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Mel Hughes  

A U-21 Pilot - Call Sign "Satellite"

I was a U-21 pilot in the Aviation Detachment of the 1st Signal Brigade. Shortly after the Easter Offensive was launched, several of our radio-relay aircraft were committed to Mr. Vann. I spent several weeks in late April and early May based at the Pleiku AFB while our crews flew over the entire area, providing radio relay or "satellite" coverage for PRC 25 radios that our escaping advisors would whisper into trying to arrange evacuation or air cover. Our call sign, appropriately enough, was "Satellite."

I rotated back to our base in Long Thahn to support actions north of Saigon at An Loc later in May. But I still have haunting memories of that effort. I met and worked with Mr. Vann and several of his staff. I can still hear, in my mind's ear, the first time the advisor from Tan Canh whispering into his radio, "This is Icebox 33." He was in a ditch outside the compound beside a tank with a small contingent of ARVN personnel trying to sneak through a minefield to escape. I overheard Mark Truhan and company, late one night, tell Spectre (an AC-130 gunship) that he should come in and pick up a few souvenirs, one being one of the tanks...

The tale of the Battle of Ben Het still leaves me laughing though it was far from a laughing matter at the time. In my mind's eye, I pictured those guys down there in a place I had never seen but only "heard," surrounded, then bypassed by the NVA's tanks. For them to remain so calm, to crack jokes, to give thanks and to offer up tanks to Spectre, what life lessons. I listened to the attempts to rescue pilots and soldiers, circling high above, wondering what I would do in the same situation, wondering if I could have operated with such grace and bravery. It was a hell of a time.

Being a fixed wing pilot in the twilight of American involvement in Vietnam, I got to see a lot of the country. I was able to witness first hand the effects of the reductions of American forces from June of 1971 to June of 1972. But most of what I did was ash and trash, SP4 Jones and his cyclotron tube from Long Binh to Da Nang etc. But whenever there was a major action, they loaded up the radio relay equipment and we would orbit overhead, providing radio coverage and radio relay for higher headquarters. Those were always intense times. I spent a month in Da Nang earlier in my hitch, flying up over northern I Corp. But for a young, impressionable warrant officer from Alabama, the time spent in Pleiku was the most firmly implanted. Waking up to rocket attacks, traveling into Pleiku city, wandering up and down the ramp at Pleiku AFB looking at the VNAF A-1E's, watching the SS-11 ships unload. We were largely invisible there, moving in large circles above the FAC's and Spectre, speaking only to let them know we were in the area. Listening to people moving, people responding. More and more comes back.

Years later, I heard Neil Sheehan speak while doing a book tour for "A Bright and Shining Lie." Only after reading his book did I begin to piece together the importance of that battle or the importance of John Paul Vann.

Jack, I can't tell you how much I appreciate your site. It reawakened memories I have long ignored. I have been dreaming vividly every night since.

Mel Hughes

Mel Hughes <>
Chattanooga, Tennessee USA - Tuesday, September 16, 2003 at 05:33:05 (PDT)

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