nam

Upon my return from the war in Viet Nam in 1973 I continued flying C-130s out of Ellington AFB until 1975, while also attending the University of Houston. One morning in 1975, on the way to school, I stopped at local convenience store run by a Vietnamese family. I was scheduled for a flight right after school and was in my flight suit. The owner, Ky, was behind the counter and when he saw me in uniform asked if I was a pilot and if I had flown in Viet Nam. I told him yes. 'What aircraft?' - 'AC-130 Spectre Gunships.' His eyes lit up and he said that he remembered a night when a Spectre saved his life at Tay Ninh. I told him that I had flown a sortie at Tay Ninh once in late 1972. He paused and then continued that it was during a thunderstorm when a group of North Vietnames Regulars stormed the Command Post on top Miu Ba Den Mountain and that they had issued a distress call for air support. As he was talking, I kept thinking that there was no way that he was talking about the same event which I remembered! He also mentioned that a bad guy tried to come through the window of the command post and that the gunship cut him down before he could get in. When he mentioned the guy in the window I told him that I did something similar. Ky then asked me what my call sign was. I said, 'Spectre One Seven'. At that he ran around the counter and started shaking my hand and then gave me a big embrace, and said that it was Specter 17 that came to their aid that night. I am sure that things were much tougher for Ky on the ground than for us at 9,500 feet up in the air. Ky was assigned as the Vietnamese liaison and translator to the command post on top of the 3,000-foot mountain. I always thought that we had a communication station up on that rock, but today I found out that it was also a CIA command post. In late 1972 and early 1973 the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Regular Army were pressing harder and harder for Saigon. The 16th Special Operations Squadron out of Ubon was assigned to fly night-time cover for Saigon, besides our routine Ho Chi Minh Trail interdictions. No matter what mission we had been assigned to fly, there always was the overriding order to stop everything we were doing in case we received a "TIC" call and to come to the aid of American troops that were threatened by the Bad Guys. This particular night, during the Monsoon Season, we were headed south to Saigon, fully fueled and armed, when we heard the TIC call. We radioed Saigon to get the specifics and when we told Headquarters our position, we were told to handle the situation. Tay Ninh was not too far out of our way and soon we were in radio contact with some Army major who described what was going on. We were already in orbit around the mountain and the IR operator picked up a bunch of Bad Guys on the sides of the mountain. The major cleared us to open fire since all the friendlies were in the buildings on top of the rock. We also had set up a 40-foot safety zone around his radio. But then the major's voice got shrill and he called for fire directly on his position because 'the bad guys are coming in through the window'. We had already noticed that there were guys all around the building and the sensor operators kept telling me that it didn't look too good for our guys. Besides, the weather got constantly worse; lightning had started and we were getting tossed around quite a bit except when we came into the south-western part of our orbit. TV and IR told me that they had a steady track on the guy in the window and I decided to get him with a 40 mm round, since that was our most accurate weapon. I pushed the trigger and soon after I heard 'You got the SOB! Good shot!' The major also came up on the air and said 'Thanks! The guy in the window is gone. I owe you one!' We picked up one Bad Guy after another in between buildings and worked our way in a circle from the top of the mountain down the sides until there was no more sign of life except in the Command Post and the surrounding buildings. From start to finish, I would guess, it took maybe an hour. We told the major that he seemed to be safe now and that we would fly on to Saigon to complete our assigned mission, and for him to call for help if he needed it, and that we would comply. Never in my life did I think that this sortie would have more of a story to it, and that it would be at home. Ky had seven sons and my wife and I were invited to each of the weddings. The circle of his Vietnamese friends was always larger than at the wedding before, and we were introduced to many high ranking folks that Ky had helped to settle in the Houston area. After the sixth wedding he told everybody how we had met at Tay Ninh, and a long line of folks came to thank us for saving Ky and indirectly for helping them. The folks were generals and other officers, as well as the Commandant of the Vietnamese Air Force Academy, the former Minister of Health, and many other dignitaries, as well as the last refugee that was pulled off the American Embassy roof by helicopter, with his son hanging from his leg, and that image was documented on the cover of Life magazine. During the last week of June 2014 Ky Tien passed away, and we were invited again to celebrate his life in the circle of his family and friends. At the open coffin I laid my hand on his and thanked him for a friendship that lasted almost 40 years. And finally I can share with other Spectre members that we made a difference to countless people. I was thanked in person but the gratitude belongs to the whole crew of Spectre 17 and to all who fought in that war.

Peter Marx, Capt, Spectre Aircraft Commander

More snippets...

The last few days have been surreal. I cannot believe that I had been carrying so many memories in my head that are so scrambled and hidden. Twice now I woke early and wondered whether I was in the BOQ in Mildenhall RAFB, East Anglia in the UK ...or in Ubon. I'm lacking a timeline to string events in a proper sequence. I'm lacking details. I wonder when the names will come. I used to be good with names, and used to know what each one was responsible for, because each one did something that was important. ** Last night I was haunted by some opening strings from some band that used to catch everybody's attention and started all of us singing along, ... and then there it was, "We've gotta get out of this place... If its the last thing we ever do..." I turned to my wife and asked her whose song that was. She could not recall. "In this dirty old part of the city... Where the sun refuse to shine... People tell me there ain't no use in tryin..." Of course! The Animals!!! 1965, 1966,1972 and forever! The song was part of my military assignments... part of our uniform! We sang it in Basic Training at Lackland, at Officers Training at Medina, in Pilot Training at Webb AFB in Big Spring, during Survival Training in Spokane, in Jungle School at Clark in the Philippines, and at Ubon. I can't remember if I sang it in my Mom's womb. ...must have...

-Peter Marx, Capt, Spectre Aircraft Commander

My apologies to everyone

I really have been hogging this Forum. It did not start out that way. I just was curious what everybody was thinking and marveled how much so many of you could recall. I found myself reacting to what I saw on this webpage. Obviously things have escalated. P.J. Cook apparently handed me a key that opened recesses in my head. Thanks! *** Even now I have a bunch of web sites open to double-check things; I find myself typing too fast and gasp at the typos in earlier comments. Doesn't matter... At least I can reach things again and I don't know how long this will last before I run dry. Maybe my postings will jog somebody's memory as well. *** And just now I recall a fight breaking out at the O Club in Mildenhall shortly after Christmas in 1970. Some major goes to the band and they strike up "We've gotta get out of this place..." and EVERYBODY sings along and the two guys who were going to kill each other were singing louder than the rest. *** Now I have "Highway to the Danger Zone" in my head. Gotta run and find Maverick and Top Gun on YouTube somewhere. Sorry about that...

