Roadrunner(Episode 11)

  • Guest Stars: William Allen Young
  • Story by: Robert Burns Clark
  • Directed by: Jim Johnston

Synopsis:1679 Air Force planes were shot down in combat during the Vietnam war- 704 crewmen were killed. 1226 were rescued.

The mail arrives at Firebase Ladybird and Anderson hands it over to his guys after asking if they are all ready to defend Democracy today. Third Squad starts to divide up the letters, and a box of cookies is handed to Percell. They all start teasing Taylor when Percell snatches and then reads aloud one of Taylor’s letters- it saying what a hero he was. They all burst out laughing and Taylor leaves, embarrassed. As they continue to sort through the mail, they find a letter for Zeke and Johnson decides he’ll bring it over to their sergeant.

RoadrunnerZeke is a bit stunned when he takes the letter. It is from his ex-wife and he goes to a more private spot where he can read about his little girl, Katie, who just turned three. His wife asks that Zeke write something to his daughter, and he looks at the picture of her that his ex-wife had tucked into the letter. Goldman interrupts, calling to Anderson and telling him the war is waiting on him.

Out in the bush, the platoon is laying low in the tall grass at the edge of a rice paddy. Zeke is convinced there is something in the tree line on the other side. Goldman wants to move forward, but Zeke wants to check it out first. He slips out and slowly moves into the rice paddy, before he cautiously waves the platoon forward. They aren’t that far into the rice paddy when they hear a mortar coming in. Zeke shouts and they all turn and bolt for the tall grass as the mortars come raining in, Anderson trailing behind the rest of the platoon. They all jump over the bank, Goldman shouting for them to spread out, but Zeke doesn’t make it and ends up getting knocked out while still in the rice paddy.

Johnson realizes the Sarge is missing, and when the shelling stops as suddenly as it had started, he and Goldman run back down to the rice paddy and grab Anderson. They quickly roll him onto his back, Goldman shouting at him. Matsuda revives him and Anderson comes to, shouting he’s all right and shoving everyone away.

Back at the base and at the showers, Taylor, Baker and Percell tease the hell out of one of the newbies, Caldwell. Later, they start to load up on a truck to go into the ville, but Goldman arrives and cancels all passes, saying they were going to the Dong Ho valley for the next several days. At the CP bunker, Goldman wants to know what is wrong with Anderson. Zeke is agitated and uncharacteristically frightened, explaining he’d been in the Dong Ho valley with his last unit, the 11th Cav, but they’d been hurt badly. Goldman explains they are to be part of an operation called Silver Crown, and are to rescue any downed pilots. Anderson only gets more agitated, saying they would die with only a squad of men up there. That out of a battalion of ARVN and three companies of American troops, only 138 survived. Zeke then adds he would rather go to Hell than back to that valley.

Before they leave, Anderson tries unsuccessfully to write a letter home to his daughter. Visibly upset, he goes to the base chaplain and asks if he would write the letter for him.

RoadrunnerNow in the valley, Anderson is only getting worse. With Johnson on point, they come across a downed Huey that is overgrown with vines and has a skeleton hanging out of it. It completely unnerves an already shaky Anderson, who starts to get into it with Myron about where and when it is safe to take a break.

While they set up a defensive night position, Percell and Taylor are singing as they dig a trench. Anderson is furious, yelling at both men. He then threatens Taylor, saying he’s gonna ship him to the DMZ if he doesn’t shut up.

After Anderson tells Goldman that the night perimeter is set up, Goldman wants to know what Zeke’s problem is, saying that the Air Force spends a lot of money and time on the flyboys. Anderson wants to know where they fit into that value system. That night Anderson can’t seem to settle down and sleep. Johnson tries to talk to him but Anderson wants to be left alone as he huddles in on himself.

The next morning a pilot, code name Coyote 2, goes down but is caught in a crosswind and blown out of the safety zone. Anderson doesn’t want to go after him but Goldman orders the men to move and get to the pilot before the dinks do. They stop at a ridge and Goldman assesses the situation, finding a squad of NVA taking a break. They decide, despite Anderson’s warning, to slip into the valley and hopefully avoid the NVA. Ruiz and Johnson stay behind to set up some blocking fire in case the NVA spot them.

