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August 5, 2015

On Drones, Ghosts, Facebook and the O-2 Skymaster

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I recently ran onto a spoof written last summer that satirized both Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg and Google. In the article, Zuckerberg threatened to have Facebook shoot down all of Google’s drones. The piece, written by NEW YORKER satirist Andy Borowitz (you can read the entire Borowitz piece here), makes fun of the two gigantic social media and Internet companies, but the mention of drones as weapons owned by companies here in the United States got me to thinking about the insertion of drones into our everyday lives, not only as weapons but as tools for more peaceful tasks.

Both governments and businesses are using drones for a number of things. Last fall, while Betty and I traveled in the central California oil patch around Taft, we ran upon a drone hovering about forty feet in the air above the highway. I suspect that drone’s job was (or is) to provide security for the oil fields lining the road that runs north to south.

I had never seen a drone before, that I know of, but I have been paying attention to them a lot more now. As a filmmaker, I could buy one that would allow us to shoot movie footage from an aerial point of view. A quick look at a website curated by someone with the handle, “Droneguy,” lists a whole array of drones available for filmmakers to use. I suppose folks with other goals besides filmmaking might be interested in drones and the ability they allow a user to watch, record, spy. You can get a look at some of these drones at Droneguy’s site here.

It’s kind of creepy thinking about how your neighbor could buy a drone, attach a camera to it and watch what you or anyone else is doing. And not just watching. A few weeks back, some kid apparently attached a gun to a drone, so the potential of attack and defense by individuals and organizations other than the military are very possible.

When I think of drones as weapons, I think about twenty-year-old kids sitting in a command center somewhere in Colorado directing drones to exterminate terrorists in Somalia and Pakistan and Yemen. I imagine those twenty-year-old kids are also directing their drones to act as reconnaissance assets that can help the troops in the field.

Air Force photo of a drone.

Air Force photo of a drone.

We’ve come a long way in the last forty-seven years with the airborne tools we use to help the ground-pounders locate the enemy.

Around Khe Sanh in 1967 and 1968, long before drones, it wasn’t that unusual to see small, manned, fixed wing, propeller driven aircraft fly over the bush looking for enemy movement. One type of plane that operated out of Khe Sanh was the United States Air Force’s O-2A. According to Wikipedia, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cessna_O-2_Skymaster), this plane was made by Cessna and owned the moniker, “Skymaster.” The plane was also known as “Oscar Deuce” or “The Duck.”

On January 17, 1968, four days before the Siege of Khe Sanh officially began, the men of Bravo Company, 1/26, watched as one of these Skymasters roared down the runway of the airstrip in an easterly direction, lifted off, seemed to stall and then tumbled out of the sky.

At the time, I recall it reminding me of hunting trips back home in southern Arizona and the way a quail would tumble out of the sky and then crash after I shot it with my shotgun.

The Skymaster fell and slammed into the red mud and dirt right out in front of our position. When I say, “our,” I mean Second Platoon, Bravo Company’s position.

It’s been over forty-seven years since that event and my memory may have veered a bit or grown a tad rusty, but as I recall that day, right after the plane came down, some of us, including me, ran out through the gate in the concertina barriers and the wire traps we had stretched across the terrain. We wanted to see if we could help the pilot.

I remember seeing two men inside. They frantically screamed at us but what they yelled I don’t recall. Maybe we couldn’t hear the particulars although I guarantee you we understood the gist of the situation.

The plane was smoking and burning and it must have been less than a minute when ammunition inside began cooking off from the heat. I don’t know if they were pistol rounds or rifle rounds or something larger, but as the fire grew and the heat burned our faces, we could hear the report of those cook-offs.

There were four or five of us Marines out there trying to liberate those men from that burning death trap. In my recollection two men in our film, BRAVO! COMMON MEN, UNCOMMON VALOR, were part of the rescue party. Those two Marines were Michael E. O’Hara and the late Dan Horton.

But the burning Oscar Deuce was too hot, and we couldn’t get close enough to the doors to open them and then someone, maybe our platoon commander Lieutenant John Dillon, maybe the platoon sergeant Staff Sergeant Gus Alvarado, or maybe both came and yanked us away from the heat and the cooking off rounds and the imminent threat of that plane exploding.

For years, I’ve been haunted by the image of a man’s face staring at me from behind a veil of smoke, a window, the face screaming, but very little sound in my ears.

We didn’t get those men out and they burned to death. As to the cause, the verdict is mixed. One report indicated the downing of the Skymaster was due to enemy fire, while another said the debacle was not the result of enemy fire.

I don’t recall hearing any small arms fire as the plane lifted off, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any. To me, what matters a whole lot more than what caused that plane to go down was the fact that two men died in there, two men whom we could see and hear and could not save. Two men with families and friends were not going home except in a black body bag. And we who witnessed the event are left with the detritus of the memories.

Air Force photo of a Cessna O-2A.

Air Force photo of a Cessna O-2A.

Those two men were the pilot, Air Force Captain Sam Beach, and an observer, Army Sergeant First Class Donald Chaney. You can read more about Sam Beach and Donald Chaney on the Virtual Wall at http://www.virtualwall.org/db/BeachSF01a.htm and http://www.virtualwall.org/dc/ChaneyDL02a.htm.

As I write this, I think that the use of drones as a way to spot the enemy might be an improvement over manned aircraft. If that vehicle had been a drone, then I wouldn’t have those memories haunting me, those voices yelling through the smoke, the ghost of that horrified face looking at me through the Skymaster’s windshield and there would be two less names on The Wall.

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