Stanley (Jim) Cooper, Navigator
17th SOS, Tuy Hoa and Phu Cat, 1969-70
I was born in New Rochelle, NY, which I consider my home. In June 1961, I graduated from New Rochelle High School. I then earned a B.A. in History, Law, and Psychology at Birmingham Southern College, Birmingham, AL in 1966. I attended Cumberland Law School in Birmingham until December 1967 when I applied to OTS, as an alternative to the draft. After OTS, I earned my navigator flight wings along with orders for the AC-119G Shadow program that included UNT classmates Rusty Napier, Ken Shedd, and Chuck Williams. We were the first batch of active duty second lieutenants to arrive in Vietnam as replacements for members of the 71st SOS reserve unit. I really wanted to go to combat. It was my choice to do that. One of the reasons was that my best friend whom I went to law school with at the University of Tennessee was a part of ROTC and he was over there. We had contacted each other. We were going to try and get together while we were in Vietnam. Unfortunately, after I got my assignment, I had been through Clinton County and Lockbourne Air Force Base, and I knew when I was going to go in country. I had sent him a letter saying I’d try to get together. The day before I left Clinton County, I got a letter back, undelivered, saying that he had been killed in action. I kind of dedicated my tour to helping other guys, good people like that, to come back. I was highly motivated while I was over there.
I arrived in October 1969 and was assigned to A Flight flying out of Tuy Hoa. I really didn’t know what that meant at the time, but basically they divided us up into sections and we covered different parts of the country. A Flight covered the northern third of the country. I was delighted to be flying as many as 5 missions a week in northern I Corps, allowing me to complete 100 combat missions, upgrade to instructor navigator and earn an Air Medal and DFC in my first 5 months of flying. In mid-April 1970, A Flight was transferred to Phu Cat AB, where I continued flying, mostly in Vietnam, with several out-country missions in Laos and Cambodia, until my DEROS in October 1970. I flew 185 night combat missions during my tour and I would have flown more if I could have.
When I got there, the crew I was assigned to had transferred from Nha Trang where they first brought in the 119 gunships. They had brought them up to Tuy Hoa and had been in country a little more than six months. They had a lot of experience and so it was good to work with those guys. They basically trained me and got me up to speed. Ed Thompson was the Table Nav and Bobby Edwards was the pilot. They were really good guys. We were the first group of lieutenants to come into our outfit from active duty. The rest of them had been pulled in from different assignments. There were a couple of us. My roommate was Rick Stitson. He went to Brown, Ivy League school and was a pilot. There were a couple other ones that were navs that were there at the same time. I guess the timing of that was the Air Force had managed to get enough of the slots available and get people trained to have them go directly into gunships. Before, they were pulling them out of other airplanes to go into gunships so I guess you might say our first aircraft was the gunship. We had nothing to base anything on. We had no experience in any other airplane. This, for us, was our first experience and we thought everything was supposed to be like this. We thought war was supposed to be like this, but had nothing to base it against. So me being young – and single – it was exciting. Every mission was a new challenge. We just got really good at it and very confident. We felt like we were really accomplishing something.
I was there for a little over eleven months. I flew during that time 180 night combat missions. I would have flown more, but unfortunately I twisted my ankle after a mission in Cambodia coming down the ladder and they basically took me off the flying schedule for three weeks. When I found out it wasn’t really because of my ankle, they said I was getting too much flying time. It was making it difficult for the rest of the guys in the unit because at that time things had slowed down a lot. Things were pretty wild when I first got there and then things had slowed down. I guess the headquarters was trying to balance things out. It didn’t make any sense to me because I wanted to fly.
I spent half my tour at Tuy Hoa which was on the beach and the other half of my tour was spent at Phu Cat. I wanted to, and was going to, extend my tour, and then my parents talked me out of it. I’m glad that I didn’t because apparently they moved a unit from Phu Cat down south and they spent most of their time flying missions out of country to Cambodia. It wasn’t as rewarding a mission. I got my biggest thrill supporting our troops on the ground. The Cambodians deserved our support and they needed our support, but I felt more a sense of camaraderie working for my own guys. That was my take on it.
When I left gunships, I became first lieutenant, went to a MAC unit, and flew C141s for about four years. I got over 2000 hours in that. I also got a masters’ degree at that time. Then I went on to go into F111s, fighter bombers. I served ten years in various flying assignments. Then I did a bunch of staff assignments. I went to Korea, went to 12th Air Force Headquarters, TAC Headquarters, in Langley, Virginia and then I finally ended up as a deputy base commander and base commander at Mountain Home. I retired at that point, in the summer of ’93, with about 25 years in the Air Force.
