Roger D. Bon, Sr., IO
16th and 18th SOS, DaNang, Nahkon Phanom, 1971-74
(Gunship Experiences)

I was assigned to the 16th and 18th Special Operations Squadrons during the years, 1970-1971, 1971-1972 and 1973-1974. The first tour of duty was on the AC-119K, Stinger Gunship. This tour of duty was the most memorable and rewarding for me for several reasons:

  • The first assignment into a combat environment is the most rewarding and adventurous;
  • The optimum operational altitude for our firing missions was 5,500 (AGL) Above Ground Level, the crew not using surveillance censors, such as myself could see more of the action between the Gunship and the targets on the ground;
  • The overall attitude of the flight crews was more of being a Cowboy in a Rodeo;
  • The pilots of the AC-119K Gunships were notability older as the Reciprocating Engine Aircraft Pilots, with many hours of flight experience, were pulled from behind desks to fly these aircraft. I have to give much of the credit to these older pilots for the success of the AC-119 G and K Gunships to them.
  • I flew one hundred and nine (109) combat missions on the AC-119K Gunships and one hundred and forty combat missions on the AC-130A, E andH Gunships.

I was awarded: Three (3) Distinguished Flying Crosses; twenty (20) Air Medals for my combat service in Viet Nam. Both the 16th and 18th SOS units were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation with Valor for their contribution to the service to the country.

One of the training requirements for an aircrew member assignment in South East Asia was being able to swim and/or take drown proof training. I have always had a fear of the water, I do not know if it is the result of my earlier drowning experience in the stock pond at Peterson Brothers Farm or just a fear in my head. To prepare myself for the training I scheduled private swimming lessons at the Clearfield City Swimming pool. These lessons encompassed a period of one month and two lessons per week. I could swim from the deep end of the pool to the shallow end but not from the shallow end to the deep end; I would sink in the middle of the distance to the deep end. The instructor informed my wife that I was the most difficult challenge that she had in all of her years of swim training.

My first stop enroute to AC-119 K Gunship School was to Fairchild AFB, Washington and General Survival School; this training was interesting but not enjoyable. This school covered all facets of survival and combat situations such as bailing out of an aircraft, how to fall and land in all types of terrain and on water; what to expect if taken Prisoner Of War (POW) evasion and traveling with only a compass as a directional guide; how to read maps; this we had the opportunity during the subsistence portion of the course. We were given 1,000 calories per day for four (4) days including one rabbit for each team of four men. One team member had to demonstrate how to extract and eat the rabbit’s eyeballs; as they are a great source of potassium. We were issued Pemmican, an old frontier and Indian dried meat and vegetable mixture. We made beef jerky over an open campfire. One team ran down a deer fawn, killed and ate it. We had fishing line and hooks, some of the men fished; others made Dandelion tea and ate indigenous plants. It was too early for any berries to be ripe.

We were given a compass, a specific map position and a time that we were required to be at the destination and orders to be there. We discussed a plan after looking at the map grid lines, elevations and other information and headed out. We had to back track a few times but made our destination on time. One Team included a young navigator, they got lost and when school instructors located them the navigator was asked his name, he would not identify himself. I thought this was humorous that a man taught the skills of a navigator would not be able to follow a compass. This portion of the training was by far the most interesting and enjoyable.

The last phase of the training was by far the most stressful; we were captured by what was intended to be a Communist Force in South East Asia and held a POW. We were put into a simulated evasion situation and captured and put into various situations that our POW’s had to endure during Korea and the Viet Nam conflicts. Many of these situations were extremely difficult to endure both physically and mentally. The interrogation was so real and effective that the interrogators had to be rotated out to ensure they did not start to actually believe what they had been taught. They spoke the indigenous language, wore the clothing and had the command structure of the opposition force. Much of this training was modified as different and updated information was learned from escaping military members. This specific training was responsible for saving many American POW lives as it was instilled into their minds and acted upon unconsciously on demand.

