When I read about airline pilot layoffs today it reminds me of the early 1960s when that was a recurring fact of life for junior pilots. I had only been married for a year in the summer of 1961 and knew a layoff notice was forthcoming – so when a friend and fellow pilot, Tommy Shelton, told me about Civil Air Transport (CAT) hiring, it got my attention. I had heard about CAT while on my first layover in Tokyo in the summer of 1960, but I knew only that it was a scheduled Far Eastern air carrier based in Taiwan. Since the company sounded kind of glamorous, I caught a pass to Washington, D.C., CAT's North American offices, and applied for a flying position. Then, going back to work, I forgot about CAT until two things happened within a month: I was laid off by NWA and I received an employment offer from CAT with orders, if I accepted, to report to their headquarters in Taipei. It took about three seconds to make the decision. Soon I was packed and then off for the unknown. Although I scarcely knew it at the time, I had stumbled into a fascinating company, an aviation empire straddling the Far East.
My Pan American flight to Taipei left from San Francisco and on the way over I met another newhire pilot by the name of Don Coker. In the book, Baa Baa Black Sheep, "Pappy" Boyington talked about his boat trip to China in 1940 to join the Flying Tigers. He discussed how the pilots were able to spot each other even though their journey was supposed to be secret. It was secret because these pilots were supposed to be from a neutral U.S.A. and not fighting for China. He said he could pick out other pilots because of the crow's feet around their eyes, caused by years of squinting into the sun through goggles. Well, Coker and I didn't use goggles but we knew right away who each other was and where we were going
Upon arrival in Taipei, the CAT/Air America Chief Pilot, Captain Robert Rousselot, interviewed us. I would hear many stories about him later from the other pilots who had known him from the old days in China – but more about him later. After interviews we were issued Chinese pilot's licenses, indoctrinated, tested, and asked to sign papers pertaining to the disposal of our pay if we were captured or killed. We didn't understand the necessity of this but thought it wise to keep quiet until someone offered to explain. That never happened, but something else did.
While we were being processed into the CAT organization we had occasion to dine with some of the experienced Air America pilots who were coming through Taipei on their way to R&R. Most of them had come from what used to be Indo China – now Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. When Don and I asked them about the details of their flying jobs, they wouldn't talk except in vague terms about where they had been and what they were doing. However, we did learn that CAT was broken down into several divisions. CAT itself was the Taiwanese scheduled airline operating throughout the Far East. Another division, Air America, operated contract schedules flying for the U.S. Air Force throughout Japan, Korea and Okinawa with Douglas DC-4 and Curtis Commando C-46 aircraft. A branch of Air America in Laos operated Douglas DC3 and Fairchild C-123s as well as some STOL (short take off and landing) aircraft like the Helio Courier. These Helios were used for some difficult work in the mountains of Laos. Additionally, there was a helicopter division of Air America in Indo China and another scheduled operation called Southern Air Transport flying U.S. Air Force contracts throughout Southeast Asia with Douglas DC-6 airplanes. We later found out that personnel could be instantly transferred between different divisions if there was a need at the time. For example, while I was at Tachikawa some of our pilots would disappear for a time while on special assignments in Laos or other places.
When Captain Rousselot saw in my records that I was experienced on the 4-engine Douglas DC-4, he decided to send me to Air America's Tachikawa Air Base just north of Tokyo. This was a choice assignment and I eagerly accepted. The base was a military field on the northern outskirts of Tokyo. It had a very short airstrip, unfortunately, so the Air Force could only operate limited types of aircraft from it. Air America was contracted to operate scheduled flights in and out of Japan with the old Douglas DC-4s and Curtis C-46s. A typical flight would take us from Tachikawa in the evening over to Kimpo Air Base outside Seoul. Then, after layover of a few hours, we would wing back to Tachikawa, arriving in the middle of the night. Of course we flew other trips, too, to Okinawa and other cities and air bases in Japan. Even though we were civilians we had full military privileges (including the Post Exchange).
