Emma, Frank J

Frank J. Emma, Navigator
17th SOS, Nha Trang, 1969

Born St. Louis Mo 28 October 1932. At age of 14, moved to San Pedro CA and graduated from St. Anthony’s High School, Long Beach, in 1950. Attended Loyola University of Los Angeles from 1950 to 1954 and graduated with a B.S. Degree. Active in ROTC and received an Air Force Reserve commission in August l954. Augmented into the Regular Air Force in December 1954. Aircrew training consisted of navigator training at James Connelly AFB TX and bombardier training at Mather AFB CA. After completing all training by October 1956, was assigned as a navigator/ bombardier to the Strategic Air Command (SAC) and flew primarily B-36 and B-52 aircraft. Primary duty stations with SAC were: Carswell AFB TX, Altus AFB OK and Wright- Patterson AFB OH.

Attended Squadron Officers School, Maxwell AFB AL, in 1961 and was designated as a Distinguished Graduate. Assigned to staff duties upon return to Wright-Patterson AFB thus ending my regular combat crew duty in SAC. Remained in staff assignments until selected for Air Command and Staff College (ACSC) in July 1965. While assigned to ACSC, and upon completion of the Computer Programmer Aptitude Test, was assigned upon graduation to Custer Air Force Station, Battle Creek MI at the SAGE Air Defense Sector site. Served for two years as a computer programmer. After altercation with commander, took urgent action to be reassigned and was selected for gunship training.

Completed the usual gunship training at Clinton County AFB OH and Lockbourne AFB OH by the end of July 1968 and prepared for overseas deployment. Instead, was retained at Lockbourne AFB for further training. Selected to serve on aircrew of Lt. Col. Knie who, with partial aircrew, ferried their AC-119G from Florida to Nha Trang, Republic of Vietnam. Flew aboard a C-141 with other aircrew members to Nha Trang in January 1969. Aircrew was declared combat ready with the 71st Special Operations Squadron in February 1969. The 17th Special Operations Squadron, that succeeded the 71st SOS, moved from Nha Trang to Phan Rang in August 1969. In September 1969, returned to the States due to an emergency.

Reassigned, upon returning to the States in September 1969, to duty in the Pentagon as Assistant Chief of Staff, Studies and Analysis. Remained in such duties for five years the last three years as Chief, Computer Applications Group. With completion of Pentagon duty, assigned to the Electronic System Division, Air Force Systems Command, Hanscom AFB MA. In July 1974, promoted to Colonel and assigned as Director, Computer Systems Engineering. On 1 November 1977, I retired from the Air Force.

Decorations: Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medal w/5 Oak Leaf Clusters (OLC) and eight lesser awards.
Aircraft flown as navigator: B-36, B-52, EB/B-57, KC-97, T-29, C-47, C-54, C-119/AC-119G, C-131, U-3, O-2 and a few hours in other aircraft.

War Stories

I was among the first active duty navigators to fly as an AC-119G Shadow crewmember in Vietnam. I was also the additional-duty awards and decoration officer for our squadron, and served as training officer and assistant operations officer. I retired after 23 years of service.

In between our flying at Lockbourne, we helped plan the deployment of the unit to Vietnam. The reservists accepted our efforts and before long we became a completely integrated Squadron. Part of my assigned crew ferried one of our aircraft to Nha Trang AB. However, I left in January by C-141 on which we began a bridge game that continued through stops in Alaska, Japan, Nha Trang, and ended at Clark AB when we arrived for jungle survival school.

After jungle survival at Clark AB, I returned to Nha Trang and completed in-processing. I’ll never forget my first night at Nha Trang. I was startled awake by the sound of explosions. I reacted by trying to roll out of bed and hitting the deck. However, my mosquito netting was tucked under the mattress and I was firmly cocooned. Fortunately, the netting saved me from a nasty four-foot fall to the floor; I was in a top bunk. As a new arrival, I couldn’t yet distinguish incoming from outgoing rounds.

The time really dragged while waiting for the rest of my crew to arrive with the aircraft they were ferrying from the States. I busied myself preparing navigation charts. I wanted us to be ready to get checked out as soon as the crew arrived. While waiting, I was able to fly a mission with AC- 47 crews and learned a great deal from them.