All in all, this survival training I have received has been used by me, not in a specific POW status but in many situations in my life. I have made an effort to pass my experiences along to my family and others that I have come in contact with during my journey through life. In some small way I trust that my experience has benefited others. I still retain memories of this training, some positive and others with a shudder and the feeling of not wanting to deal with such things in reality.

The next phase of training was in Columbus Ohio at the Air Force Base. I do not remember the name of the base; it is now an Air National Guard Operation. The first assignment was to attend AC-119 familiarization training. The C-119 had been out of mainstream service for several years and there were not many mechanics that had recent experience on this aircraft.

The training continued with specific component familiarization and hands on training. My duties included a jettsionable, twelve tube, flare launcher; a forty (40) KVA Infrared/White Light Illuminator Light; a forty (40) KVA turbine powered generator to power the light; and assorted hand launched smoke markers. I was responsible for the preflight, operation and post flight and most important was safety of my assigned equipment and duty station.

The flight portion of the training started with a familiarization flight with a local instructor crew. I was shown in flight procedures and practices associated with my duties, I was excited and interested. We were soon given simulated combat situations, without enemy ground or AAA fire. My training included dropping flares, smokes and operation of the light. The Illuminator Operator’s (IO) most important duty was to scan for and call to the pilot any AAA and/or ground fire that might endanger the aircraft and crew including calling out evasive action to avoid the incoming enemy AAA fire. The IO and a gunner, as they had duties of AAA observer on the opposite side of the aircraft training for calling AAA was a box that had chain lights installed in many various configurations; the instructor would activate a specific sequence of lights and at times several AAA scenarios of situations and the trainee would have to call the appropriate evasive action corresponding to the lights. I enjoyed this training and had my disagreements with the trainers suggested actions as I tried to envision the actual event by putting trajectory and angle of the AAA and aircraft flight into the scenario.

The situation at the base transit quarters and dining facilities were not ideal and was unclean, many of us complained and eventually were moved off base into non-availability quarters while the dining facilities and transit quarters were cleaned.

Three of us more or less stuck together a flight engineer, a gunner and myself, we were all about the same age, in our thirties, and had a serious interest in what would be our new jobs. Most of my free time was spent studying and preparing to qualify for my new position and duties. For entertainment several of us turned to Special Services for free tickets to the County Fair, a Wrestling Match and possibly some programs that were presented on base that I do not remember. The wrestling match was by far the most interesting not because of the wrestling but the audience. We were in the mid-section and had a good view of the action, a young girl, possibly in her mid to late teens was in front of us and continued to standup yell and scream. I told her to sit down so we could see and she picked up one of her crutches and swung it at me along with profanity suited for a sailor twice her age.

At the fair there was lots of beer and other things meant for visitors to purchase and consume, rub on or eat. The gunner of our group was fond of beer and had the belly to show it. He had consumed so much alcohol that he was what I call “Knee Walking Drunk” when he would put his hand in his pants pocket in search of change or his wallet the weight of his hand would result in the corresponding knee to bend and hit the ground, he would then struggle to regain his bi-pedal stance and continue on his way.

I did not meet anyone I had previously known in the military as all the men involved in the Gunship Program were from piston engine aircraft, flight engineers, or gun maintenance fields. The majority of the pilots and co-pilots were older men or had recent reciprocating engine experience. When the school was completed, we were authorized to take limited leave to visit family and friends or tidy up loose ends at home. I do not recall any of the leave with the family prior to going overseas, I am sure they do and might possibly like to add a few lines.
I do remember departing out of Travis AFB on a Military Charter Flight traveling via Anchorage and then through Japan and into Saigon and then to the 19th Special Ops Wing at Phan Rang Viet Nam. Our initial in country training was received at Phan Rang (The Funny Farm); I remember a distinct mortar attack on the base and men heading for bunkers. I was not brave but unaware of the danger that existed in country from attacks such as this one.

