Robert F. Bokern, Navigator
17th SOS, Tan Son Nhut, 1970-71
Robert F. Bokern was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1929. Robert, better known as Bob, graduated from Christian Brothers College in 1947 and entered St. Louis University where he graduated in 1952. In 1970, Bob earned a Masters of Arts degree from Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut.
In January 1952, Second Lieutenant Robert Bokern entered active duty in the United States Air Force at Scott AFB, Illinois, having been commissioned through the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) at St. Louis University. His desire to fly motivated Bob to enlist in ROTC.
After completing navigator training school at Ellington AFB, Texas and Mather AFB, California in 1953, he was assigned to B-26 bomber training and then flew 28 B-26 missions in Korea during 1953. Upon returning from the Korean War, he was assigned as an instructor at the navigation training school in Harlingen, Texas from 1954 to 1955. From 1955 to 1957, Bob was physiological training officer (PTO) at Perrin AFB, Texas, the only navigator on an F-86 fighter base, where he got a lot of time in T-33s. From 1957 to 1963 Bob was assigned to Lowry AFB, Colorado as a PTO. His next assignment was PTO at Wiesbaden AB, Germany during 1963-1966.
Returning stateside, Bob was assigned to Trinity College, Hartford Connecticut as Professor of Aerospace Science and simultaneously to the University of Connecticut, when the PAS there suddenly retired, from 1966-70.
Major Robert Bokern then received orders assigning him to AC-119 gunships. Major Bokern was assigned to the 17th Special Operations Squadron, C Flight at Tan Son Nhut Air Base during 1970-71. As a Shadow gunship navigator/sensor operator, Bob again experienced the excitement and uncertainty of war and aerial combat. But nothing, during his Vietnam tour of duty or his entire Air Force career, compares to his experience in surviving the crash of Shadow 78 at Tan Son Nhut that took the lives of six fellow crewmen.
Major Bokern was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal w/OLC along with various unit citations and other awards for his service in Korea. All those who served with Bob at Tan Son Nhut remember him as an outstanding officer and genuine gentleman. Bob recalls the camaraderie and cooperation exhibited among flight crew members and ground crews of Fighting C Flight.
After his Vietnam tour, Bob was assigned to KC-135s at March AFB, California where he refueled BUFFs and fighters over the Gulf of Tonkin. Bob retired from the Air Force in January 1974.
Once again a civilian after 22 years on active duty, Bob and his wife, Joyce, settled in Torrance, California. He worked for Daniel Freeman Memorial Medical Center for 27.5 years as Vice President and Administrator of their Marina facility. He retired a second time in 2002; however, he was coaxed back to work for St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach in 2003 where he currently works as a negotiator with their unions.
The Last Flight of Shadow 78
The phone rang in Shadow operations, “C” Flight of the 17th SOS, at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. It was shortly after midnight on the morning of April 28, 1970. Jose Cachuela, Night Duty Officer, answered. A distant sounding voice informed Jose that an army helicopter pilot had just notified the base that an airplane had crashed and exploded in flames. It was the same plane that had just taken off from Tan Son Nhut. Everyone on board had been killed, Jose was told.
Minutes earlier, Jose had heard the roar of the engines of Shadow 78 revving up. Then slowly they had faded after the AC-119 roared down the runway and into the night. As was their usual habit, the maintenance crew had watched as the Shadow lifted off. But this night was different. The gunship rose, faltered and did not gain altitude. Finally the maintenance crew could no longer see it.
Stunned by the phone call, Jose immediately initiated emergency procedures, which began by him notifying everyone on the emergency list. Then his thoughts turned to the few hours before that ill-fated flight.
The Shadow 78 crew had shown up about three hours before. They had gone through the routine briefings, weather, intelligence, equipment, etc. and pre-flighting of the airplane. Then, as usual, the crew assumed alert in Shadow Operations until their scheduled takeoff time at midnight.
What stunned Jose the most was that his Vietnam buddy, Bob Bokern was one of the Navigators on the flight. They had gone through gunship training together, flew to Vietnam together and at Da Nang, asked to be stationed together, which had sent both of them to Saigon a few months before. He thought of the few hours they spent together, along with the rest of the crew, laughing and talking about old times while Shadow 78 was on alert.
Shadow 78 carried a normal crew of eight. The Aircraft Commander, Lt. Thomas L. Lubbers, Co-pilot, Lt. Charles M. Knowles, Navigator/NOS, Maj. Meredith “Andy” Anderson, Navigator/NOS, Maj. Robert “Bob” Bokern, Flight Engineer, MSgt. Joseph C. Jeszeck, Gunner, SSgt. Robert F. Fage Jr., Gunner, Sgt. Michael J. Vangelisti, Illuminator Operator, SSgt. Allen Chandler.
