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...Like a Tennis Match
By John DeRose
1968...in the Navy off the coast of Vietnam...about 2 in the morning and landing on a carrier "on the line"...in the middle of a typhoon.
I'm an electronics technician and sometimes aircrew member on a C2A twin-engine turboprop with the big guppy belly and rear ramp. We carry high priority passengers and cargo from the Philippines to "the line" (the "line" is the carriers stationed off the coast of Vietnam) to Da Nang airfield in-country.
Earlier that day (back at Cubi Point in the Philippines) we got word that one of our C2's was "down" at Danang for electronics failure. They needed a number of different components to get the radios and nav gear back up. I'm an electronics technician, it was a boring day so I volunteered to go, grabbed what was needed, and hopped the next C2 heading there. We have to make a stop on one of the carriers before we go to Da Nang.
It's a good 4 to 5-hour flight to the line from Cubi Point. I'm already pretty tired, and as we approach the ship, the weather is not good, and it's been a pretty turbulent flight. Understand that the kind of turbulence that I'm talking about is probably something that most folks have never experienced. The C2A is much smaller than a 737 and, as a small aircraft, is significantly affected by turbulence. Let's put it this way, if you're not strapped in, you'd be spread like peanut butter all over the interior of the aircraft. This is primarily a cargo plane...the inside is unfinished with support struts all over the place...pretty much acting like a strainer should you hit them with any force.
Our pilot that day is probably the best pilot in our squadron. As we're on approach to the ship, it's very clear that he's having a hell of a hard time staying on the glide path. Oh, did I mention that it's the middle of the night, and 100% pitch black? FYI, on night ops on a carrier under combat watch, the deck is bathed in faint red light.
So, here we go 130 knots or so, trying to catch the hook...the C2 is bouncing around in the turbulence to beat the band. We hit the deck...HARD...missed the hook (we call it a "bolter") and off we go again, around for another pass. At this point, I'm getting worried. We're getting low on fuel and we won't have much left for too many more passes. We'd better catch the hook this next time around.
Around we come again. I'm in the rear jump seat at the right of the C2. It has a window, so as we're approaching, I can see the dim red glow and the deck. We hit the deck again, and the view is somewhat surreal. It appears that time is slowing down. I can clearly see all the deck crew watching us. It's like watching the crowd at a tennis match, as their heads all move in-sync as they watch the ball go back and forth, but it's all happening in slow motion. Their heads swivel from left to right, watching our progress, and BAM...we bolt again as we hit the deck.
I'm 21 years old at the time, have a wife and two young kids, and now I'm plenty scared! As we're coming around for the third pass, all of a sudden it hits me, "We're going to crash and we're all going to die." It wasn't a feeling of fear or panic...it was a very calm acceptance of the finality and reality of the situation. I can remember kind of mentally shrugging my shoulders and just sitting back and waiting for the inevitable. I will tell you that it is truly amazing as to how many different thoughts can go pass through your mind in such a short period!
In we go for the third pass...another bolter...another view of the deck crew watching us. Oh, shit!! How much fuel do we have left? Around we go again. It takes about 4 to 5 minutes or so to make another approach...certainly enough time to think about many things.
On the fourth attempt, we again hit hard butÉCATCH THE HOOK! Amazing!!! But, the C2 doesn't stop bouncing around. It was then that I realized that the carrier was pitching and bobbing like a cork in a maelstrom. The deck crew took over, moved us out of the way and tied us down. We lowered the ramp and began to deplane but we could hardly stand upright...it was that rough, but it was a great feeling to be able to feel how rough it was...to be able to feel anything at all! I'm the first one off the bird, and from the looks on the deck crew's faces, I'll bet that I must have had quite a shit-eating grin on my face because all I saw was nothing but wide grins all around.
We refueled, offloaded some cargo, waited for daybreak to catapult off the ship to Da Nang. I still had a downed C2 there that I had to fix. During that time, the storm moved off, and when we saw the first wisps of dawn, the sky was reasonably clear. We "cat" off the ship, and off we go to Da Nang, a very short hop, no more than a half hour or so. It's still an eerie pre-dawn when we hit the tarmac at Da Nang. The field is lit up, and there are lots of clouds and vibrant colors in the sky. To this day I can still remember the technicolor sky. We pull the C2 in our parking spot. In Da Nang, there are "revetments" to park aircraft. Picture a big garage, without a roof, made of thick walls of poured concrete, with separate spots for each aircraft, and a concrete divider between each spot, to isolate each plane from the one next to it.