All of the new guys were to be dispersed to other units either in country or Thailand, we all wanted to go to NKP. NKP is located in Eastern Central Thailand on the border with Laos and headquarters for the bad guys. I was one of the lucky men and was sent to Thailand and really enjoyed the time I spent there. I got a part time job at the base lapidary shop as an instructor and shop sales person. I enjoyed this duty along with my other official work. I was frustrated by the complacency of the men in our section as they were not dedicated and accomplished their unit administrative duties half-heartedly. Our crew only remained at NKP for a short few months and then reassigned to DaNang, South Viet Nam. This was a devastating blow to all of us for several reasons: my job, our new enlisted barracks that had just been completed for our unit. The only air-conditioned enlisted barracks were specifically for aircrew members. Enlisted aircraft mechanics lived in unairconditioned barracks without fans, unless they purchased them. The mechanics worked 12 hour shifts, six days a week

The three years I worked in South East Asia during the Viet Nam conflict. I did not agree with American forces being in this conflict but I enjoyed working with the men on the aircrews that I was assigned to. These crews were made up of very diverse personalities and cultures but we worked as any well-oiled machine tweaked to perform a specific function in the survival mode. All of the enlisted air crew members were volunteers due to the hazardous missions were assigned. I have not kept in contact with any of the men I flew with, but have often thought of them and wondered how they were doing.

I noted that the standard crew briefing included a statement “Should you feel that your life in danger, the aircraft unsafe you are free to leave anytime, just let us know when you go so we can come back and get you. This portion of the briefing was standard with all AC-119 and AC-130 Gunships. We did have some men in the same position that I was assigned quit due to their inability to accept the stresses, intense and close AAA fire. These men were referred to by some as cowards, chicken and other similar names. I personally thought them to be heroes as they knew when to quit so the lives of others would not be put at risk. The duties of the Illuminator Operator (AAA Scanner) was not for the light hearted and even the bravest and stout hearted man get the shakes at times. The adrenalin rush was intense and I would like to experience it again.

I remember that we used to refer to the gunners as “Puking Cannon Cockers” because they commonly got airsick and lost their lunch. I did not use this term after I got airsick on a mission we had during the Monsoon Season in 1972 during my first assignment as an IO on AC-130 A Gunship I got into my position on the cargo ramp and connected the cable from the inertia reel to my chute harness and laid down on the ramp in preparation for my job. This particular night the Monsoon Clouds reached from the ground all the way to Heaven and beyond. The turbulence in any storm cloud is more exciting and unpredictable than any rollercoaster ride known to man and I believe the Angles were hiding from this storm. I got sick in my helmet bag as the wind comes in the back of a gunship due to the vortex created by the aircraft body pushing forward through the air a vacuum is created at the tail and thus the air enters the open door. This was the only time I ever got air sick, we have been in an AC-119 K model at ninety (90) degrees bank and an AC-130 E Model at one hundred ten (110) degree bank. We were not doing aerobatics, just trying to make it back home in one piece.

When our mission area route took us over marshy areas that was covered with shallow water. The night was clear that the stars in the heavens appeared to me as ground fire being aimed at us, the fire from the engine exhaust was as if there was a fire on the ground. I called ground fire to the pilot and at that time I was informed that what I was looking at and told that we were not concerned with rifle fire and would know when we were being targeted. I took my job very serious and took the position in the left paratroop door, as this was where all of my equipment was situated. My equipment consisted of: Light controls, flare control box, even though the box could be moved to either door or to the inside of the cargo compartment, I preferred to be close to the center of my world. Our maximum altitude for optimum effective use of the 20 MM, Vulcan Gatlin Guns was 5,500 feet above ground level (AGL). Effective use of the 7.62 Mini Guns, also 20 MM Gatlin Guns was at a lower altitude.

The AC-119 G and K model aircraft were designed and intended for use in close support of troops on the ground, and were very effective at this. The K model had the 20 MM Gatlin guns that allowed us to work truck and heavier targets than the G Model, which only was, equipped with the four (4) 7.62 Mini Gatlin guns. It has been proven that with one pass, using one 7.62 gun, a G or K model Gunship could put a bullet in every square foot of a football sized target or shred rail road tie size pieces of wood that were targeted. The army and marines loved the effect that we had on an encroaching enemy force.

