Robert (Bob) La Rosa, Gunner
18th SOS, Phan Rang and Da Nang, 1970-71
I was born a “city boy” in Brooklyn, New York on March 12, 1940. My father, James La Rosa, was born in Siracusa, Sicily Italy. My mother, Blanche Fedorski- La Rosa, was born in East Orange, New Jersey. Although my name’s Robert LaRosa, I prefer to be called Bob. It took my parents a long time. I had to train them to call me Bob, instead of Robert. As a young boy growing up in an area called Flatbush in Brooklyn, I always yearned to be away from the city. Every chance I got, I would escape from city life to a friend’s home in the beautiful and scenic Catskill Mountains in upstate New York State. There I learned to hunt small game and deer. All that time, I had a longing to live in the Western United States.
I attended and graduated from Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, NY. When I entered high school, I was placed on the high school Varsity Rifle Team because of my prior experiences with shooting firearms. Shooting .22 caliber target rifles, I competed in many rifle shooting competitions through my high school years, winning numerous awards. I also accomplished all of the National Rifle Association’s .22 caliber target rifle qualification steps up to and including The Distinguished Rifleman Award.
During High School, I joined the U.S. Navy Reserves. Later on, after a stint on active duty, I transferred from the U.S. Navy Reserves to the U.S. Air Force and went on active duty with the Air Force (AF) on May 7, 1958. I first attended and graduated from the Air Force Aircraft Munitions and Weapons Technical Training School and then completed and graduated from the Aircraft Nuclear Weapons School. Both schools were at Lowry AFB outside Denver, Colorado. Because I graduated second in my class in these schools, I was given the choice of my next assignment. WOW! At that time, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) was considered the elite command! The best of the best. So I chose an assignment in SAC to McCoy AFB at Orlando, Florida where I worked on the Air Force’s first all jet bombers, the B-47A and then the B-52. During my time in SAC, I was stationed in Okinawa and later in New Hampshire. But I couldn’t get a flying job; I tried to, but I couldn’t at that particular time, so they put me in a munitions’ weapons field. After various assignments in Strategic Air Command, I went all over Europe in a fighter command.
After four years in SAC, I changed commands. I was stationed in Germany, England, and Las Vegas, Nevada, assigned to the F-111 project. However, like many others who had joined the Air Force, I wanted to be an aircrew member and fly. My chance came at last in 1970. I volunteered and was accepted to the Air Force fixed-wing gunship program as an Aerial Gunner (AG). At last, I not only had a chance to fly in the Air Force, but a chance to fly in combat as well!
I completed the AF altitude chamber testing at George AFB in Victorville, California. Then, it was off to the USAF world-wide survival and POW training school in Fairchild AFB at Spokane, Washington. Then onto Lockbourne AFB in Columbus, Ohio for AC-119K Gunship training as an Aerial Gunner and my Air Force Wings at last. I was going to finally fly after years of waiting. After completing more than three months of Combat Crew Training at gunship flight school by early December 1970, I was off to the Philippines to Clark AFB to complete Jungle Survival training. We laughingly called it “Snake School” in Clark Air Base in the Philippines. They had a mascot which was a python snake. That thing was about 10 or 12 feet long. The instructor was telling all of us in the class that you had to take this snake and put it around your neck before you graduated from school-sometime during the course. I went to the instructor and told him that “Sergeant, the Vietnam War is going to be over with before you get me to put that python snake around my neck. There’s no way you’re going to get to do that!”
I was assigned to the 18th SOS, which was Stinger 119 Gunships. I was there September of 1970 to September of ’71. All the time I was flying, people tell you that if you’re flying in combat, people tell you that you should be scared. Strangely enough, I was to a point, but until they actually started hitting my plane, I didn’t really fear being shot at. It was amazing the funny phenomena.
My first gunship assignment was at Phan Rang Air Base, Vietnam as an AG on the AC-119K Stinger gunship. On my first night at Phan Rang, laughingly called “Happy Valley”, I went to the outdoor theater to watch a movie. Shortly after I sat down, I heard a tremendously loud noise come screaming over my head. Just then, I heard someone loudly yell, “In-coming!” As we all dove to the ground and took cover, one thought immediately flashed through my mind, “Welcome to the war and combat!” Well, a Republic of Korea (ROK) Marine artillery unit was stationed somewhere at one end of the base and they had started shelling some Viet Cong troops located on the opposite outside perimeter of Phan Rang AB. However, they forgot to tell the American Air Force they were going to start firing artillery shells over the top of the base!
