In late May 1970, I had a mobile home park in Wilmington, Ohio. I was attending C-119 school to become qualified as a navigator in the C-119 aircraft. What an experience that was. After logging almost 2400 flight hours in the 440-knot C-141A at 30,000+ feet, I was now slogging along at under 10,000 at about 200 knots. I was partnered with John Gueirreri, a fellow C-141 Nav who had been flying out of McChord AFB in Washington. As I recall, we had about four low-level flights and a long out-and-back to Patrick AFB in Florida. About two weeks later I reported to Lockbourne AFB (now Rickenbacker AFB) in Columbus, Ohio for an eight-week school to acquaint us with the AC-119K gunship that I would be navigating in Vietnam. It was there that I met, and teamed up with, Gary Hitzemann. I was the Navigator and Gary was the Forward Looking Infrared Sensor (FLIR) operator. That teaming turned into a lifelong friendship. After the requisite number of classroom instruction and flying hours, I was off to Vietnam via Travis AFB, CA. I still recall, with tears in my eyes, the view from the airplane window as I left the Macon, Georgia Airport – my wife Carol holding our child.
On the flight to Southeast Asia, I sat with two other navigators from the class, Mike Salmon and Leonard Starling. As we were officers, we got to board first and snared an exit row so we had some legroom. It was a military charter, so no booze was served on the flight. There was a one or two hour refueling stop in Hawaii and Mike and I hit the airport lounge and downed a few beers before re-boarding the flight. Alas, the forward latrine had not been fixed so the leg to Guam was not too comfortable.
After great relief and refueling at Guam, it was off to Clark AB in the Philippines for Jungle Survival School where our class received field training behind the NCO Club instead of the jungles because of a typhoon threatening the islands. Jungle training completed, we caught our 727 flight to Cam Ranh and the war zone. At Cam Ranh, I caught a flight to Phan Rang AB, the squadron headquarters for the 18th SOS. I soon found that people at 18th HQ were wussies, who were doing their best to avoid flying combat missions, i.e. fly just enough to get the “end of tour DFC.” After about three weeks putting up with their b-s stories, I was sent TDY to Tan Son Nhut AB in Saigon. Mike and Leonard received the same orders. We flew down together and roomed together the whole time I was there.
I flew 19 combat missions in Cambodia out of Tan Son Nhut. I was really nervous on the first ones; I didn’t know how I would behave under fire. As it happened, the first time we were fired on, I was eating a chocolate cupcake from my flight lunch. I sort of said to myself, “So that’s what it’s like. Damn, this is a good cupcake.” Ground fire never bothered me again.
By mid-October, I was back at Phan Rang where I spent about a week before being sent to Da Nang, my permanent duty assignment. I was assigned to a room with Major Doug Frost. He was the detachment Administrative Officer and was liked by everyone. He was nicknamed “Uncle Doug.” He also flew as a NOS operator. He was a big man, probably 6’2” tall and weighed well over 200. He just knew he was going to be shot and ordered body armor that he wore on every flight. He also wore long underwear on each flight because as he said, “It’s cold standing in the NOS door.” With all the survival gear that we carried, he probably weighed over 275 pounds when he climbed on the aircraft. I know personally, that my survival vest, parachute harness, and pistol with holster and ammo pouches weighed a total of 40 pounds.
I was assigned Major Bob Meals’ crew. Behind his back, we called him “Major Megacycle”, as he could quote the specification sheets of all the stereo equipment that was available in the BX. He thought that he knew how all the equipment on the aircraft worked and was not hesitant in letting you know that he knew more than you did. I could not wait for him to be on leave or R&R, so I could get some relief. Relief came in an unexpected source. Higher headquarters came out with an edict that Captain or Major aircraft commanders could not be writing evaluations on officers that were senior in rank. I went to the Operations Officer, Lt. Col. Silver Chisum, and suggested that if he switched me, a Captain, with Major LeGrand, it would solve one of his crew realignment problems. Hallelujah! The next day he told me that I would be on Captain Mike Ryan’s crew.