There was much to learn beyond what we were taught in school at Columbus Ohio. The actual missions were much more detailed and alive. We had to be in country qualified and pass another check ride before we would be assigned to a hard crew as the Illuminator Operator and AAA Scanner. My primary duty was to alert the pilot and crew of AAA, rocket propelled grenade and/or Strella, heat seeking missile threat that required evasive action by the pilot. The common call for action was “Break Left” or “Break Right” and at times “Break Harder” and in case of a Strella missile the call would be to Dive. Occasionally and in extreme instances the call for “Break Harder” was used when the AAA was especially accurate. It is my opinion that aircraft took hits while evading possible threats and actually flew into AAA. I can’t confirm this thought, but when I flew with other crews and observed how AAA was called and response to it seems apparent. I observed AAA only one time when I knew we were going to be hit us; I could not see the tracer moving, I could only see it getting bigger and bigger, it was coming right for me. I do not remember what my call was but I told the pilot to do something that got us out of harm’s way. One other specific call I can specifically remember was while we were targeting something on the ground and were in our 30 degree left hand bank to acquire the target. I noticed a gun that had fired one round from behind and our left at about a 30-degree angle as if the bad guy gunner on the ground could see us. I notified the pilot and told him that he would have some 23 MM come right by his window and to hold what he had. We happened to have a Crew Flight Examiner (C.F.E) on board giving a check ride to our navigator; he looked out the left side window of the cockpit and told the pilot to break right. I called the pilot to hold what he had or he would lose his left wing, he held what he had and the AAA was so close to his window that the light generated by the tracer burning lit up the whole cockpit and the C.F.E exclaimed “Bull Shit”. This is how important it was to be on a “hard crew” and earn the trust of the remaining crewmembers. The next paragraph is how I had to come to grips with a similar situation of a close 23 MM tracer round that I could have reached out and touched. That I am still here to tell about it is proof it was not “Too” close. Should multiple rounds been shot at us, they would have formed a shotgun pattern I would have had to call break right and dive as we were bracketed. Many scenarios had to be in my mind as to what call to make based upon the number of rounds, the trajectory and distance. The information to be considered in the conclusion of the danger imposed was tiring and stressful.

The closest I ever came to being hit was while we were in a left hand orbit a 23 MM AAA round passed between the left hand boom between the engine and horizontal stabilizer and where I was standing in the left paratroop door and no more than three (3) feet from me. I could hear the burning tracer as it went by, it sounded like an acetylene torch put close to a concrete surface but 1000 times as loud. The tracer was burning like a giant sparkler being thrown past me. The primary duty of the AAA scanner was to advise the pilot and crew of AAA that could pose a threat to the aircraft and crew. The AAA scanners actions and calls saved many an aircraft and crew.

One night we were supporting ground troops along with truck hunting and ran out of tracer ammunition, tracer rounds are required during all friendly troop support actions. We landed at a northern base and took on fuel and 20 MM ammunition believing it was non-tracer and continued looking for trucks, while we were hunting a call came in from an American outpost for air support, we had the gunners check the ammunition and they discovered it was Armor Piercing Incendiary Tracer (APIT) rounds. We could then engage the bad guys in support of our forces on the ground. I can only imagine the surprise of the bad guys hiding in the bushes when they were receiving incoming rounds of such force and penetration potential.

We were in a targeting orbit over a hill in Laos and known bad guy country searching for targets, one of the sensor operators had picked up two trucks and the pilot was trying to get target acquisition when a huge explosion erupted on the ground below us. We were in territory where there was a known eighty-five (85) MM, radar controlled gun was known to be. The pilot called the airborne command aircraft (ABCC) located high above the target area. ABCC was in control of an area containing 17 aircraft, none of which had any light or illumination devices on as a deterrent to AAA and ground fire. We had a fighter escort above us this night and asked him if he had dropped any of his ordnance, he replied he had not. It was later determined one of Spector’s (AC-130 Gun Ship’s) escort was lost and had settled in above our escort and our aircraft and it was he that had dropped a 500 pound bomb in the center of our escort and our orbits. We all had some excitement talking about this event.

