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Enough Excitement To Fill Several Lifetimes - Seethaler Part III

by Karl Seethaler (Missoula '55) |

In the Oct. 2016 and Jan. 2017 issues of 'Smokejumper,' we followed Karl through his years as a smokejumper in the lower forty-eight and Alaska, where he was one of the few 'Survey Jumpers.' He joined Air America and, over a nine-year stint, racked up over 10,000 flying hours and many close calls. Seventeen years after his time with Air America, Karl went to work for the U.S. State Department on a drug interdiction program in Peru, where he spent four and a half years. In Part III Karl recalls events from each of these experiences. Certainly enough to fill several lifetimes.

Silk Stories And Other Long Forgotten Events That Come To Mind

It's interesting how forgotten events do come to mind as you dwell on a topic. This happens more frequently as you get older and start to develop mild cognitive impairment – as they say, that's nothing to worry about; it's just old age. But dwell on it for a while and some of what you couldn't remember comes to the surface.

To some extent, that's happening to me as I think of these time frames and the experiences associated with them. For what it's worth, I want to jot some of them down. As with the parable of the blind men and the elephant, one event may give a misleading perception of the big picture. However, piecing together a number of events might project a broader mosaic from which some of the flavor of the experience might be extracted.

For whatever it's worth, the following are presented:
Ponderosa pine in New Mexico

When I did a parachute jump, I usually landed on the ground. But occasionally it happens that the parachute gets draped over the top of a tree, not an uncommon occurrence. It would make for a lot softer landing than hitting the ground, which I appreciated.

Getting to the ground was never a challenge for me because we all carried a letdown rope. I found doing a letdown to be as gratifying as the soft landing. The problem was that we had to retrieve the parachute as we were packing up our gear after the fire.

Usually, that wasn't too great a challenge, but it could be if the tree was tall and the parachute was snagged and not about to be easily worked loose. We would be dropped a set of spurs to assist us in cases like that.

We were trained to use the spurs, but I didn't like it. Everything was unnatural. In order for the spurs to be effective and hold you up, it was necessary to lean back. Hugging the tree, which I would like to have done, was not an option; the spurs would not grip unless they were pressed into the tree at an angle.

Once you have climbed to the height of the parachute and are ready to do your work, you could lean back on straps that you could wrap around the tree at chest level. That felt secure enough, but you couldn't lean back on the straps and climb at the same time. And you couldn't climb unless you held on to the sides of the tree with your arms stretched out, which is particularly awkward while climbing a tree with a thick trunk. Then, step by step, you must let loose with one foot or one arm in order to make the climb.

On a fire jump in New Mexico in 1959, my parachute was caught up in a thick and tall ponderosa pine tree. I can't say for certain how high the parachute was, but my memory has me climbing about 50 feet to get to it. I did climb the tree and retrieve the chute, but it took a lot of concentration to overcome my fear of heights, which I felt more than I ever did when I was jumping out of an aircraft.

At the end of the fire season in New Mexico, when we had returned to Missoula, we happened to go out into the woods for an unusual training session on climbing with spurs. My experience with the ponderosa pine had apparently prepared me well because climbing a tree that was somewhat shorter and not so thick didn't inhibit me too much – but I still didn't like it.

Douglas fir in Northern California

Late in the 1959 fire season, after returning from New Mexico, they were having a lot of fires in Northern California. To help out, a planeload of us smokejumpers from Missoula flew to the Redding Smokejumper Base. While there, I was on a fire jump near Mt. Shasta.
The forest was thick and I happened to plow into a tall Douglas fir tree. I looked up to see the parachute neatly draped over the top of the tree. I took the end of the letdown line from the large pocket on my jumpsuit and proceeded to run it through the rings according to procedure.

As I was just about to punch the release, I felt the parachute slipping from its grip on the tree. Looking down, I could see that I was in for a long drop. This tree was tall; just how tall I don't know, but it was without doubt the tallest I had ever been up on. I remember thinking that the best thing I could hope for was a broken leg.

I wasn't looking up, so I don't know what the parachute was doing. I do know that the drop was slow and I was not accelerating, that I came to a soft landing, and was relieved that I wouldn't have to retrieve the parachute from the top of the tree. I can only assume that the parachute redeployed as I was coming down. I don't know if anyone else has had such an experience.

Search & Rescue in Southeast Asia

Air America provided a lot of support to the U.S. military operations at the time of the war in Vietnam, which has not always been understood or fully appreciated. An example of this is that we would be called upon to provide search and rescue support for military personnel who had ejected from downed aircraft over Laos and parts of Vietnam.

