Fred W. Sternenberg, Pilot
18th SOS Detachment Commander, Phan Rang, Da Nang 1969-1970
My name’s Fred Sternenberg and I was a young major in 1969. I was sent to 119 training in Clinton County and then AC-119 transition training at Lockbourne. I became quite interested in the 119 gunship role even at Lockbourne because of the challenges that there were. Unfortunately, we were delayed in our deployment for about three months because of technical difficulties with the forward-looking infrared equipment. We finally deployed in late October. I was scheduled to be the number two airplane in the first wave. We launched one cold, dark morning before dawn from Lockbourne and from that point on it was one of the worst days of the whole tour, because we faced 100 knot headwinds all the way across the Midwest and finally had to land at Malmstrom rather than our scheduled landing at McChord because we flat ran out of gas. We’d been up for a very long time and nobody was interested in doing anything but getting some sleep.
The next morning we got an early crew bus, so we wanted to get everybody together and we went out looking for some place to get some breakfast. We found a nice restaurant about three blocks away from the hotel. It was a typical western cowboy restaurant with lots of men in hats and fur jackets. Although the place was busy, it was warm, the food was good, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. About the time we got ready to leave, I stood up and asked the waitress for the check. She turned and said, “Just a moment.” She went back and brought another lady with her and the older lady said, “Sir, there is no check.” I was dumbfounded for a moment and then I realized that every person in the room was on their feet and they began to applaud and cheer. As we left the place, those sounds stayed with me for a very, very long time. I’ll always have a warm place in my heart for Great Falls, Montana just because of that. They kept us warm for the rest of the tour.
We flew on our route to McChord, Adak, Elmendorf, Midway, Wake, and Guam. We were delayed four days in Guam because of magneto failure and typhoons that were on the way. We finally finished deployment in early November of ’69.
We were on the ground at Phan Rang for about three weeks. We flew several in-country support missions for troop in contact basically to work on our crew coordination for the new crew that had just been put together, and to become accustomed to the in-country rules of engagement.
On Thanksgiving Day, 1969, my crew met two A-1s from Nakhon Phanom over the Central Highlands in Vietnam where we exercised whatever tactics we could develop to insure that the A1s would be able to find the kinds of anti-aircraft fire suppression support that we needed. We had never encountered fire so we were only using our imagination as to what could be done, but it seemed like they worked very well for us.
Two days later we deployed two crews and two airplanes to Da Nang to set up the initial forward operating location A at Da Nang. Several days later after working hard to establish the logistics for both the flight crews and the maintenance facilities at Da Nang, we flew our first out-country mission which was more or less just an indoctrination mission as to all what it looked like. We saw very little activity, but we worked with our escorts and again fine-tuned the tactics necessary to arrange rendezvous and tactical procedures.
The next night was the first night we were on our own. The first night we flew in the south end of Steel Tiger, which was very lightly defended and really didn’t account for very much of anything. The second night we were right in the middle of Steel Tiger, close to a place that was named Delta 96. It was very heavily defended. We flew over the trail. My FLIR operator and NOS operator both immediately claimed that there were movers on the ground, so we rolled in on them and fired a long burst. Immediately the whole world turned red with very heavy anti-aircraft fire which we had never seen before. It was our first real indoctrination of what we were going to face in the out-country environment. From that time on it was a long session of OJT in learning those very many things that had to be developed as far as target tactics; as far as crew coordination; as far as the essentials of working together to make sure that whatever we did was most effective. The first week, I would have to say, we were not effective at all because we were scared to death, but eventually things improved a little bit.
I can still remember the first several sorties. I was able to roll in on a target and fire on it and hear the FLIR operator and the NOS operator both claim, “You got him.” After that things seemed to improve slightly, but slowly. Our operation began to mature slowly. It was most essential that we were able to work with our crews in as close a harmony as we could possibly develop because that was the thing that was essential as far as being effective and surviving.
