Richard “Craig” Corbett, Gunner
18th SOS, Nakhon Phanom, 1972
I was born in Decorah, Iowa on November 21, 1948. In 1969, my draft number was 169, so being an Air Force brat, I joined the Air Force, never expecting to serve 28 years and retire as a Chief Master Sergeant.
After basic training and Armament Systems Technical School, I was assigned to the 57th Fighter Weapons Wing at Nellis AFB, NV as a weapons load crew member on F-111s. It was a boring job, so I volunteered for F-111s at Upper Heyford, England. Then I figured the Air Force would never give me England since I only had two years left on my enlistment. So, I volunteered for the AC-130 gunship program. To my surprise, I got orders to the AC-119K while my short-timer buddies received assignments to Upper Heyford.
The old heads in my squadron started teasing me about flying in the C-119 “widow maker”. Soon after arriving at Hurlburt Field for crew training, I was on the flightline when the fire department deployed for an in-flight emergency. An AC-119 was coming in with an engine out. Just as the crash trucks were heading back to the firehouse, there was a second AC-119 landing with an engine out. Then, at the briefing for my first training mission, I learned the mission was being cancelled because our instructor crew was flying to Tyndall AFB to recover the crew from an AC-119 that landed there with an engine out. That was my introduction to the AC-119.
At Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai AB (NKP), I was assigned to Crew 13 which consisted of Aircraft Commander, Capt. Terence F. Courtney, Co-Pilot, 1/Lt. Jimmy Barkalow; Sensor Operators, Capt. David Slagle, Lt. Col. “Tash” Taschioglou, and 1/Lt. Larry Barbee; Flight Engineer, SSgt. “Yogi” Bare; SSgt. “Ski” Sledzinski, SSgt. Dale Iman, and Illuminator Operator, SSgt. Ken Brown. The only ones I knew previously were Jim, Ski and Dale. We were immediately deployed TDY to Bien Hoa AB.
On one of our first missions, we refueled and reloaded twice and logged 8.5 hours of combat flying. It was my first experience as a scanner. We refueled at Pleiku, then flew to a firebase that was in danger of being attacked by four M41 tanks that had been captured by North Vietnamese troops. We were credited with 140-plus KBA, one tank destroyed and three damaged, and saving the firebase. We finally returned to Bien Hoa after being gone 14.5 hours. We were tired.
Later on, I returned to Bien Hoa for a second TDY. I was assigned a room with Bill Isham and had the top bunk, which needed to be made up. That was not easy because the bed was jacked up on some 4×4 wooden blocks, thereby reducing the space between the bed and ceiling. During dinner Bill mentioned that the intel folks reported the bad guys had captured some 105mm howitzers that were close enough to shell the base, and that Arc Light strikes had been occurring near enough to cause noise and vibration.
Later that night I awoke to use the latrine. I felt and heard some loud booms that I thought were thunder, then an Arc Light, and finally realized the base was under attack. I dived into the room and slid under the bed, where I found Bill and where I also realized the purpose of those wooden blocks. Our air conditioner was on, the floor was cold, and I was shaking. The attack went on for almost an hour. Because rocket attacks typically lasted about 20 minutes, I began thinking it was those howitzers that Bill told me about. At one point we could hear small arms fire. It seemed we might be getting overrun. When it was over, we learned that Bien Hoa was attacked with over 100 rockets and that the gunfire we heard was ammo cooking off in the Marine gun shop that took a direct hit and burned to the ground.
After completing my gunship tour, I was assigned to the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing, Royal Air Force (RAF) Bentwaters, England. I retired at Ramstein AB, Germany in 1998. My decorations include the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, AF Meritorious Service Medal with three clusters, Air Medal with one oak leaf cluster, Air Force Commendation Medal, Air Force Achievement Medal, Presidential Unit Citation, Outstanding Unit Award with V device and five oak leaf clusters, and the Air Force Organizational Excellence Award with three oak leaf clusters.
