John B. “Jack” Nicol, Navigator
17th SOS, Tan Son Nhut, 1970-71
I took my AC-119 gunship navigator training at Clinton County AFB in Wilmington, Ohio and Lockbourne AFB in Columbus, Ohio. Our class departed for Vietnam on August 10, 1970. Upon reporting for duty with the 17th Special Operations Squadron, I was assigned to Fighting C Flight at Tan Son Nhut Air Base just outside Saigon. Shortly after my arrival,
I successfully completed combat navigator orientations and check-rides. I was initially crewed-up with Aircraft Commander, Major Don Fraker. Flying combat missions with “Magnet-Ass” Fraker were to say the least, “Exciting and Productive.” He attracted more enemy lead than any other AC at TSN.
To fly and fight became normal and routine for me until a shoulder injury caused me to have shoulder surgery at the US Army 3rd Field Hospital, Saigon in November 1970. After surgery and a few days in the hospital, I was assigned desk jockey duties at C Flight Shadow Op’s for twelve (12) hours per day, tracking paperwork, air and ground crews, and launches of gunships at scheduled times during my three-month recovery period.
Mostly recovered from shoulder surgery/rehabilitation, I was no longer designated DNIF by the Flight Surgeon and I re-qualified for flight duty in early February 1971. I was immediately upgraded to Instructor/Standardization Navigator at Tan Son Nhut. I checked-out newly arrived navigators and gave stand-evaluation checks to qualified navigators. I also certified all of the Vietnamese crew navigators in the VNAF Squadron. VNAV was scheduled to assume control of Shadow gunship operations from Fighting C Flight in late 1971 or early 1972. It turned-out that the VNAF assumed control of Shadow operations at TSN in September 1971.
I flew twice daily, two to three days per week beginning in March 1971. My extra duty was Awards and Decorations Officer. Captain Robert “Bob” Safreno, Navigator, performed typing duties. Between the two of us, we wrote, typed, and submitted volumes about combat heroics of Fighting C Flight’s AC-119 Shadow crewmembers.
I happily boarded my freedom bird and left Vietnam with two DFCs, nine Air Medals, a new shoulder and a world of memories. Six months later, I was back over Southeast Asia as a KC-135 navigator in “Young Tiger”. Young Tiger was the Southeast Asia deployment of KC-135s. Young Tiger missions were flown out of Thailand, Okinawa and Guam. The Tanker provided refueling support for B-52 Arc Light missions out of Guam and Thailand as well as fighter/bomber support over North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. After 20 years of dedicated service, I retired from the United States Air Force as a Major in February, 1976. My wife, Barbara and I currently live in Arizona at Sun City West, a suburb of Phoenix.
On one of my night combat missions, we had a “hung” flare, a flare that stuck in the flare launcher when fired. I was the NOS (Night Observation Scope) operator located in the cargo deck and immediately realized that immediate action was required to rid the gunship of the armed flare or risk an airborne disaster. Therefore, I strapped myself to the inside of the aircraft fuselage and hung outside the gunship in the slip stream to poke a broom handle into the stuck flare tube while the Illuminator Operator (IO) pushed the flare forward from behind. It worked! The “hung” flare dislodged and fell outside the gunship. The whole episode was kind of dumb on my part after reflecting over the years. During a night armed-reconnaissance mission over the Mekong River and its tributaries in Cambodia, I spotted a large number of sampans through the NOS. It was a very dark night and the AC, Lt. Fletcher, took my guidance for target acquisition. I targeted one sampan at a time resulting in fifteen (15) sampans destroyed and many others damaged. Winchester, we headed back to Tan Son Nhut listening on the intercom to the table navigator, Major Earl Farney, bitch and gripe about all the mission report paperwork that we had created for him. A good night’s work, if I have to say so myself.
A night or two before my DEROS, a party was planned for those going home. Fighting C Flight’s Operations Officer, Lt. Col. Bill Gregory, who also had received his DEROS, decided to skip the party on base and celebrate with his Australian buddies in downtown Saigon. After our celebration on base, Don Schofield and I decided to show Bill how much we disapproved of his absence from our party. So, Don and I went to Bill’s barracks room and proceeded to remove every stick of furniture and every article of clothing in his room and hid them in an adjacent barracks. Of course it was raining hard and we tracked water in the halls during the moving operation. The Cambodian Commander at Kampong Thom (KPT), Colonel Olm, was visiting TSN for a strategy conference at the time and was billeted in the “hideout” barracks. With a broad smile and without hesitation, Colonel Olm found a mop and mopped up the water in the hallway.
When our feisty boss returned to base that night before curfew and found his room completely empty, he immediately called the Shadow Party Hootch, looking for “innocent” me. Bill was really pissed and accused me of his room cleaning without knowing anything. He was ready to clean my plow. After cooling down somewhat, Bill came to the party hootch and we cheerfully greeted him by pouring beer all over him. Cooled down even more, Bill drank a beer or two with us rowdy rascals. You might say that’s one way of showing appreciation to a superior officer.