PACAF had a regulation stating that crews could only fly five nights in a row and then must be given a day/night without flying. In practice, we flew four nights in a row, but on the fifth we did not fly because of aircraft maintenance problems. Since there was no actual flight on the fifth scheduled day, we were eligible to fly on the sixth day, even though we might have been up all night pre-flighting aircraft and aborting them. The fifth night was what one of our scheduling officers, Major Tom Vandenak, coined as our Polish Day Off. Because I had cross-trained as a NOS Operator, I could be used in two positions. There was a time in January/February 1971 when I flew 15 times in 17 days. After that 15th flight, I was off for the unheard of three consecutive days. As I recall, I did some serious alcohol consumption for two days and used the third day to sober up.
Alcohol was cheap. I remember buying Chivas Regal in 40 ounce bottles for $4.70. Seagram’s VO was the same. Beer worked out to about 25-cents a can. At Da Nang, we pooled our ration cards and someone bought beer by the van load and stocked the refrigerators in the officer’s barracks. Not sure what the enlisted did.
A lot of the days off, we were really just off the flight schedule and available for additional duties. The only extra duty that I remember having was Duty Officer. There were few Junior Captain Navigators as Duty Officers. In fact, I may have been the only one. As I recall, it was a 12-hour shift from 6 pm to 6 am.
Many troops called Da Nang “Rocket City.” There were three rocket attacks while I was there. As soon as the rockets exploded, the “Giant Voice” told everyone to take shelter. We grabbed our steel pots and flak jackets and headed outside so we could maybe see the fires. There was no sense in taking cover: the attack was over. During one attack, a rocket hit a fuel tank on the west side of the base. I was making peanut butter sandwiches with Pete Chamberlain in his room. We banged our heads together as we both tried diving under the same bed. It may have been during that attack that the beer dump at China Beach was hit with a 122mm rocket. That’s not playing fair in war.
The most memorable attack took place as two crews (minus the gunners) were returning to the Ops building from the Stinger flight line. Picture fourteen (14) passengers and a driver in a bread van. Walt Riebau, the AC-119 Gunship Association’s first Secretary, suddenly called out, “What was that!” He had heard the first explosion. Now picture fifteen (15) people trying to step on the brakes of that bread van and then “bailing out” of it. The bailout point was right between a POL storage area and a Vietnamese housing area. The right side of the road was lined with a concrete drainage ditch, normally an ideal shelter. In this case however, the ditch was awash with POL seepage and sewage from the housing area. Several men went into the ditch. Terry Bott and I were the last ones out of the bread truck. We both caught a whiff of the odor from the ditch at the same time. I looked at Terry and said “I’d rather die” and we both “hit the dirt” behind the van. Fortunately, there were no injuries except for some soiled clothing from exposure to the “benjo ditch.”
Many of the troops at Da Nang had motorcycles. Mike Salmon and I bought a used Honda 90. He was riding it one day and got hit by a truck. The collision crushed his ankle and froze up one of the front forks on the Honda. Mike was air evaced to the states and subsequently separated from the Air Force. He did, however, mail me a replacement fork for the Honda. I sold the Honda and bought another. Mike Ryan somehow became acquainted with a flight nurse who was stationed at Yokota AB, Japan. She agreed to mail us some Hondas. I wrote her a check for $765 and we bought two Honda 100’s and a Dax 70. A couple of weeks later, I got a wake-up call from our duty driver that he had 21 boxes addressed to me and what did I want him to do with them. Somehow we got the boxes sorted out and SSgt. See, Mike, and I got our bike assembled. I was living on the second floor of a barracks and it was no mean feat getting a fully assembled motorcycle down the exterior stairs. Then I had to scrounge a quart of oil for the engine and figure a way to get gas for my green 100 cc 5-speed rocket. I think I siphoned enough gas from another bike to get to the motor pool. I later got a credit card from MWR that allowed me to purchase gas from the motor pool pumps at $0.15 per gallon. I never got a bill for the gas. When I was transferred to NKP, I couldn’t take the bike so I sold it to Larry Juday for what I paid for it. I later learned that Larry was a profiteer and sold it for more than he paid for it.
One of the nice things at Da Nang was the BBQs that our First Shirt, MSgt. Von Leavitt organized. He solicited a bottle of wine or booze from the ration card of as many people as he could and then traded the alcohol with the mess sergeant at the Marine chow hall on the other side of the base. There was a BBQ for all hands every month that featured steaks, pork chops, chicken, and baked beans. Leavitt was formerly a Marine. “Well done, Gunny. R.I.P. You are missed.”
