A fighter jock song

John Guilmartin

These notes on “Tchepone” were written as a handout for Professor Guilmartin’s course on the Vietnam War, taught in the History Department at Ohio State University, 1998, and are used by permission of the author.

Wars and the exploits, triumphs and tragedies of the men and women engaged in them were recorded in verse and song long before the invention of the alphabet. Arguably, the earliest form of literature to attain greatness was the martial epic: The Odyssey, The Iliad and Beowulf, titles known to every student who has taken freshman English, are the evidence. But in modern times our intellectual priorities have changed as have the means of expressing them. The medieval troubadours’ chansons celebrating the glories of knightly combat rarely challenged Homer in literary depth or polish, and as pike-drill and gunpowder removed war from the control of chivalric elites, songs of war came to follow the forms of folk music rather than those of epic poetry. As war became larger and grimmer in the wake of the French Revolution, it came to be seen more as a violation of man’s normal, peaceful existence than the province of glorious deeds, and whatever fascination the war song may have had for musical professionals faded. In the post-industrial age songs of war have been sung mostly by the combatants themselves-part-time troubadours-and have been for the most part takeoffs on popular songs and traditional tunes.

The surprising thing is that soldiers have continued to sing, even after the appearance of portable record players and tape recorders and even in cultures such as ours where singing has come to be considered the province of professional entertainers. Not much of the post-medieval music, of war can be considered great, although Tchaikovsky’s incorporation of folk songs into “1812 Overture” -songs which were no doubt sung around the campfire and on the march-scores a near miss and you can make a case for certain of the songs of the Mexican Revolution (In my opinion La Valentina makes the cut, but I’m biased). Still, the songs favored by soldiers, sailors and combat aviators provide an excellent gauge of their hopes and fears, aspirations, value systems and senses of humor. In short, their music can tell us a great deal about them.

The adoption by the French paratroops in Indochina of Edith Piafs Je ne Regrette Rein [I Don’t Regret Anything] as their theme song makes the point eloquently: a tragic song of remembrance of a lost love, it captures the emotional essence of the paras’ commitment with uncanny accuracy. The adoption by U.S. fighter jocks flying against North Vietnam in a later stage of the same war of Mi’Lord -also a Piaf song- is equally apropos: the song’s story line is a French prostitute mocking the social pretensions of an uncouth English would-be customer in biting comic style. Just as the paras seem to have sensed the inherent futility of their commitment long before the curtain rung down on their final act at Dien Bien Phu, the American fighter jocks implicitly understood the absurdity of theirs. Indeed, both actually savored their ability to perform in the finest military by-the-numbers tradition under the difficult operational conditions they faced; both did so routinely despite well-founded professional doubts about their superiors’ judgement and motivation. Those doubts were rarely stated openly, of course; that was against the code. But the notion was there in the music they favored, and that music says something about them and the way they adapted. The first lines of a fighter jock takeoff on Mi’Lord which became popular in the late 1960s come close to putting if up front:

Hey mom, your son is dead;
he bought the farm today.
He crashed his OV-10 on Ho Chi Minh’s highway.
He made a rocket pass, and then he busted his ass.*

(Bought the farm means crashed, literally flew into the ground. The OV- 10 is a twin-engined turboprop observation and FAC (forward air control) aircraft.)

The song goes on to explain that the song’s protagonist, an OV-10 forward air controller (FAC) met his fate while directing a strike by an entire flight of F-4s against a single truck!

Piaf’s delivery, of course, was classic, but Piaf lived in Paris, not Indochina, and here we are concerned mostly with lyrics and mostly with the American phase of the war. The songs sung in the “hootch bars” and officers’ clubs were many and varied; they ranged from patriotic to sentimental to salacious. Most were eminently forgettable-short-lived parodies on thankfully-forgotten current favorites, well-known tunes crudely shaped to even cruder commentaries on long-forgotten events. A few, however, captured the mood and feelings of the time and place with an eloquence that has stood the test of time.

Those who wrote, sung and listened to these songs were not insensitive or illeducated. To the contrary, of all aggregations of fighting men since the beginnings of organized, socially-sanctioned armed conflict, the Americans who fought in Vietnam were perhaps the best educated. Even the young “grunts” who took the bulk of the casualties, young Army and Marine privates and corporals, were significantly better educated than their forefathers who fought in World War II and Korea. The airmen who fought the war in the skys over Vietnam and Laos were perhaps the best educated ever; that was certainly true in terms of college credits and you could make a case for a broader definition. They were not, on the whole, particularly introspective though there were exceptions. They were, however, well equipped to appreciate the irony and bitterness of their circumstances. They were also attuned to political trends back home and in Asia, and were well equipped to appreciate the operational and political ironies of the war in which they fought.

They also liked music. A lot of them spent what in those days were small fortunes to purchase top-of-the-line Japanese stereo systems, and the relatively junior Air Force and Navy officers who constituted the majority of them didn’t make all that much money. They probably spent more time between missions listening to Bach, Beethoven and Duke Ellington than to Chubby Checkers, Petula Clark, Hank Snow or the Beetles, but the imbalance wasn’t great and their musical tastes were catholic. Walking between the officers’ hootches on an Air Force base in Thailand or South Vietnam of a Sunday afternoon you could catch the strains of Chad Mitchell, The Easy Riders, Peter Paul and Mary or almost anything else you might hear back home.

