Saluting Coweta’s Vietnam Vets: From Tet in 1968 until the war ended

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By Alex McRae

The Times-Herald

Published Sunday, September 18, 2011

Randy Sewell with his OV-10 aircraft.

Editor’s Note: Today The Newnan Times-Herald continues our series on the Vietnam War and Coweta men and women who served, leading to the visit in October to Coweta County of the replica Vietnam Memorial wall.

The Tet Offensive — named for the Vietnamese New Year — was a major push by the North Vietnamese Army against United States and South Vietnamese forces that began in January 1968 and lasted for months.

When the final body count was tallied, U.S. officials declared a victory, but the televised slaughter fueled an enormous public outcry in the U.S. and marked the beginning of a rapid decline in whatever support remained for sending more U.S. troops to die in Vietnam.

In the wake of the Tet Offensive student protests against the war drew tens of thousands. U.S. military and political leaders were abandoned by even their staunchest supporters in the media.

Antiwar Democratic candidates promising to end the carnage even registered to run against President Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 election. In March 1968, realizing that he had lost public support, public confidence and the war, Johnson stunned the nation by announcing he would not run for reelection.

And, in 1968, the war wasn’t the only problem occupying the American people. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was law, but racial tensions across the country still ran high. In April 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at a Memphis motel the day after speaking in support of striking black Memphis sanitation workers. Two months later, in June 1968, Robert F. Kennedy, in the midst of his presidential campaign, was gunned down in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen minutes after celebrating his victory in the California presidential primary.

In August, the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago was not dominated by politics but violence as tens of thousands of anti-war demonstrators fought in the streets with Chicago Police and the Illinois National Guard.

Richard Nixon smashed Democrat Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election, promising to bring “Peace with honor” in Vietnam.

As far as Americans were concerned, he couldn’t bring it fast enough. In 1968 alone, 16,592 Americans died in the deadliest year of the war.

Peace talks had quietly begun in late 1968 but would not end for five more years. In April 1969, peace talks began openly in Paris as U.S. troops continued to pour into Vietnam. That same month, U.S. troops reached a record level of 543,400. By then, 33,641 Americans had died in Vietnam, more than were killed in combat during the entire Korean war.

In June 1969, Nixon announced a policy of “Vietnamization” designed to turn control of the fight over to South Vietnamese forces. He also announced the withdrawal of 25,000 U.S. troops.

It wasn’t enough. Months later, a peace rally in Washington, D.C., drew an estimated 250,000. Nixon decreased troop levels while the Paris peace talks sputtered on and off.

On July 1, 1971, 6,100 U.S. troops left Vietnam in a single day, a record for departures. But the fighting continued, as Coweta’s Randy Sewell learned when he arrived later that month.

Sewell was born and raised in Moreland and attended Newnan High School, graduating in 1964. He attended Georgia Tech and graduated in 1969. Sewell knew he was likely to be drafted but felt a special kinship with friends and fellow students who had gone to Vietnam. He decided to join the military and enlisted to become an Air Force officer.

“I wanted to take away the uncertainty about the draft,” Sewell said. “But I also felt it was something I should do. I never regretted it.”

During officer training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Sewell was approached about flight training. He had not considered it before, but once he flew for the first time, he was hooked.

“I loved it,” he said. “It’s hard to explain how it gets into your system.”

After earning his wings, Sewell was assigned to fly an OV-10 as a Forward Air Controller, or FAC. Sewell’s mission was searching for enemy troops and supplies, directing attack aircraft to the fighting and spotting enemy targets as the battle progressed.

Sewell arrived in Vietnam in late July 1971 and was based at Pleiku in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. He said the living conditions were not exactly first class for the 20 American pilots in his unit who were assigned to Pleiku but were not officially attached to any U.S. or South Vietnamese unit.

By the time Sewell arrived, the huge U.S. base at Pleiku had been abandoned by U.S. forces and turned over to the South Vietnamese military. Sewell said one of the first things the new tenants did was rip out the sinks, lavatories and showers and sell them on the local black market for cold, hard cash.

