Don Main, Pilot
18th SOS, Phan Rang, Da Nang, and Tan Son Nhut, 1970-71
I was flying C-119s with the 914th Tactical Airlift Squadron out of Niagara Falls, NY as a Reserve pilot. I decided to come back on active duty in November 1969 when the call came down that they were looking for C-119 pilots to fly the Stinger gunship in Vietnam. So in December 1969, orders were cut sending me to Lockbourne AFB to check out in the AC-119K gunship. In April 1970, I departed Lockbourne for Vietnam after completing my AC checkout. At that time I was a Captain and Senior Pilot and my orders were cut for Nha Trang AB. When I arrived at Nha Trang, I was told that the 18th SOS had moved to Phan Rang AB. Off I went to Phan Rang and although I can’t recall how long I stayed there, it was long enough to get an in-country checkout and a couple of flights and then I was sent to Da Nang AB where I spent the remainder of my tour in SEA. One of the things I remember while I was at Phan Rang was that the Operations Officer had to visit a Marine outfit that had one of their men killed by friendly fire from a Shadow which had fired on their location. Somehow the Shadow had acquired the target about 10 clicks from where they should have been. I remember he told me it was one of the toughest things he had to do, as those Marines had blood in their eyes, and although he felt really bad, he was glad to depart!
Upon arrival at Da Nang, I went through the normal in- processing and checkout and flew as a copilot on Dave Kuhn’s crew. I do remember that upon my arrival, one of the crews had a runaway prop and the AC bailed the crew out over the South China Sea just off the China Beach R&R Center. My good friend, that I went through training with, Pete Chamberlain, who was a navigator on the crew, told me what it was like for him. I believe the IO died but the other crew members all survived. When Dave Kuhn departed for the States in June, I got my AC checkout and took over the same crew. Although I had various crew members, I do remember well Bill Feezor who was my FE and Bill Thurston who was my copilot and had also been my copilot through training at Lockbourne.
In September 1970, my crew was sent TDY for the month to Tan Son Nhut to fly missions into Cambodia. These were very interesting as they were the only daylight combat missions that I ever flew. The missions covered all types of targets including sampans, trucks, buildings, etc.
One of the missions that will always stick in my memory is when we spotted a number of single-axle wooden carts being pulled by water buffalo. The number I don’t recall, probably around ten or twelve. It seemed strange that where there was supposed to be “no movement,” there would be so many carts. Anyway, I called control and requested instructions as to a possible target. They came back and said to fire on the target. This convoy was just crossing a small stream and as I fired, the stream soon became red with the blood of dead water buffalos. I was hoping to see some kind of secondary explosion but it never happened. The table Nav didn’t want me to fire, and at the conclusion of the mission told me he would never fly with me again. I was upset with myself and I still live with that one. War is Hell!
On another mission over Cambodia, we were requested to fire on a small village. There was absolutely no activity or movement in the area that I could see. Once in the firing pattern, with a little top rudder, you can walk the firing pattern in a straight line. This is what I did and I learned the ferocity of the 20mm cannon fire. I could see windows and doors and I mean the whole frame just blew outward. If there was anyone in those buildings, they were not in great shape by the time we departed.
In October, after returning to Da Nang, we had one very eventful mission when we caught a convoy of trucks on the Trail. Our initial lock-on happened to be on the lead vehicle which just happened to be a gasoline tanker. I hit it directly and it exploded and literally lit up the night sky. It blocked the 20 or so trucks behind it. I was afraid the light would illuminate my gunship and enemy guns would start firing at us, but I believe we caught the convoy in the open and there was no AAA in the vicinity. In the open and with all the light, I could just pick-off each truck visually. By the time we had completed, we had destroyed or damaged some 20 plus trucks without any AAA – a very good night’s work.
