That’s Our Pilot

An interview with Colonel Brad Johnson, Vietnam Veteran

Steve: “So, Dad, it started off as a routine mission?”

Brad: “As routine as a flying mission in a combat zone can be.”

Steve: “Late 1967?”

Brad: “Yes, not long before the Tet Offensive, which began in early ’68.”

Steve: “How did the day begin?”

Brad: “Pretty routinely. I was stationed in Saigon, piloting C-123 Providers. We hauled troops and cargo all around the country…wherever they needed to go to take the fight to the enemy. I don’t recall what our planned mission was, but we got an emergency call on the radio while in the air.”

Steve: “An audible.”

Brad: “That’s right. Emergency calls came on the Guard channel with the call sign “Hilda”. The Guard channel overrode all other frequencies.”

Steve: “So when you heard “Hilda,” you knew something had gone down or was about to go down?”

Brad: “Exactly. Our new mission was to change course and fly about 20 minutes to a remote, dirt airstrip, pick up 20-25 soldiers and transport them to another dirt airstrip near the front lines.”

T-38 Pilot Training

Steve: “Something you had done many times before.”

Brad: “More than a thousand times that year. But this mission would be different.”

Steve: “How so?”

Brad: “When we landed, we were supposed to stay in the cockpit, keep the engines running, pick up the soldiers, and depart. But as I was taxiing, I noticed two morale vehicles with Donut Dollies nearby.”

Steve: “Donut Dollies?”

Brad: “Six or seven Red Cross ladies serving coffee and cool-aid to the troops. So, I lowered the stairs and exited the plane.”

Steve: “You were the pilot and yet you exited the plane in a combat zone to get a cup of coffee and visit Donut Dollies?”

Brad: “It was good coffee.”

Donut Dollies in Action

Steve: “What happened next?”

Brad: “I spotted the shortest soldier of the bunch standing in line for coffee. He stood out because he had several rounds of ammunition draped over his shoulders. I walked over to him and asked, ‘Sergeant, how did the shortest guy in the company end up carrying all the ammunition?’ He replied, ‘Captain, I wasn’t this short when I started carrying it.’”

Brad: “I then had a quick cup of coffee, said hello to the Donut Dollies, and got back on the plane as the soldiers entered on the ramp in the rear.”

Steve: “And you were supposed to take them to another dirt landing strip closer to the front lines?”

Brad: “That’s right.”

Steve: “And that’s when the trouble started?”

Brad: “You could say that. About 10 minutes into the flight, sharp pain shot through my stomach causing me to double over. Something had shifted in my digestive track and it began to fill with air. The pressure on my bowels was intense and unsustainable. It was the kind of feeling you get when you’re about to experience the worst diarrhea you’ve ever had.”

Steve: “Guess that coffee wasn’t so good after all.”

Brad: “I don’t know if it was the coffee or something I had eaten back in Saigon that morning. But it was doing a number on me. I writhed in pain, which caused my co-pilot to get a little flustered.”

Steve: “So what’d you do?”

Brad: “I clenched my fists and sphincter and decided I was going to land that plane if it was the last thing I ever did.”

Steve: “The essence of bravery.”

Brad: “There weren’t a lot of options.”

Steve: “Were you able to land the plane?”

Brad: “With sweat pouring off my face and my colon bursting at the seams, I landed the plane on that short, dirt airstrip. The soldiers in the back began gathering their gear. I looked over at my co-pilot and told him I was about to literally explode. He replied, ‘Captain, go take care of it.’ Being this close to the front lines, we were supposed to drop off the troops and get out of there as quickly as possible. But I couldn’t afford to crap all over myself and the cockpit.”

Steve: “So you once again left the airplane.”

Brad: “Yep, we lowered the ramp for the soldiers to exit and lowered the stairs for me to exit.”

Steve: “But you’re essentially in the middle of a large dirt field?”

Brad: “Yes, but about 50 yards away, I spotted a small bush. It was one of the prickly ones common in Nam that you try to avoid. At this point, I figured I had about a 1 in 5 chance of being able to sprint to the bush to take care of business before the floodgates opened and my bowels emptied.”

Steve: “Bad odds.”

Brad: “Bad odds indeed…and a bad outcome. About 10 strides into my desperate sprint, I heard the terrifying sound of mortar.”

Steve: “Enemy fire?”

Brad: “No, my digestive dam had broken. I collapsed to my hands and knees as a thousand brown waterfalls exited my butt.”

Steve: “Oh my.”

Brad: “I struggled to my feet, but the aftershocks caused me to run in a zig-zag fashion toward the bush. With diarrhea cascading down the inside of my pant legs, I scrambled toward the bush, flush with embarrassment.”

Steve: “It’s a wonder you made colonel.”

Brad: “That’s the truth. Anyway, I finally made it to the little bush and positioned myself behind it. I looked up and spotted the soldiers beginning to exit the rear of my airplane. Huffing and puffing, I surveyed the damage, noting that my underwear and fatigue pants were completely soiled and would never be worn again…in Nam or any other war zone. The boots had sustained heavy collateral damage, but only on the exterior.”

Steve: “You were in Purple Heart territory.”

Brad: “Technically, no. The wounds were self-inflicted.”

C-123 Provider

Steve: “So what’d you do?”

Brad: “I stripped completely naked and tossed my soiled pants, socks, and underwear into the bush.”

Steve: “Where they remain today.”

Brad: “Probably. I then took off my fatigue shirt and t-shirt and used the t-shirt to wipe off my behind, legs, and boots. And then I tossed the t-shirt into the bush.”

Steve: “Leaving you with one shirt and a pair of boots.”

Brad: “And 50 yards back to the plane.”

Steve: “A plane with soldiers exiting out the back.”

Brad: “Exactly. I put my shirt and unlaced boots back on and began my second 50-yard sprint of the day, back toward the plane.”

Steve: “Naked from the waist down.”

Brad: “That’s right. I learned later from our loadmaster that one of the soldiers exiting the plane spotted me running across the dirt field and asked his buddy, ‘Who’s that?’…to which his buddy replied, ‘That’s our pilot.”

Steve: “But at least you made it back to the plane.”

Brad: “I did, although my co-pilot told me I stunk to high heavens. Once again, going against standard procedure, we lowered the windows for our departure and 20-minute flight back to Saigon.”

Steve: “So you piloted the plane naked from the waist down.”

Brad: “Well, I had boots on.”

Steve: “That makes me feel better.”

Brad: “We landed in Saigon and my co-pilot hollered out the window for one of the maintenance guys to loan me a poncho. I wrapped the poncho around my lower half, exited the plane, and headed toward Base Ops. The guys at Base Ops asked why I was wearing a poncho skirt. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them.”

Steve: “It’s not an easy thing to share. So, what happened next?”

Brad: “Wearing nothing but a shirt, poncho skirt, and unlaced boots, I got on my motorcycle and drove off-base to where I lived…the House of Joy, as we called it.”

Steve: “Joy?”

Brad: “Stood for Just One Year.”

Steve: “Did you ever replace the maintenance guy’s poncho?”

Brad: “No, but I plan to.”

Steve: “You’re the best dad ever.”

Brad: “It was an honor to serve.”

GOB & FOB, after the war

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