From Chapter Six, “Shootdown”
The four Spads went feet dry over North Vietnam twenty minutes after takeoff. The flight regularly changed altitude and heading so as to keep radar-controlled anti-aircraft weapons from locking onto the inbound flight. While the skies over the gulf had been crystalline blue, the weather deteriorated inland. It was the coastal monsoon season, and they flew through a torrential downpour that lowered the ceiling and visibility. At one point the flight dropped to “700 feet in the soup” trying to follow the terrain while keeping each other in sight. After some tense flying — their cockpit maps showed low-slung mountains of 1,500 feet or higher in the area — they finally broke into the clear. They regained altitude, and soon crossed Mugia Pass in the Annamese Cordillera range. The rugged 1,370-foot pass was the gateway to landlocked Laos, and the principal point of entry to the Ho Chi Ming trail.
Looking down into Laos for the first time, Dieter saw a vast jungle — the “deepest green” he had ever seen — broken by an occasional outcrop of whitish, sharply-chiseled cliffs. He thought the terrain looked “impenetrable.” This was not the tree-studded woods of the Black Forest he knew so well or the arid openness of Warner Springs where he had displayed his escape and evasion skills. A unsettling thought occurred to him that if he was ever shot down over this forsaken place, he would “never make it out.”
As they continued westward, there were less jagged peaks and occasional gaps in the jungle — now and then a field that looked as if it was being farmed. As the topography changed, so did the climate. Leaving behind the coastal monsoon, they entered a different season, one that was hot and dry. A strange “murky and yellow” haze hung in the air that looked to Dieter like Los Angeles smog. He would find out later it was caused by rice farmers slashing, burning and clearing areas of woods and jungle for planting next season’s crop.
Dieter’s panoramic tour was interrupted by a radio call from Hassett advising that he was experiencing radio problems, and directing Johns to take over the lead. In the #2 position of the four-plane formation, Dieter hoped to stay where he was and be wingman for Spook, whom he considered a “great flier.” Too, this was Spook’s second combat cruise, and even though he was still a Lieutenant, Junior Grade — having been passed over several times for promotion — that had everything to do with his “not making career-enhancing moves” and nothing with his flying proficiency. (During one memorable happy hour at the O Club, Spook, “pretty well tuned up,” grabbed the fox stole of then squadron CO Mel Blixt’s wife off a bar stool, yelled, “Wild animal” and threw it to the floor and jumped up and down on it.) To Dieter’s displeasure, he was ordered to drop back into his regular spot behind Hassett, so that Spook’s wingman, Denny Enstam, could take over the #2 spot. Without keying the radio mike, Dieter swore loudly at the news. Only Spook, who happened to look over at Dieter’s plane that moment, saw his reaction: Dieter angrily jumping up and down, and pounding his fist on the glare shield above the instrument panel. The way it worked was that a wingman stayed with his flight leader. The fact that Dieter reviled Hassett, and vice versa, meant nothing.
In truth, Dieter’s feelings for Hassett were only part of his frustration. Dropping back to fly Hassett’s wing made Dieter #4 on the upcoming bombing run, a position known as tail-end charlie. After several planes had rolled in to drop bombs, the gunners on the ground usually had a pretty good idea where the last guy was coming from. By then, there was ample time for all the guns to be lined up accurately. Even this early in their wartime deployment there was growing concern in the squadron with this method of dive bombing. The prevailing theory among the higher-ups was that orderly, single-file bombing was necessary to avoid midair collisions. The senior officers had used it in Korea and were okay with it — of course, given their seniority they were now usually leading a flight over a target and the first to roll in. The junior officers “knew something was wrong” with this unimaginative approach; since they were most often the tail-end charlies, they were especially apprehensive about being the ones getting shot down as a result of such predictable tactics.
The radio snapped to life with a report of a Spad pilot from the carrier Kitty Hawk going down in southern Laos. Now in the lead, Spook thought “the heck with the bombing mission” — helping rescue a downed pilot was infinitely more important. His told the others his plan: since they were only minutes away from their target they would each get rid of their bombs in a single run, then head south as a group to join the RESCAP.
