John Cootz, Gunner

18th SOS, Phan Rang, Da Nang, 1969-1970

In 1966, I graduated from high school in Whittier California. I was not ready to commit to another 4 years of school because I would have had to borrow heavily to attend. I didn’t think the Army draft would be the place for me, so I joined the Air force. I have always loved to travel and be part of new experiences, so it was a good match. My first duty station after completing training was Ramstein AB, Germany. For the next two years, my friends and I traveled through 9 European countries by train and with the help of a 1956 VW Beetle. Two of my favorite memories are nursing the 36BHP up the Swiss Alps and driving as fast as it could go (62mph) on the Autobahn while having a Mercedes pass us doing over 100mph. After leaving Europe, my next adventure was to become part of the 18th SOS at Lockbourne AFB in Ohio. When I began to fly on AC-119K aircraft, I was already accustomed to traveling slow.

I arrived at Lockbourne in August of 1969. Then after aircraft and SEER training at Fairchild AFB, I departed Lockbourne for Phan Rang AB, Vietnam on November 20, 1969. The 4413th training crew conducted daylight training flights to West Virginia to simulate road recon, our navigated return flight generally coincided with Highway I-70 West and we could see the “Z” on the Zanesville water tower through openings in the rear of the plane. Little did I realize how different the job would be at night, in the dark and in combat.

Phan Rang Arrival
After arriving at Phan Rang AB on 11/22/1969, we attended Jungle survival training at Clark AB. While there, during the night, we could hear the sound of large rats fighting over scraps of food. That ended the sleep for the rest of the night and I was glad to be back to Phan Rang AB.

We were moving to Da Nang in January. During the move to Vietnam, my girlfriend and I decided to get married when my tour was complete. I wanted to buy an engagement/wedding ring but the Phan Rang PX did not have much selection. I needed to travel to Cam Ranh Bay, but I could not arrange air transportation during this short time window. I received permission to be part of an AF convoy from Phan Rang to Cam Ranh Bay and return. The catch was that I was armed and I rode in an armored personnel carrier. I was able to buy the rings as well as an AC-119K artist print. She is still my wife of over 51 years and I still have the artist print. Most people can’t tell their kids that they rode in an armored column to buy an engagement ring. The crew also watched a Christmas parade at Phan Rang before leaving for Da Nang. Until we watched the parade, I didn’t know that Santa rode in the back of a blue pick-up truck.

The 18th SOS was more like a family
In the first year of operation, every mission and every loss was a new experience without historical perspective. The number of planes lost or badly damaged in the first five months of combat was significant. However, there was never a sense of fear from the crews. It did help us to stay focused and diligent when doing our jobs. The respect and trust that I had with my crew was a bond that can never be forgotten and rarely replicated. We all shared common experiences like the take off. The AC-119K reminded me of my 1956 VW Beetle on the initial part of take-off on those hot muggy tropical nights.

Ninh Thuan Province Mission
One of my crew’s most memorable missions occurred on June 20, 1970. We left Da Nang for targets in the Central Highlands. While in route, we were called to proceed to a troops in contact (TIC) target near the City of Ninh Thuan and the Song Cai Phan Rang River which was 20km Northwest of Phan Rang. A large contingent of ARVN soldiers along with a detachment of green beret advisors were under heavy attack by the Viet Cong. The ARVN troops were providing geographical landmarks and using flares to indicate targets during the battle.

There was no AAA fire at the target, so we were able to fly at low altitudes for the greatest accuracy. Phan Rang is the capital of Ninh Thuan Province, so there was an immediate threat to the base as well. We stayed on target until bingo fuel, which was long enough to provide the cover needed for the ARVN troops to gain the offensive and we then returned to Da Nang.

For this meritorious action, my gunship crew was asked to attend an awards ceremony in the city of Ninh Thuan where Lt. Tran Van Tu, the commander of the city of Ninh Truan awarded each crewmember the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with a Bronze Star. Lt. Tran Tu said “he was very honored to present each crew member of Stinger 91 with the medal for courage to defend the people against the enemy”. I have a picture of the Lt. presenting the medal to me and I have valued and displayed it ever since the award ceremony.

February 5, 1970 to June 6, 1970
There were three flights during this short period of time that I had close contact with and each of them reminded me of the dangers associated with flying in an AC-119K.

2/5/1970 – (AC-119K #53-7826)
The gunship with call sign ‘Rose’ was hit by a 37mm AAA shell just below the co-pilot seat and exploded inside the aircraft. Most of the engine and flight instruments were lost and three crew members were wounded. The crew was able to complete the return flight to Da Nang. Many Stinger crew members went to the runway when they returned because 7826 was the first Stinger to have major AAA damage. I also went the next morning to take pictures and was surprised at the size of the hole and the amount of damage from one shell. It left a lasting impression since it was common to see hundreds of shells.

2/19/1970 – (Stinger 15)
This was the first total loss of an AC-119K. Pilot Jeff Baker was returning to Da Nang at 3am in the morning from a Ho Chi Minh trail interdiction. The plane experienced a reciprocal and jet engine failure on the right side. It was later determined that one mile from the end of the runway, the plane had a fuel system failure that caused the plane to crash land. The plane severed a high-tension line, wire fences and came to stop in a waist deep marsh. It had a crumpled right wing, the left engine was torn off and the fuselage was leaning to the right. It was inspiring that all ten men survived. I was on the plane at the site of the wreck a couple of days later and there were lots of pictures taken. It made you think because it was not uncommon to have engine issues on a mission.

6/6/1970 – (Call Sign ‘Lemon”)
This was the second total loss of an AC-119K. About 20 minutes after takeoff from Da Nang and over the South China Sea, there was a runaway propeller and they lost control of the engine, there even appeared to be an engine fire. The pilot, Warren Kwiecinski, turned and headed back to Da Nang AB, then a decision was made to bail out of the plane about 2 miles off the coast. CH-53 Jolly Green Rescue helicopters searched the water for 2-4 hours and an AC-119K circled overhead to provide light for the rescue effort. One crewmember was lost and according to the Jolly Green rescue helicopter, the final transmission of the man that was lost indicated he was trying to get free from his parachute. I remember what a helpless feeling it was being part of the AC-119K crewmembers wanting to help. Flying over the South China Sea was a common activity at Da Nang and we realized that it could be us.

AAA Spotter Job
I will never forget the first time I was a AAA Spotter. I had to lean out of the (3’x5’) opening in the left clamshell door into the cold air searching for AAA. I had to climb around weapons systems and then attach a nylon tie down strap to my parachute harness. One hand was always holding the intercom button, which left one hand for balance while hanging out into the dangerous wind chill. I experienced nausea as the aircraft flew through updrafts and downdrafts, while watching AAA shells coming at me and saying “break right” or “break left” to avoid shell contact. My most lasting memories are the nausea and how fast the action occurred.

Post 18th SOS
After I departed Vietnam in 1970, I served another Southeast Asia Tour at Udorn, Thailand in 1971/1972. Shortly after returning to the states from Thailand, I separated from the Air Force. I then graduated Summa Cum Laude from Houston Baptist University in Texas. I earned the opportunity to work as a system project manager for the American International Group at Houston, TX and onsite locations throughout the world. I worked in Philadelphia, Washington D.C., New York City, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles as well as Brisbane, Sidney, and Melbourne Australia. At my retirement, my role was Director of a large system applications development and maintenance group. My work life came full circle, I joined the Air Force to travel and have new experiences and when I retired, I was still fulfilling my same passions.