For those of you who may have followed the blog over the past couple of years, there have been occasional references to "Rocky." Obviously, that is not his real name. Although we never use surnames in order to protect innocent descendants, a greater measure of anonymity or even deniability is needed in Rocky's case. Therefore, we will only use his nickname as many people did not know his stuffy given name much less his surname. In the Spies, Soldiers, War Correspondents and Reporters blog of August 15, 2016, the author closed with a hint that it was time to tell the Rocky story as he was truly a legend that few people either knew or would be willing to relate that part of history.
Rocky could best be described as a fearless, but careful soldier of fortune, who did everything his way, as it was the only way. He was born in 1924 and we can fast forward to the time in 1945 that a special forces officer had Rocky released from Leavenworth prison where he was serving a life sentence following an altercation with a military police officer in an attempted arrest. Rocky was pardoned in return for "volunteering" to join the parachute jump in France on D-Day. He subsequently served in the OSS, the predecessor to the CIA, until he became a full-time pilot for Air America and ultimately Continental Air Services.
The bond between Rocky and Fred came to pass when Rocky and three other pilots were thrown out of their house following a rowdy party in Vientiane, Laos in the early 60's. Rocky came into the Constellation Hotel looking for a room and Fred said Rocky could come live with him in his villa. Other than the two-year interregnum when Fred was banished to Borneo following the incident with the U.S. Ambassador to Laos (see My Friend Fred blog of April 23, 2016), Rocky lived with Fred for the next seven years in Laos and Vietnam. To the chagrin of the Esso employee relations manager, Rocky never paid any share of the rent for Fred's houses but Fred thought his access to Rocky's unlimited PX military privileges for booze and cigarettes substantially reduced his Esso cost of living allowance. That may have only been a personal justification as Esso gave all of us the same cost of living allowances.
You may have heard that Rocky's diet of choice was jalapenos and Jack Daniels. In the early morning, he would pour the remaining Jack from the previous day into the can of jalapeno juice, polish it off and then hop on his bicycle at 5:00 am to pedal out to Tan Sa Nhut airport in Saigon to fly his mission for the day. It was his special breakfast smoothie and who would ever fly those missions sober? A story Rocky told on himself was one morning five Vietnamese walked out onto the street wearing black pajamas, the high fashion apparel of the Viet Cong. It turns out they were not Viet Cong but Rocky said it took the "jaws of life" to extract the bicycle seat from his back side.
I have a photo of Rocky and Fred taken at Fred's home bar with Rocky wearing his favorite tie. Fred looks a bit younger here than any of the other photos we have shown.
On April 25, 1975 Rocky flew our friend Dick into Saigon to extract a younger brother and sister of Dick's Vietnamese wife. For months, we had smuggled $100 bills into Saigon from Singapore to get "proper" exit visas for the kids. At the last minute, a Vietnamese friend and associate said if Dick would come to Saigon, he could get them out.
As all commercial flights into Saigon had been terminated, Rocky flew Dick from Singapore to Saigon in a Continental Air Services C-47. The C-47 was the military combat work horse from WWII and the same type of aircraft our friend Tom Claytor will fly over the Hump. It was ironic that Rocky gained his life back by parachuting into France thirty years before from a C-47 to then make one of the last landings of one in Saigon. Moreover, both flights were the beginnings of the end of two wars -- one that ended in a victory and the other in an embarrassing defeat.
Dick's understanding was Rocky would wait with Dick until the kids made it to the airport and everyone would fly out that afternoon. However, given the mass hysteria and pandemonium outside the airport, it was clear that the program might be delayed a bit, if not days. Rocky told Dick there was a change of plans and he was ordered out by the aircraft owners as the future for the Ton Sa Nhut airport was not bright.
Dick chose to hold out in the USAID hut at the airport. The kids were ultimately delivered and the Esso Vietnamese driver handed Dick the $5,000 in $100 bills we had smuggled in over the previous several months. War time chaos overshadows all visa requirements particularly when there is no government. Dick was evacuated out in one of the final flights and stayed with the kids through the refugee camps in Guam until they could be cleared to go to the U.S. Now, Rocky had massive courage to fly into war zones but he was not crazy and picked his fights, albeit not always wisely. Dick showed huge bravery to stay and take his chances with the "unfriendly folk" whenever they made their way to the airport.
Four days after Dick and the kids were evacuated, the North Vietnamese drove their tanks into the presidential palace in Saigon and the war was officially over.
Shortly before this particular day, Fred and I attended an Air America "farewell to Vietnam" party in Saigon. As I looked around the bar at the pilots, I wondered what they were going to do following the inevitable and apparent imminent fall of South Vietnam that the U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam failed to recognize. Flying for normal commercial airlines required sobriety tests, discipline and a measure of decorum they would never be able to either pass or muster. My guess was that some of them would go to Africa and participate as mercenary pilots in the various wars of liberation and the others would look to fly cargo out of Mexico and the developing covert trade with Columbia.
Well, in between Fred's Asian tour and his fifteen year African safari in Niger, Chad and Somalia, he was in my office in Houston and said, "Let's call Rocky." I looked at the number and it was a Corpus Christi area code. A guy answered and asked who was calling and Fred told him. The guy said Rocky would get back to him on my office phone and he did so almost immediately.
Fred asked him where he was and he said he would rather not say. He related how he was loading cargo in Mexico to fly into Texas and there was a major disturbance with some guys and guns that got out of hand. Rocky originally thought they were home town boys though they turned out to be enforcement agents from north of the border which added a different dimension to the gravity of the incident.
Well, Rocky went into retirement and made his way to a spot in the state of Washington just south of the British Columbia border where he lived off the grid with early warning devices. Should anyone have intruded into his private haven, he could have slipped across the border to the "safety" of Canada. Despite a few bumps in the road, Rocky was a patriot to the end.
Fred chose to retire as his final tour in Somalia got him down. He and Dao have since divided their time between their residences in Hua Hin, Thailand and Seattle. Word has it that on occasion old friends would join the fugitive at Thanksgiving until Rocky passed in 2001 at the ripe old age of 77. Who would have ever thought his string of near misses would have held and he lasted that long? Maybe Jack Daniels and jalapeno juice qualifies as a health drink.