Robert R. Safreno, Navigator
17th SOS, Tan Son Nhut, 1970-71
I was born in Fremont, California in 1936. In 1954 I graduated from Fremont High School in my hometown of Oakland. I was commissioned a second lieutenant through the AFROTC program in June 1958 upon graduating from San Francisco State University and received orders for navigator training.
In 1971, I received orders for the 17th Special Operations Squadron, Fighting C Flight, at Tan Son Nhut AB at Saigon where I served from August 1970 until August 1971. My additional duty was working on Awards and Decorations. I typed many submissions for C Flight crews, particularly following the four-day battle at Prey Totung, Cambodia, a town which controlled the communications and supplies for the friendly forces and the cities of the region. It was under attack by a large hostile force. Eleven crews from the 17th SOS and two crews from the 18th SOS flew continuous sorties until the hostile forces withdrew.
On 12 December 1970, we supported Prey Totung as Shadow 26. We could clearly see the ground activity. The ground commander informed us that they were in the southwest corner of the town and that the VC controlled the rest of the town. A machine-gun was firing into the friendly positions. I located the site, but when Captain Cunningham started firing, all hell broke loose. We immediately took .51 caliber fire from six machine gun sites in our firing circle. They had us in what we called a “Shadow Trap”. Looking into the NOS, I saw streaks of light coming up the barrel. I jumped back just as bullets flew past the left wing. The explosions sounded like popping corn. I backed up to the opposite side of the aircraft to rethink my situation, then forced myself back to the NOS. I had extreme problems holding on to the NOS while trying to reacquire the target because I kept seeing those red streaks from tracer bullets coming up the barrel straight at my eye. Suddenly the NOS went completely blank – something that happens only if exposed to bright light. A big rocket had just exploded near the aircraft. I immediately recommended that we get the hell out of there. We broke the firing circle, regrouped, and called for reinforcements. We returned three more times during that siege. The town was secured on 15 December 1970, but it was virtually destroyed, with the exception of the friendly troops’ location.
On one mission, I heard a sudden ZAPPING noise from the cargo (gun) deck. The clamp securing the barrels on the end of a minigun had broken. When the clamp broke, the barrels started flopping around and shot holes in the left engine nacelle. The young pilot we had was worried that we may have shot holes in our hydraulic lines. So he lowered the landing gear to make certain it worked. After the gear was down he realized that if the hydraulic lines were damaged the gear might not retract. Fortunately the gear retracted, otherwise we probably could not have made it back to our base.
Late one afternoon we were near Highway 1 in Cambodia when we discovered the wreckage of an Air Force jet fighter. We asked the nearby friendlies to check the wreckage for survivors. They were unable to locate the wreckage in the dense foliage. I was a B-52 Navigator/Bombardier in my prior life so the pilot asked me if I could put a marker on the aircraft. On my mark, the IO dropped a log that landed about 50 feet from the aircraft and generated a big cheer from the crew! It was getting dark, so at the ground commander’s request we turned on the “Big Flashlight” and kept it on the target area. By then the first log was burning out so we went through the same procedure to drop a second one. My luck held – it hit about 25 feet from the aircraft. The friendlies found the aircraft but nothing else.
Another memorable mission was our support of a road- watch team near the Tri-Border area. They were completely surrounded by VC. They were whispering so softly that we could hardly hear their radio transmissions. They asked us to shoot all around them, but we had no visual contact, so they pointed a blue strobe light at our aircraft. As NOS operator, I was the only one who could see the light. We established an offset of a couple hundred meters and started firing. The team got on their radios and said, “That’s it; keep it up.” His voice was now getting louder. He then asked us to move our shooting in a certain direction. As we were shooting and moving as he indicated, he kept saying, “That’s it; great shooting. Keep it up; keep it coming.” We could hear the sounds of gunfire and bullets over their radio and asked him what it was. He answered, “That’s your bullets hitting in front of us. Keep shooting; you’re blowing a hole for us to escape.” We finished up and left the area. Unfortunately, we never did find out what happened to the road watch-team.
Our crew flew a gunship to Formosa for an IRAN and returned to Saigon with another. When we stopped for fuel at Clark AB, the pilot had the copilot calculate single-engine takeoff weight. The difference between that weight and our maximum load determined the amount of San Miguel beer we carried back to Vietnam.