The following is a selection from Heroes of Vietnam, a special edition of The Saturday Evening Post that honors the valor of America’s fighting forces in a war that nearly tore this country apart. To order your copy, go to saturdayeveningpost.com/vietnamheroes.
Originally published June 4, 1966
The workhorse fighter of the air war in Vietnam is the Douglas Skyraider, an ancient holdover commissioned just after World War II. It can carry a huge and varied load of ordnance: napalm, white phosphorus, high-explosive bombs from 100 to 1,000 pounds, rockets, and anti-personnel weapons.
Burdened with all this ordnance — up to 7,000 pounds of it — a Skyraider can still hang above an advancing ground force for two hours or more, while high-speed jets have to strike within a few minutes. Infantrymen are a notoriously cynical group of people where the Air Force is concerned, but a sizable minority of them will say that they are alive because of a strike at the right time by an A-1E, as the plane is known.
One of the men who fly the Skyraider in Vietnam is Air Force Maj. Bernard Francis Fisher, 39, of Kuna, Idaho. “After flying jets, it’s not much of a thrill,” 28 he says. “But it is a real stalwart bird and will take a lot of punishment.” Another is Maj. Dafford Wayne Myers, 46, of Newport, Washington, who says, “It’s about as much fun as flying a dump truck.”
Fisher is a freckled, sandy-haired Mormon who does not drink, smoke, or curse, although he is remarkably at his ease in a squadron of men who do all three. Myers, who got the nickname “Jump” while a soda jerk in high school, is a chain-smoking nonconformist who once made his living running billiard parlors and wears low-quarter shoes, in de ance of regulations that require flight boots.
Both men are superb pilots. Myers flew P-38s in combat in the Paci c for two years during World War II. Fisher, who got his commission in 1951, won the Distinguished Flying Cross last October for nding a downed pilot in a Viet Cong stronghold and pro- tecting him with such ri elike accuracy with his stra ng that a helicopter got in and picked the pilot up.
Myers commands a detachment of the 602nd Fighter Squadron from a tent encampment of an airstrip at Qui Nho’n in the central highlands. Fisher is 80 miles away, at the First Air Commando Squadron at Pleiku. During the battle of A Shau Valley, they were strangers in that brisk and impersonal radio-code world of the fighter pilot — where Myers was known only as Surf 41 and Fisher as Hobo 51.
A Shau is a desolate place, strategic in this particular war and not much good for anything else. The U.S. Special Forces camp there was a key spot for harassing the infiltration of North Vietnamese regulars across the Laotian border into South Vietnam. On March 9, 1966, it was defended by 17 U.S. troops, one company of 140 Nungs (mercenaries), and 250 ragtag Vietnamese irregulars, plus their wives, mistresses, and children.
The battle of A Shau began at 2 a.m., as the North Vietnamese began digging trenches below the south wall of the fort. Two hours later, an intensive mortar barrage hit the fort, and it continued all day at the rate of three rounds a minute. The first infantry assault, against the south wall of the fort, began just after sunup. Capt. Tennis Carter shot 16 of the attackers. “After that we all switched to automatic, and nobody kept count.” The first assault was repulsed that morning, and the North Vietnamese retreated to their trenches below the walls.
From the air that day, A Shau was a thick cushion of clouds. Early in the morning an Air Force AC-47 got shot down. Three of the crew were killed manning a perimeter defense around the plane before Air Force helicopters picked up three survivors.
In the prefab operations shack alongside the airstrip at Pleiku, Maj. Bernard Fisher was handed a slip of paper with a set of map coordinates to a target of top priority — A Shau Valley, a place Fisher had barely heard of. He flew there on top of the clouds by radio beam.
Once he got down through the clouds to the valley floor, he began his strafing passes around the perimeter of the fort. He went back up and down again three times that afternoon, bringing behind him one med-evac helicopter, which got some of the badly wounded men out of the fort. Behind him came two more flights of A-1Es for bombing and strafing runs, two C-123s for supply drops, and two B-57s with rockets and napalm.
At 6:00 the next morning, an Air Force colonel woke Fisher up by telephone to tell him that he was putting him in for the Silver Star for this extraordinary achievement. The recommendation would get lost in the events of that day, March 10.
