A LONG, LONG NIGHT
By Colonel Charles W. Brown, AKA "Charlie Brown"
US Air Force, Retired
One of the FACs (Forward Air Controller) pilots transmitted that I was about 4,000 feet above
the terrain. I responded that I understood and that I had fire coming through the firewall. I
transmitted for all to hear, swearing, like I was mad at the AT-28 for failing me, that I was going
to "leave this SOB of an aircraft". I checked the trim for wings level, trimmed the nose up a little
more, opened the canopy, pulled the throttle to idle (I don't really recall hearing the power
change), and aimed at the trailing edge of the wing as I dove into the black of the night.
WHAM, I hit something. It seemed like the fuselage under the horizontal stabilizer, but I was not
sure. All I knew for sure is it put me into a roll and I was rolling at a fairly fast rate. I remember
thinking "I got to stop this fast"! I extended my arms to stop the roll and noticed that I could see
the ground and make out some trees. After I was somewhat stabilized, I tried to pull my "D"
ring, but to no avail. My "D" ring was stuck behind the pouch of .38 ammunition on the upper
part of my vest.
I was rolling again, but not as fast. I stabilize again, noticing that the trees were more
distinguishable and I could see a river and a road. This time after I was stable, I grabbed the "D"
ring with both hands and jerked for all I was worth. I remember thinking, that my wife will really
kill me if I screwed this up, as I yanked the "D" ring for the second time. I ripped the pouch and
"D" ring off my vest loosing the supply of ammunition for the piddling-assed 38 that I was
required to carry. I felt a jerk, looked up, and saw I had a partially deployed parachute. I looked
down and almost instantly I hit in a tree. I seemed to still be falling very fast.
I don't know far I fell, but it felt like a long way, banging into a few things on the way down. I hit
the ground in something like a PLF (parachute landing fall), but it was such a hard landing that I
flipped completely over and came down on my other side. The landing knocked the breath out of
me, I was disoriented, and dizzy. While trying to gather my senses, I could hear explosions and
see a glow in the sky down to my left. I looked up and could see a part of my chute hanging in
the tree. Thinking it was a big white flag showing were I had landed, I stood up and tried to pull
it down. The chute was very torn and appeared very scattered in the tree. The riser cords were
tangled in the tree and I could not pull it down. As I moved, my legs tingled, my lower back
burned, and my head throbbed; but I could move. I released my harness from the parachute risers
and moved a few yards from my chute hanging in the tree. Then I heard voices.
The voices were coming from my right and again down in front of me. The voices moved
towards the glow in the sky. I assumed the glow was my burning aircraft, but I was surprised that
it seemed so close. After the voices moved away I used my emergency radio to call for help. The
FAC responded that he was still in the area. The FAC said it was quite a few minutes from the
time I left the aircraft until I called. I recall them saying later that they were beginning to think
that I was in some trouble, since it took me so long to call them on my emergency radio. The
FAC said would orbit a few miles to the east of my burning aircraft. They were worried they
might draw attention, if they stayed directly overhead. It was not yet 2100 hours (9:00 PM) and
the night had already really gone to hell.
As I settled down a little the feeling was returning to my body, but my back and legs were hurting
more. I could see that I was on a hill above the terrain to the east and south. Again I heard
voices and they are moving. I moved a few more yards away from my parachute and slipped into
a hole in the ground, where a tree had been uprooted as it fell to the ground. I curled up in this
depression, with my back to the roots and faced the direction of the voices, and waited. I heard
the voices go past me again. They sounded like they were over the rise, but I saw nothing and no
one. As they were almost out of my hearing my survival radio came alive, making all kinds of
racket. I turned the emergency radio off. I thought that they must have heard my radio, so I lay
very still and very quiet.
After a few minutes of hearing nothing, I put the speaker part of the radio in my mouth. I rolled
the volume back up and after a little while, I could hear the FAC calling me. I am not sure, but I
guess I could hear the radio through the ear bones while holding the speaker in my mouth.
