Francis “Frank” J. Gerner, Navigator
17th SOS, Cam Ranh Bay and Phan Rang, 1970
I was born in College Point, New York City, NY, in November 1934. I completed a B.S. degree, Manhattan College, NYC, NY. In 1967-1969 I attended the University of Oregon, Eugene, OR. I was assigned to the university for the purpose of obtaining an advanced degree, Doctor of Philosophy in educational psychology; my degree awarded June, 1973 after I was out of the Air Force.
I was commissioned June 5, 1956 via AFROTC and completed navigator training at Harlingen AFB, TX in 1958. After navigator training I completed combat crew training in the KC-97. During my 13 years in the KC-97G I was assigned to squadrons at Forbes AFB, KS, Plattsburgh AFB, NY, and Westover AFB, MA, with TDY to forward operating locations in Japan, England, and Okinawa in support of the RB-47’s missions and forward- alert duty stations in Greenland and in Newfoundland, Canada. In 1965 I was assigned to the United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, CO as an instructor of management, psychology, and anthropology in the Department of Leadership and Psychology. Two years later I was reassigned to the University of Oregon for work on a PhD in Educational Psychology. In 1969 I was reassigned to gunships with the 17th SOS at Phan Rang AB, Vietnam. From gunships I was assigned to a C-130E Tactical Airlift unit at Forbes AFB, KS, where I had been assigned in 1958 during my initial assignment as a navigator. It was at Forbes AFB in June 1972 that I left the Air Force with 3649 hours of flying time in over 10 aircraft, and numerous awards and decorations including the Distinguish Flying Cross and Air Medal with 7 OLCs. A year later (June 1973), I was awarded my PhD.
I arrived at Cam Ranh Bay in February 1970, during the TET celebrations. The officers on my first crew were Charles Meier (pilot), Steve Norgress (co-pilot) and Dale White (co-navigator). Dale and I trained together at Lockbourne and alternated positions as table navigator and Night Observation Scope operator on our gunship crew.
Memorable Missions: DAK PEK/DAK SEANG SPECIAL FORCES CAMPS – The most memorable was in the defense of Dak Seang and Dak Pek in the highlands campaign. Both Special Forces Bases were about to be over-run in the NVA Spring Offensive. Shadow and Stinger aircraft were providing air support with suppressive fire and assisting in night supply drops. The bases were under heavy attack and missions were being flown by the 17th and 18th SOS out of all locations. The siege of those bases lasted a couple of weeks in April, 1970. On one mission, the ground contact at Dak Seang requested our fire directly on his position! We asked him to repeat his request, and he affirmed it by saying, “Roger that, all are indoors and the shutters are down and shut!” They were in hand-to-hand fighting. The mission began in the dark when I was at the NOS position and viewed everything in the pale green scope, but when this request was made it had begun to be morning light and the ground action took on a new perspective. It was possible to see the NVA as they attacked through the perimeter defenses. Major Meier, our pilot, gave the order for us to enter the firing circle and “hose-down” the compound and primary bunker. After several minutes, we received a call from the ground with a “well done” and continued to work the area around but not on the command bunker, the main threat was over. On these nights to support these bases we would return to base refuel and rearm for another sortie.
THE GHOST SAMPAN – One night we were sent on a coastal patrol off of Vung Tau. The sea mist was forming but there was enough light for the NOS to see the surface of the South China Sea. On one of the passes heading south I spotted the silhouette of a sampan, no lights, just the outline of a dark shadow. We entered the firing circle after being cleared to fire by coast control. Made several bursts in the circle and followed the sampan for approximately 10 minutes. Two days later the report was received that no sampan or evidence of a ship was found, however, a large oar was afloat in the area.
INCURSION – An unusual situation occurred during a night flight over Cambodia when our aircraft was sent on a radio radial from a ground post to fire on a suspected NVA troop movement about 8-9 “clicks” out. We were directed to fire on a suspected NVA position about eight or nine clicks from a friendly encampment. I was on the NOS. On the first pass at the location I spotted what seemed to be a circle of armored vehicles and asked if “Charlie” had tanks or anything heavy. While observing the location I could see personnel moving about, very unconcerned. We returned to the ground post for verification and I asked if the target included tanks or any other kind of heavy vehicles. They did not. So we flew back to the encampment where we were redirected to the same location. The same picture appeared in the scope, armored vehicles and casual movement of personnel. This time I confirmed that the suspected NVA were actually “friendlies” that were feeling secure under the watchful eye of Shadow!
My last mission at Phan Rang on December 3, 1970 was a hair-raiser. We lost the number one engine on take-off just as we broke ground. Capt Slagle, our pilot, aborted and got the aircraft safely stopped on the runway.
In June 1972 I was Honorably discharged, having 3, 649 flying hours. My decorations included the Distinguished Flying Cross, and Air Medal (with 7 OC).