In April 1971, nine members of my Stinger crew got PCA (permanent change in assignment) orders to Nakhon Phanom (NKP), Thailand: A/C Mike Ryan, C/P Dick Henderson, Nav Howard Reid, FLIR Gary Hitzemann, FE Bobby Holmes, Gunner Gerry “Duke” Snyder, Gunner Mike Traynor, Gunner Bill Tobias, and I/O John Griffin.
We became Crew #1 at NKP – The “Who Are Those Guys Crew”. We left our NOS, Bud Donaldson, behind. At NKP, Neal Johnson became our NOS. Neal was a skeet shooter. As a crew, we spent several fun afternoons at the NKP Skeet Range. After life at Da Nang, NKP was heaven. No more “No-Hab Kitchen” at the O’ Club Annex in Gunfighter Village. I lived on ham, cheese and dill pickle sandwiches and personally cooked steaks for months. The chow at NKP was great. The O’ Club “done good” there.
I had two scary missions in NKP; the first one and the last one. On the first one, I insisted on having a Nav along who was familiar with the area of operations – the PDJ (Plain of Jars) in northern Laos. Louis Gonzalez rode the flight deck jump seat the entire mission. He never once came “behind the curtain” to see where we were. At bingo fuel, I announced the heading to NKP and confirmed it with a quick TACAN fix. While heading back, one of the scanners reported that the terrain was getting very close to the aircraft. We were at 9500 feet and headed nearly directly over Phou Bia peak, the highest terrain in Laos, at 9245 feet above MSL. Later I discovered I had miss-plotted the fix by 20 miles. Lou never knew how close he came to dying until I told him at the AC-119 Dayton Reunion.
The other mission that scared me was my last one, 24 August 1971. Most of my crew had rotated back to the States. I was flying on a different crew. I just knew that it would only take one of those strangers to screw up and I would be dead. As it was, the A/C, Major Dick Wargowski did a fine job and got us back to NKP safely. I think John Griffin from our crew was the IO on that flight and it was his last flight, too. The best feeling after the flight was when Bobby Holmes, our FE, emptied his water bottle down my back as I was packing up my maps for the final time. The subsequent hosing-down on the ramp was anti-climactic.
Ollie and Stanley
Gary Hitzemann and I were crewed together at Lockbourne, Da Nang, and we got mass crewed together to NKP. This little tactic is something that Gary and I used to pull on new guys on the crew. I was the table Nav, Gary was the FLIR, and the way a Stinger works out (particularly over the trail) we found most of our targets with the infrared set like Gary ran. So, Gary was over there, stirring the pot, finding the target. We roll in. Mike Ryan, our AC, says, “I’m in the sight.” We’d fire, and all the guys on the ground would start firing back at us. And, our boys in the back, Snyder, Tobias, Trainor and Griffin, they’d holler, “Break right, break right, break right!” And off we’d go, from a 30-degree left bank to whatever it took on a right bank. And at that point, when we had a new guy on the crew, I’d look over at Gary and say, “Well! It’s a fine kettle of fish you’ve gotten us into this time, Stanley!” And Gary would respond, “Well, it wasn’t so much, Ollie, actually.” And it would usually break the crew up. A lot of those situations got very tense. It was three guns and four guns of triple-A. Break right and break left. We found that this little tactic was very effective at kind of breaking the tension in the cockpit, and a lot of us tended to be a little more focused in our work, probably, when we got back to it. And the usual response from the new guy on the crew was, “You guys are freakin’ crazy!” So that was 1970 and 71.
He is still Ollie and I’m still Stanley to that crew. In fact, we’ve had eight of our original ten crew members at a reunion. And seven of the ten transferred together from Da Nang to NKP, giving us a crew that had the privilege of working together for an extended period of time. The entire dry season out of Da Nang, we flew in southern Laos, and then, when we went to NKP, we flew up in the PDJ for another three or four months. And until people started rotating in June of ’71, we flew together well over 100 missions, and we had the opportunity to use that tactic on a lot of people.