Memories of Chu Lai, Vietnam


Dick Zimmermann:
Dave Hunter, US Naval Academy Class of 1965
VMFA-115 out of Chu Lai

Memories of Chu Lai, 1968

After The Basic School and Flight School, I accumulated 90 whole hours of training experience in the F-4B in VMFA-251 at MCAS Beaufort, SC. I was determined "combat ready" and in July 1968, after numerous shot lines in Okinawa, I arrived at the air terminal in Danang, RVN. I was still wet behind the ears and in no time soaking wet from the heat and humidity. My first impression of this wartime airfield was one of controlled chaos, getting as many people processed into and processed out of South Vietnam in as short a time as was humanly possible.

Processing ruled the day. It took the better part of that day to get out of Danang and down to Chu Lai and VMFA-115, my home away from home for the next year. After the press of humanity and frenetic pace of operations at Danang, Chu Lai was downright laid-back. Oh, there were round-the-clock Marine, Army and transit air ops at Chu Lai all right, but certainly not at the pace of Danang.

When I first arrived in Chu Lai, we lived in wooden shanties built on stilts in the surrounding sea of sand. We called them hooches. When I think of Chu Lai, I think of sand. Sand was everywhere. We wore it, we breathed it, we ate it and processed it through our bodies. We had to vacuum our cockpits so as not to be blinded during negative Gs. One good thing, however, we had an unlimited supply of sandbags which gave some protection against incoming rockets ... frequent incoming rockets. Chu Lai was a large base with Marine Air Group (MAG-13), Army 1st Air Cav elements, and 101st Airborne elements complete with a MASH unit, and others. There was even a SeaBee unit.

Chu Lai was a prime and frequent target for rocket attacks. The VC mostly targeted flight lines, fuel and ammo dumps, chopper pads and the main runway, but mostly missed. Most of the rockets went elsewhere over the sprawling base, making a distant boom or an overhead moaning, whoosh. Each hooch had a bunker which consisted of a large hole in the sand just outside the hooch door, lined with sand bags, roofed with corrugated metal sheeting and topped with sand bags. Someone would yell "incoming" and the FNGs (me at this time) [Editor's note: FNG is F New Guy] and short-timers would dive into the hooch bunker, ingesting twice our daily requirement of sand and suffering more injuries from the "dive" than from the rockets.

The more "experienced" relied on the sandbags lining the inside of the walls of the hooch to protect them from nearby rocket hits. It was the rocket you didn't hear that made the direct hit. There was no protection from a direct hit. Our hooch area took several rocket hits over time and the bunker population would grow for the first few days after each hit. Our more reliable intelligence about upcoming rocket attacks came from the O Club girls, the only three Vietnamese allowed into the MAG-13 compound. You could set your clock for a rocket attack if these girls didn't show up for work. About halfway through my tour at Chu Lai, we moved into air-conditioned Quonset huts, with cement floors, sandbagged head-high, inside and out. We still called them hooches. No more diving into a sandy bunker. We just rolled out of the rack onto the floor and covered the important parts with a helmet and flak jacket. I was fortunate, I heard all the rockets that came my way. However, it is a sound I will never forget.

On my second day at Chu Lai, I became acquainted with the Chu Lai Two Step. Fortunately, I was still in the process of checking in, getting my gear, etc., and was not on that day's or the next day's flight schedule. You got the Chu Lai Two Step from eating at the MAG-13 officer's mess. For the next two days, you better not be more than two steps from the nearest head. Neither Kaopectate nor sand would stop you up. You must endure. It didn't happen all of the time, but once was enough. It was greasy O Club cheeseburgers and care packages for me from then on. I can recall waiting on the taxiway for a mission while the RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) in the F-4 in front of me crawled out of the aircraft and squatted in the sand by the side of the runway. The pilots didn't have that option. Another reason to avoid the messhall.

