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Flying high, saving lives

South Boston NewsSouth Boston News
Don Marx at Suffolk Country Air Force Base and the Cessna aircraft he flew in Vietnam.
SoVaNow.com / November 09, 2017
When Don Marx was a kid growing up in rural Indiana, his second grade teachers complained that he wouldn’t pay attention in class. “I was too busy drawing airplanes and rockets,” recalled Marx, today a resident of Virgilina.

Life ahead would hold many airborne adventures for Marx, who grew up to become a highly decorated Air Force combat pilot and member of NASA’s space shuttle training program, although he never actually made it into space. His story is no less compelling for the omission.

From flying targeting missions over the jungles of Vietnam in an unarmed prop airplane, to briefing President Ronald Reagan on the technical aspects of his Star Wars missile defense program, Marx has never let go of his childhood connection to airplanes and rockets.

To get to his current station in life — owner of a Virgilina farm, where he runs an independent consulting firm and dabbles in the country life, producing his own honey — Marx first had to go through moments that could have cut short his adventurous tale at any time.

Like those two days in November 1968, when he was called upon to fly close air support over an Vietnamese enemy stronghold where 500 U.S. soldiers were cut off and surrounded.

“Flying back to Dak To, I thought, surely God had been with me, for there was no way that I should have survived,” recalls Marx of that mission. “And there were 500 Americans who must have been praying for me too.”

It was on Nov. 12, 1968 while on a routine assignment near Dak To in South Vietnam, that Marx received an urgent communication that the Army artillery troops were trapped at Firebase 29, surrounded by 10,000 enemy forces. Helicopters could not get in to rescue the troops, and a call for air support went out.

As a Forward Air Controller (FAC), Marx served as the eyes for ground troops and fighter pilots who had no visibility of enemy troops. FACs coordinated air strikes by identifying and marking targets, requesting fighter jets and guiding fighters to the targets.

Gaining this intelligence required that Marx fly over enemy positions at low altitude in his Cessna Skymaster light utility craft, which was essentially defenseless against the enemy’s anti-aircraft guns. “I later found out that, due to the intensity of the fire aimed at me, the fighter pilots were certain I would be downed,” he said.

“To mark enemy positions without getting shot down, you had to fly low and fast. Too high and the anti-aircraft guns get you, lower and small arms fire gets you. I flew at 500 feet above the jungle, at a speed of 150 mph, to get in and out very fast,” explained Marx.

Equipped with Marx’s targeting information, fighter bombers dropped special smoke bombs to mask friendly positions and allow Army helicopters to evacuate troops and equipment. As soon as the smoke began to clear, Marx resumed marking targets, requesting air support to suppress enemy fire. Waves of fighter jets arrived every three or four minutes.

“During moments when fighters were unavailable, I made repeated passes at enemy gunners to distract fire away from the vulnerable helicopters working to rescue our troops. At the end of the two and one half day mission, not a single American life was lost,” says Marx.

Months after Marx returned stateside, six members of Firebase 29, including the commander, called to say thank you for making it possible for them to come home too. “It brought tears to my eyes,” says Marx.

For his heroism, Marx received the Air Force Cross, the highest Air Force decoration.

***

Flight was an experience Marx was exposed to at an early age. His uncle owned a Cessna Piper Cub and Marx spent six years flying with him, first as a passenger, then as a student.

“I earned my pilots license while attending Purdue University where Air Force ROTC had an airport and flying program,” he explained.

Marx graduated from Purdue in 1964 having completed four years of Air Force ROTC. He received his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Force, and entered a one-year jet pilot training program, graduating first in his class of 36.

“There really wasn’t any question I would join the military … I grew up in the shadow of WWII when everyone did something for the war effort,” Marx said. “I just knew that it was my duty to do whatever I could when the time was right.”

For the next four years, Marx honed his skills as a fighter pilot completing nine months of supersonic jet training followed by two years with 98th Fighter Interceptor Squadron – 52nd Fighter Group under the command of renowned fighter ace Francis S. Gabreski.

