Richard C. “Buck” Marr, Pilot
17th SOS, Tan Son Nhut and Phan Rang, 1970-71
Having been born into a military family, there was never any doubt about what I wanted to do. I have no interesting stories about avoiding the draft or making a deal with recruiters. My father flew with the Army Air Corps during World War II and with the newly minted Air Force until 1966. He and my mother loved the military life and the Air Force family. He used to say that “flying beat the heck out of work.” That sounded good to me so from very early in my life, I set a course to commissioning and earning my Air Force pilot wings. I achieved the commissioning through the Reserve Officer Training Course at the University of Arkansas in 1969 and later won the pilot wings as a member of Laughlin’s 70-05 class. I wanted to emulate my father’s wartime experience, so I volunteered for any aircraft participating in the Vietnam conflict. With only a fair class ranking, that turned out to be the AC-119. Following the obligatory survival and flying training, I naively arrived at Phan Rang in August, 1970. During in-processing, the base came under a rocket attack which clearly indicated that this was going to be an exciting year.
Everything about the tour was a tremendous experience. From a flying standpoint, it exceeded my expectations for excitement. As with any military activity, the people were the best part. I met aviators who have remained lifelong friends. Three fellow pilots, Craig French, Marty Noonan and Lanny Letterman, even participated in my wedding 18 days after we DEROS’d. Despite their influence, Sherry and I have remained married for the past 38 years.
The flying from Phan Rang was terrific. My favorite part was the last comment from the intelligence officer’s mouth during the pre-mission briefing. It went something like, “The U.S. government may disavow all knowledge of you and your whereabouts should your aircraft be lost.”
Our missions took us TDY to garden spots like Da Nang and Phu Cat which enabled us to more adequately provide firepower to targets in Laos. As a newly minted pilot, accumulating flying time was important. The “double bang” missions from Da Nang and Phu Cat with a refueling at Ubon, Thailand and then back to the targets gave us great opportunities to build time and experience…and air medal points. The targets were inevitably hot and full of opportunities to thwart an enemy initiative.
Late in our tour the Cambodia AOR heated up causing the coalition leadership to decide to close the Phan Rang operation. This permitted us to move to Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut AB to expand Shadow gunship coverage in Cambodia. We joined our 17th SOS mates who had been originally assigned there in what turned out to be an expansion into 24-hour coverage in Cambodia. Daylight flying posed significant challenges and increased threats and risks. Fortunately, our tactics shop was up to the task and while we took many hits, we did not lose any aircraft or aircrew. Hats off to then Major Don Fraker and his tactics ‘smarts.’ I am also grateful to Don for passing me on my pilot upgrade check ride. I flew as a lieutenant pilot in command for a couple of months before DEROSing which scared the holy heck out of the salty senior navigators and flight engineers assigned to my crew. The young IOs and Gunners had steely nerves and endured quietly. However, the fini-flight was loaded with close friends and the party following the flight still remains in the lore of the 17th SOS.
I remained in the Air Force for almost 32 years, retiring as a Major General in late 2000. Until 2008, I worked as a Senior Director for General Dynamics and a Vice President with Lockheed Martin. Currently, I operate my own defense consulting business, Marr and Associates. Sherry and I split our time between homes in Kila, Montana and Vancouver, Washington for the sole purpose of “playing” with our sons, their wives and four world-class grandchildren.
Divert to Phnom Penh Airport
Sometime in the late spring, early summer of 1971, my crew was flying a “seek and destroy” mission on the Mekong River when we experienced the typical .50 caliber hostile ground fire. As this was normal for this section of the river, we hardly gave it a second thought. However, an interphone communication from the IO a few seconds later caught our collective attention. “Pilot, IO.” “Yes IO, this is the Pilot” (good interphone discipline so far). “Pilot, it looks like we took a hit in #2…it looks like oil streaming from the cowling.” Following that call, the FE went into a high speed scan of the engine instruments. Oil quantity was dropping with other indications of impending engine loss. Quickly, the pilot and flight engineer decided to feather the engine before it seized. Good decision, but now what? Since it was early in the mission, we were heavy. A quick review of the distance and terrain by the Navigator indicated that returning to Saigon would be impossible. We set our course for an emergency landing at Phnom Penh. What quickly became obvious to the two of us sitting in the pilots’ seats was the fact that we were losing altitude…. slowly, very slowly, but also very surely. Apparently, we were too heavy to maintain level flight at the current pressure altitude. As the co-pilot, I whipped out the charts and calculated that at the present rate of descent, we should impact the ground about 13 miles short of the Phnom Penh runway. The only variable we could control was the weight. Enter IO and Gunners. In the next few minutes, they performed in a superhuman mode. They pushed, shoved and carried all the ammunition cans to the doors and threw them out. Some of the cans weighed almost as much as the gunners. Gradually, ever so gradually, we returned to level flight. We made the field and the pilot executed a flawless single engine landing. The Cambodian security forces set up a cordon around the airplane while the pilot went to their small airport operations center to attempt to reach Tan Son Nhut for follow on planning. After a couple hours of inconsistent communication, it was decided that we should stay the night in Phnom Penh to await the arrival of a C-130 the next day loaded with engine and maintenance personnel to change our engine.
That was one interesting night. Each of us on the crew was assigned a bodyguard and we were whisked to a hotel. We had private rooms with a security person located outside the door throughout the night. We were invited to a dinner at the home of the Chief of the Cambodian Air Force.
The spread of food was spectacular and the whiskey flowed freely. All of us ate and drank in abundance and in reward, we all subsequently caught dysentery. For most of the next month, I flew with a bottle of ‘liquid cork” in my helmet bag.
The C-130 flew into Phnom Penh airport under the cover of darkness. The hero maintenance guys changed our engine in record time and we flew our bird out by midday completely unarmed. Before leaving the airport, we were allowed to purchase one souvenir each. I bought a temple carving for $2.00 US. Upon returning to the states, my wife had it framed and it has hung in every one of our homes since then as a reminder of a very memorable flight.