Minutes later came another radio call from Spook: “Five Zero Seven, rolling in.” Now that Spook had found the target, he would be the first to commence a glide-bombing attack in the direction of west-northwest to drop all of his 500-pounders at once, nearly two tons of explosives. The other pilots were to follow four or five seconds after the guy ahead of them had rolled in.
Dieter flipped on the master arming switch, and checked his altitude: 9,000 feet. When it was his turn, the target had disappeared under his plane. In training, they practiced having the two 20 mm cannon barrels on the left wing directly on the target. He banked and yawed the plane until he had a better angle of attack. Having fallen behind the others now, he would be that much later over the target. He rolled left and kept going until he was nearly inverted. The Skyraider screamed earthward at about a 50 degree angle, accelerating to 400 mph. Throwing his head back, Dieter was peering up at the approaching ground when his plane lurched and began to shake violently.
Dieter let go of the throttle and put both hands on the stick. He tried to call out to his squadron mates but the radio was dead — “no side tone, no click, nothing.” He let the nose fall through the dive until it was pointing down at the ground. With his trigger finger he squeezed the button on the handle of the control stick, sending his bombs away. He pulled the stick to his belly, and the aircraft leapt with the extra weight gone. As they swooped like a hawk on a sudden updraft, Dieter was pressed into the seat by G forces that made him five or six times heavier than his normal weight. Keeping back pressure on the stick, he let the nose come level with the horizon. Suddenly, a bright explosion “like a lightening strike” off the right wing sent the plane “tumbling through the air.” Pieces of metal flew past the canopy, and the engine stopped. Fighting to regain control, Dieter instinctively carried out the emergency procedures he had learned. His hands darted over the instruments trying to restart the engine, which coughed once, then nothing.
With part of the right wing missing and the engine gone, Dieter knew there was no hope of his making it to the coast for a feet-wet rescue. He hit the switch to blow the canopy. The boom of the air-pressure bottle going off above his left shoulder was followed by the sound of air rushing overhead with the canopy gone. He unbuckled his shoulder harness and seat belt. He wore a seat-pack parachute, and the metal release handle was secured across his chest. He pulled out the donut cushion wedged between him and the rock-hard chute pack, and climbed up onto the seat. He had practiced the procedure in training and knew about staying below the powerful airstream until he was ready to jump, and then how to roll out so as not to be blown back into the plane’s big tail. As the unguided Spad went through “wild gyrations,” he kept being knocked back into the seat. Another nearby explosion made the plane “shiver from nose to tail.” The Spad had lost altitude, and at that point Dieter decided to ride the plane down. Also, he didn’t want to be swinging in a parachute over people who were shooting up at him. It was a given that a Skyraider could hold up in a crash-landing better than a jet, due to it being sturdier and able to land at slower speeds and shorter spaces. Before buckling himself back in, Dieter undid the parachute straps so as not to become entangled after crash landing.
Dieter spotted a ridge to his right. Although he could not tell if there was any open ground suitable for a landing on the other side, he headed that way to crash-land as far away as possible from the area he had bombed — a tenet taught at SERE to give downed aviators the best chance of evading capture.
As his powerless plane “wobbled” closer to the ridge, Dieter saw he did not have enough altitude to clear it. With the wind-milling propeller providing a small amount of forward energy, he tried lowering the flaps for additional lift. Luckily, the flaps still worked. With a last reach skyward, the wounded Spad flared up over the 1,500-foot ridge, clearing the densely-wooded top by no more than twenty feet. As it did, he tossed out his flight charts, authenticator codes, and other classified materials so they wouldn’t be found inside the plane. With the Spad’s glide ratio of 10 feet forward for every one foot down, he knew he would be coming down in three or four miles.