-Peter Marx, Capt, Spectre Aircraft Commander

TDY NASA - 1969

Graduating from Pilot Training in the Class of 69-01 put me into a time frame which was historically unique.  Often we ended up in places and on missions that went far beyond the routine flights that C-130 'trash haulers' normally had to fly.  So it was near the end of July in 1969.  I was flying as co-pilot with Capt. Larry Downs as our aircraft commander on TDY missions out of Mildenhall RAFB, East Anglia, England as Apollo 11 made history circling and landing on the moon.  We picked up a flight into Madrid and back to England on that day.  When London Control handed us over to Paris Control on the way south to Spain, it became obvious that America had reached a special pinnacle in the eyes of the world.  As usual, we gave our call sign to Paris Control... "Paris Control,  Air Force 12, passing Flight Level 23 for FL 28". -  "Air Force 12, Paris Control, Congratulations!  Apollo 11 is very impressive!  We are proud for America. Call level at FL 28."  France was not the only country that let us wallow in NASA's glory.  Many times during those days people on the street would come up to us just to shake our hands as if we had a role in the success of the Space Program.  Anyway, we returned from Spain to England and were designated as one of three 'stand-by crews' for any unscheduled missions that may come up.

In the morning on 24 July 1969 we received the 'Scramble' call, not just for one but for all three stand-by crews.  We were designated No. 1 'Lead Aircraft' of a three-ship formation.  There were 64 US Marines, fully armed, already on board our aircraft.  No. 2 and No. 3 were flying empty.  Our orders had us fly to Gibraltar where we were to open our Secret Orders for additional instructions.  We reached The Rock and opened up our orders, which in effect attached us to NASA in support of Apollo 11's recovery phase.  We were to proceed from Gibraltar  toward Haifa, Israel, and were to monitor the NASA HF frequency for any irregularities during Apollo 11's re-entry into Earth orbit.  In case that the capsule should not be able to reach the designated splash-down area in the Pacific, we were to fly in tight formation to the coordinates that NASA would issue to us, ignoring any and all boundaries of any nation, and aircraft No. 1 was to land near the Apollo capsule, deploy the Marines to protect the landing site.  Aircraft No. 2 was scheduled to receive the Apollo astronauts , and fly the crew to Wiesbaden AFB, Germany.  Aircraft No. 3 was to load the space capsule with the help of the Marines and fly (here I'm not totally certain but I think I'm right) to Ramstein AFB, Germany, while we were to pick up again  the Marines and return to base at Mildenhall RAFB.

Larry Downs kept reading the orders quietly while the rest of us where trying understand some of the details of this mission.  I knew this was COOL to the extreme, but I wondered what if they land in Russia?  They would shoot us down for sure.  After Larry digested the rest of the orders, he told all of us that we would pick up a large group of fighter jets to escort us, but nobody's mind was really comfortable with that idea.  By the time we reached Malta, we saw the first F-4's join us on the wing, but then we received the message that Apollo 11 had landed on target in the Pacific and our orders were to return to base in Mildenhall.  All of us were a little more comfortable that we did not have to test the Soviet air defense system.

The Apollo 11 patch that I still have somewhere in my memento box is my reminder of this temporary assignment with NASA.  Later, when I worked at JSC-Houston after Vietnam, I mentioned to those folks this mission. They were dumbfounded by what they did here in Houston would have such involved repercussions on so many others all around the world.  To me, everything about NASA still makes my jaw drop.

From 2000 to 2004 I worked for the City of Nassau Bay, across the street from the Johnson Space Center and home to many of the astronauts, as building official.  One day we received a request for an inspection for a building remodel job on Carriage Court.  I drove up to the house and was met by the lady of the house who showed me where the work had been done.  When finished with the inspection, I handed her the approval tag and she said that she wanted to show me something special upstairs in the bedroom area.  She saw immediately that I was not about to follow her into any bedroom, but she insisted I go upstairs and that she would stay at the bottom of the stairs.  All I had to do was look around the corner to the wall at the top of the stair landing, and I was up there in a hurry.  The entire wall was a painting of Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon and near the bottom of this beautiful painting was the signature of Buzz Aldrin, dated 1970 or 1971.  

This photograph is almost the same as the painting that I saw at the top of the stairs in the house where Buzz Aldrin used to live during the Apollo Space Program.  

-Peter Marx, Capt, Spectre Aircraft Commander


"IO Overboard!!!"

As we heard at the time, the Thai government was concerned that the Khmer Rouge, during their early development, were just a little too active south of their border with Cambodia.  Pol Pot had not yet started The Killing Fields in earnest, but trouble was in the making.  The US tried to understand the relationship between the North Vietnamese and the Communists in Cambodia, and any possible threat of trouble spilling across the border into Thailand.  Since much of the covert activities of the Bad Guys was at night, the AC-130s were an excellent tool to document with videos any threatening developments.

Our mission briefing was simple enough:  To have a look-see at what was going on in Cambodia along the border with Thailand.  We started in the area where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia join, flying along the border in a general westerly direction and filming anything of interest south of the border.  For the next 150 miles or so we made all the twists and turns by getting the heading changes needed to continue hugging border.  We flew a little higher than normal to increase the field of view of the cameras, but there just was nothing to video-tape.  Everything was black and boring, except for the Table Nav and the Sensor Operators in the booth in the back.  At least they saw something that was almost as boring as seeing nothing.  They knew where there would be a village or a road near the border, but nowhere was there any activity to record.  After a little more than an hour of 'nothing', we reversed our course, only this time we flew with an offset of approximately five miles further to the south of the border.  We saw more villages and tiny cities and a few roads.  Most of the lights were off down there and we dropped our altitude by about 1,000 feet.  About ten minutes into our flight east, I called out some vehicle headlights some distance in front of us that did not show on the sensor screens yet.  Soon after there was a thumping sound coming from the rear of our gunship.  I asked the Illuminator Operator to have a look at what was hitting the aircraft.  No response.  The thumping continued.  Since the IO was flying all of our missions flat on his stomach, stretched out on the lowered cargo ramp, I was sure he would be able to check out what was happening to the aircraft.  Still no response from the IO.  Then came a panicked call from one of the 40 mm Gunners: "We lost our IO!"  A short pause, and then:  "The IO is outside but still hooked up to his safety cable!"  I had already reduced power and the gunners kept everybody informed as they were trying to pull the poor sergeant back into the plane, but the thumping sounds continued and the gunners were talking about the IO bouncing against the underside of our horizontal stabilizers and asking me to reduce the power some more.  Over the intercom I could hear the authoritative voice of our lead gunner, MSGT Gonzales comes to mind now, but I may recall the name incorrectly.  Anyway, I heard the conversation go like this:  "Let him go slowly and then get out of my way."  Next some grunting and heavy breathing, and then "I got him back in, boss!"  I made the decision to return to Ubon as we passed over the headlights of about three little trucks. The Table Nav gave me a heading, I brought our airspeed back to normal, and then turned over the controls to the co-pilot while I climbed out of my seat to check on the IO's condition.  The IO was the nicest fellow; used to be a big black fellow but now he was as white skinned as me, but at least he was grinning a little and then apologized.  I told him that there was no need for that, and that we were heading back to base to have him checked out.  Then he said that when I called out some headlights in front of the aircraft he didn't see them, so he moved a little farther back on the ramp and leaned out to look underneath the aircraft, got caught in the slipstream which pulled him completely out of the aircraft, and then he found out that his microphone and headset had become disconnected as well, and that he was afraid of accidentally deploying his parachute.  "Main thing we have you back and we'll find out soon if you got hurt in all of this, and if you want to, you can return to your old skin color, or stay white like me, or pick any shade that you prefer..." - "Black is just fine..." - "Good."  We grinned at each other and I worked my way back to my seat in the cockpit.