Anyway it worked and the sound didn't blast out in the jungle for all to hear. I was able to tell the
FAC that I could hear voices moving around, so if he or anyone needed to talk to me they should
orbit in the same area to the east and change their engine power setting a couple of times and I
would try to come up and talk to them. The FAC said that the staff at NKP were considering a
night rescue attempt, because the FAC could see what appeared to be activity in my area. He
indicated that there were three groups of campfires along a road in a valley that was west and
south of the burning aircraft.
The aircraft burning a few hundred yards to my left was an AT-28 (Call sign "Zorro"), the FAC
was an 0-2 (Call sign "Nail") and we both operated out of Nakhon Phanom, (NKP) Royal
Thailand Air Force Base. We who spent some time there called it NKP, Naked Fanny, and few
others terms of endearment. NKP was the current home of Air Commando units flying missions
in Laos, North Vietnam, Cambodia, and South Vietnam, but mostly on "The Trail". The correct
name was the Ho Chi Min Trail and it consisted of a network of roads and trails from North
Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam. NKP had squadrons assigned for
direct interdiction and night Forward Air Control (FAC) support for the high flying, fast movers
that also worked "The Trail". In addition to the Zorros and Nails, NKP also had B-26K's (call
sign "Nimrod" ) and A-1's (Call sign "Hobo") Air Commando units stationed there during this
period. Those of us flying the AT-28s worked with others on "The Trail" to find and stop the
supply convoys moving down "The Trail" at night. We were required because the high flying,
fast-movers had trouble seeing trucks at night. The objective was for us to stop and jam-up the
trucks by get the first and last trucks burning and then have the fast movers work on the convoy.
The Zorro mission was almost all night flying, since not much moved on "The Trail" in the
daylight. I had been flying this mission for a few months having received a few hits from ground
fire, but successfully avoiding the 12.5 mm, 37 mm, 57 mm, etc. that they threw at us. We had
lost a few aircraft and crews over the months, with only then-Major John Pattee surviving a night
bailout in Laos. A Jolly Green pick-up Major Pattee from a tall tree after he had spent the night
there. However, on that fateful night of January 27, 1968 my luck changed and I got to see some
of Laos as a ground-pounder or in what some of my friends called "commando tourist mode".
This mission on the night of January 27, 1968 started out just like the many that had gone before.
My take off time was set for just after sunset as the second Zorro for that night's business. So the
hours before the mission included a shave and shower, before climbing into a flight suit and
having a light breakfast at the "O" (Officers) club. While eating at the "O" club I watched the
"normal folks" begin their evening activities, and then reported to the briefing facility on the flight
line. The briefing sessions varied, but it was not unusual to have a number of crews that would fly
during the first few hours of the night at a group briefing. We were assigned our primary and
secondary areas on "The Trail" and they advised about who else was expected to be in the area.
Our intelligence briefings used a number of sources, but our own Intel shop provided the most
current from debriefings of the recent, local missions. The briefings included reported sightings of
vehicles, ground fire areas and weapon types, and the reports from the highly secret sensor
system, managed by Task Force Alpha. These briefings were fairly detailed and we paid close
attention to them, well at least I thought I did. I also recall hearing the crew of the first downed
F-111 talking about how much more detail our Intelligence Shop had on the ground fire on "The
Trail". They indicated that they had almost no information on ground fire. They also said they
were hit over a spot that our Intel shop showed as having very heavy anti-aircraft fire for three
nights prior to their mission. They had used that very same point as their initial turn point for their
My mission was in the area a few miles south of where the main road out of North Vietnam
turned south. This was very often a hot area for trucks and ground fire. Long before I got to my
area, I could hear a Nail being a FAC for some aircraft ( Marines, I think) in the area. I talked to
the Nail and he asked that I stay to the south of the area he was working as he had more inbound
traffic. I held above 8,000 feet and to the south as I watched the FAC work some trucks with
only fair success. Most of the ordnance was not hitting close enough to the road. There was only
limited anti-aircraft fire visible as I watched the ordnance hit the ground.