It was good duty and I enjoyed flying with some really experienced pilots like Truman Barnes (a World War II P-38 ace), Jack Stiles and Dale Williamson. Some of the other copilots became friends, too, like Jack Rocchio who was studying Japanese and became quite fluent at it. I rented a small house outside the "laundry" gate of the base (so called because it was located next to the base laundry) and tried to see as much of Japan as possible, traveling to places like Kyoto, the Hakone Park district and Nikko. For entertainment we had the Officer's Club and the Civilian Club where you could get inexpensive food, drinks and entertainment every night right on base. The nightlife in Tokyo was fun since this was at a time when it was still affordable. We enjoyed socializing with other laid-off airline pilots, now with Air America. This was a good chance to see Japan and we didn't want to miss it.
The first house we moved into just outside Tachikawa AFB belonged to an AA pilot recently killed in Laos when he ran out of luck and flew into a mountain in marginal weather – probably looking for an airdrop zone. His name was Woody Forte. I disposed of his clothing by hanging it in the hangar for the Japanese and Chinese employees to sort through.
Some of the other copilots were experienced Chinese aviators who had flown against the Communist revolutionaries in 1949, so they were not kids. I'm pretty sure some of them had flown clandestine airdrop missions on flights over Mainland China 10 years earlier, but I didn't know about that until I read it later. This comfortable Tachikawa assignment could have been payback for them for their many years of loyal service. Our Tachikawa-based captains were really experienced. I remember Jack Stiles flying a C-46 up to the northern Japanese city of Wakkanai. It was winter and the runway was ice covered and very short with a stiff crosswind that morning. He nailed that baby right on the center of the runway as smooth as can be and we made the first taxi turn off despite the ice and crosswind. Jack eventually left Air America and became a missionary.
Our ground personnel were tops also. We flew a Douglas DC-4 once down to Tainan in southern Taipei – I don't remember the purpose except that we were empty both ways. We were to depart in the middle of the night for the return to Tachikawa. Just before departure with the airplane refueled, one of our Chinese mechanics discovered another aircraft on the line had been incorrectly fueled with JP4 jet fuel. Becoming suspicious, he checked our DC-4 and discovered we had also been incorrectly fueled. Wow! I've often wondered what would have happened if we had taken off with that kerosene feeding our big piston radial engines. I suspect we would have had to swim for our lives after plopping into the East China Sea.
The younger pilots at Tachikawa used to discuss the big picture extensively – who owns Air America? When some of the senior pilots disappeared for a month or two where did they go and what were they up to? At no time did AA officials or supervisors address these questions. That alone, fueled our imaginations. Of course, we soon realized that we were working not for a private company under contract to the U.S. government but rather for the government itself. You can argue that this was very naïve of us, but we had no proof at all. And no one who was knowledgeable was talking.
Air America had a big contract maintenance operation in Tainan where they did extensive work for the U.S. military. They also had a lineup of B-26 light bombers – all painted flat black and no additional markings. It developed that some of our pilots with military experience in that general type of aircraft were invited to check out in the B-26 and become available on an as-needed basis. To my regret I was not invited, probably because of my civilian flying background. It was then that I remembered years earlier reading in Time Magazine about a guy named Al Pope who had been shot down and captured in Indonesia. He had been flying one of these in a battle and was still incarcerated in Indonesia after having been shot down. Apparently our government (and CAT/Air America) had sent him with some other AA civilians to carry out an operation against the Sukarno government, which was at risk of falling at that time. I knew that some of the other pilots at Tachikawa with whom I was working had also been in on that operation. Author William Leary in his wonderful book, Perilous Missions, relates how back during the Communist Revolution in China, General Chennault had actually suggested forming another American Volunteer Group (using CAT pilots) flying P-47 fighter-bombers to attack the Communists – a rebirth of the Flying Tigers you might say. Captain Rousselot had the pilots all lined up and ready to go but Washington finally decided against it.