Back at Ubon our IO declined to ride in the ambulance.  Our flight surgeon checked him over thoroughly and found nothing wrong except for a case of the nerves.  He actually said that if he wouldn't be nervous about the incident, then he would say that there is something wrong with him.

The next night we had to fly another sortie, and we had another IO scheduled to fly with us.  Before the crew briefing, our IO from the night before came up to me and said 'Boss, I have to fly this sortie tonight or I am afraid I would be useless from now on...'  - 'Glad to hear that and glad to have you back with us!  Tell the other IO we don't need him tonight."  After the briefing, the replacement IO came up to me and asked if I was sure, because he would not mind flying with us.  I told him that I was sure and that I thanked him for jumping in to help us out. "Any time, Sir..."  

What a nice outfit, this 16th SOS!

-Peter Marx, Capt, Spectre Aircraft Commander


Recalling some details of getting shot at by an SA-7 Strella

Quite interesting that a detailed image of the launch of the Strella missile at Kapong Trabek should come to mind right now.  After we had established orbit and I saw the launch flare on the ground, it took about three seconds for the SA-7 to miss us and explode above us.  The launch itself I can replay in slow motion.  There was total blackness on the ground below us.  The launch flare then lit up a dirt path in a field.  I saw the elongated shadows of at least three soldiers, one of them holding a bicycle.  The shadows immediately shrank and disappeared into darkness again, and during this first second I could make out the path of the missile coming at us.  That was in effect all the time I had to increase the bank to wings vertical and watch the explosion through the co-pilot's side windows.  After that came the Barrel Roll that I described earlier.

-Peter Marx, Capt, Spectre Aircraft Commander


The origins of the decoy flares

 This morning I saw this picture again and was reminded that the flare concept had some humble origins that started with Lt. Col. Ed Hughes.

After we lost another of our gunships in June of 1972, Ed, who was our Table Navigator at the time, and one of the EWOs (Electronic Warfare Officer who had been flying in the SR-71 Blackbirds before being assigned to the 16th SOS) were in some deep discussion as I walked by their table in the O Club at Ubon.  The EWO had heard that one of the shoulder-fired heat-seeking SA-7 missiles had been captured, and that the folks at Eglin Field in Florida had discovered the IR setting that would guide the missile into our engines.  Ed and the EWO were certain that they had found a defense that might work.  Ed had read up on the IR signature of the flares that we had for our 12 gauge flare gun, the Very Pistol, and that it was rather similar to the engine exhaust temperature of our engines.  I thought that these two officers were geniuses, and when they asked me if they should try out the idea I could only say "Of course!"

At the Navigator's Station on the AC-130 is a port for a sextant for celestial navigation.  Ed managed to rig up a bracket that would hold the Very Pistol in this port, loaded with a flare shell, and from the pistol trigger he had a lanyard attached to the Nav table, where he could quickly
move his arm against the lanyard and fire off the flare.  On a few of our next sorties we did not see any SA-7 Strella missiles come up, but toward the end of July we were flying over southern Laos when the Illuminator Operator (IO) called out "Strella Launch". Ed pulled the lanyard and
everybody held their breath.  The missile broke lock from one of the engines and aimed for the flare instead.  We could hardly wait to tell the other crews about this success and the 16th SOS sent word back to Eglin, which then developed the over-kill shown in the picture.  But since the day that Ed shot off his flare we did not lose another Spectre to the Strellas.

It is important to me that you and others should know stories like this one, because Col. Hughes was one of the exceptional folks in an exceptional military outfit.  He may have been too modest to talk about this, but others should know the origin of ideas that saved so many lives, and that
ended up as an impressive and beautiful picture.

-Peter Marx, Capt, Spectre Aircraft Commander


Sometimes chicken; sometimes feathers.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail was actually a system of trails with most crossings out of North Viet Nam located on the border with Laos.  These trails branched through Laos into Cambodia and into South Vietnam and almost all had Saigon as the final destination.  At night the Spectre Gunships 'owned' these trails; if anything moved on a trail, it was a target and we were good at this kind of warfare.  In fact the AC-130s were the best at it.

One night we were assigned to check out the Trail in the north-eastern part of Cambodia. There were very few threats to us from the Bad Guys in the area and we could concentrate on looking for trucks.  I heard the IR sensor say 'I think we got ourselves a convoy'.  There was a trail down there, coming out of the mountains and winding through the jungle into some level area with fewer trees, and the probable destination was a trans-shipment point near Stung Treng on the shores of the Mekong River where the loads carried by the trucks was transferred onto boats and barges.  Once the convoy was in a more open area, the IR had counted about 20 trucks, and like most Spectre crews we used the tactic of a single 40 mm round of mesh to catch the attention of the lead truck and bring everything to a halt.  The next 40 mm round would hit the lead's engine and we would pick on the last truck to bottle-in the whole convoy.  Aiming our first round at the first truck I heard 'miss... 4 mil high' and right after that '...they are picking up speed!'  The next shot was also off target.  Our table nav, Col. Hughes, gave us a heads up that there was a small village that the convoy seemed to be eager to reach, because the Bad Guys knew that our Rules of Engagement provided them with a safe No Fire Zone around any village;  once in the village, they would park, laugh at us, and wait for us to go Bingo Fuel and return to base.  Now the pressure was on us to stop the convoy before they could reach the village, but every round turned into a miss and finally someone said that they are in the Safe Zone and we stopped firing our guns.  Suddenly the IR called out that the convoy never slowed down and went right through that little hamlet.  I was prepared to have another try at the convoy once the last truck was out of the Safe Zone.  The gunners and their guns were ready when Col. Hughes finally did some thinking and we heard over the intercom 'This does not make any sense! ...going into the village at 45 MPH and coming out at 45 MPH...'  and then more emphatically "Cease fire!  Cease fire!"  I called for a flare to be dropped and our TV sensor saw that we had been hunting a herd of elephants.  Most of us were quite glad that every shot was a miss, but nobody as much as me.  'Fail!' was not that bad in this case.  And our IR sensor was amazed how similar the infra-red signature of an elephant was to that of a Russian-built truck.  And the poor folks in that village must have been pissed for having to rebuild some of the huts that the elephants had trampled. - "Sometimes chicken; sometimes feathers."

