I joined the Air Force on November 4, 1962 at the onset of the Cuban Missile Crisis. My first tour of duty in Vietnam was from 1967 to 1968 as a crew chief on C-123s with the 315th Air Commando Wing, 19th Air Commando Squadron, stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Saigon. On January 30, 1968, the Tet Offensive started and we, to say the least, were surprised by the Viet Cong attacks. I spent that first night in a fox hole on the edge of the flight line with a security policeman. Immediately, I began thinking that my scheduled departure date to leave Vietnam on February 13, 1968 would be delayed until enemy hostilities were defeated. I might have to extend my tour! Within a few days, U.S. and South Vietnamese armies (with a lot of help from U.S. Army AH-1G Cobra Gunships that had only arrived in country a few months before) had the place under control and I caught my freedom bird as scheduled.
After taking some leave, I reported for duty at Offutt AFB near Omaha, Nebraska in late February 1968 and was assigned to the 55th Field Maintenance Squadron. I started as a washer in the Aircraft Washing Shop. When I made Staff Sergeant, I was moved up to the NCOIC (Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge) of the Aircraft Tire Shop, Aircraft Egress System Shop and Aircraft Corrosion Control Shop.
In 1969 when I heard the Air Force was recruiting men to become Illuminator Operators on AC-119 gunship crews, I decided to apply for flight status. I knew that it was probable I would eventually be sent back to Vietnam for a second tour, so I volunteered, thereby somewhat controlling my future while achieving flight status.
Before I could report for gunship training, I needed flight gear. Offutt’s supply section needed to know my flight classification so they could look up what gear to issue to me. As with a lot of things at that time, my assignment was “classified”. My orders only specified that I would be flying on C-119G aircraft; no reference about gunships or my crew position. Because supply didn’t know what to issue for “classified”, they called up the chain of command. Someone in SAC headquarters told them to “issue one of everything” to me, which they did.
So here I was, going back to Vietnam to become a crewmember on a combat gunship, but not the type that saved me at Tan Son Nhut in 1968. This was a fixed wing AC-119G “Shadow” gunship, not a helicopter “Cobra” gunship. And this time, I would be flying onboard the gunship as a combat crewmember, helping fight the enemy. After flight training at Clinton County Air Force Reserve Base and combat crew training at Lockbourne AFB in Ohio, I attended survival schools at Fairchild AFB, Washington and Clark Air Base, Philippines.
While training in Ohio, I had driven back to Omaha and proposed to Barbara. The possibility that I might not survive was left unspoken, but we chose to do the sensible thing and have the wedding when I got back from Vietnam in February 1971. When I shipped out to Southeast Asia (SEA), I left the desert and arctic flight gear at home.
I arrived in Vietnam in February 1970 and spent a week or so at Phan Rang Air Base for in-country processing with the 17th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) and Shadow gunship flight duty check-outs. I was assigned to and reported for duty with C Flight of the 17th SOS at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in late February, almost two years to the day from the time I left Tan Son Nhut in 1968.
My first combat missions were flown with several different crews as I filled in where needed. By mid-March, I was permanently assigned to the crew of Aircraft Commander (AC) Pilot First Lieutenant Thomas L. Lubbers. Other crew members were Co-Pilot, First Lieutenant Charles M. Knowles; Navigator/NOS, Major Robert “Bob” Bokern; Navigator/NOS, Major Meredith “Andy” Anderson; Engineer, Master Sergeant Joseph C. Jeszeck; Gunner, Staff Sergeant Robert F. Fage Jr.; and Gunner, Sergeant Michael J. Vangelisti.
Our work schedule was to fly combat missions five nights in a row (all flights were flown between sunset and sunrise), then pull one night on alert (even though we also flew most of those nights) and then get a night off. One night right after we went Winchester (out of ammo) and were heading home, we spotted a convoy of sampans; so, the pilot flew low and we dumped the empty brass on them. We thought at least we would scare them and it did work. Everybody on those sampans started jumping overboard into the river. However, when we got back to base; we got in trouble for not turning in the empty brass casings.
