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Interview with Allan Carpenter [May 27, 2006]

Reed Graham:

My name is Reed Graham and this is Dawn. And I work for the Library of Congress. And I'm representing -- I'm here doing the Johnsons -- sorry. That was my mistake. I'm interviewing the Carpenters. Sorry. And this is the Red River Valley Association at the J.W. Marriott. And this is the 27th of May. And, Mr. Carpenter, would you like to talk a little bit about -- tell us about your early life and then we'll go on to your military -- your military experiences.

Allan Carpenter:

Sure. Right now?

Reed Graham:

Uh-huh.

Allan Carpenter:

All right. I was born in Portland, Maine. Brought up in and around new England, mostly in Sanford, Maine, where I attended -- well, most of my schooling took place there. I attended high school there. I graduated from high school and enlisted in the Navy in September of 1955. You want me to get right into the --

Reed Graham:

Yeah.

Allan Carpenter:

Okay. I went to boot camp in Bainbridge, Maryland. Went on from there to airman preparatory school in Norman, Oklahoma. Norman, Oklahoma, went on to further schooling and ended up in the fall of -- let me see -- 1950 --

Mrs. Carpenter:

8.

Allan Carpenter:

1958, I guess it was, in Patuxent River, Maryland, where I was assigned to an airborne early warning squadron. And I was a radar -- airborne radar operator in that squadron. Put in a couple of years there. And I'm losing track of my time frame --

Mrs. Carpenter:

Actually that was '56 when you went to --

Allan Carpenter:

-- yeah, we got to back up. It was '56 when I ended up there. 1958's when we left there. So in 1958 I left there and went to Moore schools out in Kansas and ended up at Quonset Point, Rhode Island, as a air control tower operator and ground control approach radar operator. Put three years in there. Of course, in the meantime now I had gotten married to this young lady right here back in 1957. And while I was putting my time in at Quonset point I had a division officer who suggested that my talents could better be used as a commissioned officer and he put a lot of pressure on me and convinced me that I should apply for some programs. I did that. I applied for two commissioning programs. One was the college degree program -- no. Excuse me. It was not. One was the integration program or so-called seaman-to-admiral program whereby young enlisted people would receive a commission, go to OCS and receive a commission and go on into the fleet. And the other was the -- what was the name of that? Anyway, it was another -- another program whereby I'd go to college for four years. The Navy would pay for it. I'd be eligible for normal advancement during that period of time and at the completion of it then go to OCS and get a commission. The difference being in one case I would have a college degree upon completion and I'd be four years older. And the other was that I'd get the commission fairly quickly and be able to go on to flight training. Had I gone the college degree route I would not have been eligible for flight training. And at that time flight training was more important to me than an education. So I qualified. I found out first that I was accepted into the integration -- excuse me. Yeah, the integration program and went to OCS at Newport, Rhode Island. And I while I was there in the first few days I found out I had also made the other program. So I was given a choice of going to flight training or going to college basically. And I had already made up my mind and stayed with the integration program. Graduated from there. Was commissioned in the summer 1962. Went on to flight training at Pensacola and got through that fairly rapidly, about 14 months, and earned my wings at Kingsville, Texas. And that might be a good place to break or ask some other questions --

Reed Graham:

Well, it is a good place to break. But what I'm going to do is I'm going to let you continue.

Allan Carpenter:

Okay. I'd been in the jet pipeline, had flown jets the entire training experience except for the first 30 hours, which was on a prop, T-34 aircraft.

Reed Graham:

Do you want to talk about some of the jets that you were flying.

Allan Carpenter:

I can. Sure. The first jet that I flew was out of Meridian, Mississippi. It was the T- 2A which was a relatively new aircraft in the naval training command at that time. Went on from -- that was in basic flight training and went on to advanced flight training at Kingsville, Texas, where I flew the F-9F cougar through most of the program, then the final 25 or 30 hours in the F-11F tiger, which was a --

Dawn:

What?

Allan Carpenter:

F-11F tiger, which was a single place, afterburner equipped aircraft, the only afterburner equipped aircraft I've ever flown. That was -- I got my wings in November of 1963, and then was ordered to naval justice school in Newport -- back in Newport, Rhode Island. Attended naval justice school and went from there to the fleet replacement squadron which would give me the training for the type aircraft that I would be flying in the fleet, which was the A-4 skyhawk. I reported in probably January or so of 1964, to the -- we called it the rag. You probably heard that term before, replacement air group, training in the A-4 and spent four or five months in the RAG getting trained in the A-4 before I got my orders to my fleet squadron, which was all -- all of this occurred at Oceania naval air station. And kind of went across the hanger to my fleet squadron which was attack squadron 72, VA-72 at Oceania. We -- at the same time I got there they were getting new aircraft, the latest version of the A-4, the E model. And I started training in that as the rest of the squadron members did. And we made a few cruises, including the first cruise I think was to New York City on armed forces day to show the flag. That was interesting. A little while later in the fall of '64, we made a North Amer -- a North Atlantic cruise. And that was very interesting flying. It was in the fall. The weather was beautiful most of the time. We got to fly low-level flights over Norway, flying up the fiords in Norway at 300 knots and a thousand feet below the levels of the top of the fiords was pretty exciting, unless you happened to round a corner and found that you were running out of air space. Also had some exciting weather in the north Atlantic, cold and wet. Some icy conditions out there, all of which builds good experience. Came back from that cruise and -- let's see. We started training up for the first Vietnam cruise. And we were ready for that and departed I think in May, May of 1965. So my first cruise to Vietnam was out of an east coast port, Norfolk. And we went halfway around world to Vietnam. Crossed the equator a couple of times. Where did we stop on that cruise? Can't recall. I think it was the second cruise we stopped at Rio, but the first cruise we stopped down in the Carribean and did some more workup for the main cruise and then underway and all the way over to the Philippines. Got everything straightened out and ended up on the line in South Vietnam, the 1st -- I think it was the first day of July 1965. Want me to continue?