“Those people were so poor they would do anything for a few dollars,” Sewell said. “We understood why they did it.”

Sewell’s unit hauled buckets of water to flush the toilets. Running water was available to a small shower facility, but only for an hour or two each day.

The food wasn’t much better. Sewell said he ate “a lot of small chickens” and vast quantities of peanut M&Ms sent by loved ones back in the States.

While at Pleiku, Sewell mainly flew missions over Cambodia and said there was little excitement.

“It was a pretty low-threat area,” he said. “I found a few things and called in some attack planes a few times, but it wasn’t too exciting.”

Things were different at the base. It was not uncommon for enemy troops to fire rockets at the Pleiku facility. One day, it happened at a most inopportune time.

Sewell had finished his daily flight and gone back to his quarters. He realized the water was on and decided to take a quick shower.

Sewell had just gotten wet when the base was hit with a barrage of enemy rockets. Sewell knew the drill.

“When all the alarms and warnings went off, I just laid down in the shower and waited for it to end,” he said. He didn’t realize he would soon have a very unexpected guest.

The American pilots at Pleiku had adopted a scruffy white dog they called Willie Pete, the nickname for the phosphorous (WP) grenades OV-10 pilots dropped to mark targets. Seconds after Sewell hit the floor, Willie Pete raced into the shower looking for help.

“He jumped down there and huddled up next to me, and he was shaking all over,” Sewell said. “And he really smelled like a wet dog. It was bad. But I understood. He didn’t want to get hit by one of those rockets, either.”

After a month at Pleiku, Sewell was transferred to Nakhon Phanom, a Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand the Americans referred to as NKP.

The living conditions at NKP were luxurious compared to Pleiku, with plenty of food, air-conditioned quarters and even a bar the pilots frequented called the Nail Hole.

But the mission threat level was vastly different. At NKP Sewell found himself under attack almost daily. Most of his 230 combat missions were flown out of NKP, and Sewell said he always expected to be fired upon.

“They never went after us big time, because they didn’t want to give their position away,” Sewell said. “But they were always taking pot shots at us.”

Sewell’s primary mission was interdiction, searching for enemy troops and supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a vast network of roads and trails running from mountain passes in North Vietnam through Laos into South Vietnam.

Reports from FACs based in Danang indicated vast quantities of supplies and personnel were moving down the trail as North Vietnamese troops poured into South Vietnam while U.S troops withdrew.

But because the North Vietnamese knew how to hide under the thick jungle canopy, spotting them ranged from difficult to impossible.

“I’d go out flying day after day and not see anything and it got frustrating,” Sewell said.

Then one day Sewell realized there was a way to find the enemy. Most of the Ho Chi Minh Trail was shrouded by thick jungle cover, but enemy troops had to cross a river that ran east and west across the trail. Sewell figured if he could find the river crossing, he could find the enemy troops.

One day he decided to fly the river from one end of his sector to the other. Sure enough, he found a huge ford constructed across the river by North Vietnamese troops. Sewell reported his find and directed the initial air attacks on his discovery before he ran low on fuel and returned to base.

The route was promptly scouted and huge amounts of weapons supplies were discovered along with areas called “truck parks,” where enemy troops hid their vehicles until they knew they cold travel without being observed from above.

“That was a big find for us,” Sewell said. “It really put a dent in the enemy’s plans.”

Sewell’s aircraft was never hit by enemy fire, but he still had some close calls. The worst nail-biter came while he was on the ground.

Sewell was at Danang on Temporary Duty (TDY) and was on the runway waiting to fly a mission when he saw an Air Force truck whose driver was lost or confused drive out into an active runway and directly into the path of a South Vietnamese A-37 aircraft that was on its takeoff run.

Sewell watched in horror as the A-37 hit the truck, ripping a wing off the A-37 and sending the truck up in a huge fireball.

