Lawrence John Mersek, Gunner
18th SOS, Da Nang, 1969-70, 1971-72
I was born in LaSalle, IL in April 1949. In July 1967, shortly after graduating from high school in Manteca, CA I joined the Air Force as an opportunity for a career in electronics along with working and perhaps even flying on planes. During basic training I was disappointed to learn my class was being directed to weapons mechanic technical training school.
Upon completing technical school, I was assigned to the 305th BW, Bunker Hill AFB, IN loading nuclear weapons on B-58 aircraft. Less than a year later I had orders for a B-52 squadron in Utapao, Thailand. However, I learned there was a need for Airborne Weapons Mechanics in the AC-119 gunship program and promptly volunteered. Ten months after arriving at Bunker Hill AFB, I was training as a “gunner” with the newly created 18th Special Operations Squadron. My unit, C Flight, was the last to deploy to the new headquarters at Phan Rang AB, RVN. I arrived at Cam Ranh Bay AB by C-141 just in time to experience my first rocket attack.
After a couple of months at Phan Rang, I was permanently assigned to Da Nang AB and truck hunting in the Steel Tiger region of southern Laos. I was assigned to Captain Dave Kuhn’s crew. Life at Da Nang was harsh for all of us. That made our five-week TDY to Tan Son Nhut (Saigon) and our occasional landings at Thailand bases almost like R and R.
In December 1970, I completed my tour and was off to Hurlburt Field, FL to fly with the 20th SOS helicopter gunship squadron. However, the squadron was overmanned and as a new gunner I was assigned to a non-flying position. I volunteered for the AC-130 Spectre program, extending a 4-year commitment by an additional 7-months, but I was assigned back to Stingers. By May 1971 I was back in jungle survival school and on my way to Da Nang AB.
Da Nang living conditions and the truck-hunting missions had not changed, although the AAA became more intense. My role had changed; with a year of combat experience as a former Stinger, I was promptly upgraded to instructor gunner. After 5 months I had the opportunity to transfer to NKP Thailand. I did not hesitate to leave rocket-city behind. The flying missions at NKP were much the same although now directed to the PDJ and Barrel Roll regions of Laos. Living conditions were much improved over Da Nang; NKP was a nice place to complete a second SEA tour.
In my 560.6 combat hours and 193 missions, the most rewarding missions were troops-in-contact (TIC). The most unforgettable was an Army Ranger unit that was about to be overrun. Stinger crews covered them through the night; our crew laid down 7.62mm nearly on top of the Rangers and 20mm within meters. The reward came days later when the Rangers visited our unit expressing their gratitude.
Another memorable incident resulted from the flip of a coin. On June 6, 1970, our crew was called upon to provide a replacement for a gunner from another crew. Pete Samanzski (Sam) and I flipped a coin; I won the toss for the night off. After takeoff the aircraft developed a runaway propeller. Sam and the crewmembers bailed out over China Beach. Lucky me!
I had planned to make a career of the Air Force requesting to cross-train into the loadmaster career field. However, the Air Force would not approve my transfer because weapons mechanic was a critical field. I left the Air Force and continued my passion to fly as a private pilot. I enlisted in the Air Force Reserve, 708 MAS, at Travis AFB where I became a C-141 loadmaster, retraining later on the C-5A in the 312 MAS, and ultimately becoming an instructor. I eventually left the Reserve to concentrate on my civil service position as a machinist/work leader at Mare Island Naval Shipyard and college classes, earning degrees in industrial management and industrial safety.
In 1994, I transferred to the Trident Nuclear Submarine Base, Bangor, WA, working as a numerical control programmer and in April 2004, retired after 35 years of service with the DOD and the Air Force. Since moving back to California, I’m enjoying retired life, living on a small ranch in the Sierra Mountains, operating my custom art/picture framing business, and indulging my flying passion in my Van’s RV-6 aircraft. The RV-6 is fast, capable of mild aerobatics, and rates a “10” on the fun-factor scale!