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Yankee Air Pirate


'Nguyen' was the name we gave the enemy, including North Vietnam's fighter pilot version of GI Joe. We just guessed that he called us 'Yankee Air Pirate.'

I think the name might have been stolen from Milton Caniff or George Wunder a long time before Vietnam ever happened. From the first we could ever handle the funny papers, my generation of fighter pilots grew up on Steve Canyon and Terry and the Pirates. I suspect the coiner of 'Yankee Air Pirate' got paid for it the first time it ever appeared in print.

The American fighting man is a shameless plagiarist: A B-24 named 'The Chattanooga Choo- Choo;' C-5s called 'Fat Albert;' 'Snoopy' emblazoned on the zoom bag sleeve of several generations of F-4 jocks. I'll bet a round of drinks in the Luke O'Club bar on a crowded Friday night that nobody ever asked Glenn Miller, Bill Cosby or Charles Schulz if they had any objection.

We stole it all like a bunch of cat burglars, and we never felt an ounce of guilt about it, neither. You gotta understand, though, that Americans who wear uniforms and hang out their priceless asses in front of enemy guns feel like it's worth one hell of a lot more than $65 a month in combat pay.

So, as it has been for every war in memory and for as long as there is an America, Hollywood and the media can expect us to steal them blind for symbols that say, "This is what we came to die for."

Speaking of dying. The longest day I live, I will not ever forget a strip of asphalt ten miles north of downtown Hanoi called Phuc Yen. We launched from Ubon shortly after daybreak one tropical morning in a four-ship flight of Phantoms with the callsign 'Falcon.' Each machine had four cans of CBU-24 strapped to the belly. CBU-24 was a bomb-shaped canister filled with small fragmentation munitions about the size of your fist. It was designed to be used against personnel or lightly armored vehicles. It was good also against triple-A positions. That wicked little bastard would tear the shit out of a truck. It would make the boldest ninelevel (highly experienced) gunner bury his ass in the dirt right up to his eyeballs. I thought of CBU-24 as canned hand grenades. On this day, Robin's Wolfpack was on the way North to the fighter revetments at Phuc Yen. We intended to turn Nguyen's MiGs back into beer cans. CBUs would work nicely for the job.

It was a small strike package. We had four Thuds out front for Ironhand work (predecessor of the Wild Weasel-SAM killers.) Behind the Thuds came Falcon flight with 16 cans of reveille to help Nguyen get his day started. Can't remember if we had a fighter escort or not. The idea of the strike was to reduce the need for fighter escort, anyway.

We tapped the tanks (KC-135 air refuelers) in Green Anchor over northern Laos, greened up crossing the Black River, circled around the northwest end of Thud Ridge, and rolled out south bound up near Thai Nguyen.

It was relatively quiet. The day-shift gunners at Viet Tri on the Red River popped a few random rounds of 85-millimeter up through the undercast to let us know they were back from breakfast. The Thuds got a few Christmas-tree lights on their SAM detection gear. But, in general, things had gone rather smoothly up to now.

Then, about 30 seconds from the bomb-run, Ironhand calls a launch light at 12 o'clock. Okay. Sixteen eyeballs flick across the forward hemisphere level to low. The adrenalin taps open up. Just about SAM time-of-flight after the Ironhand call, my Phantom is rocked by an explosion which really gets my attention. What I'm trying to say is, it scared the shit out of me. Instantly, I look over both shoulders-simultaneously, if I remember right-checking for fire and a disintegrating airplane. At the same time, I key the mike and shout at the top of my voice, "MAYDAY! MAYDAY! MAYDAY! FALCON 4 IS HIT!!!" Rick Bennett, the guy in the front seat, is asshole and elbows recovering the airplane from a violent, negative-g pitch-down.

They say your whole life flashes before your face. What flashed in front of mine was a picture of me hanging in a parachute over Hanoi. Rick gets the airplane under control and we head back out to the northwest along Thud Ridge. We are now out of the bomb run and awfully all alone.

I ask on the intercom, "Did you drop the ordnance?" Rick says, "No." Then immediately hits the pickle button (bomb release switch) eight times, just to be sure. I get a brief mental picture of the exciting little surprises along the ridge below.

On the way home, we get back together with the rest of the flight by reference to the black puffs of 85-millimeter smoke coming up, seriously now, through the undercast at Viet Tri.

Rick, nice guy that he is, says, "Who gets the first cigarette?" Without hesitation, I respond, "I do," and break the 'no smoking in the cockpit' rule for the first time in my life.

On the ground back at Ubon, we went over the airplane with a finetooth comb. Not a scratch. I figure the SAM blew up just aft of the tail, but close enough for the concussion to knock us out of the formation and off the bomb run. That was the closest I ever came - that I knew about - in 125 trips to the combat zone. If that SOB had been 40 milliseconds closer, this book would have been written by somebody else.

None of us ever knew whether Nguyen called us 'Yankee Air Pirate' or not. For that matter, I can imagine that what he did call us was the Vietnamese equivalent of 'goddamsonofabitch.'

In any event, I never knew a fighter pilot who spoke or understood the language well enough to have a clue. Even if anybody did, you can bet your hat, ass and spats that when we got within radio range there were things to listen to a helluva lot more important than Nguyen's deleted expletives.

I was born and bred deep in the heart of Dixie. Deep in the heart; I come from somewhere south of George Wallace and north of Jimmy Buffet. I was always bewildered - and resentful - about the 'Yankee' bit. I had my doubts about an ignorant world which referred to all Americans as 'Yankees.' Guess the dumb bastards never heard of the Mason-Dixon Line and Stonewall Jackson. Or Pogo. Kudzu, maybe. . . ?

I suppose, in all honesty - honesty? From a fighter pilot? - I must admit that 'Rebel Air Pirate' just doesn't roll quite so smoothly off the tongue.

Snoopy, Fat Albert, and the Chattanooga Choo-Choo.

And Yankee Air Pirate.

. . . So, thank you very much, Colonel Canyon. .

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