As the fast-burners departed, the O-2 FAC said he had no more ordnance or flares and if I had the
area insight I was cleared in "Hot" (permission to expend ordnance) to work the area. He
indicated that he would hold off to the west to assist. I roger'd (acknowledged) his message and
was moving into position to take a look for trucks moving south of the strike area. I saw strings
of 37 mm fire in the area where I thought the 0-2 was holding. I was about to call him when my
aircraft shook, jumped, and burst into flame. Even the FAC noticed, saying "what in the hell was
that?" I replied, I had no idea but my aircraft was on fire. The FAC indicated he was heading my
way and could see a fire that he guessed was my burning aircraft. He asked "What are your
I was quickly trying to determine my intentions ... in a burning aircraft, at night, on the Ho Chi
Min Trail in Laos; about 6,500 feet above the terrain, ... these were not the ingredients for a good
night.. What was I going to do next? I had control of my aircraft, both wings were still there and
I could not see any visible damage. I jettisoned my ordnance "hot" (armed to explode) and the
FAC reported seeing some explosions and some more 37 mm firings from the impact area. I
rechecked my controls, while turning the aircraft to head west, when the FAC said that the
heading to the "Rooster Tail" (an area of rough terrain that had no reported military activity
southeast of "The Trail") was at something like 230. My aircraft's response to the controls
seemed Okay. My engine and prop were still turning, but I didn't try changing the power setting.
I was indicating 140 knots and loosing altitude, but not very fast. The wind screen was covered
with oil, but I could see out the sides and top of the canopy reasonably well. However, the
aircraft was burning brightly, with flames licking both sides of the aircraft. About this time, I
decided and told the FAC that I was going to stay with the aircraft as long as power and altitude
would allow, to move away from "The Trail". I ask the FAC how far to the "Rooster Tail" and he
responded about 50 miles. I started reviewing my checklist and preparing for a night bailout on
the wrong side of the bomb-line in Laos.
The FAC indicated that he was behind me, had my aircraft in sight, that he would follow, and
keep me advised of my estimated height above the terrain and the distance to the "Rooster Tail".
I contacted the radar facility at NKP, gave them my position, told them my aircraft was on fire,
and indicated I was going to ride my aircraft as far away from the target in the direction of the
"Rooster Tail" as was possible. They confirmed my position, that they had radar contact, and
would report my condition to my unit and the Air Rescue and Recovery Service. I stayed with
the aircraft for a few minutes. Even though it seemed like a lifetime, I don't think it was more
than 7 or 8 minutes after my problems began. I guess the two pilots in the FAC aircraft could
know better how long it was. All I know for sure is that I didn't make it to the "Rooster Tail" and
that the hours that followed were what one might call "a real challenge".
As I waited from my position at the uprooted tree, I can hear voices again. I could hear a number
of them coming from the direction of my burning aircraft. They moved on by to my right and
passed out of my hearing. I removed my parachute harness, put it in the hole, pulled some dirt
over it, and moved further away from my point of impact. An hour or so later, I heard voices
again and this time they were coming from my right towards me. I could see the shadows of what
appeared to be two individuals with may have been rifles, but the light from the burning aircraft
was fading and I could not tell for sure. They were moving along the edge of the rise in front of
me, some 40 or more yards away. These voices were just out of hearing, when I heard some
yelling and the two came back through a little closer to me this time. I decided I was not in a very
good location and that last group could have been working a search pattern, looking for me. I
moved a little farther away to the north east, I think, and a little more back over the hill into a
small bamboo thicket. Things were quiet for a while, then I heard an airplane jazzing an engine. I
got out my emergency radio, turned it on, put the speaker in my mouth, and listened. The FAC
was trying contact me. I made contact and he indicated that the staff at NKP had decided against
trying a night rescue, but they would be out shortly after first light in the morning.