Another night, nothing was happening so Jeszeck flashed the gunship’s flight lights (wing tips and tail). Some fool shot at us and we identified his position. We did a steep turn and opened fire on his position. He must have been sitting on an ammo dump because there was one hell of an explosion.
Last Flight of Shadow 78
The day of April 27, 1970 started out with our usual routine. I got up around noon or 1 PM. Then Fage and I had a late lunch, checked out the BX and went by the post office to check mail. I sent Barbara a letter. We reported for duty around 6 or 7 PM. This flight would have been around my 60th combat mission, so after three months on this assignment, I was settling into a routine. We (Shadow 78) were scheduled for the latest take-off time that night, so we were designated the second alert crew. The gunship we were going to fly that night was Aircraft 53-8155. It had served with dozens of Air Force units from Alaska to Europe in its seventeen years of service and had been converted to an AC-119G in 1968.
After putting our flight gear on the aircraft and doing the preflight checks, we went back to Shadow Operations and started the alert duty. As the IO, it was my job to go get the in-flight meals. This involved driving the Shadow Ops crew- cab pickup all the way around the runway to the other side of the base. In the meantime, the aircraft commander, Lt. Lubbers, and the assigned table navigator (either Maj. Anderson or Maj. Bokern) for that night’s mission would attend pre-mission Flight briefings on weather and the latest intelligence in the area of operations. I returned to Shadow Ops with our eight white boxes of in-flight lunches, and it wasn’t long before our crew was assembled by Lt. Lubbers for our mission briefing. We were given “the day’s codes” (to identify ourselves as friendly if something was to happen to us) and our call sign word which would be “Shadow 78” for that night’s flight.
As a side note, post-mission de-briefings were also standard for Lt. Lubbers and the table navigator, even though they had already completed a written mission report to submit to Shadow Operations. We all had long duty hours but they had even more.
Around 10:30 or 11:00 PM, our full crew of eight proceeded to our gunship located in one of the five concrete revetments just east of Shadow Ops to perform another pre-flight inspection. After we each completed our final ground checks, we had engines started about 11:45 PM. SSgt. Fage, Sgt. Vangelisti and I were strapped in on the gun deck. I was just forward of #1 gun and Fage was next to me. Van was on Fage’s other side nearest the cockpit. Maj. Bokern was in the NOS seat, a pull-down jump seat in the companion way on the left side of the airplane which led from the cargo area to just inside cockpit. Maj. Anderson was at the Navigator table, and the others were in their usual places, i.e. 1st Lt. Lubbers in the left seat, 1st Lt. Knowles in the right seat, and MSgt. Jeszeck in the engineer’s jump seat. And so began April 28, 1970, the last day for Aircraft S/N 53-8155 and the last flight of Shadow 78.
It was five minutes after midnight on April 28, 1970 when we started our take-off roll. Just after we got airborne, less than a minute into the flight, something happened to the left engine. The cockpit chatter changed. With my headset, I could hear the intercom but not the radio. We were used to hearing things like “gear up”, “flaps up” and “engine RPM.” There was some “dead air” on the intercom and then they were calling off the EMERGENCY CHECKLIST. The left engine was feathered and someone asked if the nose gear was up. I responded that I would check and started to un-strap to go check. That was when we hit the ground and had our first “bounce”. I had never gotten all the way up or maybe I was pulled back down. It all happened so fast.
The total flight from lift off to full stop was way under two minutes (1 ½ miles at about 90 MPH). It takes a lot longer to tell about all of this than it took to happen.
With the second ground hit “bounce”, the mid-wing fuel tank broke open and sprayed fuel all over the cargo (gun) deck and the three of us strapped in on the gun deck. It didn’t fully sink in that we were crashing until the third “bounce”. The bounces were just seconds apart so the first 3 bounces occurred in less than 15 seconds and in the first 30 seconds of the “crash”. I think it was about then that the aircraft turned sideways and kept sliding through what I later learned were rice paddies and the “bounces” were the plane hitting the dikes.
