Wayne F. Laessig, Pilot
18th SOS, Nakhon Phanom, Da Nang, and Bien Hoa, 1971-72
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was my birthplace in 1946. My home town was Magnolia, New Jersey. After graduation from Sterling High School in 1964, I attended and graduated from Western Maryland and Glassboro College in 1969. I was an 18th SOS Co-Pilot from November 1971 till November 1972. In 1980, I earned a Master’s Degree from the University of Northern Colorado.
In January 1970, I entered the Air Force in Philadelphia, PA. 1970 was the first year the lottery was used to select for the draft. They randomly selected the 365 days in a year, and the order selected became the dates used to “call-up” draftees (the dates correlated to birth dates). My birthday of June 4th came up #13 and the Army recruiters told me I was “theirs” within 30 days. But I had already gone to the Marines, Navy, and Air Force (just in case) and the AF in its infinite wisdom told me they’d make me an officer and a pilot (and that seemed like a good thing).
When I got my first assignment orders after pilot training, I actually thought there was an AF Base in San Francisco called “APO San Francisco” where I’d be flying a cargo transport bird. Imagine my surprise when I learned I was not flying an old cargo bird in San Francisco, but would be flying a gunship of it in Vietnam! Obviously, Second Lieutenants can be a little stupid…….. I spent equal time at Naked Fanny, Dang-Dang by the sea, and Bien Hoa.
Out of pilot training, you’re taught that it’s your job to fly the airplane because you’re in a single seater. When I got in gunships, Gus Sininger was the FE on the very first mission I was on, and I’m used to putting my hands on the throttles. But, in 119s the FE very distinctly has to set the torque and maintain that for the take-off conditions, pressure attitude, temperature, run-way length -everything else So every time I’d put my hands on the throttles, Gus would take his checklist about 4”x6”x2 ½” thick, and BANG – rap my knuckles, saying, “Those are my throttles, Lieutenant.” Now, I want to explain, again, how dumb lieutenants can be – it took me three knuckle busts on the first mission before I got it; it’s his throttles. He’s today one of my best friends, one of my dearest friends. He helped me understand what it was like to fly on a crew. The rest of the crew understood the lieutenants didn’t know beans and they’re in combat! The old head colonels and lieutenant colonels and majors and captains were really good about making sure that we understood what to do from the procedural perspective to keep us safe, but the NCOs taught us what it meant and how to work with a crew. Everyone has a job and you can’t do anything without all of them. For example, the gunners were the lowest rank. They sometimes came straight out of boot camp and were taught how to load; learning from the Gunners who had ammo or gun experience. It wasn’t about rank though. Think about it: without bullets, you’re just a flying airplane. With bullets, you’re something else; plus the Gunners were part of the scanners who kept us safe from AAA. Without the Nav to get you where you need to be, you’re just shooting. With the Nav to get you where you need to be, you’re shooting at something. Without the NOS and the FLIR to pick something to shoot at, you’re shooting without a real target. Without the IO to help illuminate targets with a flare, or to scan for us you don’t have everything you need to hit targets and avoid AAA. There wasn’t a single crew member on the airplane you didn’t need in order to do the whole mission. Learning that was the best thing in my whole career.
There were many exciting missions that I experienced in Southeast Asia. One I remember well was Thursday night, 13 July 1972. I flew with Major Bill Lodge in AC-119K tail number 121 on a perimeter defense “Nighthawk” mission in the Da Nang Rocket Belt. Gus Sininger was the FE and although that day’s frag sheet shows Lentini as co-pilot, I was the copilot even though I had just flown into Da Nang on a C-130 from Bien Hoa earlier that day. The other crewmembers were NAV Bott, FLIR Rhodes, NOS Blum, AG1 Bartlett, AG2 McDuffie, AG3 Phillips, IO Wolf. To make the mission a little more stressful, Major Lodge told me he’d be giving me a no-notice check ride that night. Later in the mission, we worked with an Army Cavalry Chopper who ‘found’ a bunch of 122s right when they first started cooking off and heading toward Da Nang. I immediately called Da Nang Tower to warn everyone of the attack, sound the sirens, and give them a chance to hit their bunkers. Simultaneously, Major Lodge was rolling in and firing 20mm at the location of the rocket launches and blowing up a whole slew of them on the ground, before they even got airborne. My job was to notify Tower that rockets were inbound and I did so in an extraordinarily professional, calm radio call, “Da Nang Tower. Da Nang Tower. Stinger XX. Rockets, F—ing Rockets!!” The Tower crew thought about that for a split second, hit the warning sirens, and hit the deck themselves. Later I found out that the first rocket hit near the base of the Tower and imploded the tower windows. After we finished our mission, Da Nang Tower was still on high alert, so we made the left-turn to final for a VFR blacked-out landing from the right seat since it was my ‘surprise’ check ride. Later, Major Lodge’s check ride comments included, “Landed slightly left of centerline and a little excessive interphone chatter.” Not bad, considering that Stinger co-pilots were lucky to get a landing every 15 missions during normal conditions. Later that night, the Tower crew found out who the guy was that called in “F—ing Rockets” and I ended up meeting them. They said they were all in one piece because of my radio call. After that, I never had to buy beer for the rest of my time in Da Nang if I was near the NCO Club. The Tower guys set me up with a beer account titled, “Rockets, F—ing Rockets!” Cool. The Pacific Stars and Stripes ran an article about our Nighthawk mission that night and an article about a 14- year old Vietnamese girl who was abducted by the VC along with a group of women porters forced to carry rockets that same night. She was part of the group we hit that night but survived to tell her story. Our Stinger crew was awarded the Gallantry Cross of the Republic of Vietnam for combat actions taken that night in 1972.
