Grant Lannon

The American War in Viet Nam From a Pilot’s Perspective

Profilers: Aimee Chantrasmi, Christopher Datlof, Daniel Ing

Part 1: The Interview


My name is Robert, I go by Grant Lannon and I was born in Syracuse, New York. I was raised there for five years, then we went to Iowa for five years and then we came back to Syracuse.
I finished high school in a suburb of Syracuse called DeWitt. I got involved with the U.S. Air Force because I was on a school bus and a guy in the class ahead of me was talking about flying and I thought, well, if he can fly, I can fly. And that was a life changing thought. I sold my electric trains and used the money to start flying lessons when I was 15. As a result of being a pilot already, my mother was looking for a free place for a college education, so I tried out.

How did you feel about the spread of communism before the war? [1:19]

At the Air Force Academy, we learned that communism was totally evil and we had courses in that. And I felt that way too, because I knew that the Soviet Union was trying to take over the world, basically. After I went through the F100 school, I thought I was going to be a fighter pilot, but two thirds of the way through the school, they picked out about a third of us and said, “You’re going to be forward air controllers and you’re going to be flying light planes and you’re going to be directing air strikes”.

What year were you deployed to Vietnam? [1:51]

I was assigned in the spring of 1967 and left in the spring of 1968. And a lot of things happened while I was there. First, I was assigned to the 2nd Brigade of the 9th Infantry, which was known as the Mobile Riverine Force in the Delta. I was at a base called Đồng Tâm, which is just west of Mỹ Tho. On the river. I was dredged out of the Mỹ Tho river. The problem with that was every time it rained, it [the mud] tried to go back into the river.

The Mobile Riverine Force was a combined Army, Navy and Air Force that went after the Viet Cong that were in the [Mekong] Delta. So we had Navy ships that took the Army troops to where they would get on their boats to make a landing. The Navy also had special boats for the enemy, including what was called the monitor. It was actually like the monitor in the Civil War. It had a rotating turret with a cannon on it, and it was an armored ship. So we were the forward air controllers and we watched the operation from the air. And if they ran into trouble or they needed air power, then through our resources, we would call in the air power and direct them on to where to drop their ordinates on the enemy.

By the way, we also did a lot of reconnaissance and we lived in hooches, which are wooden slatted huts with metal tarps. So we were kind of just like the Army, but we were in more sophisticated quarters because it was permanent, they were in tents a lot of the time. We were next to a field hospital, if you’ve ever seen MASH, it was a MASH unit.

I was there for six months and then I was transferred to Quảng Ngãi Tam Kỳ to support the Vietnamese Army instead of U.S. forces. I was there for three months and the Tet Offensive started in January of ‘68. Our bases were overrun, so we had to move to the coast, to another U.S. base. So we basically abandoned our base before the NVA [North Vietnamese Army] and the Viet Cong took it over. At that time, I volunteered to fly in support of Khe Sanh during the siege. So I was moved to Da Nang Air Force Base, and I flew missions out of Da Nang in support of Khe Sanh during the siege.

When I first started out, I was flying the O-1 in the Delta and it’s a single engine, light airplane. We had marking rockets on it, white phosphorus rockets, that we could mark the targets with once we found them. It was very easy to see out of because it’s a two place airplane with a front and a back seat. Sometimes we could carry other spotters, like for naval artillery from boats in the Gulf. Then when I moved to Quảng Ngãi, I went to the twin engine O-2, which is another Cessna airplane. And it’s a four place airplane, but in the back we had a lot of radios and everything.

What was life like when you returned home? Was the transition back to civilian life easy or how was it? And did you feel/face any adversity coming back to the U.S. after the war? [5:37]

My transition wasn’t to civilian life because I was a career officer. So when I came back, it was just getting another assignment within the military, because since I stayed in the military community, there was no pushback against what I had done in Vietnam. So I went to Strategic Air Command and flew tankers. I did have a little trauma because I was used to directing the air battle. And (SAC) Strategic Air Command, they had a lot of rules and everything, and for somebody who was used to making his own decisions, that was a little tough on me. They were also short of people, so we were on alert with tankers in case there was a threatened nuclear strike. So the B-52s and the bombers could go to the Soviet Union and bomb them, and we would refuel them on the way over. And we were on alert with them. Normally you pulled alert for four days and you got three days off. But sometimes if you were short of people, then it was back to back. You spent much more time on alert, and that was just all the people in one shack waiting for the klaxon to go off so you could run to your airplanes and take off. That was a little tough on the families because you didn’t have regular time off, and we were short of people.