Reed Graham:

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Allan Carpenter:

This is really pretty much in a nutshell. We operated as most ships did in air wings for three or four days or a week in South Vietnam getting the ship exercised and pilots and equipment all ready to go and then we moved north and started flying missions in North Vietnam. North Vietnam in 1965 was exciting, of course, because it was putting our skills to use in the environment that we had been trained for. We were, after all, combat pilots and now was our first exposure to combat. However, in 1965 the ground defenses, air defenses, were not what they later became. And I can only talk to 1966, because after that I wasn't around. But in 1965 we flew road reconnaissance flights and we bombed bridges and some army barracks and things like that. We attacked -- eventually my squadron was involved in the first attack on a mobile SAM site, surface-to-missile air site in North Vietnam and my commanding officer led that flight, destroyed the site. And we learned a lot from that, developed tactics as a result of that. We lost a lot of people on that cruise, many of whom I would see later in prison in North Vietnam. But some of whom, including my roommate, disappeared on the 13th of September 1965. He was shot down and killed in the southern part of North Vietnam. Lost a significant number of people on that cruise. The cruise was over -- I forget when we started home but we got home in early December 1965.

Reed Graham:

Let me stop for a second.

Allan Carpenter:

Sure.

Reed Graham:

Let me ask a question. How did -- how did your husband communicate what he was doing? Was he a good letter writer with you?

Mrs. Carpenter:

Whenever he could he wrote letters. But we also had tapes that we sent back and forth.

Reed Graham:

Okay.

Mrs. Carpenter:

And that was -- that was great. So whenever he could find time he was always writing or sending the tapes.

Reed Graham:

Okay. Go ahead.

Allan Carpenter:

Well, it took a while to get those tapes back and forth.

Mrs. Carpenter:

Right. Not like Email today.

Reed Graham:

Exactly. Okay.

Allan Carpenter:

So we were back in early December and enjoyed a few weeks off. And shortly after we all had to come back in the first of the year, we started what we called a base loading move. The Navy had decided to move all the A-4's to Cecil Field in Florida. And so we were involved in that move. We got down there and I think in February sometime. Took awhile to get the squadron set up in its new digs and learn our way around. And then we started training to go back because our squadron had been picked in Washington to turn right around and make another West Pac cruise from the east coast.

Dawn:

What kind of cruise? West --

Allan Carpenter:

West Pac. Western -- it's a short for Western Pacific. West Pac.

Dawn:

Oh, West Pac. Okay. Thank you.

Allan Carpenter:

So we trained for that and left on a new ship. The first one in '65 had been on the USS Independence. Then '66 went on the USS F.D. Roosevelt, leaving in June?

Mrs. Carpenter:

May.

Allan Carpenter:

We didn't leave in May.

Allan Carpenter:

Left in June, the second cruise. Stopped in Rio de Janeiro on the way, which was a nice break. And then crossed the equator a time or two again. On our way over I was getting accustomed to the shellback ceremonies at that point because I was an old timer.

Reed Graham:

Shellback ceremonies you got for crossing the equator; is that what it is?

Allan Carpenter:

That's crossing the equator, yeah. You have -- shellbacks are those who have done it before and polliwogs are those who have not. And the shellbacks get to take advantage of and make life miserable for the polliwogs for one day while you observe the crossing of the equator. It's an interesting, traditional event. Could call it a ceremony, I guess, but it's not too ceremonious. We arrived over there I think in August due, I suppose, to the stops that we made enroute. It might have been late July, but late July or August we arrived over there, again, in the Philippines to get everything together and then we -- while we were there, by the way, I had the good fortune to -- one of our squadron members had a friend who was in swift boats. And the Philippine government was accepting half a dozen or so swift boats at that time that had just come in, and so we got a chance to go out on them and work on some tactics that we might use in attacking patrol craft of the North Vietnamese. It was kind of an interesting thing. And later we come full circle in this most recent presidential campaign because we got involved with the swift boats again.

Reed Graham:

Right. Right.

Allan Carpenter:

Not with the hardware but with the people. We got on the line in '66, and I think in August and things were different this time around. Again, we spent a few days down in South Vietnam getting ready to go up there. And I had been promoted at that time to lieutenant in the Navy. I was a flight leader. I was a combat veteran. I was also experienced in the iron hand mission which is SAM suppression. And so many of my flights were iron hand flights, which were kind of risky.

Reed Graham:

Describe, just for a second, what the term "iron hand" means.

Allan Carpenter:

"Iron hand" was a department of defense term applied to those missions or those -- those flights where your primary mission was to suppress surface-to-air missiles.

Reed Graham:

Okay. Okay.

Allan Carpenter:

It was usually -- well, almost always in support of other flights.

Reed Graham:

Okay.

Allan Carpenter:

Large strikes or something.

Reed Graham:

Okay.

Allan Carpenter:

We had special equipment and carried special ordnance to do that and we were specially trained to do it. In the air force it was called wild weasel.

Dawn:

It was called?

