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Red Devil Fly Away
Charlie Cronkrite and I were standing beside the Da Nang Air Base perimeter road. We were in front of the MAG-11 compound where Group headquarters was located and where all assigned squadron personnel were billeted. It was where we got on and off the cattlecar to the flight lines and squadron hangars several days each week. It was nearly 8 AM. We had flown night missions a few hours before and weren’t rushing to our jobs. Charlie was in VMF(AW)232 Red Devils and I was in VMF(AW)235 Death Angels. Both were F-8 Crusader squadrons.
Charlie and I were good friends. We had a mutual admiration and toleration kind of respect for each other. I thrived on his unshakable optimism and contagious good humor. In addition, we both had a compulsive disregard for danger. Charlie had been my roommate on deployments when we were fighter pilots in VMF(AW)-451 at MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina in 1963 and 1964. Charlie was so upbeat, he could quickly raise anyone’s spirits. My difficulty was that I seldom knew whether Charlie was pulling my leg, jerking my chain, or being serious. And, I didn’t care! Charlie was an accomplished fighter pilot.
Charlie called attention to the dump trucks carrying full loads of dirt and gravel in both directions. He wanted to put up a stop sign and then tell all dump truck drivers going north to turn and go dump some place in the south and tell all dump truck drivers going south to turn around and go dump their loads up north. The dust was bad enough, but the dump trucks filled the air with more dirt and debris. I complained to Charlie about how sick I was of the smell of the burning mixture of JP-4 and fecal matter from our Group 12 hole crapper. Charlie laughed and said, "It’s better than no toilet at all!" I wasn’t so sure.
Charlie pointed to two Vietnamese across the road perched atop a four foot high concrete wall that remained from French army quarters blown away many years before. A girl of about 14 years was perched on one end of the wall while a younger boy was squatting on the opposite end. They were defecating. Charlie said the young girl excreted white feces while the young boy’s feces was brown. I easily lost interest in his description of the morning ritual that we witnessed several times a week. Charlie invariably expounded on how the girl was either a saint or a vestal virgin. The youngsters finished their toilet and disappeared as the cattlecar arrived in a cloud of dust. We climbed aboard and bounced nonstop on the mile long trip to the hangars.
Charlie turned towards the 232 hangar after we jumped from the cattlecar. I grabbed his arm and said, "Charlie, do you have any missions tonight?" Charlie said, "No. Why?" I said, "Let’s eat steak at the Air Farce Club tonight and teach them how to drink!" Charlie was exuberant. "Hell yes, I’ll go! You got transportation?" I said, "Yes. Meet me at 235 ops at 7. I’ll ask Norm Marshall, Jellander, Cunningham and any other guys from old four fifty one."
Charlie, Animal Norm, Jellybean, Fly J.I., and I loaded into a jeep about 7 PM and drove around the Air Base to the Air Force area. General Lew Walt had told Three MAF Marines not to enter any civilian or military clubs and banned consumption of alcoholic beverages. Since our flight suits could identify us as Marine pilots, we played it safe and wore utility uniforms. Utilities were normally worn by the Navy pilots who diverted to Da Nang from Yankee Station carriers in the Tonkin Gulf.
We arrived at the double wide air-conditioned trailer Officers Club, referred to as the DOOM, to find a crowd of reveling Ranch Hand pilots. The Ranch Hands flew the C-123 transports dispensing Agent Orange defoliant. It was a hazardous job because of the low altitudes flown and the intense enemy ground fire encountered. They were a cocky bunch. Probably because General Ky flew with them. They wore purple scarves. One Ranch Hand table had at least 200 beer cans stacked in a pyramid that reached the ceiling. We couldn’t resist the opportunity. Charlie shouted, "Kill those cans!" I yelled, "Aye, aye, sir!" and did a swan dive into the stack of beer cans. Not only did the stack of beer cans collapse, but the table gave way under my weight. About eight Air Force pilots who had been sitting around the table jumped to their feet and starting grabbing Marines. We were in the middle of a huge donnybrook when the OD and Air Police arrived. The Club Manager had all the Ranch Hands banished from the club for thirty days and then he apologized to us for the Ranch Hands drunken behavior. Fly heard One Air Force Captain complaining, "We just got off our last banishment today!" What a great night that was! The steaks were delicious and we had the whole club to ourselves. Another bonus was that the club had a flush toilet.
The following day, all of us flew combat missions. Everything was going great until Charlie’s F-8 flamed out between Dong Ha and Da Nang. Charlie turned south while attempting restarts. The glide toward Da Nang would put him closer to SAR helicopters. When it became obvious that the crippled crusader was not going to make the airfield. Charlie ejected east of Red Beach in Da Nang Bay. His ejection looked perfect and his parachute opened normally. However, once in the water Charlie had big problems. The survival vest was overloaded with emergency radios, escape and evasion gear, and his weapon. The Mae West then inflated too low under the survival vest. This resulted in Charlie having to battle to remain upright in the water. He soon was overcome and drowned before the rescue chopper arrived on the scene. Charlie had notified the Air Base tower and the Group operations upon experiencing the flameout. He had reported his position and his intentions sufficiently early. In fact, Norm was in an F-8 near the runway and heard Charlie’s “May-Day.” He took off, circled overhead the ejection and observed Charlie splash down. The rescue chopper did not arrive in time to rescue Charlie. A tragic SNAFU!
The Air Group was in shock at the news. A great Marine was gone! Norm and I drank a fifth of scotch and shed many tears that night in my hootch. The ban on alcohol consumption be damned! We really loved Charlie. He was a teddy bear with a wide smile who kept everyone laughing at his cleverness and humor. We rationalized that it was "good news--bad news". The bad news--Charlie was gone. The good news--Charlie was not going to be a prisoner in the Hanoi Hilton for the rest of his life. It took us several weeks to get over the loss of Charlie. Then again, I guess we really never got over it.
While awaiting the cattlecar on mornings after the tragedy, I never again saw the Vietnamese girl on the wall. She seemed to have disappeared when Charlie flew away.
Tuesday, June 20, 1967
Cronkrite, Charles Ligon, Major US Marine Corps, Pilot-F8E Crusader.
Air Loss-Crashed at Sea. Offshore, Military Region 1, South Vietnam
The WALL: PANEL 22E-ROW 024
Back to Back We Face the Past
Donald Cathcart LtCol USMC Ret.