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Last Updated March 13, 2014
The Rest of the Story - Walker
Here is a story from our 1971-72
SE Asia adventure that might be of interest. This story didn’t have an
ending until this past week!
HH Red Dawson hired me to fly for
Air America in 1967. However, I ended up with the old Frontier Airlines
instead. Then, in 1971 there was an opportunity to take a leave of my
senses, and I ended up in Phnom Penh, Cambodia flying CV-440’s for Tri
9. This was on a year’s leave of absence from Frontier. Cheryl and I
were newly married and she thought it might be an interesting adventure
for us both. She was right!
Cheryl was a flight attendant
with Frontier, and I was a co-pilot on the Convair 580 based out of SLC,
Utah. In December of 1971 Frontier was cutting back and I was going to be
displaced from the right seat on the Convair to the idiot seat on the
Boeing 737. Then I saw a notice from the VP of Ops, Ed O’Neil, stating
that there were Convair captain slots available in S.E. Asia. This perked
my interest, so I called the number on the notice. The phone call was to a
private home in Mena, Arkansas. The lady who answered didn’t seem to
know anything about it, but would give her husband my name and number.
My flight arrived back in SLC and
I told Cheryl of my phone call. We both thought nothing would materialized
and went to bed thinking of the hassles ahead commuting from SLC to
Dallas/Ft. Worth where I was displaced to. Around 3 AM the phone woke us.
It was Jim Zeigler and Cliff Neville calling from Phnom Penh, Cambodia
wondering how soon I could get there. Of course I asked the terms of the
agreement and hung up wondering how Cheryl and I would put together
obtaining two leaves of absence, passports, First Class physical, ATP
written, training and ATP certification along with a Convair 440 type
rating, selling the car, storing the furniture, and saying good bye’s to
friends and family. Back then, I was a co-pilot with only an FAA
Commercial ticket and a type rating in the DC-B-26. So, Cheryl and I would
have to really put the hustle on to put this all together. I know now that
there is no way that we could have planned this out and have it come
together like it did.
The next morning, I called our
Sr. VP of Operations, Ed O’Neil. Ed was in a meeting, but called me back
a few minutes later. I explained that I had responded to his posting and
was offered a flying job as a captain in SE Asia. After a short
conversation, he told me that a leave of absence would be no problem and
that Frontier would give me the ATP along with typing me in the Convair.
Interestingly, the Convair I was flying was the CV-580, a turboprop
conversion from the piston Convair I needed the type in. For once I kept
quiet thinking a CV-580 rating would be a good thing and that I could get
the piston rating next.
There was a quickie weekend
ground school in Denver where I took the ATP written. Then I got a
simulator session and airplane flight check in the CV-580. When the FAA
inspector filled out the new certificate mine was the first one since the
FAA changed the type rating description. Mine read CV-340A/440A. It was
supposed to read CV A340/A440. The “A” stood for Allison, the engines
powering “The Mountain Master.” I found this out later when the error
was corrected via a subsequent type rating.
When I saw how my certificate
read, I figured the folks in Cambodia wouldn’t notice. Perhaps the worst
thing for us would be a trip to a part of the world we hadn’t seen.
Later, when I checked in with operations, no one asked why my rating
looked different from the CV-240/340/440 which was shown on the other
captain and chief pilot’s certificates. I was made legal too, as the DCA
in Phnom Penh issued me a Cambodian ATP with all the proper ratings and
authorizations. I was able to pass the flight check as I was familiar with
the engines which are nearly the same as those on the B-26 I flew. Also, I
brought along Captain Jack Schade’s Frontier CV-340 manual, which I
reviewed on the flight over. Looking
back, the most amazing thing was that all that needed doing was
accomplished with us reporting in Phnom Penh just 22 days following that 3
AM phone call!
The living in Phnom Penh was a
far cry from my expectations of a war zone. The flying was great as the
aircraft had enough performance to get us up out of the ground fire
outside the airport perimeters. The CV-440’s were just off the line at
Finnair and were immaculate. We flew regular passengers within Cambodia.
Flights originated in Phnom Penh at Pochentong International Airport and
went either to Battambang to the NW on the Thai border, or to Kompongsom (Sihanoukville)
to the SW on the Gulf of Siam. Later we had flights to Bangkok and to Siem
Reap when we would take Khmer soldiers into the fighting near the Temples
of Angkor Wat.
Early in 1972 things were pretty
quiet in Phnom Penh and we were feeling reasonably secure when a vicious
attack by the NVA commandos and Khmer Rouge began around 2 AM on March 22nd,
which lasted nearly two hours. There were some 80 Russian 122mm rockets,
40 mm rockets, mortars and other munitions landing around the city. More
than 30 landed around the airport. This first attack killed 75 wounding
112 civilians. One of our Convair’s suffered a couple of shrapnel
punctures that night. This would be the first of many attacks.