Percell spots the pilot first, hanging from his parachute on the side of a cliff. Myron orders Percell to climb up and get the man down. Danny climbs up the cliff face, carefully securing the barely conscious pilot. With the man on his back, he cautiously rappels down to Goldman and the rest of the squad. Meanwhile, the NVA finish their meal and start moving under the watchful eye of Johnson and Ruiz.

RoadrunnerThe pilot they rescue is Captain Slater, and to Taylor’s complete delight, he’s black. Matsuda quickly examines the wounded man as Myron assures him that he is going to be fine and that Slater is going home. Matsuda pulls Myron aside and tells him that Slater is in very bad shape and going into shock. Myron tells the medic to do what he can. Zeke then comes up and tells Goldman they can’t expect to carry the wounded man out. Myron says nothing, simply pinning Zeke with a cold stare before walking away.

The NVA start moving in. Johnson kills one, but another gets away. Myron and the rest of the squad hear the shots and, with the pilot in a litter, and despite Matsuda’s warning that Slater could bleed to death, get moving as quickly as possible. They find and hole up in a nearby cave, Johnson and Ruiz joining them. Anderson is edgy, convinced the NVA were coming up to get them. Myron tells him it is just his imagination. Goldman then goes to speak with Matsuda, asking him for a cigarette. He then asks Doc if Anderson is suffering from battle fatigue. Matsuda nods, confirming it is a classic case.

The squad beds down for the night in the cave. Slater wakes up, shivering in pain and Anderson crawls over to him. He offers the wounded pilot some water and asks how he is holding up. Slater tells Zeke how he fought his way out of a rough neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and made it to the Air Force Academy. He asks Zeke if he ever thought about dying.

RoadrunnerThe next morning the squad, still carrying Slater on a litter, moves out. However, Johnson first has to go back into the cave and convince a bewildered and frightened Zeke to come out. The NVA are tracking them and are closing in. Zeke continues to nag at Myron, saying they were going too slow. Goldman continues to ignore him. As the squad pauses and Goldman gets his bearings, Johnson and Ruiz go to set up an ambush in hopes of slowing their pursuers down.

They surprise the first group of NVA that comes over the ridge, but both men are shocked when literally dozens more follow, pouring over the ridge after the first. Johnson and Ruiz run to catch up with the squad. At one point, Goldman has Taylor set up a claymore to help slow down the NVA. Taylor stays behind long enough to set it off when the first of the NVA arrive, then he, too, rushes to join his buddies.

Slater is getting worse and Matsuda finally convinces Goldman they need to stop for a minute or two or Slater would not make it. But the situation is getting desperate and it appears they may be cut off if they can’t get to a nearby ridge. Goldman orders the men to stash their packs. Slater then waves Myron over and wants to know if they have a chance to make it out. At first Myron lies, assuring the pilot they were going to be fine. But Slater knows it is bad and finally Myron tells him just how bad the situation really is. He pulls rank and orders Goldman to leave him behind and to save his own men. Myron fights him on this at first, but finally concedes when Slater makes it a direct order. They both know in that moment that the pilot would be killed. Myron is unhappy with the decision but bows before the man’s wishes.

RoadrunnerAs they move out, Zeke kneels down next to Slater and gives him his revolver. Slater asks Zeke to do him a favor and write his little girl. At first Zeke says no, that the L-T was better at that, but at Slater’s insistence finally agrees. Slater then gives Zeke the picture and address of his little girl. Slater asks that Zeke tell her that the last time he saw her father he was fine and that he loved her very much.

As Zeke runs up the ridge to join Goldman and the squad, Myron assesses the situation through binoculars. There is an entire company of NVA coming down on them. Myron orders them to move out, but Zeke hesitates. Something finally comes together for him and the Zeke Anderson they all know re-emerges from his fear. With a glance back at his retreating men, he jumps back down the ridge to get to Slater, Goldman shouting after him. Goldman and his men hesitate for only a moment before they all decide to chase after Anderson and save the pilot.

