James “Jim” Eldon Ray, IO
18th SOS, Nakhon Phanom, Da Nang, and Bien Hoa, 1971-72
Miami Beach, Florida is where I was born in 1943. Palestine, Texas is where I make my home now, but I grew up all over the world, moving almost yearly with my father. I attended many public schools in the U.S. and Japan until dropping out to join the Air Force on 21 January 1963 at Waco, Texas. It just seemed like the thing to do when you’re 19 years old, in the 10th grade, and going nowhere fast. My Dad spent 26 years in the Air Force during WWII, Korea, and Vietnam and that fact greatly influenced me. Later, I completed my GED and completed two years of college. I retired as an E-7 from the Air Force in May 1987 at Carswell AFB, Texas.
I served with the 18th Special Operations Squadron as a Stinger gunship illuminator operator at NKP, Da Nang, and Bien Hoa from November 1971 to November 1972. I flew a lot of exciting Stinger missions but none like the Stinger mission I flew on 24 December 1971. On that mission, I flew with a crew that I had never flown with before. We found some bulldozers pulling trucks across a low water crossing in Laos.
The pilot was determined to destroy all the trucks and bulldozers despite very heavy AAA, much more than any other mission that I had flown during my entire tour. There was lots of 23mm and 37mm all around the clock, although most was inaccurate. The gunner/scanner on the left side even swore we had a “field goal” between the tail booms and the horizontal stabilizer! I was too busy with scanning out the right side and launching flares to see it, so I could not confirm or deny the “field goal”.
All of a sudden there were three large explosions at the 2, 3, and 4 o’clock positions about 50 to 75 yards out from the aircraft. I was “asked” why I failed to call out the triple A coming up and I replied there weren’t any f?+#in’ tracers to call! Someone said there must be something wrong with my eyes. About that time, the left scanner reported three explosions and no tracers at our 7 o’clock position. Then a very calm voice came over the intercom and said, “It must be 57mm or 85mm triple A. They don’t have tracers.”
We continued to fire on the targets, all the while, dropping lower and lower to get a better shot. The AAA kept increasing but remained mostly inaccurate, although we did call a couple of “breaks” that seemed to turn the aircraft up on its wing tip, and maybe a little more. We finally went “Winchester” on ammo and RTB’d (Return To Base). We had destroyed two bulldozers and several trucks and caused the ‘gomers’ to waste a heck of a lot of shells. Nothing I did for the next ten months of my tour held a candle to that one mission. I was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for the mission.
During my time at Da Nang Air Base, we endured several rocket attacks. On the night of one of these attacks, we had just arrived at the flight line to begin our preflight for the night’s mission. We all scattered to find cover. A crew chief and I found the “ideal” spot to hide. It was between the two aft axels of a flatbed trailer under which we took cover. Those big tires would give us a lot of protection! After the “All Clear” sounded, we crawled out and congratulated each other on finding the ideal cover. It was then that we noticed that the flatbed trailer we took cover under contained three (3) 15,000 pound “Daisy Cutter” bombs, strapped to the trailer bed. No wonder the truck driver and his helper took off running so fast!
I’ll always remember flying nights and sleeping days, combat missions, hours of boredom and seconds of sheer terror, little red ping-pong balls floating up towards the aircraft from the dark ground, great shopping on and off base, waiting for “Mr. Zip” to be hoisted up the flag pole at the post office to tell us the mail was in, the free outdoor theater at NKP (and hoping it didn’t rain), hamburgers at the NKP base cafeteria (especially after a deployment to Da Nang), R&R in Hawaii, Thailand or any place away from the war, lazing around the hootch at NKP (think hammocks), tennis ball cannon fights, floating blackjack games in the hootch bar that seemed to never end, and the juke box in the hootch playing over and over, “I Want To Go Home” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane”. Did the last man to leave turn off the juke box?