Worse, when the A-37’s wing came off, its bomb load spilled and Sewell watched as two bombs “came skipping and twirling and spinning right toward me.”

Sewell watched in amazement as the two bombs passed beneath his aircraft without hitting a thing.

“That was close,” Sewell said. “But the main thing I was worried about was the pilot of the A-37.” The pilot was rescued by ground crews and survived. The occupants of the truck burned to death.

After his tour in Vietnam, Sewell decided to make a career of the Air Force and stayed in the service until 1989. He came back to Georgia and soon began working in computer technology and support for Carroll County Schools. Twelve years ago, he took a similar position with Heard County Schools. Sewell and his wife, Linda, have called Coweta County home for 20 years.

Sewell said as the war was winding down he heard many comments from military personnel about their disillusionment with the way the war was being fought, but he didn’t always agree.

“I understood why some people said that,” he said. “But I thought that as long as there were American troops on the ground my job was to protect them, and if the enemy troops and weapons I was looking for were going to kill Americans, it was my job to find those trucks and kill as many of them as I could.”

Coweta’s Jack Shaw arrived at NKP in March 1972. Like Sewell, Shaw flew OV-10s as a FAC. But Shaw took a different path to the Air Force.

Shaw was a military brat, born in South Korea while his father was stationed there. By the time he hit junior high, Shaw’s family lived in Tampa. Shaw graduated from Hillsborough Hill School, and after a year at the University of South Florida, he was admitted to the Air Force Academy.

“I loved it,” Shaw said. “All I’d ever wanted to do was fly and fight and that got me started.”

Shaw graduated in June 1970 and after flight training at Hurlburt Field in Fort Walton, Fla., was assigned to fly OV-10s as a FAC.

He went to battle in March 1972, flying out of NKP in Thailand as a member of the 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron. Shaw said when he arrived at NKP, the U.S. was losing OV-10s at the rate of about one every 10 days.

“It didn’t take me long to realize if I stayed there long enough, I’d be shot down,” Shaw said. “Sure enough, I did. Twice.”

Shaw flew regular combat missions, spotting enemy troops or supplies and calling in air strikes. He said the procedure for FACs who spotted enemy targets was to drop a Willie Pete phosphorous grenade to mark the target with smoke while calling in an air strike and then directing the action from the air.

Shaw said as soon as friendly pilots appeared Shaw would ask the incoming pilot, “See my smoke?” If they said yes, Shaw replied, “Hit my smoke.”

“It was our way of telling them that we found the target and they ought to be able to find it, too,” Shaw said. “It was just a little dig at the fighter pilots.”

Shaw and other FACs in the squadron were often rotated to the base at Danang when extra FACs were needed during heavy fighting.

On his second temporary deployment to Danang, Shaw was walking into his quarters when he ran into an Air Force buddy named Jim Twaddell, who was headed out to fly a mission in his OV-10.

Twaddell asked Shaw if he wanted to tag along. Since Shaw was wearing his flight suit and had nothing else to do, he dumped his bags and headed to the flight line with Twaddell.

In early April 1972, North Vietnamese had launched a massive attack on South Vietnam that came to be called the Easter Invasion. The fighting was still heavy when Shaw and Twaddell took off on May 25, 1972.

After finding a North Vietnamese amphibious tank in a river and calling in an air strike that sunk the vehicle, Shaw and Twaddell got a call saying “TIC” for “troops in contact.” The aviators’ number one priority was responding to rescue and support of a downed pilot.

“We dropped everything and headed out to do whatever we had to do save one of our flyers,” Shaw said. “That was always top priority.”

The number two priority was a TIC call, and as soon as they heard it, Twaddell and Shaw headed for the action.

They reached the battle site and watched as South Vietnamese troops in a village beneath them were shelled by enemy tanks hidden in the jungle.

The South Vietnamese troops could not send ground troops to find the tanks and so Shaw and Twaddell kept flying over the scene, trying unsuccessfully to locate them.