The NVA starts to swarm in on Slater as Zeke arrives and takes several out. Goldman and his men are there in the next moment and they surround the pilot till Baker can shoulder the wounded man up. They all flee back up the ridge, taking turns providing cover fire for each other as Baker carries Slater over his shoulder. At the top of the ridge, Goldman is radioing for help, yelling coordinates and demanding an immediate extraction. They take off again as the NVA come swarming over the ridge.

Badly outnumbered, Third Squad finally takes a stand and holds their position long enough for the two slicks to get to them. The pilots are reluctant until Myron finally shouts into the receiver: “Get the hell down here or I’ll shoot you down myself!” The slicks land and Third Squad makes a run for the waiting Hueys as the NVA come in on top of them. It is Zeke who carries Slater, loading him into a chopper as the door gunners try to keep the NVA back. With Zeke on the skids of one slick, they manage to take off and barely get away.

RoadrunnerAboard the slick, Matsuda shakes his head in sorrow, as Slater unfortunately did not survive the ordeal. Zeke pulls out a small notebook and pen and starts to write the letter to Slater’s daughter, Melissa. Zeke tells her that he was a friend of her daddy’s, and that her daddy would be home soon. That he hoped they would all be home soon.

ToD Advisor’s Episode Notes:

The “inspiration” for this episode was the movie “Flight of the Intruder,” which included a sequence where shot-down Navy pilots are rescued from North Vietnam.

For me, responsible for the historical accuracy of the show, there were several maddeningly frustrating issues involved with this episode. The first was the matter of the pilot. Was he going to be Navy or Air Force? This was important for the costumers to know as far as possible in advance. Period flight clothing and survival equipment was going to be hard to find. To make matters worse, the two services even had different color flight suits and equipment. I needed a decision from the writer on this, but he waited almost until the actual shooting day to make one. Happily, the costumers were able to come up with the right Air Force gear at the VERY last minute. (I had Navy stuff standing by to ship by FEDEX, but there would be the question of sizes. It might not fit the actor.)

Another issue involved the plot. The U.S. Air Force actually has an organization (the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service), specifically to rescue pilots. (By agreement, in Vietnam, flyers of either service who came down on land were the responsibility of the ARRS, those who landed in the ocean were the responsibility of the Navy.) For various reasons (Army field radios didn’t work on the right frequencies, for example, so they couldn’t talk to the downed pilot) both rescue organizations preferred that the Army just stay out of the way. However we needed this as a plot device, so the existence of the ARRS was ignored.

A more serious matter was the behavior of the survivor and the patrol, after they have rescued him. In the movie, the survivors of the crash in communist North Vietnam follow their orders to “head for the sea” where they have the best chance of attracting the attention of the rescue forces. The writer wanted this to be our guys’ goal, too. However, in SOUTH Vietnam, this makes no sense. The South was full of US troops! Even if their radio doesn’t work, the patrol need only attract the attention of a passing aircraft, or make their way to the nearest US firebase. (This last would be dangerous for a lone, unarmed pilot, but the patrol is well armed.) And what is waiting for our guys on the coast anyway, if they get there? Why, their own huge divisional base complex at Chu Lai! Unless the pilot wants to stop by the Officer’s Club for a quick drink with Goldman, before going back to Thailand where he is based, there is no reason to go to the coast at all! The writer changed this. Now they are just trying to get out of the valley.

The last matter deals with Anderson’s prior service in Vietnam, a topic I had dreaded having to address. Before I was hired, the writers had stipulated that Anderson was well into his third consecutive tour in Vietnam. (Actually you didn’t volunteer to serve additional “full” tours. After you finished your first tour you could volunteer to stay longer in-country, up to six full months. You could then volunteer once again, etc. But the Army had an ironclad rule that you couldn’t serve more than 36 consecutive months in a combat zone.) So where has Anderson been the last two tours? The show is set in a very specific time period, starting in late summer/early fall 1967. If we back off two years to the spring of 1965, Zeke must have been among the first American combat troops to arrive in Vietnam. He can’t have come over with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, they had only arrived in August, 1966, as a unit, from Ft. Devens, Massachusetts.