My initial AC-119 training was unique in that I also got trained in the left seat. When you get out of pilot training your hands and eyes are probably as sharp as they’re ever going to be. So at first, I got to I learn how to shoot the AC-119’s guns and I actually blew a smoke target out of the water down at Hurlburt and thought “This is fun.” Then, I didn’t get to fly in the left seat for almost fifteen months because I was a copilot and didn’t have the experience or flight time to be an aircraft commander. Eventually I flew enough to be put in for an AC upgrade. Donnie Williams was my instructor. He had been my aircraft commander before Mac and I got in the left seat thinking, “It’ll come back. It’s just like riding a bike.” We arrived at our target and I noticed that the gunsight pipper that you’re looking at and trying to hold steady on the target, boy, it was wandering all over. Donnie finally said, “Shoot a burst or two and it’ll come back, so brrrappp, brrraappp I shot…, and shot….., and shot…… Pretty soon I noticed the yoke was pumping back and forth a lot. Well, the copilot’s supposed to control the yoke. He’s supposed to hold it very steady no matter what the pilot does because that gives the airplane a stable platform. But my yoke was just pumping back and forth. I finally said, “Donnie, what are you doing?” Donnie was in the right seat as both the Instructor Pilot as well as doing the copilot duties. Well, Donnie was laughing so hard at me that the yoke was pumping – because he thinks it’s the funniest thing he’s ever seen. So I got ticked off and I just said, “Well, hold the damn thing still” and I just cut loose to blast the target and it hit about oh, a quarter mile from where I was aiming. That started the most dog gone fun I’d had up to that point on the mission because the whole crew got with it and pretty soon they were saying, “See that hill there. See if you can hit it.” After my first mission I got better, but I never got enough missions to upgrade because we were in the very end of the war and they pretty much took our airplanes and transferred them to the Vietnamese at that point. I never did get to finish my upgrade to Aircraft Commander.
There were other things about Southeast Asia I’ll always remember. I learned how to play poker. Three guys, Terry Courtney, Rod Slagle, and GT Smith taught me how to play poker by taking my money for about three weeks until I figured out how to really play poker. I learned how to play darts. I learned that, as a bachelor, I could get into more dog gone trouble than I knew what to do with. But I also learned about the local people. This neat old grandma in downtown NKP with betel-nut black teeth (they would chew betel-nuts and it would turn their teeth red-black) taught me how to cuss in Thai and Laotian. She must have been 60 years old at the time. She just took a liking to me in the local marketplace. That came in handy one night in Laos when a T-28 driver came up on the radios and said in Laotian, “I have a tank. He’s hidden in the jungle and I can’t see him” – and he was cussing up a storm. I went on the radio and I cussed back at him (in Laotian). He asked who the heck that was, and we started a little side conversation. My pidgin Laotian got us to the point where our crew flew over to where he was, found the tank for him, and “sparkled” on the tank with our 20mm. He could see our sparkle, so he dropped a bomb smack on top of the tank and blew it up. Bottom line was that lo learning how to speak and cuss in Laotian had some merit to it.