The things I value most from my 28 years in uniform are all the great people I met and worked with, the responsibility and sense of mission accomplishment, and the great opportunities. I have worked in the military, as a contractor, and as a civil servant. I am most proud of my time in the military. I would go back in a tick tock but I also know that it is a young man’s game. I salute all those in uniform fighting against terrorism. I am married to the former Jan Dyer of London, England. We plan to eventually retire to a life of leisure on Orcas Island, Washington (Puget Sound).
Shoot Down of Stinger 41
My father spent three years flying and fighting in the skies over Southeast Asia as an Air Force pilot. In March 1972, it was my turn. Young and single, I volunteered to fly combat with the 18th Special Operations Squadron as a gunner on the AC-119K.
At Nakhon Phanom RTAB, Thailand the routine consisted of boring days, followed by exciting nights hunting trucks along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. As a gunner and scanner, the hard part of combat flying was the physical fatigue from the continual buffeting as the aircraft dodged antiaircraft fire. I would be weightless one minute, then twice my weight the next.
Two days after being assigned to Crew 13, we were on our way to Bien Hoa, South Vietnam where North Vietnamese regular troops were making a major assault on An Loc, a provincial capital just 60 miles north of Saigon. If An Loc fell, Saigon would fall.
The An Loc area demanded so much support that we were scheduled to fly our all-black gunship on daylight missions. On May 2, 1972, we were assigned to fly one of the dreaded daylight missions as Stinger 41. We were tasked to destroy some ammunition that a C-130 had dropped too close to the enemy. During our intelligence briefing, we were told of possible anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) positions and instructed on best areas for bailout. In his crew briefing, our AC, Capt. Courtney, reminded us again about the AAA threat and instructed the other two gunners to help me scan for AAA since it was extremely difficult to see AAA in daylight and they were more experienced.
We were all nervous about flying a daylight mission. Other Stinger aircraft flying daylight missions reported considerable difficulty seeing the AAA and the last Stinger day mission returned with expected battle damage. Ski, Ken, and I were talking about what each of us would do if we were shot down. We all knew we would not be shot down, however, because several aircraft had taken significant battle damage and made it back. We felt safe in knowing no Stinger had ever been lost in combat. We immediately flew to a nearby area to bore-site our guns. We did not know that those would be the last rounds fired by Stinger 41.
Fighting in the area was extremely heavy. An Loc was the busiest piece of sky in all of South Vietnam at that time. We joined up with an O-2 spotter aircraft that escorted us to our target. We were flying at 4700 feet, but the weather forced us down to a dangerously low 3500 feet. We made about two orbits when SSgt. Brown said, “I can’t see it, but 37mm triple A is popping as it goes by, it’s exploding above us”. Capt. Courtney climbed to 4500 feet and asked Ken if he could spot the source of the AAA. I ran back to look over Ken’s shoulder. Ken spotted the gun location when it fired the second time. Lt. Larry Barbee ran back and had Ken point out the gun position. While the NOS was describing the gun location to the pilot and the navigator, the AAA site fired a third time, then a fourth time, getting more accurate with each firing.
It was then I alerted the crew of a second AAA site firing at us. It was impossible to call any breaks as the tracers from the AAA were seen too late to react to them. Captain Courtney said he would make one more orbit and if we couldn’t find our target we would exit the area. On what was to be our final orbit, we were hit in the right wing by three or four rounds of 37mm. Ken yelled, “We’re hit! We’re hit! We’re on fire!” The entire wing from the right reciprocating engine to the jet engine was in flames that trailed all the way back to the rear crew entrance door. The flames were so bright I could see them reflecting off the inside cabin’s dark zinc chromate paint finish. The right main wheel well under the wing was blown open and we lost all the power on both right engines.
I put on my parachute. With only the two left engines running, the plane was quickly becoming uncontrollable and we were losing altitude. Capt. Courtney had full left rudder and full left aileron deflection trying to maintain directional control. Capt. David Slagle called MAYDAY and provided a safe bailout heading. Then the pilot yelled the words no one wanted to hear, “Abandon aircraft Abandon aircraft!”