My entire Air Force career was spent doing night flying. I started out with gunships flying at night; then I flew 141s. All we did was fly at night, and F111s all we did was fly at night. I sort of was a night kind of guy. I got into the pace and enjoyed it. I didn’t mind. I thought it was great.
I flew my most exciting and demanding mission April 12, 1970 as part of the first AC-119G Shadow crew to fly a night combat mission over Dak Seang, a small Army outpost, during the major Dak Seang Campaign (April- May 1970). We had moved our unit from Tuy Hoa to Phu Cat and I was on alert with a regular crew because their NOS apparently wasn’t available for some reason so I got to fly with their crew, piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Chuck James. We were on Alert. We got scrambled. It was a unique, exciting, and rewarding experience.
We went up to a target that was mid-way between our base and the border of North Vietnam, very close to Doc Pac. Then we got pulled off that target to go over to a place called Doc Seang because they were being overrun. We got in there that night and we didn’t launch until around midnight.
We responded to the most intense TIC situation I had encountered. Upon our arrival we discovered the outpost perimeter had been breached and the friendly forces were being overrun. To assure positive identification and his exact position, the ground controller (safely dug in and under cover) momentarily held up a strobe light on a pole and asked us to fire on and near the strobe. They basically confirmed that anything moving was not friendly because they were all underground and basically we were safe to fire. Colonel James did a couple of marking bursts. I was on the NOS and I was checking where they were going. Everything looked good, so we got clearance to fire. As soon as we opened fire, the sky erupted from heavy small arms automatic ground fire directed at our aircraft. The advantage of a gunship is you have 360 degrees of turn, so when we started taking fire it made it incredibly easy for me to pick out the targets because they were shooting us. I’d lock in on them. Colonel James would come around and fire on them. The ground fire was easy to identify and track in the night observation scope and provided the pilot a steady reliable target.
We stayed up there for five hours working that target all night long until the sun started coming up. We were the only thing that was supporting that camp because the army had no night capability at that time, so those folks really needed us. That was the beginning of the first missions that lasted over perhaps six more weeks. There were probably, I would guess, at least 70 missions flown over Doc Seang by gunships at night. The base stayed under attack, and they thought they were being attacked by the Vietcong. It turned out it was North Vietnamese regulars. They were trying to take the entire area right there.
I was back up there the night after with my own crew, Captain John Hope, my roommate, Rick Stitson, and Bill Posey was the flight engineer. We were on a target and the guys confirmed. They said, “You guys know who that Shadow was that was up here two nights ago?” We said, “Yes, I was one of them.” The guys on the ground said, “Well, tell them that they did a great job, because it’s now three days later and we’ve counted two hundred bodies on the water.
They normally drag their wounded out, but they didn’t get them out of there because the fighting was so intense and so fierce; they couldn’t get the guys out of there. The guys were still dug underground at that time. We got credit for 200 KBA; the main thing is we kept those guys alive on the ground. I later came to find out it wasn’t just the army troops that were dug in there, but they were in support of the villagers. They were there for pacification to help the villagers and there were a whole bunch of Montagnard women and children in the camp too. I’ve later gone on the internet and seen pictures of these kids, these moms and stuff that were there during the whole siege so I feel much better about that mission now because we weren’t just protecting our guys. We were protecting the women and children that were living in that village. It was an extremely rewarding mission, so that was probably my most memorable mission. We expended all our rounds. It was the absolute biggest difference I think we made while I was over there.
The ground controller was ecstatic with our results. He encouraged us to keep it up and stay on station as long as possible. We worked the area for about 4 hours until we expended all our rounds of ammo. The next morning, Army ground troops counted the bodies of over 200 uniformed NVA regulars inside the perimeter and in the barbed wire perimeter fencing, and credited our crew with that KBA count. Our first Dak Seang mission began the campaign and a rewarding relationship between the 4th ID Army Headquarters and the AC-119G Shadow. Our demonstration of fire power was so great that over the next 3 months the 4th ID specifically requested the A Flight Shadow unit at Tuy Hoa to provide dedicated night close air support.
There were two other missions I was on where the guys were getting overrun, but it wasn’t as big an action as this one was. They were less combats involved in it as far as the overall situation in terms of changing the flow and if you look in the history of Vietnam, you find out that Doc Seang was one of the bigger missions during that time. I’d say it was at least a six week mission and the army lost several gunships, several Caribous were shot down.
