James A. Rash, Navigator
17th SOS, Tan Son Nhut, 1970-71
I was born in Auglaize County, Ohio in 1936; graduated from Zanesfield-Monroe High School, Logan County, Ohio in 1954, and Bowling Green State University in 1958.
I entered the U.S. Air Force in 1958 as a recent graduate of AFROTC in Bowling Green, Ohio “To see if I would like to fly.” After eight months of pilot training, I went to a year of navigator training and then a year of ECM training, then to SAC. This was when they were transitioning from B-47s which had two pilots and one navigator to B-52s which had two pilots and three navigators. At the time, I didn’t understand why I wasn’t a pilot because of the “needs” of the service and even today, I can’t understand why navigators were (at least in SAC) treated as second-class citizens. This was in the heart of the “cold war” when “nuclear deterrence” was the BIG THING! So, we spent two of six weeks and sometimes two out of every five weeks “On Alert” which meant being locked up for a week with 64 other aircrew members in an Alert-Shack. After five years of this I was ready for anything different, so I volunteered for a tour in Vietnam (wherever or whatever that was!). My first tour in Vietnam was as a Nav/Dropmaster on C-123s at Nha Trang AB, RVN from April 1966 through April 1967, where I found myself flying missions to drop supplies to Green Beret camps in II Corps. The base had two buildings when I arrived at Nha Trang, but by April 1967 when I left, a whole base had been built there, along with an entirely different operation.
Not wanting to go back to SAC when my time was “short”, I did a lot of trying to find a different job, and I was very fortunate to find a tour as an AFROTC Instructor at the University of Kentucky (one of the two good jobs I had in my twenty years of active duty). I was there when the Kent State Riots occurred.
In the Spring of 1970, I learned my next assignment would be to SAC at Minot AFB. I volunteered for gunship duty in lieu of being assigned as an EWO on B-52s at Minot AFB, North Dakota. I begged them to send me back to Vietnam instead, and they did! I am sure that Minot would have turned me into an Alcoholic and that would have gotten me kicked out of the Air Force, so my decision to volunteer for Vietnam duty turned out to be a good decision for me. I thought serving in Gunships in Vietnam had to be less arduous than serving in SAC in Minot!
I was assigned to the 17th Special Operations Squadron at Tan Son Nhut (Saigon) as a Navigator from November 1970 to November 1971. Our mission seemed to be to deny the “Cong” the use of the Mekong River. We flew up and down the river from the Lao border to the South China Sea, and usually shot up everything that moved, as well as being “on call” for shooting up anything “friendly” Cambodian or Vietnamese wanted shot.
Several memories of that year are still vivid in my mind. One which caused me recurring nightmares over the years, I’m not going to tell. But, others like the young AC who several navigators told the scheduler not to put them on “his” crew, I flew with and had several “experiences” – like the day we buzzed Angkor Watt ruins in Cambodia, flying lower than some of the temple tops. I got some great photos out of the NOS door. And, yes, we did take some small arms fire from enemy troops residing in the temples.
Another time with the same pilot, we answered a call to help a Cambodian unit that was under attack. After assessing the situation, we delivered devastating fire on the Khmer Rouge positions until we were out of ammo and then guided an AC-130 gunship onto the site. We took ground fire that time too, but the thing I remember most was on the way back to base, this same AC told me, the table navigator, to write up the pilots for a DFC and the rest of the crew (including myself, a Major at the time) for Air Medals. I submitted the required paperwork recommending everyone on the crew for a DFC and all four officers were awarded a DFC, whereas the enlisted men were only awarded Air Medals. This unnamed AC later told me I shouldn’t have done that and I told him the only thing that was unfair was that the enlisted men didn’t get DFCs too. But the good Captain didn’t see it that way! As far as ability to fly the airplane, he was a very good pilot, but he was an a-hole. Fortunately, we didn’t have to fly with the same crew all the time as we did in SAC!
About the time we’re getting pretty good at the gunship thing, we were made VNAF Instructors and were sent to Phan Rang Air Base to teach the young VNAF how to fly and use the gunships as weapons, for the transition of our AC-119Gs to the VNAF. My last three months were spent working with and training four young VNAF officers to get them somewhat proficient in the navigator and NOS operator roles. I think I was pretty good in the role of instructor because I felt they (although young) were trying very hard and were learning well. They had some different ideas about a lot of things, but were respectful of our ideas at the same time.
After this, my second Vietnam tour of duty, I was unable to avoid SAC and spent most of the rest of my twenty-plus years there, retiring as a Major, some twenty-seven years ago. I did get back to SEA, flying B-52s out of Guam three months in late 1972 and early 1973 and then out of Utapao, Thailand for three months, doing bombing missions over both South and North Vietnam for 179 days (180 days would have counted as a SEA tour of duty and SAC didn’t do that).