Speaking of big-time clandestine operations, a number of the senior AA pilots I flew with at Tachikawa had been assigned to flying C-119 Boxcars for the famed airdrops at Dien Bien Phu. This happened from March to May, 1954, when the U.S. had agreed to help the French hold off the Communist assault at this town in Vietnam. These poor AA devils had to fly each night over the besieged city in their lumbering Boxcars, drop their supplies and then run for home while they watched incredible amounts of anti-aircraft fire aimed at them. Of course they had no military status, so if they were shot down they would become chopped liver. The ones I flew with at Tachikawa were "Jud" Judkins (64 missions over Dien Bien Phu), Neese Hicks, Ken Milan, Morrie Clough, Hugh Marsh, Harry Hudson and John Anastakes. I heard that they had flown these risky airdrops because they were told that if they didn't they would be fired! One of them, by the name of James B. (Earthquake McGoon) McGovern Jr. was shot down and killed on a CIA mission to airdrop artillery to the French on May 6, 1954. Just recently, after 50 years, a U.S. group searching in Laos found what might turn out to be his remains in a field near Ban Sot. His skeleton (or that of his copilot, Wallace Buford) is now in Hawaii at the Joint Task Force – Full Accounting arm of the Defense Department for ID. From what I was told McGovern was a pretty colorful CAT pilot. He loved the good life. Reputedly he was 5'10" and weighed almost 300 pounds.
The spring of 1962 turned into a pleasant summer touring around Japan as much as possible on my days off, making new friends among the Air America people and enjoying the interesting flying. About that time I began to think about the possibility of promotion. I was 31 years old and had been a copilot long enough. I wanted to be in command. In mulling this over I decided that the chances of getting a captaincy would be greatly enhanced if I volunteered for duty in Laos. This was the first time in my life I had money in the bank, but it was very little and I had heard that the flying down there paid extra hazard premiums. But mainly, I was looking for something new and different. So one fine day I walked in to see the chief pilot, Captain Hicks, and asked for a transfer to Vientiane. The civil war was hot down in Southeast Asia at the time and they always needed additional pilots, so a short time later I was on my way to our station in Vientiane, Laos. A new AA pilot in Tachikawa took over our little rental house because I expected to be back – eventually. Although I had loved the life and duty in Japan, I had no regrets in leaving as we winged our way south to a new experience in a fascinating land – Laos, "The Land of a Million Elephants." Most western travelers had never even heard of Laos – let alone visited it.
A CAT Airlines Convair 880 deposited us in Bangkok on a very hot summer afternoon, and within two days I was shuttled up to Vientiane with a few other pilots and miscellaneous employees. Hotel space was hard to come by in Vientiane, but an AA pilot by the name of Frank Hughes, another survivor of the Dien Bien Phu airdrops (48 missions), had mercy on me and agreed to let me share space in his quarters at the Settha Palace Hotel. Now the Settha Palace was really something else to an occidental from St. Paul. There were the obligatory mosquito nets over the beds and huge cooling fans on the room ceilings. The hotel's big Malayan sun bear in the courtyard and a noisy rooster that sounded off every morning completed the picture of a sleepy, colonial-era hotel in a tropical setting. The Settha Palace had been built by the French in the heart of Vientiane at the turn of the century. It was constructed with typical French colonial-style architecture, had a decent restaurant and was only a 10-minute drive to Wattai Airport. Right across the hall from my room were the residential quarters of the Communist Chinese delegation to Laos. Of course, they supported the Pathet Lao Communist insurgents. We, in turn, financed and gave help to their enemies, the Laotian Royalist forces. Of course, none of this was officially recognized by our government – and that is why it was called the secret war in Laos.