Allan Carpenter:

Wild weasel. The defenses had improved considerably from 1965. There was a lot of flak. There were more MIGS in the air and a lot more surface-to-air missiles that were -- that we were going up against and so we got fired at a lot. Over the course of time I got -- the aircraft that I was flying in was hit on seven different occasions, one of which on the 21st of August 1966, resulted in very serious damage to the aircraft. I was able to make it back to the ship but could not wait around until they could clear the deck and get me back on board, and I was forced to eject from my aircraft which was fully engulfed in flame. I was in the vicinity of the ship and at low altitude and relatively low airspeed, and so it was a somewhat uneventful ejection, and I was picked up by the ship's helicopter and brought aboard, given a shot of whiskey and told to get some rest. And then the next morning at I think about 7:00 I was launched off the first aircraft off the ship, the old theory being that, you know, you get back on that horse that threw you before you get scared. And it seemed to work. Continued flying missions and, of course, in the interim we went back and forth to various ports. We -- we went into Japan I believe twice and that was interesting. Got to see a little foreign culture and do some shopping. Send things back Carolyn. But we were back on the line on the 1st of November 1965.

Mrs. Carpenter:

6.

Allan Carpenter:

6. I'm sorry. 1966. And my mission on that day was to lead a flight of three A-4's, providing SAM suppression for a flight of photo F-8 crusaders taking pictures of Haiphong Harbor, shipping and docks. After that portion of the mission I was to lead my flight on up the coast toward the border with China looking at coastal installations and seeing if we could find any patrol boats or vehicular traffic or trained traffic that we could attack in North Vietnam. Unfortunately, that didn't come to pass because, and the mission in support of the photo aircraft -- a lot started to happen. The SAMS came on line. I was monitoring their radars and I could tell that they were on line searching and I could tell when they launched the missiles and I could hear them tracking. I looked down. It was pretty dark down there. It was a very rainy, miserable day everywhere except right where we were and it was still dark there. I looked down and for the first time in North Vietnam I saw a light on the surface. And my impression was that, you know, these people were being pretty foolish to allow a light to be shown, you know, in a combat environment. Well, it turned out that light got bigger and brighter and I noticed that it wasn't -- the relationship between me and it wasn't changing a whole lot. And I suddenly realized that that was the SAM that I was looking at. So I was carrying shrike -- a shrike missile which was anti-SAM radar. I did the appropriate procedure and launched my missile at that site. It tracked properly and it went down and destroyed the radar trails. And I followed up by leading my flight of three in an attack on a site. I was armed with four- or five-inch rockets from my first run. I don't remember what my wingers were using. I think they just had 500 pound bombs. And we made an attack and the flak was intense and it was big stuff. It was .85 millimeter for the most part. Some .57 millimeter. But not the little .37's and .57's that we normally encounter. And right in the pull-out over the target where I could see the damage that had been done by my missile and the rockets that I had fired the place was in shambles down there which gave me a lot of satisfaction. But about that time as I was pulling out I heard a very loud explosion. The airplane shook and my fire warning light came on. So I knew that I'd been hit and I'd been hit hard. I told my wingmen that I had been hit and that we were headed inland. So it was -- it only made sense to turn around and come back out. And if I was going to turn around and come back out, I just might as well drop my bombs on the way. So I said, "let's put the bombs on them on the way out." And I started to do what I had to do to make that happen, but the airplane was progressively either Coming apart or failing to work the way it was supposed to. A lot of the systems fell off the line. And I eventually, in the turn coming back around I decided to just clean everything off on the bottom of the airplane and just drop it inert. And so I -- all the bombs, drop tanks, everything that was on the bottom of the airplane came off. Not armed. Just fell off, which made me go a lot faster than my wingmen because I was at a hundred percent power. And I headed back towards Haiphong harbor, which in the Navy water is safety. And the harbor seemed to be pretty safe. So I was headed in that general direction and climbing. My intent was to climb to altitude and by this time I had heard from my wingman that I was on fire and I was burning bad and he was advising me to get out. I didn't want to get out of an airplane which seemed to be taking me where I wanted to go as opposed to getting out right there and landing in North Vietnam, so I just stuck with the airplane. And later on when I got back he told me that all he could see was a fire ball with two wing tips sticking out of it. So the fire was pretty bad. I got up to about 5,000 feet, again, with the intention of going to 9,000 feet, shutting the engine down, hoping that would put the fire out and then I could restart the engine if I got really lucky, which would enable me to get farther out to sea before I would have to jump out of the airplane or hopefully maybe even land on the aircraft Carrier. But at 5500 feet the stick went all the way in the right-hand corner, the right rudder pedal slammed over in the right-hand corner, and the airplane started a noncommanded rudder roll. Well, by the time I could take stock of the situation I was almost inverted. And there's something about pilots -- we just don't really want to jump out of an airplane inverted.

Reed Graham:

Right.

Allan Carpenter:

And, besides, I had plenty of altitude so I let it go. I didn't pull the power back because I didn't want to be hanging forward in the straps. That's not a good way to eject. And so I let it roll around a full upright. Well, by the time I came around to full upright the nose was 45 to 60 degrees nose down. I was at full power and a clean airplane. I was accelerating pretty rapidly. I looked down at my air speed indicator and the needle was moving quite rapidly and it was passing 550 knots at that time when I pulled the face curtain to eject from the aircraft because there was no control anymore. I had no flight controls at all. I had already stowed my kneeboard and my flashlight and other things that might be in the way and hurt me. And I had decided that we have two options of getting out in the Navy aircraft. One was a handle between the legs which you would pull. And I had used that first time and thought that was pretty neat. But the second time I was going so fast. We had a face curtain on the Navy aircraft. It was designed to protect your face from damage from a high speed ejection. And I decided to use the face curtain. So I reached up and grabbed the curtain with both hands, and thinking very consciously about the proper procedures I kept my knees together. I had my back -- back up against the back of the seat. I kept my elbows in at my side and grabbed the face curtain and pulled. And I'm still intensely aware of every single action that occurred in that ejection because it was pretty terrific. You get about halfway down with a face curtain the canopy comes off. I heard the canopy go off. I felt the rush of air and the noise level increased incredibly. It felt very much to me as though I might be lying on the ground between the railroad tracks as a freight train or passenger train rushed over. It was very very loud. I continued to pull. This was all one brief pull. Probably took half a second. But I -- it breaks down into these segments. I continued to pull and I felt the seat fire. It's a rocket-fired seat. It takes you up the rails until you're clear of the airplane and then continues straight up until the rocket stops firing. Unfortunately, thinking that I might have to eject because I couldn't get the fire out and would be ejecting at low speed and low altitude, I had hooked up what was called a zero-delay lanyard. And what that did was short circuit some of the safety features in the seat. And principally what it did was as soon as the seat went up the rails I was separated from the seat. The only thing holding me in it was the G force of the rocket fire. That could be good at low altitude and low speed but it was not very good at high speed. The result of it was once the rocket stopped firing I was immediately separated from the seat and the seat started trailing behind me. I was still holding on to the face curtain. Well, the face curtain -- the curtain cutter which would separate you from that portion of the seat didn't fire for another, I think, three quarters of a second. Well, that doesn't seem like long but it's a very long time when you're getting your arms pulled out of the socket. The -- I lost a grip with one arm. The other arm -- I think it was the right arm -- went out the -- caught the wind stream and that was just torn away from my body. The whole arm was torn away, the shoulder dislocated. The humeral head broke several pieces off the top of the arm and it started flailing around out in the wind. The next thing that happened when I was still hanging onto the curtain I felt the curtain cutter fire and it released. And when that did the elbow popped out. The wind caught that and tore that out. And that was a very severe dislocation. Actually, the right shoulder was already dislocated and the Left shoulder was now dislocated and it broke, too. I found this out later when I got home. The humeral heads had been sheared. So, there for a little while I was holding the curtain in my left hand and both arms were flailing around. Both legs were flailing around and I was corkscrewing through the air at somewhere around 600 miles an hour. That is way beyond the ability of the seat. The A-4 seat was not designed to protect you at those speeds. The pain was incredible. My feeling at the time was that this just went and on and on and on and on and I didn't see how anybody could survive that kind of pain. You think of it sort of abstractly when it's happening to you. You know, you're not screaming or yelling or anything like that. It's just, you know, I guess this is what it's like to die. Never having died before I wasn't sure, but it seemed reasonable that that's what it was like to die. It was quite conceivable that my arms could have been torn from my body. I would not have known the difference I'm sure. The pain was that severe. It went on for seemingly an interminable time. And then I could feel, again, being super sensitive I could feel the chute pack open up on my back. I felt it snap. I felt the chute go out, the lines go out. When they get to full extension the chute is just in a sleeve. I felt it stop and then pop open and all of that had gotten me properly aligned, which is a good thing, because it was an extremely hard chute opening. The chute popped open and suddenly I was just hanging in the chute. I give you some idea of the severity that when the seat fires, the G's or force of gravity experiences in an A-4 chute like that was supposed to be about 19 G's. So you would very briefly weigh 19 times more than you would normally weigh. The opening shock of the chute had to be almost twice that. It was incredible and it hurt. Suddenly, though, all of that rush of activity was over. I was hanging in the chute and I opened my eyes because I had them closed. And now I had a new problem to face because I was totally blind. I could see nothing whatsoever. But as part of your training you react as you had been trained to do. And I -- I reached up with both hands from my oxygen mask, because what you do then is release the mask and throw it away then. You don't need it anymore. And I reached up and the oxygen mask was not in its normal position. I kept reaching and reaching and reaching and it still wasn't there and I thought, oh, goodness. That's why I can't see. Either all the nerves in my head have been torn loose or I don't have a face and eyes anymore. And I might sound extreme, but the pain that I had gone through made it seem a perfectly reasonable thought to me. I kept reaching and finally and I found I had no glove on this hand because it had been torn off in the ejection. And I finally came right up against something hard and smooth and it seemed like it was wet. And I thought, okay. That's my scull. And, you know, all this was making sense at this point. But you got to proceed and do something. But there was nothing there that I could work with and I couldn't feel it. And for some reason I came back around to the right and I hit something and I kept moving my hand to the right and it was my oxygen mask. So I snapped -- and the left hand wasn't involved anywhere. I couldn't feel it. It wasn't doing anything right. I snapped the oxygen mask off and threw it away and reached up and the front of the helmet was around my right ear. So I grabbed the side of the helmet with my right hand and pulled around and suddenly I could see. And it was one of the best feelings I've ever had. The reason I hadn't been able to see is my eyes were in the ear cup which was well sealed and there was no light there at all. I got the helmet around just in time to see where my aircraft had imPacted the water that had gone in almost vertically. And there was a big cloud of water and steam and smoke coming up from that site. And I was looking right at it, but it was, you know, close to a mile below me. I was delighted to know that, in fact, I have a face. I did have eyes and that they were working. But there was something else that wasn't quite working. And the next thing I had to concentrate on was this left arm. The right arm hurt like the devil. The shoulder hurt terribly, but it Was somewhat functional. The left arm didn't work, so I consciously willed it to -- to just bend the elbow up like that to where I could see my hand. And it's a little strange to have to do things that way because you do them without thinking normally. But I willed myself to do that and way back out of the corner of my -- oh, but prior to that I'd looked down and I couldn't see the shoulder. There was no shoulder there. I looked to the right and I could see to the left. No shoulder. But there was this big lump under my torso harness right here. So I -- out of the corner of my eye as I willed my hand to come up I saw this thing come up from behind me and it was on backwards. And that was sickening to the point where I decided I'd just tune that out of my mental processes and let the arm lay there. This was indeed the shoulder up here on my chest. It had been completely dislocated and was over there on my chest being held in position, I suppose, by tendons and I don't think any ligaments. I think they were gone, but. So the next thing I had to do was -- well, didn't have to do but you normally when you do parachute jump you look up and take -- take a look at the chute. I looked up and a parachute is composed of many orange peel shaped slices that are called gores. And two and a half of the gores in my shoot were just flapping in the breeze. They were gone. So that opening shock had been so severe that it had torn them completely off. Well, I had something else to worry about. I had worked out a pick-up plan that we were in the process of trying to develop and I briefed my wingmen before we left that in case I -- any of us should get shot down we'd see if we could give this a try. Nobody wanted to be a prisoner of war. And the pick-up plan might sound a little strange here, but I still think it had possibilities. The idea was for whoever was still flying to come around, slow down, drop the flaps, keep the wheels up, but drop the tail hook and make an approach just like we would on a carrier to the canopy of the chute, with the hope that you could engage the rim of the chute with the tail hook and it would swivel and it would be guided up to the center of the canopy where all the risers in the canopy cross so that the greatest strength in a parachute canopy is right there at the top. And the idea is we track up there and snag it and really just pick the chute up in midair and fly off with it at slow speed. You knew you couldn't do this at high speed. You're going to have to go as slow as you could. But we could slow down to 120 or 30 and we figured that that would be adequate. Then, hopefully, the guy in the chute if he didn't die from the ride, would be hanging back there. And we had on our ship as refueling aircraft, A-3, in the Air Force b-66 type twin engine bombers. And we used them for air-to-air refueling. They had a top hatch and I theorized that if we could get out in a safe position we could get one of those guys to come up behind us, slide open the hatch, move up as though we were doing air-to-air refueling himself, grab a guy's feet, pull him in, cut him loose, and suck him down into the airplane. Sounds kind of wild but it's better than being a prisoner of war.