After the colonel got him up, Fisher wrote a long letter home to his wife. Then he took off at 10:05 on a routine bombing-and-straffing mission with Capt. Francisco (Paco) Vazquez, 29, flying another A-1E just off the tip of his wing. They had been airborne only 10 minutes when Control radioed a new set of coordinates. “I just jotted it down and said ‘A Shau,’ and Control said ‘yes.’ Then I started to worry about the weather, because I knew it was just as thick up there as it had been the day before.”
That morning, when Fisher and Vazquez reached the clouds above A Shau, they found four other Skyraiders milling around looking for a hole. Fisher found it, a light spot in the clouds almost exactly where he had found an opening the day before. He led the five other planes down. Two of the Skyraiders took up a holding pattern, and the other three planes followed Fisher down a narrow valley to the fort at A Shau.
Pilots call this valley “the tube.” It is less than a mile across. is was where the AC-47 had been shot down the day before. By the morning of March 10, the ridgelines along the tube were studded with at least 20 antiaircraft weapons positions. Fisher, and every other pilot who came into A Shau that day, had to dive down 8,000 feet through the clouds, pull out at tree-top level beneath the clouds, and then run this six-mile tube to get to the camp itself. ey felt the bullets thudding into their planes, but they had no room to maneuver until they ran the tube.
It was at this time, in midmorning of March 10, the South Vietnamese irregulars, who made up more than half the strength of the garrison, raced to defect to the enemy and turned their guns on the Americans and Nungs. With the help of the defectors, the North Vietnamese stormed the south wall and overran it.
“I came down to about 50 feet and I got them on my FM channel,” says Fisher. “I said, ‘Where do you want the ordnance?’ they said, ‘Hit the south wall.’ So I told Paco to set them up for strafe.” Just behind Fisher and Paco was Jump Myers, and just behind Myers was his wingman, Capt. Hubert King. King was almost through the tube when he took a blast of automatic-weapons fire that missed killing him by inches. He took his Skyraider straight up through the clouds and headed home. That left Fisher and Paco and Jump Myers, who kept hitting the south wall. Paco Vazquez says that “that radio operator in the fort calling us in was the coolest daddy in the world. They were all holed up in the north bunker, and the V.C. were all around them, but when he called for ordnance and told us where to put it, it was like he was ordering a bag of groceries.”
Myers had just pulled out of his second strafing pass when he got hit by a burst of fire from an automatic weapon. “I hadn’t been over A Shau more than ve minutes when I got it,” he recalled. “It was a good solid hit that shook the whole plane and rattled my teeth.
“Almost immediately the engine started sputtering and cutting out, and then it conked out for good. The cockpit filled up with smoke. I got on the radio and said, ‘I’ve been hit and hit hard.’ Bernie [Fisher] came right back and said, ‘You’re on fire and burning clear back to your tail.’ I was way too low to bail out, and I said, ‘I’ll have to put her down on the strip.’ I never saw the runway because of the smoke blowing back in my face, but I got a rough fix on my position by looking over my left shoulder out the canopy. From that point on, Bernie talked me down.
“I held my breath for as long as I could, but then I started eating a lot of smoke. Bernie said, ‘You look pretty good … get your gear down and jettison your ordnance.’ I was still carrying 12 fragmentation bombs and two white phosphorus that might have gone off on impact. I pulled the manual-release switch and dumped them just short of the runway. Bernie said, ‘ at looks good, that looks good,’ but about five seconds later he said, ‘You’re too hot, you’re too hot, get your gear up — you’ll have to belly her in.'”
Myers yanked up his landing gear without ever having seen the strip through the smoke. The wheels were still coming up as Myers touched down, and they crumpled under the plane. His bombs had dropped clear, but his belly tank of high-octane fuel, which should have jettisoned with the ordnance, had gotten hung, and it exploded with a roar when he hit the strip. Surf 41 was a ball of flame that skidded 100 yards down the runway and slammed up into a dirt embankment.