That was another thing we did on the second night. We worked a coordinated mission with the Caribous, where for the first time we used our illuminated night, because the Caribous couldn’t get in there during the day or they would have gotten shot down, so the deal was that they would go out to a point. They’d hold the point while we got over the target. We did it on time and distance. Based on a precoordinated time, we would shine the light on the ground. They would see the light, and of course we’d turn it off so that they could fly and drop on that point and fly back out again. They were able to resupply that camp at night with the Caribous because we had a big light on the gunships. That’s the only time in my career that I can remember using that big, white light at night. It also illuminated you. You became a target, too, so we used it in IR mode sometime but we never used it at night. That was the only time. It was extremely successful and the C-7 Caribou guys were appreciative, too.
I’ve got some memorable things to tell you about. One of them was at Tuy Hoa which was on the beach. We only flew at night, so we’d get up in the afternoon and one of the things we did was we’d swim. I had the great idea to make a surf board so I worked with my buddy Bill Posey who was my flight engineer. I knew some of the guys in maintenance over in the F-100 Squadron, so we went over there and Bill got a neat canister case which was packed in Styrofoam. I had a two by four, took the Styrofoam, cut it up, made shapes, and went to the air frame shop and got fiberglass they used to cover the wings of these old airplanes. We fiber-glassed it in, laminated it and had a six foot surf board, had Shadow painted on it, had it on the beach, used it. About 3 months or so before I left it was there, and then I understand when I left the maids were using it for an ironing board. I don’t know of anybody else in gunships that made a surfboard while I was there.
The thing I remember most about gunships, which stayed with me my entire Air Force career, is what I learned in combat – that it’s a team effort and it takes a team to be successful. We were one of the crews – John Hope was my Aircraft Commander – that would not just work together as a crew but we would party together as a crew. There was a big prohibition at that time against that. We weren’t supposed to fraternize with the enlisted folks and we couldn’t bring them over to our quarters. We were absolutely not allowed to do that, so what we did was we would go to their quarters after the missions. I don’t think some of the senior folks at the base appreciated it, but they never told us we couldn’t and so we’d go to their quarters. We partied with those guys. The reason that was important was we all really needed to work together to succeed. The maintenance guys had to do their thing, the gunners had to do their thing, the flight engineers had to do their thing; and if you’re not working as a team, you couldn’t succeed in that environment. We all had a specific job to do and it took us all to do it, getting that old airplane which moved so slow up on the target, get it back, arrive alive, and fly a good mission. That lesson stayed with me because I went into 141s. It was a team airplane, too. You had multiple people. F111s were two people, side by side, working together. I can tell you I believe my success in the career in the Air Force had to do with my ability to work well with people, communicate clearly, and be a team player. The gunship team really worked out well.
The other thing I can tell you is we were very much appreciated by the Army. In June or July, the Fourth Infantry Division invited two lieutenants to come out to the base because they wanted to recognize the Shadows for their support we’d given them during that time. I volunteered to go and one of the pilots volunteered to go. We went out there during the day. That’s why most people didn’t want to go. They didn’t want to fly into an Army camp in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the day where they could possibly take some hostile fire. One of the things I got to see during the day was because I was flying low helicopters. You wouldn’t believe the number of helicopters we lost in Vietnam. They were just all over the place. We got into camp and they basically let us fire the big guns, we got to fire a tank, and then I got to ride in a Huey Cobra helicopter on a gunship mission. I don’t think my commanders ever knew I did it, but I did anyway. I got to fly on a combat mission with Huey Cobras. That was kind of nice because that was a different kind of gunship. It was camaraderie and we were working together as comrades in arms. Then, at the end of the evening, the general came down and he gave us each a certificate which made us honorary members of the 4th Infantry Division. It was really nice. It showed how much they appreciated what we were doing for them and how the support worked together and how we were working together in a joint support which was not that easy to pull off in those days because there were never any direct communications between the senior people. You’d go into an area, you’d work with the guy on the ground, and you’re working for him. It was kind of done out of a sense of emergency, not out of a sense of preplanned coordination. It was really very rewarding.
One of the things I should have mentioned was that when we were at Tuy Hoa one of the things we did get to do was we would occasionally fly a double mission. We would fly what we called “feet wet” off the coast. We’d go back over the water and fly a—we’d hit a target. Obviously that we’d coordinated with the director of support center who would tell us where the target would be. We’d expend our rounds; we’d land at Da Nang and we’d get midnight chow. While they reload our airplane we’d pull into the revetment where the inspector mission was. That’s another way we got to meet some of the Stinger crews. We got to know several of those guys just because we’d do that fairly frequently even though we didn’t fly the same mission.
