Bruce Lee Byrd, Gunner
18th SOS, Da Nang and Nakhon Phanom, 1971
I was born in Detroit, Michigan, but grew up in Richmond, Virginia where I graduated from Hermitage High School in 1965. After high school I didn’t know what I wanted to be or where I wanted to go. I had not traveled much and thought I wanted to fly, so one day I went down to the local recruiter, took a lot of tests and the next thing I knew I had no hair and was saying “Yes sir” to just about everybody. That was in December 1968.
In 1970, while stationed at George AFB, California, I volunteered for gunship duty along with a buddy (Dick Atkinson) and we both wound up flying on Stinger gunships. From January until September 1971, I was flying from Da Nang AB, Vietnam before being reassigned to NKP, Thailand where I completed my tour in December 1971.
My most exciting AC-119 mission occurred on Halloween night 1971, near Ban Ban, Plain of Jars, Laos. I had a celebration planned that night after the mission since I had gotten a promotion and was sewing on Staff Sergeant Stripes after midnight. The moon was nearly full. It took almost an hour to fly to the target area – lots of time to think about what might be waiting for us. Bill Petrie was scanning that night from the right side of the aircraft and I was on the left. Unknown to us, the North Vietnamese had a little surprise planned for us. They had apparently wired a battery to some headlights on a damaged truck on one of the roads, and then placed a group of antiaircraft guns around it in a radius equal to our firing orbit. Just after we rolled into the firing circle, the entire sky opened up. It looked like every antiaircraft gun in Laos was firing at us. Streams of red and green tracers were flying at us from all directions; flack exploding above and below us. It seemed impossible that we could escape from that mess.
Bill was calling breaks to the left and at the same time I was also calling breaks to the right, but due to some malfunction in the intercom box, we could not hear each other’s calls. The AC could hear both of us and we were in a pretty miserable situation to say the least. After one particularly hard break to the left, the airplane was almost at a 90-degree angle, and I was staring at the ground out the left door with a twin stream of tracers coming right up at us. All I could do was key my microphone – it was too late to move the airplane – but my loud yell certainly got everybody’s attention. Somehow we all managed to maneuver through the barrage of AAA without getting hit. We finished the mission safely and returned to NKP. Everyone was completely exhausted from the ordeal – I drank half of a beer and went to bed.
I flew 141 combat missions on Stinger gunships, with pilots Don Main, Al Mokerski, Don Johnson, Earl Glass, and Al Barreras to mention a few. After my Southeast Asia tour I felt that a different calling in life beckoned, so I separated from the Air Force at Minot AFB, ND in September 1972. In 1974, I earned my B.S. at Virginia Tech and became a petroleum geophysicist working in the oil industry all over the U.S. and in quite a few foreign locales. In 1981, I earned an MBA from the University of Denver. Since 1991, I have operated an oil and gas consulting business based in Houston. I travel quite a bit and in 1995 I returned to Vietnam on business and revisited the old U.S. airbase at Da Nang – a trip that brought back quite a few old memories.
You can’t go through any kind of combat situation without being changed somehow. I will always remember the camaraderie and trust that each of us on the crew placed in the other and the amazing adventure we all shared. It was dangerous, terrifying, exciting, exhausting, and a thousand other things all rolled up in one. Most of all, I will always remember the sights and sounds and smells of that old airplane, and all of its quirks and rattles and dents.