I was born in Mandan, North Dakota, on August 13, 1949. I went to St. Thomas college in St. Paul, Minnesota. I graduated in 1971 with a degree in business administration with major emphasis in accounting, management and advertising.
I was in AFROTC. I joined the Air Force because they had a detachment at school. My dad wasn’t allowed to go into the service during World War II because he had a job on the railroad that was very important in the war effort. He always felt bad about that. I didn’t want to feel that way, so I volunteered.
I was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant on May 22, 1971. On June 6, 1971, I reported for duty at Mather AFB, California to attend navigator training. I got my first choice of assignments: a KC-135 to Pease AFB, New Hampshire. I was really happy for two days! Then, due to the USAF needs, I was reassigned, along with 5 other navigators from my Nav school class 72-16, to ac-119K in NKP, Thailand. That was my 27th out of 29 choices.
NKP in August 1972: I flew into NKP with the other guys on a c-130 from Bangkok. The navigator was a guy from my Nav school class, Ernie Wells, who was stationed in CCK, Taiwan. He let me sit in the jump seat. We were met on the flight line by a gunner who was DNIF due to his gunship being shot down and he had to parachute out of the gunship. The gunner introduced us all to a Captain from the 18th SOS, who was coming back from R&R on the same flight. He became angry because they were sending 2nd Lieutenants to fly with the 18th SOS. I told him to shove it!
We went to the 18th SOS Headquarters and met a number of fellow gunship flyers. I remember meeting Colonel Cash McCall. I was assigned to the awards and decorations committee. I looked through the files and found that Captain Terry Courtney has been killed and received a Silver Star for his bravery. Terry was a friend from college. I was both shocked and scared. One the same day, I met a person who jumped out of a gunship because it was hit by AAA and then, Terry was killed. What was I getting myself into?
I was assigned a room with Teddy Woods, my Nav school classmate. I remember the sign showing the schedule of flights near the showers. I thought that was stupid because I always remembered the saying “loose lips sink ships”. Anybody could see who was flying and when and where they were flying to.
I took my orientation ride into Laos. I don’t remember who I was flying with. But I remember thinking about john Renner, a friend from high school who joined the Marines and who was killed in Vietnam after four weeks of being a point man in the bush. I remember thinking about getting payback for John. For some reason, I wasn’t scared. Now I think it I was scared, but sucked it in.
There were a number of things I remember about flying into Laos. For one, although it was very hot on the ground while doing my checklist, when we got up in the air at 2,500 feet above the ground, it was very cold. Remember that being above the ground meant were flying at 10,000 feet above sea level and more because of the mountains in Laos.
Looking through the NOS hole to the ground, all I saw was vegetation and smoke from cooking fires. Every once in a while, I saw tracers in the sky. At first, I moved away from the NOS hole because I was afraid I was going to get hit by the gunshots. Then I thought they were signals to tell the enemies that we were on our way. I went back to my NOS hole and watched some more. I had no idea about war. What was it like? How would I feel about it? I had a lot of training but nobody set me down to explain the personal dynamics of war to me.
One flight, we hovered around a village with a big artillery gun. We were contemplating hitting the gun. I was afraid. The pilot and Nav were talking about a 70 or something, I don’t remember for sure, but I know that a 70 was bigger than a 37. I thought the gun was too big a gun for us to tangle with. It was going to shoot us down. But then I found out that this gun was for shelling troops on the ground. I didn’t know. Like I said before, I had no idea about war.
Another time, we were flying around looking for truck movement. All of a sudden, I saw what looked like red tracers coming toward me. I thought oh shit. We are being shot at by AAA. I saw where he was shooting from by looking down the NOS hole and following where his tracers came up from. I pointed my NOS at that area like it was a gun. It was just a natural response to me to shoot back. I did this without thinking. I said, “NOS has the gun, follow NOS direction”. The pilot banked a hard left and circled around. Then we started shooting the guns. I lost my vision for a while because of the tracer blasts and the guns from the gunship. I said NOS lost the target. The FLIR took over the guidance. I couldn’t believe it. I was being shot at. Then I got my sight back so I took control again. Then all of a sudden there was a big boom and fire started on the ground. We went back to NKP. We went to the office hootch to party. I felt a sense of pride and was happy and excited. I remember playing darts with captain Lloyd “Butch” Poehler and Colonel Cash McCall, the two Navs on the flight with me. I got a DFC for that mission.