Looking back on the war, was America’s involvement justified and did you agree with the War? [7:15]

Yes, I agreed with the war, and I agreed with the war even after I left Vietnam. The U.S. strategy was containment, and that was to inhibit the Communists from expanding their influence over other countries. And Vietnam did that. I went back to Vietnam in 2007 on overseas adventure tours. Started in the North at their Capital, and went through Saigon and ended up in the Delta, where I started. I went to some of the places that were very close to the bases that I flew out of, and we interacted with the Vietnamese people, and even some of the ex-NVA soldiers. I even ended up in this soldier’s house who captured Saigon, I think it’s called Ho Chi Minh City now. We had a great time with all the people on the tour and everything, and all of us ended up singing “You Are My Sunshine” together in his house. I learned [that] all the people were friendly, even the people that were in North Vietnam were friendly. I had a really good feeling when I came back, after going back.

How do you feel about the general media portrayal of the war and do you agree with it? [8:50]

Well, during the war I think they were instrumental in causing the defeat because they were totally biased in their reporting and they indicated that we were losing the war. So they were a major factor in us negotiating a settlement and saying that we were defeated. And I certainly didn’t agree with that at all. Since then, there have been a few movies that are pretty good, you know, like I told you about Bat*21, for forward air controller representation.

Have you visited the Vietnam War Memorial? If yes, what was your reaction? [9:33]

Yes, I’ve been there more than once. I remember the controversy when they were building it, that it was below ground, and it was degrading the people who went to Vietnam. But it’s a unique memorial. It’s well done. And yes, I know some names on the wall, so I’m fine with going there.

Are there any lasting effects from the war that you still feel today? [9:56]

I feel bad about the people that lost their lives there. It was the politicians that lost the war. And I feel bad of the people that died. But, I think we did do the strategy of containment as long as we could, given the bias of the politicians. So I’m proud of my service in Vietnam.

Part 2: Follow-up Conversation



What was your experience with Agent Orange? How did that impact you during the war? Do you still feel these impacts today? [1:03]

It didn’t impact me.  I haven’t seen any symptoms of Agent Orange poisoning, but I  am in the  risk group category with the VA.  So if any of the diseases occur, it can be attributed to Agent Orange, then the VA will provide medical care for me. When I was escorting the missions  in the O1, I was always above the spray plane. But they sprayed a lot in the Rung side, just south of Saigon so that they could destroy the  vegetation. And the ships going in and out of Saigon would be safe. I mean, they could see anybody that was going to attack. 

You did mention that last time you went to Vietnam, you actually saw someone there that you believe may have been disfigured because of Agent Orange. Could you potentially tell me a little bit about that?  [2:13]

You know, it’s hard for me to remember exactly what her problem was. I remember she was  begging, but I think she was disfigured. But I just don’t remember the details. Yeah, I think she was a child, you know, a child of somebody that was affected by Agent Orange. 

What did the Mobile Riverine Force do?  [2:50]

 It was all operations the Delta. So they used the boats and the armored boats to land the troops on land, it was amphibious operations.  They landed the troops and then they supported them from the river, if they went inland. All of the boats were in the bay there that was dredged out of the river.  So it was a joint  Air Force, Army, Navy, exercise as we even pulled duty on the command post on the motorized barge, but it was like an LCT. So we coordinated airstrikes through the command post on the ship, wherever they were, and we pulled duty on that.  So it’s actually the first time I ever pulled duty on a Navy ship.

What is an LST? [4:06]

It’s like a landing ship. In World War Two, they had a very large front that came down and they could offload equipment from the ship. 