Not long after arriving at Phan Rang, I was transferred to a forward operating base further north in Vietnam called Da Nang. It didn’t take long for this place to heat up either. Da Nang Air Base was not only the home of our flight detachment of 18th SOS AC-119K Stingers; it was the home for many other combat forces of the USAF, US Army, US Marines and South Vietnamese units. Da Nang was strategically located on the South China Sea coast. Night and day, the base was almost constantly under attack by Viet Cong 122-millimeter (mm) rocket fire. These rockets did tremendous damage to aircraft and structures at Da Nang while causing the loss of many lives of troops stationed at the base. Hence, Da Nang was nicknamed “Rocket City.” Stinger gunships at Da Nang were predominately used to fly interdiction missions along the infamous and heavily defended Ho Chi Minh Trail, attacking North Vietnam Army (NVA) trucks hauling war materials southward to Viet Cong and NVA troops to use against American and South Vietnamese forces.
Our second and best-liked missions flown were called “TICs” for Troops-In-Contact. Supporting ground troops who were in dire straits, Stinger aircrews were known to squeeze every ounce of fuel from fuel tanks just to stay on target a few minutes longer so the troops on the ground might survive! Many Stinger gunship crews landed back at base after supporting a TIC with almost no remaining fuel. I flew combat missions during four major campaigns in the Vietnam War. The first was called Commando Hunt V in which we flew in support of South Vietnamese ground forces severing the Ho Chi Minh Trail on Route 9 in Laos during Operation Lam Son 719. I’ll never forget one mission the night of February 19, 1971. The triple A (Anti-Aircraft Artillery) fire was so intense that you could almost walk on it! A convoy of trucks was spotted by one of our onboard sensor operators. Our gunship nosed over on its left side and we started attacking the convoy, firing our 20mm cannons at the enemy truck convoy while weaving in and out of the intense ground fire. When it was all said and done, our Stinger crew had successfully destroyed sixteen enemy trucks! All of our crew members received the Distinguished Flying Cross, (my first DFC) and the Vietnamese Gallantry Cross with Palm; a Unit award for our crew’s participation during Lam Son 719.
Many combat missions later, and on the first day of another campaign called Commando Hunt VI, I flew on the mission that almost cost me my life! On the evening of May 15, 1971 at Da Nang AB, my crew and I readied our Stinger gunship for a mission over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. Our radio call sign was Stinger 03. Little did we know, this was to be the most memorable and dangerous mission we would ever fly together as a crew! Since Stinger gunships flew at a low altitude and in very heavily defended areas at slow speeds, Stingers usually flew nighttime missions, but not always. Our crew had already been briefed on the area and target locations that we would be attacking. We had also been advised during the weather briefing that there would be a full moon shining brightly over our Laotian target area. Not a good way to start a combat mission!
Flying a mission with a full moon on a cloudless night was the one thing all Stinger crews feared the most. Our gunship would be silhouetted against the moon as we made each firing orbit over the target area and enemy gunners would have no trouble seeing us.
Stinger 03 took off from Da Nang heading towards Laos. We “Crossed the Fence”, flying over the South Vietnam/Laos border. All crewmembers pulled down their face shields on their ballistic flight helmets to protect their faces and eyes from flying shrapnel should the aircraft take a hit. In the case of us three gunners, we also needed the visor protection in the event that one of the aircraft’s six guns exploded while firing. Arriving over the target area, the pilot banked the gunship into a 30 degree left orbit. I switched on a 20mm Vulcan cannon to the firing mode. Another gunner and I both placed empty 20mm ammo cans on the floor behind the firing gun. Gunners always sat on overturned empty ammo cans behind the guns to fix the gun in case the gun jammed and to also reload the gun with ammo. Shortly after, we went into an orbit, firing the 20mm cannon. The gun jammed and the two of us were unable to fix it. I turned off the gun’s firing switch and notified the pilot over intercom that we’re moving to the rear 20 mm cannon. The two of us gunners carefully walked back to the rear gun and I switched it to firing mode. The gun worked fine and started blazing away at our target. Approximately twenty-five seconds later, exactly where my fellow-gunner and I had been seated behind the jammed 20mm gun, WHAM!, what seemed to be the loudest bang I ever heard in my life went off inside the compartment of the aircraft. The aircraft abruptly shook back and forth in the night sky. Shrapnel flew wildly throughout the gun compartment. The next thing I remember was gallons of volatile aviation fuel, spraying everyone in the compartment with the flammable fuel.
