Do I Die Today?

A pilot remembers the fear of wartime flights over the Ho Chi Minh trail

The colors of back then, the sounds from that time, the smells from those days, they hang not on the edges of memory. No. They live in the center of moments ago. Unchanging over years, constant in their content, unrelenting in their persistence. Refusing to submit to the eraser of the past.

The colors of me are brown. I am brown. My pale, freckled Irish skin is brown. From the sun, and also from the earth in this compound that is powdery, dry, and lifeless. It clogs the pores of my face and my scalp, clings to the backs of my hands, my neck, my ears. I wonder if I will ever be clean again.

The Dak Bla is brown, sluggish, silted. I can almost hold its water, so full of other things, in my hands. It barely oozes between my fingers or slips by the grassy banks that contain it.

The clothes I wear are brown. The trucks and jeeps and tents and sandbags around me are brown. Even my airplane, my Bird Dog, is brown. A brown that makes no statement. It is not supposed to. This drab hue is meant to be nondescript. To not call attention to itself, but rather to lose itself in everything around it. A brown that isn’t seen, because it is everywhere. A brown that is folded into everything else, a brown that is just there.

In the mornings before dawn, the chatter of monkeys and birds announce normalcy, no predators, all is well.

Animal sounds are alarms. When animals are quiet I listen harder. In the mornings before dawn, the chatter of monkeys and birds announce normalcy, no predators, all is well. The absence of their singing, howling, squealing, means that something is hunting. Something may move on four legs, or maybe move on just two.

A siren’s pre-dawn wail surprises me when it goes off, but my response is automatic. Incoming! Get to the floor, flak jacket and helmet on, my hand strangling the sling of my AR-15. I crawl to the bunker and listen for whumps or cracks. Whumps mean mortars, fired from the jungle outside the compound’s perimeter. Cracks mean small-arms fire, and small-arms fire means the compound is being assaulted. Whumps scare me, but not as much as cracks do, because cracks mean that I might see someone and have to fire this rifle at someone. And someone might fire back, or fire first.

Illustrations by Anna Hall

Even now, when I hear rotor blades shredding the air, I look up. Helicopters. The sound is unmistakable, a memory inescapable. Whupwhupwhupwhupwhup, a percussion of metal and air. To a team in a firefight with the North Vietnamese, the sound of our F-4s’ whining turbines—tongues of flame flashing from their exhausts—or the chugging throb of the A-1s’ big radial engines shouts safety. Under the umbrella of the attack aircraft overhead, the whupwhupwhup of a Huey means survival. The rapid staccato of the door gunners’ .30 caliber machine guns means protection as the team climbs on board. The roar of the Huey’s engine as it climbs away means life.

For me, the repetitive, droning song my Bird Dog’s engine sings means security. I am aware of this song even as I concentrate on so many other things. Because I need to hear my engine’s missed beat, its sour note, its ragged rhythm. A missed beat from my airplane’s engine is as terrifying as silent monkeys.

Vietnam for me will always be a cacophony of smells. The sourness of rotting jungle mingles with the sweetness of jasmine vines. A sauce of fermented fish mingles with the sharp nasal pinch of ground chilies stirred into a sesame oil. Water buffalo feces fertilizing rice paddies. Diesel fuel fires disposing of the contents of our latrines.

I remember so profoundly the smell of me. Of the brown flight suit that has soaked up the smell of me. A brown cocoon of sweat-drenched Nomex, a flame-resistant fabric, so rigid from salt that it could walk to the airplane without me in it. A blanket of humid air that keeps me wet but never cool. This moisture eases the stiffness of the Nomex but makes its smell even worse. A rank smell of thick, damp fear-sweat and vomit—the contents of my churning stomach. If the water is turned on at our compound, I stand under it for as long as I can. I scrub myself without taking my flight suit off, and then I scrub me. I scrub until I scrub myself raw. Then I go after my flight suit again. I rinse it and me, and we still assault my nose. Someday, I hope, this stink will go away.

Fear smells. Its odor blends with the other smells, and these smells make my eyes water. Fear-sweat leaks out from my armpits, it runs down my back, and drips into my eyes. A metallic smell that rides on bullets fired from AK-47s that race toward my airplane, that crack as they go by my cockpit’s open windows. Fear rides on the anti-aircraft shells, big as beer cans, from Chinese machine guns that would tear me apart.

Fear reminds me of my mortality. It demands: Pay attention. Fear tests my reaction time, strains the skinny thread between reason and response. It shouts at me to move without thinking. It whispers to me that I would be safer if I didn’t listen to what teeth-chattering panic was demanding and instead just “do,” that I should trust the “do.” And if I trust it, “do” will guide my hands and feet, direct my ears and eyes. It will keep my heart from exploding.

One of our F-4s swoops down in a roar of twin turbines, filling my cockpit with the howl of its engines. The F-4, a big fighter-bomber, dwarfs my Bird Dog as it zooms by. It launches a series of rockets that slam into a huge base camp we have found. Flame and dirt and leaves splash upward out in front of it. The F-4 continues its descent. I look for muzzle flashes from anti-aircraft guns but don’t see any. The F-4 continues. Straight. Unswerving. Down. The words begin to form. My voice yells “pull up.” But the F-4 can’t hear me. Before my words take shape: a flash of orange. The F-4 skips off a ridgeline like a flat rock flung across glassy water. A napalm canister ignites behind it. I see the airplane’s nose drop. It bores into the jungle and explodes in a fireball of napalm and rockets and bombs.