Some of the things we lived with day to day were fun. In Da Nang we had a place called the No Hab, a little restaurant right outside the barracks. It wasn’t named the No Hab, but we called it that because you’d go down there and they’d have signs up saying Specials for today – grilled ham and cheese. You’d say, “I’ll take a grilled ham and cheese.” They’d say, “No hab ham today.” You’d say, “Ok, I’ll take a grilled cheese.” They’d say, “Ah, no hab cheese today.” You’d say, “Um, just some buttered toast.” They’d say, “No, hab toast today.” You’d say, “What do you have?” They’d say “Today have hamburger.” And finally, you’d say, “Give me a hamburger.” No matter what you asked for that was on the special, it was, “No hab, today,” so we named it the NO Hab Restaurant and it was a riot. It was just the thing to do – go down and ask for whatever they had as a special and they never had it.
At Da Nang we had bunkers in our rooms. We’d take sandbags or ammo cans filled with sand and you’d build a little bunker by your bunk or sometimes in the corner cause if there was a rocket attack that’s where you’d dive. You could also run out of the barracks and get into the outside bunkers but bottom line was it was important to be protected. We were pretty good at it. One day, Cookie Villarreal, one of our navigators, and I were sitting in his room. His grandmother had sent him pinto beans, a vacuum-packed can of homemade tortillas, salt pork, all of Grandma’s herbs to make refried beans, and a few other odds and ends. We got together to slowly cook everything, drinking beer, when a rocket attack hit. He grabbed the pot of beans; I grabbed the two beers; and we made it into the bunker in his room without spilling the beans or the beer. We came back out, finished the beans, and were fixing these tortillas up, when another rocket comes in. Back into the bunker. We didn’t drop a thing; came back out, finished our beers, ate the best food I had the whole year, almost. I didn’t think too much of that over the years. Two reunions ago, I’m in the banquet, walking across the room, looking at this guy coming at me. He’s squinting at me, and as we got closer, he says, “Pinto beans!” I said, “Da Nang, we didn’t drop anything!” It’s Cookie Villarreal. I hadn’t seen him in 30 years. He says, “Come with me” and walks me over to his table; his son’s there; he’s a Captain in the Air Force. Cookie says, “This is my friend Wayne. Wayne’s got a story he wants to tell you.” I told him the story and his whole family is sitting there, looking at me, and his son’s mouth is slowly opening wider and wider. I finished the story, “…..and that was the best beans and beer, and we didn’t spill anything.” Cookie says to his son, “See!” and I looked at Cookie and I looked at his son, who says, “Dad’s been telling me this story for 30 years and I thought he’s been bullshitting me the whole time. What else is true?” Cookie yells, “Everything!” and I nodded in agreement. So, you never know, and it was neat getting that validation. We did some fun things, even when getting a rocket attack.
At the same time, a rocket attack is just tough. It was when my aircraft commander got killed. To make a long story short, I was tired of flying with all these different aircraft commanders, so they put me on Tommy Hamman’s crew, because his copilot had been sent home. I flew with Tom about sixty days. He was one of the really good guys and AC. He had great rapport and ran a great crew. But, one day I learned I had flown too many consecutive missions so I had to sit down that night (we weren’t supposed to fly more than 30 consecutive nights and I’d flown 33). I was ordered to take five days CTO (Combat Time Off) and told to do something to refresh myself. So I decided to go to Australia. That night Tom came to my room because we would always go to midnight chow together before a mission, and I said I was going to Australia so I wouldn’t be going with him. His substitute copilot declined as well so Tom headed to midnight chow by himself. Normally, when there was a rocket attack you’d hear the first blast, and you’d hit the bunker or hit the ground. That night, the first rocket hit right in front of him. He died the next day on the operating table. He was supposed to have gone home earlier, but he took the last few months of another guy’s tour whose mom was sick. He was supposed to get out of the Air Force in three months. Tom’s wife was bitter and angry about his death. I don’t blame her and we respected her desire to be left alone. Tom and Susan’s daughter Kirstin had been born three months before he went to SEA. She never really knew him. About three years ago, we contacted Susan again, and she was fine talking with us. We said we’d like your daughter to make up her own mind about us. Susan said she agreed and we contacted Kirstin. She was cautious, but came to a reunion – one of the best things that ever happened. She talked with a guy who was there when her dad killed; talked with her dad’s roommate, his copilot and other guys on his crew; learned about his sense of humor, learned a lot from us who remembered Tom so well. The next year, one of our guys, Jim Terry, who helped coordinate this, was going Hawaii where Kirstin lived with her own two young children. She invited Jim to dinner with her and her two kids. As he was leaving, they asked if they could call him Grandpa because they could never meet Grandpa Tom. As Jim, put it, “I blubbered you bet and it made me feel wonderful!” The beauty that can come out of even tragedies is awesome.
