George J. Marrett: Cheating Death

Cover of Cheating Death by George J. Marrett

Of the eight pilots in the rescue force, three would be killed on rescue missions in the next three months and one would be shot down and survive. A fortune-teller could predict that real bad days lay ahead for the 602nd squadron.

I’ve written about George J. Marrett before, when I reviewed his third volume of autobiography, Contrails Over The Mohave: The Golden Age of Jet Flight Testing at Edwards Air Force Base (2008). That volume dealt with his time as a test pilot in the Fighter Test Branch of Flight Test Operations at Edwards Air Force Base during the 1960s. He wrote his memoirs out of chronological order, and this volume, Cheating Death: Combat Air Rescues In Vietnam And Laos (2003), is the immediate sequel to Contrails Over The Mohave, despite having been written five years earlier. Between those two volumes, he wrote Testing Death: Hughes Aircraft Test Pilots And Cold War Weaponry (2006), which deals with his career as a civilian test pilot after he returned from his tour of duty in the Vietnam War. He has also written a biography of Howard Hughes, and, according to his Wikipedia page, a self-published work with the splendid title If God is your Co-Pilot, Swap Seats (2019). I know nothing about this latter work, beyond noting that the title is a joke at the expense of Robert L. Scott Jr.’s memoir, God Is My Co-Pilot (1943).

This volume begins in 1967 with Marrett, an experienced fast jet test pilot, receiving his orders to begin combat flight training in preparation for service in the Vietnam War. He is bemused to discover he’s going to train on the A-1 Skyraider—a design hangover from the Second World War, with a piston engine and a tail-wheel undercarriage, now well into its senescence. He is posted to Thailand, to join the 602nd Fighter Squadron (later the 602nd Special Operations Squadron). The A-1s of this squadron had two main roles—supporting HH-3 Jolly Green Giant helicopters during Combat Search And Rescue missions in enemy territory; and providing Forward Air Control for fast jets (F-4 Phantoms and F-105 Thunderchiefs) carrying out strikes on enemy positions.

Marrett has a spare, “this happened and then this happened” style, but his subject matter is tense enough without verbal flourishes. As with Contrails Over The Mohave, most people are introduced by their full name and rank, a sentence of biography, and a brief physical description. Character assessments are mainly reserved for those Marrett admires: “straight arrow” and “can-do attitude” are high praise. In contrast, when Marrett has reservations, he generally lets a person’s deeds speak for themselves; and those he doesn’t rate at all are kept decently anonymous.

I didn’t know a lot about the Vietnam War going into this, but I came away with a better grasp of the nature of America’s “secret war” in Laos—clandestine jungle strips and radar installations; CIA advisers working with Hmong militia against communist Pathet Lao forces; and endless efforts to shut down the heavily defended Ho Chi Minh Trail. The US presence in Laos was so “secret”, Marrett tells us, that airmen who crashed and died in Laos had their place of death listed as “Vietnam” on their military tombstones.

Marrett and his fellow pilots from the 602nd spend a lot of time flying low and slow over Laos’s mountainous jungle, either marking the location of enemy positions so that they can be attacked by “fast mover” jets, or providing support for rescue helicopters coming in to retrieve downed airmen. Since the jungle is full of Pathet Lao forces with antiaircraft weapons, this puts them in a distinctly dangerous position.

Marrett developed an antipathy to the F-4 Phantom when he flew it as a test pilot, and that antipathy continues in combat—the F-4s are always late to target, he tells us, and inaccurate in their bombing; the F-105s, on the other hand, are always timely and precise.

The predicament of downed pilots is evocatively described. Surrounded by hostile forces who will simply kill rather than capture them, they need to find a place of concealment and use a UHF radio to call in their rescue team. Many spend the night strapped to trees, high among the branches, while waiting for their daylight rescue. Some see the rescue aircraft driven away or shot down by enemy fire; some are even rescued and then shot down again.

