James Alvis, Crew Chief
71st SOS, Nha Trang and Phan Rang, 1969

I was born, raised and educated in Indianapolis, Indiana. While working and attending Purdue University in the mid-60s, I was faced with the dilemma of staying in college or being drafted. To avoid being drafted, I enlisted in the Air Force Reserve unit at Bakalar AFB, Columbus, Indiana on 2 December 1964. This seemed to be the logical thing to do in order to reduce or eliminate my chances of possibly going to Vietnam, so I thought. Following basic training in January and February 1965, I completed Reciprocating Engine Aircraft Maintenance School at Sheppard AFB, Wichita Falls, TX.

Upon reporting to my reserve unit in June 1965 I was assigned to the flight line to assist other Crew Chiefs with the inspection, maintenance, and pre-flighting of C-119G aircraft. After completing a series of correspondence courses, I was promoted to Sergeant and assigned to a Crew Chief position in 1967.

The biggest military shock of my life occurred on 11 April 1968. While at work someone mentioned they heard on the local radio station that an Air Force Reserve unit from Columbus, Indiana had been called to active duty. Panic and disbelief set in. After gathering more information from subsequent newscasts, I realized it was true. As it turned out, a total of 24,500 reservists and guardsmen across the country were activated that day, not just the unit I was assigned to. I’m sure most other reservists were asking the same question, “Why me?” At the time, I had no idea why the 71st Tactical Airlift Squadron was selected from about 14 other C-119 reserve squadrons across the country. I would later learn the 71st and its sister squadron the 72nd were two of the best prepared and trained C-119 squadrons in the country. Following the recall notice we had 30 days to get our personal affairs in order prior to our report date of 13 May 1968 at Bakalar AFB.

Shortly after reporting for active duty on 13 May we learned of the squadron’s new mission. The 71st Tactical Airlift Squadron would be transferring to Lockbourne AFB, Ohio to transition from the normal cargo aircraft configuration to a new gunship platform. Nearly 400 officers and enlisted personnel, 18 C-119G aircraft and maintenance equipment completed the move by 11 June 1968. On 15 June the squadron was redesignated 71st Air Commando Squadron, and redesignated a second time to 71st Special Operations Squadron on 8 July 1968.

During the summer and fall of 1968, the 71st SOS received AC-119G gunships from the Fairchild-Hiller facility in St. Augustine, FL. Air crew and maintenance training increased at a rapid pace as everyone had to become familiar with the new gunship platform. On 27 November 1968, Deputy Defense Secretary Nitze approved the deployment of the 71st SOS to Southeast Asia.

Flight crews were selected to ferry the 18 AC-119G aircraft to Vietnam. The ferry crews were composed of a Pilot, Co-pilot, Navigator, Flight Engineer, and Crew Chief. Being a Crew Chief, I was assigned to ferry crew #17 with Pilots Major Don Horak and Major Bill O’Brien, Navigator Capt. John Martin, and Flight Engineer SSgt. Henry Young to ferry aircraft #52-5925 to Vietnam. We departed Lockbourne AFB on 6 January 1969 to pick up our ferry aircraft at the Fairchild-Hiller facility. Following a thorough acceptance flight of aircraft #925, we began the ferry mission on 7 January 1969. Our ferry route was along the southern United States to California, Alaska, Midway Island, Wake Island, Guam, Philippines, and finally arriving at Nha Trang, Vietnam on 22 January 1969. Total flying time was about 72 hours. After arriving at Nha Trang, I was assigned to the flight line night shift. After three or four days of shift work, I decided if the war did not kill me, the night shift work would.

That finally changed on 13 February 1969 when 15 of us maintainers were assigned to the FOL (Forward Operating Location) at Phan Rang where I had the opportunity to work the day shift. I spent the remainder of my time in Vietnam with B Flight at Happy Valley (Phan Rang). My biggest scare at Phan Rang came at 0130 hours on 22 February; the base came under a mortar attack. The air-raid siren was just outside our barracks, about 50 feet from my window. I was sound asleep when it went off and I literally rolled from the top bunk to the floor. It scared the hell out of me. There were many more mortar attacks but we became used to them (complacent) after a while. To this day, every time I hear the severe weather sirens go off, I still recall those moments at Phan Rang.

Following the reservists return home to Indiana on 6 June 1969, I returned to Purdue University and completed my bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering Technology and worked in the natural gas industry for over 40 years. During the 1970s and 80s, my main interest was auto racing photography. I photographed seventeen Indianapolis 500 mile races and numerous road racing events. My most recent interests include learning about and presenting the history of the 434th and 71st from WW II to the present. I volunteer at the Atterbury/Bakalar Air Museum on the grounds of the former Bakalar AFB, now the Columbus Municipal Airport. The museum contains many historical artifacts pertaining to the 434th Troop Carrier Group (WW II) and the 71st SOS. I am also a member of the Columbus/ Bakalar Chapter #288 of the Air Force Association.

Not until the mid-to-late 1990s did I take an interest in the 71st SOS from a historical standpoint. I started attending 71st SOS reunions and meeting many of my reservist and regular Air Force friends. I have learned through maturity the importance of the common bond we share and have made many new lifelong friendships from casual acquaintances of many years ago. I value these friendships very highly. That is the whole purpose of attending reunions.