I remember looking aft and seeing Ken Brown acting as jump master. It was his job to ensure everyone was properly strapped in the parachute harness before bailing out. As jump master, he and the pilot would be the last two crewmen to leave the aircraft. Ski had already jumped. I made my way to the door, telling myself not to stop and not to look down. The next thing I knew I was on my back looking up at blue sky. I pulled the ripcord and watched the parachute blossom above me. I could see Ski in front of me and I decided to turn myself toward the aircraft. Unknown to me, turning was the smart thing to do, because Ski was being shot at. After turning toward the aircraft, I saw Lt. Barbee below and in front of me. Further in front of me I saw Dale Iman in his chute, and beyond him, the aircraft which was losing altitude quickly. I looked down and prepared to meet the ground.
Jettisoning the parachute, I started to escape and evade, noticing that every sound I made seemed to be amplified 200 times. The area where we landed was flat and sparse; nothing like the jungle we trained in. I heard several helicopters overhead and thought we might be quickly rescued. I hid myself and turned on my survival radio. The O-2 pilot, Sundog, was talking to one of our guys. Waiting a few seconds after they finished, I too made contact with Sundog. He informed me that Sandy (the rescue aircraft call sign) was on the way. Suddenly, a helicopter flew over firing rockets and miniguns to the rear of my position. I ran toward the direction of his pass, wanting to put some distance between the target and me.
Once in my new hiding place, I began directing Sundog to my position, which was difficult because there were so many aircraft on the scene that the noise made it difficult to hear. Just as I got Sundog over my position, I heard some rustling and saw someone running through the area. I drew my weapon and quickly realized that was a stupid thing to do. Just then, the Sandy arrived. I was elated. Sandy asked Stinger 41 Delta and India to flash them with mirrors. (Each crewmember used the aircraft call sign, followed by a letter for identification). But Stinger 41 Delta (Lt. Col. “Tash”) reported the sun was too low and the light too poor to use mirrors. I then realized that time was getting short if we were to get out that day.
When Sandy called for Stinger 41 Alpha to report in, there was no reply. Sandy then called for the Stinger closest to the wreckage to report, and again there was no response. Sandy confirmed the negative responses and requested any Stinger to report. Chaos ensued as several Stingers came up simultaneously on the radio. Sandy reverted to the alphabet and called for Bravo to “pop smoke”, which Lt. Barkalow did. All calls after that were for the next closest man to “pop smoke” until it was finally my turn. It took four-and-a-half hours from the time we were hit until I was picked up. I was the last crewmember picked up alive.
A Jolly Green helicopter crew flew me to the hospital at Tan Son Nhut. I wish we could have had a chance to thank those guys for coming to our rescue. We survivors made it through the ordeal with only a few injuries. Yogi Bare cut his head on tree branches while coming up on the jungle penetrator. By the time he was pulled into the helicopter he was covered in blood to his chest. Lt. Barkalow’s face was also a bloody mess. He had crashed through the trees as his parachute was opening. The limbs snapped off so furiously that he thought he was being shot at. I helped clean him up; his face was a mass of scratches. Apparently, he was the last to exit the aircraft alive. Lt. Col. Tash straddled a tree branch as he descended leaving a gouge with some meat sticking out on the inside of his thigh. He said it didn’t hurt until he saw it. Dale and I had a bunch of scratches and friction burns from the parachute raisers. We later found out that Ski, who was being shot at on his way down, was picked up almost immediately by an Army chopper crew who flew him, dangling from a rope, to a nearby fire base. They landed, got him inside the helicopter and flew him to Bien Hoa. He had a back injury.
We later learned that Capt. Terence Courtney, Capt. David Slagle, and SSgt. Ken Brown were not recovered. We will never be sure why the last two didn’t make it, but I can tell you that none of us would have made it had it not been for Capt. Courtney’s courageous efforts to control that crippled aircraft long enough for the rest of us to jump. This was the last daylight mission flown by Stingers.
Thirty-five years seems so long ago, yet at times it seems like only yesterday. I stopped by the Vietnam War Memorial last year. It took a long time to find my friends’ names among so many. You look and kind of hope they’re not there. But there they were: KENNETH R. BROWN, TERENCE F. COURTNEY, and DAVID R. SLAGLE. I’ll never know why the rest of Stinger 41 was not on that wall. I’ll never know why there was a wall at all.