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Wailuku, Maui, Hawaii was my birthplace in 1942. My hometown was Kaneohe. I graduated from St. Anthony’s Boys’ School in 1960 and then I graduated from St. Mary’s College in 1964. I joined the Air Force to beat the draft. Flying sure beats walking. I retired from the USAF on 31 Mar 1986 at Hickam AFB, HI. I currently live at Kaneohe.
I was assigned to the 17th SOS C Flight at Tan Son Nhut AB, RVN as a Shadow navigator from October 1969 to September 1970. My CCTS class was the first replacements for the initial cadre of Shadow crews. Fortunately, when I arrived at TSN I drew Billy Baker as my instructor. He was a little hard-nosed, but one of the best. Since he was on Sid Petty’s crew, I trained with that crew. It was a great crew and Sid was the type of pilot that if the plane were falling apart, he’d find a way to keep it flying. At least, that is the perception he created.
Billy Baker taught me how to leapfrog fox mike (FM) radios from one artillery controller to the next and the whole new language called “Army”: down the redline; down the big blue; feet wet; firing illum my position max ord 5,000 feet, canister impact 3 klicks from my position; firing Hand-fire from my position max ord 6,000 feet impact 12 klicks firing fan from 210 Tango Oscar 255 for the next three zero mikes. I think the most valuable thing I learned from Billy, besides head-butting metal wall lockers, was to keep my eyes out the window. There were two reasons for this. First of all, the war and target area was outside that window and secondly, and more importantly, that window was your primary navigation aid. The AC-119G had TACAN for range and bearing, but GNC and JNC charts were things of the past. Our greatest navigation aid was that window. When I asked Billy Baker how to know when we were crossing into Cambodia, he told me to look out the window. Cambodia was where the bomb craters stopped (when I became an instructor, I used that same bit of instructional advice). I learned to use the window and to talk in pictorial descriptions: angel’s wing, parrots’ beak, and crow’s feet. In addition, I learned night map reading unlike anything covered in Nav School.
We navigated off an acetate-covered 1:250,000 map with 10-degree increment radials passed to us by the controlling agency Paddy or Paris. Once in the target area we used Army artillery charts that covered III, VI Corps, and a little of II Corps. It took two ammo cans to carry all of them. We dropped a marker in the target box, located the marker in the target box and then ran timing runs off of the marker. When we commenced firing, the navigator became the fire safety officer and kept track of ammo expended on a target. In addition to all of this, the nav was the escape-and- evasion-briefing officer for each target area. On top of that, we had to ensure compliance with the rules of engagement. After about a month of training, I passed my check ride.
The things I will always remember about my AC-119 gunship tour are the missions, the camaraderie, and the knowledge that our close air support for ground forces enabled them to do their mission and to make their DEROS dates.
One of my most rewarding missions was in support of Long Khat, a small town just south of the Parrot’s Beak. We were flying a routine mission in IV Corp. We were about 90 minutes into a routine mission when we received a request from Paddy to support a troops-in-contact situation. About a minute later, Paddy advised me that the situation had become a tactical emergency and that artillery could not be shut down because it was supporting the emergency. We decided to fly through the artillery. I got a sitrep from the ground controller, Bingo Marvel 49, who assured me there were no 50 cals in the area. We flew less than one-half of the first firing circle when the sky lit up with tracer fire and unmistakable popping of 50 cal. I called back to 49 who acknowledged there were five guns in the area including one set up in the dispensary. We eventually managed to shut down three of the gun positions. Meanwhile, 49 asked us to walk our bullets in towards his camp; we moved in to within 50 meters of his perimeter. We could see it was going to be a long night for 49 so I asked Paddy to scramble the Shadow alert bird. We pushed the on-station time to the limit. When I finally told 49 we were at bingo fuel you could detect the panic in his voice. I then got a call from Major Rick Stoner, the Nav on Lt. Col. Mac McCullough’s crew. Rick reported they were only one minute out. You could hear the sigh of relief in his voice when I gave 49 the word. On the approach to Tan Son Nhut our fuel gages read 400 pounds. The number one engine quit as we turned off the active. A couple of nights later I contacted 49 as we flew near his area of operation. He reported he was doing well and thanked us for making his DEROS good. He was catching the freedom bird in only ten more days.
Both Shadow crews were awarded the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. Since these are personal medals, they are worn without the metal bracket. The mission was written up in Readers Digest and in the Air Force History. As an aside, one of the hard-working gunners on the mission was Sgt. Stephen Roper who was supposed to be leaving the country in five days, but who, in the face of a shortage of gunners, volunteered for the mission.