-Peter Marx, Capt, Spectre Aircraft Commander


Stung Treng on the Mekong River in Cambodia

We had finished our 'night watch' over Saigon around daybreak and the city was on her own again. After refueling at Tan Son Nhut we headed home to Ubon in broad daylight and did some sight-seeing of the landscape which normally was pitch-black for us at night.  Stong Treng was slightly east of a 320-mile direct line between Saigon and Ubon and the city was much larger than what I had imagined.  From the cockpit we could see traffic in the center of the city;  from the booth, the sensors saw even more when they zoomed in on specific areas. Suddenly the TV Sensor said that there were two military trucks moving along the southern shore of the Sekong River toward the confluence with the mighty Mekong; "Would be nice if Saigon would clear us to have a shot at them..." More for fun than anything else I asked the co-pilot to check with Saigon if they had any interest in a couple of military-looking trucks on the shores of the Mekong in Stung Treng.  Bingo!  That caught their attention and they cleared us to open fire on a major trans-shipment point.  We told the folks at HQ to give us a chance to get the guns ready, get some wind measurements, do some calculations, all while apparently continuing on to Ubon.  Anybody on the ground would have relaxed a bit, thinking that we didn't see anything.  Once I heard "Ready" we went into a racetrack pattern back to where the Nav had marked the two trucks and then we were in orbit just as the trucks drove under a tree and out of sight of the sensors.  "They are hiding..." - I called for No. 1 - 40, Mesh. "TV, hold steady on that tree..." - "You got it."  Pushed the trigger and heard "Miss."  Pushed the trigger again and all hell broke loose.  One of the two trucks blew up in a fireball, but what followed was eye-popping.  On the south-side of the confluence of these two rivers was a small peninsula which apparently was the entrance to some ammo storage.  The whole area went up in the air;  rounds of explosions continued for several minutes; earth and water and exploding rockets were thrown high up into the air, including two trucks and a tree; and then the peninsula was gone. Col. Hughes was not happy because we made his map 'inaccurate'.  We had changed the terrain forever.  However Saigon HQ was more than pleased.

Out of curiosity I checked the spot on Google Earth.  Sure enough - no more peninsula.  Then I clicked on one of those image symbols and found the picture that showed where the peninsula used to be and where those trucks tried to hide under a tree.  Sure enough, the ammo dump blew it all away.  It's a little cliff now, overlooking the Mighty Mekong. And the trucks are gone as well, probably turned into hundreds of Zippo cigarette lighters almost 40 years ago.

-Peter Marx, Capt, Spectre Aircraft Commander


Two Ubon Giants


Growing up in Germany I had heard of the 'Red Baron', but thought of Freiherr Manfred von Richthofen to be more of a fiction than a pilot. Charles Lindbergh was more real to me; a pilot who did something great. Amelia Earhart was fascinating because all the papers guessed about what may have happened to her. When Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947 I was in awe of pilots because my dad kept talking about him in awe. But that was pretty much the extent of my interest in flying. Then, in 1959, as a 17-year old, I had an invitation from my dad's brother to visit America and if I liked it, he would pay for my college. I liked it a lot and in 1965 I became a US Citizen. In 1967 I was drafted into the Army and had my induction physical in San Antonio. I didn't care for that at all and when I left the Army building I started looking immediately for something better, which was the Air Force Recruiting Office right next door. I showed the recruiter my Army paperwork and asked him if there was still time for making some changes. He asked me about my schooling, why I sounded like a Kraut, if I was a US Citizen, and if I was interested in Air Force Intelligence, because of the Cold War they could use me 'somewhere in West Berlin'. I filled out the paperwork, which he tore up the moment that he saw that I still had a cousin living in East Germany even though all my other relatives lived in the West. Since it was already past closing time he showed me the door with the instructions to be back at 8 AM the next day. "We need pilots. I'll give you an aptitude test tomorrow." I nearly choked at such a fine compliment, and when he told me after I took the long test that I did rather well, I slowly got a stronger interest in flying. Then, "I'll process the paperwork for the Army and we claim you for the Air Force. Sign here and we'll put you on hold in Basic Training at Lackland till the next officers' training class starts in two weeks." I still don't know how much went over my head because things happened so fast. There I was an Airman Basic for two weeks, then Staff Sargent as Officer Trainee, and next a 2nd Lt., headed for pilot training. "Damn!" I thought, "the Air Force doesn't mess around..."


The star attraction for graduation from pilot training at Webb AFB was "Colonel Cadillac", as the AF Academy grads called him. "Who?" - "THE Colonel Robin Olds!" To this day I regret that I did not know anything about this fabulous man. I shook hands with him and stood in a circle with others around him, all of us smoking Cuban cigars. I found him witty and funny, and he talked to everybody as if they had been friends for years. I knew I had better read up on this man. Reading about his life I can only say that he was an incredibly fine man and an astonishing pilot warrior in WW II, volunteered for Korea but was turned down, promoted the development of the SR-71, commanded the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing USAFE, where he picked as his friend and Deputy Commander of Operations Colonel Daniel 'Chappie' James, and then in 1966 became Commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing at Ubon RTAFB, "the Wolfpack", where he had Colonel Chappie James join him as his Deputy Commander of Operations in December of 1966 and as Vice Wing Commander in June of 1967. One writer called it "arguably the strongest and most effective tactical command triumvirate of the Vietnam War." The Olds-James combination became popularly nicknamed "Blackman and Robin". Since the 16th Special Operations Squadron was part of the Wolfpack, those were some very special footprints we followed. Robin Olds died 14 June 2007 at the age of 84 as a Brigadier General.