We’d been hit!! Our Gunship had just been struck by two very accurate .57mm Anti-Aircraft Artillery rounds. The first one exploded, blowing a hole in the outer skin of the belly of the gunship. The second round exploded as it passed through the floor of the cargo compartment (gun deck). Shrapnel from this round continued upwards severing the co-pilot’s rudder cable and cutting open the aircraft’s cross-feed fuel valve and hydraulic system line. We were just waiting for a spark to set this thing off. We were going to blow right out of the sky just from the fire. We started shutting down everything we could on the inside. Battle damaged and still flying over heavily defended enemy territory and targets that we had just attacked; Stinger 03 was in big trouble to say the least.
One good thing that we had going for us was an F-4 Phantom Fighter/Bomber flying overhead and behind us as an escort. He started talking to our table navigator, explaining that there was a contrail smoke coming out the back of the aircraft, but actually it was a fuel mist. We were losing so much fuel it was running down through the cargo compartment through the hole in the belly of the airplane and that was forming a contrail out the back of the airplane. In all of this time we lost, I think, 3800 pounds of fuel; that’s a lot of aviation gas. At that point, I think, we were ready to bail out, because by that time everybody had strapped on their chest parachutes and it didn’t look like we were going to be able to land this plane. The enemy gunners were still shooting at our aircraft and we were trying to get out of the target zone. If we had to bail out, the Phantom could provide some firing cover and would know where we went down.
Everybody onboard Stinger 03 started doing what they could to keep the badly damaged gunship in the air as the pilot tried to exit the target area without taking another hit. The pilot and co-pilot fire-walled the engines, trying to maintain altitude while heading eastward toward Da Nang. In the cargo compartment, I was in charge of all the other gunners so I told them to start throwing out our butt boats which were two man life rafts, all the empty ammunition cans, the full ammunition cans, all the brass that we had already fired up (used) – we threw that out the door – anything to lighten up the aircraft because it turned out we had a six foot hole in the belly of the airplane. We three aerial gunners and the illuminator operator threw anything we could throw overboard to lighten the weight of the crippled aircraft.
Ahead was a mountain range to cross over on the way to home base. By this time we had all strapped on our chest parachutes for what looked like a possible bailout. Past the mountains, our next problem was that the main landing gear and the nose gear would not come down and lock in place. Remember the hydraulic system was shot up. The Flight Engineer and I started hand pumping the nose gear first and then the one main landing gear down into place. The other main gear was down but not locked in place. Tommy Skoggin, who was our flight engineer, and I both manually started pumping the nose gear down on the airplane and the main gears on the airplane. We weren’t really sure at the time whether we were going to have to bail out over enemy territory. Tommy and I managed to get the nose gear pumped in. We pumped the left landing gear down and we tried to pump the right gear down, but it wouldn’t lock down, it was in the unlock position, so we tried that for a while. Finally that gear locked in place. Meanwhile, they’re up in the cockpit trying to figure what’s going on, too. We finally managed to cross over into what we called “the Fence” which was into Vietnam. We made the swing out into the South China Sea and we didn’t have to bail out. We set up to make a straight in approach. The next problem that we had was, since our hydraulic system was shot out, the only way that the pilot could even control the aircraft and stop the aircraft was to use the airbrakes. We have one or two applications of the air bottle to stop the plane on the runway otherwise you were going to go overextend on the runway. We came in. We knew we had one shot at it. We had a good pilot, and he managed to start applying the brakes and slowing the airplane down. Meanwhile, all the fire trucks and crash rescues were rolling down the runway next to us, hoping we were going to stop. Finally, we managed to get it stopped. The fire department was going to get out and start hosing down the brake wheels and the linings because they were almost to the point of burning. Thank God they didn’t, because had they done that, applying water on hot brakes would have caused them to explode which then would have caused the airplane to blow up because it had all of this fuel pouring down on us all over the place. We were all saturated. Our flight suits were completely saturated. I got some scars on my face where the aviation gas came down and leaked over my visor and then started to scar in through here. We shut down in the middle of the runway in Da Nang and we had no ladder to get out of the airplane so it was probably and 8-10 foot drop down to the runway. I opened the back door. Since we were in the rear of the airplane, you think we would have gotten out of the plane first. One of my navigators that was up in the forward part in the cockpit beat me out of the airplane to the runway; jumped out of the airplane before I could get out of the plane. You never saw ten guys get out of an airplane so fast. We set the land speed record for ten guys getting out of an airplane and evacuating by jumping out on the runway. Funny thing about it was at that time I used to smoke so I get out there and first thing I did was pull out a cigarette, pull out a Zippo lighter and I’m fixing to light this cigarette. This air policeman came over and he’s going, “You don’t really want to light that cigarette, do you?” I said, “You see that airplane? If that didn’t kill me, I’m not worrying about me blowing up and catching on fire with this cigarette.” So I lit up a cigarette and that was it for that. Didn’t have any problem, and we all looked back at the airplane and realized how much damage we had. You still couldn’t see all of it, because it was still night time. Next day I went out and took pictures of it. There was a six foot hole blown through the belly of it, and probably four and a half foot hole in the floor of the aircraft where I’d been sitting with the other gunner, so I guess God was watching out for us. We got back to the barracks after we had an intelligence debrief. We all washed up and went down to the club and we got really rolling, stinking drunk. I mean we couldn’t hit our butt with both hands if we wanted to. So that was a mission-which I’ll never forget. We tried to get the aircraft repaired, but they couldn’t even repair that aircraft. It was too badly damaged. For this mission I was awarded my second Distinguished Flying Cross. I stayed there at Da Nang from the time we got hit on the 15th of May, 1971 till September of 1971.
