William Gericke, Navigator
17th SOS, Tan Son Nhut and Phan Rang, 1970-71
Bill “Gunship” Gericke was born May 9, 1935 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He earned a B.S. in Forestry from Penn State University in 1957. He received a regular commission in the Air Force as Distinguished Graduate of the PSU ROTC program.
Bill earned his Navigator Wings, completed Electronic Warfare Officer Training, and was assigned to B-52D crew duty at Turner AFB. He was among the first navigators selected to crew the B-58A that he flew from Bunker Hill AFB, IN. In 1965, he was chosen for a Special Duty Assignment as instructor navigator at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
From the Academy, Bill initially reported for training in the RB-66. However, the program was cancelled and Bill was eventually reassigned to the AC-119G program where, from May 1970 to May 1971, he flew 148 combat missions and 692.6 combat hours from Tan Son Nhut AB and Phan Rang AB. His duties included training the initial cadre of VNAF students including Hoa Ngoc Bach (Harold Bach), who is now an American citizen and a Lifetime Member of the AC-119 Gunship Association.
Bill was reassigned to the AC-130 replacement combat training unit as Defensive Systems Operator Instructor. From March 1972 to June 1972, Bill was back in Vietnam as Special Operations Liaison Officer to Headquarters Seventh Air Force. He returned to the AC-130 training program where, by his retirement in December 1985, he had accumulated 2,300 hours in the AC-130 A/E/H and a total of 16 years in gunships.
Following retirement, Bill purchased an Airstream trailer and traveled almost continuously for five years, visiting 49 states, and eastern and western Canada. He now lives in St. Petersburg FL where he plays softball three times a week as he has for the past 22 years.
Bill’s awards and decorations include the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Meritorious Service Medals, nine Air Medals, three Air Force Commendation Medals, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with “V” device, three Combat Readiness Medals, Republic of Vietnam Service Medal Honor Class, Vietnam Service Medal with four Bronze Service Stars, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm, and Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal.
The Americanization of Harold Bach
In spring 1971, the 17th Special Operations Squadron at Phan Rang began training Vietnamese Air Force members in the AC-119G aircraft and the Shadow mission. I was the instructor navigator assigned to one of the first VNAF crews to undergo training. One of my students was Lt. Hoa Ngoc Bach. Hoa spoke good English and had completed the VNAF navigator training course, so I trained him as the crew navigator.
Hoa was a bright student and was quick to exhibit leadership and initiative. On our third or fourth training mission, we received an urgent request from an ARVN unit that was being harassed by a VC unit. The unit was nearby and we were on the scene almost immediately. However, we quickly discovered that our ground contact spoke no English, or at least not enough to rely on him for target identification. Hoa instantly became the translator/ communicator/coordinator. Through Hoa we located the friendly forces, got clearance to fire, and surprised the VC with our quick reaction.
I returned to RVN in the spring of 1972 during the VC/Chi Com invasion across the DMZ. I was delighted to reconnect with Hoa’s crew and fly a couple of missions with them. They were mostly the same folks we trained the previous spring. It was evident we did a good job training them. They flew the mission well and displayed good basic procedures. The most unusual part of those flights was the intercom communication. All conversation was in Vietnamese except for the Check List. I heard lots of Vietnamese chatter, then “Gear up!” or “Cruise Power.”
I returned to the U.S. not expecting to see Hoa again. However, after the fall of Saigon in April 1975, I received a telegram from Hoa. He and his new wife, Thu, were at the refugee camp in Ontario, California. I too was newly married. My new bride and I decided not only to sponsor Hoa and Thu, but have them come to Fort Walton Beach and live with us until they could get settled.
They arrived without any luggage; it was either lost or stolen while at the camp. Hoa could only find menial jobs, but after six months they were able to rent an apartment. We bought them a VW bug and I found myself again being Hoa’s instructor as he learned to drive the VW. Fortunately, Hoa was a fast learner (he had been a teacher before entering the Vietnamese Air Force).
After nine months, Hoa, Thu, and two other couples relocated to “Little Saigon” – the Los Angeles area, where both Hoa and Thu found work. Hoa began as a laborer with Long Beach Fabricators, a company that assembled Toyota trucks. For two years he worked from about 0600 to 1400, went home, ate, napped, and then attended evening computer classes until 2200 hours. After completing his course work, his employer placed him in charge of inventory control. Hoa worked for the same company for 28 years. While working, the couple purchased a house in Long Beach and, over the years, served as sponsors to 21 family members coming to the U.S. It was my pleasure to welcome Hoa to America and my privilege to provide him a Lifetime Membership in the AC- 119 Gunship Association.