There was one pilot, I don’t remember his name, but he was a pilot on T-29s when we were in Nav school. The Illuminator Operator (IO) said over the mike “turn your bottom lights off”. He was trolling for some action. I made sure I never flew with him again.
Bien Hoa At the end of August 1972: I was assigned to Bien Hoa, Vietnam. The first night I was there, we had 68 rockets hit and sappers were in the wires. I didn’t know what to do. Everyone went on the floor, so I did too. I felt so helpless. All I thought of was, when are they going to kill me? I was petrified! Nothing hit us. The Marines, who were secretly on base to provide security for us – they were officially in Japan- sat up on the bunk house watching the fireworks, drinking beer, while I was kissing the floor. I drank a lot in our hooch that night.
I got very sick with dysentery. I went to the honey bucket on a combat flight. Now I know what the FE goes through sitting on am ammo can. I had my flight suit unzipped and pulled down – I was moved. I couldn’t stay hooked to the intercom because the wire wasn’t long enough. I tried to go very fast. All of a sudden, the aircraft started to yank and bank. I didn’t have my “ears” on, so I didn’t know then if we had been hit or not. I had to try stay on the honey pot so I wouldn’t make a mess. Talk about feeling vulnerable. I made it back as soon as I could. We hadn’t been hit. The next day some guys moved my bed into the latrine to be close to the toilet. I did see people more. I had it. I went to the flight surgeon the next day. He said that I had a Vitamin B deficiency. He sent me back to that Country Club of NKP, Thailand. He said I should eat some good food at the Officer’s Club, like steaks and ice cream. I flew a Stinger back in the day-time. I was a little hesitant but going back to NKP and leaving place was worth the gamble of getting shot down. Nothing happened except I was all smiles for days. I stayed there for two days or three days. Then, I flew back to Bien Hoa. My bed had been moved back to my room. Everything was peachy keen.
I remember we always flew to the Michelin tire plantation to get our guns in line. It was a “free fire zone,” an area where you don’t need permission to fire your guns in because it was thought as a place for the VC to hide out in. I always watched for action there because they said it was a place for the VC to hide in. I was anxious the whole time there. Always watching the ground looking for anything that moved. But I never saw any action there; no blasts from SA-7 rockets or tracers from guns. We usually just got our guns fixed, but one night a Vietnamese Air Force Shadow decided to shoot in our area. They had gone up to about 7,000 AGL and spit bullets down. We happened to be directly below at 2,500 AGL.
There was a river running around the air base at Bien Hoa. There was a large bend in the river that we called the “top hat” because it looked like one. The VC always shot rockets from there so we always sprayed the area down with our gunships. One night we were called out of the site because there an arc light called for the same area (that is a B-52 bombing strike). We pulled off the site and hovered over the base, watching the strike. Not even five minutes later, after the bombs blew up the area, there were rockets going off into the base. I thought if the B-52 strikes can’t stop them, nothing from a gunship was ever going to stop them from shooting rockets there.
One night we flew into the delta region looking for sampans carrying cargo. Intelligence heard that they were getting some supplies and they to get them in that region was by boat. We went in to check out. I saw a lot of water there and just a little land. The water fed into Vietnam from the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea. We were shot at by a SA-7s – not one, not two, but three different on the same mission. Luckily, we weren’t hit by any of them due the great piloting, the IO doing his job and luck. I was dizzy and my arms were tired and taught from holding at the NOS position. I think at one time I was looking up, maybe I was just that dizzy from all of yanking and banking. The AC said “we are going home boys. It just isn’t our night.” We went over the base and hovered over the runway until it became light. Then we landed. That was a smart pilot.