Myers has seen pilots burned alive: “It is my only fear about flying, the one death I’ve always dreaded. I had thought a thousand times what I would do trapped in an aircraft on fire, and that morning I just went through the motions.” The first thing was to push the hydraulic button to open the panel on his left. But when he did, roaring flames rushed in, and he slammed it shut again. “I decided two things,” says Myers, who by all odds should have been dead by this point. “I had to strip down to my flying suit and leave my survival gear behind if I was to have any hope of diving through the flames. And I was going to go through the right window panel because it couldn’t possibly be any worse than the left.
“The guys flying overhead tell me I was in that little fire bomb for at least a minute. It seemed to me like an eternity before I could get all the gear off. My biggest fear was that lever to open the right window might have jammed on impact. But from now on everything went my way. The canopy popped right open. The way the plane had swerved around, it was catching a strong breeze down the runway and it opened a path through the flames that seemed to me like that path through the Red Sea. I ran out along the wing and jumped off and squatted down in a patch of weeds.
“I still thought I was a dead man, because I knew the strip was under enemy control. They don’t take prisoners in the middle of a battle. I remember thinking, How is Betty going to manage with all those kids?
“Then Bernie rolled in from the east to take a look, not more than 25 feet off the runway. I jumped up out of the weeds and gave him a two-handed wave. I was trying to signal him I was okay and also to get the hell out of there. When he made his first pass to look for me, that was the first time I realized how much firepower the enemy had in that valley. It was like a shooting gallery.”
“When Jump headed into the strip,” says Fisher, “I got on the radio to Control and told them we had a pilot down, and to get a chopper in there real fast. When he hit the runway and exploded, I was sure he was dead. And then I saw him scrambling off the end of the wing with smoke pouring out of his ying suit. I was sure he was burned real bad.
“What you want to do when a pilot is down,” says Fisher, “is to lay the ordnance in real close, even though you are taking some risk of hitting your own man. I could see the enemy on top of the embankment, between Jump and the fort, and so I laid down a string of 300-pounders. I was still in a hard left bank, to keep away from the mountains and under the clouds, and I laid down 400-pounders on the other side, the east side, of the runway.”
At this point Paco Vazquez, Fisher’s wingman, was flying strafing runs prudently paced to avoid the shrapnel from Fisher’s bombs. en he felt the thump of bullets against his plane. He got on the radio and told Fisher: “We’re getting hit hard from the east ridge.” Fisher told him: “Well, go get them.” Paco gave the eastern ridgeline everything he was carrying under his wings: ten 100-pounders and two white phosphorus bombs. The belly of Paco’s plane was near the tops of the trees along the ridge when he let loose his string, and then he pulled up sharply through the clouds to get away from his own shrapnel, turned and dived back down blind to the valley floor. Luckily he found it.
Circling over the runway, Fisher had now made his decision. “Control told me the chopper was having trouble finding the hole. Well, that was what cut it. I told Control that I was going in and get the pilot. They told me they did not advise it, but that I could make the decision myself. I didn’t think the pilot could survive until a chopper got there, and I didn’t think a chopper had much chance of getting down through that ring of re and out again. So I told them I was going in, and asked them to give me suppression re.”
This flight, Hobo 27 and 28, was led by Capt. Jon Lucas, 28, of Steubenville, Ohio, with Capt. Dennis Hague, 28, of Kellogg, Idaho, flying wing. “I told Bernie, ‘We’ve got the cannon and the bombs, and we’ll cover you,'” says Lucas. “I called Dennie and told him, ‘Set ’em up for strafe, we’re going in.’ Bernie said, ‘Do you see the aircraft?’ and I said, ‘It’s burning pretty bad.’ He told me the pilot was hiding in the weeds to the west of the plane, and that I was clear to strafe any place except there and the north bunker of the camp, where the survivors were still holed up. Bernie said, ‘I’m getting a lot of fire from the east side of the strip.’ Paco, Bernie’s wingman, came down through the clouds about then, after his bomb run, and he fell in as third man in the string. So we hit the east side of the runway and really hosed it down.”