Battle Damage at Fire Support Base Brown
Fire Support Base Brown was under attack. The base was about 10 klicks inside Cambodia north of Song Be. When we arrived on station, a C-130 Blind Bat was overhead dropping illumination flares. Since we were near the Central Highlands, we were actually at 2,200 feet AGL instead of 3,500 feet. We had seen sporadic 50 cal fire, but just short bursts. Then, after about an hour on station, a flare went off above us. It illuminated us just as we passed over a 50 cal position. We knew we got hit, but the plane flew normally so we stayed on station until we reached bingo fuel. When we got back to Tan Son Nhut, we learned we’d taken a round in the left engine air cooler and that another round had passed through the right landing gear struts and severed the right elevator control wire.
First Daylight Mission into Cambodia
In April 1970 (date approximate), we started flying night missions into Cambodia to protect the province capitals. However, in May 1970 our crew flew the first Cambodia day mission. We had flown the early mission, pulled strip alert, and completed our duty at 0600. The ops officer called our aircraft commander, Denny Davis, and asked if our crew could fly another mission. There was actually another crew available and our squadron commander, Lt. Col. White, had tried to send them. It was a crew of flight evaluators and instructors who were scheduled to fly a daylight firepower demonstration for the Army. Thus, TUOC declined to send the instructor crew after deciding there were too many valuable people on board. Lt. Col. White’s response was “What the hell is this, a suicide mission?” This became the mission that caused our crew to adopt the name “The Expendables.”
We broke ground at 1000 hours and headed for Kompong Thom for the first AC-119G daylight mission into Cambodia. The Crew was Denny Davis, A/C; Pat Moran, CP; Hank Alau, NAV, Rodney B. Sizemore, NAV, MSgt. Bill Abels FE, TSgt. Paden Gunner; SSgt. Emmons IO (I cannot recall the name of the other gunner). About 15 minutes after arriving, we got instructions from a Rustic FAC directing us south to the town of Skoun. When we got there we found a column of Kompong Thom-bound relief forces pinned down by enemy fire. It was a relief column like I had never seen, consisting of civilian buses and trucks and no military vehicles. Cloud cover forced us down to 1,500 feet where we were easily able to provide significant support. MSgt. Abels had those engines leaned out so well and milked for all they were worth. As a result, we were airborne an amazing six hours. When we landed at Tan Son Nhut, the number one engine quit as we turned off the runway onto the taxiway.
Lt. Col. White met us in the revetment and told us that they all thought we had crashed and were getting ready to launch a SAR effort. Once in C Flight Ops, we were met and debriefed by a MACV intelligence officer who was interested in the relief column progress, capability, and leadership. This was the first and only time we received this kind of a debriefing. When the intel officer left, he made a cryptic statement to the effect, “Yeah, these are the guys we trained and left, never to be heard from again.” This led us to suspect that this was not your ordinary intelligence officer.
Jungle Survival Training
For the field exercise of evasion at jungle survival school in the Philippines, I teamed up with Lt. Woodrow (Woody) Bergeron, a Louisiana Cajun and an F-4 backseater. Except for having snakes and some strange animals, the jungle environment didn’t seem that much different from Hawaii. The task was to spend the night in the jungle without being caught by the Negritos. We achieved this by first walking backward up a hill making sure that the grass continued pointing downhill. After about 100 yards of walking, we tunneled about 15 feet through the elephant grass, closed up the hole and flattened an area where we camped for the night. The area below had a banana patch. After eating our rations, I told Woody to throw the cans into the banana patch because that’s where the rats lived. Sure enough, in the middle of the night we could hear the rats fighting over the scraps. I slept well, but Woody was restless. He woke me twice because he heard the Negritos searching for us and trying to make us break cover. He woke me again because the condensation on the banana tree leaves was making a loud, unfamiliar sound he did not recognize. The next day when the choppers came in we popped flares, rode the horse collar, and were taken back to the main encampment for the bus ride back to the base, having surrendered none of our chits.
About three months later I ran into Woody at the Tan Son Nhut officer’s club. The first thing I asked him is why he had a cut on his nose and abrasions under his eyes. He said, “Remember that night we spent in the Philippine jungles? Well, that stuff really works.”
Woody had been shot down in Laos and had spent three days evading. Over 300 sorties were flow to get him out. The Pathet Lao probably killed his pilot.