Two survived the crash of Shadow 78 that night, Maj. Bob Bokern and SSgt. Allen Chandler. This is the story of the last flight of Shadow 78 as recalled by one of the survivors, Bob Bokern.
As it is with most who served in Vietnam, some of my memories seem as fresh as yesterday and some have left long ago to rest in a deep fog. When we talk with others, some memories are brought back to life. But for the most part we have put them behind us.
I have a difficult time remembering what happened before that ill-fated flight. Maybe it’s because I don’t want to. Mostly, I believe It’s because everything we did was so routine. We did what we had to do without really thinking about it. What I do think about now is the sequence of events that made me a survivor rather than a name on the Vietnam Wall.
I was assigned to Shadow 78 a few weeks prior to April 28th. I was the “new” member to the crew. Before then, I flew with various crews, but Shadow 78 was to become my permanent assignment. It was a good crew, both professionally and personally. We worked well together and most importantly we all got along. I had flown about three or four missions with Shadow 78 before that night in April. Andy Anderson and I decided that we would trade off each mission as either table Navigator or NOS (Night Observation Sight Operator). This seemed to be fair to the both of us and we thought that it would work well, but it did have its problems.
This was the era prior to “C” Flight flying into Cambodia. We primarily flew in III Corps, which was the area just north of Saigon, and occasionally in IV Corps, which was the Delta region, just south of Saigon. The navigators, who flew in Southern Vietnam, know that there was a vast difference for the table Navigator flying in III Corps compared to flying in IV Corp. When we flew in III Corps, we worked every second of the flight, with all of the FM radio artillery (Artie) calls, navigating, clearances, firing clearances, etc. We were really worn out after a mission. On the other hand, flying in IV Corps was a “piece of cake” compared to III Corps. Little or no Artie, very few radio calls, and clearances were easier to get. It was almost a “joy ride” compared to flying in III Corps.
On Shadow 78’s previous flights it just so happened that Andy was assigned the Navigator’s table when we went to III Corps, and when I was assigned the table we went to IV Corps. Needless to say, Andy began to think that this was completely unfair. He chidingly told me that I would have to take the table on the next III Corps flight whether it was my turn or not. I agreed; we shook hands on it.
Well, the next flight, I was scheduled to be the NOS, but, when we arrived at Shadow Ops., we were scheduled for III Corps, and so, in accordance with our “gentlemen’s agreement” I said that I would take the table. I remember doing the normal things that night. During the preflight, I put all of my Navigation equipment on the table in the airplane. Then after the routine briefings, we sat alert until our scheduled takeoff time. This was probably one of the most boring times for crew members, just waiting to take off or be scrambled for a TIC, “Troops in Contact”, mission. Each of us had our own way of spending this time. I remember talking with the rest of the crew and to Jose Cachuela while sitting alert. Then the time for takeoff came.
The crew went to the airplane, took their positions and everything through engine start was normal. Then things began to happen. I was at the table and Andy was down below with the gunners and Illuminator Operator waiting to taxi and take off. It was normal for the NOS to sit in the forward area of the downstairs cargo compartment during takeoff. Then came a radio call. Our mission was changed from III Corps to IV Corps. I can hear Andy today, complaining to me “of all of the lucky guys, here you go again getting preferential treatment and not having to go to III Corps.” I said something like, “Well if you want to, I’ll trade with you and take the NOS and you can have the table and I’ll take the next two III Corps missions”. Much to my surprise, Andy said it was a deal and that he would take the table. So, just before taxing out to the runway, I left all of my navigation equipment on the table and Andy and I traded seats. He sat at the table and I went down below and strapped in at the front of the cargo compartment. I remember looking at the gunners sitting up front and the IO sitting in the back.
Curiosity and a desire to be involved came over me. I never did like sitting down below as a “passenger,” so at the last minute, as we were taxing out and just before the takeoff roll, I decided to move to the jump seat to see what was going on in the cockpit.
In the cockpit of an AC-119G model, the Aircraft Commander sat in the left seat, the copilot in the right seat. The flight engineer sat in the middle and just behind the pilot and copilot. The table navigator was just slightly right and behind the copilot. The jump seat was a pull-down seat in the companion way on the left side of the airplane which led from the cargo area to the cockpit area. From this seat I could see the pilot, copilot and the engineer. I couldn’t see Andy as he was around on the right side of the cockpit.
The crew went through the normal checklist and engine run-up. Everything was normal. I remember that Tom really checked the engines thoroughly each time and made sure that we had full power since the airplane was known to be underpowered and overloaded. Before each takeoff, he made sure that we had full power before brake release. This night was no different. Tom was a very cautious pilot and the crew respected him for it.