In “Roadrunner” we now find out that Zeke had been in this area before on his first tour (spring 65-on), and his unit had suffered heavy casualties. Now the problem is that the show is set in the southern part of I Corps, which, until the very period of our show, had been the exclusive territory of the US Marines. NO Army troops, except Special Forces, had served there. Dilemma. However, in a few days in November 1965, the Army’s First Cavalry Division (Airmobile) had fought two terrible battles in the Ia Drang Valley in the northern part of II Corps, on the border with Laos. The battles, at LZ (Landing Zone) X-RAY and LZ ALBANY, cost the lives of several hundred US soldiers of what had once been General George Armstrong Custer’s old outfit, now the 7th Air Cavalry Regiment. Sounds like what we need here, huh? In addition, we know that Anderson had served with Special Forces sergeant Earl Ray Michaels on his first tour (The War Lover). The “Cav” had been called to the rescue of several Special Forces camps in 1965-66. So THAT fits. We also have, if needed, a “sorta” explanation as to why Anderson doesn’t wear his “combat patch,” the insignia of his old unit, on his right sleeve (a jealously guarded privilege of those who serve in battle). The 1st Cav’s patch was very large and he might have felt it was too much of a target. (On the other hand, this insignia was the MOST respected one in Vietnam, but…. who knows?) So it all sorta fits. I figured this all out and carefully, carefully, explained my conclusions and reasoning to the writer, and he sorta, finally agreed.

Okay, Zeke now was in the 1st Cavalry Division (spring ’65-spring ’66) and later transferred to the 196th Infantry Brigade (which arrived in August, 1966). The obvious reason for this was that the 196th arrived as a unit and all its original people’s tours expired at the same time. So the Army would have moved people in and out of the unit so it could have a base of experienced NCOs to help keep its combat experience current for the new guys. Why did Zeke leave the 1st Cav? Well, maybe he had wanted to stay in the field and they had insisted he take the rear echelon job he had earned during his first tour. And so he jumped at the chance to go to the 196th. Okay, everything fit!

The next day (all this happened at the VERY last minute), I received a copy of the FINAL script, the one they were shooting. Zeke has now been assigned to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. This is a seriously WRONG unit for him to have been part of. It was a tank/mechanized infantry unit that fought far down south near the Cambodian border. It had arrived in-country a month after the 196th Light Infantry Brigade had, in September 1966. The war the 11th ACR fought was VERY much different from that fought by the 196th. A totally different set of military MOS (Military Occupation Specialty) skills were used by each. Fighting from a tank required a totally different mindset than being a foot soldier. I telephoned the writer. “I thought we had agreed on this?” I asked. He casually replied that after talking to me, he had called the Army Public Affairs Office and they had suggested different units, and he had picked the 11th ACR. I was outraged! All my careful research, planning and explanation had been for naught! I exploded and I think I may have hung up on him. A few minutes reflection and I called back to apologize. It was an innocent mistake on his part and, I knew by this time, nobody was going to “get it.” I had worked all the previous night at my “regular” job, and all day for “Tour” and I was just about to go back to my “regular” job. The writer graciously accepted my apology. “We can’t have that,” he said, and I agreed. It was the only time I lost my temper with a writer.

Worth another look:

Third Squad is retreating ahead of the oncoming NVA, leaving Slater behind. But as they get ready to leave, Anderson holds back. The crippling fear that had held him up until that moment slips away and the Anderson whom everyone knows re-emerges. Running the action on his shotgun, he then jumps back down the ridge, Goldman shouting after him to come back. Taylor and Johnson say they are going, after all the pilot was a “Brother”. Taylor challenges the rest of them, Horn responding he didn’t need an excuse to go back. Ruiz agrees, saying “Let’s tear something up, L-T!” Without another thought, Goldman and Third Squad take off after Anderson.


  • Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours – Stevie Wonder. As Anderson gives the mail to Third Squad.
  • War – Edwin Starr. After Anderson comes to from being knocked unconscious from the shelling. And while the guys are cleaning up back at Ladybird in preperation to go into the ville.
  • All Along the Watch Tower – Jimi Hendrix. As the squad is fleeing ahead of the NVA and the helicopters come in, all the way to the end of the episode.

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