Paul C. Robertson, Navigator
18th SOS, Da Nang and Nakhon Phanom, 1971-72

Paul C. Robertson grew up in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri and graduated from Southeast Missouri State University in 1967. He joined the Air Force to avoid being drafted and graduated from OTS in December 1967 and from Navigator training in September 1968. His first assignment was with the 1st Military

Airlift Squadron at Dover AFB flying in C-133s. He was “selected” for training in the AC-119K and was stationed at Da Nang Air Base from September 1970 until May 1971 and then at Nakhon Phanom Air Base until September 1971 as a FLIR Operator. His next assignment was as a Navigator Instructor at Mather AFB until spring of 1976. After that, he was a C-5 Navigator at Dover AFB, where he also served in the Command Post. He was an ROTC Instructor at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, from May 1979 until May 1982. His last duty assignment was at McGuire AFB where he was a 21st Air Force Flight Planner and then the Base Operations Officer until his retirement in September 1987. Major Robertson presently resides in Springfield, Missouri.

Stories Close Air Support

In January 1971, the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) mounted an operation against North Vietnamese forces in Cambodia. The official reason given was that Cambodia had asked for their help in order to help retake Route 4, the only supply road between the capital of Phnom Penh and the vital port of Kampong Som. The operation included two ARVN armored cavalry regiments, three Ranger battalions, an artillery battalion, and an engineer group. In other words, it was a fairly big operation.

The 17th SOS “Shadow” C Flight was tasked to provide close air support, but because of the size of the operation, a few AC-119K “Stingers” were also dispatched from their home base at Da Nang to Tan Son Nhut Air Base at Saigon to help. I was a member on one of those Stinger crews.

My log book from that period tells me that on at least two of the missions my FLIR was inoperable upon reaching the battle area, and so I was basically reduced to riding along as an observer which was quite boring. On one of the missions, however, there was quite a bit of action. We were tasked to support ARVN troops who were engaged in a fight with the enemy. On these missions, we carried a South Vietnamese interpreter in the “jump seat” in order to communicate with the troops on the ground.

In this case, the ground troops reported that they had been taking fire from the area of a nearby village. They wanted us to put down some “suppression” to help them in their battle.

My first task on the FLIR was to figure out where the troops were in relation to the enemy. They may have put up a flare to help us because I remember that it did not take long to identify their position.

Next, I needed to find the village and its relationship to the ARVN troops. That turned out to be quite easy. It was a fishing village and the huts were built out over the water. I could easily see the outline of the huts and boats parked next to them on the FLIR. Remember that this was the middle of the night.

Through the interpreter, it seemed that the ARVN wanted us to fire directly into the village. They may have assured us that there were no “good guys” there. Nevertheless, it was quite clear that this was an active village not very long ago and may still be so. Sorry, perhaps someone else could have and would have fired into that village, but I was not going to because of the possibility that there might be indigenous people still in the village. Besides, it was several hundred yards from the South Vietnamese troops and the fire may have been coming from somewhere closer to them.

Still, the ARVN ground commander insisted they were taking fire from the village and we (Stinger) needed to do something. I picked a spot somewhere between the village and the friendly troops and we fired a burst. The ARVN troops were not happy. “Too far away!” Okay, I thought, let’s provide them with some real CLOSE air support. So I picked a spot that was somewhat closer to their position but still a safe distance away.

As the pilot fired rounds on the spot, the extremely excited voice of the ground commander came over the radio. I could not speak Vietnamese, but I clearly understood what was being said. Our interpreter exclaimed, “TOO CLOSE, TOO CLOSE!”