One night we were looking for trucks and other targets of opportunity and the Infra-red (IR) sensor operator picked up a large concentration of trucks parked in a circle; clearance to fire on this target was received from ABCC and we laid into them with the 20 MM, Vulcan Gatlin guns, each gun had six (6) barrels with a total firing rate of 2,500 rounds per minute per gun. We fired but a few minutes when the sensor operator noticed the targets going head long into the surrounding dense jungle and at that time it was determined the target were elephants and we ceased firing. I do not know if the bad guys or local lumber harvesters were using these animals. A herd of wild elephants would not normally lie in a circle.

Another night we were hunting and located a bridge under the surface of a river in the northern part of our patrol area. We targeted several trucks crossing this river on the bridge and called for bombs to be dropped on this target after we destroyed the trucks.

I could write on and on about my experiences in Viet Nam, Thailand and flying over Laos, Cambodia, Viet Nam and one time into China. The flight into Chinese air space was the result of our being directed to fly our mission in an aircraft without any operational navigational aids. This specific mission was in the middle of the monsoon season with cloud cover from the ground to altitudes far exceeding the capability of our unpressurized aircraft; our maximum working altitude was 12,000 ft. Anything above this altitude created health and safety problems for the crewmembers especially the gunners as they loaded and maintained the guns and ammo with extreme physical or mental exertion.

I do not know if any of you reading this portion of “My Memories” has had the pleasure of working a job that was so rewarding and interesting that 40 years later you would like to do it all over again. The adrenalin rush and excitement of the chase and being chased made my years in South East Asia the best job experience I have ever had the pleasure of working. I was comfortable with myself, my abilities and with each crewmember that comprised the crews I was assigned to. I cannot put into words how this job made me feel, but I would like to have the satisfaction and personal reward that I got in doing what I did in each job that I will have in the future. I cannot hope for that pleasure of fulfillment that I had on each mission we flew.

We carried no oxygen other than walk around bottles as a AAA or ground fire hit in the oxygen storage tank would ruin many-a-day for all of us.

I always carried a water jug with ice water or tea on each flight. I do not know of any other crew that carried this luxury for the benefit of the crew. The jug was always empty prior to our return to home base.

During missions in to Northern Laos and Viet Nam we were given Air Force (AF), Navy or Marine F-4 Fighter escorts. I would say that we all preferred the Navy or the Marines escorts over the Air Force escorts as they seemed to have different rules of engagement and would not hesitate to engage the enemy gun emplacements as the AF would.

We observed an AF F-4 fighter engaging targets on the ground and got what we refer to as target affixation, concentrating too much on the target and forgetting to fly the airplane, and flew directly into the target.

All of the crewmembers had more than one duty, but the pilot and flight engineer had the most critical duties in assuring we made it back home. The pilot had to have confidence in the IO and Gunner, AAA scanner and follow their calls when we were being targeted from the ground.

Some of the hazardous areas that I remember were Road Runner Lake, along the Ho Chi Men trail and in specific areas of bad guy activity, which were continually changing. Road Runner Lake was considered, by us as a R and R camp for the bad guys and had many guns of all sizes there. This is the only place where we had a 57 MM gun targeting us with only one shell, that I noticed bursting above us. This gun did not use tracer rounds as did the smaller 23 MM and 37 MM guns. The 57 MM shell burst above us and looked like some of the 4th of July fireworks that send out deadly shards of metal and that are white hot and burning power in all directions. These fiery fragments intended for us blew outward and downward until they cooled and I could not see them any longer. All in all the AAA fired at us made a spectacular and beautiful sight, the 23 and 37 MM would leave the ground in a stream and at what I would believe at 3000 feet in altitude would start to separate into a shot gun pattern and become more deadly for us to be hit and was easier to fly into. The 23 MM would reach an altitude of about 8000 feet the 37 MM would reach elevation of 15000 feet with no problem.