This was the Cold War era, and the mission of the 98th was to defend against Soviet bombers that regularly penetrated U.S. airspace. “This was a game of cat and mouse. The Soviets wanted to see how close they could get to the United States before detection,” said Marx. Once detected, the 98th sent fighters out to turn them around.

Gabreski served as an inspiration for Marx. “He flew 289 combat missions in two wars and destroyed 35 enemy aircraft … he’s one of the world’s top flying aces,” Marx said.

Marx received his most important orders in April 1968 when he was directed to report to Davis Monthan Air Force Base for six months of Phantom Jet training, before deploying for Vietnam.

“I was really eager. I was finally going to get to do what I had been training for all this time.”

But prior to his scheduled deployment date, Marx received new orders. The Air Force lost so many Forward Air Controllers (FACs) in Vietnam they needed to pull pilots from other assignments to fill the slots. Marx was one of those pilots.

“Yes, I was disappointed. I wanted to be a fighter pilot, but at least I was still going to Vietnam and I would fly,” said Marx.

Before heading to Vietnam, Marx completed six weeks of training in the Cessna O-2 Skymaster, the aircraft used in spotting missions. “This was not a plane meant for military use,” he said. “It a light, makeshift propeller-driven aircraft with no guns or bombs.”

In November 1968, Marx reported to the 21st Tactical Air Support Squadron at Dak To Air Base in South Vietnam.

On a typical day, Marx took off at sunrise and flew up the Kontum Valley to Dak To.

“It was one of the most magnificent places in terms of scenery … waterfalls, mountains, indigenous Vietnamese working in fields,” said Marx.

When not engaged in close air support missions, Marx executed “pre-planned” airstrikes against enemy locations until needed by ground forces. The day ended at sunset and the routine started again the next day, seven days a week.

Marx saw many things he will never forget. “I had a really good view from above, and often flew over areas littered with bodies and body parts. The Napalm victims were especially disturbing.”

When asked about the image many Americans took away from the war — of U.S. soldiers committing unspeakable acts against the Vietnamese people — Marx replied, “It’s one thing to think about things as they should be, and quite another to deal with things as they are.”

One disturbing example: Children were often sent to the base on the pretense of begging for food. Once there, they took out grenades that were hidden in their clothes and planted them around the base to go off at a later time.

“Sometimes they would unscrew the gas cap on a jeep, drop in a hand grenade held closed by a rubber band, and close the cap. Over time the corrosive nature of the gas would cause the rubber band to melt and the grenade to blow up and kill anyone standing nearby,” explained Marx. One of the soldiers on base observed a child doing this and he shot him.

“You get desensitized,” Marx said. “You never knew who to trust or who was friend or foe. It’s just the way things were.”

***

Although trained as a fighter jet pilot, Marx flew a light, single-seat propeller airplane without guns or bombs. Asked about protection, Marx replied, “I had a sidearm and an AR15 and a flak jacket which I sat on to catch bullets coming up through the bottom.

“I also had a parachute which I kept in the back of the plane … if you get hit flying at 500 feet, there is no bailing out.”

Typically, the enemy forces, in unimaginable numbers, used the cover of jungle to overrun American positions. “No matter how many we killed, they just kept coming and coming down the Ho Chi Min Trail,” said Marx

Marx used three different radios to coordinate air strikes- an FM radio to talk with ground troops, a VHF radio to talk with command center, and a UHF radio to talk with fighter aircraft. “Keeping the conversations straight could be a challenge,” he said.

After each successful mission, “I felt more and more ‘bulletproof,’ which all fighter pilots must feel to stay sane,” Marx admitted. “Fighter pilots never say another pilot ‘got killed,’ they said ‘his actions killed him.’”

During his 12 months in Vietnam, Marx flew over 320 combat missions.

Two surprises awaited Marx upon his homecoming in November 1969. The first was a ceremony where he was decorated with five medals of valor: the Air Force Cross, the nation’s second highest decoration and the Silver Star, the third highest decoration in the Air Force. He also received two Distinguished Flying Crosses for valor, the Bronze Star and nine Air Medals.

The second surprise was the anti-war movement. From the time of commissioning until his return from Vietnam in 1969, Marx heard little of rising opposition to the Vietnam War in the U.S. Seeing the extent of the protests, his first thoughts were, “my God, the world hates us!” Marx added that he never personally experienced the backlash that is associated with the war’s end.