Something we’d occasionally do is get everybody in the Squadron together at the hooch and we’d have BBQ or whatever. One time we said we were going to have barbequed pig. They told us to go get a couple of pigs. Rick Ward and I went downtown, went to the market, explained what we wanted – a couple pigs about 6 pounds each to barbeque, and to have them pre-cooked. All we wanted to do is pick them up, throw them on the grill for a while, then eat them up. The night of the BBQ we went down and picked up the pigs. They looked wonderful. They smelled great. We put them on our big grills. All we did was heat them up – perfect. They had just been freshly cooked from downtown so everything was cool – right? Everybody ate and had a great time. The next day I happened to be going to Bangkok; I got there and I felt terrible. I had a fever. The doctor there gave me some medicine, but for four days I was just out of it, and I was supposed to be on vacation. I got back to the base, and Gus Sininger said, “Man, did you hear what happened?” I responded, “No, what?” Gus: “We all got food poisoning!” Oh, God. It was a wonder I didn’t die! You never knew what was going to happen while you were over there, just interesting things that were part of everyday life, things we did, or things we didn’t do.
The maintenance guys worked their buns off – twelve hour shifts. They were supposed to have three guys per airplane. They had one. They had a deal with the aircrew, if when you stopped the propellers they were in a perfect T, they’d give you a six pack of beer. I’d occasionally take them up on it. I wanted a six pack of beer, but I always had to pay a six pack of beer. I don’t know what they did to jerry-rig that, but I know they did something. I did learn about some of the other things they did. One of the guys, Jesse Lau, told us that he needed to tell some the things they did when they only had one guy instead of three, on twelve hour shifts. They’d be up there refueling the airplane and were supposed to degrease the engines. They didn’t have anybody to degrease them, so what he’d do, as he was refueling the wing tank above the engine, was just take the fuel nozzle out of the wing tank and spray it over the engine, put it in the tank, spray it over the engine, put it in the tank, and spray it over the engine, two, three times. He said, “It was about enough because it would drip through and drip all the oil and grease off. By the time we get there it would be dry and look just like he’d degreased the engine normally.” Now, he dumped about 30 gallons of gas on it, but it was cleanly dry. Today, we’d be court-marshaled if we did that, but as Jesse said, “We were in a combat zone with one instead of three men, on 12 hour shifts seven days a week.” All I did was laugh and said, “Pretty good job – we never blew up.”
We had one mission, Bill Lodge again; supporting a fire base. There was an Army Major with a bunch of South Vietnamese regulars. We went out to support him at night. He said, “I’m being overrun. We’re in the last bunker. We’re about ten feet down under dirt. They’re digging us out. Shoot of top of us.” We said, “What?” He responded with, “Shoot right on top of us.” So we shot and he said, “Ok, stop. I don’t hear them digging anymore.” He looked out and was yelling in the microphone’s radios – a lot of cuss words, and it was because the attackers were dead up there. All of a sudden he said, “Here they come again.” Back he goes in his bunkers; shoot again. We did that all night until another Stinger came and relieved us. The Stingers saved that firebase, with an estimated several hundred North Vietnamese killed. They wanted to take it to show they could and weren’t able to. The North Vietnamese would take all their bodies so we wouldn’t know how many were killed. And I’ll say this, “I respect the North Vietnamese people fighting for their country, and trying to get out foreigners. I got no anger against them or anything like that. I think about that night and say, “God, hundreds of them trying to make a statement and they got killed. Here we are feeling good that we saved the ones we’re supposed to save. It’s a strange world! It’d be better if we didn’t have war, but we did and we did save the guys we were there to save. It felt good that we did what we were sent over to do, that we did it well, and that somebody survived it.
After 119s I stayed in touch with a lot of guys. Some of them I’d see here and there. Back in ’98-99 Fred Graves got in touch with me, and sent me some e-mails. Next thing I know we’re going to a reunion and renewing old friendships and finding some new friends. It was one of the best things that ever happened. We don’t wear rank. We remember what we did on the crews for each other. We remember the maintenance guys too.
Things that I will always remember about my time with AC- 119 gunships were making friendships that last forever and learning how to fly while relying on everyone on the crew – ground and air. After my Aircraft Commander got assigned to Headquarters, I flew with over 35 different crews as a “substitute” co-pilot. They were mostly great crews, and I learned a lot about what I liked and respected, and what I didn’t.