It was logical for us to do that because we were closest to the incident with helicopters and other aerial support. It was an honor to be able to help in this way.

I observed one of these rescues. I was the kicker on a C-123 that was flying over the Plain of Jars in Northern Laos when we were diverted to the northeast near the North Vietnamese border where a search and rescue operation was under way. Our purpose was to be a presence there to observe, relay information by radio, and whatever else we could do.

Two military pilots were on the ground with the North Vietnamese military closing in on them. Two Air America helicopters were there and had located them. One of the helicopters was able to land and rescue one of the pilots.

I can't remember why, but the other helicopter was unable to reach the second pilot. However, the first helicopter was able to reach him and the rescue operation was a success.

Interestingly, one of the rescued pilots gave a talk expressing his gratitude at a meeting of the Air America Association that I attended. I believe that meeting was in Reno around 2005.

Downed Caribou in the South Vietnam Delta

In early 1966, I was the kicker on a flight in a Caribou from Saigon to Bangkok for some maintenance.

As we were flying south over the Mekong Delta, we became aware of a tragic event taking place on the ground below us. Another of our Caribous had either been damaged by ground fire or had a mechanical problem – I don't remember which – that caused them to make an emergency landing on a rice paddy.

The crew, consisting of an American pilot, co-pilot, and a Vietnamese kicker I had recently trained, were captured. I heard that their Viet Cong captors tied ropes around their necks, paraded them through the nearby village, where they were publicly subjected to abuse, and then took them away. To my knowledge, the crew was never heard from again.
I doubt that I have all the facts completely straight on this incident, but I think they are pretty accurate overall. I know that everyone was very resentful of this outrageous behavior on the part of the enemy. Reminiscent of how Gene DeBruin (MSO-59) and his fellow captives were treated by the Pathet Lao, it illustrated the deplorable mentality of the terrorist-driven insurgency we were there to oppose.

To my knowledge, terrorism and inhumane treatment of prisoners were authoritatively sanctioned strategies of the enemy and served to reinforce our sense that we were doing the right thing by opposing these insurrections. Unfortunately, the governments we were supporting with billions of dollars were becoming more and more corrupt and their militaries remained dysfunctional even with the extensive military backing provided by half a million American troops.

As time went on and the political situation in these countries and in the U.S. continued to deteriorate, frustration caused our policymakers to sanction extreme and futile strategies of our own.

As was very common in World War II, we escalated our bombing, not always discriminately. It had no discernable military effect, but it produced collateral damage on the civilian population.

Another ill-conceived strategy was to try to deny the Viet Cong foliage cover by applying Agent Orange over great swaths of forest. That had little, if any, impact on the war effort while inflicting significant damage to the environment and creating health hazards and birth defects.

With respect to wars, we were on a learning curve in transition from the World War II mentality and whatever it is we have today. Knowing what we know now, we would almost certainly have done things differently. Still, we were facing serious Cold War challenges; I think it's best not to be too judgmental of our leadership or entertain second thoughts about our participation in this chapter of history.

Honda 65

After arriving in Bangkok, I ran into an ex-kicker whom I had worked with in Vientiane and had recently resigned. Before leaving Vientiane, he became acquainted with two traveling American girls.

Something apparently possessed him to propose that they accompany him on a motorcycle trip to Bangkok. They were agreeable to that. The problem was, he didn't have any motorcycles. So, in the spirit of the big-time spender, he bought three Hondas and away they went.

When they got to Bangkok, the girls split and he was left with three motorcycles. I agreed to buy one of them from him, a Honda 65. Honda 50 motorcycles were ubiquitous in Southeast Asia at the time, but I don't think I ever saw another Honda 65 which was, I believed, a step above the Honda 50.

That Honda 65, which I drove around Saigon and Vientiane, was my primary mode of transportation throughout the remainder of my time with Air America. Gas was very cheap there at the time, and the Honda didn't use much. I could fill the tank for about 15 cents, and on that it would run for a long time. It was for me a very good investment.

The Tet Offensive

Late at night on Jan. 30, 1968, during the days of festivity in celebration of the Vietnamese New Year, the Communist forces launched a surprise massive military offensive throughout South Vietnam. It was a major event of the war in which they occupied many parts of the country before they were beaten back in the following weeks. The course of the offensive and the atrocities committed by these forces on the local populations in areas that they controlled are well documented and can be easily researched.

The part of Saigon where I was living was not attacked, and when I woke up the next morning, I was unaware of what had happened.

