Military News

Friday, September 18, 2015

Stories from Vietnam: Into the assassin's den

by Karen Petitt
375th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs


9/12/2015 - SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Illinois -- Editor's Note:  This is a first in a series on Scott's Vietnam Veterans, and is part of the DoD's 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Vietnam War.

Low on fuel, a radio call came over the net directing a search for a downed American pilot. Capt. Keith Sawyer was returning from directing an air strike in the mountains north of Saigon, the capital city of Vietnam in 1963, and instantly headed to the new coordinates.

As a Forward Air Controller, his job was to fly low to the ground in his L-19 (O-1A) "Bird Dog" aircraft to mark targets with smoke grenades or white phosphorus rockets called "Willie-Petes," signaling enemy positions for fighter aircraft to come in behind and destroy. On this mission he would have helped signal a rescue mission.

He searched for the pilot when red and yellow tracer rounds shot past him, and he suddenly realized it was a trap. The Viet Cong had infiltrated the radio signals, and finding himself sandwiched between a narrow pass in the valley and unable to turn, he braced himself to fly right through it.

Unable to perform defensive maneuvers, he prayed that he and his back seat South Vietnamese observer would make it back to base alive. He stayed fixated on his near-empty fuel tank until he arrived back at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, a major operating air field during the Vietnam War from 1959 through the Fall of Saigon in 1975.

"After we landed, everyone came out to inspect our aircraft to count the number of bullet holes, but there weren't any," said Sawyer, now a retired colonel who served in the Air Force for 30 years. "That alone was incredible, but we also checked our fuel because my gauges showed empty for most of the flight home. They got out a measuring stick. It came out dry. They went to the lowest point in the fuel tank and came out with one cup of fuel. From then on, everyone wanted to fly with me because of my 'invisible shield,' although I know it was divine intervention."

That divine intervention would last throughout his year-long service in Vietnam from April 24, 1963 to April 24, 1964 as he accumulated 600 flying hours that included 386 combat missions. This 26-year-old would become so good at finding, targeting and thus destroying important enemy targets that he would earn the prestigious Distinguished Flying Cross as well as the Air Medal with 16 oak leaf clusters--awarded to aviators who distinguished themselves in flight. He also became a target for enemy assassins.

Once, he landed on a road by a small village and walked in to coordinate air cover with the local Vietnamese army commander. The mission was delayed so he explored the two streets that made up the village. The mission was subsequently called off due to lack of enemy contact so Sawyer started walking back to his plane when a U.S. Army advisor came out of a house and told him an assassination squad had been seen in town that was after him. The price on his head was $500.

"That was a very small village that I had been walking around in that day," he said. "And the Viet Cong assassins only made $6 a month, so you can imagine the incentive that kind of money could give them. How we didn't see them or they see us as we walked around was unbelievable."

Another time he was in a Chinese restaurant near the hotel where he stayed in Saigon. Always on the lookout for the enemy, he selected a table near an exit and mapped out an escape plan--just in case. Before he finished his meal, two assassins burst through the front door with grenades in their hands. They pursued him on foot as Sawyer ran back toward his hotel, shooting at them with a pistol he always carried. Near his hotel, guards caught and killed one of assassins while the other one escaped.

This became the new normal for him, but it didn't deter him from his efforts in performing his missions. He cared about his safety because he had a young wife and 2½ year-old-daughter at home who were counting on him to return, but he said he also had the reassurance from his ecclesiastical leaders before he left that "evil would be banished from his footsteps."

"I was protected every day I was there, and I saw that protection in dramatic ways ... and sometimes in not so dramatic ways. Sometimes I was protected merely by the choices I made," he said.

For instance, he had made a vow to keep Sunday a day that was holy by going to church and refraining from entertainment. Once he declined a Sunday evening event at a movie theater and that very night it was attacked and 20 people were killed--right where he normally sat.