Reed Graham:

Right.

Allan Carpenter:

Well, in the shape I was in I really didn't want to try that. So I concentrated on getting my personal survival radio out. I was able to get it out with one hand and call on the radio. And I could hear that -- I thought they could hear me but I wasn't sure. And I said, "don't pick me up. Don't pick me up. I'm okay, but don't pick me up." And they did hear that as it turned out. So then I had to do something with the radio that was my most important piece of survival equipment. I couldn't get it back in the place where it was supposed to go. And I could only get half of my flotation equipment inflated and I was getting close to the water. So I just stuck it in between the two portions of the flotation equipment where I knew it wouldn't stay. But I had to have it and I just pulled the antenna out and bit down on the antenna and hoped that between the bottom of it being held and me holding on with my teeth to the top that I'd retain the radio. And I prepared for water landing. I hit the water going pretty fast. I went down fairly deep. I have no idea how deep but I only had part of my flotation involved. I went deep. It was 15 to 20 knots of wind blowing. I was in Haiphong harbor. The canopy immediately in a situation like that lays down and immediately starts to pull you through the water. And the canopy usually will bounce off the water as it's going along and so I expected to drown. What I hadn't realized was that only a few weeks before that when we were in Cubic Point in the Philippines, they had put a fix on the canopies. They had sown on a piece of cloth that went around the canopy rim on the outside, 10 or 12 inches wide, I guess, which would act as a scoop and it did precisely that. Just before I ran out of air suddenly the tugging on the chute stopped and I popped to the surface. And what had saved my life was that new fix on the canopy. If I can ever find out whose idea that was, I would certainly thank them. All right. You want me to just keep going here?

Reed Graham:

It's really interesting.

Allan Carpenter:

Yeah, but it goes on and on.

Reed Graham:

Don't forget we've got --

Allan Carpenter:

You got more tape, huh?

Reed Graham:

We've got more type. That's right.

Allan Carpenter:

I still wasn't out of the woods. I only had partial inflation of my flotation equipment. I was riding quite low in the water and it didn't take long before I could feel something tugging at my legs. Well, the risers on the chute had wrapped around my boots and other things that I had on my legs. And it -- the chute was going done very slowly. And even though the canopy doesn't weigh very much, when it's in the water like that it goes down. It doesn't want to come up. So every bit that it goes down that's -- it's not going to come up anymore. And with the waves moving me up and down I was gradually sinking and being pulled down by the chute. I couldn't get the other part of my floatation inflated. And I kept getting lower and lower. In the meantime I could see two or three sailing vessels that were coming toward me, work vessels, work boats probably 50 or 60 or feet long, two masts on them. And each one had several people on them. As they got in closer I could see that and they all had guns. My wingmen were flying cover for me trying to keep the boats away. But we had problems with the guns in those days in the A-4. And the guns, I found out later, jammed in both of my wingmens' airplanes. So they couldn't shoot. You don't really want to drop a bomb down there to try to save your buddy because you're liable to bomb him. It will kill him. But they dropped drop tanks trying to scare the boats away and keep them from picking me up, but they weren't dissuaded at all. And the flak was awfully heavy and I was --

Reed Graham:

So -- so your wingmen were able to make it back?

