Donald D. Fraker, Pilot
17th SOS, Tan Son Nhut and Phan Rang, 1970-71
I was born in my Grandparent’s home in Julesburg Sedgwick County Colorado May 30 1932. I graduated from the University of Northern Colorado at Greeley and was commissioned through the ROTC program on June 1 1954. Following Primary Pilot Training in T-34s and T-28s, I trained in B-25s at Vance AFB, Enid, OK, where I received the class award for obtaining the highest grade on my instrument flight check. Upon completing B-29 heavy aircraft transition, I accumulated 2400 hours in six years flying KC-97 tankers. I then left active duty and returned to Colorado for a position with the National Guard. There was little flying time in the Guard, so in May 1964, at my wife’s suggestion, I went back on active duty. I flew C-124s out of Hill AFB, UT for three years, logging more than 2050 hours. The mission included monthly flights to SEA that counted for combat pay and Air Medals. In my follow-on assignment, I flew C-118 Air Evac missions from Clark AB, Philippines. We spent a week or two each month in Vietnam moving wounded people from the field hospitals to hospitals that could take them to bigger hospitals in Japan or return to the U.S. By the end of this tour I had another 1400 flying hours and lots of time in Vietnam. Even so, my next assignment was to Vietnam to fly AC-119s.
Then I served as Chief of Military Training of the Student Group at Keesler AFB, MS. The Group included 37 squadrons and 13,000 students. After two years, I was assigned to Southern Command in Panama as the Chief of Plans for the Canal. They closed the Southern Command in 1976. Then I was sent to the C-141 Wing at McGuire AFB NJ. After learning I would not be flying, I took terminal leave and arranged my retirement. I served on active duty for over 21 years, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel at Lowry AFB CO on September 29, 1976. My awards and decorations included the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Meritorious Service medals, sixteen Air Medals, and a Medal of Honor from the Vietnamese Air Force.
AC-119 Shadow Vietnam Tour July 4, 1970 – June 16, 1971
One of my closest friends, with whom I spent 6 1/2 years flying KC-97’s, went to AC-119 Gunships when he left SAC. We talked on the phone about how that was. His response was “Moose, it is a great mission”. Well after two years hauling our wounded troops in, around, and out of VN, I told him I wanted to defend our troops.
At that time I had 5900 hours flying time (all prop time). I was a “shoo in for Shadows.” So, I brought my family back to CONUS and went to Clinton County Air Patch and started the transition. I had no problem with any of the checkout process. After the transition, I was sent to Columbus AFB OH to learn to shoot, and to handle the eight-man crew plus instructors.
On July 1, 1970, I was on my way back to Clark and the jungle survival school. The Negritos had no problem rounding up snakes for us to see and learn about. Of course, we all remember you could not hide from them as they could smell us even buried under a foot of sh-_ _. From there we went to Tan Son Nhut and the 17th SOS where we all served some time. I was told they were hot for my body because of my multi engine experience.
After my in-country checkout, and a dozen missions, I was up- graded to IP. Six missions later I was given my Flight Examiner check ride. From then on all of you who were there had me looking over your shoulder at one time or another.
Col. Teal was riding with me early on and we were down south, firing at canal movers. We were at 1500’ as I recall and “pow” the canopy over the engineer’s head shattered and Plexiglas spewed all over the cockpit. The engineer called out “I’m hit”. Lo and behold he was wounded by the flying Plexiglas. A quick check was made to make sure everyone and everything was OK. I was ready to resume shooting but Col. Teal said “Your aircraft was hit, return to base (RTB).” After landing we found the AK-47 round that tumbled into the cockpit providing one Purple Heart for the engineer. My first nickname was Cowkiller. I was giving a Wing Staff Colonel a firing ride and an opportunity to see how good we were. We were running canals in Cambodia. The NOS spotted a mover on the canal. Moonbeam was called and we were cleared to expend. The Col. didn’t do too badly. He didn’t hurt anything and soon the NOS called out cease fire; it was a water buffalo.
I was grounded three different times for too many flying hours in a month or too many missions in a week. I loved being at Tan Son Nhut. You could fly all night, come back to the hooch and pile your sweaty flight suit and undies on the floor and wake up later and find them all washed and ready for the night’s mission. Tough war.
When we were supporting Cambodia so heavily, we were flying around the clock. You all remember, we were not in Cambodia at that time; we were just “over it”. I had 600 hours, just over it. On one mission, it was just getting light ‘0 dark 30’ and the ground was dark which made it hard to make out targets. We got into a firefight. That was the morning I helped to train the Cong with their nine level 51 cal. capabilities. The tracers were coming up past the nose so close I felt like I could reach out and catch them. The crew was not happy with me as I always said, “If I got ammo, I fire out”. It was getting pretty intense; the crew said “Let’s break and run.” They were so noisy that I turned off the intercom switch. Finally the Nav banged my head and told me we had taken a hit. Second time. I started listening to what was going on and they told me a fuel cell was leaking fuel. We watched it for a few minutes and it quit. I broke out of the firing circle and we RTB. I called in the hit and reported all was OK. The Wing CO wanted me in his office immediately on landing. We checked for a leak and found no evidence of a leak. We were on the ground for 1 ½ hours before it started to leak again. After my telling the CO the story, he returned me to work. Sure do thank the people that put the tank sealer in.