Our US Army friends arrived at
our villa to evacuate us to the US military compound. The US government
was reporting there were no US military in Cambodia. Happily, this report
was very inaccurate. Another report with questionable veracity was when
the Russian Ambassador in Phnom Penh made the statement that Russia was
NOT supplying arms to the communist forces in Cambodia.
I will never forget the trip in
the jeep away from our villa in Toulecourt, a suburb of Phnom Penh. It was
a dark night with lots of flares, incoming and outgoing artillery, and
small arms going off all around us. As we rounded a corner, two young men
dressed in black pajamas carrying AK-47’s jumped up from a grass covered
ditch and pointed their weapons at us. At this point, I was getting way
behind on my worrying! I was sure these were NVA commandos or Khmer Rouge.
However, it turned out they were members of the Home Guard. Once they, and
we, determined who was who, we were allowed to complete our journey to the
US compound near the Cambodian “Pentagon.” We took shelter with the
Military Delivery Team the rest of the night. This was the first of many
rocket attacks. A day or so later we determined where a foul smell was
coming from. On the gate posts along our street, there were several heads
which were becoming ripe and attracting flies. These had belonged to some
of the NVA commando’s who attacked the nearby radio station killing
several including the Khmer colonel, his French wife, their two children
along with an unborn baby. The evidence indicated they made the colonel
watch while atrocities were administered to his family before killing him
too. Apparently, there is a belief over there that if you kill an enemy,
and separate his head from his body, his spirit is forever haunted and
cannot find Heaven. Hence, the gate post ornaments!
US Air Force Lt. Col. Mark Berent
was the Air Attaché in Cambodia. We became acquainted and went out
socially a few times. He ended up saving my fanny a couple of times too.
Once, he hot footed it out to Pochentong, prior to our leaving on a
mission to Battambang, telling me we needed to re-plan our route. This is
when we learned about Operation Arc Light when the B-52’s began carpet
bombing again. Another time was after I arrived at Pochentong after
dropping off some troops at Siem Reap. When we took off we flew low over
Tonle Sap a large inland body of water just SW of the Siem Reap airfield.
We left the flaps down some to produce some extra wake and blew over a
couple of sampans with several fishermen for fun. Mark told me it would
probably not be a good idea to try that again as this was how the Khmer
Rouge and NVA commandos fed themselves. Along with their fishing nets,
they carried AK-47’s and would likely be on the lookout for us next
time. There were rumors that Tonle Sap was the residence of some
crocodiles. I prefer to stay away from things such as that.
This brings me to the point of my
sending you this story. One day I walked over to the side of the taxiway
to get rid of my morning coffee. As I mentioned earlier, the Russian’s
had claimed they were not providing arms. Right there, sticking out of the
sand was a spent Russian 122 rocket. I could plainly see the “CCCP” on
the side along with other identification stenciling. Apparently, when it
hit the sand, it did not blow up and ended up with, what once was, the
pointy end sticking up and the rocket motor end down in the sand. I
hesitated touching the thing not knowing whether or not it was still
dangerous. So, I had one of the Army folks who knew munitions, Sgt. Percy
Burns, look at the rocket. After Percy said it was safe to do so, we
pulled it out of the sand and had our photo taken with it. I presented it
to the Air Attaché, Col. Berent. He gave it to Marshall Lon Nol, the
Cambodia premier. As I remember the story, at a state dinner with the
various nation’s ambassadors, Marshall Lon Nol had the 122 rocket on the
Russian ambassador’s plate prior to asking him to leave Cambodia. I lost
track of Col. Berent after the war.
Moving ahead nearly 30 years, I
was with my Nieuport 17 squadron “Lafayette Escadrille d’ Arizona.”
We had been invited to Luke AFB for an air show there. The 306th
Fighter Group hosted us and after we put the airplanes in the hangar, we
went to the Officers Club for a cold one. I was standing with the Nieuport
3 pilot, Col. Roger Parrish. Roger is the only two-time leader of the USAF
Thunderbirds and, later, was the Director of Training at America West
Airlines after his Air Force career and a stint with Learjet. Our squadron
does volunteer missing man fly -overs for Veterans Day, Memorial Day and
special events to honor those who have made the supreme sacrifice for our
Roger and I noticed three other
fellow’s talking near by. One, with his back to me, had a “Phuque Jane
Fonda” patch on his flight suit. I mentioned to Roger that we need those
for our flight suits and went over to inquire where this fellow got his.
As I got close, I recognized the voice. It was Mark Berent. He hadn’t
changed much over the years, but I had. I was 20
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