Michael J. Drzyzga Jr., Gunner
17th SOS, Phan Rang, Da Nang, and Phu Cat, 1970-71
Born in Irvington, NJ on May 13, 1948. In April 1968, I was working full-time in a pharmaceutical business in New Jersey while taking night classes at Seton Hall University, pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry. Unable to carry 12 credit hours in night courses, the dear draft board changed my draft status from 2-S (student deferment) to 1-A. Since I possessed a serious enthusiasm for flying and a severe aversion to running through the jungle, I enlisted in the Air Force. On May 7, 1968, six days before my 20th birthday, I unhesitatingly headed to Amarillo Air Force Base (AFB), Texas for basic training.
With a high mechanical aptitude test score, I was assigned a 462 career (weapons mechanic) and subsequently reported to Lowry AFB, Denver, Colorado for Technical School. Any thoughts of ever flying vanished from my mind. My first permanent assignment was with the 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing at Eglin AFB, Florida. In late 1968, the 40th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) received the first F-4E Phantoms fitted with a 20mm Vulcan nose gun. As the number three man on a weapons load crew, I loved the flight line work… being in and about the Phantoms was better than being a draftee in the Army and better than working in the dreaded hot, greasy, smelly Gun Shop.
Three occurrences would then change my course: First, a black-painted C-119 with jet-pods and guns appeared at Eglin’s Armament Development Test Center. It would circle (later I learned the correct term –“orbit”) over Eglin. I was awe-struck at this Korean War-era armed cargo plane. Second, I met an ex-Shadow Aerial Gunner (AG) who joined the 40th TFS after his tour of duty with the 17th SOS at Phan Rang Air Base, Republic of Vietnam. And the AG was wearing Stripes and Wings! Third occurrence, which made my heart pound to high heaven, was reading the posted announcement in the weapons flight line hootch about Project “Palace Gun”. Good Lord, I saw the chance to fly and the possibility of Stripes on my sleeves and Wings on my chest. I volunteered!!
I completed training at Lockbourne AFB from February to April 1970 and Physiological Training back at Eglin AFB. After a month’s leave home in New Jersey, I headed for Survival School at Fairchild AFB, then jungle survival training at Clark AFB, Philippines.
On June 7, 1970, I arrived at Phan Rang “Happy Valley” via Tan Son Nhut Airport, Saigon. Shadow 61 and Shadow 62 where what I usually considered my crews – although we did switch crews as needed, at what seemed a random manner. Although stationed at Phan Rang, I experienced some interesting missions while TDY to Da Nang in December ’70 where we supported some I Corps fire camps, and while TDY to Phu Cat AB in February 1971 where I logged many combat missions over- the-fence. One mission was a back to back (double-shooter), or turn-around mission. Our Shadow was closer to Thailand than Vietnam, so we landed at Ubon Royal Thai AB for full regeneration of fuel and ammo before flying another mission back at the same target area.
During my tour of duty, I did get out of Vietnam twice other than by flying combat missions over-the-fence. I was able to enjoy a week of R&R in Taiwan and a three-day visit to Hong Kong thanks to and via a C-47 resupply mission.
In June 1971 when my DEROS arrived, I received orders for Hurlburt Field (Eglin Aux. 9) and the non-flying duty of the Gun Shop – ugh! My last of four years in the USAF would be swabbing gun barrels. I did write a letter to the Special Operations Wing commander, convincing him that my proficiency as an AC-130 gun mechanic would be improved with insight obtained from a gunfire mission. So one sunny day, I donned the flight gear and spent almost five hours aboard Spectre over a Florida water gunnery range. That brought back good memories.
