Michael “Mike” Friel was born in 1938 at Glasgow, Scotland and grew up in Gorey, County Wexford, Republic of Ireland He attended schools in Belfast, Donegal, and London. After moving to the states, he graduated from Glendale Community College, studying Theatre, and joined the Air Force at Georgia in May 1958. On why he joined the Air Force, Mike’s son says, “I’m sure my Dad would say to get out of Ireland and for the adventure and travel.” Mike retired from the Air Force in April 1978 at Luke AFB, Arizona and his awards and decorations included the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), multiple Air Medals, the Purple Heart, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry for a May 1972 mission out of Da Nang with Steve Meleen.
Mike was an 18th SOS Gunner/Scanner and both Steve Meleen, his aircraft commander, and his son agree on what may have been one of his most exciting missions, “My Dad might have said the time he saw a handheld SA7 missile coming at the gunship.” Steve Meleen said they thought they might ‘buy the farm.’ On another August 18, 1972 mission that Mike received the DFC for, the DFC citation reads (in part), “On that date, while partially extended outside the aircraft, directing the pilot through extremely accurate antiaircraft fire, Technical Sergeant Friel corrected maneuvers, called by other crewmembers, which saved the aircraft from taking direct hits. Later, while engaging hostile forces, and despite antiaircraft fire, Sergeant Friel, although injured by an exploding gun inside the aircraft, made electrical repairs which allowed the remaining guns to be reloaded and directed at the hostile forces, resulting in the stopping of an attack on a friendly firebase.” Mike’s sons Mike Jr and Sean provided their thoughts on what their Dad remembered most about his time in AC- 119s, and those thoughts are right in line with what many of us remember about Mike, “My Dad cannot speak about this since the cancers got him October 2001, but I know camaraderie must be up there at number one. Later in life I could tell he valued his time in SEA not so much for what he did but for the bonds he had made with his fellow airmen.
As his eldest son maybe, I can put in a few words here. We traveled the wonderful world while Dad was in SEA from 1967-1973. I remember when we talked to Dad on the phone we had to say ‘over’ and ‘out’ – seemed pretty neat at the time. I remember Dad would always bring us gifts from the far off places he had been, coins, lamps made from howitzer shells (still have ‘em), gorgeous plates and flatware, paintings, gold rings with our names on them, and once he had flight suits made for us; exact replicas of his Stinger ‘party suit.’ That was the neatest! My brother Sean and I loved those suits; we wore them out. I also remember Dad sending me an audio tape of the multiplication tables because Mom said he had to help me with my math no matter how far away he was. As Dad was reciting the math you could hear explosions in the background, then someone telling him to get under the bed and a big boom. After a brief quiet spell he picked up right where he left off; that’s one bad hombre! I remember Dad showed us some pictures of the base he was on and how one white building had spots on it. I asked Dad what that was, and he said that was what remained of a close friend who had been blown up by a missile attack. I don’t think I was supposed to see that photo. After all those years in SEA, only then did I realize that what he did was dangerous, and I began to worry for him. We were in England then, and shortly thereafter Dad came home for good, it was great, but he was a little edgy for a good long time after that. Many years later when I asked him what he went through he wouldn’t say, just that he met some nice ‘blokes.’ Dad was also in the Spectre squadron and when I hear those C-130s fly over our home I always look up and say ‘Howdy Pa!’ I know they’re not AC- AC-119s or AC-130s but close enough!
After Vietnam we went to Dad’s hometown of Gorey in Ireland where everyone always called him ‘Sonny’ or ‘There goes the Gorey Cowboy!’ But whenever they finished talking to him, whoever it was would always bend down to my ear and whisper….’You know yer Da’ is a hero.’ I knew it all along, and he always will be!”
Mike was also one of the 18th SOS Awards and Decorations NCOs. In that role, he solicited inputs on missions that warranted recognition and helped package those to best show the correlations to exceptional bravery, courage, and a cool head while under fire. Most of us from 1971 through 1972 owe many of the medals we received to Mike’s professional and personal interest in doing his job right. He often resubmitted nominations with additional information or corroborating documentation and testimonies to assure our guys got what they deserved.
After his Air Force career Mike took up acting and you can see him in “Murphy’s Romance” and “Desert Bloom!” Wayne Laessig, his wife Lynette, and Karen Graves remember a walk on the beach with Fred Graves and Mike toward the end of our first AC-119 Gunship Reunion. Mike reminisced about those we’d lost, the friendships we’d made, and the public legacy we had not yet achieved. Mike lost his battle with cancer the next year in October 2001. This history book and Mike Friel’s stories help remedy the legacy of our AC-119s and those who flew and supported them.