On one particular mission, we flew a target about 20 miles northwest of Chu Lai. These guys had gotten stuck in the mud with some of their track vehicles. Apparently someone spotted them during the day; they were stuck and couldn’t get back out. They started getting attacked. We went in basically to provide enough cover so they wouldn’t get attacked, not necessarily to take up the enemy. Well, we tried to, but they were kind of hard to pinpoint. As we were circling around trying to get these guys, we suddenly started taking a lot of fire from this one hilltop. We talked to the Army point of contact on the ground, and he confirmed that the fire that was coming from the hilltop was not friendly fire; it was enemy fire. It was a machine gun going off and it was bothering them tremendously. Of course, they were using those on the guys on the ground. They said, “If you could some way knock those guys out, you’d do us a big favor.”
We did. We went around and after thirty or forty minutes and making several passes we were able to knock out those two guns, and they were basically two fifty cal machine guns. To them that was very significant. To us it was another day at work. As a result of that, when I got my air medal, that’s the mission they wrote up. I’m not saying it was my best mission. I’m just saying someone thought it had merit and they wrote it up, but it was memorable because it was one of those missions where we did take ground fire. We didn’t get fired on that frequently, and we tried to stay 3500 feet above the ground level which is theoretically out of the reach of normal weapons’ fire, although 50 cal could possibly lift that high.
I will tell you we went on a mission one time when we had to fly one mission for one of our guys whose Stinger had a maintenance problem and had to abort. We were sent up with their mission that was on the Trail. That was exciting, because here we are – we looked like we’re not a Stinger – we’re Shadow – which means we didn’t have the fire power. We got up on a trail on the river and we were out on this point where we were supposed to fire when all of a sudden we saw some stuff moving. We started firing and the whole ground just lit the sky. Everything started going off. We rapidly realized the stuff that they were throwing up was a lot more than we could throw back, so we had to back off that target. We actually hit a couple of boats on the river, but we weren’t able to stay on the target because the ground fire was too intense so we had to come back. We learned a great amount of respect for the guys who were flying Stingers. We also briefed our commander that we shouldn’t be substituted for Stingers anymore on our missions because quite frankly our little 7.62 wasn’t going to be adequate to get the job done. What we were hoping was the sound of our engines and the airplane being there would prove to quiet them down and they were. They were quiet until we fired. When they realized we didn’t have the 20mm on board, that’s when they started firing back.
At Phu Cat John Hope who was my aircraft commander, a captain at the time, and I were in the bar and he had met this fellow from the security police, who I believe was also a captain. We’d been talking about going out and flying missions and what we do and how we expend ammunition. We were talking about sometimes we come back and we hadn’t fired all our rounds because the target we were working didn’t require that level of expenditure of ammunition. The SP Capt said, “Well, what if we told you we had some pinpoint targets around the base? We asked why he would want to do that. He said, “Well, we have a constant problem with snipers coming in outside the perimeter shooting toward the base at night. We can’t find them; we can’t see them. You’d do my guys a big favor if you could get out there, especially if you’re coming back at different times of night, hosing down certain areas on the perimeter to keep those guys off our backs. It would really be a good service for us.”
We said, “Well, let’s do it.” He said, “I need to take you out there so I can show you where you can go and how we can make this thing work. You’re going to have to have weapons, and I can’t issue you weapons.” I said, “It’s no problem. We’ve got our own weapons.” So John and I drive down to the squadron building. The duty officer is there and asks what we were doing, because we weren’t on the schedule. We said we were there to get our weapons. He said, “You can’t get your weapons. You’re not on the schedule.” We told him we had something we had to do. He got all upset about it and he called the commander. I guess it was about 10:00 pm by now. He told the commander we had come in and just taken our weapons and that we weren’t on the schedule and he didn’t know what we were doing with them. We go out. We meet the cop. We go out in his jeep. We go out past the perimeter. We talk to one of the towers. We talk to the folks who are out there and we worked out a time and distance thing where we could figure out how far out beyond the perimeter it would be safe for us to shoot where they would feel comfortable and where we could expend ammunition and accomplish the things that he wanted to accomplish which would basically keep the guys off his back, keep the snipers down, and we also could find a way to get training for new people who are coming in-country. A lot of time new people would go on missions that weren’t productive missions because they couldn’t get good training.
