This site had been a Montagnard hamlet that unfortunately for them had enough flat ground for a short airfield that replaced their crops. It required two radars, one, a very hush-hush unit operated by the SOG division of MAC-V, was to service the Strato Fortress aircraft making their bombing runs into Cambodia and the other, mine, to ward off the constant threat of VC rockets and mortars. Our position in a clearing on the bench below the ridge line made us sitting ducks for the VC. We were somewhere amidst the trail network as it filtered into Viet Nam but it was impossible to know where. The ridge line may well have been the Cambodian border.
Despite the presence of the Montagnards, it seemed the VC were everywhere. There had been talk of using the anti-personnel radar that detected movement in the jungle. That was the Radar that my partner Phil taught. But that meant there would have to be competent personnel on the ground in an unsecured area who could discriminate between monkeys, panthers and humans. The small, transistorized, portable radars could easily fall into enemy hands and could be equally useful to them. We were relatively secure from the ridge line above as US ground troops worked the mountainous terrain to our east in an attempt to keep the NVA military supplies and weapons out of Viet Nam but to the west we had no such support. Americans weren’t supposed to cross into Cambodia.
We apparently weren’t supposed to be where we were either. Our coordinates were unknown to any but the artillery, who repeatedly asked for them, making sure they didn’t drop any ordinance on us, and and to the bomber group operating out of Guam. For reasons I didn’t understand at the time, we were officially unknown. In any case we had an excellent view of the aerial attacks on the trail to our north, fireworks and sometimes not to distant thunder. Weeks earlier from my hotel roof in Saigon I had watched the nightly fireworks and felt the low rumble in the ground as the bombs exploded. Now I had a view that was up close and personal.
The chopper pilots were given landmarks and told we were just over the ridge from those. The fixed-wing guys were given another landmark and told to fix on a radar beacon and come in high and hot. “If you miss it go round again. We’ll give you cover from the M-60s on the ground.” Comforting words. I heard these instructions when I arrived and more than once while standing in the radio room waiting for a phone patch.
Another goal of the site was to provide air freight to the Montagnard as was done up north in Laos where raw opium was ferried to operations bases on choppers and from there to labs run by Laotion officers on the QT. Air America used souped up twin engined C47s and DC3s with engines that were nearly at the limit the air-frame, they said.
C47s were the military version of the DC3 airliner that went into service in the late 1930s and many of the Air America planes were converted DC3s, slightly different than C-47s and a little lighter. These were heavy-duty air-frames designed at a time when many commercial runways were short and unpaved. They were unpressurized so repeated takeoffs and landings didn’t stress the air-frame. Countless numbers of these planes were still in service during the Nixon administration more than 30 years after introduction.
These were the planes that had flown freight over “The Hump” from India to China in support of Chinese nationalists during WWII. Rumor was that some of these were the same air-frames and had been in the Far East ever since. In those days the Army Air Corps had commandeered commercial planes to fly the hump from airlines, sometimes with crews.
AA had retrofitted the 14-cylinder R-1850 engines with R-2000s for an additional 300 horsepower. They landed one on our short field and were afraid to attempt even an empty take-off at any temperature over 85 deg. Air density was the big problem and even with the extra horsepower the runway was awfully short for a heavily loaded takeoff. So when I got there they were busy clearing more jungle and laying more runway.