Donald A. Craig, Pilot
17th SOS, Phan Rang, Phu Cat, Da Nang and Tan Son Nhut, 1970-71
I was born in Troy, Ohio in April 1946. I graduated from Ohio University with a B.A. in Psychology, and received my commission through the Ohio University AFROTC program. I served on active duty for over 20 years, retiring as a command pilot at the rank of Major.
I was assigned to the 17th SOS directly from undergraduate pilot training at Laredo, Texas. I flew the AC-119G gunship as a co-pilot assigned to Phan Rang, Phu Cat, and Tan Son Nhut. I flew the completed spectrum of Shadow missions including those supporting Special Forces camps at Dak Seang and Dak Pek, armed reconnaissance, recondo team support, med-evac cover, air base support, and base perimeter illumination. Initially, when I got in country, I went to flight training missions out of Phan Rang and Phu Kat. The siege was going on at two Special Forces camps at Dox Lang and Doc Pek, which were west of Pleiku, and the siege had lasted about a month. Our gunships, with the help of Stinger gunships, were providing dusk-to-dawn coverage over the Special Forces camps, and I actually only flew about one mission during the latter part of that siege. We did have a procedure developed with the C-7 Caribous that had been trying to re-supply those camps, and they had lost so many C-7s to combat battle damage that they virtually had gone from two squadrons at Phu Kat down to one squadron. And we happened to get up there to provide coverage and helped cut out their losses by developing a procedure with them so that we would illuminate the Special Forces camp so that they could line up to drop their supplies. The flares would come out on a signal and illuminate for their drop, and then the flares would burn out before they actually got into the illumination so that – they took a few hits after that but they didn’t lose any airplanes after that.
Another mission shortly after that, that was kind of memorable, was a mission into Cambodia. We were in supporting Americans who were evacuating “friendlies” from north-eastern section of Cambodia. There was an Air Force Combat Control Team with a call sign of “Tailpipe Echo” that was in helping to evacuate people, set up the convoys and support the operation, and they were taking a lot of hostile fire, rockets and mortars, and when we were overhead, supporting them, just the sound of our engines was enough to cease the incoming fire. So, we felt pretty good about that. However, a big thunderstorm started moving into the area and forced us off the target. And as soon as we got off the target, they started taking incoming again. I was flying with – John Hope was the Captain, and Jim Cooper was one of the Navs, and I believe Rusty Napier was the other Nav. We looked at each other and discussed the situation a little bit and decided we could take it a little bit, and so we flew back into the thunderstorm to be overhead and stop the incoming. We managed to succeed with that for a while, and then pulled out before we got disoriented, and did it another time or two. It’s the only time I’ve ever flown – intentionally flown – into a thunderstorm in my entire life. No – I wouldn’t recommend it, but it seemed to work in that particular case.
Here are two other of my more memorable missions.
The Lost Battalion – The Cambodian town we supported on 6 December 1970 was on the banks of the Mekong River west of Kampong Cham. It was a daylight mission. The North Vietnam Army and the Khmer Rouge were attacking as we arrived and the town was on the verge of being overrun.
The Cambodian battalion defending the town lacked training, manpower and equipment to succeed. The small arms they possessed were World War I vintage. The only tactical aircraft they had were a handful of T-28s and a couple of French jet trainers. The jets could only carry a few very small bomblets. Of course, good communication was crucial to effective air support; the battalion had no one competent in English or French.
We were at 2500 feet AGL and could see people being slaughtered by the attackers. The attackers scrambled for cover as soon as we began firing. As a large black aircraft, we were an easy target. Our aircraft was hit by ground fire almost immediately. The cockpit filled with a toxic smell, my intercom didn’t work, and I discovered my leg was bleeding.
Circumstances dictated we terminate the mission and return to Tan Son Nhut AB. We pulled out of the firing circle, called for a replacement Shadow and assessed the situation. For the town and the defending battalion, it was a life-or-death situation. We had battle damage and I was injured, but I was alert and could still maintain our firing circle altitude for the pilot. We were still a viable gunship. We climbed to a higher altitude, reset our guns, and went back to work. We located the enemy mortar tubes and gun positions and fired all of our 19,500 rounds of 7.62 in about 15 minutes, then headed back to Tan Son Nhut. Our replacement Shadow arrived and continued supporting the battalion while the Cambodian Army attempted to send reinforcements.
The Flight Surgeon bandaged my leg and released me to fly the following day. My injury was caused by a .50 caliber armor-piercing round that came through the nose gear well, severing wiring/cables and apparently deflected to some extent before penetrating the floor in front of my co-pilot seat. The round hit my leg and continued on to the ceramic armor plating on my side window. It shattered the armor plate and then ricocheted around my legs and feet before hitting a rudder pedal and falling to the floor. Luckily, I had repositioned my leg just prior to the hit or my leg could have been shattered. To this day, I don’t know whether the blue smoke and toxic smell that surrounded me at the time was from the shattered armor plate or from the intercom wiring.