Did you conduct surveillance of people that lived in boats within the Mekong Delta? [4:30] 

Yeah, we were always doing reconnaissance missions. And if we saw anything suspicious,  then we could report back,  you know, when the mission was over. Or if we were threatened,  we could call in an air strike and put an air strike in on them.  Occasionally we would fire rockets at them.  We only had marking rockets and thus we could get high explosive rockets from the Army.  But  it was all aimed at deterring them. And there were a lot of zones that there weren’t supposed to be any people in. So  if you saw activity in those zones,  then you could report that or put an air strike in on it if it was significant. 

Highly explosive rounds: Was that like something that you were allowed to do i.e. put high explosive rounds on your plane? And, if you saw someone that just didn’t seem like they’d be like, you were allowed to use those, to use lethal force? [5:26]

We were allowed to use lethal force, but we weren’t, in general, carrying high explosive rockets. We carried marking rockets because we could call in an airstrike.  So it wasn’t like we were out there trying to start a battle all on our own. We were just a support. 

So whenever you were actually doing reconnaissance, was there anything else that you were looking for, that would potentially make people look suspicious or something like that? [6:10]

Well, if we saw a concentration of people that looked like they were in military uniforms, you know,  that would be suspicious. And normally we had  access to where the friendlies were and everything. And any unusual river traffic or anything that looked like it could be a military operation.  Then we  could either take action or report it back.  

And then you also mentioned during the previous interview those who hooches that you lived in. Would you mind just going a little bit to like what those who just were? [6:55]

They were generally, at one end they had a closed room for meeting and, and like an officer’s club for relaxing and with drinks afterward. But the rest of it was open and everybody had a bunk and lockers next to their bunk. So you didn’t have a private room and those, and they were wooden on the side, and normally they either had tents on the top or a metal roofing on the top  So it was pretty basic living. The room at the end had an air conditioner in it most times. So if you overheated, you could go in there. But we slept with the temperatures that existed on the outside. In other  locations, we had rooms and buildings. But in the Delta, at Dong Tam, everybody pretty much lived in hooches.  And they actually had inflatable Quonset huts that they used for the hospital,  and it turned out that wasn’t such a good idea because when you had mortar rounds coming in, the shrapnel would put holes in the inflatable Quonset hut and it would collapse. So they put sandbags up pretty high around it, so shrapnel from the mortar rounds hitting the base would be less likely to hit the inflatable hutches. But they were not a success, when you put them in a combat zone.

Whenever you were actually in Vietnam, did you ever encounter any enemies, or what you would classify as enemies, face to face? [8:58]

No, not face to face. I was out on one mission and this was at Quang Ngai, near the coast  and  I was a little bored and I saw some fishermen on the dikes, so I made a rocket run on them, never intending to fire anything.  And several trees started moving. And it turns out it was a Viet Cong squad that was down there in camouflage. And I managed to spot where they were hiding, and I did put a helicopter strike in on them. And then the South Vietnamese were having lunch, not far from where I was. And after all the action started,  they came down and swept the zone and found that the V.C. that were killed. 

Were you ever shot at? Or did you ever have any mortar rounds dropped nearby you while you were in Vietnam? [10:08]

Oh yeah, in Dong Tam, we got mortared quite a bit and we had a trench that we could go to for  cover.  We also had artillery right next to the hooch, and they could reply if they could detect where the mortar rounds were coming from.  And that happened fairly often. But a lot of times the artillery officers,  we had one or five howitzers right on the base, they would fire at random spots where they thought there might be enemy trying to get close enough to mortar us.  And  that was pretty successful because they were afraid to move at night because they never knew if an artillery shell was  going to hit them when they were traveling. And then that artillery officer was transferred  and the new one decided he wasn’t going to waste the ammunition on shooting at night. We started getting mortared pretty regularly there for a while.  When I was at Dong Tam,  the NVA  had a major rocket attack on our fuel depot  and it erupted and flames and explosions and everything. And I was there for that. 

