The entry to the Playboy Club was not what you might suspect. No sophisticated foyer with muted music and a warm greeting by a Bunny that an aerospace engineer would reject due to her high drag profile. Our entry had curious names, like the Bicycle Seat, the Heart, the Parrot’s Beak, or the Light Bulb. Through those doorways, we entered the Ho Chi Minh Trail area in Laos, adjacent to the North-South Vietnamese demilitarized zone.
The names referred to geographical landmarks easily made out from the air, shaped like the title they carried. We flew the TA-4 aircraft; our mission was high speed, low-level visual reconnaissance. In short, we were after intelligence concerning troop movements, truck parks, supply areas, guns—anything to help take the guesswork out of the command estimate of enemy capabilities.
We weren’t always called Playboys. In 1966, we used the call sign Condole and did mostly support work: calling in close air support, adjusting artillery, and coordinating naval gunfire. Some referred to us as “Fast FAC,” or fast moving forward air controllers. We used a trusty old two-seater called the TF-9J Cougar, which proved slow and ill designed for mission requirements. The most frequent gripe was the radio: we had to wire an infantry backpack PRC-25 radio to the glare shield in the back seat, remove the flight helmet, and talk over a hand-held mike.
In 1969, the tandem seat TA-4 Skyhawk replaced the Cougar, and with it came the call sign “Playboy.”
We were a rag tag outfit, much like Pappy Boyington’s Black Sheep in World War II. We became an integral part of the Marine Air Group’s Headquarters and Maintenance Squadron (H&MS), which performed the important job of intermediate maintenance for the fighter and attack squadrons within the Group. In that respect, it was NOT rag tag. When it came to flying, the aircrews came from everywhere. Usually they were shuffling paper in a staff section somewhere within the Air Wing. The nucleus was, of course, a handful of pilots assigned to H&MS.
The men who joined the Da Nang Playboy Club were volunteers, and carefully screened by the skipper. The crews were selected based on reputation, experience (one previous combat tour), and demonstrated professionalism. Initially composed of only pilots, four Naval Flight Officers (NFOs) were accepted during 1970. Three of the four were FAA rated pilots, and two of the three were eventually able to use their flying skills during the course of the program. Toward the end of the mission, the process of selecting pilots and aircrew was highly discriminating.
Our working area on the trail covered about 2,700 square miles, and we flew between one hundred and 1,500 feet above ground level as fast as that little bucket of bolts would go. It took quite a few flights before pilots and aircrew developed their 400-knot eyeball, but we did engage our targets, and we did collect valuable intelligence. The key to our mission effectiveness was “trail experience.” Aircrew eventually developed the capability of determining whether a group of bushes had moved from one day to the next, or if a clump of vegetation hadn’t been there the day before. Moving bushes usually received a bomb, or two.
And, we learned to respect the enemy. Under constant surveillance and attack, he moved people, supplies, and constructed vast road networks with only basic equipment. And he did this in a systematic and successful way against the most highly industrialized and technologically sophisticated nation in the world. From that experience came the frustrating question, “How can they do that when we’re working so hard to oppose them?” The answer is both simple and complex; it forms the basis of our question of involvement in the first place.
We considered ourselves an unusual group, yet looking back we were only a cross section from any town in the United States. We had a Baptist preacher, and a hard-drinking, cigar chewing poker player. Some of these men became legends in their own time, now forgotten except among their comrades.
In the 19 months of the Playboy operations, we lost only one aircraft. Rick Lewis won the Silver Star by helping his back-seater during a rescue effort, and calling in air strikes against enemy gun emplacements. Don Schwaby, in another incident, had just entered the operations area when a small arms round hit the nose of his aircraft, went through the instrument panel, and continued into his oxygen mask. The slug came to rest between his lips, against his teeth, and never even broke the skin. Not many guys catch bullets that way.
The only death that resulted from the program was a shock to the squadron. After operating for so long in such a high-threat environment, we all had taken several hits. But we all came back. After all, Rick Lewis was a walking example. Lieutenant Colonel George Ward, groomed to take command of the squadron in only a few weeks, was shot through the head while on a mission. The back-seater flew the plane back to the base. A squadron commander shapes the personality of his unit; we all felt his loss. Reacting to his loss, higher authority imposed an altitude restriction on the squadron —no lower than five grand. But that was too high to do the job, so back down into the grass we flew. Later, as I watched the evacuation of Saigon on television, I thought about George Ward.
The Playboy Program ended during September 1970. I returned to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing at Cherry Point, North Carolina in December of that year. For a long time, I felt that I had been involved in the most exciting, professionally demanding, and personally challenging era of my life. And I was content in the knowledge that, as Patton suggested, if my son asked me what I did in Viet Nam, I would NOT have to tell him, I shoveled shit in Louisiana.
In the years that have passed, several Playboys have tried to hold a reunion. It has never been successful. In the past, our duty assignments spread us so far apart, and since then we have all retired from active service. I’m quite certain our after-action reports gather dust in an obscure file drawer somewhere… As a group, we paid some very special dues to our country, to our Corps, and ourselves. Yet, if my son asks me what is or has been especially exciting to me as a Marine, I’ll have to answer, “The job I did today, and the one I get to do tomorrow.”
Major Paul Webb Chapman, USMC (Retired)