Then the flare launcher, which weighed about 2500 lbs., broke loose and shot forward, pinning the three of us down and setting the fuel on fire. I could feel myself burning. I think Fage and Van were being burned, too. Then, just as we were coming to a stop, the left engine (the one they feathered), broke loose and came through the fuselage. The engine actually freed me by cutting my seatbelt loose and knocking the flare launcher off me. The engine flying through the cargo bay pulled me up and into the center of the cargo deck. It picked up Fage and Van and carried them across the cargo deck and into the GPU. This happened in less than a second, but I can still see them being picked up and slamming into that GPU, and then the right wall opened up and the engine carried both of them out of the plane.
About two months later (I was in the hospital at Offutt AFB), I told my fiancé about seeing them go out that wall; then I just stopped remembering that it happened. I didn’t want to remember what I had seen, so I didn’t. It was many years later that those moments returned to my conscious memory, but I haven’t forgotten since. Even today, I remember seeing Fage and Van, my fellow crewmembers and my two best friends at that time being crushed by that engine.
The plane came to a stop. It had been well under two minutes from lift off to total stop. I started to shout, “Everyone get out! The plane is on fire!” Even though I knew that anyone left in the One Engine plane would know we had crashed and the plane was on fire, I kept yelling. I got out of the wreckage by going through the hole on the left side created by the engine that had broken loose. I was still on fire at this point. I raced away from the plane. I had lost my helmet and my head hurt, I knew my hands were burning and I think my head was too, but the adrenalin and pain somehow kept me moving.
Once I was outside the burning plane, I rolled around on the ground to put out the fire that was burning me. The plane’s flames were behind me and lit up the area. The first thing I saw was a Vietnamese guy sort of crouched down running between two buildings. I was sure we had been shot down and he was coming to get us. I had my .38 revolver but could not get it out because my hands were so burned. In reality, we had crashed into the man’s yard and he was running to get away from the burning wreckage. I circled around to the front of what was left of our aircraft where I found Major Bokern. There we were, only the two of us. The plane was pretty much destroyed. I don’t know if he told me, or if I just knew, the other crew members were gone! I told him to take my radio and call for help because I saw his radio had been smashed. He said, “Your radio isn’t working.” I looked down and saw that my radio had also been smashed. He got out his 29 cent penlight flashlight and started flashing what I assumed was Morse code to an aircraft coming towards us. The aircraft turned out to be a Huey helicopter coming to see what had happened and to help us if they could.
Having been on fire, I was pretty much a mess of burned flesh covered by a lot of rice paddy mud. Blood, mud and burned flesh — I thought I was going to die. The crew got us into the helicopter and took off. I was laying there screaming at them and they were holding me down, trying to keep me from becoming hysterical. My screaming was making them think I was even worse than I looked and that was pretty bad. What I was trying to tell them while screaming above the helicopter noise was that there was a seat belt from the helicopter seat swinging around smashing me in the face. With the noise and excitement of getting us to the hospital, they didn’t understand what I was trying to tell them and just kept holding me down.
According to the accident report and medical records, I was in surgery at the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon ten minutes after the time of the crash. That is one reason they were able to do so much for me. Typically, with the kinds of burns and other injuries I had, they didn’t expect me to survive with all of my limbs. The corpsman came by and said, “We are going to have to cut your boots off to check your feet! Is that OK?” I said, “Do anything you want to; just keep me alive.”
It turned out I was not as badly hurt as was originally thought and they put me back together pretty well. The first medical report at the 3rd Field Hospital on April 28 said I had 39% second and third degree burns of my body. I also had lacerations to the back of my head, lacerations above my eyes, hemorrhage of left eye and a lot of cuts to the exposed parts of my body. On the second report on May 12, 1970 they said I had 12% deep second degree burns on my face, both ears, back of head, both hands, and forearms. I also had lacerations on my head (the back of my scalp was torn loose), effusion (swelling) of my right knee, reason unknown, lacerations above left eye, hemorrhage of left eye and a lot of cuts and scratches. I also had an infection to my right ear that was not responding to treatment.
