Stephen R. Meleen, Pilot
18th SOS, Nakhon Phanom, Bien Hoa and Da Nang, 1972-73
I was born in 1946 in Warren, PA and raised in nearby Youngsville. I graduated in June 1968 from Grove City College – a small private college in Western PA with a prolific AF ROTC program. There were more GCC grads in my pilot training class than any other college or university. I joined the Air Force because I was inspired by my father (Army Aircorp flight engineer) and former father-in-law (B-17 pilot 8th AF) who both flew in WWII. I was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant at my college graduation and completion of ROTC in June 1968 by House Minority Leader Gerald Ford.
From Sept ‘71 – Jan ‘72 I attended C-119 training at Lockbourne AFB OH and Hurlburt at Eglin AFB FL for AC-119K training. In Jan ‘72 I arrived at the 18th SOS at Nakhon Phanom aka ‘’NKP’’ Thailand. My AC-119 assignment included a long time PCS from April to December at Da Nang and Bien Hoa. I was upgraded to an instructor flight examiner pilot August 1, 1972. In Jan ‘73 I returned from SEA and separated from the AF at Travis AFB. I chose to separate from service upon return versus taking a B-52 assignment because of my long-time desire to fly airlines.
Upon arrival at NKP in January 1972 we settled into the 18th SOS with immediate combat assignments, primarily truck hunting in Laos’ Plain of Jars aka ‘’PDJ’’ and occasional flights into the Steel Tiger area of the Ho Chi Minh Trail further southeast where Laos, South Vietnam and Cambodia border. There were North Vietnamese skilled anti-aircraft gunnery crews manning 23MM, 37MM and 57MM emplacements, and our flight crews learned quickly how to maneuver from the intense anti-aircraft firepower and re-engage truck targets on the Trail to minimize our time on target – ‘’TOT’’.
We had a very memorable mission out of NKP in the PDJ on March 13, 1972 where we took out 11 NVA trucks under heavy anti-aircraft fire. The trucks made the mistake of traveling convoy style – we simply took out the first and last trucks and then picked off the remaining trucks resulting in tremendous ‘’blowers’’ – explosions over a thousand feet in the air from all the ammo and fuel. The trucks we destroyed burned for days. A month later in early April we found out why the heavy PDJ truck traffic in that January-March period – the North Vietnamese were preparing for their famous surprise Easter 1972 invasion starting in Quang Tri and An Loc Provinces and required the fuel and ammo for support.
As a result of the Easter invasion and activities in Vietnam, I spent the rest of my tour PCS going between the 18th SOS detachments at Da Nang and Bien Hoa where I completed over 170 missions that year. I had several interesting missions during that period including:
- On Halloween night October 31, 1972 our crew had our first encounter with the Russian SA-7 handheld missile aka the Soviet designation Strela-2 when flying over the old Michelin rubber plantation north of An Loc when we had two SA-7s fired at us. The SA 7 seems to come at you much faster than anti-aircraft fire. That night Mike Friel, a top IO and very close friend, launched flares that caused the missiles to track and ignite with no harm, leaving us to celebrate with a significant amount of beer back at the hooch bar. The SA-7 or Strela-2 was first introduced in South Vietnam a few months earlier during the Easter invasion. In April and May there had been three planes shot down and no one could recognize what brought them down. In May a Stinger crew was fired upon and had the presence of mind to launch a flare avoiding damage from the Strela. The mission details were sent to Wright Patterson to identify what it was and how to evade what was seen. Within days the missile was identified as the Strela-2/ SA-7, and procedures were completed that required fast, concurrent action from crew members: the coordinated procedures start with the IO carrying four very quick igniting flares in his launcher and requires him to release those flares when a ‘’missile, missile, missile’’ scanner call is made; concurrently the co-pilot throttles back the jet engines; and the pilot puts the aircraft in a 70-90 degree bank to lower the aircraft profile. We had the experience of using those procedures successfully that night.
- On May 8, 1972 we successfully defended a Special Forces base near An Loc from being overrun. Over 250 hostile casualties were attributed to our crew, and we were awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross.
- On July 13, 1972 two crews and mine earned the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star on a mission six miles south of Da Nang for taking out an enemy team who had been responsible for many of the rocket attacks we experienced at Da Nang where we lost our close friend and fellow pilot, Tom Hamman a month earlier. IO Mike Friel was especially cited for his in-flight repair and low-level illumination work allowing us to complete the mission. The Association had the honor of Tom’s daughter attending one of our reunions at ‘’home base’’ Hurlburt Field, Fort Walton Beach FL.
After the ceasefire in January 1973 I returned home to start interviewing for a commercial pilot job. I also used the next few months to also complete my Airline Pilot License at Long Beach Airport. American hired me for a position in Los Angeles and then the recession hit, and their new pilot starting date classes kept getting pushed back. Newly divorced and with my 5-year-old son Todd with me and needing to work, I took a management position with the NAC/NUH Aviation Division of Cordon International returning to Southeast Asia and residing in Singapore and Jakarta Indonesia. We had about 30 aircraft and 75 pilots and most were former Air America or U.S. Australian and New Zealander Army pilots who had flown the Huey’s /Bell 205s and other fixed wing aircraft in support of the major oil companies’ exploration in Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Burma and Malaysia – exciting swashbuckling times where I had a G-1 for my use. Close 18th buddy Mike Friel came and visited for a month in Bali and Singapore. He and I continued to travel together many times thereafter, and we shared the joy of seeing his sons Michael and Sean became close friends with our son Todd and nephew Chris – some of the Association have gotten to know them after their attendance at recent reunions.
I met my wife Vivien at a 1975 wedding of one of our pilots, and we were married at the church next to her Singapore home in 1978. I had started three companies in Singapore in 1975, and we sold them over the next few years, returning to California where I worked for Arthur Andersen obtaining my CPA license. I joined Santa Fe International – a large global oil drilling and construction company in 1981 and with my job I was able to travel to many places including the Middle East and parts of Africa, Europe and Asia. In 1986 I became the CFO of a startup – Guess Jeans’ holding company in L.A. and this became the genesis to what I am still doing workwise today.
I left Guess in 1992 to work funding and turning around venture backed companies. In 2003 several men who I had worked with over those years joined together and formed Vantera Partners LLC with partners located in Newport Beach, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Basel Switzerland and ‘yes’ – Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City as it is named today. Our office is manned by two young people who completed their MBA’s at the University of Houston and then interned with us in CA. I am still active in that business and love it. My wife Vivien and I have moved from our Orange County CA home to be nearer son Todd, his wife Melissa and our grandchildren in the backside of the Temecula wine country area between Riverside and San Diego.