Allan Carpenter:

Yes. Yes. They did make it back. I think one of them was hit. I don't recall now. I think one of them was hit. But as I say I was going lower and lower and I was within, oh, five or ten minutes at the most of drowning. I was at the point where I had to tip my head back to be able to get a breath of air occasionally. But I could see the boats coming because the water was fairly rough and so I was being bobbed up and down. I found out later that a helicopter was on its way to get me. And the pilot of the helicopter was one of the guys I'd gone through flight training with. Didn't know that at the time, but he got shot up pretty badly and he had to turn around and go back. But he did make it back with the helicopter. And the next thing I knew there was a boat pulling up alongside me and a guy pointing a rifle at me and screaming very excitedly in Vietnamese something. And he kept motioning up as though he wanted me to lift my arms up. Well, I knew that my arms didn't work. I would have been happy to lift them up to show them that I was no threat to him but I couldn't. Plus my pistol -- I think the handle of my pistol could be seen by my chin and he was probably looking at that and figuring when I had an opportunity I was liable to try to shoot him. So I decided in my own mind the way he was acting that he was more than likely going to shoot me before they could get me on board. And I can remember just floating there thinking, well, I wonder what that's going to feel like. I wonder if I'll feel it and if I do, if it will hurt. And if it hurts, how long will it hurt. It was very sort of matter of factly the thought process I went through. But it didn't happen. He didn't shoot. And the next thing I knew -- I don't recall if it was -- I think it was that boat, pulled up alongside me. And one of the men on board reached down and grabbed my left hand to try to pull me up onto the boat. Well, I screamed in pain. The pain was terrible. And for some reason he let go with that and he reached around and grabbed my other arm. Well, of course, that shoulder was dislocated, too, and he pulled on that one and I screamed again in pain. And he decided, well, you know, we got to get him on board. So he just kept pulling. Well, that was a mixed blessing because not only did it save my life, but it -- END OF SIDE ONE, TAPE ONE. BEGINNING SIDE 2, TAPE 2.

Allan Carpenter:

I was saying the shoulder was spontaneously reset by the man on the boat pulling me in. And they just kept pulling and they found the chute was pulling me down somehow they got that loose. I -- I think they just cut it with a machete. I couldn't see too much because I had -- I had my helmet on. But there was a lot of tugging and yanking around. And the next thing I knew I was on the deck of the boat. In the meantime I became increasingly aware that there was an awful lot of noise. And what it was was the anti-aircraft guns were still shooting at my wingmen up there. And my wingmen were doing whatever they could to keep an eye on me. But it was quite noisy. In the meantime the people on the boat took off my helmet and then allowed me to see a little bit better. And then they proceeded to take off my torso harness and my G suit and my boots, leaving me in just the flight -- no, they took my flight suit off, too. So left me in just my underwear. I didn't have much chance to take a look at my condition to see what shape I was in, but I still hurt pretty badly. And they had concerns with fighting off my wingmen because they were making passes to keep an eye on me. And one of the things that I always tell about that I found quite interesting was these were wooden sailing vessels. And they had wooden masts and a wooden boom on the mast and it was pretty substantial. It was probably eight or ten inches around with wooden hoops that held the sail to the boom. And they were luffed up in the breeze. And if you're a sailor, you understand, you know, you head up directly into the wind and the sail just flaps there and the boom will move back and forth just flopping around. And that's what it was doing. And while I was going on there's a guy with a .30 caliber machine gun or something akin to that and he's holding it by a bi-pod with another guy directing him in which way to move so that he could get good shots at my wingmen. I didn't think that was too good an idea but there wasn't anything I could do about it. And just as I was becoming aware that that was what was going on and I could see one of the guys coming in really low making a high speed pass, and I wanted him to get out of there because he's just going to get shot down. And just as he got in to where this guy with the machine gun started to fire, this boom came around. It probably weighed 3- or 400 pounds and it caught this guy right in the back and pushed him over and the guy holding the bi-pod went over. And the gun just, whew, started firing down in the water. Well, that didn't slow them down too much. They just stopped. But in the meantime my guy was out of there. So I thought that was pretty cool. They went through that evolution two or maybe three times. Each time he started shooting at my wingmen the boom would catch him in the -- I mean, they weren't fast learners. The boom would catch him in the back and down he'd go. And one time this other boat that had come up there was in the way, moved in the way just as the guys were coming around, and he strafed right across the deck just with his own machine gun right across the deck of this other boat. And they were turning around and yelling at him, but it was a moment of slight humor and every little bit helps. Then things got quiet. The airplanes went away. I could hear some in the distance. The triple A stopped firing. And these guys took me and they tied a rope around my right arm, the good arm. And they opened up a hatch in the deck and they pitched me into it head first with my feet caught by the edge of the hatch on the out- they put the hatch cover back down on it, holding my feet outside and the rope outside. But I was head first down into the hold which was probably about three feet, three feet from the hatch cover down to the bottom of the hold. And the hold was about a third full of liquid of some kind. Mostly water, I'm sure. But there was also oil. Might have been gas, fish parts. It was pretty yucky. And I was in it head first. And it was over my head and so my feet were up above my head. So I thought, well, here again is another opportunity for me to drown. And I wondered just what that would be like, drowning in fuel and water and fish guts. But I decided, you know, do the best you can to live. And the boat was rocking around. So I got to where I could time it and every time the boat rocked in my direction where I could get my one side of my face above water I'd take a big breath of air and hang on until I got a chance to do it again. And that's how I breathed until they were able to get the boat into shore. They got the boat in as close to shore as they could. It was low tide apparently and we stopped probably 2- or 300 feet from shore. They opened the hatch cover, pulled me out. And I was a real mess by then. Got me to the side of the boat and tossed me overboard and there were several people in the mud out there with bamboo poles. They put -- put me up on a bamboo. They laced me up somehow -- one -- my feet with one pole and wrapped my shoulders around the other pole and tied me on to it and four of them, at least four of them, then started carrying me across this mud flat into this village. They had tried to get me to walk just prior to that but I had a broken leg also and I couldn't walk. I was finding these things out one at a time. I didn't know about the broken leg until they wanted me to walk on it.