My crew arrived with the aircraft during the first week in February 1969. The first thing I noticed was the armor- plated fixture that protected the NOS operator was gone, as was the armor plating under the Navigator’s seat. The armor made the aircraft too heavy to fly safely. The initial solution for protecting the NOS operator was body armor. I put the armor on during my first training mission. It was heavy, but tolerable. But when we entered the firing circle, that extra G-load from the 30-degree bank literally took me to my knees. There was no way I could wear that armor and efficiently operate the NOS. I never wore it again.

When flying the desk position, the navigator had to continuously monitor the UHF, HF, VHF, and FM radios. On my first training mission, I heard noises that sounded like defensive noises generated by the ECM operator in the B-52. I asked the instructor if we were being jammed; he laughed and informed me I was hearing an excited Vietnamese translator talking to a Vietnamese army unit. It took a couple of missions to learn how to filter out all the chatter.

On our second solo mission, I monitored a radio transmission that set the direction of my combat tour. An Army ground unit was in danger of being overrun and had asked the DASC for immediate support from a Spooky gunship. I contacted the DASC and informed them we were a Shadow gunship, that we were only five minutes from the unit and could we provide support. DASC replied that they could not task us because the ground unit requested a Spooky, not a Shadow gunship. DASC scrambled a Spooky and the ground unit had to wait nearly thirty minutes for protection. I was totally frustrated knowing there were American GI’s needing help, that we were immediately available, and weren’t allowed to help them. The next day, I located the Ground Liaison Officer (GLO), an Army Captain named Doug. When I told Doug what happened the previous evening, he agreed that ground soldiers only knew of Spooky since Shadow was a new gunship. He agreed to let me put together a briefing on how to use Shadow Gunships and their capabilities, and to take me around the country to brief the units. I told the aircraft commander, Lt. Col. Knie, of my desire to publicize Shadow. Our co-pilot, Tommy Peterson, asked to work with me; he would describe the aircraft characteristics and I would brief our capabilities and how to best use them. We presented the briefing to the Deputy Commander for Operations, Colonel Ginn, who granted permission to present the briefings to all the locations the GLO could schedule.

Within a week we gave our first presentation to the Army at Landing Zone (LZ) Bayonet. An Army Colonel at the briefing decided all company commanders should be briefed on Shadow capabilities and uses, and that his troop should simply request the most available gunship. On several occasions, I briefed solo. On one of those times, I was flown to the LZ in a psy-op O-2 aircraft. When we landed, the pilot noticed I got out of the aircraft without putting on my flak jacket. He stopped me and said that the last guy he brought to the LZ got out without his flak jacket and was killed by a sniper. I think I set a record for donning a jacket.

One night I was staying at Chu Lai, a Marine Air Base, so we could conduct a briefing at LZ Baldy the next day. During the night, a mortar round hit the nurse’s quarters just across the street from our BOQ. A nurse was killed, the first military woman killed in Vietnam. The next morning, we went to the officer’s club for breakfast. We sat outdoors overlooking a large hospital that had a very large helicopter- landing pad. As we began eating, a seemingly never-ending stream of helicopters began landing and off-loading ambulatory and stretcher cases. Later that day, we learned we were seeing the first casualties of the Tet Offensive. To this day, I cannot comfortably watch the beginning of the TV-series MASH. The helicopters arriving during the opening scene are too familiar.

It wasn’t long after my crew arrived at Nha Trang that we moved to new quarters. We were barely settled when we learned the U.S. military would be evacuating Nha Trang and that our unit was relocating to Phan Rang AB. In response to the announcement, the Air Force cut back on supplying Nha Trang. The first casualty of the cutback was toilet paper. Suddenly everyone was walking out of the BOQ, NCO Club or Officer’s Clubs with a roll of toilet paper; the situation was getting desperate. I asked our flight surgeon, Doc. Fields, if there was anything he could do to alleviate the situation. Within 72 hours, we had a C-130 arrive full of toilet paper. The crisis had ended.

We arrived in Phan Rang near the end of August 1969. It was a huge base and there were problems with the water supply because of poor plumbing. For a while we could only get water a couple of hours a day, and there seemed to be no apparent schedule. Also, the initial surge of water after an outage included an abundance of sand. We placed a couple of barrels outside the latrine that caught rainwater that we then used to flush the toilets.