Eventually, our A-1 escorts were “at will” i.e. if they could see where the AAA was coming from, attack the Gun(s). There were always new things that had to be looked at. One of the things that we had to change almost immediately was formation lights on the gunship; formation lights that were on the troop carrier version of our airplane were installed as to form an X in blue lights across the top of the airplane. I learned those blue lights were not bright enough for the escorts to see, so we had to change to white, and that worked out very well.
Many other things came along. Unfortunately, after several weeks it turned out that the A-1 escorts were not able to stay with us because first of all they were having engine troubles with the R-43 engines that the A-1 had. They had numerous occasions where their warning lights dictated they had to abort and go home. We were assigned F-4 escorts who were experienced because they had been working with the AC-130 operation. They knew what to do and it worked out very, very well. They could provide the kind of escort we needed almost immediately.
By the end of December, the operation was starting to mature. We had four airplanes and six crews on the ground at Da Nang and things were moving along. Lt. Colonel Wright was the Detachment Commander at the time, and he was transferred at the end of December back to Phan Rang to a staff position and I wound up as the Detachment Commander for the remainder of my tour there. This was quite a challenge with those things that were going on as far as covering the requirements of both the aircrews and the combat operational missions and all the nuances of supporting the maintenance operations as necessary. It was only because we had some extremely dedicated and extremely talented young men in our operation that we were able to persevere in that operation.
Sgt. Dextera was my Maintenance Chief. It wasn’t unusual at all for him to meet with me at 8 o’clock every morning where we had to decide what our needs were. First thing Sgt. Dextera would ask me was, “How many airplanes do you need?” I said, “Nine.” I asked, “How many airplanes do you have?” He said, “Nine.” “How many airplanes do you have that can fly tonight?” “Well, I can promise you three.” “I said, “OK.” I would come back and stop in to see Sgt. Dextera about ten o’clock in the morning. “Sgt. Dextera, how many airplanes can I have?” “Well, I got maybe five now.” I’d stop again at noon. “What do you have now?” “Well, I got six.” Long story short,-by evening he’d have nine airplanes ready to go. It was a real tough go all the time, but they were ready to go.
The operation on the trail was again a matter of learning from experience on what we had encountered. Almost every night we had something new. We had not only our own tactics, but also tactics by the enemy that were unexpected. One of the things we encountered was a symptom of a bright red light on the ground at some distance. At that time we had become aggressive enough and attentive enough that when we saw something like that, we’d fly over and see what it was, see what it meant to us. It turned out that that bright red light usually indicated the presence of truck traffic on the ground there. It also meant that as soon as we would roll in to attack that traffic, that we’d encounter very heavy 37 and 23 mm anti-aircraft fire. Usually it was in an area that allowed the guns to be in positions up on the hillsides or mountainsides, and the truck traffic to be down in the valley. The guns were much closer to us than we’d like. We still didn’t recognize what that red light was. We reported that to our intelligence people. They immediately turned it over to the Air Force intelligence folks at Wright Patt. They almost immediately delivered hand-held cameras with infra-red film, to try to determine what that could have been. They determined that it was probably a carbon-arc search light like they used in WWII that had a red filter across it that couldn’t be seen at night. They were using the light to target us when we flew over them. The option was to make sure our escorts had heat-seeking missiles. Some of the older side-winders that were no longer usable for air-to-air work were available, so the next time we saw the red light on the ground, the escorts could deliver a side-winder down the red light. Sure enough, I have several pictures of the equipment necessary to operate something like that, including a motor-generator for the spot-light arrangement itself and maybe a truck or two in the area, most of which would be damaged or destroyed after a side-winder strike. This was something very different, very unusual at that time. It was just a demonstration of the type of surprise that we would run into every other night. We almost immediately found that the design altitude for the gunship to operate in was not appropriate for the work we were doing. The airplane was designed with four basic altitudes which were 1000, 2000. 3000. and 4000 feet above the ground. We called them A, B, C, and D altitudes. Well, it turned out that even D altitude, 4000 feet, was nowhere near high enough for us to work in because the anti-aircraft artillery that we were facing had a time of flight that could reach us before we could react to it at all at that altitude, so we designed what we called “higher altitudes”. We called it the best altitude, 5500 feet. Our engineering types were able to figure out that that was the best setting for the guns as far as elevation. From that time on, most of our work was at a half thousand level, and that extra 1500 feet of elevation gave us another second-second and a half – maybe two seconds – extra time to react once we saw the anti-aircraft tracer or the clip of tracers coming at us. It gave us just enough time to stand the old bird on the wing tip and get away from it. Without that, it was very, very difficult to really escape that kind of activity.