Dieter saw off in the distance — about three or four miles away — what looked to be a small clearing. It seemed like an unbelievable stroke of luck. As he came closer, he began to think he might overshoot the field. Amazed that he could still steer the plane, Dieter began to swing the aircraft from side to side to drop lower. Passing over several huts on his left, he saw on the far side of the clearing a solid wall of trees. He would try to set down in the field short of the wooded area. His airspeed indicator showed 180 mph, some 60 mph faster than a normal landing. But there was little he could do now to slow down. Only then did he realize that it wasn’t open ground after all but a field of trees that had been cut off three or four feet above the ground. The entire field — about 300 yards in length — was pockmarked with stumps and large felled trees. Dieter knew he had picked the wrong place to land, but his eight-ton plane had become the world’s heaviest glider and there could be no turning back now.
Looming ahead in the center of the clearing was a single tree about 100 feet tall with only a few limbs and not a single leaf. He didn’t want to hit the tree head-on because the impact might crush the cockpit with him inside. In one of those quick decisions that pilots must make in such situations, he decided to let one of the wings take the impact. It was then he realized he hadn’t dropped the external fuel tanks, which he should have done when the engine died. The last thing he needed was surplus fuel to catch on fire. He pulled the emergency release handle, and both tanks fell away. As they still carried more than 100 gallons of fuel, the plane reacted to the lighter weight by ballooning upward — exactly what Dieter did not want because he was already over the clearing and had to get the plane down. He pushed the stick forward with both hands and “boresighted” the nose on the lower part of the dead tree. When he was about to hit the tree, he kicked hard on the left rudder pedal. In what was to be the heavily-damaged Spad’s last controlled response, it obediently yawed left. The tree struck where Dieter planned: near where the wing attached to the fuselage. The tree trunk broke off, and what remained of the plane’s right wing was ripped from the fuselage.
On impact, the left wing swung forward and down, and as it did the wingtip struck the ground. The entire wing snapped off the fuselage. The plane’s nose dug into the earth; the wind-milling prop chopping up dirt and wood chips. Dieter held the stick in a death grip as the Spad bounced into the air, careened over to the right, and then began tumbling end over end.
A tree stump ripped through the side of the cockpit, narrowly missing Dieter’s right leg. As the fuselage cart-wheeled five or six times on the ground, he was pushed and pulled by the force of deceleration. His helmet was wrenched off his head and flew out the open cockpit. He watched a corner of the glass windscreen start to break in slow motion. When a big piece finally broke away, it struck him on one side of his head. Then, in a surreal scene, he watched the entire tail section tumble by. Smelling oil and gas and terrified of being burned, Dieter closed his eyes and covered his face with his arms.
When the world stopped spinning and the “continuous grinding and jerking” ended, he opened his eyes. He was hanging sideways in a darkened abyss. The cockpit was filled with green foliage and a thick dust that started him coughing. The fuselage was on one side, and the metal rail for the canopy was bent inward, jamming into his side. He managed to unbuckle his shoulder harness and seat belt but found that he was still caught and couldn’t get out.
When he came to, he was on his back 100 feet away.
Dazed, he looked at the wreckage. He was surprised there was no fire. A load of aviation gas remained in the internal fuel tank, as the drop tanks were routinely used up first. He remembered turning off the gas, battery and ignition in the last moments before the plane hit the ground. He had no recollection, however, of getting out of the plane. He was still wearing his survival vest and waist pack, and next to him were a few things he had obviously removed from the cockpit. He tested his limbs to see if they all worked; his left knee hurt but nothing seemed to be broken.
He knew the locals would come looking for him. The sound of the crash had been thunderous, and those huts he had seen were only a short distance away. He rose to his feet, and “stumbling and falling like a drunkard” he moved as quickly as he could through the clearing toward the jungle.
When he reached the end of the clearing, he stopped. Steadying himself on weak legs, he took a last look back. A “dust cloud” from the crash still swirled above the wrecked Spad that brought him safely down to the ground.
Then, Dieter stepped into the jungle.