I flew over one hundred combat missions. On one mission, we were supplying support to a Vietnamese outpost, when I suddenly saw tracers coming from above the aircraft followed shortly by bombs exploding on the ground. It seems a Vietnamese fighter pilot in a T-28 decided to join the fray without getting permission from anyone. Fortunately, we didn’t receive any of his fire. Another occasion that sticks in my mind was another troops-in-contact situation. I was on the desk, and when I looked out the window I saw we were flying in a valley, and we were at least one thousand feet below the top of the surrounding mountains. I was very glad we had excellent visibility and two skillful pilots.

It was amazing how quickly combat flying became routine. I grew concerned that we might be getting too confident, but fortunately all went very well. We took very limited gunfire. It was very difficult to get the proper lead to hit an aircraft flying in a circle. The most dangerous situations we encountered were on two or three occasions when we found ourselves in a flak trap, i.e. two or three antiaircraft guns firing in a zone and hoping we’d fly into their fire. On those occasions, we quickly departed the area and called the DASC and told them the situation. They quickly scrambled fighters who bombed and napalmed the sites.

On one of our missions, we were in a hot troops-in-contact situation and we started having our Gatling gun barrels fail. Our chief gunner, MSgt. Vadovich, disassembled the failed guns, cannibalized the good barrels, and kept one gun firing until we were replaced by another Shadow. Despite the asbestos gloves Vadovich wore in the process, his hands were badly burned, but he continued servicing the guns. We had an ambulance waiting to take him to the hospital. I immediately prepared a narrative supporting the Distinguished Flying Cross for MSgt. Vadovich. Sadly, 7th Air Force approved it only as an Air Medal for the heroic act. I was furious. The Air Medal was something we all got for flying 20 combat missions.

My most frustrating mission was near the end of my tour when we found a VC convoy. We were given permission to fire and I could see puffs of dust rising from the canopies as our bullets hit them. We fired several thousand rounds of ammunition and never got a secondary explosion. The very next evening, we were briefed by intelligence about the new AC-130 gunships that had arrived in country. He showed the gun film of them firing their 20mm cannon at a VC truck and the huge explosions that followed.

One of the most humorous moments was at one intelligence briefing where the briefer went on and on about the significance of a number of Vietcong that had been killed on the Ho Chi Minh Trail wearing new pith helmets showing they were receiving new war material. Finally, our AC raised his hand, was recognized and said, “Captain, couldn’t you simply say we shot the Pith out of them?” The briefing room roared with laughter.

In one memorable troops-in-contact situation, the friendlies were pinned down by incoming fire. The ground contact was really rattled. He was stuttering and unable to give clear directions. I tried putting him at ease by asking him where he was from. He responded, “I don’t know, sir.” I then asked him his name and he gave me the same reply. Finally he said, “Sir, I’m so scared I can hardly talk.” We dropped a marker and he started settling down and give good direction and used his strobe so we could begin firing. Once we opened up, he started shouting, “Great! Great! I can hear the bastards screaming.” We stayed with him for another hour until he felt secure and no longer needed our help.

My finest moment came one afternoon when I was the acting Ops Officer and a very large Army Green Beret came into the office. He asked if I knew who flew Shadow 45 the previous night and supported their unit. It had been my crew. He immediately put his arms around me, lifted me off the ground and hugged me so tightly I thought my ribs would crack. He kept saying, “Thanks for saving our lives.” He had tears in his eyes as he handed me a scrap piece of paper on which there was a note, written in pencil, that read: “Shadow 45 – Thanks for saving our lives. Without you guys, we would all have been killed.” It was signed by the six soldiers that survived the firefight and had been air rescued by helicopter. That moment meant more to me than all the medals I received in my 23 years of military service.

My saddest day was when I was nearing the end of my glorious R and R in Hawaii and received word that Lt. Col. Bernie Knapic and several members of his crew, including his navigator, Maj. Jerry Rice, who had been with me since the days at Clinton County AFB, were killed when their aircraft went down after takeoff at Tan Son Nhut. Bernie was the second person I knew who died shortly after returning from their R&R. Our flight surgeon, Doc Fields, was killed when an aircraft he was flying in was shot down. Some very brave people lost their lives in that conflict. May they all Rest in Peace.


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