John E. Schumann, Pilot
18th SOS, Da Nang and Nakhon Phanom, 1971-72
I was born in Madison, Wisconsin (my hometown) in 1945. I graduated from Madison West High School (1963) and the University of Wisconsin (1967). I have been married to my wife, Candace, since 1967 and we have one son, Eric.
I graduated from college, was married, and was drafted into the Army in a three day period in June 1967. I didn’t want anything to do with going to Vietnam as an Army lieutenant. Fortunately, I bumped into a college fraternity brother who worked for the Wisconsin Attorney General’s office. He told me that he might be able to connect me with a pilot training slot. I figured that would be a very good deal since the war was supposed to be over soon and the pilot training was a year-long program. I wish I could tell you that I had dreamed of being a pilot from age of 6 and couldn’t wait to fly in combat but that would be a real whopper. Considering my circumstances, pilot training was a much better alternative than being the lead ground grunt. I had no idea at the time that the coincidence (there are no coincidences?) of running into my fraternity brother in the supermarket would lead to one of the most interesting and meaningful periods of my life.
I was assigned to Southeast Asia on April 29, 1971. I rotated from Nakhon Phanom (NKP) to Da Nang and then back to NKP for the remainder of my tour.
One night during the dry season the F-4s were bombing the North. It seemed whenever we bombed the North, they would retaliate by transporting radar control 57mm anti- aircraft guns or an occasional surface to air missile (SAM) into the Plain of Jars. One night my APN 25/26 went off while we were working a target. The APN 25/26 was a round gauge that would “light up” when the radar system of a SAM or radar-controlled gun began to track the airplane. The sequence was very fast from that point to a “lock on” (i.e., the SAM being locked on to the airplane) and then to “launch”. At this point a cursor would display in the gauge and show the direction and the distance, decreasing as the SAM came toward you. As pilots, we were trained to watch the cursor decrease in length to the point that the SAM was about to impact the airplane. At that point, we would quickly dive the airplane. If you did the maneuver too early, the SAM would be able to adjust its track and hit the airplane. If you did it too late, you would get nailed. Timing was everything. That night I was lucky; the SAM went over our heads.
I also remember night flights when my gunners would pour empty beer cans out of huge plastic bags over the target areas. It was our little private, psychological war. We wanted the enemy on the ground to think that we were up in our comfortable airplanes having fun and drinking beer.
My most memorable mission occurred in January of 1972. At home, the news reported that the war was “winding down”. It wasn’t “winding down” for us. Someone back home in the Ivory Towers thought it would be good publicity to put a reporter on board one of our missions. This was a very rare event. My crew was called the “Arse Rippers” and our scarves and name badges were all “Arse Ripper” red. Our moniker resulted from the fact that we were all flight examiners in our respective positions. When we weren’t scheduled to fly together as a crew, we had the “privilege” of flying with other crews giving check flights. Our crew was selected to host the reporter for a view of the war from the night skies.
Larry Green, a reporter for the Chicago Daily News, was our guest. We took off about 1:00 AM for another routine mission over the trail. I was in the left seat and Larry had the seat behind me that was used for giving check rides. It took about an hour to get into the Ho Chi Minh trail network in the Plain of Jars to begin our search for trucks. It was dead quiet. We couldn’t find anything – no trucks, no targets. I was thinking: here we are with a reporter and he’s going to conclude from his experience that we had a really dull mission. His story will read like we were flying a training mission over the Arizona desert. Almost immediately after this thought, the Night Scope Operator, Maj. Bob Johnson reported, “I just spotted a small revolving red light” and asked the forward looking infrared operator (FLIR) to take a look at it.
The FLIR located a truck park with six trucks and they all had hot engines. I rolled into the firing circle, lined up the sites, and put a one-second burst of 20mm down. Then all hell broke loose. One of my favorite scanners, Bob Basset, called the first break. We had six 37mm guns hosing us simultaneously. We had flown into a trap. The bad guys had recovered trucks that we had “killed”, parked them together and lit fires under their engines to make it look like they were running. They then set up their guns and a small rotating red light. We were suckered right in.
It is hard to describe a “break”. The entire time I was an instructor pilot and flight examiner I never saw anyone demonstrate a “break” to another pilot. Well, when Bob Basset screamed “Break right! Break right!” we went from being in a 30-degree left turn to getting the aircraft 90 degrees vertical to the horizon as quickly as possible to avoid getting the s*** shot out of us. For a right break, the pilot snaps the yoke to the right as far as it will go and simultaneously floorboards the right rudder. My Flight Engineer, Charlie White lit the jets and applied full power. My copilot, Dick Baldwin, pulled his hands free from the yoke to avoid a broken finger and to be ready to assist in getting the aircraft back in control.
As our “break” approached 70-80 degrees, we were being hosed down by a barrage from below. One round went off directly on our nose. The 37mm round wasn’t more than 40-50 feet in front of the aircraft. When it exploded, there was a huge white flash. We could see the shrapnel come off the round as we flew into it. After what seemed like a very long time, we were clear and trying to level the aircraft. I will always remember looking at Dick. All I saw was the whites of his eyes. I suspect that my face reflected Dick’s look of shock. Simultaneously, we shouted “Holy S***!”
I never experienced so much accurate triple A attacking us in such short order. When we got back on the ground, I tried to tell the reporter with a straight face that this was a relatively boring mission but I wasn’t very successful. I remember Larry (the reporter) telling us that he had been in a lot of very serious situations but that he had never been through anything close to this experience.
There are so many memories. Nothing compares to flying in combat with a crew. Each crewmember is dependent on everyone else. I am so proud to have served with so many competent warriors. It was a humbling experience.
I separated from the Air Force on 4 May 1972 on my return from the Vietnam tour. However, I never separated from the memories and lifelong friendships that were built during a very stressful time. They have left an indelible mark.