I remember receiving the usual clearances and finally taking the runway for the final takeoff clearance. The engines went to full power and we started our roll down the runway. Takeoff was normal and the airplane left the ground. Then after gaining about 100 to 150 feet, I heard someone say over the intercom that we had lost our right engine. I remember seeing the pilot and engineer pushing everything forward on the left engine and feathering the right engine. At about the same time we lost most of the electrical power. The lights, radios and intercom went out. I couldn’t see the engine instrument lights anymore. The pilot, copilot and engineer were fighting to do everything to keep the airplane flying but being overweight, the AC-119G would just not maintain altitude, much less climb.
I remember sitting in the jump seat wearing a Nomex (fire retardant) flying suit, helmet and gloves and saying to the plane, “Fly, fly, climb, climb, don’t crash.” Then we hit. You also do a little praying and use some other words. They say that “Oh shit” is often the last expression you hear from crew members during an emergency. I do have to say that I was no exception. Fortunately, they were not my last words.
Being a crew member and not being able to do anything but just sit is a terrible feeling. There is no doubt in my mind that the pilot, copilot and engineer did everything humanly possible to keep Shadow 78 flying. The time was about 22 minutes after midnight and it was very dark outside. From my seat I could see the head of the pilot, copilot and engineer silhouetted against the glass of the windshield. I could not see the table navigator.
When we hit, there was a horrible scraping, crunching sound from underneath and other noises I can’t describe. I did not have shoulder straps, so my head went forward and between my legs. I literally kissed my butt. I must have lost my helmet at the same time. I was not aware of any fire. Yet.
All of the following happened in seconds, but it felt like a very long time. I remembered reading in the “Dash One”, the AC119G Flight Manual, that upon a crash landing, the nose of the airplane tended to go forward and rotate under the fuselage. For some reason as we were sliding forward, I remembered this. I found out later that we had gone down in a dry rice paddy and that the right wing had hit a tree and that we were sliding forward at an angle.
As I sat there, with the airplane sliding forward at an angle, I started to see the cockpit roll under in a very slow dreamlike way. The right side started to go under first. If you take your right hand and make a fist and then turn it slowly down and to the right, it would give you some idea of what I saw. I saw the copilot go over and down, then the pilot and then the flight engineer. It was just like riding a roller coaster over the top of a big hill. All I could do was hang on and wait my turn. There was no doubt in my mind that they were all killed and that I was next.
The next thing that happened seemed to occur in a split second. I felt myself turned and flung in a somersault head to toe and I thought that this was it. But suddenly everything stopped. I was just there. Silence. All the noise had stopped. Then I was aware that the plane was burning. I could hear the roar of the fire and feel heat, but it was completely dark where I was. I could hear the ammo “cooking off” in the fire. It was like being in the middle of a huge popcorn popper. All I could hear was: POP, POP, POP, POP, POP. My next thought was that I had survived the crash and now I was either going to burn to death or get shot by one of our own bullets flying around.
It was then that my training kicked in and I realized I had to get out of there. What had happened was that the entire cockpit area had turned upside down and the top of the cockpit was now underneath the plane. I tried to move and couldn’t, nor could I see anything. It was then I realized I was hanging upside down by my seat belt. I pushed back, released the belt and fell – about two inches. I took out a small flashlight that I always carried in the cigarette holder on the left sleeve of my flight suit. I found out that I was in a very small round area surrounded by crushed metal. I was upside down, in a fetal position, and thought that I was trapped in a snarl of twisted metal.
In fact I remember the accident investigators later asking me many times where I was. They had visited the crash area and they said that it was impossible for me to be where I said I was. The plane had completely disintegrated. To this day I don’t think that they believed me. I must have gotten out just before the plane disintegrated. There was a picture of the burned-out rubble in the Air Force Times.
But it was all true. I saw, just to my left and slightly on an angle, the astrodome, which normally is on the roof of the cockpit. I saw the escape handle and immediately pulled it and kicked at the dome. The whole thing went out. I started to climb out head first and got about half way out. But I couldn’t go any further; I still had my parachute harness on and it was caught on the wreckage as I was trying to squeeze through the small opening. I immediately went back through my small hole, struggled to take off the harness and started out the hole again, head first. I was climbing out and was trying to stand up but couldn’t. I couldn’t understand why. Then I discovered we had crashed against a dike on the right side, which had stopped the airplane and saved my life. The roof of the cockpit had crashed through the dike and the astrodome ended up just on the other side of it. When I was trying to stand up I was actually going downhill on the side of the dike, but it took me a few seconds to realize it. I ended up rolling down the side of the dike. When I looked around toward the back of the plane, it was blazing and the popping sounds filled the night. I could see the two booms sticking up and that was all. The rest was in flames. I didn’t think that anyone was back there. There was no cockpit left that I could see.
