Steinbeck’s Dispatches From Vietnam

In 1966, the author of The Grapes of Wrath met a new working class: Hueys, Hercs, and Spooky.

Though he originally supported the war, Steinbeck “changed his mind totally about Vietnam” during his stay, said the author’s wife in an interview after his death. (University of Virginia Press)
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Our aircraft was an O-1 “Bird Dog,” a single-engine, propeller driven, fixed wing Cessna which moves at 90 to 100 knots and has two seats, one behind the other. It is the same aircraft you see all over America, a slow, dependable job with fixed landing gear, fairly safe if its single engine is properly maintained. Our craft carried four rockets on the wing tips, two M-16 carbines, hand operated and mainly for self-defense in case of a forced landing, and a number of smoke bombs for signaling and marking.

We had no parachutes. They would take up too much room and flying as low as the FAC fly—anywhere from 200 to 2,000 feet, you couldn’t get out in time anyway. We did wear the armored vests which are said to take the sting out of small arms fire.

Major Masterson, Bat, said, “They don’t shoot at us much because we can call in an air strike in a few minutes and snipes just don’t want to take the chance. But if we should get hit, I’ll set down easy if I can and then we pile out and hit for cover with the M-16s and wait for rescue.”

I was pretty clumsy getting into the back seat with the thick vest on, and butter-fingered getting the belt and shoulder straps tight. There was no fooling around. The prop soared and brought the oil up to pressure. On the edge of the airstrip a ground man pulled out the pins from the rockets arming them and passed the pins in to me.

The little ship danced down the runway and jumped into the air. I had earphones and a mouthpiece for communication. Our first mission was visual reconnaissance, called naturally VR, and it is unique and fascinating work. Each FAC man has a sizable piece of real estate for which he is responsible. He flies over it every day and sometimes several times a day. He gets to know his spread like the back of his hand and he looks at it so closely that he is aware of any change, even the smallest.

I asked what Bat looked for. “Anything,” he said, “absolutely anything.” We were flying at about 500 feet. “See that little house down there? The one right on the river edge.”

“I see it.”

“Well, I know four people live there. If there were six pairs of pants drying on the bushes, I’d know they had visitors, and maybe V.C. visitors. Look at the next place—see those two big crockery pots against the wall? I know those pots. If there were three or four, I’d investigate. Oh! Oh!” he said and swung suddenly in over the paddies away from the river. About ten water buffalo were grazing, standing in the watery field. Our bird dog swung low and the beasts raised their heads at us.

“V.C. transport,” said Bat. “See, how thin they are? They’re working them hard at night.” He made notes on the detailed map on his lap. “We’ll flare tonight and maybe catch them moving.”

“Tell me some other things you look for,” I asked.

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