James “Jim” Michael Bennes, Navigator
18th SOS, Da Nang, Nakhon Phanom, Bien Hoa, and Pleiku, 1971-72
I was born in 1940 at Thief River Falls, Minnesota and now call Valparaiso, Florida my home town. After I graduated from Lincoln High School in Thief River Falls in 1958, I went on to the University Of Minnesota, and Southern Colorado State University, graduating in 1967.
I joined the Air Force because I was about to be drafted in the Army in 1963, so I enlisted in the Air Force instead. I was initially stationed at Ent AFB from 1963-1967. While there, I completed my college degree through the bootstrap program, and received my commission in 1967 from OTS.
After AC-119K training at Lockbourne AFB in 1968-1969, I was at Da Nang from 1970-71. Then, after Vietnam, I was assigned as an AC-119K Instructor NAV/FLIR/NOS at Hurlburt from 1971-73, then moved to AC-130s at Hurlburt until I retired in 1987.
My most exciting AC-119 mission was May of 1970. I was subbing for a NOS who had broken his arm getting off the plane the night before – Mr coordination. I was scheduled to go on R&R to Hawaii the next day and we didn’t expect much action that night as it was the wet season and not much happening over the trail. It was the first flight for the FLIR operator and we wanted to get as much training for him as possible. The first 2 hours were non eventful with the FLIR operator getting experience. Then we came upon what looked like a stranded truck and began firing on it with the FLIR. After a few minutes we began to get AAA, which surprised us after what had been a quiet night. Of course, after 6 months on the trail getting fired upon about every night, we had become complacent and really didn’t think those gunners on the ground could hit us. So, when the first rounds were inaccurate, we just continued firing. Then the left scanner called out” AAA nine o’clock, should go under us”. Next thing we hear is a tremendous BANG! The Nav called back to the scanner, “Ah, scanner I don’t think that went under us”. The pilot said he was still able to control the airplane, and we RTB’d (Returned to Base). We couldn’t tell where on the airplane the round hit but we weren’t losing fuel and all the flight controls worked. Our escorts stayed with us until we got ‘over the fence.’ As we were about to land the pilot called for 50% flaps, and the copilot reminded him we didn’t know where the damage was and we better make a no flap landing. After landing and inspecting the airplane, we found a huge hole in the left wing flap and about 120 shrapnel holes in the left side of the fuselage. A few holes were just inches from where the left scanner had been standing. The new FLIR operator did not have much to say, and he seemed to be wondering, “What in the hell have I got myself into with a whole year of this staring me in the face”. Needless to say I was ready for R&R the next day. Once I got back from R&R, I was much more concerned about AAA and luckily didn’t take any more hits the remainder of my stay in beautiful Da Nang.
One thing I will always remember about my time with AC-119 gunships is the great people in the AC-119 gunship, especially at Da Nang. I have kept in touch with many of these people through the years, and when Fred Graves, Norm Evans, and Bill Petrie started to work on a reunion in 2000, I was all for it. I’m really glad we all get the chance to get together at our reunions.
Editor’s Note: Jim, Fred, Norm, and Bill planned our first ever AC-119 Gunship Reunion in 2000. They are known as the Founding Fathers of our AC-119 Gunship Association. We thank them all!