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My assignment to the AC-119 came in the disguise of orders to the C-119G, as an advisor to the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF). Although I had been volunteering for Vietnam for two years straight in any of the following aircraft, A-26, AC-47 and F-4 I was always turned down as a critical resource. I was a B-52 Radar Navigator and SAC said no! Additionally I had no experience in airlift or cargo aircraft, nor had I been an instructor navigator, so I was floored. I was to report to Clinton County Air Reserve Base, Ohio for checkout. The 302nd Tac Airlift Wing was responsible for my checkout and it was to last 15 days. I expected to arrive alone but was surprised to find six (6) other Navs in my class. We were all flabbergasted to be there, especially the other Navs as they were not volunteers. Although the other Navs all had follow on orders to Lockbourne AFB, Ohio I didn’t receive my follow on orders till midway through our checkout. It turned out later that we all were headed the same way, volunteer or not. We received orders to report to the 4431 CCTS at Lockbourne AFB and with the next issue of Aviation Week we knew we were going to the new gunship. We had been selected after careful screening by the Secretary of the Air Force, Harold Brown (1965-1969) to man his new AC-119G gunship.
We reported to AC-119G training on August 2, 1968 and were to graduate on August 22, 1968. We had been selected to augment the 434 Troop Carrier Group (TCG) from Bakalar Air Reserve Base in Columbus, Indiana. They had been called up for active duty during the Pueblo incident and Sec. Brown decided to use their aircraft and crews for the initial cadre of Project Gunship 3. So their aircraft were taken and configured as AC-119G’s and the unit was redesigned the 71st Aero Commando Squadron which was changed again before we deployed to the 71st Special Operations Squadron (SOS). Although we were the second Gunship to be deployed operationally in Vietnam we were actually the third to be developed. The AC-47/Spooky was first with the AC-130A being the second. Some development problems and supply problems caused the temporary withdrawal of the AC-130 and Sec Brown decided to develop the AC-119G to fill in the gap. So we became the interim answer and subsequently the least known of the three.
A partial list of the 434th TCG follows. It is a partial list because of my incomplete records and the fact that we were split up into detachments (Forward Operating Locations – FOL) after arrival in country and didn’t intermingle very much. I have tried to identify crew positions where I could:
Lt Col Don Beyl – Pilot/Commander, Det 1, Tan Son Nhut AB, RVN
Lt Col Sid Petty – pilot
Lt Col ? Mitchell – pilot
Lt Col ? Mulgrew – pilot
Major Gene Tippy – pilot
Major Paul Maxwell – pilot
Major Tom Cougill – pilot
Capt Jim Davis – Navigator/Nos(?)
Capt Bill Joyce – Navigator/Nos
Capt Gene Schaltenbrand – pilot
Capt Jack Parish – pilot
Capt Mervin (later doctor) Evans – pilot
As you can see the majority of the 434 TCG called to active duty were pilots and active duty types heavily augmented the Navigator/Nos force. I can only find a few of their names but they were:
Capt Bill Hamilton
Capt Bill Baker
Capt Mort Hall
Major Charlies Britton
Capt Doug Federico
Our departure to Vietnam was delayed as a result of overzealous engineers and a lack of adequate horsepower. As a result of trying to cram in all of the equipment that had been developed up to that point, the aircraft was overweight and the loss of an engine on takeoff resulted in a negative climb rate. Not good for your health! During the modification period we continued to refine our skills and procedures with training flights and live fire missions to ranges in Lake Erie and Camp Atterbury in Indiana. A typical crew consisted of: Aircraft commander, co-pilot, Two Navigators/Night Sight Operators who alternated each mission in each position, Flight Engineer, Two Aerial Gunners, and Illuminator Operator/Spotter.
After an extensive weight reduction program was initiated and extravagant articles, such as a 2000 lb. ammo can rack (floor tie down points and straps worked quite well thank you) down to covers on switches and access plates were removed we were ready to go!
Although some crews were used to ferry the aircraft to Vietnam most of us deployed aboard C-141s. We left Lockbourne AFB on December 21, 1968. We hopped across the Pacific to Nha Trang AB where we dropped off the maintainers while the aircrews proceeded to Clark AFB for jungle survival school. The aircrews finally arrived at Nha Trang AB on December 31, 1968 and our crew flew our first mission on January 5, 1969 (I believe this was the first combat sortie by a Shadow in Vietnam). After several more checkout missions our crew moved to Tan Son Nhut AB, near Saigon, where we became FOL Det 1, on January 17, 1969. We were a tenant unit on the base and were not very welcome. We had to beg, borrow and steal most all of the equipment we needed to operate. We were given the oldest trucks, jeeps and etc. We were just not wanted! The local Security Police were our best friends at first because we could get the gun barrels they needed for their APCs. We were also the only offense, firepower carrying unit on the base. After we were able to stop some of the base attacks and provide some defense to the base we were more than welcome at last. But that was not to come about for a while. Before we could fly any missions in III Corps we were recalled to Nha Trang. Upon arrival, several of our officer crewmembers, to include myself, were sent to Nakhon Phanom AB, Thailand. While there we flew sorties with the C-123 Candlesticks over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This was to prepare us to fly Armed Recon and FAC missions with our AC-119Gs. After our arrival back at Nha Trang our crew flew the only out of country missions flown by the AC-119G/Shadow. We flew with a F-100 fast FAC on board and it was our and all of the Shadow crews good luck, that the powers to be, after we told them about the narrow misses you have in a plane that flies a 360 circle around its target and that 7.62 mini guns were not the thing to do combat with on the trail, cancelled all further missions on the trail (the AC-119K Stinger with its 20MM cannons did a great job on the trail later on). That one mission with the Candlestick crew and the five missions on the trail were the six worst missions I flew in South East Asia. Although I only saw it six times, I will never forget what that big AAA looks like coming up at you. Especially in a slow mover! My crew and I were the first members of the Field Goal Club! That is where you have 57MM rounds go between the twin booms that extend from the engines to the vertical stabilizer. No points for the bad guys, thank goodness!
