The 220th Reconnaissance Airplane Company was organized on April 15, 1965 at Fort Lewis, Washington. I was its first commander. By Herculean efforts we requisitioned all necessary equipment then packed and delivered it to the docks at Tacoma, Washington, for ocean transport to Vietnam.
On June 19, 1965, I led a party of seven officers and nine enlisted men to Vietnam to advance the 220th’s arrival. My very capable executive office, Captain Bill Schmale, a few months later brought over the rest of the company.
Upon arrival in Saigon, I learned that the 220th’s location had been changed from a safe area in the south to a front line location with the Third U.S. Marine Division in the far north up against the DMZ, a line separating North from South Vietnam.
Our airplanes were the dependable Cessna L-19s, small two-seaters with high wings, powered by a single six-cylinder air-cooled engine. Our route of flight from Saigon went northeast to the city of Phan Thiet where we turned north and over flew the cities of Phang Rang, Nha Trang and Tuy Hoa. Then we crossed over Qui Nhon and Quang Ngai in Binh Dinh Province, that cruel and bitter center of Viet Cong terrorism. Next we passed by the huge U.S. Marine complex at Danang and, tracking northwest, descended through the Hai Von Pass into the Hue basin.
At Hue-Phu-Bai we landed and as I stepped down from the Cessna’s cockpit was greeted by Lieutenant Colonel “Rough House” Taylor, commander of the Third Battalion, Fourth Marines. He was five-ten, sandy-haired, the oldest Marine battalion commander in Vietnam and the best. Taylor was a no nonsense officer whose waist was as broad and hard as his shoulders.
“Welcome to Phu-Bai,” he grunted. “The front lines are about a hundred yards in that direction. Dig your foxholes from that clump of trees around to the dry stream bed over there.” Squinting into the sun, he gestured with a big knuckled forefinger. “My rules of engagement are simple; anything that moves outside the barbed wire after dark gets shot. Any questions?”
“Then I suggest you all stay put once the sun goes down. When you get settled, come see me. There’s a lot talk about.” I saluted; he returned my salute and stomped off.
The first operational surveillance mission was flown the next day. Aircraft averaged 120 hours of flight time a month for the first six months of flight operations. This was directly attributable to Chief Warrant Officer Don Behny our maintenance officer. But there is more to winning wars than equipment readiness.
Mr. Ngo, the Vietnamese civilian airfield manager, was a case in point. He looked more like a mystic than a Vietnamese bureaucrat. Something had gone wrong in the construction of his body. His bottom half was too long and his top half too short. He seemed to have been cut in half at the waist and mismatched in reassembly.
Chief Behny and I set up a visit with Mr. Ngo because our airplanes sorely needed more ramp parking space. They were jammed so close together that the explosion of a single mortar round would have damaged or destroyed several aircraft.
Mr. Ngo graciously brewed us tea. “I much prefer coffee,” he said, “but it is much too expensive.”
I made a mental note of his request and we sat and drank tea with him, talked about the monsoon season, the area’s 121 inch average rainfall, our children and how lovely Vietnam had been before the war.
When he could no longer postpone discussing the purpose of our visit, he fetched a blueprint out of a rickety wooden wall cabinet. On it were the location of the runway, utility lines, the limited airport parking ramp, and other buildings, roads plus technical information.
Smiling obliquely he said, “Major Curry, the area you request for your airplanes is quite difficult. As you can see here on the paper there is a house located right in the middle of the area. Notice the area is marked ‘Vietnamese government property’.”
I nodded, “Yes, but the house is dilapidated and a strong wind would blow it down.”
Ignoring my comments he continued, “Of Course I will forward your request to the Saigon Government. You understand that it will take one or two years to get an answer?
Years before, when I had been an advisor in Korea, they had taught me this game. I smiled and said softly in my most deadly manner, “Tomorrow morning at sunrise the U.S. Marine bulldozers will arrive to prepare the area for construction of an asphalt parting ramp. The house you see out there in the middle of that area will be leveled, along with anything or anyone in it.”
I followed this statement of fact by standing and bowing. Paling, Mr. Ngo stood and bowed in return. Chief Behny and I departed. I don’t know where the people and their belongings went, but at first light next morning they were gone. So Rough House Taylor’s bulldozers clanked into position and started construction of the badly needed aircraft parking ramp.
Three months later I received a request from Mr. Ngo asking me to again come and visit him. Our meeting started with the usual bowing and tea brewing ritual and once the pleasantries were over, Ngo took a new blueprint out of the old rickety cabinet and proudly unrolled it on top of a table. Major Curry, this came in today from Saigon.”
On the new blueprint of the airfield was an enclosed area with hatched lines and words saying that the aircraft parking area we had confiscated was now designated as U.S. Government property. Bowing I said, “Mr. Ngo, it is always a pleasure to do business with you. Rest assured that the U.S. Government deeply appreciates your efforts on its behalf.”
When I got back to the 220th, I called in my Mess Sergeant, Pablo Sandoval, and had him take two five-pound cans of coffee over to Mr. Ngo’s office.