When I first reported in to the chief pilot I was informed that I would be checked out on the twin engine Fairchild C-123 Provider. These airplanes belonged to the U.S. Air Force, and we picked them up on loan at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. All of the Air Force identification and other markings were removed, and then they were operated as civilian unregistered aircraft. This was a reliable airplane, easy to fly, and I liked the 123 very much. The airplane was originally designed in 1943 by the Chase Aircraft Company as a heavy assault cargo glider for the U.S. Army. However, the new U.S. Air Force expressed interest in a powered version. Later, the Fairchild Company took over production and changed it into a versatile cargo assault transport powered with two 2300 hp Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp engines. The first plane flew in October 1949 and eventually over 300 were built. This excellent machine had self-sealing fuel tanks in the engine nacelles, a drop-down rear ramp for disgorging supplies, and could be operated out of rough fields as short as 1800 feet in length. It was perfect for our purposes.
Our actual work included supplying and assisting the Mountain Lao (Hmong and Meo tribes) who controlled much of the high ground in the mountains of Laos. They hated the Communists and so did we. Nevertheless, I frequently ate dinner in the colorful little hotel restaurant and enjoyed gawking at the Chinese Communist delegation across the room. During the day we fought each other in the mountains; at night we co-existed in the same hotels and restaurants. On some evenings, if the monsoon rains didn't keep me in my quarters, I would stroll across Vientiane to the American commissary. This was a good opportunity to see Vientiane up close and personal at night, when the people were out on the streets to see there as the lights were coming on. At that time there were only a few paved streets in the city – most urban streets were just dirt to serve the few cars throughout the area (almost all were Mercedes). There were no railroads in Laos and 80% of the population was engaged in subsistence farming. The monsoon lasts from June until about October, and I can still hear the rain pounding on the tin roof of our commissary during the dinner hour. There wasn't much to do if a pilot had the day off – which didn't happen often. I had some nice custom pieces of 18k gold jewelry made by one of the many local jewelers – ostentatious bracelets were part of the image. We also visited the Buddhist temples and shrines and tried to stay out of trouble. I have always loved playing bridge so we played cards in the evening with some French holdovers from the colonial period. My bridge partner, another pilot, would drink steadily all evening and was still able to play a decent game although he must have been stone drunk. Some of the younger pilots ended up at an infamous nightclub we called the "Green Latrine." This was really an unsavory place and, after checking it out once, I avoided it for good. Mostly, though, if you had been flying all day you just wanted some food and a bed.
We flew our missions out of either Vientiane or another base north of Bangkok named Takli. This base belonged to the Royal Thai Air Force, but it was secretly used for a number of purposes not readily apparent to outsiders. The U.S. based some U-2s out of Takli (I never saw them) and also attacked targets up north in Laos or Vietnam with a squadron of fighter-bombers. Thailand was supposed to be neutral. We used the base as a loading point for airdrops, and I always looked forward to stopping off for an overnight because the food was very good, we could watch an American movie and they served excellent ice cream that was not available in tropical Laos.
One day my friend, Captain Don Campbell, and I left Takli with a C-123 that was due for major maintenance at Clark AFB. We were over the South China Sea when we developed a problem with one of the engines and decided to play it safe and go back to Da Nang on the Vietnamese coast where there were U.S. Air Force repair facilities. It was amusing when we two civilians landed at an Air Force base with an unmarked U.S. Air Force airplane. The airmen who met us literally didn't know what to do with us, and they were visibly shaken and confused. We had been given a secret code word for such an unlikely occurrence, so after repeating it to those in command we were finally serviced and on our way. I have always loved tropical places and remember the beautiful expanse of white sand beach at Da Nang.