Major Bokern saw me into surgery. Then he called Shadow Operations and sat down to wait for me to come out of surgery. That night, he had been put to bed and when he woke in the morning, he couldn’t move. They found out he had a compression fracture in his lower back.
He had been in the front of the plane as the nose rolled over on itself, crushing everybody in the cockpit except him because he was strapped into the jump seat the furthest back. He tried to climb out of the astrodome but couldn’t. His seat belt was still on. When he released his seat belt, he fell out and landed on his head. At least he got out!
I did not know that Maj. Bokern had called the squadron and told them we were alive, and in the hospital, so you can understand my surprise when I woke up to find my roommate and some of the other guys sitting beside my bed.
The next day (about 6 AM on April 29, less than 36 hours after the crash), I was air evacuated to the burn ward at Camp Zama in Japan. I was not able to move for the first several days. I laid in bed with a pile of pillows on my chest and my hands resting on the top. This lowered the blood pressure and the pain in my hands. Two times a day I was taken for “treatment” in the “bath”. I was lowered into a warm whirlpool bath and as the water softened the bandages and skin, nurses debrided (picked off) the bandages and dead skin. Obviously, this was miserable, but it was nothing compared to the sulfamylon that came after the bath — now that hurt! The second day that I was in the burn ward, two people came to see me. One was the Red Cross lady who wrote some letters for me. The other was a hospital administrator, who brought me some reading material. It was the Social Security rules on “total disability”. I was lying in bed 24 hours a day and all I had to do was listen as one of the guys read to me about the rules on total disability.
After I was ambulatory, they assigned me to assist others. The first person I was assigned to was the only other Air Force guy in the ward. This guy had been climbing down a rope to rescue someone when his Jolly Green helicopter was shot down. It landed on top of him. I sat by his bed and talked to him, trying to make him feel better. He had burns on 97% of his body. He didn’t make it. That put things back in perspective for me. I was alive.
I spent about two weeks in Japan and on May 12 they flew me back to the States. I had been asked what base I wanted to go to. When transferring to another base in the Air Force, you always get to request an assignment, but there are never promises that you’ll get your first choice. This was one of the times when they really meant it. If the base had a hospital that could care for me, I could go there. I chose Offutt AFB because that was where Barbara was. I was in the hospital there for about 9 weeks, the first two in isolation because of the infection in my right ear. They treated it by removing the top ¼ inch of my ear and I was released as an outpatient. Barbara and I got married on July 12, 1970 and went on our honeymoon while I was still technically assigned to the hospital as a patient. When we returned, we were notified that my new assignment would be March AFB in California. We left Omaha in late July to start our new life together. I was one of the lucky ones. I was alive, fairly well healed and had a new loving wife.
What was the cause of the crash? The accident investigation board found that the bushing on the propeller shaft of the failed left engine was installed improperly. This was discovered because when the left engine broke away from the crash, it did not burn up.
We had two of the best Shadow pilots in the unit and no one on the crew could have prevented the crash. It was well known that the AC-119s had a lack of horsepower. We tried to cram in all the ammo we could on each flight so we almost always took off at or near maximum weight. Consequently, if an aircraft lost an engine on takeoff, it would result in a negative climb rate. When one engine failed at an altitude of just 120 feet, the other engine did not have enough power to bring the gear up and maintain flight. From the humor of the “Can we cut off your boots?” story to the tragedy of people needlessly dying, the whole thing was typical of Vietnam.
In December 1986, I went to the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. for the first time and I found my crewmates’ names. It was already dark and the spotlights were the only illumination. I can’t ever express how I felt. I think that was when my memory opened up and I started remembering what really happened, what I had seen.
I often go to the Wall and stand in front of Panel 11W, looking at lines 62 through 66, staring at crewmates’ names permanently etched in stone. The names are at my eye level. I just stand there, and ask myself why. Shadow 78 and lost crew members live on in my memory. Especially its last, short flight.
I retired from the Air Force in 1981 after 21 years of active duty service.