During the mission, Shaw looked out and saw what he thought was a 37 mm artillery tracer headed for the plane. He didn’t worry until he saw the tracer change course to follow his plane. That’s when Shaw realized he had actually been attacked by an SA-7, a shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missile that was bad news for American flyers.

Shaw was at the controls and pulled back on the stick to dodge the missile. Shaw’s maneuver kept the missile from hitting the plane’s exhaust, but the SA-7 smashed into the fuselage right behind Shaw, starting a fire in the rear cargo area.

Shaw had been drilled over and over about what to do when a fire started aboard his aircraft. When the flames started licking over his seat and threatened to melt his parachute, he ejected. Less than a second later, Twaddell joined him.

The two floated down a half mile apart, with Twaddell drifting toward the relative safety of the ocean while Shaw drifted back over the battle zone.

Soon, Shaw heard the sound of an aircraft and thought, “Hey, this is great, my buddies are coming to get me.”

They weren’t.

Shaw looked around and was stunned to see the OV-10 he had just ejected from heading straight for him.

“When we ejected, that plane was set to fly in a circle pattern,” Shaw said. “It hadn’t gone down yet and it was coming in a big circle straight for me. I thought, ‘what a way to die … run over by my own airplane.'”

The plane missed Shaw but came close enough that he could read the safety warnings stenciled on the fuselage. After two more passes, each farther away, the OV-10 finally crashed.

When Shaw issued the original “Mayday!” call to indicate he was going down, a U.S. marine serving as a military advisor heard and understood. The Marine watched as the burning OV-10 flew overhead, then saw the chutes as Shaw and Twaddell ejected.

The Marine knew four South Vietnamese helicopters were headed toward the battle and directed them to pick up Twaddell on the beach and Shaw where his parachute had gone down near the besieged village. Both pilots were rescued.

Shaw and Twaddell were flown back to Danang. They had both been at a huge base-wide celebration at NKP honoring the return of a pilot who had been shot down and rescued. They were expecting the same treatment. But at Danang, all they got were a few strange looks, an invitation to dinner and orders to spend the night at the hospital.

“We were pretty bummed out,” Shaw said. “We expected a big deal.”

Shaw and Twaddell finally returned to NKP hoping they’d be honored guests at a party like the one they’d seen earlier.

“We knew they knew how to do it up right at NKP,” Shaw said. “We were expecting a good time.”

Instead, they were greeted by three jeeps and Shaw was told to report to the squadron commander in 30 minutes.

Shaw went over expecting to be congratulated on coming back alive. Instead, the commander admonished Shaw for losing an aircraft and grounded him for a week.

“It was really hard,” Shaw said. “But that week off did me good because it gave me time to think about how lucky I was to even come back alive. After that, my whole attitude changed and I was grateful for every day I stayed alive.”

As that commander was leaving for another posting, he took Shaw aside and told him the grounding was for Shaw’s own good and that he fully expected Shaw to become a top FAC.

“I was on Cloud 9 after that,” Shaw said.

In the fall of 1972, Shaw’s roommate and close friend, Hal Mischler, accepted a new assignment as a FAC assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane, Laos. In December 1972, Shaw followed.

At the time, Thailand was not officially allowed to host any U.S. uniformed troops, except for embassy guards. But U.S. troops were there, working in a clandestine capacity.

While attached to the embassy in Vientiane, Shaw still flew as a FAC, but strangers would not have recognized him as a member of the U.S. military.

He flew a small, single-engine plane without U.S. military markings, grew his hair long, dressed in civilian clothes and never wore his dog tags.

“It was the undercover world,” Shaw said. “That was my introduction into the spook world where nobody really exists officially.”

The fighting, even in an “unofficial” capacity, remained heavy. On Dec. 23, 1972, it couldn’t have been worse.

Shaw was flying a check ride with Lew Hatch, a classmate from the Air Force Academy, when they got a call that an OV-10 piloted by Shaw’s roommate Hal Mischler had gone down.