I mentioned my roommate at the Settha Palace, Frank Hughes. Frank had had a colorful career from the very beginning of CAT. In the bleak days in China after World War II the country was in bad shape. To help prevent starvation and get China back on its feet, The United Nations formed the Chinese National Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (CNRRA). This new organization then began an air transport operation to distribute food and essentials to the Chinese people from the coastal ports to the inland. General Claire Chennault, of Flying Tiger fame, was asked to form CAT (CNRRA Air Transport) to run it. This was in 1946 and by January 1947 Frank Hughes and some others picked up some newly purchased C-47s in the Philippines and flew them into Shanghai to begin the airline's work in China. Frank was one of the first hired – he had been recruited out of Peking with the US Army Air Corps 332d Troop Carrier Squadron. Later he would participate in the airdrops at Dien Bien Phu. At some point he returned to the US and worked for a think tank in California called the Rand Corporation. But, predictably, he eventually quit and returned to the Far East and back to work flying with CAT/Air America.
With Frank's history and background he could have had plush duty back in Tachikawa, but he chose to stay in Vientiane racking up some phenomenal flight hours. I never saw him much around the hotel – except in the evenings he enjoyed drinking alone out on the veranda. I did run into him in the summer of 1962 in Hong Kong in the Peninsula Hotel and we enjoyed a cup of tea in their wonderful lobby. Strangely, I didn't see him that much unless we were flying together. I always wondered where he spent his time – it certainly wasn't in our quarters. In many ways Frank seemed to be content with his position at that point. He was single and a nonconformist who loved his independence. He definitely had found his place in the isolation of Laos with its risks and rewards. He told me one evening about all the flight hours he had built up that week. That meant a fat paycheck at a time when there were no payroll deductions of any kind. Of course the risks were considerable, but he didn't seemd to mind. As a copilot, I was taking the same risks at one half the reward but I Didn't care that much because I was having the adventures of a lifetime.
Another interesting character was Art "shower shoes" Wilson. He was a rough old timer who always flew his missions wearing shower shoes. He also had been a stalwart performer at Dien Bien Phu. On one mission he had taken a 37mm hit in the left tail boom of his C-119 but managed to make his drop and return to base. It was noted by many that the hired gun CAT pilots were more determined than the French defenders at Dien Bien Phu. Our chief pilot in Vientiane was Captain Fred Walker who, during WWII, had flown over "the hump" during WWII and joined CAT in 1948. He was involved in the evacuation of Chiang Kai Shek from mainland China to Formosa in 1949 and the airdrops at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 (21 missions). At the time I knew him he was regional chief pilot for Southeast Asia. Later he flew the last Air America aircraft out of Saigon in April 1975. I respected these guys a lot – they went to war every day for decades and never got rich, but they were able to follow their own destinies free from the rules and restrictions that govern so many of us. I was determined to earn the respect of the pilots I worked with and to learn what I could from the experience.
During the summer of 1962 Frank and I had been assigned a flight to pick up some CIA agents in Saravane, Laos, a sleepy tropical village in the south of Laos. The airstrip was narrow and short with a p.s.p. (perforated steel plates) surface. As we touched down and rolled out after the landing we saw ahead of us some large oil drums right in the middle of the runway. They weren't large enough to see from the air but would have damaged our C-123 if we had hit them. So Frank, who was flying, swerved the aircraft off the runway and into a mess of monsoon mud. Quickly the airplane sank down into that mess and there it stayed as we cut the engines. How were we going to get out of the mud with no help? We were not in contact with our operational headquarters in Vientiane due to bad communications, and essentially we were on our own.
There is nothing as useless as an airplane stuck in the mud. Frank and I didn't know what to do, so we went into town with our CIA guys and had a good dinner at the only restaurant in town. These CIA agents seemed to be either one of two types: older and very tough or younger Ivy League types. We never asked them what they were doing, and there seemed to be a mutual respect between us. As the next morning dawned we were confronted with the problem. We solved it by hiring a number of local villagers to dig out under the wheels of the C-123. Then we slid some steel plates under the tires. We also had to dig out underneath the propellers because if the plane slipped and caught a prop on the ground it would have torn up the ship. So, with Frank sliding into the pilot's seat and slowly applying full power to the two engines, I checked for ground clearance from my position in front of the airplane and gave him the go ahead signal. With the engines bellowing, slowly the plane eased up on the ramps and out onto the dry runway with no damage. We were back in business, but in the subsequent years that quickly passed I have often wondered what became of Frank Hughes.