Skyraiders move too fast to see a prone human form in khaki or camouflage — and they are always prone when the Skyraiders make a pass. It was days later that the pilots learned from camp survivors what kind of job they had done east of the runway. “At least a company of North Vietnamese had massed there to cross the strip and assault the east wall of the camp,” says Capt. Carter of the Special Forces. “The Skyraiders just wiped out this whole company, which was not dug in. It took all the pressure o the east wall, and it had a lot to do with us getting out alive.” And, of course, in storming across the runway to hit the east wall, the enemy would have had plenty of time to kill Jump Myers.
Lucas, Hague, and Vazquez were flying a tight-left pattern around the runway. There was no room for evasive action. “We just had to stay in there and take the fire from the ridges,” says Vazquez, “in order to put down the suppressive fire to cover Jump and Bernie.” They were flying what pilots call a “loose string,” meaning that they were so evenly spaced in their tight-left bank that one or another of them was hitting the target every 15 seconds.
Jump Myers was crawling on his belly in the dirt just west of the runway. “I buried my mission cards and a big yellow pencil that I thought looked too bright, and I muddied up my patches — that’s standard survival training. My next thought was to get away from the plane, because if the enemy sent a search party that would be the first place they’d look for me.
“The strip had been carved out of a hill by bulldozers, and that had made an embankment about 10 feet high just west of the runway. That was what I was hiding against. There was at least a company of enemy on top of the bank, but they couldn’t see me. Also, I had landed in such a ball of flames that I think they thought I was dead.
“My only glimmer of hope then was to find some real good cover and hole up for two or three days until the battle was over. The last thought in my mind was rescue. I knew a chopper could never survive the ground fire, and it simply never occurred to me that somebody would be crazy enough to put an A-1E down on that strip. It was too short to begin with. The steel planking was all buckled up into spikes by mortar rounds, and it was littered with rocket pods, 55-gallon fuel drums and the debris from my plane. My only thought right then was to signal the other A-1Es somehow to get out of there before they all got shot down.”
“I dropped that last string west of the runway to keep their heads down,” says Fisher, “and also because I wanted to come into that short strip just as light as possible. All I remember going through my mind was, Can we do it? and Yes, I think we can.
“I was coming in from the north end, when I saw I was too hot, so I put her down on the strip for just a couple of hundred feet. I saw Jump wave at me, and then I just gave it the power and took off again. I bent it around real tight in a teardrop turn and came in from the south, holding it right at 95 knots. That’s the key speed for short-field landings. I touched down 200 feet in, which was as close as I could cut it and still clear the trees. I put the flaps up and started hitting the brakes even before the tail came down. I rode the brakes so heavy I was worried about burning them out.
“Then I saw the end of the runway coming up way too fast. I knew that if I hit the brakes any harder I might burn them out or tip the bird over on her nose. That was the first time all day I was scared. I had to make a decision: Do I really slam on the brakes and probably tip her over, or do I take a chance on the overrun o the end of the strip? I decided to take a chance on the overrun. It was grass and soft dirt, and littered with these empty fuel drums, but it worked out real fine.
“After using up about 20 yards of the overrun, I hit the left brake hard and swung the bird around in a big cloud of dust and taxied back down about two-thirds of the runway looking for Jump. He waved to me from the weeds, and I stopped as quick as I could, about 200 feet past him. I looked out the rearview mirror, and when I didn’t see him come running, I figured he was hurt real bad. So I hit the parking brakes and unstrapped and climbed into the right seat to go and get him.”
At this point, the other three A-1E pilots were flying strafing runs 50 feet o the ground and so close to the runway that what the pilots call “metal”— the expended cartridges and linkage from their 20-millimeter cannon — was showering down on Myers in his hiding place against the bank. The lead pilot was still Jon Lucas, although he had just been hit hard from the east ridge, was on fire, and his cockpit was full of smoke.
“I told him, ‘You’re burning,'” says his wingman, Dennis Hague. “‘Better get the hell out.’ He said, ‘Can’t leave Bernie yet. We’ll make one more pass.’ I expected the bird to blow up in his face any second. I said, ‘I’m Winchester! [code for out of ammunition].’ He said, ‘Me too, but they [the enemy] don’t know that.’ So we all made the last pass dry.” For this bit of gallantry and leadership, Capt. Lucas has been recommended for the Silver Star.
