Jarhead Adventures

By Cliff Judkins [1]

Chu Lai AB 1966At the time [in 1966], there was only the expeditionary field of 4,000 feet of shifting metal.  All takeoffs were with Jet-Assisted Take Off (JATO) bottles (lots of things went wrong with these —especially at night) and all landings were arrested.  One day we taxied in to VMA-223 from a mission and noticed an Air Force C-123 parked at the main ramp.  It had made an emergency landing at Chu Lai.

That night at the club, the only passenger from the C-123 was there.  He was an F-100 pilot in his flight suit on crutches and with two broken legs.  Of course, we wanted to know how he broke his legs.  He told us that he was an F-100F (two-seater) Misty Fast FAC (Airborne Forward Air Controller).  The aircrew took turns flying front and back seat.  He said that it was his day to go up North in the back seat.  They found the target for the F-105s and marked it with 5″ white phosphorus (WP) rockets.  Then, after the 105s were done, they were supposed to fly low and fast and take an after-action picture of the target.  He was the guy with the hand-held camera.

Of course, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) knew the routine and began shooting the shit out of them.  The front seat guy did a lot of jinking and somehow, the lens came off the camera and disappeared.  The aircraft safely got “feet wet” and in-flight refueled for their return trip home down south to Tui Hoa. Our guy said that he kept looking for the lens but the front seater said to forget it.  They would find it after landing.  Upon landing and taxi back, the front seater called “Canopy Clear” and raised the canopy.  The lens had landed near one of the actuators for the ejection seat.  The back-seater said that he heard this tremendous explosion and realized what had happened when he got seat separation about 250 feet up at the top of the arc and, looking down saw a miniature F-100 below him missing a canopy.  He said that it was like a “Wily Coyote” cartoon.

There was a point where you stop going up, a pause, and then a rapid going down thing.  The F-100 didn’t have a zero/zero seat either (needed 100 knots and 100 feet).  So, he said that he had always heard that in a long fall, one dies of a heart attack before one hits the ground.  So he said he kept shouting: “Come on heart attack.”

The drogue chute had deployed and that kept his feet straight down.  It was real steep near the taxiway, they had been doing a lot of excavating, and it had rained.  He hit feet first.  The un-deployed chute saved his back and kept it straight.  He skidded down the embankment into a large pool of water. He had two simple fractures. Needless to say, he couldn’t buy another drink that night.

This next story is from a pilot who was in VMFA 314 at Chu Lai in ’69.  Vietnam era F4 guys will appreciate this story.  Here’s another ‘bad day’ from Chu Lai:

F-4B Phantom II VMFA 323I was one of a half-dozen replacements who checked-in with MAG-13 on August 2.  We were not all assigned to VMFA-314 though.  There were two other combat squadrons in the Air Group: VMFA-115 (the Able Eagles), and VMFA-323 (the Death Rattlers).  All three squadrons flew the McDonnell Douglas F4B Phantom II and shared common living areas.  Although we may have been in different squadrons, eventually we all got to know each other very well.

The first thing we six rookies did was attend an Air Group briefing in an underground bunker protected by a thick layer of sandbags.  This bunker served as our group intelligence center.  (When I was there in `66, we used a house trailer. I guess things got hotter when the gooks realized that I left and started flying for Delta).  Suddenly, an urgent radio call interrupted our briefing. We listened as one of VMFA-115s aircraft radioed-in to report a problem.  The aircraft had been hit by enemy ground fire and could not lower its landing gear.  The pilot was going to attempt a belly landing on the runway.  At that news, we all raced outside near the runway to grab a good spot from which to watch the crash landing.

Crash crews raced to cover the runway with a layer of fire retardant foam while the damaged F4 circled overhead, burning down its load of fuel.  Two arresting cables were strung across the middle of the runway.  The cables were anchored on each end by a chain made with heavy, 40-pound links.  The plan was for the F4 to lower his tail hook, to belly-land in the foam, to catch one of the arresting wires, and to come to a screeching halt.

It did not quite happen that way.

After burning off most of his fuel, the pilot gingerly lowered the airplane onto the foamed runway.  A spark set off the fumes in the jet’s empty wing tanks and they erupted into flames.  All one could see racing down the runway were two wingtips protruding from an orange and black ball of fire heading toward the arresting cables.  The F4 hit the first arresting cable. We watched the cable snap and hurl its 40-pound chain links skyward.  Then the plane hit the second arresting cable.  It also parted and flung its chain links.  The aircraft was now just a ball of fire heading toward the end of the runway.