Da Nang: I went on to Da Nang after about three months in Bien Hoa. We stayed in prefabricated trailers, two stories high, with sandbags around the perimeter. I stayed in the first room next to the outside door. I roomed with Mark Tarpley, who was a Nav school classmate of mine. Mark chose this assignment!
There were tennis courts to the side which we played on if we got up in time, or before going to dinner which would be our breakfast. Many times, we didn’t get up in time. We had to fly and then walk down to the chow hall to eat breakfast. It seemed like we ate breakfast nearly every meal because our schedule was weird. We went to work everyone else was done. We slept during the day, with the sun being blocked out of the windows by cardboard sheets in the window. We stayed up all night, flying and drinking. We called the people who had normal lives “day pukes”.
There was also a Vietnamese restaurant next to the tennis courts. Roger Hardin, another Nav school classmate of mine, and I shared a promotion party to 1st lieutenant together. We had the restaurant prepare all of the food for the party. We had the party in our barracks. We had a lot of booze in the hooch. I have pictures of many smiling faces and many middle fingers up. It is tradition for you to spend a certain amount on your promotion party. I can’t remember what it was, and we tried, but with the low prices in Vietnam there was no way to do it. And nobody complained.
Roger bunked with another classmate, Jim Fiala. They stayed on the 2nd floor in the back. One night, after we had a rocket attack, Roger came down to the bar, carrying a piece of shrapnel that he took out of their wall. It had come through their wall, just where Roger had been sitting writing a letter to his wife, a few minutes before. He would have been killed, had he not come down earlier to visit Mark and me.
Christmas was very depressing. Everyone was sad and missed their loved ones. Everyone had gloomy faces. Everyone was serious. I have a picture of a Christmas tree laying in the corner, undecorated, with a full- length picture of Frankenstein hanging on the wall right next to it. He had a cartoon writing that said, “PEACE IS AT HAND!” I volunteered to fly three missions on Christmas. I had a feeling that the VC were going to shoot rockets at a base that night. They didn’t but I always had that scared, uncomfortable feeling in my head. I always felt more comfortable in the air, flying the gunship, than on the ground. I felt helpless and too vulnerable on the ground. In the air, I felt we could always do something to help ourselves.
The chow hall was about one – half mile up the road from our barracks. We walked up the street in the middle with our flak jackets and helmets on. Walking up the middle gave us a choice of hitting the ground to the left, right or in the middle of the road. Always thinking of rocket attacks. Da Nang was called rocket city. One time, I dove to the ground because I heard “ROCKETS, ROCKETS, ROCKETS.” I didn’t hear anything so I lifted my head and looked around. I heard it again, “ROCKETS, ROCKETS, ROCKETS”. I looked at where I heard it from- it was a frog saying “RIVET, RIVET, RIVET”. We did have many rocket attacks, but not then.
We got bombed by our own guys. I was awakened by a big explosion and dove under my bunk, which set about two feet above the ground to protect myself from falling things during a rocket attack. This wasn’t a rocket attack. What had happened was that there as a bombing mission with the Air Force and Navy. The rendezvous place was Da Nang but somebody put Da Nang as their drop place in their computer. One plane dropped bombs in the ammo dump causing it to blow up. I don’t remember if anyone was hurt.
I don’t recall the person who was the leader of our squadron but I never saw him- not once. He was too afraid to come out by the flight line which is where we lived and our headquarters were. He stayed near the officer’s club, far away from the flight line. The rockets came close to the flight line because they were trying to hit the aircraft sitting in their revetments.
I remember December 21, 1972. We got a message that George MacDonald was shot down in an ac-130 gunship over Pakse, Laos. George was a buddy from our Nav class. We were all in shock. George was such a great guy and everyone loved him. He was marked as MIA for over ten years, but he still hasn’t been found.