From his spot in the weeds, up against the embankment, Jump Myers still could not believe what was happening. “Even after I had seen him touch down, and pull up, and make his teardrop and come in to land from the south, I was thinking, Well, they got another one. It wasn’t until he had taxied back past me and waved and hit the brakes that I knew what was up. I said, ‘Why, that crazy S.O.B. has come in here to get me out.’ I started running for the plane.”
From the air, that run looked agonizingly slow, although it took only 10 or 15 seconds. “I kept yelling, ‘Hump it, man, hump it, you’re never going to make it at that rate,'” says Paco Vazquez.
It seemed a long time to Bernie Fisher too. While he was scrambling out of his harness to go out and get Myers — he had not yet seen him running down the strip — bullets were thumping into his plane, one of them only two feet from his head.
To Jump Myers, who set a record for the sprint at Williams Air Force Base, Arizona, back in 1943, the run seemed an eternity. He was dashing down the middle of the runway in full view of every North Vietnamese who happened to look his way. “The gun fire was deafening, the bullets were whining all around, and I thought it was all aimed at me. My shoulder blades were really puckering. is was the second time that day I thought I was dead. I can tell you I made that run as fast as any old man of 46 ever could.”
“I was just about to jump out the right side and go get him,” says Fisher, “when I saw these two big red eyes leaping up at me over the back edge of the wing. ey were so red from the smoke that they looked like neons.”
“I grabbed one handhold on the side of the plane,” says Myers, “and then just scrambled across the wing on my hands and knees. Bernie still had the engine running fast enough so that the wash almost blew me o the wing. So I kept as low as I could, and I didn’t worry about procedure — I just dived into the right side of the cockpit head first. My head and shoulders hit the right seat, and my legs were ailing all around Bernie and the instrument panel. He grabbed me by the back of the ying suit and set me right side up again.”
At this point Capt. Lucas was just coming around for his last (and dry) strafing pass, his own plane still billowing smoke. “Bernie just whipped the butt end of the plane around and really cobbed the power,” says Lucas. “We were all sweating it, because he only had two-thirds of a runway that was too short in the first place for any sane man to put an A-1E into.”
“The takeoff went real nice,” says Fisher. “I just took her right up through the hole in the clouds and leveled off on top at about 8,000 feet.
“I knew I had taken a lot of hits, and I thought about putting into the nearest strip. But the engine was running real fine, and it’s always nice to get home, so I headed for Pleiku, which was 45 minutes away.
“Jump couldn’t talk to me because he didn’t have a radio headset. He signaled me for a cigarette, and I shook my head, because I don’t smoke. He gave me a couple of hugs and held up a finger, meaning ‘number one.’ He was a mess. He got mud all over everything he touched, and the smoke from his flying suit stunk up the whole cabin. But we couldn’t help turning to each other and laughing all the way home.”
That afternoon, the Special Forces survivors — 13 out of the 17 were still alive, and all 13 were wounded — got orders to evacuate the camp. That day and for the next two days, the choppers scoured the area and picked up scattered groups of survivors.
By this time Bernie Fisher and Jump Myers were enjoying the traditional advantages of the pilot who survives: a soft bunk, clean sheets, and an officers’ club. When they landed at Pleiku just after 1 p.m. on March 10, Myers was whisked o to the flight surgeon, who gave him some drops for his red eyes and told him that otherwise he was in splendid shape. Then they were both ushered in to see Maj. Gen. Gilbert Meyers, deputy commander of the 7th Air Force, to which all Air Force pilots in Vietnam belong. The general gave them his warmest congratulations, although Jump Myers says, “I was sure he was staring at my low-quarter shoes the whole time.”
“What can you do with a guy like Bernie?” says Jump Myers. “I would like to furnish him with a year’s supply of whiskey. But he doesn’t even drink coffee. So I bought him a Nikon camera — he’s the biggest camera bu in the Squadron — and had it engraved, A Shau, March 10, 1966. For the first few days I felt like a dead man walking. I couldn’t believe it. And then I got over that, and it’s great to be alive.”
Excerpted from “It’s Great to Be Alive” by Richard Armstrong, June 4, 1966.
This article is featured in the January/February 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now