"I am not sure all the reasons why I was protected while so many others died. I knew men who lost their lives or who were shot down and became prisoners. I wrestled with this and like many, I felt guilty for surviving. Towards the end of my tour, I was assigned one mission that a visiting U.S. Air Force pilot asked to take. He was killed on that mission and that is hard to live with. I did my duty, but when I was just a week from coming home, I did not want to put myself in unnecessary risk just to achieve a 'milestone' such as my 400th combat mission. I saw others try to do that, only to lose their lives. I just decided that what was important was focusing on going home. So, during that week I flew 'safer' missions."

Going home could have been a challenge, but the faith and moxie of his wife, Amy Jo, made that adjustment not only bearable, but healing as well.

It was during this time that America was just beginning to see the impact of the growing military action. Ho Chi Minh had declared Independence after World War II and began a revolution to unify North and South Vietnam under his communist rule. What followed was a lengthy build up to war that by 1975 had killed nearly three million Vietnamese and claimed 58,000 American lives.

It was in 1963 that a Buddhist monk would soak himself in gas and set fire to himself at a main intersection in Saigon as part of a political protest. Back home, President John F. Kennedy would be assassinated and the South erupt with Civil Rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Ala.

Adding to the turmoil were images that brought the vicious fighting of Vietnam into everyone's living rooms showing how Americans were becoming more entrenched in the region. These images documented the bloody casualties on the ground and air strikes that left the jungles ablaze, leaving Amy Jo haunted with every news report of a downed aircraft near Saigon. She'd have to wait for days--even weeks--to find out if her husband was yet alive.

"Can you imagine not knowing?" she said. "I would read the newspapers and then just wait. I knew of Keith's blessing of protection, but he didn't tell me all that was going on with him. In fact, there are stories that he'll tell now that I'm still learning about. I know he worked hard to protect me from the dangers he faced. I just did a lot of praying and tried to live each day as normally as I could. It's not like today's families who are able to Skype to where they're serving. No, we didn't have anything like that. Today's families are blessed to have such instant communication."

Amy Jo proved wise as she kept a picture of him next to her daughter's bed and told her stories every night. That, he said, made all the difference when he came home a year later.

"Instead of being afraid of me, she ran into my arms and recognized me as her daddy," he said. "I consider that one of the greatest gifts my wife gave to me while I was gone. It meant everything to me to have my daughter know me and it speaks well of the efforts Amy Jo went to keep our home a safe and happy place while I was gone."

They had married when just 19 years old. He was a farmer near Gilbert, Ariz., and during the age of the cotton cash crops, he managed quite well for himself. She was a musically gifted and cultured "city girl" from Mesa. They had known each other since age 16, and once married they attended college where he joined the ROTC program and eventually committed to serving in the Air Force before being drafted into another branch of service.

During this time, his brother, Darrell, who had always dreamt of being a pilot, not only acquired his pilot's license but became the flight instructor who taught Keith how to fly. Those flying lessons came in handy during his service in Vietnam where he flew so low that he could see the enemy submerged in the river breathing through bamboo reeds.

Sawyer's many missions were dangerous and harrowing. He took lives. He saved lives. And he, like many veterans, suffered symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, including nightmares and hyper sensitivity. Unlike veterans of today, there were no support groups and no PTSD therapy for Vietnam veterans. But, gradually, his nightmares disappeared, he said, as he continued to freely share his experiences with friends and family.

"There are many who still don't talk about their experiences even today," he explained. "I've always been able to talk about mine, so I think that has been its own type of therapy in a way."

After his tour in Vietnam, the farming industry was at a low point for Arizona, due to drought, so Sawyer decided to stay in the Air Force where he often returned to Vietnam between 1965 through 1974. This time he flew C-124 and C-141 cargo aircraft that brought in supplies to the troops throughout the country and he often airlifted the wounded back to the U.S. He continued a career in cargo aircraft settling into the C-141s becoming a squadron commander and a mission planner for several highly visible operations, including bringing the first round of POWs home from Hanoi.

Now, at age 78, with four children, 11 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild, he continues to serve in the community, at church and with his wife in her music activities. He said he plans to keep on sharing his memories as long as he's able and as long as there are people willing to hear the war stories from this Vietnam veteran.

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