Richard A. Matzen, Pilot
18th SOS, 14th SOW, Phan Rang, 1969-70
I was born March 25, 1933 in Farmingdale, Long Island, New York. I really had no interest in flying when I graduated from high school. The draft for the Korean War was on, so I tried to join the Army to get military service behind me and get on with my education upon discharge. After I aced the aptitude test, the Army recruiter pointed to the AF recruiter office and told me the AF had schools, advancement, and career opportunities better suited for me, although it was a four- year commitment. After USAF basic training, I ended up at Keesler AFB at a 10-month electronics school. One day our Squadron Commander announced the AF needed pilots, navigators, and radar operators and that the college degree requirement was waved for those who could pass the college equivalency test. I tested but heard nothing until one day the First Sergeant announced, “Matzen, I see they have lowered the requirements for officers!”
I was transferred to Ellington AFB in Houston for Single Observer School, which included navigator, bombardier and radar operator training in a single course. I thought I was in the wrong program when I learned that some of my classmates were graduates of Harvard, the Maritime Academy, CCNY and similar schools. But everything changed on the first day of class. The course was the same electronics course I had completed at Keesler; some of the instructors were even the same. After advanced flight training at Mather AFB, California, I was commissioned and got my wings. I was 20 years old!
My initial assignment was to SAC B-36s as a second observer who also handled the 20mm gun in the nose. Even though I was promoted to navigator and then to radar bombardier, I grew bored and applied for pilot training. After training at Bartow AB, FL and Lubbock, TX, I had my pilot wings and started flying C-124s at Travis. Then, after assignments in WB-50s and the new C-141, I got orders for AC-119K gunships.
I was a senior major in the initial group flying the AC-119K to Vietnam. I was stationed at Phan Rang AB, first with the 18th SOS and the last six months with the 14th SOW. I was promoted to lieutenant colonel about halfway through my tour. After Vietnam, I returned to C-141s where I flew around Europe from Dover AFB, DE until my retirement, having flown over 10,000 flying hours. Upon retirement, I bought a real estate company and kept up my running. I actually won a 26.2-mile marathon at age 44. I did some development and am now a happy, fully RETARDED guy!
Bad Weather and Intel
When I got to Phan Rang, I wondered about those 20 foot trenches around the runway until one night when it rained. That night lasted for two weeks and the trenches overflowed—great time for a mission—a TIC. Hey, that was our job! Soaking wet we got into the airplane and got airborne. It was then that I relished pressurized aircraft. I think it was raining harder inside than out. We bore on. We hand flew the airplane. It didn’t matter; it went where it wanted in that turbulence. It was night, but it could have been noon. The rain was so heavy I was surprised the carburetors could get enough air to ignite the fuel. But, THIS WAS A TIC!!!!! We kept going. I asked the navigator for a position. He said, “Ask radar.” Radar said, “Beats the C P out of me!” Finally, we got in radio contact with the ground troops. In a, ‘We’re ready to save your butt voice,’ I asked, “What’s your problem?” He answered, “Hey, everybody’s at chow or in bed.” And I said, “What about the VC attack?” And he said, “Hell, that was a week ago!!” They say that military intelligence is an oxymoron and I believed it that night.
I was at Da Nang when I got a call from Colonel Brown, Operations Officer for the 14th SOW (and the finest officer I have ever served with). He asked me to help investigate a friendly-fire incident at an Army artillery outpost near Da- Nang. No one was killed, but several friendlies were wounded. The Stinger pilot was Captain Warren Dorau, which created a conflict for me because Warren was my best friend at Clinton County. We had flown to Vietnam together and we were both dedicated gym rats, working out a minimum of two hours a day. Warren was also my co-pilot on my first dozen or so combat missions. He was an excellent pilot and had been quickly upgraded to Aircraft Commander.
The night of the friendly-fire incident, Warren was diverted from a truck-hunting mission to support an Army outpost under intense enemy fire. The Army team briefed that they would launch a Willie Pete (white phosphorus rocket or grenade) to identify the target. Warren followed instructions, but ended up firing on the good guys. To investigate, I flew to the outpost with an Army Lt. Col. in one of those midget helicopters that goes “WHIRL, WHIRL on top and “WHOP, WHOP” in the back, flying barely above the coconuts. Enroute, I was trying to figure out how Warren could have fired on the good guys. Was the bore-site off? Maybe the guns were set for “A” and should have been at “C”? I was amazed at how close the outpost was to Da Nang. Once inside the sandbagged enclosure, we met with a fuzzy- faced captain and finally learned what happened. Warren was asked to fire on the Willy Pete, but the launcher had malfunctioned. At the same time, as part of their defense against the bad guys, someone tipped over one of the 55-gallon barrels of fuel that were set up all around the edge of the hill, and lit it on fire with a grenade. Unaware Murphy’s Law was working, Warren followed instructions and began firing. Case closed.