On another mission that I remember well, we locked onto a truck and fired. The AAA came up so we pulled off target. The back end observers said they did see a secondary explosion so we called it a damaged truck. We were about 5 clicks away from the target when all of a sudden, the whole thing just blew and the sky lit up like the 4th of July – we had hit a truck carrying ammunition. We changed the results from damaged to destroyed. That one destroyed truck made us all feel very good because we had stopped ammo from getting to the Viet Cong. By the end of September, I started my IP checkout and in November was flying several missions as an IP. My crew was an instructor crew as the FLIR operator and the lead gunner were also instructors. Our crews normally flew three nights in a row and then had a night down, but they could fly us five nights in a row and then give us a night down. And as an instructor, that is normally what I flew. So, after November, I really started logging the combat missions which got me to over 170 before the end of my tour. I was really glad to go on R&R at the end of November, as I looked forward to the rest and seeing my wife for her 30th birthday in Hawaii. I had bought her three rings in Thailand for her birthday and, unfortunately, I guess they thought I was smuggling in something and detained me for over an hour at the arrival facility. Everyone else had left and they finally released me and I had to ride in the baggage truck. All the other passengers had arrived at the meeting area but no one had told my wife what happened and she was worried to death. Another great way our government takes care of its service personnel. Anyway, I was there and we had a great R&R.
When I returned to Da Nang, things got busy. I was a training officer working with Frank LeGrand to set up a training program for the new arrivals. This was never done in the past and it helped to establish some sort of structured program for in-country training. At the end of December, I was fortunate to get on a freedom bird for Christmas leave. This was my third trip and after that they started the lottery. I thought that was one of the toughest times-to go back home to the USA and then have to return to Vietnam. I was feeling dejected, so I really got immersed in my work. After the beginning of 1971, I was flying IP with a recent arrival and we had one of our best nights when we got 39 trucks either destroyed or damaged. Things were fairly normal, as they can be in a combat zone, until the end of my tour. I never really got scared with incoming at Da Nang because I felt if I was going to get it, it would be on a mission. However, as the last two weeks approached before I was to depart, and the alert signal sounded for incoming, I put on my flack vest and got under my bed just to make sure! The Marines, who had been guarding the western perimeter of the base, had departed and turned the security over to the Vietnamese which was not a warm fuzzy feeling. During my tour, the Viet Cong had constantly lobbed mortar rounds into the base, but did not do much damage. They once hit a corner of a BOQ but no one was in it and another time they hit a runway and closed it but there was no major damage. At the end of March they made a direct hit on a POL storage tank which burned for at least two weeks.
One of the highlights of my tour was a trip to Yokota AB in Japan (I believe it took place in August) for a selective manning interview for my next assignment to the RB-57F which was a high altitude research and reconnaissance aircraft located only at Yokota and Kirtland AFB in New Mexico. I spent three days in Tokyo and spent one full day buying Honda motorcycles. I was going to buy one while I was there and four other crew personnel asked me to get them one also. So I ended up buying five motorcycles, which took all day to disassemble, pack (which the dealer gladly did) and then mail at the Yokota Post Office. Luckily, the Honda dealer was across the street from the main gate of Yokota, so that saved a little time. But each motorcycle took about six or seven boxes to ship. With some stroke of luck, all the boxes found their way to Da Nang. Jeff Baker, who had put three other cycles together, helped me with mine. Thank God for Jeff as the assembly instructions were all in Japanese! We started at six o’clock one evening and nine hours later finished and it started on the first try. I now had transportation for the remainder of my tour. When April 1971 came, I was glad to be going home but it was a tour that I shall always remember, especially the good friendships that I still cherish. I had flown over 170 combat missions and was probably scheduled for close to 300, but the old bird took time to turn and so a lot of missions were cancelled or scrubbed. But she was a bird that I will always remember. Though I never took a hit, I was Duty Officer on two occasions when she returned from missions – once with a jet engine shot off and fuel pouring out of the right wing and the other with the whole radome shot off. The Stinger gunship was a hard bird to bring down. She left me with many fond memories of her and the men who flew her.