We learn a lot, too, about the A-1 Skyraider. It can carry more ordnance than the huge B-17 Flying Fortress, famed for its daytime bombing raids over Germany during World War II. It consumes a ridiculous amount of oil, getting through a 37-gallon tank of the stuff on extended-duration missions. It’s horribly unforgiving on a go-around—a pilot who reconsiders his landing and pours on power at the last minute will find himself unable to compensate for the massive engine torque, flipping upside-down and crashing inverted. Oh … and if you’re going to crack open the cockpit in flight to spit out a bit of rotten banana (as Marrett did) you should always spit out the right side of the cockpit (as Marrett didn’t). The airflow from the clockwise-rotating propeller will shoot the mushy banana straight back into your face at very high speed if you spit to the left.

Marrett loses a lot of colleagues and friends, as the quote at the head of this post makes clear, so this can be grim reading. But there’s a leavening of humour. Marrett’s son thinks his father has been posted to Toyland, not Thailand. And Marrett’s flight home at the end of his tour of duty is twice delayed while unconscious soldiers are removed from the aircraft, having drunk themselves insensible in celebration of their own demobilization. As Marrett says, these combat veterans were going to be “extremely disappointed” when they woke up.

One, I think, for the aviation enthusiast. But if you are an aviation enthusiast, then Marrett’s narrative will hook you right in.

3 thoughts on “George J. Marrett: Cheating Death”

  1. I followed your link to his Wikipedia page and goodness me what a career! He has had to live 85 years so far to just fit it all in.

    The bit about the F-4 Phantom surprised me as I normally seem to see only complimentary reports about it. However, once again following your link, I see that your previous review gives a pretty good explanation of why he didn’t rate it as highly as others.

  2. Ah, the F-4 Phantom!
    The ultimate victory of thrust over aerodynamics!
    If you put the same engines on a Cadillac it would have the same flight characteristics, as long as you opened the doors. (According to my old senior chief…)

    It is in fact NOT a sea story that an F-4 Alert 5 bird was launched with its wings still folded and it still managed to come around and make a trap!

    Okay, humor aside…

    I am sad to announce the passing of a man who I was amazed to find out participated in an action I first read about in aviation history of Vietnam, then as part of my curriculum in ECM/ECCM school. He was a member of a Marine Corp LLRP team. (LLRP, pronounced lerp, stands for Long Range Recon Patrol. They would operate deep behind enemy lines, using enemy gear, so they could resupply from their victims. You don’t send chumps out to do that.) I knew him as the guy who was too scary to party with. He had few boundaries, as it were. He did turn his life around about five years before the end though.

    The NVA were field testing a mobile SAM for the Russians, the still dreaded SAM-6 Gainful. This was its first introduction and they snuck one 40 miles or so south of any previous significant air defenses. Parked it on the far side of a river, then the NVA attacked the Marine firebase across the way to draw in air support.

    Shot down two close air support birds and killed a bunch of Marines at the firebase.

    Sadly the SAM and the wide river gave the Russians a false sense of security. And the Marines crossed the river via low flying helicopters full of volunteers and “neutralized” it.

    This guy tells the story more personally. I brought it up and I saw the *crazy lights* light up in his eyes and I knew right away he was there!

    Allow me to paraphrase him.

    Those close air support pilots had helped that firebase so many times people in his company were naming children after them. THEN the NVA used them as bait to kill those two pilots.(Very difficult to survive a SAM 6 attack.)

    They had no problems finding volunteers to go take this SAM site.

    And as Terry told it, “This was not a prisoners taking mission, so we didn’t!” Not even the “advisors and tech support” were spared.

  3. A lot of people who flew the F-4 did seem to like it. The Smithsonian “Air Warriors” episode dealing with the F-4 featured a lot of air combat veterans extolling its virtues, for instance.
    I guess there may be a reporting error involved, though. Firstly, if you hated your F-4, you maybe wouldn’t want to be interviewed, or if you were interviewed you maybe wouldn’t be broadcast.
    Then there’s the issue of what happened to any pilots who did run into instability problems. How many are still around to talk about it?

    It’s a bit like all those reports of dolphins gently nudging struggling swimmers towards land. I always wonder if we’re just not hearing from all the struggling swimmers the dolphins nudged away from land.

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