Mal Morrison, Navigator
18th SOS, Da Nang, 1970-71
I entered the Air Force in 1960 and completed a B.S. at North Carolina State in 1965, and an MBA at Indiana University in 1969. I served with the 18th Special Operations Squadron from March 1970 through March 1971. After in-country orientation, I relocated to FOL-A at Da Nang AB where I became an Instructor Navigator (FLIR, NOS, Navigator) with the additional duty of Maintenance Officer, responsible for solving bore-sighting problems with the 20mm guns.
My next SEA tour was during Linebacker II. I was the radar-navigator on a B-52D making bombing runs on Hanoi and Haiphong. We flew during the second night of the raids on Hanoi and nearly every other night after that. Talk about pucker factor! In the first three days, nine B-52s were shot down. We called ourselves “Kissinger’s Peace Corps” and our motto was “Fly us ‘til we sweat”. On Christmas Eve, we autographed a few of the 108 bombs we delivered to Hanoi as Christmas presents. My last assignment was with the Defense Nuclear Agency, Alexandria, VA. I retired from the Air Force in 1991 as a Colonel.
When truck-hunting, we typically flew no higher than 6000 to 7000 feet AGL; fly much higher and the 20mm rounds could begin tumbling. Even at those altitudes, there was barely enough time to evade 23mm & 37mm AAA. Soviet-made 23mm traveled at supersonic velocity (the rounds had a muzzle velocity of 970 meters per second; the speed of sound at the surface is in the neighborhood of 343 m/s, depending on temperature, air density, etc). Surviving in that environment must be credited directly to outstanding coordination between our AAA scanners, hanging out the back of the plane in the slipstream, and the superb airmanship of our pilots who trusted the scanners’ calls and maneuvered among the tracers. Our closest encounter with AAA was the night we were caught in the cross-fire of three 23mm gun emplacements. The moon was nearly full – a “gunner’s moon” – that silhouetted our aircraft. Moreover, the AAA sites were manned by what we called “nine-level” gunners because of their accuracy and persistence. They really gave us the business. A 23mm round creates a miniature shock wave that causes a crackling or popping sound that can be heard if the shell passed close to the aircraft. That night we managed to escape without damage, but we heard plenty of popping and crackling. Ironically, the one night we did take a hit we were flying above an overcast. We were RTB from an unproductive mission and just short of crossing the fence when a 23mm round zipped through the clouds and struck the left wing. That AAA operator must have fired at the sound of our aircraft and just got lucky. Of course, we frequently received machine gun fire during our many TICs in A Shau Valley where we flew at the lower altitude necessary for the effective use of our 7.62mm mini “Gatling” guns. We sometimes took hits on those missions that we only learned about the following day when the crew chief reported bullet holes in the aircraft.
One of the most humorous mission situations happened one night while I was flying as the FLIR operator and had located 6 to 8 “hot spots” moving about on the trail. The congestion indicated the target was a road repair team or a trans-shipment point. As our 20mm HEI rounds began to sparkle in and around them, I expected to see the targets take off racing down the trail. Instead, they appeared to momentarily vacillate under fire as though not knowing which way to go. Then they suddenly burst out into the jungle in all directions. It may have been a construction crew, but if it was, they must have been using elephants to help make the repairs, as they were moving too quickly for bulldozers and in directions a truck couldn’t go. I could just envision a work crew on the backs of those elephants when the HEI started exploding. They must have been all [expletive deleted] and elbows getting out of there. In the interest of a “thorough BDA report”, we called in four elephants damaged.
Da Nang was a great operational location, near the in-country R&R center at China Beach. As night flyers, we got more beach time than most. Our chow hall food was pretty bland, so we often caught the base bus to the Marine chow hall on the opposite side of the base. In addition to great food, with the right connections, you could trade bottles of booze for freeze-dried shrimp or frozen steak. After a few round-trips to the chow hall, we noticed an old black dog that would get on at a bus stop and get off near the Marine chow hall. He went back and forth on his own. It was unbelievable! We nicknamed the dog Felix Knutsen. Felix had a raunchy side to him and he often got mail from some entertaining sources. Da Nang AB, also known as “rocket city”, had some really large, smelly sewage ditches (klongs) along the air base roads. One night after a mission we were heading back to our quarters when rockets started exploding near the flight line in the vicinity of our crew bus. We stopped and everybody piled out. We had an FNG with us that night. He “dove” into the klong while the rest of the crew hunkered down on the street around the bus. I don’t think we let the poor kid back on the bus!
The things that I will always remember most about my time with AC-119 gunships are the great guys I flew and worked with and the thrill of the hunt.