The voices were moving again, I don't know if they heard something while I was talking to the
FAC or not, but I could hear them again. I was in a bamboo thicket, back in about 3 or 4 feet,
but I was not well hidden and the voices seemed louder. As they came closer I could see some of
them had some type of lights. As they moved closer one person with a light was coming almost
directly toward my location. I got out the piddling-assed .38, thinking that even though I didn't
want to, I might have to use it as the very last resort. I could not see the person with the light
very well, but he kept coming towards me. I tried to get as small as could and thanked god that I
had listened to what the road watch team guy had said about not wearing deodorant, after shave,
or cologne, because some people could use them to smell you out and find you even if they could
not see you. (Yeah, I guess by this time I might have grabbing for straws.) About the time I
thought the next couple of swings of his flashlight would hit on me, the next guy down the line
yelled out something. The individual in front of me turned about 90 and they spoke for a few
In the silhouette, I see he is carrying a hand gun. Damm just my luck an officer or an NCO!
From the silhouette the hand gun looks like a Russian hand held 7.62 machine pistol. Damm with
my luck tonight, he would be carrying one of those things! It can knock a truck engine off it's
motor mounts and me with 38 caliber pea shooter and six rounds. (After the 9 mm Browning and
9 mm Madsen that I had carried in 1962, it seemed so useless.) As I am watching, listening and
thinking to myself "be quiet and so stay put", this guys meanders toward the other person. They
talk a little more and then he moves back towards me, but stops short, not quite all the way back
to his previous line of march. He walks past the end of the bamboo thicket where I was hiding. It
is now almost 0300 hours (3:00 AM) and I can take a breath again, but I was wishing I could
slow my heart down a little to reduce all of the noise it was making.
Dumb or not (I guess that it is your call) I decided to move again, this time around the hill a little
and more to the east. I found a heavier stand of bamboo and some fallen trees. I decided to
move into the bamboo, close to a log from one of the fallen trees. By this time the need to take a
piss was very noticeable, but the idea them following my smell keeps me from relieving myself.
The rest of the hours of almost total darkness goes by with no major problems. My biggest
concerns during this period, beside the need to a whiz, was a sound on the other side of the log. I
decided it sounded like some kind of an animal, but I didn't investigate. At the first sign of light, I
looked around checking the stand of bamboo and area around me and then I look up.
OH MY GOD - I can see I am under something. It looked like a guard or observation tower
and it is almost directly above me. Someone has pulled a number of the larger bamboo poles
together and tied them into a small observation tower some 10 or 12 feet up in the air. I can not
see anyone or hear anything. I try throwing a couple of sticks out in the bamboo, and I listen,
look, and pray a little, but I don't hear or see any kind of movement. After three or four attempts
to draw some movement, I hear an aircraft changing the power of it's engines. I listen for motion
in the tower for a little longer, then I move very slowly along the log until I can see enough of the
tower to be fairly sure it is empty.
I try to catch my breath again, before I put the speaker of the emergency radio in my mouth and
listen. It was the same FAC that I had talked to during the night. He says that a rescue force will
departing very soon. He asks how I am doing and if I know were I am located. I tell him that I
am cold, sore, and need to piss very badly, but I will make it. I say that I think that I have moved
mostly to the east and that I would guess that I have moved some 600 to 700 yards from where I
hit the ground. I tell him that I am currently in an area of fairly big bamboo with some larger trees
down on the ground. The whole thing appears to be a depression or something on what I think is
a hill or ridge. He responds in the affirmative and that the rescue force is air borne and enroute.
The FAC comes a little closer to the area and indicates he can still see some of my chute and
about 400 meters to the east he see an area where an explosion has blown down a circle of trees
and bamboo. Boy, I would have sworn I had moved farther than 400 meters. But, I agree that it
sounds like what I see and I think that is where I am located. The FAC say get ready for a
pickup, get out my smoke, and wait for the Sandy to call for smoke.
I hear the drone of the A-1's (really sounded good) and I can also hear the sounds of some jets.
As I listened, I hear parts of the conversations between Sandy Lead (commander of the rescue
effort) the other Sandys, the Jolly Greens (rescue helicopters) and some other aircraft (later
learned they were F-4's). YES!, they are coming to get me. I hear the A-1's get louder and
realize that someone, probably the Sandy aircraft are getting closer. I look up and see two A-1s
making spiraling vapor trails in the damp morning air, as they are turning and descending to come
in from the east.