My hoochmate, Joe, had a more serious encounter with the Two Step, enduring the effects of a serious bout during a night mission. Chu Lai had two runways in 1968-1969, a two-mile long, concrete beauty, and the original STOL strip, consisting of interlocking, perforated metal matting. A slippery and unstable surface at best, the STOL strip was strictly emergency use only for the F-4. The food poisoning hit Joe midway through his mission and by the time he arrived back near the field he was having convulsions and extreme difficulty focusing due to the pain and watering eyes. In this state, he mistakenly began his landing approach to the STOL strip. His RIO was talking him down when they learned of their mistake. The tower, Joe, and his RIO all agreed that at this point in the approach, in Joe's condition, a landing attempt on the strip was the safest thing to try. They put the airplane down on the strip, off centerline, missed the arresting gear and began skidding down the runway, from one side of the matting to the other. The tailhook finally caught the overrun gear at the end of runway ending what the RIO described as "One Wild A-- ride." No damage to the airplane or crew, but Joe was taken to sick bay in an ambulance. Later in his tour, Joe and his RIO were killed when their airplane exploded during a close air support mission.

The obvious "social center" of MAG-13 was the O Club. The original O Club was a small, plywood bar and a few tables and chairs set out in the sand under a rickety, thatched roof, overlooking Lake Robert Shaw. Next to the original O Club was a recently built larger replica, with a cement floor, longer plywood bar, a real galley, a jukebox, and an adjacent bunker.

Lake Robert Shaw was a pond with a walkway-bridge across it, overgrown with reeds, cattails and bamboo. Although other creatures lived in Lake Robert Shaw, it was more renowned for being home to a bad-tempered goose named Leroy and his flock. Leroy and his three ladies would cross over the bridge several times daily for freebies at the O Club and woe to anyone trying to cross the bridge at the same time. Leroy would lower his head and charge, leaving green, gooey bite marks from the knees down if he got close enough.

Other than launching Leroy off the Lake Robert Shaw bridge after a few beers, the O Club was fairly quiet and an automatic stop after flight ops. Mostly, we would fly, eat, fly, sleep, and fly some more. For the most part, entertainment consisted of bull sessions with your buddies over a few beers. Entertainer performances, floor shows, at the MAG-13 O Club were few and far between. On occasion, we would be lucky enough to land a non-English speaking floor show doing lip-sync to US rock and roll. Their appearance would transform the O Club into an arena of mass mayhem, with whole squadron table dances and carrier landing competitions, fighter sweeps, Leroy search parties, and worse. Rarely did the show get to complete its performance. Invariably, the entertainers were whisked into the bunker either during or immediately after the show and we never got a repeat performance from the same group. I can recall only one round-eye floor show at MAG-13 during my tour and it was an event to remember, but not in writing. The Army side of the base got the Bob Hope Show on Christmas Day that year and it was well attended by MAG-13 on their best behavior. However, the closest I got to it was a flyby returning from a mission. Merry Christmas!

The best part about being in Chu Lai was the flying. It was the only best part, other than being rotated out of Chu Lai at the end of your tour. The flying was great! The F-4's dual role as a fighter/attack aircraft allowed for a diversity of mission assignments. VMFA-115's combat missions ran the gamut from fighter cover and MiG-CAPs to interdiction bombing and close air support for troops in contact. Our available ordnance included Sidewinder and Sparrow missiles, Zuni rockets and 2.75 rocket pods, 250-pound to 2,000-pound slick and snake-eye (high drag) bombs, cluster bombs, napalm bombs, and a .50 caliber machine gun pod hung on our centerline rack. Except for the Sidewinder, I used all of it at one time or another during my tour. Our operations ranged from I Corps (the northern portion of South Vietnam) north to the Gulf of Tonkin and to the West covering the bordering countries of Laos and Cambodia. The VC and North Vietnamese didn't confine themselves to the borders of North and South Vietnam, and neither did we, albeit "unofficially." During the first half of my tour, we covered the southern panhandle of North Vietnam above the DMZ until the bombing halt. During that time, we ruled the air and it was open season for secondary targets, if you could find one. There was very little resistance in that area except for the occa-sional SAM. After the bombing halt, that area was all rebuilt, refortified and rearmed and the western sector was used as staging areas for infiltration to the South over the Ho Chi Min Trail. It always amazed me to see all the lights on the ground at night just north of the DMZ during the last half of my tour.