Colonel James left the 8th TFW at Ubon in December 1967, after having flown 78 combat missions over North Vietnam in the F-4s, to be Vice Commander of the 33rd TFW at Eglin AFB. In August of 1969 he was transferred from Eglin AFB to Wheelus AFB, Tripoli, Libya where he assumed command of the 7272nd Fighter Training Wing. On 1 September 1969, a group of officers led by Muammar al-Gaddafi overthrew Libya's King Idris as some sort of support of Nasser's Arab unity, which seemed threatened after Israel's victory over Nasser in the 1967 '6-Day War'. Interestingly, President Nixon and his adviser Henry Kissinger were looking for some 'satisfactory relations' with Gaddafi. The US feared that a hostile stance could radicalize the Arabs. When Gaddafi asked the US to vacate Wheelus AFB, the US complied, with Colonel James trying to remove personnel and equipment back to Europe and Gaddafi attempting to keep as much of the equipment as possible. There were some really tense face-to-face moments between Gaddafi and Col. James and, according to eyewitnesses, Chappie James did not once back down. It was around this time that his rank changed from Colonel to Brigadier General...on his way to 4-star General.

The 777th Tactical Airlift Squadron out of Pope AFB returned to Europe for another TDY rotation in October of 1969, but this time we flew out of Rhein-Main Airbase, Frankfurt, Germany instead of Mildenhall, England. We dedicated three C-130E a day to make the round-trip from Frankfurt to Tripoli and back. Take-off between aircraft was one hour. At first we would spend the night in Tripoli, but as the situation became more tense, we would return to Frankfurt the same day. Depending on winds, the flights lasted about 4 to 5 hours each way.

I can't recall the exact date in October. Captain Larry Downs was the a/c and I still flew as co-pilot as we approached Wheelus around noon and landed toward the south, then taxied back to a large hangar off to the north-west. The large ramp area between the runway and the hangar was empty, where we normally would see the pallets with all sort of gear ready to be loaded. We were getting ready to shut down the engines when out of the hangar came a Jeep at a fairly rapid speed. The driver was in dress blues and waving his arm for us to keep the engines going. He came to a full stop near the right wing, pulled the key out of the ignition and ran in front of us just barely clear of the props to the crew entrance door, which the loadmaster had opened less than a minute before. "I'm General James. Let's get the hell out of here." As Capt. Downs started to taxi toward the runway, the General saw that a fire engine was being driven onto the runway at one of the taxiway intersections and that the driver got out and ran clear of the runway. "Hell, they are blocking the runway with that fire truck!" I noticed some armed soldiers running out of the hangar towards us and told the General so. Giving some quick orders to Captain Downs to pretend we were going through an engine run-up checklist, he said something like 'Goose this sucker... we are going to take off from the ramp!!' As we were picking up speed we noticed that the driver ran back to the fire truck. I saw a couple of soldiers jump into the General's Jeep but with the key in his pocket it did not take long for them to feel rather stupid and they jumped out and ran after us but gave that up as well. By the time the driver reached the fire engine, Larry called out the after take-off checklist: "Gear Up"; shortly after, "Flaps Up". There was nobody on the radio to clear us for taxi or take-off or turn us over to departure control. We were on our own and flying as free as in the early days of flight. General James then took his jacket off and said "Might as well get comfortable. How long does it take to get to Frankfurt?" - "A little more than four hours..." - "Well, we might as well introduce ourselves. I'm Chappie James. By the way, when we get in radio range of the other 130s, tell them that Wheelus is closed; they can go back home. And your name is...?" We all introduced ourselves and shook hands, and after awhile the General took a nap in the back of the cockpit. That was the last Air Force flight out of Libya in many years.

General James died of a heart attack on February 25, 1978, just two weeks after his 58th birthday and three weeks following his retirement from the Air Force.

House Boy or Taxi Driver or Trail Jockey?

Leaving the base at Ubon would not happen too often for me. Sometimes I would catch a taxi cab into Ubon City to buy some more uncut Australian opals to work into jewels at the base hobby shop; less often, a bunch of us would catch a cab to have dinner in town, and always when a crew finished their tour we all would celebrate with a meal at a real fancy restaurant. I think there were at least five of those in the city that we favored over many others.

Once the ten minute taxi ride into town was different and eye-opening for me. The driver was Thai, of course, and maybe 40 years old. "Fly Wolfpack? ... Phantoms?" - "No. The plane I fly is not that fast..." Then I asked him if he earns more money with all the Americans taking a taxi into town to buy things. "Oh, it's nice... mak, mak baht!" Hearing that his income had improved because of our presence in Thailand I felt more at ease being driven by someone who was not suspicious or hostile toward Americans. He continued to talk about another job he had as 'house boy' on base, and that the Americans teach him English, which he planned to use later for much better jobs. And then he continued ...and he had my complete attention. "Good money, when I'm asked to drive trucks in Laos. I take bus over border with others who drive taxi. We wait and then come many trucks we drive to Cambodia. Many soldiers. Many guns. Danger work. Good money, ...is okay!" I wondered to myself how many of us he had driven into Ubon before who spent our time blowing up these trucks with many soldiers and many guns. I just knew that anything I would say would have to be said with much care. So I kept my mouth shut, which was okay with him. Then he chuckled and continued that lately funny things were happening in Laos. We had arrived at the jewelry store where I normally bought the uncut opals in little $4, $12 or $24 plastic bags, but he parked his taxi and was in no hurry to have me pay my fare because he seemed quite eager to tell me first what was so funny. "Other drivers talk. See strange lights in sky. Green lights. They scared and drive trucks off mountain. Some die. Think that green light make them have no more babies. Funny, huh?" The only thing I could say was that I thought it was sad that some taxi drivers died. There was more to this story, but I did not tell him. I paid him for the ride and could hardly wait to get back on base.

One of the Gunships that I flew more regularly than others was 490, a Pave Pronto version. One day some guys from Eglin AFB in Florida had installed a new gadget on the aircraft, a laser light. Before we took off for a regular mission over Laos, they explained briefly that the light had not been calibrated yet, and that we could focus the light from narrow beam to broad beam from a new panel, and for us to play with this new 'Green Weeny'. On later missions we used the laser as target designator and later still for the smart bombs which the F-4s would release to follow the light precisely till it hit a tank or bunker or bridge or anything that we wanted to stop existing. It was not the light that would stop the Ubon taxi drivers having any more babies. It was what came after the light.