Our mission at Da Nang was air base defense, because we were in peace talks. President Nixon said, “PEACE IS AT HAND!” The war was still real to us. We would fly as the high bird with the helicopter from the 1st Cavalry as the low birds. I could see the helicopter lights shining on the ground through my NOS hole, like bees, going after flowers to get the nectar. They were going from door to door looking for VC. There a chopper pilot who was shot down. He was picked up by one of his fellow chopper pilots. Then I heard him on the radio again saying he was back on station. That happened to him, not once but three times that night. There is always somebody who has it bad when compared to you. The F-4 pilots thought that we were crazy because we would fly low and slow to attract shooting at us by the Pathet Lao or the VC and then drop flares to mark the spot where the shooting came from. Then we would act like air traffic controllers and clear out of the area. We would then call in the F-4s to let them drop their bombs.
Sometimes, we would be called out of the area to help somebody on the ground. These were t-I-c missions, troops in combat. As opposed to the mission into Laos hunting trucks which were called interdiction missions.
We were flying “base perimeter defense.” We were called to go to a fire base because it was being overrun by some North Vietnamese regulars and VC. Enroute, we called to the guy on the ground. He was an American advisor. We told him about the gunship and that there wasn’t any way to protect him from the spraying bullets that would come out of the gunship. He said that he and his teammates were going underground. He said, “if we don’t get him the enemy would, so, shoot away.” We rolled out and banked left, circling the fire base. We dropped illumination flares. It looked like daylight on the ground. I could see hundreds of North Vietnamese regulars running around with their khaki uniforms and hats with my eyes. They were firing at us. I could see the tracers arching past. I aimed my NOS. It felt like I had a minigun in my hands and arms. I pointed my NOS at the ground and started firing. We hosed the entire area down for about 10 minutes, maybe more. Then it was dead still and silent. All I saw were hundreds of bodies laying on the ground with fires all around and a lot of smoke laying above the ground and going skyward.
The Navigator talked with the American on the ground. He had come out from hiding. He said, “All I see are pieces of bodies laying around.” He thanked us. Then we went back to Da Nang and finished our time on station, guarding the perimeter of the air base. Nobody talked about it. I still think about that mission.
Life after the AC-119K
The trip home: Peace is at hand! A bunch of us from the 18th Special Operation Squadron at Da Nang when home on a commercial flight to Travis AFB in California. Some guys from the 18th SOS stayed in Vietnam to train the Vietnamese Air Force how to fly the missions of the AC-119K gunship. The war was still going on with the U.S. Air force still fighting but we were finished and going home.
Going to Travis AFB, California was strange. I couldn’t believe I was leaving the war. This was the first time I wore my khaki uniform in a long time. The flight was full of happiness and smiles abounded. I was very anxious landing at Travis and going to San Francisco airport to catch a flight home to Minneapolis. It seemed like I was being stared at by all of the civilians. I didn’t know what to do. I was nervous and afraid.
I couldn’t quite believe that I was going home. It scared me. Nobody knew I was coming back to Minneapolis, neither mom or two sisters or my girlfriend. What was I going to say to them? How was I going to act around them when all I had was my experiences in war in Vietnam? I remember saying goodbye to Jim Fiala in the airport in Minneapolis. Jim was going back to Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
I don’t remember how I got back home or who picked me up. The first thing that I remembered was I went to one of my sister’s houses with my girlfriend. We talked small talk. I couldn’t relate to them. They were complaining about small things! All I pictured was the amputees I saw in the airport in Da Nang with blood showing through their bandages and their heads wrap up. I had to get away. My girlfriend wasn’t any help either. I was lost and remained quiet. I couldn’t wait to get back to the Air Force.