My Last Stinger Combat Mission
It was my last combat mission out of Ubon AB, Thailand as Aircraft Commander. We were in the Personal Equipment Section getting our chutes, survival packets, hand guns, radios, rafts, and all that stuff, when a three-striper from that Section approached me about flying on the mission with us. He explained that he was rotating to the states in a week, had worked 12-hour shifts for almost a year, checking out parachutes and repairing equipment. He wanted, above all else, to go on a combat mission so when he got home he would at least have a story to tell. I could understand his plight, but he had no flight experience, emergency training nor survival training. If we took him and something happened, as pilot in command, I could get hung by my toenails.
I began weighing the situation. As a reserve officer, I had mandatory retirement in less than a year, and I wasn’t going to be promoted to Colonel, so what did I have to lose? Moreover, the flight was over Laos and things had been quiet during the prior two nights. I called together the three-striper and my IO (the senior NCO on my crew) and set the rules-keep out of the way and whatever the IO says is the law. We all agreed.
After about an hour in the target area the FLIR operator picked up a bright spot on his screen. It was a possible target, but at 4,000 feet, he felt the triple-canopy below might be obstructing the sensor. I descended to 3,000 feet, got a better look and opened fire. All hell broke loose! Explosions went so high, my instinct was to shield my face to protect myself from the fire. We opened up with the four miniguns and the two 20mm cannons. They all seemed effective, but in the excitement I used poor judgment – too many trips around the circles. I didn’t need the scanners to instruct me to break out. The AAA rounds were accurate. Tracers came across the windshield, over and below the tail. I used my adrenaline inspired muscles to “Schwarzenegger” us out of there. We were out of ammo (Winchester), so I called operations for another gunship to finish the job while we returned to Ubon. When we exited the gunship, the PE three-striper approached me saying, “Gee, Colonel, that was great! Did you do that just for me?” Yeah, sure kid!
After I escaped from SAC, I got into MAC. What a pleasure to actually get to FLY. I had 1,500 hours in five years in SAC and in 15 months in MAC, I equaled that. I flew out of Travis and the route was typically the same in C-124s. Travis to Hickam, 12-15 hours, then to Wake Island 10 hours. Japan was usually next, another 10 hours and then return home. The route took a week to ten days and then three days off. I had two young sons and would spend that time off with them. First thing in the morning, we’d watch Sesame Street with our cold cereal. One episode I remember was, “How to tell a story”. First the beginning, then the middle and then the end.
The TIC (Troops In Contact) I remember most had the first two parts. I was diverted out of Da Nang and given very little information. I got a discrete VHF frequency and made a call. A hushed voice responded. I asked him to speak louder, and he said, “If I do, THEY can hear me!” After a few minutes of this, it was determined that he was an Army Captain, on top of a hill, and the VC were advancing on his position on all sides. He asked for fire on his position. I told him I could kill him. He said, “If you don’t, THEY will!!!”
I tried as best I could to focus on where he was from the fires he vectored. I put all six guns on the line and fired and fired and fired. Still in the firing circle, I called our Control and asked for a backup gunship. I called down–No answer!! Again!! Finally, he came through: “Shit Hot!! I can hear them screaming!! Keep it going!!” I fired until we ran out of ammo. He didn’t want a flare as we departed, and another Stinger took over. Unlike that Sesame Street story, I wish I had the end of that story. The other Stinger had the same story. In some ways, I guess I really don’t want to know.
We Stingers flew with lights out and often there was no moonlight. Still, the VC AAA gunners seemed able to accurately locate our aircraft. We wondered if they were using the sound of our engines. So we decided to check it out. One moonless night, we sent up an AC-119 at Phan Rang. The pilot flew a firing-circle around the barracks with his lights off. Some of us on the ground closed our eyes and pointed to where we thought the aircraft was while others monitored us for accuracy. We didn’t come close; we consistently pointed behind the aircraft.
After some adult refreshments we came up with a solution. (It is amazing how gin and tonic can make a person smarter.) We concluded the gunners were not using the Stingers to aim their weapons, but the F-4 escorts. The escorts flew high above us in the same pattern, but with their light on! The AAA gunners could be firing at the F-4s! After that, we directed the F-4s to fly lights out. It might have helped, but I still think the VC just ate lots of carrots.