Panther Patrol, Tet 1968

An Air Policeman's Story

by: Carl Tripp
USAF 35th Air Police Squadron, Phan Rang, Vietnam
TDY to the 3rd APS at Biên Hòa Airfield

(end of January 1968 - mid March 1968)

 
During the month of February, 1968 North Vietnamese Army regulars aided by 'irregulars' (Viet Cong) attempted to take over or destroy the Air Base at Biên Hòa located in the II Corps area of South Vietnam. Sapper, 82mm mortars, 107mm rockets, and brunt attacks by upwards of 240 enemy troops were repelled time after time. These are my recollections of those days and nights of Tet 1968.
 
Twenty-nine Februarys ago, I was a 21-year old Airman First Class stationed at Phan Rang Air Base with the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing. Since I had arrived in-country ten months previously, I'd been working as an Air Policeman on the night watch (about 1800-0600 hours) in the unit known as Panther Patrol. Occasionally, I also was a convoy commander, guarding supply convoys between Cam Ranh Bay and Phan Rang (a distance of about 32 very long miles).
      Working at night continuously for ten months had given me some small advantages in the 'night vision' area and had, indeed, saved my life on several occasions. Unfortunately for me, it was this acquired skill that got my name included on a bulletin board roster entitled 1st Commando Team, 35th Air Police Squadron with instructions to report to the flight line at 2200 hours for transport to an unidentified location. C-47 USAF
      Twenty-four of us, all selected from night teams within the Combat Air Police, were met by an older Army paratrooper who proceeded to board us into a small prop-job where every seat had a parachute affixed over its back. My incredulous question of What do we need the chutes for? was answered laconically by the grizzled Sergeant with, "Why, to jump in and take the base back!" The fact that we were all legs---none of us had any parachute training, much less even been near one---didn't seem to bother the Sarg. I mean, I can see all kinds'a reasons why anyone would want to jump out of an Army airplane . . . but the need to do so from a USAF aircraft just DOESN'T HAPPEN---to me, anyway!
      Sarg just showed us how to hook up, gave a way-too-brief lecture on how to land without cratering-in or bouncing more than once, and another too-brief talk about what to do should we take on enemy fire in the air as we were falling (I preferred: floating).
      Sarg then proceeded to leave us alone to contemplate whatever sins, real or imagined (or those we yet hoped to commit), had brought us to this place in our lives. Besides being told we were going to actually jump out of an otherwise perfectly good plane---WHAT BASE were we supposed to TAKE BACK? And, more importantly, from how many?
      As the old (DC-6 ?) airplane droned onwards into the dark night, thoughts of 'John Wayne' heroics: Me, floating out of the dark sky into a nest of crazed Viet Cong with my M-16 blazing death and their waving white-flags, transforemed into visions of parachutes that failed to open (what did sarge say to do 'bout that?) or broken ankles---mainly, mine. Hey---THEY don't have church bell towers at Biên Hòa like they did in The Longest Day, in France---or whatever jerkwater country that was---do they?
      Needless to say, the flight from Phan Rang to Biên Hòa was quiet and serenely contemplative: (HailMaryFull'aGraceHailMaryHailMaryHailMary). All thoughts of heroics or broken bones were pushed out of our minds (what does "cratering-in" mean?) however, by an anti-climactic normal landing at Biên Hòa AB.
      We charged off of the plane; set up defensive positions all around the aircraft; broke out the hand grenades and M60 machine guns, got the flares and LAWS ready, and---in what really defines the military for me---we were completely ignored until daylight the next morning!

Seems the Biên Hòa Air Police weren't even told we were coming. Looking back, we were probably lucky we weren't shot! Seems the VC had been temporarily repelled from the base several hours before, probably about the time we lifted off from Phan Rang. To this day I still think the old Sarg just didn't mention it out of sheer cussed-ness. He probably still grins about the day he played with our minds, from time to time.

That was the last quiet night we were to know for the next several weeks.

 
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