He came back home without any physical damage nor lingering psychological problems, and never suffered from PTSD. Nevertheless, the first few months back were tough.

“Any sound reminiscent of gunfire rattled me. Even simple, loud, sudden sounds like a door slamming or an object hitting the floor were enough to send my heart racing and a desire to search for cover,” he said.

Marx spent the next 18 months as an instructional pilot prior to applying to Air Force Experimental Test Pilot School. Accepted, he reported to Edwards AFB for a one-year training program, and upon completion spent the next nine years testing experimental aircraft.

He was struck by a sense of irony when he discovered the mortality statistics for an experimental test pilot and a Forward Air Controller were the same: “Only one-in-three survived,” he said.

Two years into his test pilot career, NASA recruited Marx for the space shuttle program, becoming one of only 13 candidates selected. NASA headquarters, however, later saw a need for a more diverse pool of trainees, which resulted in the replacement of two of the original 13, including Marx, with minority candidates. “I guess I was never meant to go into space,” he said ruefully.

Space remained a part of Marx’s life when his next assignment involved working for two years at the Pentagon with Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger and the Air Force Space Command, developing a new space technology plan.

For his work Marx received the Defense Superior Service Medal for his exceptional contributions to the United States during peace time. “I got to share the stage with Dr. Edward Teller, a renowned scientist and father of the hydrogen bomb, at a National Science Foundation, an honor I will never forget,” said Marx.

After two decades of Air Force service, Marx retired in 1984 and embarked on two civilian space-related projects: the first with Boeing designing space vehicles, and the second designing advanced space concepts for Reagan’s Star Wars program.

While working on the Star Wars program, Marx received an invitation to brief Reagan at his ranch in Santa Ynez. “This was definitely another ‘I’ll never forget this’ moments,” he said.

Marx next launched a consulting company, International Transparency Advisors, a subsidiary of The Marx Group, and between 2011 and 2014, he and his wife Joanne (formerly Joanne Nunn, a Halifax County native) served on a 22-person task force established by the Pentagon to assist the government of Afghanistan in developing investment opportunities in hydrocarbon and mineral rights for western companies.

Living in Kabul from one-to-four weeks at a time, they worked directly with the minister of mines and petroleum. “Safeguarding the transparency of public leaders in the world’s third most corrupt nation was a challenge,” said Marx.

“You can’t imagine the living conditions in Kabul where sewage flows in the streets, air is polluted from burning tires for heat, and the threat of attack is ever-present,” said Marx said. “Americans don’t know how fortunate they are.”

***

Marx joined the Legion of Valor in 1999 as a life member. It is the oldest veterans’ service organization in the country. Its membership open to recipients of the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross and the Air Force Cross.

There are approximately 700 living members, but the rolls are diminishing as WWII and Korean veterans pass. Fewer that one in 20,000 servicemen receives these high honors.

Marx is a past National Commander of the Legion of Valor, and now serves as its National Adjutant (executive director). He is also a member of the VFW and American Legion, and the Society of Experimental Test Pilots.

Marx is on the National Veterans Day Committee, set up by President Eisenhower in 1954 to ensure that veterans controlled Veterans Day. The committee is responsible for planning all endorsed Veterans Day celebrations, and hosting the national ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.

These days, Marx, wife Joanne and their poodle Matisse enjoy spending time on their farm in Virgilina. He still keeps his hand in the technology world, providing design advisory services to companies bidding on government RFPs.

Marx is the owner of five patents for cyber security.

True to his engineering background, he builds things — lots of things. Passing by their farm, one is struck by the presence of a covered bridge connecting two parts of the farm, typical of Marx’s ingenuity and drive. He is particularly proud of his innovative design of a passive solar greenhouse that provides warmth from dozens of large pickle barrels. His favorite farm tool is his T300 Bobcat.

From his boyhood roots in rural Indiana, to a 20-year Air Force career, to running an independent business and living on a southern Virginia farm, it’s been quite a journey in life spent amid the wild blue yonder. “I have no regrets, I feel blessed,” said Marx.





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