There was another mission I would share. I was giving a young Captain (AC) a check ride and we were called in by a Ground Commander (GC) to help him from being overrun by the VC. All was going OK until we got into a shootout and the AC could not push the trigger. The ground commander said to shoot on his position and kill everyone. He said he would rather we do it than be captured by the VC. We were getting a lot of ground fire and it was getting pretty hot. I ordered the pilot to shoot. He did not.
About that time “ka-pow”, the cockpit filled with smoke and in a quiet moment I asked if everyone was OK. The copilot did not answer. I could see he was turning white. Again, I said “Copilot are you OK?” We could not hear him. Finally, I reached over the console and grabbed his helmet and turned his head toward me. He was very green by this time and I repeated “Are you OK?” He just shook his head “Yes”. We found out after a bit the 51 cal. round that came into the cockpit severed his intercom wire. He could hear but he couldn’t talk or be heard. He was so relieved that he wasn’t dead. The round had come up through the nose wheel and glanced off the bell crank counter-weight that aided the nose wheel to move up and down. The 51 cal. projectile hit the inside of the armor plate and ricocheted back to the copilot’s knee, injuring him. Third hit and “Another purple heart”.
After the smoke cleared and we restored order in the cockpit, I told the Captain to fire out. He refused to shoot. I reached up from my jump seat and jerked his butt out of the seat. I got in and started firing two guns on line and hollering for more. We were being effective for the GC and then we went bingo bullets (all fired out) so we held for a few minutes until the next Shadow could come in and replace us. Bernie Smith fondly nicknamed me “Magnet Ass.” After we landed, we were walking around the airplane. I said, “I just wonder what would have happened if the round had not hit that bell crank.” After some eyeballing and estimating, we decided that round would have cut me in half.
Next, I was selected to go to Phan Rang to train the Vietnamese crews to fly our gunship. That was an experience. The VNAF were good pilots and crew. They had just never flown a gunship. There was lots of ground school and classroom work. The biggest challenge was they had never flown nights. Their air war was from dawn to dark for them.
My first student was the Squadron Commander. He was savvy. He had lots of flying time and know how. He picked up the tactics quickly and had a lot of training to do with his other people. His second-in-command was also good. The CO’s copilot was a brand new graduate of our flying schools in the U.S. Once again, a challenge one dark night we were near Pleiku. You know the spot, 280 radial 60 miles. We were called in to support the Vietnamese ground forces in trouble, (TIC) troops in contact. Major Duc was in the seat and it was under cast. He asked me to take the seat as he could not talk with the ground commander and shoot. I knew this was a hot spot from our Intel brief. I got in the seat and took charge of the situation. The French interpreter had been killed so we were working strictly with the South Vietnam forces. We were in the firing circle and “boom,” explosions were happening on the ground. I took a quick survey around the cockpit and the young copilot had turned off the guard channel and there was an air strike going on through us. We did not hear the “arty report on Guard”. I had a very deep and serious debrief with the copilot when we got home.
I mentioned before these people were good but had a lot of adjusting to do. They did not like to fly all night. One example was my young copilot who fell asleep while we were in a firefight and I was firing out. I was good and was able unknowingly to handle it all by myself.
Another highlight was the VNAF (friends) wanted to give us a party for helping them. We received an OK and made plans. The Wing CO was invited and Major Duc wanted me to get clearance from him to invite “The Air Marshall for Vietnam” as a guest; he was none other the Nguyen Cao Ky! We had a wonderful meal of the local fare and many other things as well.
Some 19 years later, I attended a guest speaker function at my alma mater (UNC) and guess who the feature speaker was? None other than Nguyen Cao Ky. He was still preaching that we deserted them and left them to be overrun by the Viet Cong. He appreciated me coming up and introducing myself. He remembered the party at Phan Rang and autographed the book the aircrews had given me over 19 years previously.
I kept a diary of all my missions, time and rounds expended during my tour. I had flown 239 missions, in 937.4 hours and expended or supervised the firing of 1,750,000 rounds of 7.62 ammo.
The question is always asked,” Were we effective?” One of the ways to answer that question was to explain it this way. We were taught that the miniguns were capable of putting an ammo round in every square inch in a football field in a two-minute standard rate turn circle. Our mission was to destroy the enemy’s desire to fight. In doing that, many lives were destroyed. We always asked for the number of KBA (killed by air). Sometimes we were given estimates at the end of our time over target. During daylight hours you could see what and who you were firing on. You could see bodies if the area was clear. On one mission we were cleared to sink a passenger boat on a river and we could see the river run red from the blood of those we shot. The bad guys would take over boats because they knew we would not shoot friendlies. Our orders were approved to shoot on that target. I would pray for God’s forgiveness as I was shooting or clearing the pilot to shoot. I’m happy that only God knows how many lives we took.
I was with Marty Noonan giving him a firing ride on my last mission (fini-flight). As did we all, I got the hose down by the troops that were there when we landed. I have the fondest of memories of those days.