Our motivation was hard to explain. It certainly wasn't the money. I think we liked the freedom, the flying and overcoming obstacles to get the job done. CAT/Air America had a slogan – something like "we deliver anything, anyplace, anytime." These were not empty words – and our government really got its money's worth with Air America. That summer I was flying with one of my friends, Len Rogers, who years later ended up in Berlin, Germany, flying for Pan American. Len and I had been assigned an airdrop in some remote location and, upon arrival, we weren't sure if we had found the right place (we hadn't). Everything was dead reckoning – no navigation stations was flying with one of my friends, Len Rogers, who years later ended up in Berlin, Germany, flying for Pan American. Len and I had been assigned an airdrop in some remote location and, upon arrival, we weren't sure if we had found the right place (we hadn't). Everything was dead reckoning – no navigation stations or ground communications of any kind to help us. Laos was about one-half dense forest (not jungle) and 70% mountainous. However, we were being paid to drop and that's what we intended to do. In order to check out the drop zone we had to get down low and take a look for the markers that the Lao placed out to tell us if it was okay to drop down. If we got the go ahead, we would swing around at about 700 to 800 feet above the target, lower our rear ramp and signal our "kicker" with a green light to release the cargo lashings. He would then kick out the rice on pallets that quickly jettisoned away over a series of rollers mounted on the floor of the fuselage. The kickers I knew were usually ex-military load specialists who had done this kind of work in the service. On more than one occasion they tripped and accidentally went out the back with the goods but were saved by their parachutes. Needless to say they had to have a quick trigger to get their chutes opened fast. I never saw this happen but heard about it from those who had.
But, returning to my narrative, we then made a serious mistake because the drop zone was located in a sort of canyon. Into the open end of the canyon we flew, so intent on finding the zone that we didn't realize how low we were and how quickly the other end of the canyon was coming up. When we finally woke up to the gravity of our situation, we pushed the power up to maximum and quickly decided that we had no other option but to fly straight ahead over the rim of the canyon which at that point was slightly above us. There was no room to turn around in the narrow canyon. Len wanted to switch on the engine water injection (for more power), but neither of us had ever used it before and I wasn't sure what a sudden surge would do to the engines when they were already at maximum. They say that a really smart pilot can get the maximum from his machine, but if he asks for one iota more – he is a fool. As we watched the rim of the canyon coming up, Len and I eased the airplane up with the airspeed steadily and slowly decaying – at that point I really didn't know if we were going to make it before stalling out or hitting the rim. But I do remember how detached I felt as the bamboo trees slipped under our fuselage by only a few feet. Our airspeed was not much above the stall point (96 mph) as we skipped over the rim and could see blue sky ahead. Later back at Vientiane I was surprised at how calm I had felt at the point just before we realized that we had made it by the smallest of margins. Shaken by the experience, fear then fell over me like a blanket – I wonder if Len felt the same. We never talked about it again
I certainly had a lot of surprises that year. I came back from one mission over the mountains of northern Laos and, as the copilot, one of my jobs was refueling the airplane. When I went to stick the tanks (to determine how much fuel I had to start with), I discovered that there literally wasn't any gas. The tanks were so dry I couldn't measure any remaining fuel. We must have flown the final approach on fumes alone. We never figured that one of the gauges gave no indication of dry tanks.
Staying healthy was always a problem, too. I came down sick once after drinking ice water – at least that was what I believed to be the cause. Occasionally the kitchen help would make ice of water right out of the Mekong River. Apparently it didn't hurt them but it sure raised the dickens with our intestines. It's a fact that all of the rivers and streams in Laos feed the Mekong River and you can just imagine the bugs swimming there. Another annoying problem came from what we called "jungle rot." It really wasn't rot or from the jungle at all – instead it was either a parasite or a chronic fungal disease. During long flying days in that tropical heat, burdened with harness and parachute, I could feel the sweat drain down from my head and along my body. Eventually it caused body sores, scabs and watering. The itching was awful. At times when I visited Bangkok for R&R I would have to sneak around in public looking for a hidden doorway for privacy to scratch the incredible itching. It never did go away until I returned to the U.S.