They headed for the spot as quickly as possible. The fighting was heavy and they were flying low. Shaw remembers hearing what he thought were engine backfires outside his open widow. He later learned they were enemy bullets whipping past the plane.

He saw the spot where his roommate’s plane had gone down, but was too busy directing fire to give it much thought. He was also busy just trying to keep the plane in the air as the engine stalled repeatedly.

The engine finally lost power. Shaw put the plane down at a small abandoned airstrip near the firebase that was under attack. An Air America helicopter headed for the firebase to pick up the dead and wounded was ordered to pick up Shaw and Hatch.

Shaw and Hatch boarded the chopper just seconds before it was overrun by enemy troops, then stayed aboard as the chopper stopped to pick up dead and wounded at the firebase and headed for home.

The dead troops in the chopper were covered with ponchos, but blood still leaked from their wounds, pooling on the chopper and sloshing back and forth before spilling out the door.

“I kept watching that blood,” Shaw said. “I remember seeing it run toward the side near the door and blow out into the slipstream over Laos.

At the end of the flight, Shaw watched as the bodies were unloaded. Military personnel came by and pulled up the ponchos covering the dead. When they came to one body, they looked under the poncho and then laid an American flag over the remains, marking the dead man as an American.

Shaw was confused and asked Hatch, “Who is that? You think it’s an American advisor?”

Hatch knew better. While Shaw had been busy directing traffic during the battle, Hatch had watched as ground troops went to Mischler’s downed plane and recovered his body.

Hatch told Shaw, “Jack, that’s your roommate Hal. He was killed.”

“I couldn’t even move,” Shaw said. “I saw him go down, but I figured he was all right and we’d get together that night for a beer. I had no idea he had been killed. Tears started streaming down my face, and I just stood there and cried until the plane that took him away was out of sight. The next time I saw him was six months later at his grave in Kansas.”

Shaw remained in Laos for several more months, flying routine missions as the war wound down. The peace agreement ending the war was signed in Paris on Jan. 27, 1973. On Feb. 17, 1973, all U.S. combat activity in Laos was scheduled to cease at noon.

Shaw said the North Vietnamese knew the timetable for Laos and planned major attacks to begin as soon as the Americans parked their planes and quit providing air support for South Vietnamese troops.

Shaw flew his last mission on the morning of Feb. 17, 1973. He remembered getting a call from a South Vietnamese ground commander who was under attack, but since it was almost noon, Shaw’s ground controller ordered him to leave the area and fly back to base.

“It was awful,” Shaw said. “I felt terrible having to leave that fight. I was saying to myself I was here to help those guys on the ground and now I’ve just abandoned them. I felt totally worthless.”

After Vietnam, Shaw remained in the Air Force, retiring in 1990 with 20 years of service. He flew for Delta for the next 17 years before retiring, and has called Coweta home for 10 years.

“I have some mixed feelings about the war now,” he said. “But not about my role. I was a warrior. I didn’t want to wake up years later and not know what it was like to be in combat. But, in the end, my job was to get everybody else home safely and my roommate came home in a box. That one still hurts, but that’s the kind of thing you can’t control that happens in war.”

In 1973, America left the fight in Vietnam and cut financial support for the South Vietnamese military as the battle for control of the country raged on. In December 1974 North Vietnamese leaders met in Hanoi to create a final plan for victory. In March 1975 the final North Vietnamese offensive began.

On April 23, 1975, as 100,000 North Vietnamese soldiers advanced on the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, President Gerald Ford said during a speech at Tulane University that Vietnam was “a war that is finished as far as America is concerned.”

One week later, April 30, 1975, the last 10 American Marines departed the U.S. Embassy in Saigon as North Vietnamese troops poured into the city.

At 11 a.m. local time, the red and blue Viet Cong flag flew from the presidential palace in Saigon and South Vietnamese president Minh announced South Vietnam’s unconditional surrender.

The war was finally over, at a cost of over 58,000 American lives.


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