Bill Petrie was born in Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, Ireland. Chief Petrie is the web master for the AC- 119 Gunship Association website.
Bill graduated from Natick High School in Natick, Massachusetts in 1963. He enlisted in the Air Force immediately after high school, starting out as a reciprocating aircraft mechanic. He served in Air Rescue aircraft maintenance, Combat Crew Training, and drew special (TDY) maintenance assignments with Army Special Forces, AF Special Operations aviation, and Psychological Warfare aviation and maintenance.
After numerous special TDYs into Southeast Asia, he served in the Republic of Vietnam with the 360th Tactical Electrical Warfare Squadron (TEWS) as a crew chief/flight mechanic on EC-47 reconnaissance aircraft in 1967-1968 and again in 1970-1971 with the 18th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) as an Illuminator Operator/Scanner on AC-119K “Stinger” gunships.
Later in his career he served in the Aerospace Audiovisual Service (AAVS) in key positions including NCOIC of a combat documentation unit, Superintendent of Public Affairs, Chief of Radio for the Air Force Home Town News Center, and Broadcaster and Detachment Chief of Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS) broadcast units.
The Chief’s other tours have included various TDYs into Southeast Asia, Da Nang AB, Vietnam; Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai AB, Thailand; Seoul and Osan AB, Republic of Korea; Lajes Field, Azores, Portugal; Hurlburt Field, FL; Eglin AFB, FL; Incirlik AB, Republic of Turkey; Malmstrom AFB, MT; Tinker AFB, OK; Lowry AFB, CO; Otis AFB, MA; and, Hollywood/Los Angeles, CA.
Chief Petrie’s decorations include the Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf Clusters, Air Medal with eight Clusters, Meritorious Service Medal, Joint Services Commendation Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, Air Force Achievement Medal and numerous other awards. Chief Petrie holds USAF enlisted aircrew member and senior parachutist qualifications and is a graduate of the Senior Noncommissioned Officers Academy. The Chief retired from active duty in 1988.
Bill is married to the former Karen Lynn Ellis of Midwest City, Oklahoma. They have two children, Brian and Stephen. Chief Petrie now serves as a public Information Officer for the Oklahoma Department of Libraries in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Stinger Gunship Blasts Eight Tanks
Disappointment and surprised are feelings I had when I read in more than one well known book that a Stinger gunship was ineffective against tanks, even light ones. I’m sure the authors would have welcomed the opportunity to flavor their book with a story about the night Stingers became tank busters.
On the night of February 28, 1971, I was the IO (Illuminator Operator) on an AC-119 Stinger gunship that notched a big kill when it struck an enemy tank convoy near Hill 31 in Laos, destroying all eight Soviet PT- 76 light amphibious tanks in the convoy. We touched off 15 secondary explosions, and three sustained fires.
I have to admit we were not too happy about our mission orders that night. We were truck hunters and didn’t relish flying armed escort missions. During a major operation, Operation Lam Son 719, we were assigned an armed reconnaissance mission for an ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) convoy moving towards Tchepone in the Republic of Laos. The Hill 31 area was major hot spot and our friendlies were about to enter. Hill 31 had been the scene of extremely heavy fighting for the ARVN. If memory serves me right the mission started out pretty boring. So boring we decided to break the monotony by leaving our orbit above the convoy and exploring further down the highway. That’s when the mission became really interesting.
As we made a few lazy orbits above the route structure our FLIR sensor operator picked up two hot spots moving slowly down the road. They were a few miles ahead of the allied convoy and moving in the same direction. We had no doubt that these were tanks, we just didn’t know who they belonged to.
We checked in with the South Vietnamese convoy and as a far as they knew there were no friendlies ahead of them. According to our Navigator/FLIR operator, Maj. Doug Frost, if they were enemy, it looked as if they might be trying to find a better location to ambush the convoy. We had to be sure and we called for a FAC (Forward Air Controller) to identify whether they were friend or foe. The excitement and anticipation was unbearable and we just knew they were North Vietnamese. We wanted to take them out and we wanted to do it now before they turned their fury on the friendly convoy. We also knew that up to this point, no gunship had destroyed any tanks in the war. At least that’s what I was told.
It seemed an eternity before the FAC arrived, and all the while we waited, we could hear a nearby AC-130 Spectre crew begging to replace us. Their claims that we didn’t have the firepower to tackle tanks, and they did, fell on deaf ears. The AC-130 was held off and the AC-119K Stinger gunship was about to do what others thought it couldn’t do, bust tanks.
As we followed them down the road, three more large hot spots rolled out from a tree line and joined them. Before long, three more hot spots were found waiting for them at a T-intersection in the road, making the total eight. Up to this point, they gave no indication they knew we were following them. I remember commenting to the crew on radio that they might pull off the road if they detected us. Tanks have been known to back into a ditch or crater to get better muzzle elevation. They just might be brave, or crazy, enough to take a pot shot at us. The words were barely out of my mouth when they all stopped and one of them pulled off the road into the bushes.
By this time the FAC had arrived and was zipping down the road at antennae top level making sure there were no Allied troops in the area. Our adrenaline soared as he screamed into our headsets, “Take them, take them, they’re enemy.” We had our long awaited clearance and the North Vietnamese tanks were about to feel our sting.
Setting our sites on the lead tank, our sensor operators acquired our target and the pilot jockeyed our aircraft into the strike position. Our pilot, Major Glass, called for a gun and in a heartbeat a minigun was on line and control given to the pilot who immediately fired a marking burst to see if we were on target. We were, and the gunners added a 20mm Vulcan cannon to the firepower of the minigun. As we continued to fly in our tight target orbit, our gunners were busily replenishing the guns as we hammered the tanks with a searing mix of AP (armor piercing) and HEI (high explosive incendiaries) rounds and miniball tracers, observing a large secondary explosion on the lead tank. The enemy tank column stopped dead in its tracks.
During the entire strike our aircraft received intense ground fire from numerous enemy small arms and antiaircraft positions, but we continued our strike, rolling in and out of orbit in a deadly game of aerial dodge ball. We then set our sights on the trailing tank trying to box them in and did so with a direct hit. Brrrrrap! and wham! both ends of the column were now in flames. Unfortunately for the enemy they made no effort to scatter, and from that point on, it became a turkey shoot as we poured thousands of rounds of 20 mike-mike into them. One-by-one each tank experienced secondary explosions and all were left burning brightly in the dark Laotian night.
Having survived another night of intense antiaircraft and small arms fire, our mighty Stinger lumbered for home. As we nervously, and somewhat giddily, celebrated our success and tallied up the rounds of antiaircraft fire we received, the realization set in that this Stinger crew had just prevented the possible annihilation of a South Vietnamese convoy, by methodically destroying an entire column of North Vietnamese tanks.
Crewmen on the mission were:
Maj. Earl R. Glass, pilot/aircraft commander
Maj. Edward J. Kroon, nav/sensor operator
Maj. Boyd E. Phillips, nav/sensor operator
Maj. Douglas A. Frost, nav/sensor operator
1st Lt. Charles T. Robertson Jr., co-pilot
TSgt. Herbert S. Simons, flight engineer
SSgt. Raymond Garcia, gunner
SSgt. William O. Petrie, illuminator operator/scanner
Sgt. Thomas E. Nolan, gunner
A/1C Stephan B. McCloskey, gunner
Editor’s Note: Bill, Norm Evans, Jim Bennes, and Fred Graves planned our first ever AC-119 reunion in 2000. They are known as the Founding Fathers of our AC-119 Gunship Association. We thank them all.