After I had heard from the taxi driver that we were making it harder for us to get rides into Ubon, I talked to the other pilots that I would change my tactics of attacking truck convoys in Laos. A warning shot with the 40 mm Bofors in front of the lead truck would bring the convoy to a stop. Most drivers would take off running up or down the trail not to be blown to pieces with the trucks. Most soldiers from North Vietnam would get out and take cover up-hill from their trucks and watch their ride get blown to shreds by us and then they would be fair game for us. I would let the drivers run. I don't know how long it took for them to find their way back to Ubon, but somehow they did and we had them drive us into town again. But I also noticed that over the year I was at Ubon, we ended up with less house boys and with more house girls. Some times it was hard to tell the difference because often they came to work dressed the same way as the house boys.

- Peter Marx, Capt., Spectre Aircraft Commander

TIC - Halfway between Pleiku and Kontum in the Central Highlands

One night, after leaving Ubon, we flew about 200 miles due East to check out the trails between Cambodia and the Central Highlands in Viet Nam. We didn't see much except the blackness of night. Then came the Troops-In-Contact call from Saigon, inviting us to the dance. We were less than 20 miles from the coordinates of a Bare Base location that was being overrun by North Vietnamese Regulars. Our first radio contact sounded bad. The Bad Guys were on high ground and had surrounded the base. Ground troops were closing in on a group of about 40 Army types. The guy on the radio relayed word from the officer in charge to open fire as close as possible to the Friendlies. Our sensors picked up all sorts of small arms fire, and after we were sure about who was Friendly and who was Bad we opened up with several clips from the 40 mm Bofors which seemed to force the Bad Guys back a little. The folks on the ground let us know that we were right on and to keep going. Next we put the 20 mm Vulcans on the line and that gave our troops on the ground some more breathing space. We did not experience any AAA threats and so we dropped lower to get the Gatling guns in on the action. Bad Guys seemed to be everywhere and once the Gatling guns came on the line we flew ever larger orbits around the Bare Base and those little white spots on the IR Sensor screen were fewer and fewer rather quickly. What we didn't know was that the NVRA had positioned a number of field artillery cannons on the ridges above the base. One cannon shot quickly shifted our attention further away from the base and we hit the cannons with 40 mm Mesh, then raked the Vulcans and the Gatling guns across the area between the Base and the ridges and beyond. I have no idea how long all of this took but we went Winchester on the smaller guns and did not have much more left for the Bofors. A Captain or Major let us know that they were not receiving any more incoming, and that we 'came at the right time and did the right thing, and that he had 40 guys cheering for the Spectres'. I let him know that they all were welcome, and that we were 'Winchester' and just went 'Bingo Fuel', heading for Da Nang to refuel.

About two weeks later we flew a Saigon Watch sortie and before returning to Ubon we refueled at Tan Son Nhut. The table navigator, co-pilot and I went to file our flight plan back to Thailand, and as we approached the ops building, an Army captain had been sitting on the concrete and then he got up…"Saw you getting off that gunship… I had been here almost a week waiting for one of your Spectre crews that helped us out near Pleiku a couple of weeks back… Call Sign was "Spectre 12"… that wouldn't be you, by any chance?" - "Sure enough. That was quite a mess you were in! Everybody got out ok?" - "Sure did and all the boys sent me here to say Thank You!" - "You all are welcome; that is what we are here for…" - "By the way, we did a body count the next morning. Had over 2,000 NVRAs." All I could say was "Excuse me. I need to sit down. Boy-oh-boy!..." - "Again, Thank you, Sir!" A quick salute and he was gone.

I didn't say anything about Pleiku to the crew until we were airborne. The rest of the flight was in silence. After we landed, the IR sensor operator asked if any of our guys got killed. "No." - "Good."

- Peter Marx, Capt., Spectre Aircraft Commander

Some memories of 18 June 1972 at Ubon RTAFB

18 June 1972 was a routine Sunday. The crew for Spectre 11 would have been in crew rest for most of the day. Some of us who were not scheduled for a flight that night attended church services or otherwise relaxed between sorties. In the afternoon I went to the Officers' Hootch to check on the game time for the European soccer championship game that was scheduled to be played that day in Belgium between West Germany and Russia. My next flight was not scheduled until 22 June and I was a relaxed co-pilot.

Later in the afternoon some of the Spectre 11 officers drifted into Hootch to grab a bite to eat, already dressed in their flight suits. Others went to the O Club. Captain Mark Danielson asked me if I wanted to shoot some darts, and we talked about the chances of Russia beating the Germans in soccer that night. Mark was the EWO for the flight and, like most EWOs, his thoughts were on the up-coming sortie even when tossing a dart at a board. After awhile he handed me his darts and said that 'We'll finish the game when I come back…ok?' He turned to the other crew members and told them that it was time to go. About five of the officers walked out of this comfortable hang-out for the last time. Soon afterwards a runner from the Squadron walked in and asked loudly if there was an aircraft commander who wanted to take the pilot position for Spectre 11 for the night because the scheduled pilot had gotten sick and couldn't fly. With no hesitation Captain Paul Gilbert pushed his dinner aside, stood up and said "I'll take it." And he too walked out, never to come back again.

That day was a turning point for me. Late in the evening we were called to assemble in the Squadron's Ops building to hear that Spectre 11 was shot down near the A Shau Valley in Laos. The F-4 Fighter Escorts had reported that Spectre 11 had lost a wing and that the gunship circled down in flames and crashed into the jungle where it exploded. Nothing was known about casualties or possible survivors. All of us were stunned; the news knocked the wind out of me, and the faces of the crew members that walked out of the Hootch a few hours earlier came slowly before my eyes for the last time.

The next days were hectic for the 16th SOS. I was assigned to contact the parents of SSgt Larry Newman and to gather his personal belongings, have them crated up and shipped back to the States. Writing the letter to his parents was one of the hardest things I had to do and when I read it once more before sending it off, I felt that I didn't say what I should have said; it felt deficient because it was lacking many facts that I would have wanted to read if I were one of his parents. We just didn't know. I also was assigned to take over Captain Paul Gilbert's crew as their new aircraft commander, as well as his duties as the Squadron's Administrative Officer.

Recently I was at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC for the first time. When I stood at the center crease of the Wall, I saw the names of the crew of Spectre 11 and also the names of all the other Spectres that never made it back home, and finally the tears flowed some 40 years late.

Only hours ago did it cross my mind to check up on who won the European Soccer Championship in 1972. West Germany beat Russia 3:0. It meant as little to me now as it did on 18 June 1972.