You'd think that with all of the misfortunes just looking for a place to happen we would have tried to keep a low profile, but it wasn't so. One of my favorite pilots and companions in Vientiane was Captain Fred Riley, an ex-Marine and a wild man if there ever was one. We flew a lot together, but my first crazy experience with Fred was in the cockpit of our C-123. We were on final approach to Vientiane's airport at about 800 feet AGL and suddenly with no warning Fred intentionally slowed our airplane to stall speed. As the plane began to shake and the nose dropped Fred finally initiated the stall recovery and at the same time he watched my eyes to see my reaction. This was all done for my benefit so I tried to keep calm to spoil his fun. However, it seemed to me there was enough danger on a day to day basis without looking for more. But, that was Fred.
One afternoon after returning from another long mission over the dense forests of Laos we landed at Wattai Airport. Lined up along the front of the main ramp were three or four Russian DC-3s (exact copies manufactured by the Russians). Now, we disliked the Russians a lot so Riley maneuvered our Fairchild C-123 in front of their group and, turning the tail directly at them, wound up our engines to almost full power. Well, the mess was indescribable – junk, dirt, mud flew all over their hapless machines and Fred (who hadn't warned me) chuckled because he thought that this was very funny. Yes, I thought so too until we discovered that we had gotten our machine too close to one of the Russian planes and had actually clipped off our right wingtip.
Our embarrassment was only exceeded by the tongue-lashing we got from Fred Walker. As our chief pilot he had to ground us for several days, which cost us a few bucks, but Riley seemed to think it was worth it. When you work for an airline it's a pretty serious offense to carelessly damage an airplane. Not only are repairs expensive but a valuable working machine is out of service and our planes already were pushed to the limit. So why didn't the chief pilot really punish us instead of giving only a token penalty? To explain that you have to understand his predicament. How many pilots are there who are experienced, gung-ho motivated and willing to risk their necks every day for a modest paycheck? And, to boot, willing to live in a backwater place no one had even heard of – hot, dangerous and isolated.
One day during the summer of 1962 I watched the repatriation of a poor devil that had the misfortune of being captured by the Communists months or years before. Apparently he was an Air America ground employee – maybe a mechanic. He had been captured when one of the ground positions had been overrun and, as a civilian, he was imprisoned in the north. The government had worked out some kind of deal, and he was returned that day to the airport in Vientiane via one of those Russian DC-3s. I only got a quick glimpse of him as they whisked him onto a U.S. Air Force plane headed for Clark AFB. He looked to be in bad shape, and I knew what would happen to any of us who would have that misfortune. In our minds was the fact that we were nonmilitary personnel without the official protection of the U.S. government. It was official Air America policy that none of us was permitted to carry weapons of any kind.
One of the most colorful characters I ever met in Laos wasn't a pilot—he was a roving social worker (Or at least that's what I called him). Author Christopher Robbins in his fascinating book, Air America, wrote about Edgar "Pop" Buell in detail. Buell had been an Indiana farmer and then his wife died so he was alone. However, through some stroke of fate, in 1960 he found a job as an agricultural volunteer assisting the Lao people. He worked for International Voluntary Services (IVS) which was a Christian version of the Peace Corps. Our Helio Couriers would fly Pop up to the mountains where he found a million things to do including giving agricultural advice. Incredibly, he was so gifted at his fieldwork that it evolved into caring for large numbers of refugees and even directing Meo guerrillas in the war against the Communists. He did all this for his IVS salary of $65 per month. On more than one occasion he barely evaded capture by the Communist Pathet Lao. The last time I saw him we had lunch together in the commissary at Wattai airport. He had a newborn baby with him that had recently become an orphan. Pop eventually became famous and was written up in the Saturday Evening Post.
