John Earl Milam Jr., Gunner
18th SOS, Udorn, 1970
I was born in 1933 at Montcoal, West Virginia. My hometown was Arnett, WV. I attended Marsh Fork High but left school my junior year. I completed my GED in 1960. I graduated from Gulf Coast Community College in December 1977 and from the University of Northwest Florida in 1978. As a child during WWII, my heroes were my uncles and cousins who were in the military. As I grew, read, and learned, I realized that I was a citizen of the most wonderful country on earth. I knew that I wanted it kept that way and wanted to help. I loved airplanes, so when Korea came along, I enlisted in the USAF at Beckley, West Virginia on 10 May 1952.
When I enlisted I wanted to fly. I was turned down because of color blindness. The USAF assignment people then, in all their wisdom, trained me as a Weapons Mechanic, a field that required normal color vision. I worked in the field 18 years and served in Stan Eval at many different Air Force bases. In Korea I maintained and loaded my aircraft with many different weapons, but somehow felt that something was missing. When Vietnam and gunships came around, I saw my chance to fly and fly as a gunner. This perhaps sounds like an enlistment poster, but I felt that this was something I had to do for my country. So, at age 37, I volunteered again and it satisfied my soul.
I was an AC-119K Stinger aerial gunner with the 18th SOS and in early May 1970 of my tour, I was appointed SEFE Gunner and served in that capacity until my DEROS of 20 December 1970.
In late January 1970, the Plain of Jars in Laos was a very hot spot. I was picked as a Gunner to help set up an operating location at Udorn, Thailand. On one of my first missions to the Plain of Jars, I was flying with Major Hoover. We were the first sortie of the night, supporting a TIC. We Winchestered, RTB’d and then pulled duty as the alert crew. That TIC raged all night; we scrambled three times that night in support of the TIC, Winchestering each time. We did some good work that night, even chased off two enemy tanks. Our ground controller was called “Red Arrow” and he loved Stinger that night.
My most enjoyable missions were TICs. We would go in with our ground controller whispering on the radio and leave with him loudly yelling about how great a job we had done. To know that we had possibly saved guys’ lives was almost as good as sex. Flying once from Da Nang, we caught 10 trucks in a deep valley. We killed the lead truck and rear truck and worked out. It was almost like training; there was no visible return fire. The known cargo in the trucks was ordnance and fuel so we had a bird’s eye view of what looked like 4th of July fireworks. We left to find other targets and at bingo fuel, our egress took us over the first target. A forest fire was burning up both sides of the valley with such intensity that the rising heat caused such air turbulence that we had a rough ride for a few moments. Being a wood worker and knowing that millions of board feet of teak and mahogany were burning caused a few mixed emotions.
One mission flying from Thailand, we were asked to cap a downed F-105 very near the North Vietnam border until Sandy and the Jolly Green could get there. Our missile warning light kept blinking, causing much puckering, but it turned out to be a malfunction. We later learned that this F-105 was part of the Son Tay Raid.
The daylight missions in Cambodia were exciting since we could see our targets. I remember shooting up a big boat and not really hurting them badly because our 20mm HEI did not penetrate the teak wood decks. When we received our rush-order delivery of 20mm API from the states, the outcome changed completely. When we shot the big boats then, we could see fresh mud coming up from beneath them. We left the boats dead then.
I saw and did so many unusual things during my gunship tour that I cannot pick out one thing as most remembered. During daylight flights, I saw beautiful sights, waterfalls in the mountains, rubber plantations so perfectly designed. I will always remember the people I met and served with in the air and on the ground. They were, and remain, very special in my life even though I have forgotten many names. We deeply cared about each other and relied on each other. Sometimes in life-threatening predicaments, we form bonds that will never be broken. I’m glad I went, but never want to go back.
Major General Hugo Peterson officiated my Air Force retirement ceremonies at Tyndall AFB, Florida on 1 August 1973.