Back to the Air Force: After my tour in Vietnam I was assigned to tankers somewhere in Michigan. I wanted to go to Pease AFB in New Hampshire. I went to my St. Thomas AFROTC detachment. I felt good seeing my old Sergeant and everybody wearing Air Force uniforms. I felt like an adult instead of a student. The Sergeant let me use their military phone to call sac personnel at headquarters in Offut AFB in Omaha, Nebraska. I talked with a Captain there about my change of assignment from a kc-135 at Pease AFB from one in upper Michigan. I explained how my assignment was changed from a tanker at Pease to an AC-119K Stinger gunship in NKP, Thailand and Vietnam out of Nav school. I waited awhile for him to check things out. He came back on the phone and said that my orders had been changed to Pease and that he would send me a telegram that would be my official travel orders
For the first time I was happy since coming home. I later found out that my orders to a tanker at upper Michigan were a mistake. Tom Armour’s father, who was an important person in the CIA, was trying to change Tom’s orders back to the C-141 at McGuire AFB. Tom, like me, had his orders changed to the AC-119K gunship from his first choice. His Dad didn’t get Tom’s orders changed but he got the Air Force to agree to assign all of us, who had our orders changed to the gunship, to where we were supposed to go before our orders were changed to the gunship.
My crew and I from Pease volunteered to go to TDY to Utapao, Thailand. I liked going away from the states. At Pease, we pulled alert duty every few weeks and we were more visible. I didn’t believe in that nuclear war threat. After Vietnam where we had a real war, it was very difficult for me to pretend that we were protecting us all from a nuclear bomb.
I was eating breakfast in the officer’s club, reading the Stars & Stripes newspaper. I read where they were offering early outs if you had a SEA tour and your base would let you go. I left my breakfast sitting there. I took a taxi to personnel to sign my early out papers. I had made the decision to get out of the Air Force because I knew that in order for me to advance in rank that I would have to get a desk job. The only desk job I wanted was to be a CPA in a CPA firm.
I was frustrated with being stuck in the service and not believing in the mission. That is, maybe, why I got into a shouting match with the MPs at the south gate at Pease AFB. I was acting out my frustrations. They were just doing their job. Someone had stolen something from the air base so they were stopping every car leaving the base and searching it. When they got to my car, I threatened to call the ACLU for infringing on my rights as a U.S. Citizen. I got a call very early the next morning from my AC, Steve Turner. He said that we were to report to the Colonel right away. The Colonel wasn’t too happy! He reported the incident as he had heard it reported to him by the MPs. He asked me if it was true. I said, “yes sir.” He said that I needed to get a military lawyer, which I did.
I got an Article 15 for my actions. I got a Distinguished Flying Cross and six Air Medals for flying 126 combat missions in the AC-119K Stinger gunship. That Article 15 was a black eye on my military career.
I got out of the Air Force on after serving for four years, on June 1, 1975. I became a partner in a very large CPA & consulting firm. I was a CPA and a CFP and was a certified consultant of medical practices for 40 years. I was recognized nationally and spoke many times for the American Institute of CPAs, the Minnesota Society and Wisconsin Society of CPAs and the National Society of Certified Healthcare Business Consultants, of which I was a founding member. I retired when I was 62. I worked very hard, but I don’t miss working. I do miss the people I worked with and met through my work and my clients, just like I miss the people I worked with and met in the service. I miss the camaraderie of my time in the Air Force. There is nothing like it.
Today: I have been married to Mary Ellen for 34 years. We have two boys; Maxwell is 29 and Samuel is 25.
My health is not very good. Starting at age 60, my health went downhill fast. I have had many operations and stays in hospitals and rehab facilities. I had six strokes in March of 2018. I had to learn to talk and walk and read again. I still can’t drive. I will need another operation on my right carotid artery because it is filling up with cholesterol again.
I started on FaceBook in January 2019 for something to do. I discovered that the AC-119 gunship Association has a blog. They have reunions every year. I have been a life member since 2010 but never knew about the reunions. This year, I am going to my first reunion in Salt Lake City. I will meet my Da Nang roommate there, Mark Tarpley. We haven’t seen each other since we stayed next to each other in Merced, California, while we were going through Navigator training for tankers at Castle AFB. The group, through Ev Sprous and Colonel Steve Mac Isaac, have encouraged me to file a VA disability claim. I did file and received a rating of 100% disability for life due to PTSD. I am still pursuing my claim for health reasons due to Agent Orange.