They also rolled their own. Each squadron invariably had at least one guy who was handy with a guitar, or less commonly with a banjo, and who could be relied on to haul it out on demand. They sang, and they sang about the things that affected their lives in that, the longest and most difficult of American wars; they did so with an immediacy and direct, straight-from-the-shoulder honesty that could be gripping.

One of the best of their songs was a ballad named Tchepone. It got its name from one of the most notoriously dangerous targets along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the aggregation of roads, waterways and paths by which the North Vietnamese moved men, material and munitions south into South Vietnam. In the beginning, Tchepone was a small and unassuming village in the southern panhandle of Laos, almost due east of Khe Sanh. By 1965, it marked a major complex of road junctions and transshipment points along the communist LOCs (lines of communication) running south from North Vietnam into Laos through Mu Gia Pass. By the 1966-67 dry monsoon, the North Vietnamese engineers had opened Ban Karai pass immediately north of Tchepone to truck traffic and it got worse. “Tchepone” was after the termination of Rolling Thunder, which made the place even more important to the flow of supplies from north to south than it had been before. The inexorable logic of geography and war dictated that American ainnen-and no doubt communist gunners and logisticians-would come to know Tchepone well.

The words and tune of “Tchepone” are an unabashed steal from “Strawberry Roan”, a traditional western song about an out of work cowboy who gets his comeuppance trying to break an unbreakable bronco. Unable to turn down a challenge and needing the money offered by the horse’s owner, he starts out full of confidence and ends up flat on his back on the ground after a spectacular trip through the air. Popularized by Marty Robbins in the 1950s, the song is a classic, reflecting the cowboy’s values and sense of humor as he saw them himself.

Like the cowboy original, the fighter jock adaptation handles courage lightly and humorously.. . almost apologetically. At the same time, the song firmly, if indirectly, lays out the limits of compromise in the protagonist’s value system: if there is a challenge out there, he is prepared take it… head on and ahead of anyone else, without bluster or braggadocio. And if he fails? Well; then he failed. No feeble excuses. No limp rationalizations.., and if there is someone else out there who can do better, bring him on, and more power to him if he can hack it.

There are points of departure in the transition from cowboy original to fighter jock adaptation: the cowboy knows he has a serious problem as soon as he sees the horse; the fighter pilot doesn’t realize he’s in trouble until it’s too late. In the original, the bronco’s owner plays it straight; in the adaptation, the slick-talking, smooth-operating colonel is either a consummate con-man, a self-aggrandizing ignoramus or a subtle blend of the two. The cowboy gets thrown; the fighter jock gets lucky.

“Tchepone” was written by Toby Hughes, an F-4 pilot flying out of Cam Rahn Bay, in 1968. He will be singing it, albeit many years later, on the CD you are about to hear. His rendition is powerful. That having been said, the best version of “Tchepone” I have heard was cut by an F-4 back seat pilot named Chip Dockrey at the stag bar at Udorn, Thailand, in 1969. I got a tape from a friend, and learned Dockery’s identity from a mutual friend who was in his squadron at the time. The recording was made under less than optimal conditions and it shows, but the original equipment was good (Sony’s or Otaki’s best, though the recording conditions were hardly ideal). The original reel-to-reel recordings, made under “combat conditions,” convey the flavor of the moment in a way that later, more polished, recordings cannot, but I digress. Here, you will be listening to a professional recording by the original song writer/composer and Toby is good. Still, my Dockery cut reflects the flavor of the air war in a way that later reconstructions, however authentic, can never capture completely.

For my own part, I learned about Tchepone as a rescue helicopter pilot flying out of Nakhon Phanom in 1965-66. I knew it for the superb camouflage and fire discipline of the gunners who defended the place. I gave it a wide berth when I could. The song tells it like it was.


Here are the lyrics:

words   explication

I was hanging
’round Ops,
spending my time
not on the schedule,
earning a dime

Ops: the squadron operations office, where flying assignments are made. Off-duty pilots and navigators habitually hung out in ops looking for action.

When a colonel
steps up
he says I suppose
fly a fighter by the cut
your clothes.
He figures
me right,
a good one I say

  A direct steal from a line in "Strawberry Roan": "You’re a bronc fighter by the cut of your clothes."

Do you happen
to have me
a target today?
He says
Yes I do, a real easy one.
sweat my boy,
an old time milk run

  milk run: WWII slang for a mission to haul personnel, mail, beer-or milk-from base to base behind the lines; easy and sought-after duty: good flying time and no danger.

I gets all
ask where it’s at.
He gives
me a wink
a tip of his hat


miles away from home drome,
sweet little hamlet that’s known as

  home drome: our hero’s air base


you’ll sure love Tchepone
  The changing, irregularly occurring, refrain is an original compositional element not present in the cowboy original; it serves as a highly effective dramatic device.