It happened that I had planned to go shopping that morning at the Military Base Exchange (BX) located in the Saigon district of Cholon. Air America personnel had BX privileges. Accordingly, that morning I got on my Honda 65, taking the more scenic route to the BX that passed through the outskirts of Saigon. Everything seemed eerily quiet.

When I arrived at the BX, the American Military guard prevented me from entering. I asked him what the problem was. He asked me if I was unaware of what was going on. When I told him I didn't know, he briefly explained and suggested that I get back home as quickly as possible.

I returned by the shortest route, which took me through much of Cholon, one of the hardest-hit parts of the offensive within Saigon. Everything was eerily quiet on the return trip, as well, and fortunately the trip was uneventful.

After arriving home, I received word from Air America that I should stay put until I heard from them. A few days later, I was called back to the Tan Son Nhut Airport. Gradually, over the next couple of weeks, operations returned to normal.

'Oh Shit!'

For all the events I have described that occurred while I was working at Air America, most of the time things were fairly routine. It was a good job to have in a setting that I found agreeable.

At times, there was some discordance within the organization. Sometimes, someone in the group could be a bit overbearing and properly qualify as being a jerk. I'm sure that at times there were those who didn't have a high opinion of me, either. But overwhelmingly, I thought we were a very compatible group. I couldn't ask to work with better people. Moreover, we were professional at what we did.

That is particularly important regarding the pilots and mechanics that we depended upon to get us safely through thousands of hours of flying under frequently hazardous conditions. They did throughout almost all of my eight and a half years with the company.

When things go well, as they should, there isn't much to comment about. So, the fact that I describe negative episodes does not indicate that they represented the norm. Far from it, they are simply what provides the broad experience with a story to tell.

Pilot professionalism calls for a number of attributes, and I am not qualified to comment on all of them. But as people I entrusted my life to on a daily basis, two of these attributes stood out. One is skill at operating the aircraft and the other is judgment.

I am satisfied that Air America did a very good job of selecting, training, and checking out skilled operating pilots. Also, most of them exercised good judgment most of the time. But some did not.

As I've noted, flying below minimum elevations and convincing yourself that you know exactly where you are while in the clouds was my biggest concern and the greatest cause of death at Air America. Apparently, getting the load delivered was such a matter of pride that otherwise competent pilots were willing to risk their own lives and the lives of the crewmembers to get it done. It's a bigger problem than what it seems. For every crash, there were others where the pilot made it through just by luck.

One day we were taking a load in a C-130 into Long Tieng, the major base in Laos surrounded by karsts where Tom Greiner (MSO-55) had his mishap. As we were making our final approach and committed to doing the landing, I heard the pilot on the headphone say, 'Oh shit!'

I looked out to see that we were in a cloud. Fortunately, it cleared up in a couple of seconds and we landed without incident.

That word can get overused. There was another incident that would be humorous if it didn't have serious potential consequences. It didn't involve me, but it did involve two other kickers.

They were working on a C-46 carrying a load of rice when there was a mechanical problem that required feathering an engine before they were able to deliver the load. The pilot was skilled, but had a reputation for being cocky and short-fused.

The cargo was too heavy to permit continued flight on just one engine. He called out to one of the kickers. What he should have said was, 'Jettison the load.' Instead he impatiently yelled, 'Get the shit out of here!'

The kicker misunderstood, put on his parachute, instructed the other kicker to do likewise and they both jumped out of the aircraft. When the pilot realized what had happened, he became even more agitated and instructed the co-pilot to jettison the load.

The co-pilot wasn't trained for that and had to do the two-man job by himself. I don't know how he did it, possibly without a parachute, but I understand he was quite exhausted before he managed to get it all out. Of course, the incident was investigated, but it was judged to be a case of bad communication and no one was disciplined for it.

I did have an experience – with this same pilot – that could have been very serious. Some of the pilots were checked out to fly more than one type of aircraft, and this incident involved a Caribou.

We were at a site in Northern Laos. They wanted us to take a load of lumber back to Vientiane. The Caribou is much narrower than a C-123, so it only has room for a single track with rollers lined up in the center of the cabin. The ramp at the back was partially open to provide a flat extension of the track as the lumber was being laid out on pallets.

We were sitting at the end of the runway in position to take off, and the pilot thought he would save some time by running through the checklist while we were still loading. We finished loading the lumber, and I started tying it down by putting on the forward restraints with chains.

Then, as I was walking down the left side of the cabin with the intention of applying the aft restraints, the engines suddenly got louder and the aircraft lurched forward. Fortunately, I had not yet reached the back of the load by then or I could certainly have been killed as the lumber shot out the back onto the runway and the aircraft took off. Actually, the lumber didn't move back, but it appeared to as we moved forward so quickly and it just dropped. As it was, my chest was pretty well scraped by the lumber as we pulled out from under it.