I can't say enough about the dedication and support of the men in our squadron that kept us up in the air, doing our job. The maintenance teams, ground support and flight line crews, ordnance crews and others, were motivated, hard working and ingenious, sometimes miraculously having a damaged F-4 up and ready to fly again after a short turnaround. We broke it; they fixed it. The enemy ripped it apart with antiaircraft and small arms fire. Our guys patched it up, fueled it, loaded it for bear, and saluted us back into the fray. Laboring under less than optimum conditions, working long and hard hours, scavenging for parts and making do with what they had to work with, they were as much a part of each mission as the aircrews. They cheered our successes and grieved for our losses as much as we did. Bonds were built between them and the aircrews that would last a lifetime. My plane captain, a twenty-year old Private First Class, not too long out of high school, took great pride in pre-flighting my airplane for each mission. Jimmy would get really upset with himself if I ever found a pre-flight discrepancy he had missed. That was a very rare occasion. He would meet my aircraft after each mission, even on his time off, participating in my post-flight inspection, picking up things I would have missed. I recall one such inspection, after bringing my aircraft back full of holes from 23-mm air bursts, he found a piece of shrapnel the size of a half-dollar that had found its resting place on the floor of my cockpit. He said, "Skipper, this one almost had our name on it!" Jimmy and I shared many a "clandestine" beer together. We quietly celebrated his promotion to Lance Corporal and not so quietly, his rotation back to the States. I still have the piece of shrapnel he found in the cockpit.

The closest of all bonds developed between a pilot and his RIO, sometimes out of necessity. Foul Phil and I were no exception, but it wasn't out of necessity. We joined VMFA-115 approximately at the same time. After a few flights with more experienced counterparts, and a few flights together, we elected to team up for the duration. Phil was a very good RIO and had a great set of eyes which saved the day more than once during a mission. He and I complemented each other's skills and together, we became very proficient at our job. He was also a lot of fun, making most flights a pleasure and even the most difficult flights bearable. Phil had an extensive and very expressive vocabulary of opprobrious language, more than a retired Parris Island drill instructor. He was gifted with an uncanny knack of being able to string an amazing number of these words together, accurately describing a situation, and leaving no doubt in anyone's mind exactly how he felt about it. He was quickly tagged Foul Phil. He was most eloquent during the floor shows and his notoriety spread. The name stuck. Oddly enough, my call sign was "Saint," a carry-over from some escapade I had in John Paul Jones' crypt. Undaunted, Phil jumped right on it, designing and then painting our helmet visor shields with an angel of death on each side, riding a can of napalm and flipping Charlie the bird! That became our emblem and I found it painted on the door of my hooch, on the door of Phil's hooch and a few other places around MAG-13 Phil thought appropriate. The helmet visor shield still rests in a place of honor on the shelf in my library.

It didn't seem long at all before I had progressed from FNG to Section Lead and had acquired the look ... worn flight gloves, clean flight suits that still smelled, faded jungle utilities and a salty cover, and a Fu Manchu mustache. Shortly after takeoff you were over "Indian Country" and experience and confidence came quickly. Of my 225 combat missions, by far the greatest number of mission assignments were for close air support. Of these, the most satisfying to me were in support of troops in close contact with the enemy. Usually, these missions came while standing Hot Pad assignments. Technically, these were also the most demanding missions, requiring close coordination, limiting run-in tracks, continuous jinking maneuvers and pinpoint accuracy. Typical ordnance delivered during these missions were napalm, rockets and .50 caliber. Compounding the risk inherent in these missions was enemy ground fire, terrain and sometimes weather. All of our squadron's lost aircraft and KIAs, which sadly were higher than average, were during close air support missions.

Some of my missions were more "meaningful" than others. You know, the kind you really aren't comfortable talking about unless it's with someone who has been there, done that. However, writing about some of them has had a certain cathartic effect for me, as the discomfort begins to fade with the telling. Chu Lai, RVN was not only a place, it was a time. It was a time to serve my country, a time of war, a time of passion and compassion, a time of supreme sacrifice, and a time full of moments of living on the very edge of being. I learned more about myself during that year than at any other time in my life. I'm very thankful just to be here to talk about it.

Yet, I'd do it all again in a New York minute!


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