I get on my
strap on my gun.
Helmet and gloves,
the door on the run

  G-suit: a pressurized garment covering the lower torso and legs which automatically inflates during high-G, maneuvers to prevent blood from flowing out of the head and causing black-out or unconsciousness. Perhaps appropriately, G-suits look a lot like a cowboy’s chaps!
up my Phantom
take to the air.
tucked in tight
we haven’t a care.

The protagonist and his back-seater start their F-4 and take off from Da Nang.

They depart as a flight of two aircraft in close formation. Had opposition been anticipated, the wingman would have assumed a loose, tactical formation.

forty five minutes
over the town.
From twenty
eight thousand
screaming on down.
  They have initiated their bomb run, rolling in from an altitude of 28,000 feet, standard tactics when little opposition is anticipated.
up the switches
dial in the mils.
Rack up the wings,
roll in for the kill.

I feel a bit
folks down below.
Of destruction
that’s coming
surely don’t know.

The thought
passes quickly,
know a war’s on.
On down
we scream
peaceful Tchepone.

peaceful Tchepone


arm up the switches: activate the requisite arming switches to configure the release system for the desired release sequence and ordnance, in this case bombs.

dial in the mils: adjust the bomb sight for ambient conditions. The mil is a unit of angular measure corresponding to 1:64,000th of a circle; aircraft gun! bomb sights are calibrated in mils.Our boy and his backseater have at least twelve, and perhaps as many as sixteen 750 pound general purpose high explosive bombs on the racks under the Wings and fuselage.

Release altitude
the pipper’s not right.
I’ll press just a little,
lay ’em in tight


release altitude: the optimum height above ground to release ordnance to maximize accuracy while minimizing the danger of flying into the ground, typically about 6-8,000 feet. The pipper is the sighting element in the gun/bomb sight, an illuminated diamond-shaped reticle projected onto a plate of reflective glass in front of the pilot.

press just a little and lay ’em in tight: the reticle is not properly aligned, so our hero has elected to continue his descent until his sight picture is perfect so as to deliver his ordnance accurately

I pickle those
two point five grand,
I’m starting my pull
it all hits the fan


pickle those beauties at two point five grand: drop the bombs at 2,500 feet above ground level. For reasons that are obscure to me, the release button on the left side of the control stick is called the pickle button. Our protagonist has waited until 2,500 feet to drop, carrying his aircraft down into the heart of the small arms and AAA envelope.

starting my pull: this is the punch line of the song: the communist gunners have been waiting, patiently tracking our hero all the way down the chute and have opened up at precisely the right time. He’s a perfect target.

black puff in front
then two off the right,
Six or
eight more,
I suck it up tight.
  Exploding anti-aircraft artillery rounds make pufiballs of smoke perhaps three to five feet across. Black (more properly dark grey) puffs indicate antiaircraft artillery of 57 mm or larger; six or eight at once indicates that our hero has been taken under fire by-at a minimum-an entire six gun battery.
small arms and tracer
heavy ack ack.
It’s scattered
to broken,
all kinds of flack.

ack ack: British and American WWI slang for anti-aircraft artillery; still used in Vietnam.

scattered to broken: a technical weather forecasting term indicating that three to five tenths of the sky is obscured by clouds, or in this case smoke; hyperbole, but it makes the point.

flack: the German acronym for fliegerabwehrkanone, anti-aircraft cannon; it entered the American aviator’s vocabulary in WW I and is still used

I jink hard
to left
head out for the blue.
My wingman says
they’re shooting at you!

No Bull, I
cry as I point it for home.
Still comes the fire
the town of Tchepone.

deadly Tchepone

  To jink: to maneuver hard and erratically so as to throw off the aim of enemy gunners.

I make it
back home
six holes in my bird.
With the colonel that sent me
sure like a word

  with six holes in my bird: landed with heavy battle damage. Six holes is a lot. Like all high performance jet fighters, the F-4 is rammed with hydraulic lines, fuel cells, control cable runs and electronic components; anything that punctured the skin was likely to cause serious problems.
nowhere around
I look near and far.
He’s gone back to Seventh
help run the war.
  gone back to Seventh: having nearly caused our hero’s demise, the colonel has returned to Headquarters 7th Air Force in Saigon from whence he came.

I’ve been
round this country
many a day.
I’ve seen all the things
they’re throwing my way.

I know that
there’s places
I don’t
like to go,
down in the Delta
in Tally Ho.


I’ve been round this country for many a day.
I’ve seen all the things that they’re throwing my way.

This stanza is a direct steal trom "Strawberry Roan."

"The Delta" refers to heavily Viet Cong areas in the Mekong Delta (the antiaircraft fire wasn’t heavy, but the VC were good and it was easy to get careless); the Tally Ho area was the heavily defended part of North Vietnam just north of the DMZ which remained under attack after Rolling Thunder was cancelled in October 1968.

But I’ll bet
all my flight pay
jock ain’t been born
Who can keep all his cool
he’s over Tchepone.

Oh, don’t
go to Tchepone