Kenneth R. Whitley
“SHITFIRE” AND THE COBRA
Ken “Shitfire” Whitley and the Cobra
Ken receiving DFC
A. Laird: My Original Crew Chief
Stockstill: My Crew Chief
“Smiling Tigers” Unit PatchI was delighted the day I became an Aircraft Commander for the first time, over in South Vietnam, because after that, my name was painted boldly on the side of my very first Cobra gunship. It didn’t matter that she was the oldest, beat up ole hog in our entire company fleet of twelve ships. She was lighter than those newer models – so she lifted more weight by hauling more fuel and ammo. When I got her she’d already flown over one thousand hours of hard combat time. The painted color of her skin was darker in shade than other aircraft within our Company or anywhere I looked over there. She stood out. Old and battered she was.
The weapons systems on board her were different also. On her short stubby wings rode two, Air Force, pod type, mini-guns with six spinning barrels each. These weapons had zero jamming difficulties which differed greatly from their Army version linked ammo type that quit far to often because those links got bent or slipped out of place. I had an Army version in the nose turret so she had three mini-guns that could at her best fire twelve thousand bullets a minute. We usually carried less than five minutes of mini-gun bullets because of their weight.
“Three-four-zero” carried fifty-eight, seventeen pound rockets and a large metal storage canister of three hundred grenades that fired empty in one minute where hidden inside our ammo bay below her cockpit. Death on skids she was as clearly to me as she was to my enemy.
I’d heard a whispering voice from her when I approached her the first time as her new aircraft commander – “Lets go get ‘em.”
My official call sign was “Smiling Tiger Three-Four” and my Cobra’s last three numbers were similar at three four zero. My real call sign was “Shitfire” a nickname that matched her perfectly. That machine had bullet hole patches over her bullet hole patches that were scattered throughout her thin aluminum skull. The further one looked back toward the tail rotor the more common those pea green bullet hole patches appeared. I once counted seventy-five patches just in the far rear tail boom alone. It was so noticeable in the tail boom area that tower operators around South Vietnam commented about it when I was refueling or rearming.
She, also, had a landing light located up front in her nose cone, that those newer birds from America didn’t have any longer. I felt I needed that light as a security blanket and used it often during my long and scary night flights. “Three-four-zero” carried me most of the way through my first 365 days in South Vietnam. Later as I grew more dominate in our company I was offered newer aircraft, complete with air conditioning, which I without ended turned down.
I flew that ship during my stay there until I couldn’t fly her any longer. It wasn’t her fault. No sir. I had loved that ole bucket of bent bolts as much as a man could love an inanimate, no that’s not the right word, she was my animate beast of burden that lived within me. She had stayed under me when I’d received my Distinguished Flying Cross. She had taken me with little fuss through a direct hit lightning strike, my awful takeoffs, difficult landings and those many overblown dangers about which most human beings cannot fathom from peaceful places.
Cursing her was a daily event. Loving her strongly with full human emotion was an hourly happening. I spoke to that grand ole lady as if she were my living and breathing wife from hell. She was so much more than a “tool of death enemy or rescue for Americans” to this ole country boy. Breathing fire was her heartbeat as she rolled over into a gun run dive as if she wanted me to rub her belly.
No matter what happened – she never refused my advance. She always returned us pitiful crewmembers to a friendly base even though she was often crippled and tired of our senseless fighting. There were times when that danged thing got so cranky that I had to inform it specifically that I was boss. I was king here baby.
That ole bird gave me some hard time bitching but somehow through multicolored trailing rows of smoke she’d bring us back. She’d limp, lean over, whine and grind out a mechanical song of pining as if her battle damages were going to win this time. Those loud banging sounds outside that clashed with the relative wind mixed along with multicolored flashing Christmas tree warning lights on my cockpit dash didn’t help me stay calm either. Those lights were always accompanied by loud horns honking in my headset trying disparately to get overloaded attention. We two crewmembers inside her at least during one weekly adventure caused us to sweat blood all the way home. That was her way though, when I flew her, and that’s what really counted in combat. We pilots at times were literally scared to death in her cockpit but all the while she’d be just as calm as a wife being caught flirting. But inside Vietnam in 1968-69 she “WAS” my best buddy.
I often went down on days off to help my crew chief, wash and wax her. It didn’t help much. She was still the ugliest insect circling the light bulb. She knew it, too. But I refused to give up on my namesake bird.
I’m sure the enemy trembled when we arrived at their scene. Two bonded systems, mechanical and flesh and bone fused as one entity, arriving to hand our capable enemy a hard time with her sledgehammer deluxe weapons system.
On her final day of fighting in my company, while in heavy combat, a large enemy bullet pierced her exactly where my name was painted on her outside skin. It added to the personal insult felt from her demise. That shell entered at a forty-five degree angle, upward, cutting through a large electrical cable as big as one’s arm running to and fro from her cockpit area back to the engine compartment behind our cockpit. That cockpit instantly filled with heavy smoke as fast as one could say “Jack Frost” and then just as suddenly she lost her electrical soul. As usual though, she didn’t care much about these minor difficulties and managed to bring her crew home safely, once again. Upon her return to our company the mechanics and maintenance officers argued about what to do with her after the serious wound. Our futures would soon part forever because it would take nine hundred man-hours of manual labor to fix her electrical system. Our maintenance department decided it too time consuming so decided to send her off to a distant peaceful place to get repaired where enemy mortars and rockets wouldn’t impede her repair effort.
I was miserable when I heard their plan. So was my crew chief – Stockstill. We both kept an insignificant piece of her to honor her loyalty and her great sacrifices toward saving her crew. Maintenance hooked her up to a sling load cable as I stood and watched from a distance. A Chinook helicopter arrived from Saigon. That Chinook was going to haul HER forever away from me. “Smiling Tiger Three-Four-Zero” had a medical discharge out of D-229th, First Cavalry Division (AirMobile).
My crew chief and I stood together and observed as they hooked her up and left with her twisting fitfully under their belly as if fighting her restraints. She slowly settled down the spin and then faded ever so slow out of view off into our Eastern horizon. We had grimy tears rolling down our sad faces. As we looked at each other we saw the other war weary face now made up with trails of clear, running down the red dirt war mask, that we each wore.
Then without choice I flew in air-conditioned comfort and thought about those good old days when I used to sweat inside my favorite combat ride. War just wasn’t the same with air conditioning. A man should be forced to sweat while killing other human beings.
I found out decades later the Army had fixed 66-15340 and sent her back into combat. She went further north that time than where I’d been fighting the enemy in 1969.
There are two names on the Washington D. C. Vietnam War Memorial that died inside her. She was destroyed at the same time as they. WO1 James Lee Paul, and WO1 Carl Mitchell Wood took her to where none survived – not even my dream machine.
My dearest bird had fought until her last breath of fire, and then with no fight left in her, she perished. I cannot now visit her resting site because her rusted and broken bones are strewn across some forgotten battlefield of Vietnam.
©Copyright December 2000 by Kenneth R. Whitley