My enemy is so close I can almost touch them. Most of them are boys like me.

Compassion ceases to exist. It has no foothold in combat. It cannot. If I saw a face attached to a body, if a voice shouted to me, if eyes found mine, I would have to make the target human. My Bird Dog shields my conscience from the carnage all around me. My enemy is so close I can almost touch them. Most of them are boys like me. Their faces unclear, their voices unheard, their eyes indiscernible. But they move, they run, they shoot or shoot back. I point at them with marking rockets; the F-4s kill them.

I think my airplane protects me from accountability, that I don’t have to hold myself responsible. Because I don’t shoot to kill. I only identify targets. But I am wrong. Because there is a day when I fire a fléchette rocket at close range. Little darts we called nails. This rocket hits a man and turns his midsection to a burst of red. I cannot claim that I am one step removed this time. I fired the rocket. I see him die. Then I begin to see others that I help die. And in my dreams I will replay all of this. Over and over, again in the dark, where Vietnam rages, where nightmares drench my bedsheets. Nightmares enough to last a lifetime.

I know my flying partners in the present tense. They have little past and no future tense. If you asked me about Phil Phillips, I could tell you that he grew up in Knoxville, didn’t finish college, was at Fort Knox when I was there, and that he plays a very good guitar. I know that Phil is married, and that his wife has an unbelievable body, no sharp angles anywhere on it. I know this because Phil has a poster-size photo of her tacked on the wall of our hooch. Her name is Sandy. Phil’s given name is Claude. He doesn’t talk about what will come after all this. Doug Krout is from Colorado and is capable of sleeping through anything. He is married, and I think his wife’s name is Jeanie. I could be wrong though. Not once did Doug speculate about his future. John Meyers is mostly American Indian. He is married to a woman named Alvilda, is only in the here and now, and is convinced that he is bulletproof. This is as close as I get to the personal lives of the pilots with whom I fly.

Sometimes we share a beer and maybe eat dinner together at night. We almost never eat in the mess hall on this Special Forces compound, Forward Observation Base Two. It is usually closed by the time we get back after flying all day. Dinner is up to us. Boiling water cooks little bags of rice and dehydrated vegetables and shrimp. With a hot chili oil that our hooch-maid, the young Vietnamese woman who cleans our hooch—a room not much more than a sandbagged hut—gave me. I am the only one who likes it. If we talk at all, we usually talk about what we saw that day, where we saw it. What we might do about what we saw. We don’t say anything about surviving. We’re here, drinking beer. We survived. Today.

We like each other, but we pretend that we are not close. Acknowledgment of how much we care about one another happens only years later, at a reunion at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. For now, we act as if we are keeping each other at arm’s length, in a parade, marching-distance apart and looking straight ahead. I know what these boys look like, and they in turn know what I look like, but our straight-ahead eyes cannot acknowledge that we have memorized every detail of each other’s faces. We act as if we won’t risk closeness, because maybe tomorrow a face will be missing. If I stop to really consider this, I know that it’s a lot of baloney, a fake steeliness. Should something happen to any of them I would be devastated. I say I don’t know them. And yet I have come to love them.

The people who ride with me on reconnaissance flights, the Special Forces recon men? I know names and faces. Nothing more. I doubt they know my name. They never refer to me by it. They simply call me SPAF, my radio call sign when I’m flying, which stands for Sneaky Pete Air Force. That’s who I am. They fly with me once, or maybe twice, then the mission changes. I seldom fly with a recon man as late winter bumps into spring. Instead I get photo missions. If two Bird Dogs fly a photo reconnaissance, it is almost always Phil in the other airplane. One of us is at five hundred feet above the ground, the high ship, the cover ship. The other has the photographer in the backseat. He flies with the airplane’s wheels almost touching the treetops.

The photographer, using a huge lens on his Pentax, takes hundreds of pictures of what we find along and near the Ho Chi Minh Trail. These supplement and sometimes take the place of recon teams on the ground who are inserted near the trail. There are usually eight to ten men on a recon team: two or three Americans, the rest Montagnards, indigenous people recruited by our Special Forces. In the bloody spring of 1970, these teams suffer dead and wounded on every mission. Too many recon troopers are dying, the Special Forces command decides. Our photo missions replace some of the teams on the ground. Ten men on a team; one pilot in an old airplane. My Bird Dog and I mitigate the body count.

I don’t wonder whether I’m going to be shot at. I always get shot at. What terrifies me is that I’m going to get shot. When I am assigned one of these missions I ask myself the same question each time.

Do I die today?

Today, I own nothing that is brown. Especially not a brown that disappears into leaves and vines and canopy. My eyes refuse to acknowledge that color which once covered me, the everywhere and not-there color.

Rotor blades that slash the air? That sound is not benign. It can’t be. It never blends into the soundtrack of everyday life. A helicopter will always bring the memory of tracer rounds, bullets streaking red, ours. Or green, theirs. Intersecting bullet arcs of combat. Of rescue. Of death.

And sweat? I still sweat. I sweat rivers. But not like I once did, when the rivers that ran down my back soaked my flight suit with fear. When I reeked of fear. When I tried to scrub and scrub and scrub. Tried to peel the fear-soaked skin off of me. When I wondered if there would ever be enough soap and water.

About the Author

Francis Doherty

Francis Doherty, an army captain, flew as a reconnaissance pilot over Laos from 1969 to 1970, during the Vietnam War. He left the military in 1972 and went on to fly as a commercial airline pilot for thirty-two years.

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