Close Call off the Cruel Sea

The USS Coral Sea, CVA-43

The C1A was tightly cinched down to the vibrating steel island that punched through the Tonkin Gulf of the South China Sea.  The wind was whistling across the flight deck at 35 knots.  Commander Post and I leaned into the buffeting wind as we struggled forward toward the starboard catapult where the COD aircraft was ready for immediate launch.  Post made a quick walk around looking for any obvious safety of flight discrepancy.  We climbed into the aircraft cabin as the crew chief held the door against the wind.  Hurrying into the cockpit, we maneuvered into our respective seats and strapped the big bird to our buttocks with the web seat belt and shoulder harness.  We donned our heavy flight helmets as protection in case of a cold catapult shot or engine failure forcing us to ditch in the unfriendly ocean. We would be the first to launch. Pri-Fly was already squawking on the radio for us to expedite our departure.  Rush!  Rush!  Get out of the way so the iron bombers can launch and wreak havoc on enemy targets near Hanoi and Haiphong.  The fire bottles were manned, the propeller cranked through 8 blades and the engines started.  Post cycled all of  the flight controls and watched for the correct response by the respective control surfaces.   The carrier was turning port to Fox Corpen.  The catapult officer was standing by the wingtip urging an immediate runup. Too soon the ship rolled out on course and we were being run up for launch. Post made a quick MAG check while the catapult officer waited for our salute.  Time to go!  "So long Cruel Sea!"   Post tossed a salute. The catapult officer made a sweeping downward point to the deck and the catapult shot us like a bullet out of the barrel of a gun. For an instant, my eyes rolled back under my lids when the mighty blow slammed my seat into my back   In two seconds we accelerated to 150 knots.  The thrill of the cat shot was unmatched by anything else on earth.  As with every catapult shot I had experienced, my voice automatically shouted "Yah Hooooo!"

 We boomed off the bow of the Coral Sea.  It was about 4 PM and our last launch on a very long day flying the carrier on board delivery [COD] C1A.  Commander Post and I were tired but we still had a long six hours of flying ahead before landing back at Tan Son Nhut.  Our immediate right hand clearing turn away from the bow also took us out of the carrier traffic pattern. We continued the turn to the assigned heading of 220 degrees.  I started a climb to nine thousand.  The C1A entered a broken cloud deck at three thousand feet.  Several buildups were visible about 25 miles ahead. Post was getting antsy.  His head was scanning all directions as we passed through patches of clouds.  Several minutes later while passing seven thousand feet, I knew something was not quite right.   We began to distinguish land at twelve o'clock.  But, the coastline was unfamiliar.  The coast was rounded but it was not the Tiger Island area!  Post said, "The sun!"  The sun was behind us!  Post shouted, "I've got it!"  He rolled the yoke hard right.  Post had the C1A diving for the water and heading opposite to our previous course.  Post shouted again, "Watch for MIGs!"  My head had been on a swivel since spotting the land mass that we now realized was enemy territory.  We leveled off about 300 feet.  Post S-turned as we checked our six o'clock position for aircraft.  I aligned the compass and we turned to the proper heading toward Hue, South Vietnam.  My thoughts were on the close call.  Not a very gallant way for a fighter pilot to die!  Flying a slow moving transport plane with no cannon or other ordnance aboard into China. A commie duck shoot!  Whew! 

I said, "That was a close call!  We almost flew over Hai Nan Island!  We could be dead now or POWs in Communist China for the rest of our lives--except for the lucky wake up.  All because, in the rush on the catapult, we didn't reset the damned compass!"

Post said, "I don't want to talk about it any more!"  


My thoughts went back to August 1, 1967.  That was the day that I started wearing three hats while representing the Commanding Generals of III MAF, First Marine Air Wing, and the Third Marine Division of I Corps in South Vietnam as Marine Liaison to headquarters MACV and CG 7TH Air Force in Saigon.  My orders did not specify the location of my duty assignment in an obvious devious prohibition to receiving the going rate of $32 dollars daily per diem paid TAD personnel to offset the living expenses in Saigon, the largest city in Vietnam.  Quarters were provided for me aboard Tan Son Nhut Air Base and a jeep was issued to me by the Navy's 7Th Fleet Liaison Office.  I was told to not carry a firearm in my duties.  Disregarding such a directive in a combat zone, I strapped a .22 caliber semi-automatic 10 shot pistol in a small leather holster onto my inside left calf for easy access in an emergency. The gun was never removed from the holster in anger.  

To insure maintaining flight proficiency and receiving flight pay, I sniveled flights as co-pilot with the 7TH Fleet pilots in an aged C-45 [SNB] that still had fabric control surfaces, and several Grumman Trader C1A COD [Carrier on board delivery] aircraft which re-supplied the Navy outposts and shuttled mail, cargo and personnel to and from the Yankee Station carriers.  A previous Crusader skipper, Fox Dempster, was on joint staff at MACV. Fox took me as his co-pilot on C-45 flights.  Twice we flew the SNB to Con Son Island location of a famous RVN prison.