Then we heard, Boom!  Boom!

The pilot had lit his afterburners.  He was attempting to takeoff without wheels!  As the aircraft roared toward the end of the runway, it slowly struggled skyward.  It got airborne and began to climb nearly vertically.  Then, both the pilot and his back-seater, the radar intercept officer (RIO), ejected.

We stared in wonder as the aircraft crashed into the nearby ocean.  The two crewmen slowly floated down in their parachutes.  The wind carried them over the ocean and they too soon splashed down.  A rescue helicopter was on the scene immediately.  Both of the F-4 crewmen, treading water, raised their right hand.  This was a signal to the chopper that they were unharmed.  The helicopter slowly lowered itself and plucked the pilot out of the water and into the safety of the helicopter.  The helicopter then turned its attention to the RIO.  As the helicopter slowly lowered itself over the RIO, the helicopter pilot suddenly lost control of his chopper, and he crashed into the water on top of the RIO.  As soon as the chopper hit the water, its pilot regained control, got airborne again, and yanked the RIO from the water.  Although the RIO was rescued safely, his leg was broken when the helicopter crashed on top of him.

That night at the Officers Club, the RIO sat with his leg elevated and encased in a full-leg cast.  As he imbibed a few, he related his story: “First, we got the shit shot out of us.  But, hey, that’s okay —we weren’t hurt.  Then, we survived a belly landing.  But, that was okay too, we weren’t hurt.  Then the pilot decided he’d take off without wheels, but that worked out well too.  Then we survived an aircraft ejection [2] and water landing, but that was also okay, we weren’t hurt.  Then the damn rescue helicopter crashed on me and broke my leg!”

Endnotes:

[1] In 1963, (then) First Lieutenant Cliff Judkins experienced an in-flight fire while refueling during a trans-Pacific flight.  After he ejected from his aircraft, his parachute failed to open.  He fell 15,000 feet into the Pacific … and survived. You can read about it here.

[2] The F-4 B was fitted with the Martin-Baker ejection seat.  Powerful rockets launched the pilot and RIO seats out of the aircraft, propelling them clear of a disabled aircraft.  Most everyone who ejected experienced significant back trauma, including broken back.

The Mascot’s Suicide

Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina is a spit-n-polish duty station.  Thousands of visitors pass through the main gate at PISC every year. They are mostly the families of newly minted U. S. Marines who make the journey to see their sons and daughters graduate from recruit training (also known as boot camp) [1].  There is a sign at the entrance to the base that reads, “We Marines do two things really well: we win battles, and we make Marines.”

PISC 001The term “spit-n-polish” means that the base grounds and its many buildings and facilities are maintained in top-notch condition.  Neither do Marine officers and NCOs allow any slouching, hand-warming, spitting, chewing gum, ear buds, umbrellas, or hand holding with the ladies while in uniform. The island is well guarded, and all permanent personnel are constantly on the lookout for some crybaby who thinks that recruit training is too tough and attempts to swim off the island in shark, barracuda, and snake infested waters.  Consequently, after hours, in addition to the military police, each battalion has a duty officer, usually in the grade of First Lieutenant, a duty staff noncommissioned officer, and a duty clerk.  The Recruit Training Regiment also employs a duty officer —the regimental commander’s representative after duty hours, usually in the grade of Captain, and a staff NCO and a clerk assistant.their

While the likelihood of terrorists or die-hard Japanese soldiers attacking MCRD is remote, Marine Corps units are 24/7 operations.  Battalion and regimental duty officers have their “special orders,” which occasionally cause them to leave their post and make periodic inspection tours through recruit training area.  When these officers are making their rounds, the staff duty NCO takes charge and listens for the phone to ring.  If it does, it usually means that something is going on that requires his or her immediate attention.

Now, what follows may be a Marine Corps sea story; I have no personal knowledge of it.  And, for clarification, the only difference between a Marine Corps sea story and a fairy tale is in the telling of it.  Fairy tales begin with “Once upon a time.”  Sea stories begin with, “Now this ain’t no shit.”

USMC BulldogOne late afternoon, the regimental duty officer, who was a very fine young captain, executed his first order of business upon assuming his post at 1600.  He directed the duty clerk to take the regimental mascot, a bulldog named Smedley, outside to the rear of the headquarters building.  Smedley led a charmed life.  He had a spiffy doghouse with his name stenciled on it, it was painted in the Marine Corps’ official colors, and it had a fine roof.  Taking the dog out was an everyday occurrence, needed of course to keep the animal from laying land mines all over the regimental headquarters.  Bulldogs are not known for their self-discipline.  The regimental commander liked his dog, but he didn’t like having to clean up after him.