In mid-spring, we were working in an area in the A Shau Valley over along Route I, which runs roughly along the DMZ over to Tchepone in Laos. The easiest way for us to get there was to fly right up the A Shau Valley and make a left turn at what we call Tiger Mountain, which was a larger mountain at the top end of that trail. At that time the A Shau Valley was a free fire zone. We didn’t have to worry about the in-country rules of engagement. One particular night, early in the morning hours because of the moon, we launched to follow that route. On the way up, we liked to fire several test volleys to make sure that our guns were properly sighted and would hit what we wanted to. My FLIR operator called that he had a flat or hot rock on the ground. I rolled in to fire that test volley. About that time he said, “It’s not a flat rock at all. It’s a mover.” We dispatched it and went on our way to do whatever else we had to do. On the way back, during our RTB, we flew the same route and lo-and-behold in the middle of the trail in the A Shau – this time it was right after dawn – and there was the same target! Even from our altitude, I could see it was a Russian three quarter ton truck that was loaded with fuel barrels and towing what looked like a fuel trailer. Also, behind the trailer was an anti-aircraft weapon. I expect it was a 2 barrel 23 mm. The entire target had burned and was still burning. That was just coincidental, I thought, until that afternoon the intelligence officer from the 366th fighter wing walked in with a couple glossy 8 x 10s showing exactly what we did, exactly what that target looked like. Also, super-imposed in the background was the shadow of the RF-101 taking the picture. This was one of the better pictures we used as proof of what we did there.
After we had been working for some time, we were starting to attract a lot of attention. We had attention from our own wing, of course, and from our headquarters. Quite often I was forced to prove what it was that we were doing and offer evidence that what I was saying was true. This was difficult to do in a conference environment so I started keeping a notebook of pictures that were furnished to us by both the reconnaissance facilities we had there and our own fast moving FACs in our own locally based fighter wing that gave us some photographic proof of exactly where the targets were, what we were striking, and what they looked like before and after. Usually, when I was forced to interview a high-ranking staff office, I would start by explaining this is who we are, this is what we do, and this is how we do it. I would almost immediately be asked a barrage of questions. “Are you sure? Are you sure you are doing this? What do you have to prove it?” The proof was to just open the book and ask them to review the notebook. After a few moments, I never had another question. I wish to heck I had brought that notebook with me. Unfortunately, I left it because it was rather sensitive information. I left it and don’t have it to prove now, but it was one of the best things I did while we were there.
We also had a number of visitors. One visitor in particular that I was most fond of was General Russel Darty, who at that time was a Major General in the DCS for plans and ops at the Pentagon. He was quite a gentleman. At the time I was notified that he was coming I was also notified that under no circumstances could I take him out-country. He had to fly with us in-country. Fortunately, the night he flew we did have active troops in contact situation that he was able to witness and see what we did and how we were able to offer in-country support. Some of his staff officers also were in place and they did fly out-country and were able to verify specifically what they had seen. By the time we got everybody put to bed that night, it was 3:00 o’clock in the morning. My telephone rang. It was General Darty asking me to come to his quarters and bring some people with me. I did and we spent the rest of the night in extremely interesting conversations with General Darty. Later in my tour, I was to work with General Darty in several other places, especially when he became the CincSac of Strategic Air Command at Offut.