Project Palace Chase provided me a last chance to fly again. I was accepted for development of the AU-24 Helio Stallion. Many ex-Nam ex-fliers were rejoined to make a single-engine, high-wing, tail-dragger into a multi-purpose attack aircraft. We were trained on Eglin’s TAC area by EC-121 crews on the techniques of dropping and listening to strings of sensors. We spent 4.5 hours on UH-1Ns learning the art of using a spindle mounted mini-gun. The Stallions were equipped with left-side mounted 20mm Vulcan cannons with three-barrels. Additionally, we dropped 500 lb. hard bombs. What a great experience! I almost extended my enlistment to deploy back to SEA, but the Project was to remain stateside for development and I separated from the USAF without much fanfare on May 7, 1972 (six days away from my 24th birthday).
I returned to New Jersey and the pharmacy business. I completed my B.S. in Chemistry at Seton Hall (Go Pirates!) and subsequently earned my Masters in Science degree in Radiation Science at Rutgers University. I worked as a Health Physicist (radiation protection), eventually becoming a Radiation Safety Officer (believe it or not, a US Navy term from the nuclear Navy). When people ask me if I am concerned about the risks of working with radioactive materials, I think back to my experiences in the Air Force and reply with a combat veteran’s look, “Risk is all relative.” Memories of Vietnam: The following three experiences have been retold so often that they have become war stories in their own right. Although the facts are as true as memory allows, the stories can be validated by fellow Shadows.
Cobra in the Hootch
One day in September or October 1970, the inside of the enlisted quarters was pretty normal for midday. It was dark and cool; only a few cubical lamps lit from those airmen awake and listening to their new hi-tech Japanese sound systems purchased either via PACEX or obtained from a Hong Kong resupply mission. There was the ever-present low rumble of the wall-mounted air conditioners. Outside was typical Phan Rang weather – cloudy, hot and humid like it could rain any minute. Most of the flying crews, me included, were sound asleep. Suddenly, one airman heading down the middle aisle (most likely returning from the Phan Rang Post Office to catch the day’s mail) was “spit at” from something behind the metal personal lockers. With a very loud and somewhat high-pitch yell, he flipped on the very bright overhead fluorescent lights and alerted everyone to this still unclear situation. As we awoke and slipped on our combat boots, we realized that we were not armed and there was a snake in the hootch. What to do? A short-timer, I believe AG Staff Sergeant Goodson, who after returning from an overnight stay in Thailand, owned a fully functional cross-bow and arrows that hung displayed on his cubical wall. He loaded up, as two other airmen pulled the lockers apart while I was still fumbling with one of my cameras, as usual. The coiled Cobra raised its puffed head to strike, but within two seconds of striking out, the venomous serpent was impaled by one accurately aimed arrow against the cubical plywood wall. It was definitely a Kodak moment! The moral of the story is “Never Walk Barefoot in a Shadow Hootch.”
Runaway Prop on Take-off
After flying for nearly ten months as a Shadow Gunship Aerial Gunner in 1971, “Vietnamization” of the war was accelerating. We learned at Phan Rang that some of the airmen ending their tours would not be replaced. I was chosen to be certified as an instructor and join a crew to begin training Vietnamese C-119 and/or AC-47 crews to fly Shadow gunships. I was very confident in my flying skills. I had experienced many interesting, awesome, tiring, funny and sad times during my tour of duty. I was extremely happy to have never experienced an engine failure on take- off because every Shadow crewmember knew about the fatal crashes that claimed the lives of Shadow crewmembers at Tan Son Nhut. At Lockbourne, I had picked-up on the riddle “What is black and green, smoldering in a rice paddy, and full of crispy critters?” Damn those riddles!! Our current crew training standards and lowered take-off weights should prevent such a recurrence. Nevertheless, I said a prayer from the moment of the Pilot’s call for “gear-up” to the Copilot’s reply “gear up…gear is up and locked.”