Reed Graham:

Why don't -- do you want to -- why don't we skip a little bit.

Allan Carpenter:

Sure.

Reed Graham:

Go on a little bit. Skip a little bit of time and maybe go -- do you want to skip a little bit of time and we can go on to continue the story. But maybe skip a little bit of the details and get another major point that you want to talk about.

Allan Carpenter:

All right. I was eventually taken by -- I don't know. I think you might want to hear about my greeting in Haiphong.

Reed Graham:

Okay.

Allan Carpenter:

I'll just gloss over quickly. These people picked me up were civilians. Eventually they got me to military people who took me to pier side in Haiphong. And it was after dark by then and they transferred me to an army vehicle. And they had at least one sort of English speaker there who could communicate with me. And they took me a ways blindfolded and in the back of a covered truck. And it was very noisy outside with people. It seemed like there were millions of people around. And they kept getting closer and closer to a center of activity. And even through the blindfold I could notice some light. And eventually they took the blindfold off, and I found that I was in a central square, probably the central square in Haiphong, which is the second largest city in Hanoi, Vietnam, North Vietnam. And there were lights all around and wall-to-wall people, just packed as tightly as they could get. And there was a fenced-off or roped-off area that was probably 50 feet on one side by a hundred feet on the long side. And that seemed to be -- it was kind of like a ring, boxing ring. And they got me fairly close to that and they took me out of the vehicle. Remember, I was wearing my underwear and had a rope tied to me. They took me to the edge of this roped-off area and the crowd was very quiet at that point. As soon as they saw me they quieted down. They took me to the edge of the area and pushed me out into it and they had taken the rope off my arm at that point. And I didn't know what they wanted. I looked back at the guy who was in charge, and he made some sort of a motion which I didn't understand. And then he got angry and he indicated he wanted me to walk, go out there and walk around that roped-off area. Well, you know, what are you going to do? It's a bad situation on either end. So I thought I'll do as he says. I took about four steps, maybe five steps out into that roped-off area and the crowd went wild and everyone started screaming at the top of their lungs. People were screaming and crying and carrying on. The ropes came down and I was surrounded by people. And I was at least 15 or 20 feet then away from the army guys who were in charge of me. Pretty scarey situation. I was on my feet with a broken leg, two broken shoulders and dislocated shoulders, and broken arms. Not feeling too spiffy at all. And here I was now suddenly surrounded by people. They were -- most of them were shorter than I was and they wanted to hit me. But they couldn't get their arms out in a position where they could do that very well. But they would strike me coming down on me and at that point as hurt -- badly hurt as I was it was really no big deal. I said, "let them hit away." You know. "You're not going to hurt me much more than I've been hurt."

Reed Graham:

Let me stop you here just for a second. _______ your wife here for a second. Did you get word that your husband right away had been -- something had happened to him?

Reed Graham:

Right.

Allan Carpenter:

And the voice of Vietnam that night announced that they had captured an American pilot, and I was the only one who'd been shot down.

Mrs. Carpenter:

In Haiphong harbor.

Allan Carpenter:

In Haiphong harbor.

Mrs. Carpenter:

I knew it was him.

Allan Carpenter:

They had captured -- they said they had captured several American air pilots, one of them alive, which was their way of exaggerating. They could capture dead people.

Reed Graham:

Okay. Why don't -- why don't we go on a little bit from this point from -- why don't we -- after -- after Haiphong where were you taken after that, or you were in prison in Haiphong the whole time?

Allan Carpenter:

No. No. After the whole thing in Haiphong they took me to a hospital and in the next night they took me to Hanoi by truck. I was in the back of a truck covered up with a tarp, and they took me up there and drove through the front gate of Walo Prison. I didn't know it at that time, but I assumed that I was in Hanoi. And they let me out and my prison life began.

Reed Graham:

And were you able to communicate with other people who were in the prison at the same time?

Allan Carpenter:

Not initially, no. Initial thing usually involves some interrogation for some period of time, days or weeks. And mine went on, I don't know exactly how long, but eventually because I couldn't do anything for myself, they put me in with another prisoner, a guy who had been shot down just prior to my shoot down. And he was able to take care of me.

Reed Graham:

How long were you in -- were you in prison?

Allan Carpenter:

I was in prison a total of six years and four months.

Reed Graham:

Were you able to get word to your wife about what was going on?

Allan Carpenter:

Well, yes and no. I was allowed to write a letter about one year from the time I was shot down.

Reed Graham:

Okay.

Allan Carpenter:

They let me receive a letter from her at approximately that same time, and I was able to write a fairly long letter. I think that was the result of seeing a delegation, wasn't it?

Allan Carpenter:

I can't recall now, but I think they wanted me to see -- yeah, they wanted me to see a Bulgarian or -- I think it was a Bulgarian delegation, which was a woman and child as I recall. And so they let me send this letter out and that was the longest letter I ever got to send. And in that I tried to pass out as much information as I could about other known prisoners. In fact, some of the guys in '65 that I knew had been shot down but didn't know had been captured.

Reed Graham:

Why don't we go a little bit beyond -- why don't we -- how did you find out that you were going to be released?