We were taught to get away from a burning plane as fast as you can in case it blows up. I remember this going through my mind. The plane had come to rest at the intersection of two rice paddy dikes. For some reason I went around the front of the plane from the right to the left side. I couldn’t see or hear anyone, just a burning piece of twisted steel. I went around to the top of the other dike and went to the left side of the airplane. It was then that I thought I heard a voice. I started toward the rear of the plane on the left side. Then I saw Allen Chandler, the IO, coming toward me. When he got closer I could see that he had severe hand and face burns. I asked him if there was anyone else back there and he said no, that they were all dead. I decided we had better get away from the plane. I remember grabbing at Allen and stumbling toward the dike. Later, Allen told me he had just walked out of the rear of the airplane. There had been no airplane around him. It had completely disintegrated.
For whatever reason, I decided to go to the top of the dike. I still had my survival radio. I took it out and tried to contact the Tan Son Nhut tower – or anyone. But I couldn’t get the radio to work and Allen did not have a radio on him.
It was then I realized we were on top of the dike and silhouetted by the fire of the aircraft. I was thinking we survived the crash and now we were going to get shot by the bad guys. Instead I heard the distinct sound of a helicopter. I again took out my flashlight and began to send SOS signals in the direction of the sound. It was an army HU-1E coming toward us. I kept flashing the SOS. He made a low and fast pass to look us over and then he circled and came right at us. He never did touch down. He hovered a few feet above the ground and I found myself looking down the barrel of a 50 caliber machine gun. All I could remember was that during our training program they told us if we wanted to identify ourselves to each other, to cuss, because the bad guys could not cuss very well in English. So, here I was cussing up a storm at the guy behind the 50 caliber and he was cussing at me at the same time. I guess my cussing won him over, because he swung the gun around and grabbed at Chandler to pull him aboard and then me. As soon as my feet left the ground, he took off. This whole thing took seconds. Those army guys don’t play around, but I tell you I was never so happy to see them. I never did find out who they were so I could thank them.
They took us to the 3rd Army Field Hospital in Saigon and another story starts.
Because Allen had severe burns, they put him on a stretcher in an outside area with many lights. I remember about six to eight medics working on him. I found a bench a short distance away and sat down. Then, when I looked up all of the lights were off and all of the people were gone. I looked around and saw a small light about 50 yards away. I went there and found a corpsman sitting by a desk. He asked where I came from and I told him that I got off of the helicopter and wanted to call my squadron. He said, “Were you in that crash?” I said, “Yes” and the next thing I knew he was on the phone and some medics came out.
It was then that I got a chance to use the phone. I called the squadron and guess who answered? Of course, it was Jose, who was still the duty officer. He answered in the usual manner and I said “Jose”, he must have recognized my voice and immediately said in a quivering voice, “Who is this?” I said “Bob” and I’ll never forget this, He said in a very quiet and strange voice, really stretching the words out, “Where…. are…. you?” I guessed he thought that he was getting a direct call from either heaven or hell, since he had been told that the plane exploded and that everyone was dead. I told him what happened.
They put me in “ICU” for observation; it looked like a large gym. They gave me pills to put me to sleep, but I was too excited to sleep. Finally, some army nurse gave me a shot and I went out like a light. I woke up the next morning to go back to the base but couldn’t move. That’s when they found out that I had a compression fracture in my lower back.
When I finally left the hospital and returned to the squadron, I was shocked to see the door to my room completely sealed off with yellow tape. I pinched myself to see if I was really alive.
I went off flying duty for about three months and became a permanent duty officer during that time. I just could not sit around in my room for very long. Allen was sent to Japan and finally back to the States where they could care for his severe burns. Allen and I have contacted each other a few times over the years and I am happy to say that both of us are doing fine.
I had a few burn spots on my face and wrists. All of the Velcro on my nomex flying suit was melted and fused together. I honestly don’t remember the fire being that hot. The suit was also torn around the seat area. I still have it.
I remember that first flight after going back to flying duty. By that time we were Cambodian regulars. It wasn’t the flight, but the takeoff that worried me. After the first takeoff it then became routine again.
I had put most of this out of my mind, although one never really forgets, and moved on with my life. That is, until I paid my first visit to the Vietnam Memorial Wall. It is another experience I will never forget. I have visited the Wall many times as my daughter lives in nearby Bethesda. But I will never forget that first visit. Getting the information from the directory, walking down the path, finding panel 11W, lines 62 thru 66 and then seeing the names of my crew members permanently etched in stone. What a shock. It brings back old memories very vividly. I realized, that, but for a few twists of fate, my name could be up there. Believe me my eyes welled up, tears came, even though I tried to hold them back, and I just took a step back and stared at the wall. For a few moments there was no one around me, just me, my thoughts and those names on that wall.