We drop the rear ramp on the C2 and begin to unload. It's still pre-dawn...this is my first trip "in-country" (into the combat zone). By now, it's been well over 30 hours since I've slept. I have two heavy pieces of electronics on my shoulders (probably 100 lbs. or so) as I wander off looking for the other C2 with problems. It's somewhat quiet, but even at that time of the early morning, there's still plenty of activity on the field.
All of the sudden, alarm sirens start going off, small arms fire erupts across the runway, and at the same time, everyone starts yelling and running everywhere. I'm standing there, with the gear on my shoulders, and I haven't got the slightest idea where to go or what to do, so I start running to...where? Beats the hell outta me, but seemed like a good idea at the time, as everyone else was doing it! The arms noise is getting more intense. I'm still less than 50 yards from our plane, and all of a sudden there's a loud "whooshing" noise, followed very shortly by an overwhelming BOOM!
It turns out to be a rocket attack and it all happened so fast, yet things appeared to be moving in slow motion! At that point, I really didn't know what to do. I still had the gear on my shoulders. I'm a big guy in good shape (6'3" 225 lbs. at the time), so it's not that I was terribly hindered by the extra weight...it just never occurred to me to drop the gear and run for the nearest cover. OK...now I'm running to...beats the hell out of me...when I see a sandbagged open shelter, head towards that, and I dive ass-over-tea-kettle into the bunker still carrying the gear, but upside down now, landing on my head. I wrenched my neck pretty good, and it later turned out that I also re-tore my left rotator cuff.
I'm now in the hole with other guys who know what is going on. It's clear we're under attack, and no one seems to be terribly concerned about it...everyone is somewhat nonchalant about it! OK, I can pretend to be cool too.
In a while, the all-clear siren sounds, and everyone goes back to business. I'm now beyond tired. I find the C2. It takes about 2 hours to r&r the gear. I check out the systems and they're all now working, so mission accomplished.
Our C2 was not damaged at all in the attack, so we prep it to get out of there. Before we can, all of us (enlisted men, that is) get commandeered to help unload a big cargo plane that just pulled in. Oh, for joy! It's now mid-morning, well over 100 degrees on the field, I still have my full flight suit on. It's freakin HOT!!! By the time we unload the plane, my flight suit is totally soaked.
We are then kicked free, get back to our C2 and get the hell out of there. Once we get to altitude, I fall into a deep sleep, totally exhausted. I wake up a bit later, pull out a cigarette, start to light it up and...aarrrgghhhh!!! I can't inhale!! Long story short instant pneumonia!! Off-duty for almost 2 weeks absolutely miserable. If not for the apricot brandy that a friend slipped me in the hospital, I don't know what I would have done. By the way, it didn't take very long for me to find out that the rocket attack at Da Nang that I had just experienced was the opening salvo of the Tet offensive...lucky me...being able to get outta there before the shit REALLY hit the fan.
Anyhow, I guess that's my "near-death" experience. At the time, it didn't seem like that big a deal...maybe it really wasn't. I look back at it now, and the most vivid memory of it all was bouncing off that deck, and watching the deck crew watch us bolting....all bathed in that eerie red light.
It's strange the things that stay with you.
P.S. - Both our pilot and my fellow crew member of that day were later killed in a crash as they attempted a carrier landing. One of the props came off during approach and sliced the fuselage in half...all within sight of the flight deck.
I still think about them. May they rest in peace.
John DeRose enlisted in US Navy in 1966 for a four-year tour. Attended both A & B schools for electronics and made ATN2 in 20 months (critical rate). DeRose spent the most time in VRC-50 homeported out of NAS Atsugi, Japan with detachments in CUBI Point, Philippines, and Danang. Returned to college in 1970, joined VVAW, and served as a campus organizer and protest organizer. Now retired and living in Harvard, MA.