When I informed the pilot what had happened, he looked back and realized what he had done and said something to the effect of, 'Oh, well. Let it be,' and we continued on to Vientiane. He gave no explanation and no apology.

One day, within the first year of our employment at Air America, I was scheduled to work on a C-46 with Billy Hester (MSO-58), the smokejumper I had worked with in New Mexico in 1959. We were taking a load out of Udorn, Thailand.

Air America had a base of operations in Udorn, about a 20 to 30-minute flight south of Vientiane. We frequently would remain overnight (RON) there.

Our destination was a site up in Laos. We were told that after we delivered the cargo, we would be returning to Udorn to RON. The pilot was very upset about that because he had plans to be in Vientiane that evening, but he could not talk Flight Operations out of doing the RON. He was complaining about that during the entire flight.

When we arrived at the vicinity of our destination, there was a heavy cloud cover everywhere. The proper thing to do would have been to return to Udorn with the load. We soon found out that the pilot intended to burn up so much fuel that we couldn't fly all the way back to Udorn and would have to land in Vientiane. To do that, we flew around in circles with the pilot claiming he was trying to deliver the load.

When there was a brief opening in the cloud and we could see a little ground, he would say he thought he knew where that was and would descend into the clouds. We circled around for some time below minimum elevations, unable to see any distance ahead.

Hester and I definitely didn't like what was happening, but didn't know what to do. We put our parachutes on and considered jumping out, but we were inhibited from jumping by not being able to see a thing in any direction. The co-pilot was vomiting. Finally, we consumed enough fuel to preclude us from going all the way back to Udorn, and the pilot succeeded in remaining overnight in Vientiane.

Looking back, I certainly think we should have reported this. But we didn't. That pilot continued to fly until the final days of Air America's operations. I'm glad to say that I don't believe he's killed anyone yet.

The 55-gallon drum bomb

This one is really weird. Toward the end of Air America's operations in Southeast Asia, we would frequently spend several days at a time in Pakse, a town in southern Laos.

There seemed to be a fair amount of Pathet Lao activity in the vicinity. We provided a lot of good support there most of the time. Our operations followed the instructions of the customer.

However, on one occasion the rather unusual idea occurred to him that he could harass the enemy by dropping 55-gallon drums of burning fuel somewhere near the location where he thought they were. The jungle below gave plenty of cover and there was no way of knowing where they were actually located. As I'll explain, the idea came to an abrupt end after just a few days.

This is how it worked. A 55-gallon drum of some volatile fuel would be tied onto a pallet. I don't remember how exactly, but a tripflare would be positioned on the top of the drum. The tripping device would be activated by pulling out a cotter pin inserted into the tripping mechanism. The exposed end of the cotter pin was attached to the end of a bungee cord. The other end of the cord would be clipped to a ring on the overhead cable once it is loaded on the aircraft.

The execution of this 'bombing' operation was like any airdrop with a parachute deployed by a bungee cord. The bungee cord was long enough so that the drum was well clear of the aircraft before the flare was tripped. As part of the preparation, the bungee cord would be folded several times so as not to be dangling freely and the folds were held in place by a rubber band.

As was standard procedure, when we reached the site of the airdrop the pilot would instruct us to prepare to drop. We would lower the ramp at the rear of the aircraft to a level position, remove the rear restraint from the cargo, and roll the pallet back on the track until the drum pressed against a cut-strap.

On the final approach when we were instructed to make the drop, the aircraft would be nosed up, the drum would press harder against the cut-strap, which we would then cut with a knife, and the load would roll out of the aircraft and drop. The force of the drop would be way more than sufficient to overcome the restraint of the rubber band, and the bungee cord would extend to its full length.

The grip of the tripflare holding the cotter pin should be much stronger than that of the rubber band on the folded bungee cord. The different strengths of these described grips means that the bungee cord should be fully extended before it is sufficiently taut from the weight of the falling drum to pull the cotter pin and trip the flare. When the drum hit the ground, it would burst open, spraying out the volatile fuel, which would be immediately ignited by the burning flare.

That was it – we had started a small fire in the midst of a large, forested area that might contain some Pathet Lao troops. I never heard of the fire spreading; I'm sure the conditions were not sufficiently combustible for that. I don't think anyone has any idea what demoralizing effect this may or may not have had on the enemy.