According to this story, the Regimental Duty Officer’s (RDO) special instructions required that while out of doors, Smedley was to be fed, watered, and then brought back inside the headquarters building at or about 2200 hours, which is the official hour of Taps.  Why this was necessary when the dog had his own house is a mystery.  However, at about 2130, the RDO received a telephone call from one of the battalions on a matter that demanded his attention, and he shortly departed his post to attend to the problem, whatever it was.  Before leaving the command post, the RDO reminded his staff duty NCO bring Smedley in from outside at 2200 hours.

The issue that required the RDO to leave his post turned out to be a serious one, and the captain was busy for several hours.  No one had given much thought about the dog until somewhere between midnight and 0100 hours.  Sitting at his desk, the Captain turned to the NCO and said, “Damn, we forgot to bring the dog in!”  The duty clerk was sent to get the regimental mascot.  After a few minutes, the corporal came back inside the building and said that he couldn’t find Smedley.  Shit.  Breaking out a flashlight, the Captain his staff NCO went outside to look for the dog.  Eventually, they found Smedley — dead.

The animal had a history of chasing after things —typical of bulldogs, who in addition to lacking self-discipline, aren’t very bright.  What apparently happened was that the dog jumped up on top of his doghouse, and while seated there, spotted a car traveling on an adjacent road.  Smedley leaped from his doghouse, over a nearby chain-link fence, and promptly ran out of chain. Cause of death, strangulation.

Promptly at 0800 the next morning, the RDO made a report of his watch to the regimental executive officer (XO).  The XO was not pleased, of course, but the regimental commander was livid.  By 0815 the captain imagined that he’d seen his last promotion.  In time, the captain’s predicament would take a turn for the worse. The regimental commander directed his XO to press charges against the captain for negligence of duty.  With charges preferred, the captain had but two choices: he could either accept regimental nonjudicial punishment, or he could demand a court-martial.  After consulting with a civilian attorney in the nearby town of Beaufort, the Captain demanded a court-martial.

After evaluating all the facts surrounding Smedley’s death, along with those of the “incident” that called the RDO away from his usual post, the civilian attorney made an appointment with the regimental commander to see if he could persuade the colonel to drop the charges.  The CO could not be persuaded, and the matter progressed to scheduling a Special Court-martial.  Before the court convened, however, the civilian attorney (a southern gentleman) made another appointment with the regimental commander.

“Colonel,” said the civilian attorney, “my purpose in requesting this meeting is to again ask that you reconsider your actions this case.  I am asking once more that you drop all charges against my client.”

“Dropping the charges is off the table in this discussion, sir,” said the Colonel.

“Well, now Colonel,” continued the attorney, “before you make a hasty decision, let me acquaint you with the facts of this case, as I intend to present them to the court and to the press.”

“The press?” asked the Colonel.

“Indeed, suh.  This is a very stringent action you’ve taken against a very fine Marine Corps officer, and I intend to defend him as best I can, including, as I said, in the court of public opinion.”

“Well, you’re entitled to do as you see fit,” said the Colonel, “but press involvement is not going to persuade me in this matter.”

“That is as I suspected, Colonel,” said the attorney. “But let me just take a moment of your time, as I said, to acquaint you with the facts of this case —as I intend to present them.  We believe, and I shall argue this strenuously, that the dog . . . his name was Smedley?”

“Yes, that’s right,” the Colonel answered.

“That’s an odd name for a dog, don’t you think?”

“It’s a tradition,” said the colonel.

“Well, in any case, we believe that Smedley, being unhappy here at the regiment, and being unable to communicate that melancholy to you, began exhibiting a pattern of disturbing behavior.  Chasing automobiles, loose bowels … things of that sort.  We believe that in his final days, Smedley was a very unhappy mascot, not of sound mind, and possibly, clinically depressed.  I will argue that he committed suicide by throwing himself over the fence, thereby hanging himself to death.”

“What?” said the Colonel.  “That is preposterous!”

“Well, preposterous as it may sound, that is what we intend to argue before the court.  I have witnesses that will attest to the dog’s aberrant behavior.  And as I said, suh, the press is going to love this story.  I daresay people will be talking about this case up and down the entire East Coast of these United States.  And, uh, I do believe your Marine headquarters is located on the east coast, isn’t it suh?”

The charges filed against the captain were dropped that very day.

Endnote:

[1] There are two recruit training centers: Parris Island, South Carolina and San Diego, California.