`Thanks for the Memories'

Story and photos by Master Sgt. Joan E. Fischer

    Memories of the long, cold trek to the flight line, in the middle of the night, with the dark winds of Korea whistling by flowed over the small crowd. The soldiers, retirees, civilian technicians and family members gathered together to say farewell.

    Saying good-bye to a retiring friend is never easy. Combining it with the end of a way of life and what you've dedicated your entire adult life to makes those farewells doubly hard.

    That is what current and former members of the 3rd MI Battalion (Aerial Exploitation Battalion), 501st MI Brigade, Camp Humphreys, Korea, did Sep. 21, 1996. They retired the Mohawk OV-1 aircraft after 36 years of service.

    “A lot of us are trying to figure out what we feel. A lot have left through retirement. Only this is the final good-bye,” said Chief Warrant Officer Sam Nix, Company A, 3rd MI Battalion. “It's hard to believe the Mohawk mission is over. If it's any comfort, it's that the Mohawk did the mission really well all the way through.”

    The theme of the retirement ceremony that sunny, Saturday afternoon was “A Celebration of Success.” Many other dignitaries joined the group of grim-faced aviators to hail the end of the Mohawk's days.

    The ceremony was followed by a flight-line exhibit. Lt. Gen. Richard Timmons, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, climbed aboard a waiting Mohawk for the final flight over the rolling hills and villages of Korea. A formal banquet ended the day's activities that evening at the Camp Humphreys NCO club.

    Many of the soldiers attending the activities that day were inward looking. Some had retired or hoped to very soon. The retirement of the Mohawk aircraft from the Army inventory meant the end of their career field (enlisted technical observer, 96H), within the military. Others were waiting for final words on what their new career field would be. There was a lot of uncertainty in their eyes and future.

    Others were looking at it as an opportunity to break out of the routine the Mohawk had placed them in. For the pilots, it meant new assignments at the very least; training for new challenges and carving out a new career path. Regardless, all there had a story to tell.

    Chief Warrant Officer Sam Nix typifies the average Mohawk pilot. His sandy, red hair had thinned with time. He has a ready laugh and fierce blue eyes marked by years of squinting into the sun and dark nights on track through the dark skies.

    Nix started his Army career in 1975 as a military policeman, joining from Little Rock, Ark. He took a break in service as a Texas state trooper for a few years, then rejoined for flight school in October 1979.

    Nix graduated in September 1980, as a warrant officer. The Mohawk retirement ceremony capped his 16-year flying career. He started with the OH58 helicopter, but quickly requested fixed-wing aircraft when the opportunity arose. He went back to flight school in April 1985 and made the decision to volunteer to pilot the Mohawk OV-1.

    “Once you volunteered to fly the Mohawk, you understood the commitment to fly the Mohawk,” he said. Those aircraft were found only in very few places. From 1985 on, the crafts were assigned to five aerial exploitation battalions — two in Germany; one at Hunter Army Air Field, Savannah, Ga.; Fort Hood, Texas, and the 3rd MI Battalion, Korea.

    The Army only had roughly 80 aircraft in the 36 years since the mission started in Vietnam.

    “What appealed to me the most is, it's a tactical airplane, built for a specific mission,” Nix said. “It was more appealing to me, than flying VIP assignments.”

    The enlisted soldiers and aviators would rotate among those five battalions their entire careers, with few breaks. The soldiers were 96Hs; aerial intelligence specialists. They sat in the right seat of the craft and performed co-pilot duties, holding the ranks from private through sergeant first class.

    “In most cases, the airplane was older than the co-pilot,” said Nix with a smile.

    The other members of the Mohawk team were the maintenance crews responsible for keeping the aerial observation plane in the air.

    “It says a lot for the mechanics to keep them running for that amount of time. The taxpayers got their money's worth,” said Nix. He went on to add it was a total team effort, and the contributions by numerous individuals was phenomenal. A Mohawk aircraft and a ceremonial plaque were placed in front of the Camp Humphreys gate. The site is to commemorate more than just the Mohawk. It memorializes the contributions of the pilots, technical observers, crew chiefs, technical systems mechanics and everyone that had a place within the mission that spanned five continents over 36 years.

    The missions varied greatly with the location of the unit. They were called on to assist in narcotic interdiction missions in the war against drug runners along the Mexican border from the base in Fort Hood, Texas. Most times, it was used for aerial surveillance as a deterrent against enemy forces. Nix said they spent a lot of time in a race track formation performing surveillance missions.

    “Most asked for the Mohawk, knowing they would make those sacrifices, and the Korean rotations with no breaks,” the senior OH-1 pilot said.

    He added that if you asked the pilots which was their most memorable assignment, most would say the 3rd MI Battalion out of Korea.

    The flying team's day would start either in the afternoon or late evening. The pilot and crewman would arrive several hours before flight time and prepare the airplane together. The flight plan would be filed and the craft would roll out, ready to go. It became a contest for the crews to taxi out and start on mark time. Most of the missions were at night or early morning while most of Korea was asleep.

    “Seoul is the third largest city in the world. At night it is all lit up, in contrast to the darkened North Korea,” said Nix.

    “The Mohawks were up in the air, watching the border, making sure North Korea wasn't doing anything under the cloak of darkness.”

    He went on to add that from 1964 until that day, an average of two missions a night were flown.

    “I would challenge you to name one other piece of equipment in the military intelligence field that's done it,” he said.

    Nix said that Korea is probably the best place to fly the Mohawk. It was the one place you could guarantee that you'd be home each night with no other deployments. Many of the flying teams would buy homes in one of the stateside locations and rotate back and forth from Korea. Others, like Nix, went to the 3rd MI Battalion and stayed for months on end.

    Hung in the battalion headquarters' halls are three blue banners emblazoned with silver lettering that testify to the times spent in Korea by the pilots. On the banners were listed all the names and tours of the Mohawk pilots since the early 1980's who had flown with the 3rd MI Battalion. Many names were listed more than once. A couple of names were on the banners four times, once for each tour; many more had earned their place three times. Nix is on his fourth tour. He already had a total of 57 months in Korea with 23 remaining on his current assignment.

    Like many others, Nix has mixed emotions about retiring the OV-1 Mohawk. He is going on to fly other aircraft, but a big portion of his life and career centered on the Mohawk.

    “It's like finishing a big race,” he said softly. “And looking back to see the success.”

Master Sgt. Joan E. Fischer is the NCOIC, Public Affairs Office, U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command headquarters at Fort Belvoir, Va.

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   Last Updated: January 23, 1997