 Weren’t you also at the battle of Khe Sanh? What was that like? [11:49]

The Marines and their support people were trapped in Khe Sanh. And there were outlying hills that the US had occupied, and some of those had artillery on them to protect Khe Sanh. But they were attacked all the time and then the NVA and the V.C  would dig trenches to get to the perimeter of the base, and if we could see them working to do that, we would put airstrikes in on them and stop them from  trying to get close to the base.  One time at Khe Sanh, I was flying  just to the west of the base and some 37 millimeter anti aircraft came up on both sides of the airplane, and this was in the daytime. They were tracer rounds  and they exploded above me. And luckily they didn’t hit the airplane I turned around and I could see where the gun site was.  So I called in some 105s that were returning from up north, and they said I was crazy for attacking a gun site.They weren’t interested.  But the F100 that were stationed in country, they were interested in doing that and they bombed the site. And I thought  the bombs were right on target  and I gave them a kill for the site.  But then after they left, the site came back up. But I guarantee you, nobody in that site had eardrums any more.

Part 3: Follow-up Conversation


If you look up the attack on Lang Vei,  when the NVA came down with tanks, that was an outpost. And the tanks overran the base and the people that were on the base went into their  bunkers which were underground and managed to avoid being killed. Not all of them. A lot of them were killed. But the U.S. Marines organized a rescue mission, and they went in and  cleared a channel to get them out. And they did get a lot of them out, even though they were totally surrounded.  And that started it at night. And I could see the NVA artillery across the river in Laos, on the side of a ridge. And I tried to get an air strike to put in on them,  but I couldn’t get air at that time.  So they were  attacking with artillery also. But I was there when the tanks overran the outpost.  

And of all of the battles or all the places that you were located,  which one of those battles impacted you the most or was most notable to you? [1:31]

Well, I volunteered for Khe Sanh, it was certainly a major battle,  so  I felt I had an effect there.  It was rewarding.  

Do you know anyone, was there anyone within your group, or any friends that you had in Vietnam that were actually killed? [2:06]

No, there was nobody and none of my friends were killed. There were friends that were killed elsewhere, but I was not stationed with anybody that was killed. And when I first went to Da Nang, not everybody had air conditioned quarters. So I managed to  get permission from  somebody to occupy the room of a fighter pilot that was missing in action. And all his stuff was still there.  So I stayed in his room for quite a while.  I don’t know if they ever found him. 

During the Tet Offensive, what was your experience of having all the bases around you overrun  and overall, like how were the troops affected by that? Because, the Tet Offensive was obviously a massive turning point in the war. So  how was  U.S. morale  affected or just overall, like how did people feel whenever that did occur? [3:13]

Well, I think the morale was good  as far as we were concerned. We just loaded up our airplanes with our ground personnel and equipment and moved to a base on the coast. So we were out of there before the enemy overran the base where we were. But I understand they did shoot the maids that we had  in the leg, you know, just to teach them a lesson for supporting U.S. troops. So I never came close to being on the front lines, as a result of that. They were people up north  that were totally surrounded.  I can’t remember the base where they were just fighting for existence. It included forward air controllers, too.  It was up north.  But of course, the battle of Khe Sanh intensified with Tet, so that’s why I volunteered to go up there  just to help out. And I landed once there, but it got so bad that it was too dangerous to land there, and we supported it out of Da Nang. We flew up there from Danang  and we never landed there again.

At Khe Sanh, did you ever feel like that was accurate or did you feel like the Marines always had a relatively good hold on what was going on? And the media just kind of spun out of control?  [5:23]

No, it was always a risk  that they would be overrun. But they certainly had a lot of air power  and they had good artillery support even from the surrounding hills where these outposts, these artillery outpost, these guys were just a very small area with artillery and they managed to not be overrun. But we put a massive amount of bombs, even the B-52 strikes went in there and killed a lot of people.

Did you feel like the base was actually anywhere close to being overrun? [6:33]

Well, I wasn’t close enough to, you know, if I’d been on the ground, I might have felt that way. But I didn’t get any intelligence that indicated it was going to be. 