A day or so later, all contact with the battalion was lost. On subsequent missions our crew, and the crew that replaced us the day of the battle, returned to the area and monitored the battalion’s radio frequency. Days later I saw a small article in the Stars and Stripes describing a Cambodian battalion that seemed to have just disappeared. I learned the town had been overrun and everyone killed. The North Vietnamese caught the battalion commander and tortured him. Those who survived the battle were buried alive or beheaded and their heads put on stakes. I later received the Purple Heart for my wounding.
The Purple Heart for Shadow Pilot Don Craig, as told by Major Bernie Smith, Shadow Navigator. On 6 December 1970, our AC-119G Shadow Gunship took off from Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Saigon, RVN on a daytime mission into Cambodia to support Cambodian troops who were fighting the Viet Cong, the North Vietnam Army, and the Khmer Rouge (Communist Cambodians). Once inside Cambodian airspace, we received a request for air support from a small town located on the Mekong River. The town was under attack and on the verge of being overrun by enemy ground troops. We flew as fast as possible to the town and quickly sized-up the situation on the ground with the Cambodian garrison commander. Enemy troops were attacking the town from the north as the Mekong bordered the town to the south; visibility was good and flying at 2500’ AGL, enemy positions could be pinpointed by naked eye. We could see the town’s people being slaughtered by the attackers. Flying a slow-moving, large black airplane in daylight over known enemy positions presented a major problem. The enemy could see us as well as we saw them.
We started firing on enemy troops and literally stopped the attack as enemy troops scrambled for cover. But then enemy gunners started firing at us. We flew around and around in a firing circle, exchanging gunfire. Then the cockpit suddenly filled with a toxic smell of smoke. Our co-pilot, First Lieutenant Don Craig, sustained a wound to his lower right leg. Our aircraft commander pilot, Major Don Fraker was screaming into the interphone, giving the crew instructions. Lt. Craig was not responding to orders being “barked out” by Major Fraker. In desperation, Fraker reached over and grabbed Lt. Craig’s helmet and jerked it toward him and yelled something like, “ARE YOU DEAF?” I saw Lt. Craig’s lips moving rapidly, talking, trying to respond, but nobody could hear him. His interphone cord had been shot away by the enemy bullet. He could not hear anything nor transmit while Major Fraker was pleading for acknowledgement. I was the table Navigator on this mission, seated directly behind Lt. Craig and witnessed this wild scenario. Once the terror subsided, I stated over the interphone, “Heading back to TSN is 071 degrees. We are cleared of all arty sectors; let’s get the hell out of here.” Much to my surprise, Major Fraker had returned to the firing circle and requested four guns, high rate of fire. When I inquired, “What the hell are you doing?” Major Fraker responded, “People are getting killed down there and we are staying. So……” Fortunately, Lt. Craig’s wound was not bleeding badly. He was still alert and could still maintain altitude in the firing circle, so we went back to work, attacking the enemy. Upon going Winchester (out of bullets) while driving the enemy farther away from the town, Major Fraker called for Post Strike Checklist and we headed for Saigon.
Further analysis on the ground at TSN proved that the enemy round had penetrated the armor plating under the co-pilot’s seat creating the dust and toxic smell in the cockpit. The same Shadow crew, including Lt. Craig, flew the next day. All was fairly quiet in the Area of Operations (AO), so we flew back to the small town we had defended on the Mekong. All was quiet there, but the river ran red with blood.
It is now 2008 as I write my recollections of this story with tears in my eyes. First Lieutenant Don Craig was awarded the Purple Heart for his wound sustained in combat.
After all of that, the last six months of my tour I flew out of Tan Son Nhut, mostly supporting the Cambodian operations down there, and it was very interesting, and fulfilling time. That’s about all I can think of right now.
After completing my combat tour in the AC-119G, I flew the B-52 with the 7th Bomb Wing, Carswell AFB, Texas. From February 1972 through November 1973, I flew back-to-back Arc Light missions over South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam. Our crew was one of only four selected to perform operational testing of an advanced navigation system for alternate bombing guidance. We were also selected as the Tactical Evaluation Crew for the 307th Strategic Wing, U Tapao, Thailand providing expertise for the Wing Staff and crews.
I retired from the Air Force in April 1989, with 1,510 combat hours and 5,500 total flying hours in seven types of military aircraft. My awards and decorations included the Distinguished Flying Cross with three OLCs, Purple Heart, Meritorious Service Medal with OLC, and Air Medal with 14 OLCs.
After retiring from the military, I initially flew as B-727 Flight Engineer with the Pan Am Reserve Air Fleet where my flights included White House Press charters. In 1994, I was hired as a First Officer by American Trans Air (ATA), another CRAF carrier. I flew the L-1011 TriStar on scheduled- service routes and also flew civilian- worldwide charters, including military charter flights in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, along with Patriot Express, R and R flights and “freedom bird flights.” I retired from ATA in April 2006.