Support from the Sky: A Veteran’s Story (Part 3)

Part 3 in a series
previous entries

David Jensen began his tour in Southeast Asia with jungle survival in the Philippines at Clark Air Force Base. They were left in the jungle and supposed to stay a couple days, surviving on snakes or whatever they could find, but it was bad weather. They canceled the survival drill and picked up his group with a penetrator—a heavy, pear-shaped device attached to a cable, which comes down from a helicopter and has two small ends, about the width of a 2 by 4, that pop out. Soldiers would straddle the ends and hold on. If they let go, they would fall. Jungle penetrators were used where the trees are in layers and about 200-300 feet high.

In Camranh Bay, Vietnam, David received his assignment as a Forward Air Controller, controlling strikes at forward operating positions. If pilots, like David, hadn’t been through Air Force fighter school then they had to fly out-of-country missions where there weren’t any friendlies. Assignments were given depending on rank. Since he was a 2nd Lieutenant, he received what was left. He was assigned to Danang in the 20th Tactical Air Support Group and then sent to a sub group in Pleiku, Vietnam. Shortly thereafter he was made 1st Lieutenant.

Pleiku Air Force Base was a Vietnamese Air Force Base in the central highlands of Vietnam and was not very safe. “We would take small arms fire just coming in to land,” David said. “When we heard mortars incoming, the enemy would be shelling the base; we would grab a helmet and M16 and jump under the bed. I slept with my helmet and flak vest. We had to distinguish between incoming and outgoing. ”

He was also the only member of his church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, on the base. An LDS group from the Army would come over to the base to go to church. “They would come over in Jeeps with one man manning the machine guns,” he said.

In Pleiku David prepared for his combat checkout, which took almost 30 days. During that time he flew the OV-10 Bronco )V-10 Broncowith other pilots or took airplanes to Danang or Nah Trang. On one of these trips to NahInside the OV-10 Bronco Trang, he told them that he needed fuel. While inside, David saw the man with the fuel truck giving the plane the wrong fuel—he was using regular aviation fuel. “My plane was a turbine, and it took jet fuel. I ran out there to stop him.”

David mostly flew into Cambodia, which was a low-threat area about an hour from the base. He would fly low, right at the tree tops, in very flat areas with rubber plantations and wild elephants and patrol down the river looking for contraband. Many people were dug out by the Mekong River waving white flags. He did reconnaissance in these areas and didn’t direct air strikes.

In southern Laos he would fly over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the trail of interconnecting trails and roads that came out of North Vietnam into Laos and then into Southern Vietnam. Sometimes it wasn’t much more than a dirt cow path and was barely distinguishable.

The Hmong people lived in the mountains in parts of that area. They were friendly to the United States, and Air America would provide supplies to them. “These were pilots who were Raven FACS, Air Force pilots who took temporary assignments to fly Air America, and flew O-1 Bird Dogs and lived on friendly bases in Laos.” David said. “Depending on what was going on, we passed INTEL back and forth.”

David was in Pleiku for two months and didn’t like the social life on the base very well. “For the most part, the other guys lived pretty raunchiest lives. Guys would go to the officers’ club where there was a lot of drinking, carousing, and movies that were really bad. I didn’t have any friends I could associate with. The only enjoyment I had there was a library on base,” he said. “I set myself apart, and it was pretty lonely. I spent most of my time reading the scriptures, writing letters, spending time at the library.”

The adjustment away from his family was hard. In fact, it was so hard that he reached the decision that he David with daughter in July 1970 departing for Southeast Asiadidn’t want to make the Air Force a career; he didn’t want to be separated too much from his family. “Shortly after I was in Southeast Asia, I submitted my request for a date of separation, which fixed the date that I would leave the Air Force five years from the date I came in.” David said. “I knew I had to do that before I got a reassignment, because if you get a reassignment then you have added years put on to your service.”

He also faced some other difficult situations in Pleiku. On one mission he was riding with a superior who was directing air strikes. His superior would say in the radio: “There’s a truck down there and I am directing a strike against it, and secondaries are going off.” Secondaries would be the explosives that go off from the target that was hit. For instance, if the pilot hit a truck with explosives in it, then those explosives would explode, too.

David was sitting in the back of that plane, watching the same scene. “I didn’t see it. I was looking at what he was describing and I didn’t see it. We were not in a high threat area,” he said. “I think he was trying to build his record. He sounded like he was faking. But who was I to say, ‘you are lying’.”

Another time, David was scheduled to take an airplane to Danang. “Another pilot, Lieutenant Bevans, a 1st Lieutenant, wanted to have that flight; he begged me,” he said. David agreed and Lieutenant Bevans took the plane over and brought another one back with a crew chief in the back seat. David was in the library when Lt. Bevans returned. David described, in his own words, what happened:

He came in and pitched out, which was a normal procedure. We would come in high off the ground so we were not susceptible to ground fire. The Viet Cong would shoot at us right at the end of the runway. He did that diving right hand turn but he was coming in way too fast. After he pitched out, he lost an engine.

He was near the airport, but he misjudged his altitude. He touched down about halfway down the runway. He tried to make a single engine go around. That was a fatal mistake, and it cost him his life. He still had his gear hanging, and he never got his gear up. The aircraft rolled up vertical on its one wing. Eyewitnesses were seeing the plane at a 90-degree angle to the ground, 200 feet in air.

I was in the library. I heard the ejection seat, a rocket seat. The back seat goes out first, which was the crew chief. He went straight out 200 feet above the runway. But by the time the front seat went out, the pilot ejected his seat right into the ground. The crew chief’s parachute opened at the last minute, just in time. He was walking around in a daze. Internal injuries killed the pilot instantly.

After the crash, there was no one there, only two of us there to secure the sight. There were all these Vietnamese working on the base, curiosity seekers. We covered up the body with the parachute.

I felt bad—he was in our squadron. That was the plane I was supposed to be flying. I am not saying that I wouldn’t have crashed. But he could have thrown his propellers into full pitch or flat pitch, and he wouldn’t have lost the airplane. If that happened in peaceful time, there would have been a big investigation. In combat time, they knew it was pilot error.

Shortly thereafter they asked for volunteers to transfer to Nakhon Phanom (NKP) Thailand, which was a sought after place. Thailand appeared safe because it wasn’t shelled at night. “As I later found out the combat missions were a lot higher-threat missions because we flew up in the middle section of Laos, which was a real high-threat area,”” David said. “For some reason, they were short of OV-10 pilots. The only requirement was that I had to have my combat check out so I could fly solo. I was chosen because I had just had my combat checkout but I still had quite a bit of time to serve over there.”

David spent the rest of his time, about 10 more months, in Southeast Asia at NKP Thailand.

1 Comment

  1. sister#2
    Feb 16, 2008

    Thank you so much for taking the time to help us know our Dad better. I love reading this and knowing what has made him who he is! Thanks.

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