Is there anything else that you feel like would be notable to mention about your time in Vietnam? Or Of any of the places you were stationed in Vietnam?  [6:53]

I think Khe Sanh was the biggest battle I was involved in. The rest of them were  small military operations,  The Mobile Riverine Force events, the amphibious warfare was very interesting  and they did a good job. They put the troops in and took up objectives and then put them back on the ships. And  there was one battle, where we went up right in the middle of the night. We were called up and we had fighters, but it was very hard to see where the target was.S o we were talking to the people on the ground, and there were fires that had already been started in  the battle.  And we used the fires  as landmarks to put the fighter bombers on the target. And of course, the enemy had no idea that we could hit them because it was so dark. And one of the leaders of that came to our base at Dong Tam and described what they found the next morning when they went through the area that the enemy, the VC, were in and they found bodies and rifles and armaments in the trees where they’d been blown apart and up into the vegetation. So we did a pretty good job there with not being able to see the target. The North Vietnamese were ready to surrender after the B-52 strikes not being over able to overrun Khe Sanh. The B-52s were bombing up north too, so their morale was pretty bad and the word was that after the war  that they were ready to surrender.

But Nixon, on whatever information he was getting, decided to call a truce and negotiate a settlement.  But they were  ready to surrender.  And there’s a good book called “Vietnam, this time we win”, it’s got a lot of information as to what the actual situation was when we negotiated a peace settlement. Of course, there was a lot of pressure from home, too, from the media and the anti war people . So we didn’t see any of that. But I thought the military aspect, of the fact that the North Vietnamese were ready to surrender and lose the war. I thought that was very interesting.

I do also recall that after the US actually withdrew from South Vietnam, it took only a couple of weeks for North Vietnam to end up actually overrunning the South. So did you ever feel like maybe the U.S. was like what was overall holding together South Vietnam? What do you think went wrong to where the North Vietnamese were able to take over the South so quickly after the U.S. ended up leaving it? [10:29]

Well, one of the major factors was the Democrats refused to provide the South Vietnamese with armaments after we left. That was a major factor. So I’m sure it encouraged the North Vietnamese that they would be unobstructed and that’s why they did it. But from what I read, the South Vietnamese were short of armaments and ammunition and the things that we had supplied them for years.  

So after the war, you ended up mentioning that you actually returned to Vietnam. Why did you feel compelled to go back to Vietnam? Was there a specific reason? Why did you end up going back? [11:50]

Just to see what it was like now under communist rule.  And the tour was very, very good.

How did you feel that the communists actually did in regards to take Vietnam? After you went back and visited, did you feel like Vietnam was doing well overall, or did you feel  like if there was a different government in place that it probably would have been better? [12:13]

It looked like the country was in pretty good shape. Of course, after the Russians left, and they were supporting the North Vietnamese. I guess the rule was pretty strict during that period.  But after they withdrew,  then  the Vietnam regime lightened up. The biggest feeling I had was that they appreciated Americans on the way they tried to conduct the war, especially the South Vietnamese. But even the ex-North Vietnamese  soldiers realized that there were a lot of good things that the Americans had tried to do while they were there.  I didn’t find them unfriendly at all, I told you I went to a house of an NVA soldier that took over the presidential palace.  Even he was friendly.  But since I’ve heard because of friends of Judy,  she has a massage therapist that’s from Vietnam, that the Chinese are really dominating Vietnam now and they are resentful of that. And if they had to choose sides,  I know they picked the U.S.

So you did also mention that you ended up in a soldier’s house that captured Saigon. Was that the guy you just mentioned at the presidential palace? [14:28]

Yes.  And he was very friendly. Actually, even the people up north were friendly. I think after living under heavy communist rule, they realized even those that weren’t directly involved with the Americans, that the Americans were trying to do the right thing and they wanted to live in a freer society.  

You mentioned you had a good feeling overall after the war. Why was that? What did you feel specifically? [15:13]

We supported the strategy of containment  and kept the communists from expanding, which is not the case nowadays.  And so that was the overall strategy. And I felt that we had done a good job at trying to keep South Vietnam free. And that was rewarding. I know a lot of Veterans were traumatized by their experience in Vietnam. I’m sorry about that,  but I didn’t see that after I came back because I was still in the military, so I was in a familiar surrounding and wasn’t trying to adjust to “normal civilian” life. So it wasn’t very traumatic for me to come back and just resume my career.  



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