We flew missions in several different campaigns. While I was there in February of ’71, there was a big push in Laos and it was named Lam Son 719. We participated in that. We really took some heavy ground fire. We were getting shot at every mission we flew. You couldn’t make an orbit in the firing pattern without getting shot at. We had everything in the world, I think, shot at us. All the farmers in the rice paddies, I think, were shooting at us with AK47s we were flying so low.
After that, we flew a lot of campaigns back and forth in Laos, Southern Laos, Northern Laos, up along North Vietnam border. I later got transferred up to NKP, Thailand and continued to fly up there, but we were flying further north right along the Ho Chi Min Trail and North Vietnamese border in the Laos area. Every time we got up there, it was so heavily defended. I mean they would shoot Sam Missiles; they would shoot artillery, anything they could get in the air at a gunship. They would fire at us. It was pretty mountainous terrain, too. The other problem we faced in that area was that if we were to take a hit, probably within the first ten or fifteen minutes of flying we wouldn’t have had enough fuel to get back. You knew we were going to bail out, be guests of the Laotians and MBS probably. I flew there until January of 1972.
For my missions flown on Stinger Gunships, I was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, Air Medal with seven Oak Leaf Clusters, Presidential Unit Citation, Outstanding Unit Award with combat V and two Oak Leaf Clusters, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm, Vietnam Service Medal with Four Campaign Stars and the Vietnam Campaign Ribbon.
After Vietnam, I went back to the United States and started a different career in the Air Force. I went to work on the F111 airplanes at Mountain Home, Idaho. From Mountain Home, I got selected to go to Canada. I came into work one day. There was a sign-up on the bulletin board and it said that I was transferred to Canada. I started laughing with some of the guys that worked with me. I go, “Well, we don’t have any bases in Canada.” One guy goes, “No, you’re selected to go to Canada.” It turned out that they had gone through my records and found out that I had worked on the RF101, photo reconnaissance, when I was stationed in Germany. They needed people that had had experience on that airplane, so they selected me to be any advisor to the Canadian Armed Forces and that was a good selection. I liked that assignment. I went up there and stayed in New Brunswick, Canada almost three years working as an advisor to the Canadian Armed Forces. I enjoyed that tour – a little bit cold. I never saw so much snow in all my life. You think you see snow down here in the states. They still had snow on the ground up there till June, early July.
I came back from there and I got assigned to Griffiths Air Force Base in Rome, New York and to a 106 fighter outfit, fighter interceptors. Later, I left there at the force and went to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. One of the things that I always wanted to do was live out West, so I finally got to get out West; and I retired out there with rank of Master Sergeant on July 31, 1980.
Again, I achieved another childhood dream. At last, I was living in the western United States; I had retired from my Air Force career to the Land of Enchantment. But the other life-long ambition that I had was that I wanted to become a police officer; so I applied and got accepted into the police department out there in New Mexico. I did a little over twenty years as a Law Enforcement Officer in the State of New Mexico and retired from there in November of 2000.
I was married and have a son, Anthony, and three daughters, Viki, Misty, and Kristal, all of whom are now adults. I have three grandsons; Cody (who unfortunately passed away shortly after birth), Trenton, and the youngest boy, Lukas, and one granddaughter, Magen.