- Peter Marx, Capt., Spectre Aircraft Commander

Chinese New Year 1973

Soon after the Fourth of July this year (2014) one of my daughters asked me if the video she saw in an article of TIME Magazine Online matches anything I remember from Viet Nam. I looked at it, and was surprised how close it came to at least one night's sortie over southern Laos.

That particular night we were flying in an area that usually had heavy truck traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but our pre-flight briefing did not say anything about it being Chinese New Year in February of 1973. For a change, everything was quiet at the beginning of this flight until our Table Nav said: "It's midnight." I swear that the Bad Guys on the ground heard that and took it as the signal to start their New Year's Celebration. Up came the AAAs: 57s, 87s, 23s... you name it and they shut it up straight in the air. The next five minutes were some of the most dangerous moments that we had seen in the war. The IO called breaks left and breaks right without stopping. Normally a well-aimed 57mm would appear in front of us, apparently a safe distance away until it seemed to bend toward us, heading right for the spot between the eyes. That night there were many of those but many more just went up and disappeared. Those of us who could look outside, like most in the cockpit or some of the gunners in the back or the right wing observer or the IO, were convinced that it was time to make peace with God and wish that somebody would take care of those most dear to us back in the States. Those in the booth or who did not watch the insanity around us must have died many times already, not understanding what was going on. And five minutes later it all just stopped. Nothing else. Only an eerie quiet. And that was my chance to ask our Nav for a heading across the border into Cambodia where we knew of places that were always peaceful and without Bad Guys. The FE lit up a Marlboro and I asked him for a cigarette after having stopped smoking for a year. He handed me three packs and we did not leave this 'rest stop' along the Trail until every cigarette had been smoked. Only then I said 'Let's RTB... ok?' Nobody objected.

Back on the ground the crew chief asked me to have a look at the bottom of the plane, and he pointed at a long scrape that looked to have been made by a 57mm. Good thing that they were not smoking Lucky Strikes on the ground.

Have a look at the video filmed with a private drone that flew in the middle of a Fourth of July fireworks. It reminds me of that night over Laos.


Peter Marx


Big Difference

A full moon at home is quite romantic even at our age.  It brings back memories that will always be special.  Recalling just one over almost 40 years ago on the beach on Galveston Island still leaves me in awe as this giant bright disk hovered over the horizon barely above the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. My wife hugged me and we didn't have to say a word.  It was a splendid time and it happened many times this way.

A full moon at Ubon, however, was '100% moon illumination'.  And when the mission weather briefing also included the words 'high cirrus over Laos and all of Vietnam' it kicked the adrenaline into high gear and you knew that the Bad Guys on the ground were rubbing their hands because these conditions were the best for them to do us some harm.   Almost every round of AAA would be accurate and had to be dodged, and the Illuminator Operator really earned more praise than he normally would get for calling all the breaks right and breaks left after we landed safely at home base. It was a tense time and it happened many times this way.

 - Peter Marx

"Trucks Killed: ..... 38"

 Moving about the base at Ubon most Spectres would go out of their way to walk by the F-4 Phantom Squadrons to have a look at what they would post as their end-of-the month tally on a board just outside their entrance. 

 I guess it was around the end of July in 1972 when a Staff Sergeant of the 336th TFS Squadron came out and cleaned the board of the June tallies and started posting the latest scores.  I slowed down and then stopped, waiting for the month's truck kill number to show.  When he chalked "38" on the board, I acted surprised and said loudly: "How did YOU KNOW that we killed 38 trucks last night???" Without turning around he said: "F*** off, Jerk!", and when he turned around he added "Sir".  I know I should not have grinned but I could not help myself. ... but it was much fun being a Spectre.

 Peter Marx (10 Jan 2015)

After the Holidays I'm almost back in my morning routine of reliving the Nam War.  Google Earth is one hell of a tool to double-check reality as we saw it in the dark and what it looks like in the light of day.  The 'street view' image that goes with the story is actually far more revealing after enhancing the image.  For one, my first round with the 40 mm was not a 'miss'.  I hit the tree and to me it looks like it broke pretty much at the angle we were firing the gun.  Next, the folks put up a little shed, almost like a shrine, and to the left of it is a stele that has the pictures of two guys with some text next to the images.  It would fit my narrative if these were the two truck drivers that tried to hide under the tree.  And of additional interest, the street view of the area lets you see the spot marked as special with garlands, flags and picnic tables on the south-side of that road; and following the road after it turns south, running parallel with the Mekong, there even is a special wooden structure marked as a meeting place for the Communist Party of Cambodia, or something like it.

 Amazing how pushing a little red trigger button twice in a Spectre can change so many things on the ground, isn't it?  I hope and feel that it was for some good what we did in Southeast Asia.

Peter Marx

On Short Final at Tan Son Nhut in Saigon

In late 1972 most of the crews of the 16th SOS had flown several 'Saigon Night Watch' sorties because we could not blow up everything that came down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  The North was hauling just too much stuff south and some of it would reach Saigon sooner than later. It just made military sense to keep an eye on the ever-changing situation around Saigon and especially around the Bien Hoa and Tan Son Nhut Air Bases where the American presence was critically important.  I had flown already one Night Watch as co-pilot with Major Bramwell's crew and several more as A/C with Crew 3.  All these sorties were routine; there was not much happening but the brass in Hawaii and at the Pentagon wanted to see our videos to analyze the situation daily.  So we flew our left-hand circles around the city and bases and countryside until we ran short on fuel and had to land, refuel and return to Ubon.

Everything was routine again on this one night, and we were wrapping things up and only had to refuel before heading back to Ubon. The Before Landing Checklist was done, flaps still at 50%, gear was down, and crossing the Vam Thuat River east of the field we were aligned with Runway 25 Left about two miles from touchdown.  The field elevation was just about 20 feet above sea level and we were moving along at close to touch-down speed, level at about 1,500' MSL.  The lights of the Base and the city beyond were rather beautiful but along the river things were all in the dark.  It felt like a commercial flight in peace time back in the States.  I called for the landing lights which our co-pilot Lt. Nash Frileaux turned on, and I was about to call for flaps 100% when off to our right a 23 mm AAA gunner started firing at us.  Nash killed the landing lights and Col. Hughes marked the gun location in his target computer.  The gunner's aim was slightly low as he was tracking us with his tracer rounds, but he was close enough to make my neck hair stand on end.  I made a sharp turn to the right and he must have lost sight of us;  next I reversed course quickly and, once close to centerline of the runway again, another sharp right turn, 'Flaps 100', followed by a dive for the runway over-run, nose up slightly, add power and touchdown.  Nash followed me on the controls all this time and also called Tower that 'Spectre on short final... receiving triple A'. Some emergency vehicles on the base turned on their flashing lights and started following us on the runway and on to the refueling area where we shut down the engines, got off the plane and checked things out to find everything A-OK.