We returned to Tan Son Nhut and flew the first mission in III Corp on Jan 28, 1969, the anniversary of my commissioning in the USAF with the first mission in IV Corps on February 1, 1969. Our main mission at first was armed recon along the Cambodian/Vietnam border. We operated in the areas of the Parrot’s Beak, Angel Wing, Dog’s Head and areas due west of Tay Ninh. We later expanded that area to include War Zone C as well. With our night scope and infrared light we were able to pick up movers, camp fires under the jungle canopy, sampans, etc. on moonless nights, which had previously been Charlie’s safe time. The fact that we could fire without dropping flares caught the enemy unprepared. This proved to be an additional harassment, as they now had to respect all aircraft noise as a potential threat, not just when the flares came out.
Our first major troops in contact (TIC) came on February 15, 1969. The next one occurred the night and morning of February 22 and 23, 1969 and was in support of Fire Support Base (FSB) Thunder II on Highway 13 running north out of Saigon. We flew two sorties totaling 9.8 hours and fired 150,000 rounds of 7.62 Ammo. It was during these two missions that the ground forces found that with our equipment, we could fire right up to the perimeter wire without exposing their positions. We stopped the base from being overrun that night and for our efforts were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. But more importantly to us we were made honorary members of the Big Red One and become the most requested air asset in country at night. Our success in this mission was underlined by the GI who on a later encounter with the VC and was about to be overrun said, ‘screw the F-4’s — get me a SHADOW!, or the famous good night message we often received, ‘good night, thank you, and God bless you Shadow!’. In March we began a new phase of our operations. We began to assist the Forward Air Controllers (FAC) in putting in airstrikes. We would drop flares, mark ground positions with log flares and also use our white light to change night into day. This light was so bright that one of our crews used it to supply emergency lighting to an operating room in a field hospital which saved an ARVN soldiers life. We also gave the FAC a ready ground fire suppression capability that would save the fighters ammo for strikes on more lucrative targets.
During May 1969, we began to receive replacements for the called up reserve troops and by June all of the reservists who had not extended their tour were on their way home. It was on June 1, 1969 we changed our name to the 17th SOS. Our Mission as the 17th SOS remained the same except in August we began to work with the Australians in Vung Tau province. We also increased our operations with the Navy SEALS and riverine forces in the Rung Sat Special Zone as well as IV Corps. With the introduction of the AC-119K Stinger in September 1969, which took over the eastern part of III Corps we began to move further west in IV Corps. We now took on the task of interdiction along the waterways of IV Corps and moved into the U Minh Forest. In November we saw an increase in our usage in the Search and Rescue (SAR) mission, but only at night. In an effort to recover two downed Army Pilots shot down near Binh Thuy our white light and infrared light coupled with our Night Sight helped slow down their movement toward the U Minh Forest, enabling them to be rescued by Special Forces troops and to use their words ‘saved our asses from a long time in captivity.
We lost our one and only aircraft during October 1969. It had an engine fire on takeoff and went down with loss of all but two of the crewmembers. One of them was a gunner while the other was an Illuminator operator. One was flying two days later and the other within two weeks. The one who waited two weeks did so only because he was hospitalized for 7 days. That’s the Shadow/Aero Commando spirit!
Our final operating area was with the Special Forces. We were used as diversions for insertions, extractions and were called upon when they had contacts that could not be broken. I have flown several sorties during which we whispered to each other over the radio while we covered their movements or positions till day light. The enemy was that close!
I flew my last mission on December 7, 1969 and shortly thereafter returned to the World. The 71st continued on in Vietnam until the AC-119G was turned over to VNAF in 1971. As I stated earlier that the Shadow didn’t receive the press the Spooky/Specter did but when it came to knowing what lurked in the shadows of the jungle, the Shadow Did! We were all proud of the mission we accomplished in South East Asia and were even prouder to be part of the Air Force Air Commando History!!! Very seldom did I talk to an Army, Navy or Marine troop who served in country who didn’t know who Shadow was. Today the 17th SOS continues to carry on the Aero Commando History as a part of the USAF Special Forces flying the HC-130 Combat Shadow mission carrying on the Shadow tradition and is ready to go ANYTIME, ANYPLACE.
A listing of the AC-119G tail numbers follows. I have broken them down to the aircraft used for training at Lockbourne AFB and those we used at Tan Son Nhut. We normally only had 4 to 6 aircraft on hand at any time as we rotated aircraft in and out of Nha Trang and later Phan Rang.
Lockbourne Aircraft 37833 – 08114 – 25898 – 38123 – 33136 – 25925 – 25907 – 38155 – 37852 – 33205 – 25942 – 25938 Tan Son Nhut Aircraft 531889 – 525927 – 525905 – 525907 – 538155 – 533136 – 537852 – 533170 – 533192 – 533189 – 533178 – 537851 – 525892 – 533205
538069 was lost on take-off.