Training the Vietnamese crews was challenging because the enlisted men spoke very little English. They fondly learned the expression, “Monkey see, Monkey do.” We showed them all the tricks and shortcuts that made a great working Shadow crew. During pre-flight for a routine training mission, Shadow Operations called us with a request to “top-off” for support of a hot target area. Trusting the best weather service known to man at the time, we fueled and loaded ammo to the maximum safe limit. We expedited the taxi to the end of the runway, smoothly completed the engine run up tests, and set Shadow’s nose on the runway centerline. We accelerated quickly and rotated normally as I, as usual, recited my prayer at “gear up”. I learned to feel (in-the-seat of my Nomex flight suit) for the clunk of the landing gear locking in the wheel wells. At that moment, before the Vietnamese Copilot could say, “greer up,” a stomach-sickening yaw of the gunship occurred as Shadow’s No. 2 propeller ran away, out of control. The unusual new sound was weird and instantly foreboding. Oh God, not with less than a month to DEROS, I thought.
The Vietnamese student pilot followed his reflex experience from the C-119 Flight Manual and dropped the nose a bit to maintain airspeed. I knew that the procedures for runaway props had been rewritten by Shadow gunship pilots and that the current procedure was to attain best air speed to control a runaway prop, which in our case we needed NO additional airspeed. With a slight struggle on the flight deck, instructor pilot, Captain Dick Howze took control of the gunship and managed to nurse the Shadow around the mountain just north of the runway to head back toward the air base. We slowly lost altitude pushing Shadow while circumventing the mountain in what seemed like an eternity. All the while, the IO prepped the flare launcher for ejection and I had the ammo cans ready to throw out the door if the call came to make Shadow lighter. I unconsciously calculated the weight loss if we ejected students onboard.
Captain Howze called for “gear down” at 250 feet over the threshold. The landing gear lowered with three green lights showing down and locked. We safely landed. After departing the gunship, we Shadow instructors huddled together as Student crewmembers huddled to discuss our aborted mission. The instructor crew agreed to board another Shadow gunship and proceed to the target area while the students decided otherwise. So, did we fly again that night? I cannot recall going back out, but Dick Howze says we convinced the students to fly, and we did fly. Such is my memory of 36 years ago.
A FNFLCP (Friendly New First Lt. Co-Pilot)
At the beginning of a routine Shadow 61 mission out of Phan Rang heading over the mountains to a near-border SEL (suspected enemy location), AC Major Golden told everyone that he intended to provide our new co-pilot, 1st Lt. Newell Lee, some “stick time” for his pilot’s log. As the intercom conversation waned and the ever-present roar of the two R-3350s, just a few feet away from me, became too melodic on the flight to the target area, “Goldie” as we called the Major, quite deliberately asked Lieutenant Lee if he would “take control of 61 for a while.” Normally, a two-second transition, Goldie deliberately slowed the transition by making a few trim adjustments. That delay was more than enough for the Aerial Gunner #2, the IO Bill Kitt and me to grab two full ammo boxes and “tip- toe” to the forward bulkhead. When Lee said, “I’ve got the aircraft”, the three of us pranksters slowly walked to the rear of the cargo deck. As a new flier, I was amazed that you can actually feel Shadow slump a bit and the increased drag reducing airspeed. Goldie calmly said, “I’ve got it back” and he re-trimmed 61. “OK, you got it Copilot” and Lee replied “For sure.” The three Shadow pranksters slowly walked forward toward the front bulkhead. Shadow 61 began to pitch forward slightly and the airspeed and altitude picked-up. This time Goldie (fully aware of the cargo crew shenanigans) more sharply said, “I’ve got it!” Lee was beside himself. I think he tried a few weak explanations over the intercom. It was so hilarious, I almost pissed in my Nomex flight suit. I can image what it looked like if viewed from the outside as Shadow porpoised through the night sky. Even with the engines roaring, the four of us (NOS included) laughed so hard you could almost hear us. Lee finally figured out that it was not his inability to fly Shadow but it was his inability to see that he was the butt of a joke on new pilots just reporting for flight combat duty in-country. The fun abruptly ended when the Table NAV said, “We’re here; time to descend to firing altitude!” No Kodak moments on this one; only a sweet memory to carry with me for a very long time.