After we were tanked up, we quickly filed our flight plan back to Ubon, but first we told the folks in Flight Ops that we planned to check out the gun location before returning to Ubon.  The Base Command Post gave us 'thumbs up' on that and we made a quick plan of attack, to climb back to 7,500 feet by staying in a tight turn within the perimeter of the base, pretending to head back north for a few minutes and then return to the AAA site with guns ready.  Col. Hughes guided us right back to the AAA gun location and we were in firing orbit and let loose with four clips of 40 mm in rapid succession.  We must have hit something down there because there were a couple of secondary explosions but no rounds coming back up at us.  We also dropped a couple of flares and our TV sensor guessed that the gun was hidden under some sort of tarp or in a wooden barn but appeared to be out of commission.  We never heard back from Tan Son Nhut that any other aircraft were fired at.

On all future 'Saigon Night Watch' sorties we started our descent to the runway over the middle of the field with flaps set at 100% from the start; then we spiraled down at a nearly 2,000 feet per minute drop rate with the last few hundred feet concentrating on aligning with the runway, a quick flare followed by a 'kiss-kiss' touchdown near the mid-point of the runway.  We were fortunate that nobody had an eardrum ruptured, but I had briefed the crew to speak up if anybody would experience any pain during this rapid descent, and that I would immediately level off and continue our descent at a normal rate.  Some of us would refer to these Saigon landings as our 'valsalva runs'.

- Peter Marx 26 Jan 2015


The White Bike

 After arriving at Ubon in April of 1972, I was quite busy settling in.  The things I brought with me in my suitcase were only a small part of what I needed and I ended up making many trips on foot to the BX, the post office, to the dining hall, and here and there, while everybody zipped past me on a bike.  After two days of walking I ended up in the BX at the bikes and picked out a nice red one.  The next day I parked it at the BX while I picked up some more stuff and when I got back to the rack, my bike was gone and only a few were still parked on the lot.  I waited until only one old one was left as the BX closed shop for the day and rode that back to the BOQ.  The next day it was just about the same story;  this time the last bike was a blue one that I rode back to my new home.  A couple of days later, the last one was another red bike, almost as new as the one I had bought originally, but before the BX closed I ran back in and picked up a can of white spray paint, and back at the BOQ I spray-painted the whole bike white, except for the saddle and the hand-grips.  I had hoped to be the proud owner of a new and shiny white bike, but I had grabbed a can of matt, reflective white which dried into the ugliest paint-job ever.  No wonder my bike always stayed where I parked it and nobody was ever tempted to check it out even for a quick spin.  In the dark of night I could always see that ugly bike from far away if the slightest bit of light fell on it and never did I have a safer ride at night since all vehicles stopped to let my bike by and I doubt they even saw me on it.

 One afternoon I had a call from the Squadron to finish some paperwork.  I jumped on my bike and peddled past the golf course to get around the south-west end of the runway to the offices of the 16th SOS on the other side.  I saw something stretched completely across my path that looked like a snake but I thought it was too big to be a snake. By the time I recognized that it was a king cobra, sunning itself, I was committed to keep going.  I peddled as fast as I could, but also had to pick where I would run over this monster.  Running over his tail or his middle gave the snake too many options to strike at me and I aimed for the neck.  I raised my feet as high into the air as I could and then I was across it and started peddling harder than I ever moved on a bike before.  I was not about to look back because I did not want to have this sucker ever see my face where it could recognize me later again.

 When I returned , I scanned the path carefully before rushing through that spot, but I'm sure that the cobra saw that ugly white bike return and did not want anything to do with it, satisfied to watch that bike from some safe distance.


Image courtesy of TripAdvisor.UK.com, photographed in Thailand

 Peter Marx, 29 Mar 2015


Delta Point 41


Most of my early combat sorties between the beginning of May and the end of June of 1972 were as co-pilot with Major Bramwell as our aircraft commander.  Those sorties were learning flights, and the way I recall it, he taught me most about 'situational awareness' by listening to all radio chatter and then coordinating things with the various command posts and our escorts. The other thing he stressed for me to learn were the traditional trouble spots on the ground and how to expect these locations to change as the war progressed from day to day. I recall that he loved to tease a AAA location south-east of Pakse in Laos by flying close enough to draw 37 and 57 fire, but always staying just out of range, and I think he called this AAA site ' Delta Point 41'.  The location of this trouble spot did not change.  It seemed just as fixed as the runways at Ubon or Da Nang and we always approached it with great caution.

The story that I recall was about one night when the overcast was extra heavy and Major Bramwell told me that he guessed that Delta Point 41 must be a training site for AAA gunners, honing their skills on the radar-guided 37s and 57s. He had our table navigator display the coordinates in his gunsight and then fired a clip of four 40mm rounds which immediately drew several 57s rounds that were much too close for comfort and we had to break violently to avoid getting hit, but that was exactly what Major Bramwell wanted, to draw the fire from these guns. He told me to turn loose our four F-4 escorts and have them drop their 500 pounders on the spot where those rounds came from. When I passed on the command to the escorts I did so in my best, crisp English with a heavy German accent. And those bombs must have been well placed because the response from the ground was ferocious from several other 57mm gun locations in the area. We cleared the area but kept circling Delta Point 41 from a respectful distance. The biggest surprise, however, was a voice on our frequency: "Das war sehr schlau, mein Freund!" ('That was very clever, my friend!') And then the SOB started chatting with me in German, laced with a strong Dresdener East-German accent.  He said that 'I picked the wrong side in this war... I should be with him on the ground helping the North Vietnamese like a good German'. Major Bramwell answered for me with a couple of 40s that were well short of the mark, and then we turned away from Delta Point 41 to start looking for some trucks. As we were leaving, we could hear that crazy Kraut laughing.


I have picked up the habit of checking things before I write down what I recall.  Google Earth is just great, as are the folks who post pictures of what things look like now.  About 40 miles south-east of Pakse, near the Cambodian border I found a spot that seemed to have been once configured as a major AAA site, and not too far away from there somebody posted a picture that even now sends a chill down my spine.  We had no idea at the time that the Bad Guys had this down there, or we would never have flown this close to Delta Point 41.



 SAM 2 Missile Site near Delta Point 41 in Laos.  (Credit: Google Earth / von Kuzius - Pa'am)


Peter Marx, 9 Apr 2015


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