I was born April 18, 1946 in St. Louis County, Missouri and attended public schools in DeSoto and Festus, Missouri. In April 1963, I joined the Air Force and trained as a security policeman. I returned to civilian life in April 1967, then reenlisted in June 1968 and trained as a weapons mechanic.
I served three overseas assignments in the weapons specialty: weapons mechanic on the F-100 at Bien Hoa AB, RVN, 1969-1970; gunner with the 18th SOS AC-119K Stinger Gunship at Nahkon Phanom RTAB; and weapons load monitor with F-105 aircraft in 1972-1974 at Ghedi AB, Italy. My last reenlistment was in 1972 and was conducted under the wing of an AC-119K Stinger Gunship at NKP. After completing my gunship tour, I cross-trained into the computer field. I separated from the Air Force as a Staff Sergeant in July 1976. My significant awards and decorations included the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters.
One of my most memorable Stinger missions occurred while flying over Laos. We began receiving AAA while orbiting a potential target. Without our gunship firing a shot, the AAA gun blew up, creating a huge ball of fire. Another mission I will always remember was the one on which the IO punched off a flare and it landed in the back of a truck blowing it up.
I presently live in the St. Louis area where I am employed at Washington University in St. Louis as a Protective Services Officer. I hope to retire soon, do some traveling, and continue enjoying my four children and seven grandchildren.
To Be A Gunner
AC-119K Stinger Gunner 1971 to 1972
When I was in the 6th or 7th grade, I remember standing in front of my class and stating I wanted to be in the Air Force and I wanted to fly. Some of the other boys laughed and said, “You will never be able to fly because you have to be a college graduate and then become a pilot.” I knew I would never go to college due to finances and my academic ability. I was never a great student. I still wanted to join the Air Force because of my fascination with airplanes. I joined at the earliest opportunity, which was on my 17th birthday in April 1963. I went through Basic and then to Security Police School, and then was assigned four years guarding missile sites in Nebraska. I never even flew on a commercial airliner let alone military aircraft during the four years.
I separated from the Air Force in l967, then reenlisted in 1968. The recruiter was anxious to get a prior service person and said I could choose whatever career field that I wanted. I chose Aerial Photography. The field was closed. My next choice was Weapons Mechanic since at least I could work around airplanes. So it was off to Lowry AFB, CO to learn how to load bombs and fix guns on F-100 Super Sabers.
It was an interesting field and I really enjoyed my work. I was sent to Luke AFB, AZ and then to Bien Hoa Air Base, Vietnam to work in the specialty.
My assignment following Vietnam was Travis AFB, CA as a Fuel Specialist. After I was there for about four months, I learned that the Air Force was looking for former weapons troops to volunteer as aerial gunners. I zipped up to Headquarters and signed up. I didn’t know or care what aircraft I flew on; I just knew that I was really going to fly. The program was Project Palace Gun. I started my training by going to the altitude chamber at Castle AFB, CA, followed by flight training at Hurlburt Field, FL. It was then that I learned that I would be doing as a gunner. I would be an inflight weapons mechanic on AC-119K Stinger Gunships. Now most folk picture a gunner as manning a gun and firing at attacking enemy aircraft. Not so with this “modern” flying, fighting machine. Our job was to load and repair two 20mm Vulcan cannons and four 7.62mm mini-guns during flight. The guns were actually fired by the Aircraft Commander. What a thrill it was to walk out on the flight line and see the AC-119K gunship, an old converted boxcar with a black coat and six guns hanging out the left side. I soon learned why it was painted black.
Enroute to Southeast Asia, I attended Survival Training in Washington State and Jungle Survival Training in the Philippines. My initial assignment was to Phan Rang Air Base but, while at Clark Air Base, it was changed to Nakhon Phanom RTAB, Thailand. Well, praise the Lord, I did not have to go to Vietnam. We flew most of our missions in Laos on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a country that I had never heard of, and a country in which it was officially denied that we were flying missions. We did go TDY to Vietnam a few times.
I was finally flying and I loved it. The word got around how much I liked to fly and some of the other gunners would ask me to fly their missions. Some people asked if it was scary flying combat. I said there wasn’t time to be afraid.
What was it like in the gun bay? There were three enlisted Gunners, an enlisted Illuminator Operator (IO) and an officer Night Observation Sight Operator (NOS) in the cargo area. The NOS stood at his station which was located in the original entry door immediately forward of the left engine. The IO operated the flare launcher and the 1.5 million candle power light (white light and infra-red) at the rear of the aircraft. He also served as jumpmaster in case of bailout. Imagine two 20mm cannon firing 2,500 round per minute and four 7.62mm mini-guns firing at 6,000 rounds per minute. The gunship was shaking so hard that you believed at any second the aircraft would come apart. The noise and smoke were so intense that it would take a couple hours after a mission to clear your brain. Gun barrels would turn red, then white, from bullets being fired at such high rates. For the most part, we used only the 20mm cannons over the trail against trucks and tanks.
Reloading the guns, especially the 20mm’s, was always an adventure. We used a big drill-like device to reload and it must have weighted 30 to 40 pounds. Once inserted into the gun, we squeezed a trigger to feed the ammo belts from the ammo can into the drum. Gunners found that they first must disconnect their intercom microphone/headset cord before feeding the ammo belt into the drum or risk the chance of their headset cord getting caught and pulled along with the ammo. Without communication with the rest of the crew, a gunner could not hear “break” calls to evade AAA. So, there you were with this heavy loader in both hands, the gunship flying in a left-hand orbit, guns firing, and all of a sudden the gunship breaks a hard right turn or left turn. Needless to say, we quickly learned to stay braced and ready when not wearing our headsets.
Gunners had another job other than maintaining the guns on combat missions. Along with the IO who hung out the right side of the plane, one of the three gunners would hang out the left side of the plane scanning enemy territory below for AAA fire. If we could see a round that we thought might hit our plane, we would call the pilot over intercom to “break right” or “break left”, depending on which side of the plane the round was headed. In heavy AAA, the gunner scanner and the IO scanner might call out “break right” and “break left” at the same time which caused the pilot to decide which way to break. We did take a lot of hits, but thank God, there was only one Stinger lost due to enemy ground fire.
After we pulled off targets and were bingo fuel (enough fuel to fly back to base with reserves) gunners would clean up the gun bay/cargo compartment. There were expended shell casings to be policed and empty ammo cans to secure. On one mission, during this clean up, I pulled an empty ammo can out of the rack, and noticed a nasty gash through the bottom of the can. I showed the can to the IO who turned a few different colors as he thought about the direction of the enemy round which was headed toward his position in the back of the gunship. When we landed, we found that we had also taken another round, very close to the battery compartment. Of course, it took us a few rounds of our own at the club to get over the enemy rounds.
Even with the hazards of flying in combat in an aircraft that had a bad record of staying in the air, it was the best year and a half in my Air Force career. I would most certainly do it again.