One evening in November we landed after another long flight and, stepping out of the airplane, I was greeted by someone whose name I don't even remember, but he certainly did have monumental news for me. "Warren," he said, "Northwest Airlines has recalled you." To this day I don't know how they found me because I had been led to believe that a recall from furlough was months or even years away. Foolishly, I had left no forwarding address with the airline. I had no access to a telephone and we moved around a lot – for example we frequently used the secret air base in Takli, Thailand, for clandestine flights and we weren't even in Vientiane very many days at a time. But mostly, I just didn't expect a recall. Ken Bryant, who had been in my initial Northwest copilot class in 1959, was working for JAL in Tokyo, so when he got his recall (bless him) he told someone who told someone else to forward the word to me in Laos.
There is an old joke about a dozen pilots parachuting out of airplanes all over Asia – and two days later they are all drinking at the same bar. Well, there is some truth to that because if the word had not filtered down to me by persons unknown I would have lost my future. Northwest Airlines was not obligated to keep my seniority number indefinitely. I loved Air America and would have stayed indefinitely, but the wars would not continue forever and I wanted a career with Northwest. Somebody up there in heaven was really looking out for me – and for Tommy Shelton, too. He had the same experience – finding out about the recall on the deadline for being back in the Twin Cities. Luckily he was able to talk his way back into NWA.
About an hour after hearing this big news I hitched a ride on an Air Force C-135 to Bangkok. We had an apartment there, so, after checking in with my wife, I headed for the telegraph office to place a wire to the Northwest chief pilot in Minneapolis. When Air America hired me, he agreed to let me stay with the airline until he absolutely had to have me back at NWA. I had expected that he was going to give me the requested leave of absence so I was seriously deflated when he turned down my request and ordered me back – either that or I was out. Clearly, I had no choice – the long term belonged to the big-time scheduled airlines and that's where I wanted to be in the future. But it wasn't then. Reluctantly I packed up my few belongings and caught a ride over to Taipei where I was required to go through a debriefing with the manager of flight operations, Captain Rousselot.
Captain Rousselot was a marine pilot at the end of WWII and stationed in Peking. He took his discharge and joined CAT at the beginning of 1947 and within two years was the chief pilot. Author and historian William M. Leary in his excellent book, Perilous Missions, describes Rousselot's career with CAT/Air America. If Hollywood ever made a good movie of his career in the Far East, it would keep us sitting on the edges of our seats during the entire film. I wish I had had the chance to know him better. I understand he now lives in quiet retirement on his ranch in Oklahoma.
And so we returned to chilly Minnesota at the end of 1962 to renew ties to Northwest Airlines and old friends and family. I was shocked to read in the newspaper about a week after returning that Fred Riley and my replacement copilot, Don Heritage, were shot down and killed by the Pathet Lao. They had been sent on a short flight to Xieng Khouang, Laos, near the Plain of Jars where they had been promised safe conduct. Apparently, our government had made arrangements for this one-time flight – purposes unknown – and had been betrayed. I felt devastated – Fred and Don were really good guys and I had enjoyed their friendship a lot.
In the end, much has been written about Air America and the secret war in Laos. I was glad to have had a very small part in it and would do it again in a heartbeat. Sadly, all of the work, money and lives of brave men were spent for very little gain. We did, however, work for a company unique in the annals of aviation history – it probably couldn't happen again.
For a few months after my return I was able to hold flying the Douglas DC-6/7 as copilot but then was assigned to a non-pilot position in second officer training for the Boeing 720. I was so demoralized about losing my window seat in the cockpit that I actually considered quitting and going back to Air America. Fortunately, good sense prevailed, I settled down and waited for change. Two years later things did change – I was back in the right seat but this time it was a Boeing 727.