Part three: Ron just had to fly
In part two we learned about Ron Irwin’s battle with malaria and dengue fever, surviving mortar attacks and how an accidental drug overdose cost him the opportunity to leave Vietnam. Stuck in Vietnam and reassigned to the Marine Air Group 12 he became focused on finding a way to fly. Here then is Part Three of my conversation with Vietnam veteran Ron Irwin.
Hamilton: Understandably you were very unhappy about being kept in Vietnam rather than going to Japan with your squadron, so how did you handle being left behind and reassigned to the Group?
Irwin: Well yeah sure I was royally pissed off, but the instant I met the guys I would be working with I began to feel a lot better about it. My boss so to speak was a very senior Master Gunnery Sergeant who had served in World War II and Korea. He was tough as nails but at the same time very real and easy to work with. The big boss if you will was the Commanding Officer of Marine Aircraft Group 12. He too was a multi-war veteran and a full bird Colonel.
Hamilton: f you don’t mind me asking do you remember their names and what is a “bird” Colonel?
Irwin: A bird Colonel is the highest field grade officer rank, one more promotion and you become a general. As for their names I believe my Master Gunnery Sergeants name was Bray; but sorry to say I can’t recall the name of my C.O. probably because at my rank whenever I spoke with him I would just say either Colonel or sir. Plus I spent most of every day with Master Gunnery Sergeant Bray and very little time with the Colonel. But one thing I learned about my Colonel over time was that he was dedicated to keeping me alive.
Hamilton: How did you determine that?
Irwin: Well the one thing I dearly loved was to fly. I had earned my private pilot’s license while stationed in North Carolina but that didn’t get me the keys to the Phantom and there weren’t any flying clubs in Chu Lai, Vietnam at the time. So I would constantly formally request a transfer to a helicopter squadron as a door gunner. Sure I wouldn’t be the pilot but I would be flying. The Colonel would always politely but firmly turn me down in large part because at that point in the war door gunners had a life expectancy of about 16 minutes.
Then one day I thought I had the perfect plan. I had trained all of our jet jockeys on the use of some new avionics gear that would help keep them from getting shot down. Because I had trained them all I had gone over the training film dozens of times and was able to be 100% accurate from the experience. So I then requested that since I was obviously the best trained in the group I should go back seat on the next few flights up north to operate the radar detection avionics. The Colonel agreed that I was the best trained but he once again said “No Corporal Irwin.”
Hamilton: Did you understand the reasons why your Colonel kept telling you no?
Irwin: Not so much at first but over time I began to understand that he was merely trying his best to keep me alive despite my all too numerous attempts to get myself killed. He became my Colonel Potter and I had become sort of his Radar O’Reilly. You know from the TV show 4077 “M*A*S*H.” Anyhow I finally got him to agree with me — sort of.
Hamilton: Okay how did you do that?
Irwin: Well one day I noticed two Cessna O-1E Birddog aircraft on our flight line, They were Korean and they were also single engine Cessnas meaning I had a license that said I could fly those planes. So I found their shack and introduced myself to their Commanding Officer, a Major Park as I recall. I actually showed him my pilot’s license as if he would care. Anyhow I asked the Korean Major if I could fly with him as his copilot and he said okay for the next day at 10:00 a.m. I was in heaven in anticipation and ran back to request permission from my Colonel. I told my Colonel about my proposed flight the next day with the Korean Marine Major.
He listened politely and when I was done I remained standing at attention with a big dumb grin on my face. Slowly the Colonel leaned forward and said: “Corporal Irwin I am not going to order not to take that flight — BUT if you do get shot down and killed then by God I will court-martial you sorry dead ass.” Well hell if I was dead I truly wouldn’t care if I got court martialed so flushed with joy over my Colonel’s back handed approval I sported a huge grin, saluted and said “Thank you sir” and departed in a crisp Marine Corp style.
Hamilton: So did you get to fly the next day?
Irwin: Oh yeah, and it was absolutely beautiful. I was in the air and because the aircraft had duel controls the Major allowed me to fly it for a while. Bur then the Major took over the controls as we approached a small village. He began slowly descending. Pretty soon I was abruptly startled as I heard three loud pings very close to my right side. I glanced over and saw three bullet holes in the wing root maybe 2 inches from my face,
Now I was pissed and the Major was in full battle mode as he swung the aircraft violently left pushed the nose forward and launched one smoke rocket in the direction of the muzzle flashes. As he was doing that I had stuck my little burp gun out my left side window and began shooting at the same muzzle flashes. It couldn’t have been more than a minute maybe two and a pair of F-4 Phantoms roared down out of the sky dropping several napalm bombs devastating the entire village. You see that was our whole purpose.
Hamilton: What do you mean?
Irwin: I mean that he only reason we were flying low and slow over various villages was to try and draw ground fire. If that happened, and clearly it did, we would then mark the target with smoke and call in the jets to blow the place up?
Hamilton: How did it feel being in the middle of all that?
Irwin: In all honesty at first it was a huge rush. The aggressive flying, the rocket launch, the machine gun bursts, the giant balls of fire — it was like a massive 4th of July show only I was in it and the deaths were very real.
Hamilton: Sounds like it wasn’t as much fun as you thought it would be.
Irwin: Oh the flying part was an absolute blast and as I said at first there was a massive emotional rush. But then gradually another reality began to form in my stupid little brain. I mean what the hell were we doing? Well duh, we were baiting the trap, risking our lives in an effort to get some poorly trained ground pounder from the other side to shoot at us. What the guy on the ground should have done was to exercise fire discipline and hold his fire but he didn’t. So what he did was to get our very much unwanted attention.
Then the Phantom jets unleashed their fury and an entire village perished. But don’t you see, I had become a part of a machine that was dedicated to killing not just enemy soldiers but innocent men, women and children as well. Did I stick a bayonet in a baby? No, of course not. Yet it was undeniable that I did join in a mission of wide spread death and destruction, And it was on that day that I finally made a complete transformation from being a somewhat gung ho Marine dedicated to killing the bastard Viet Cong and their NVA buddies to a severely doubtful person unable to figure out why in the hell we were there in the first place.
Hamilton: Were you about to become a war protestor?
Irwin: Oh hell no those people were equally as troubling in their own special way. But I did lose any sense of glory and began having very serious doubts about just exactly what we were doing there. I began to think that just maybe our esteemed leadership in Washington was either very stupid or very evil or perhaps both. I was still a United States Marine and I was committed to doing my duty to the best of my ability but suddenly I didn’t care about much and just wanted to go home.
Next Irwin talks about his final days in Vietnam particularly his final three days in Vietnam, coming up in Part Four of this interview with a Vietnam Veteran.
David Hamilton attended Northwestern University and his a freelance writer who has written article, scripts and short stories for a variety of publications, including Time Magazine, National Journal, the South China Morning Post and others. He now resides in the Los Angeles area.