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
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
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
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
"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
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.