From the time the bad guy gun was fired on the ground it took six (6) to eight (8) seconds for any one round to reach the altitude we were flying, most commonly 5,000 to 10,000 feet. This time seemed to stand still, as you may have heard about when people experience a critical event in their lives. I never had my life flash in front of my mind, but I was thankful for the time to get my ducks in a row and make the correct call to the pilot and crew to take evasive action. Time seemed to stop as my mind was working so fast that the 6-8 seconds seemed like thirty seconds. When evasive action was taken, some of it quite dramatic, in the AC-119K Gunship we passed the 90-degree bank and the AC-130H we were at 110-degree bank.

The AC-119K was flying at 20,000 pound over design gross weight we had a J85 Jet Engine out board of each receipt engine. The jet engines would carry the airplane in a slight descending flight when there was no ammunition on board. Without the jet engines we could not have been able to carry out the death and destruction on the bad guys that we were able to do.

The 23 MM and 37 MM shells did not have an airburst but still could do great damage to the day of anyone that was in their way.

Lt. Col Loren Briggs, our navigator on the AC-119 K Gunship, made us up detailed maps of the areas that we flew and locations of all the bad guy hot spots, gun emplacements, and other areas of interest. I do not know what happened to this document as I gave it to Mom to keep for me and she is not interested in things that do not interest her. Col. Briggs also made each of us copies of mission tapes and these have also not been located; I still have the memories!

Aircraft that have weapons come in contact with cordite, gun smoke. Cordite can and does create a corrosive effect on aircraft structure and parts, to counter this deterioration the AC-119 G and K model aircraft were flown to Taiwan inspection and repair as required (IRAN). I was selected with a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, flight engineer, and crew chief to accompany an aircraft on one of these trips, the length of the trip was supposed to be over and back. We ended up staying nine (9) days and finally directed in the form of a TWIX, an official fax by a Major General to return to our station immediately, we did. The trip took us by way of Saigon AB, Viet Nam with the opposite route in returning to Thailand. This TDY made for an interesting diversion from the excitement of flying combat missions over Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia and one time into China by mistake.

In the position, Illuminator Operator I was required to stand in the paratroop door and the only jacket we were issued was a summer weight nylon flight jacket. This jacket did not give us any protection from the slipstream coming in the open spaces and doorways that we were required to stand in. I managed to get all of the men in this position issued a standard military field jacket to wear over the top of our flight jacket.

One thing I found interesting was those on the top of the chain of command had no compunction regarding the life, limb and safety of the crews that they directed to fly missions; aircraft such as the one we took without any navigational aids and straying into China. On this mission we could not fire on any targets, as we could not identify where we were therefore we just bored holes in the sky just so a block on a scoreboard could make some Colonels and Generals could crow about their absence of intelligence they all seemed to have a lot of that. In my twenty years on active duty in the Air Force and thirteen years in Civil Service I can count on one hand the number of ranking officers that had any semblance of the intelligence that God gave a fungus. Most of them read a book and that is all they knew, but they knew the book well. If you would like to know what I am talking about; take an empty paper towel roll put it on a sheet of paper; draw a ring around the circumference of the roll; cut out the ring; punch a hole in it with a paper punch; tape it back on to the end of the roll; look at the scenery in front of you; then look at the same scenery through the paper towel roll looking into the open end with the taped up end away from you; this is what an educated person with no common sense will see, just a small portion of the big picture. I saw a lot of this type of person in the military.

We always had good men as pilots or we molded them into the good men they turned out to be before we got done with them. We flew as hard crews with few changes in crewmembers. Pilots were changed more often that other crewmembers. We as a crew would work tirelessly to cause the pilot to put safety of the crew and aircraft using common sense ahead of regulation and administrative procedures. In 249 combat missions on the AC-119K and AC-130 A/E/H Gunships, some on very heavily fortified locations we took one hit in the fabric-covered elevator of the AC-119K we were flying.