I don't remember how many times I was on a flight that performed this particular operation, but the number was very small. Then one day we set out to do it again, and things didn't go well.

The cotter pin had not been inserted into place properly and was not snugly attached to the tripflare. It was so loose, in fact, that the very light resistance of the rubber band on the folded bungee cord was more than the resistance to removing the inserted cotter pin. As we moved the pallet back in preparation for the drop, the slight friction of the ring rubbing against the overhead cable as it moved along was stronger than the grip of the cotter pin on the tripflare.

The rubber band was no longer the weakest link and it kept the bungee folded as the shortened cord caused the improperly inserted cotter pin to be pulled loose from the tripping mechanism causing the flare to ignite.

I immediately informed the pilot, who was understandably quite disturbed to see those flames inside the aircraft right on top of the drum of volatile fuel. We made very rapid preparations to jettison immediately; the pilot raised the nose of the aircraft and I cut the strap. The cargo with its burning flare dropped out of the aircraft and a serious accident was averted. After that, this activity was wisely discontinued.

Shangri-La

It may appear that I've saved the best for last. In the summer of 1956, the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest was hit with a lot of fires to which Missoula responded by sending smokejumpers from our base to help those from the North Cascades. I was the last one on the jump list with that group.

I don't remember everything we did there, but there were so many small fires going that one morning a bunch of us boarded the DC-3 and went out to selected fires, while looking for any others that might be out there. One by one we dropped small sticks of smokejumpers on fires until we had covered all of them that we could find. When there were just three smokejumpers remaining, it seemed that we had gotten to all of the fires.

Besides me, there was Dick Tracy (MSO-53) and a new smokejumper that year named Malcolm Montgomery (MSO-56).

We were about to return to the base when smoke was spotted coming from the woods below. Since that seemed to be the end of it, it was decided that we would all three jump on this last fire. Dick Tracy and Malcolm jumped the first stick and I jumped alone on the second stick.

I should add that it's my recollection that the flight had been turbulent and the weather looked a bit dismal. Once I was out of the aircraft, everything changed.

As the din of the DC-3 faded, there remained a peaceful silence and the air was calm. The sun was shining from a cloudless sky. I had a soft landing on a meadow amidst gracious trees and mountains. Everything was in great contrast to the airplane we had just left. It reminded me of the movie 'Shangri-La.' But there was more to come.

After I had landed, Malcolm came running over to me, excitedly proclaiming that there were girls there. That didn't make sense to me because I knew that we were deep in a wilderness area.

It turned out that the smoke we had seen was coming from a campfire. A middle-aged couple were chaperoning a group of 10 pretty girls on a wilderness outing. They had a permit for their campfire. They were about as surprised to see us as we were to see them. The couple invited us to sit down for coffee.

After about 20 minutes, they thought they had better get on their way. We told them not to bother about the fire. We would put it out; that's what we came there to do. We gathered our equipment, which we left to be picked up. Then we walked 12 miles down a gently sloping trail through the woods to Lake Chelan to bring to a close an interesting interlude in what turned out to be an eventful summer.

Conclusion

I began writing these segments of my life history with writer's block. But as the picture came into better focus, submerged memories began to surface. I now feel reasonably good about the way that these written exercises have captured the flavor of my experiences.

Each facet presented here focuses on a specific part of the broader picture. I have tried to express my perceptions in their historical and cultural contexts. What has emerged are the most salient memories, facets that shed some light on what I have abstracted from a broad-based exposure to adventurous episodes that were not without inherent risk.

Some facets focus on positive and some on negative events, some attempt to be simply descriptive of the challenges faced in getting the job done, and some highlight a few missteps or accidents that just happened. These facets focus on events that tended to make longer-lasting impressions and perhaps make better stories as well; but they can also skew the big picture.

What has surprised me the most about this written undertaking is how these specific memories have surfaced and dominated in this way, while everything else has just sort of blended into an overall positive feeling about the experiences. While I can visualize the environments, the procedures for executing the jumps, dropping the cargo, remember a lot of the people and recall snippets of other activities and observations, there is little recollection of many details that could highlight the unique qualities of most of what happened.

The number of days that were covered by the events described here, if grouped, could easily fit into a single month. Combining my time as a smokejumper, Air America kicker, and loadmaster in Peru, I spent about 15

This narrative may not do proper justice to the important contributions of all the good people involved in these operations, but I hope it might provide some flavor to the historical milieu of our time. The experience of having been a smokejumper is one of great significance to all who have been there and done that. It has definitely influenced my selection of the 'road less traveled by,' as I suspect it has for many other old smokejumpers.

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.