Commander R. E. Post Jr. was the Operations Officer for the Saigon 7TH Fleet detachment and controlled the aviators and the flying assignments.  On October 24, 1967 Commander Post asked me to fly co-pilot with him from Tan Son Nhut to the USS Coral Sea on Yankee Station.  One trip was for delivery of the Stars and Stripes newspapers, mail and supplies and a second trip was to transport mail and ship personnel from Da Nang Air Base to the Coral Sea for further distribution to other Yankee Station ships.  I jumped at any chance to go aboard the carriers.

We took off at daybreak and flew north across the southeastern edge of Cambodia and Laos.  The Brasserie stood out clearly and a flight of F-100's were seen dropping bombs on the Ho Chi Minh Trail just north of where the road entered Cambodia.  Pussy Mountain was visible as we entered the Central Highlands.


From there we proceeded as the crow flies to Da Nang.  Waterboy then vectored us direct to the USS Coral Sea.  The trip took nearly four hours. Our recovery signal was Charlie as we arrived overhead CVA-43.  

Commander Post was seasoned at landing the C1A on the carrier and flew a flawless pattern to a perfect three wire arrestment.  We were taxied to the forward starboard catapult in preparation for launch.  The supplies were quickly off-loaded along with the newspapers.  Next to receiving personal mail, the Stars and Stripes weekly paper was an eagerly awaited favorite for the troops.  

It was my turn to fly the cat shot and land at Da Nang.  The engines were started and the checklist read and responded to.  JR Post reminded me that the last and most important item to check before saluting the Catapult Officer was the directional gyro.  We had to insure that the C1A heading indicator matched the ship's Fox Corpen [operating course].  After recovery of returning aircraft the carrier would turn downwind to retrace the distance traveled during the previous launch and recovery period.  The C1A was usually last aboard and would normally be shut down during the the ship's turn or when heading back up the Yankee Station pattern.  After engine shut down the C1A heading indicator would remain frozen at the power off heading.  Engine start would occur during the turn to Fox Corpen or when on launch heading.  Unlike modern jets, the C1A would not automatically slave to the actual aircraft heading upon start.  The C1A heading indicator had to be manually reset.

The cat shot was thrilling but clumsy compared to the booming shot from 0 to 200 miles per hour in 2 and a half seconds like I had grown accustomed to in F-8 Crusaders.  After an hour and fifteen minutes I landed at Da Nang.  We taxied to the terminal, refueled, picked up our mail and passengers and were soon departing on our takeoff roll.  Flight time was rapidly building up.  An hour and forty minutes later we left the Coral Sea Dog Pattern for our arrestment.  Again, Post shot a perfect approach.  He wasn't going to trust me to get us aboard.  A wave off would be too embarrassing.

While we were taxied forward to the bow cats, the Coral Sea was turning to the downwind course.  We shut down the engines and went below decks.  The ship's store was open for some duty free purchases.  The mess was also open so we grabbed a quick meal.  An hour had passed and it was launch time.  Back topside we went, checked the weight and balance, looked over the manifest and supply list and headed out of the line shack for our Grumman Trader aircraft. 


My thoughts were back to our race away from Hai Nan Island.  Ahead glowed the wake from the carrier we had departed on the wrong heading minutes before.  The foamy white trail stood out against the deep blue South China Sea.  It was a reminder for us to start a climb. In retrospect, the carrier must have been busy handling flight operations and ignored our departure heading. Consequently we received no warnings on our outbound course toward Chinese territory. The Coral Sea TACAN was now pointing just off our nose as I synced the directional compass with the standby.  I thought about how close I had come to becoming a Chinese POW.  A shiver traveled through my body as the idea crossed my mind.  After again passing abeam of the Cruel Sea, we once again started up to nine thousand feet.  

We landed at Da Nang and refueled.  It was over an hour till sunset when we climbed back into the C1A for the last leg of our day-long journey.  Three hours plus 45 minutes to Saigon.  We watched the sun set behind the mountains west of the Central Highlands as we droned south.  Flares drew vertical bright white tails over many outposts along the way as defenders illuminated the perimeters of their compounds against NVA probes.  Twice we watched Puff the Magic Dragon [C-47 Gunship] spray a waterfall of red tracer fire down on enemy positions.  Soon the lights of Saigon lit up a circle 25 miles in diameter.  With no traffic to impede our approach and landing we were soon back in front of the Naval Forces Vietnam flight line.  I reflected back to my transfer nearly three months before.  Safely completing 205 missions in Crusaders only to be shot down in a C1A?  It was too close to disaster for me! Post and I thanked our luck and vowed there would never be another mistake like our close call off the Cruel Sea.


Back to Back We Face the Past

Donald Cathcart LtCol USMC Retired