Sandy lead calls "Smoke NOW"! I popped my orange smoke and laid it on the downed tree and
almost immediately Sandy Lead say's I have a single, orange smoke. I confirm a single, orange
smoke, next to a large down tree.. Sandy Lead confirmed my location and tells me to get my head
down and keep it down until I hear the Jolly Green coming in for the pickup. I look up to see an
F-4 aircraft roll in on a pass and then all hell breaks loose a few seconds later. I stayed down
behind the log, but I could hear many explosions and gun fire as a number of passes delivering
ordnance were made around my position. I guess I missed a real show, because later I found out
that I was very near a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) Battalion base camp. I was told that the
rescue force was composed of 4 A-1's, 4 F-4's and 2 Jolly Greens, a larger than normal force with
more standing ready to assist if required. They were expecting a real battle, maybe even a trap,
since the NVA had all night to move in anti-aircraft and other equipment into the area.
After the area was beaten down, I looked up to see two A-1s strafing and dropping a string of
smaller bombs. "OK", I thought "Willie Pete (white phosphorus) for smoke and fire." A few
seconds later, there was a wall of white smoke on both side of me and a Jolly Green moving into
position to pick me up. I stood up so they could see me and the door gunner motioned me to stay
down. As the Jolly Green came to a hover, the tree penetrator was on it's way down, and I was
moving to meet the penetrator. I had put all of my gear away and my flight helmet on, so all I had
to do was pull down the seat, zip open the bags holding the body straps, climb into the straps, and
onto the seat. I heard a few rounds of small arms fire, but the penetrator ride up was fairly quick.
In no time the pararescuemen (PJs) had me laying on the floor of the chopper. I asked the
nearest PJ if I could lay by the door for a minute, as I need to take a piss real, real bad. The PJ
shook his head, laughed, and held on to me as I relieved myself on that section of Laos that had
been my home for the night.
The flight back to NKP seemed fairly quick, what with all of the hugging, shaking of hands and
just plain old Charlie Brown happy times on that Jolly Green. WOW, both of the Jolly Green
pilots were friends from my past, that I hadn't seen for some time. The PJs finally got me under
control and strapped into a seat, they didn't want a wild man falling out of door after all of the
trouble they had gone to rescue him. At least I guess that was their reason. Anyway one of the
PJs asked if I was a scotch or bourbon drinker and when I replied scotch, he put two of the little
bottles of scotch in my hand. The scotch burned a little going down, I felt the effects very
quickly, but it reduced the pain. I am not sure why they thought this was necessary, because I am
certain the Jolly Greens didn't have very many dissatisfied customers. Little did I know that this
pain was to become a part of my life. The years since this experience has acquainted me with
many kinds of pain, spinal surgery to remove a disk and a half, surgery to rebuild my right
shoulder, arthoscopic surgery on both knees, and the prognosis of an artificial hip and possibly
both knees in my future. Of course I must remember what my father used to say, the worse day
of your life, is far better than the alternative.
I was amazed when we landed at Naked Fanny and most of the squadron as well as a bunch of
other people were on the parking ramp to welcome me back. God, that was a sight to my tired
eyes. A guy named Mobley (Billie Mobley) even put his flight jacket on me, because I was
shaking and shivering. I know this because in the photograph by the Jolly Green at NKP, I am
wearing a flight jacket with the name Mobley on it. I am sorry that I can not recall the names of
each and every person that gave of themselves to assist me through this long, long night.
Although I can not recall their names, I remember the faces of the two pilots in the O-2 that gave
so much to help me through that night. I found out later they had requested and were allowed to
lead the rescue forces to my location, even though they were on crew rest.
I know in my heart that there are many great and courageous friends who acted and prayed to
help me return that January day in 1968. For many years I was treated to their remembrances
about where and what they were doing as they thought about me that night. It is in thanks and
memory of the selfless acts of all involved that I have written my recollection of these events. It is
my hope that reading this account will remind each of you of all the good people that have worn
the Air Commando, and many other, colors who did not get the opportunity to experience the
fantastic feeling of being rescued from hostile territory. The few and lucky of us that have
survived such encounters salute all of our comrades who have fallen in all the conflicts over the
years. And I thank you Lord for seeing me through my ordeal.