Allan Carpenter:

The release notification came as a result of the Paris accord talks and the Vietnamese were required to announce it to us and so we all found out about the same time. We had hoped that that might come to pass, but we'd had so many false starts over the years that, you know, we had learned to live with disappointment. But that one day they got us all together in the courtyard. This was after they'd moved us back to the main prison in Hanoi and announced -- had us all fall out in ranks, which we had never done before and announced to us there that we would be released and how the release would take place.

Reed Graham:

And at that point how many prisoners were there in -- in the prison about?

Allan Carpenter:

North Vietnam -- and I don't have the exact figures on that. It was somewhere around 500 because there was some released from the South and some from Laos.

Reed Graham:

But in your particular prison there were maybe a hundred or --

Allan Carpenter:

We were almost all there at that point.

Reed Graham:

Okay. Okay.

Allan Carpenter:

They brought us all together for that.

Reed Graham:

Now, I've got a question for you, Mrs. Carpenter. Did you -- did you fly to the Philippines when he was released?

Mrs. Carpenter:

No. We couldn't do that.

Reed Graham:

Okay.

Mrs. Carpenter:

But we waited and they stayed there for about probably three days going through medical tests and everything and then he flew into Logan airport in Boston.

Reed Graham:

Okay.

Mrs. Carpenter:

Because I had gone home to live. We're both from Maine. So I had taken the children home and stayed there for the most part while he was gone.

Reed Graham:

Can you talk about the time that you first saw him when he come off the plane?

Mrs. Carpenter:

Well, he wasn't -- we decided through phone calls after he came -- was in the Philippines that I would meet him on the plane. So rather than him come down and everybody'd be watching we elected for me to go on. And he was very thin.

Reed Graham:

And how old were your children?

Allan Carpenter:

When he got -- was shot down the oldest one had just turned six. And the youngest -- we had four -- the youngest one was 22 months.

Reed Graham:

And your six-year-old -- what was his reaction to --

Mrs. Carpenter:

Her reaction. Oh, she was thrilled. She was daddy's girl.

Allan Carpenter:

Well, you got them mixed up.

Mrs. Carpenter:

Oh, you mean the oldest one at the time. She would have been a teenager. Everybody was excited that daddy was coming home.

Reed Graham:

Right. Can you talk a little bit about readjustment -- your readjustment to society after your imprisonment?

Allan Carpenter:

Yeah, sure. In my mind the most important part of readjustment was to reestablish a relationship with the family. So that was my highest priority. And I put all my concentration into that. There were, of course, a lot of other demands on my time. We were constantly besieged by press --

Reed Graham:

Right.

Allan Carpenter:

-- and family friends and so forth. But my concentration was on reestablishing ties with my wife and family. It was not easy because she had had the whole load while I was gone. She was quite ready to relinquish that to me. I wasn't ready to take it over. The kids almost begged me to step into the disciplinary role, disciplinarian role. And I said, "are you sure you want to do this?" They said, "oh, yeah, yeah, dad. Mom -- mom just messes it up anyway." I said, "I don't think you're going to be happy with this." Oh, yeah, yeah. We'll be happy. That lasted for a couple of days, and then they weren't so happy with that. But I did it anyway.

Reed Graham:

Let me ask you another question you were talking earlier about, about injuries. How long were you in the hospital when you came back, or did you go right in the hospital when you came back?

Allan Carpenter:

Yeah. We were -- most of us were assigned to a hospital for some period of time. I went to Chelsea Naval hospital in Boston or outside of boston. And I was attached to the hospital from the time I got home. I got home on the 7th, 7th of March 1973, and remained attached to the hospital for administrative purposes until late August of '73. I was actually in the hospital what --

Mrs. Carpenter:

Couple days.

Allan Carpenter:

Just a few days. But I was back and forth to the hospital after that getting dental work done and tests and all that for quite sometime.

Reed Graham:

Let me -- let me -- there was a couple other things. After -- what kind of work did you do after -- after your being released?

Allan Carpenter:

Well, as you probably know we were given the opportunity to just about have our choice of duty assignments. I wanted to get back into flying as quickly as I could and I wanted to go back to Oceania where I had been. And I wanted to be in that replacement air wing training, which is precisely what they allowed me to do. So they sent me back to VF-43at Oceania and we put in three years there, two years. Two or three years.

Reed Graham:

Let me ask some other questions. And I'm sort of getting near the end. What about any commendations, decorations, anything like that you specifically got.

Allan Carpenter:

Well, I'd had some that I had earned prior to being shot down, air medals and navy commendations and things like that which were pretty routine for those of us flying combat missions. The more significant decorations were earned as a result of my shoot down or my being a prisoner of war. I ended up -- my highest decorations -- I have three silver stars. I have I think two bronze stars. Might seem strange but see I got all these all at once, so it's to remember what I got and why I got it.

Mrs. Carpenter:

A long time.

Reed Graham:

That's right.

Allan Carpenter:

Two or three purple hearts, legion of merit with a combat V. All of these are combat V decorations.

Reed Graham:

Are there any -- other than the River Rats are there any organizations that you belong to that you go to reunions of?

Allan Carpenter:

Well, nam pows. I've been far more involved with the Vietnam POW organization than with river rats. I've been a member of river rats from the beginning, but I've not attended any functions. This is the first one.

Reed Graham:

And do you get to Washington every once in a while?

Allan Carpenter:

Yes. Because we don't live that far from here.

Reed Graham:

Yeah. And what about -- have you been to the Vietnam Memorial?

Allan Carpenter:

No. I haven't.

Reed Graham:

Okay. What about the world war II memorial? You been down there?

Allan Carpenter:

No.

Reed Graham:

Okay. I think that's -- I think that's all I've got, questions I've got. CONCLUSION OF INTERVIEW

 
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