One other visit wasn’t quite so pleasant. That was a visit with the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Ryan. General Ryan was never very fond of the operations we had. He was a big bomber man and he was particularly not impressed with old, dirty black airplanes that flew at night. I was advised that he was going to review my operation, and so on the appointed time I was ready. I still remember that I had just landed from a rather successful night. Everybody was still pretty well sweating and wrinkled and the airplane was still sitting there crinkling like our 3350s always did after you shut them down and dripping oil as they always did. I formed up as many people as I could muster at that time of the morning in ranks in front of the airplane. General Ryan was driven up in a staff car. He was all spit-and-polish in a bright blue uniform which we hadn’t seen in a long time. He got out of the car and we saluted. Then he looked at me and didn’t say anything. He walked around the airplane. A few drops of oil splattered on the ground. We got his shoes dirty. He walked around behind the airplane and I could see him stick his index finger in the gun barrel on the 20 mms and pull it out and look at the fact that it was still dirty. He walked around the back of the airplane. He came back around the front of the formation and he asked me a couple of questions. One of the questions he eventually asked me was, “Do you think you’re doing any good here?” I attempted to tell him, “Yes.” “What did you do tonight that you’re proud of?” I said, “We can account for six trucks that aren’t going to make it to South Vietnam because of what we did.” “Are you proud of that?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Major, you’ve got rocks in your head.” He turned on his heel, got back in his staff car, and left. I was without words to explain to the rest of my people why the Chief of Staff of the Air Force told me I had rocks in my head, but they never brought it up again.
Other than that, one of the things I was most proud of later was unfortunately after we had lost two airplanes, 119Gs at Tan Son Nhut and of our K models at Da Nang due to propeller problems. Run away propellers were one of our biggest problems. One of our group bailed out just off shore. All the crew members survived the bail-out except the illuminator operator. He was lost because he got tangled in his parachute in the water and we never did recover him. The airplane unfortunately righted itself after the bailout and did its best to fly all the way up to Hainan Island. The Migs were already in the air looking for it, but it crashed offshore and never got there. Shortly after that I was detailed to go TDY back to the States to attend a maintenance management review about the airplane. I didn’t really want to go, but you do what you’re ordered to do. The meeting went on for three days. Amazingly, they were most interested in the performance of the airplane in its original design version of a troop carrier. There was an enormous amount of detail it went over. Finally, we got to our operation which was eminently satisfactory as far as the airplane goes. My only complaints were several engine failures that seemed to be predicated on lax assembly procedures during overhaul and the propeller systems themselves. After we talked about the propellers for a while, some of the folks made it very plain that if we just used the proper maintenance techniques we wouldn’t have trouble with the runaway propellers. Most of our problems came from contaminating the propeller with dirt. I finally tried to explain to these fellows it was very difficult for us to expect the young airman up on the wing of a gunship in a combat environment with a flashlight and a funnel to be able to maintain the same standards of cleanliness as the services that could be done in a phase dock back in the States. As usual, I expressed this rather vigorously and lost my temper a bit. Finally, after several exchanges of this sort, a two-star general stood up in the back of the room that I did not recognize and he told me point blank that “We understand the problems, son, and we will see that they are taken care of.” He then dismissed the meeting. I saluted smartly and marched up the hill and back to the transport to go back to Da Nang to finish my tour. One of the most reassuring things I can remember from the whole tour was about six months later I looked across the ramp to the transient ramp at Offut Air Force Base where I was stationed then and there sat a 119K with three-bladed Hamilton Standard propellers on it. That was really reassuring that the General was able to do exactly what I had told him to do.
I still have very fond memories of that tour and what I did there and all those people I worked with, even if it was over thirty years ago.