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War Stories

Backpack and the Tire Tread Sandals

Billy Blackmon - 165th Cambat Avaition Group - Air Traffic Controller


Until I met with Eric Brethan and JC Carnathan in 2000 in Tampa Florida this is the one story I thought I dreamed.They verified that I did not; it happened.

We talked over an early lunch and through a late supper at two different restaurants and a neighbor bar. I did not know at the time of the event that Eric was in the Cobra but he and JC confirmed that he was.

We had been working an area of heavy jungle. Another Centaur Hunter Killer team was working an adjacent area. Their LOACH had killed a guy on a bicycle. I do not remember working the deck that close to another Hunter Killer team prior to this. The LOACH’s were really close to each other’s area and the other team asked Carnathan to verify the kill.

As we passed low over the body (as low as the jungle would permit) we could see him clearly. He had a backpack and on it were a pair of tire tread sandals. Those sandals were a big time war trophy to me and I had them on my mind when Carnathan said over the intercom “we could get some glory if we could get that backpack. He’s got to be a courier” He then asked if I would go while they covered me. He said he thought it had just happened and one of the LOACHs had pretty much had the body in sight since he was killed. (Meaning there had been no time or opportunity for anyone to booby trap him). I said hell yes I will go.

Carnathan told the Cobra what we were going to try to do. We had to get fairly far away to descend close enough to the ground for me to get out. With Jerry McGlothen on the M60 I didn’t give any thought to taking a weapon or a grenade. My best shot was to hustle over and back and I had more confidence in him on the 60 than in me (that’s saying a lot with my ego in that time and place).

I was running hunched over and looked back to see the LOACH elevate to improve their ability to shoot over me. I could hear short bursts and began to see small leaf fragments waft down around me like a strange green rain. There was a dip in the terrain. The leafy rain was so odd. As I neared the body the rain intensified and the little pieces fell in a slow wobbly fashion. I got the backpack and for one terrified second thought sure I was going to be blown to smithereens as I pulled if from his hand. It didn’t blow up and in relief I looked back from where I was kneeling and grinned. I could see Carnathan waving frantically for me to return and the cut leaves were falling.

The M60 was firing a stream now no bursts and the tracers were undulating as he moved the fire. I knew this was bad and I ran hunched way over. I heard a tremendous noise behind me and looked up to see the Cobra explode with weapons fire and I thought damn I am gonna die when he falls on me. The world was exploding with tracers and contrails from above. I looked up following the fire to see the belly of our Cobra almost stopped at a high hover over me with fire pouring from the mini gun and the 20MM and the last rockets going out.

I got to the LOACH with my prize and we lifted instantly and radically turned out as we cleared the trees. Carnathan said on the intercom that the Cobra could see fire coming in on me from 3 places. I was seeing those 3 guns and McGlothens 60 cutting the foliage creating the leaf rain. By some odd dip in the ground (and I was running in a slight depression) they were all shooting a little high and with my bent stance all were missing me. The Cobra brought an end to all incoming fire. I am certain he killed them all with that insane firepower and the explosions.

Eric asked Carnathan (now we are at a restaurant those many years later) if that was the backpack with the Chi Com (Chinese communist) grenade in it. Carnathan affirmed that it was and that it had gotten glory due to its paper contents. Eric then confirmed that it was him in the Cobra. He said he had only seen two crewmen get out of a helicopter under circumstances like that and that I was one of them.

Ironic that on an earlier tour he almost killed me with a mini gun misfiring into the tower and later he absolutely saved me with one. I have no doubt as I write this that I was lucky he was there that day or I wouldn’t be writing now. I remember breathing hard and I am as write this just a little bit. JC wanted to put me in for a medal for that day but due to the standing order prohibiting Air Traffic Controllers from flying combat missions I declined. I wish now I had taken it.

The sandals were stolen by an Air Force cargo crew on my trip back to the States along with my bush hat with a pin from most of the grenades I dropped on its crown (if that’s the part that fits your head, not the brim). I am sure some Zoomie showed my hard won trophies to his kids claiming them as his own. What a disgusting crime that is.

BlackmonAwardAbout a month after our meeting in Tampa something showed up in the mail that is more precious than any of that to me. I received a citation that clearly states it isn’t real but is an honorable Distinguished Flying Cross created by Eric and JC. With it was the only remaining original DFC medal from among Eric’s seven, complete with its tattered box.

I state here and to anyone who asks that this medal is not mine but it is my great honor to store it in my den on his behalf and for him. It is technically and should be illegal for me to say it’s mine so I never have and never will. The written accolade from them is however mine and is my only tangible proof of so many events other than the verification of those still living who were with me.