I joined the Air Force in Monroe, Michigan on 29 December 1955. After various assignments and training schools, I volunteered and was assigned to the 4th Air Commando Squadron, flying AC-47 Spooky gunships in Vietnam. After flying combat in “Puff”, I was assigned to the 20th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) at Hurlburt Field, flying UH-1N helicopter gunships. At Hurlburt, I volunteered for AC-119 gunships.
Reporting in June 1970 to the 17th SOS at Phan Rang AB, I was assigned to Fighting C Flight at Tan Son Nhut (TSN) AB at Saigon. While stationed at TSN, I lived at the Merlin Hotel in Saigon along with other enlisted Shadow aircrew members. The hotel was located not far from the American Gate at Tan Son Nhut. A shuttle bus transported us back and forth to the base and flight line. My buddies were my fellow gunners and other Shadow crewmembers. I always remember the outstanding people we had in our flight and squadron. All combat missions were serious business but there were times for a little humor.
While watching F-4 Phantoms deploy drag chutes after landing at TSN to slow them down during roll-out, it occurred to me that the Shadow gunship should also have a drag chute. Wheels started turning and next thing I knew, my gun compartment comrades (NOS excluded) and I had devised a drag chute from a flare parachute. Upon landing touchdown at TSN after our next mission, I threw the Shadow drag chute out the flare launcher door for deployment. To everyone’s disappointment, it was a dud! The chute collapsed and dragged along behind the speeding gunship like a rag on a string. I pulled ‘the dud’ into the aircraft as we taxied off the runway. Even the pilot had no idea that we were trying to help him slow down the hot boxcar.
Once when I was flying on a normal combat mission, firing at a target when a 7.62mm high explosive incendiary shell exploded in a minigun chamber. Shrapnel shot everywhere. I was working close to the gun and caught a small sliver in my eye. We continued the mission until Bingo Fuel and returned to base at Saigon. After landing and upon engine shutdown, I departed the aircraft and immediately headed for the base infirmary. The flight surgeon extracted the sliver of metal from my eye and applied a bandage over the eye. I returned to Shadow Ops to inform the Ops Officer that I was DNIF. WELL, the Ops Officer was not at all sympathetic nor did he honor my DNIF status. I was already scheduled for the next mission because our Flight was short on gunners at the time. Injured or not I was going on the next mission which I flew as a one-eyed gunner.
Another time we were flying a daytime armed recon mission over Cambodia when all of a sudden a jet came out of nowhere and buzzes our Shadow. From our six o’clock position, the jet shot very close to the top of our gunship. The sound and vibrations caused by the jet startled our crew. What in the hell was that? Then the warplane was identified by a knowing pilot. It was a Mig 15, a bandit! We wondered if the Mig was only warning us that we were doomed and that he would soon turn to make his kill? Everyone scanned the skies for imminent aerial attack as time slowly passed. Thankfully, the Mig did not return. We gladly headed back to Saigon and landed. A few of us changed our flight suit before going to debrief. During debriefing, we learned that the Cambodian Air Force had Mig 15 fighter aircraft. The bandit was a friendly MIG!
In January 1971, I was transferred from TSN to Phan Rang as SEFE gunner to train the Vietnamese in the AC-119G. I departed Vietnam in June 1971, having completed my one year tour of duty. Stateside, I was assigned to the 415th SOTS, flying the AC-119G and AC-119K. In 1972, I, along with many other gunners from the 17th SOS, was selected for “Project Credible Chase” in which one pilot and one gunner flew single-engine Helio Stallion AU-24 and Pilatus Porter AU-23 gunship aircraft. Both gunships were equipped with one three-barrel 20mm Gatling cannon. From there, I went back to AC-130s and became the first enlisted sensor operator, position normally held by a navigator. In 1975, I transferred to Korat, Thailand as an AC-130 sensor operator.
In my five tours in Southeast Asia (4 in Vietnam, 1 in Thailand), I was awarded the Command Crew Wing, the Senior Jump Wing, one Bronze Star, the DFC with four Oak Leaf Clusters, 21 Air Medals, and a Purple Heart. I retired from the United State Air Force as a Chief Master Sergeant in December 1985.
Editor’s Note: Norm, Jim Bennes, Fred Graves and Bill Petrie planned our first ever AC-119 reunion in 2000. They are known as the Founding Fathers of our AC-119 Gunship Association. We thank them all.