Learning about the local culture and people became a passion for me. I was a bachelor, already in Vietnam, and I had a few bucks in my pocket. I learned enough Thai and Vietnamese to get in trouble regularly, as well as to enjoy teaching kids in the local school trying to improve their English while I practiced my Thai, or having a party at a “local’s” home and eating some very strange (and delicious) foods….., and drinks….(!) I think I experienced a side of Southeast Asia that many didn’t during their tours. The Thai people were extraordinarily gracious and I enjoyed some unique sights and places that I probably should not have gone, but again, I was a bachelor, already in Vietnam, and with a few bucks in my pockets to spend……
In 119s, not only did the crew teach you so much, but my aircraft commanders did too. We mostly flew with the same guys. You get to know idiosyncrasies, strengths, areas they aren’t as strong in, and you learn to work with each other. If you’re lucky, it’s a group of guys you’ll never forget. The guys I went through training with, I’m still close to most of them. Joe Sugg was my first AC-119 aircraft commander, and he happened to have headquarters experience. Within a month of our SEA arrival, he was assigned to Headquarters and I didn’t have an aircraft commander. They relocated the rest of Joe’s crew to another crew, but that crew already had a copilot so I was the spare guy. For the next seven months, I flew with many different aircraft commanders when their copilots were sick, on leave, whatever. I’ve had a list of more than twenty aircraft commanders I flew with: Joe Sugg, Jim Shope, Guy Moran, Don Browning, Lt. Col. Bob Matthews (18th Commander), Buzz Matthews, Terrey Courtney, Dick Pollmann, Bill Kleinhenz, Ernie Cole, Bill Lodge, Lt. Col. Tommy Teal (Da Nang Commander), Art Galbraith, Larry Blood, Tommy Hamman, Donnie Williams, Mc Isaac, Al Barreras, and a couple of other guys. I got to see them and their crews, which was probably unique, because most guys only flew with their same crew. It taught me how important it was to work together. There were a couple guys I didn’t want to fly with again. Most crews welcomed me, but I wasn’t a part of their regular crew. They were tight-knit and I learned how important it is to work together with a group of people in anything you did.
The best was learning what it was like to fly with a “hard” crew (even if each was only a month or two) led by Tommy Hamman, Mac Mac Isaac (the “all-Lieutenant” crew), Larry Blood, and Donnie Williams. The worst was losing Tommy (Captain Thomas R. Hamman). But, meeting Tommy’s daughter Kirstin (who had never met her dad) 35 years later helped.
I ended up with about 650 total combat hours on 140 or so combat missions in 119s, enough to get me to the point where I understood what I was supposed to do when I went to the rest of my career, flying airplanes and stuff like that. After Vietnam, I went to C-5s and four or five of the guys I had flown with in AC-119s were in C-5s as instructors or flight examiners. My first check ride was with Bill Kleinhenz who I had flown with out of NKP. He said, “You need to upgrade to aircraft commander. You’re better than most of the guys coming out of UPT and everything else that we’ve got here.” But in C-5s you needed 2000 total flight hours to upgrade to AC and I had 700. Every couple hundred hours, I would get recommended for upgrade by Bill Kleinhenz, or Vern Hansen, or other guys that I flew with in 119s and were flight examiners in C-5s. They recommended me for C-5 aircraft commander a half dozen times but I didn’t upgrade until I got to 2000 hours. MAC was that way. I finally upgraded and my military career just took a normal progression from there.
So that was kind of what it was like getting into 119s, how it affected my career, how it affected me as an individual; including the unique things like not being able to hit something you previously were able to, or flying with an all lieutenant crew and being proud as hell of it. We strutted around like peacocks for a while; we were the only lieutenant crew over there. It was a lot of fun. Somehow, both I and my career survived. I like to think being in AC-119s, in SEA, in combat, with enough time to learn about the cultures over there helped me be a little more tolerant of others who are different only on the outside. The best part was learning how to recognize a really good woman when you find her and being able to be with Lynette for 35 years.
If I had to do it again and I was Chief of Staff of the Air Force, I would make everybody fly a crew aircraft, no matter what they finally went into, to realize how it all has to work together. I would make anybody who has to work a project or be a commander or be in a crew system learn how important it is to rely on everybody.
I retired after 23 years in February 1993 at Travis AFB as a Lieutenant Colonel, one of the few Lt. Col. C-5 pilots there who was still on flying status, and still flying up until retirement! I’ve no desire to change any part of my life. I ended up knowing good people and meeting a good lady and having one of the best lives I could have. Who needs more than that?