We got all set, came back to the squadron, checked our weapons back in, and went back and had a good night’s sleep and forgot about it. Well, the next day apparently things went kind of wild, because the commander got all upset because we had gone out with our weapons, outside the perimeter without his approval. As it turned out, even though there was a little bit of angst over that whole incident, it was the best program we could have ever come up with. From that point on for the next two or three months, all the new guys that came in, we had a training program. If we came back to the base, we’d spent at least 30 minutes in the local area pinpointing targets with flares. The guys would shoot on the ground. People would actually see what we were doing and our people on the base appreciated it. It kept the bad guys from shooting into the base, and our guys got trained, so it was a win-win for everybody. It was a great story. Unfortunately, once again, if it wasn’t invented here, they didn’t like it.
One of the things that happened when I was there, when you weren’t flying, one of things you had to do was be a duty officer. You’d run the flying schedule. You’d take the call for a mission. You’d contact the troops. You’d bring them from alert out to the airplane and launch the mission. That’s one of the things the lieutenants got to do. We got to do all the dirty work. One night we got a launch and I scrambled one of the gunships. I got a call from them. They got out to the flight line and they couldn’t get to the airplane. The cops were out there having some kind of base exercise and they wouldn’t let them go to the airplane. I called down to Saigon where our headquarters was. I told them our problem. Saigon said I needed to get the crew to the airplane. I told Saigon they needed to call the base commander. Meanwhile, I called the guys on the crew to see if I couldn’t get them out to their plane. While Headquarters called the base commander, I called the crew back and told them to get serious with the two or so cops out there and insist they be allowed to go to their airplane. After a few exchanges they managed to get out to the airplane and launch. I got in a little bit of trouble because the base commander at the local base there didn’t like my attitude and didn’t like us telling his cops off.
War isn’t as simple as people think. There isn’t always straight forward stuff.
One of the other funny things that happened is we had launched one night and were flying a mission in Cambodia. We stayed on target a really long time, so we had to land and we had no place to land. We couldn’t get back to our base, so the nearest place we had to go was to Udorn. We got clearance to land at Udorn which is in Thailand. We had never been to Thailand before. When you’re flying missions in Vietnam, you sanitize down. You don’t have much on you. You certainly don’t have your wallet or money. We had MPC in Vietnam-no currency. We landed and went to the officers’ club to get something to eat. First of all they didn’t want us to come to the club because we were in our flight suits. Secondly, we didn’t have any money and they refused to serve us because we couldn’t pay for it. We called them to explain our situation. Eventually we got it all worked out. They weren’t used to people from Vietnam flying into their country.
The other thing that happened when we were at Phu Cat was that we took a rocket hit. We were in quarters and it went through a window and into a wall. My roommate and I were both under our beds. A piece of shrapnel from a 122 had stuck in the wall about four feet high from the floor which meant if we’d been standing up it might have hit one of us. We pulled that thing out of the wall and we had it for a long time. As a result of that, we put boards in all the windows. We never had the windows blacked out with paper because slept at night. Then they painted the boards with sayings. If you look in Chuck William’s book, he has copied all those sayings on those boards. As the guys went by, they would keep adding one.
All in all it was a tour that was very interesting. It was a tour that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
Oh, I have to tell you this story. It is very important to me. My first mission when I got there, I was flying with a crew-these older guys. The navigator I was flying with, Stanley Merrick. He was a Lieutenant Colonel, a gray-haired guy, had a mustache, smoked cigars. We were going along in the airplane and I asked him, “What can I expect and what is this tour going to be like?”
He said, “Let me tell you, Lieutenant. You don’t have to worry. This is nothing like my missions that I flew, because I flew two missions to Ploesti. I was the door gunner on the missions.”
I remarked that that was a long time ago! What I’m trying to say is that we had a range of people over there with a wealth of experience, everything from WWII to guys like me who had never even been in combat. Because of the draft, I think the Air Force got the best quality people they could have gotten. I would never have gone in the Air Force. I was going to law school. At that period of time, you hear a lot of negative things about the draft and Vietnam, but I can tell you from the Air Force perspective I think we got some of the best people we could have ever gotten in the Air Force. I think the Air Force became better over the next ten to fifteen years because of those people. I’m not saying the all-volunteer force is not a great idea, but the draft worked well and it was fair. I love it and made a career out of it.
The teamwork, discipline and camaraderie I experienced as a Shadow crewmember was the foundation of my 26 year Air Force career. Before retiring in June 1993 as Lt. Col., I flew world-wide as a Navigator (2,000 hrs) in the C-141 and as Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) in the F-111A, D, E, (2,000 hrs) and completed 2 masters degrees and 4 senior service schools, and served in a variety of key Tactical Air Command staff and command positions, my last being Base Commander, Mountain Home AFB, Idaho. I am currently employed as the charter CEO/Executive Director for the Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority.