The preflight was done and the crew briefing was complete; we were all strapped in our seats and ready to go. I started the two big, reciprocating engines, and the pilot taxied from the parking ramp to the run up pad at end of the runway. As the pilot and I went through the run up checklist, I was thinking what a beautiful night to fly. It was about seventy-five degrees, and the moon was full in a sky of sparkling stars. The date was June 6, 1970, and I only had six more months left here to kill trucks, night after night. I was halfway through the tour and could not wait for the next six months to pass so I would be home with my wife, Brenda and the two boys for Christmas. I looked forward to that special day in December. Back in the cockpit, we completed the run up. I started the two small jet engines as the pilot started to taxi into takeoff position on the runway at Da Nang Air Base, Republic of South Vietnam. As the clock indicated 2130 hours, the pilot advanced forward, the main engines throttles to 2900 revolutions per minute (RPM), and I toggled up the jet engines switches to a 100 percent. We were rolling. The World War II vintage C-119 Flying Boxcar shuttered and shook as it roared down the runway. All the instruments were indicating good takeoff power. Once again, we were off to fight a war against an enemy we could not see. As we came off the runway, I heard the pilot’s commands, “gear up, flaps up,” and “set climb power,” the co-pilot raised the landing gear and wing flaps, while I set the climb power with the engine throttles and propeller (prop) control levers. Then I heard the co-pilot tell Da Nang ground control “Lemon is airborne.” What a stupid call sign, I thought—“Lemon”: the computer in Saigon had assigned us with this call sign for tonight’s mission. After I completed my visual checks of the AC-119 Gunship, we were flying feet wet, over water, above the South China Sea and making a slow 180 degree turn. We completed the turn and were climbing back over Da Nang and heading for the small country of Laos-the Steel Tiger. After five minutes of flying time, we were back over land and climbing through 8000 feet at a good rate of speed. Within a few more minutes, we were twenty miles west of Da Nang, and the pilot was leveling off the gunship at a cruising altitude of 10,000 feet. He called for cruise power.
I slid forward in my seat to set cruise power by pulling both the throttles and the prop control levers back to the cruise setting and toggled the jet engines down to 85 percent. When I looked back from the jet engine’s gauges to the reciprocating engine’s RPM gauges, the number one engine tachometer (TACH, RPM) gauge was indicating an over speed. I readjusted the prop levers, and the engine’s RPM decreased momentarily, but within a couple of seconds it was again over speeding. This time it was above 3000 RPM. I thought, no problem, as I adjusted the prop lever again, but there was no response on the engine tach. I had a lot more problems than I had thought. I told the pilot about the problem and that I would feather the propeller. I pulled the prop control lever toward me to feather the prop, but nothing happened. The engine tach still indicated over 3000 RPM; we were in trouble. I re-accomplished the feathering procedures – nothing happened. Now I was getting nervous, I had never seen this happen before. I talked to the pilot, and we tried everything we could think of from the books. During this time, the engine’s speed kept increasing. I was past nervous now. The pilot tried to stall the airplane to slow the engine speed, but nothing was working. After several futile attempts to control the engine speed, the engine’s tach was now reading 4000 RPM. I had no idea how fast the engine was really turning because 4000 RPM was the top reading on the tachometer. I did know the propeller was driving the engine instead of the engine driving the propeller. By now the tachometer was the only instrument on the front panel that I could see. I had a fixation on the tach and the unbelievable speed at which the engine and prop were turning. In my mind the tach gauge was twelve inches across, while in reality, the gauge is only one and a half inches across. With the amount of speed the prop was traveling, I could visualize that big sixteen foot propeller coming off the engine and cutting the fuselage right in half. It was time to do something different.
Scared, confused, and with no more ideas on how to slow the engine down, I reached for my chest pack parachute. It was within arm’s reach, hanging on a hook on the side wall of the cockpit. I pulled the chest pack attaching rings into my parachute harness snaps; I was ready to go.
The pilot told Clyde, the illuminator operator, to eject the flare launcher overboard and prepare for bailout. The entire crew was preparing themselves, mostly in their minds, for the bailout into the dark unknown. The pilot hit the bailout bell and told me to leave. I swung down out of the cockpit into the cargo area and started pulling all the parachute harness straps tight around my body. I had not walked two steps when I saw one of the gunners jump out of the back door. The next man out was the night-seeing-device operator. As he jumped out the door, I had to laugh. His helmet stayed in the doorway spinning after it had left his head as he hit the airstream. I immediately snapped my chin strap while half running to the back of the aircraft. As I got to the open door next to Clyde, I patted my tail while trying to tell him that I wanted a butt boat. I know we had to be back over water by now. Clyde just pointed to the door for me to jump. I could see his mouth move, but could not hear him over the roar of the engines. I stopped momentarily in the doorway thinking I was letting fear override good common sense, but it was too late now. As I stepped out the door, my body went with the air flow, and I was looking at my toes straight in front of me; I could see the tail of the airplane passing over my head. I immediately pulled the “D” ring from my chest pack and did not count to ten, or call for Geronimo as they do in the movies. I was scared. Now I could hear the roar of the engines fading behind me; I was setting in my parachute harness looking down from about 6000 feet at a thousand Vietnamese fishing boats in the South China Sea. After a few seconds of getting my head together, it dawned on me to pull my radio antenna out to hear if anyone had called for help. I could not believe it, no one had told the world that Mother March’s baby boy needed help and that five people had jumped out of the plane ahead of me. I turned the emergency beeper system on to let everyone in Southwest Asia know that I needed help – now. After what seemed to be a couple of minutes, as I neared the water, I put my radio antenna back away and pulled the strings on my life preserve unit (LPU). It inflated up under my arms. I hooked the LPU’s tabs together in front of me and pulled down the covers from my parachute “J” releases. With the covers removed, I found the release cables and placed two fingers inside both cables. I was ready for a water penetration. Looking straight ahead as I hit the water, I pulled both “J” releases at once to release the chute’s canopy so it would not drag me through the water.
After a few minutes in the water, I was thinking, “what a hell of a night this has been.” In less than a half hour, I went from the ground to 10,000 feet to an unwanted saltwater bath. I hoped all the crew members were okay.
I was in the water for about an hour and a half listening to my radio and watching fishing boats pass within a hundred feet of me, but saying nothing. I wanted an American to pick me up; I already had enough of the unknown for one night. After watching someone getting picked up, I tried to talk to the same helicopter. My efforts did not work, so I popped the top off a night flare to show everyone my position. As the flare’s fire died out, a big light was right over my head and a rescue horse collar on the end of a rope was in front of me. The rescuers moved the collar closer; I got it. I pulled myself into the collar and gave the thumbs up signal. Whoo! The helicopter took off dragging me through the water at a high rate of speed for about five hundred feet of so, during which time, my radio was hanging loose. Because of its dragging, it beat me half to death. The copter stopped, and the rope pulled me up and inside. The helicopter was a Marine CH-46. This Marine crew had already picked up two of my crewmembers. I was sure glad to see them inside the copter. The Marines carried us back to the aircraft parking ramp at Da Nang Air Base.
As we got out of the helicopter, I could see the rest of my crew waiting for us. I thought all of them were there, but Clyde was still missing. We went to the hospital for a checkup and a debriefing. Everyone was okay just a little shaken up by the ordeal.
The next morning hit me the hardest. I found out they had not found Clyde. I knew he had made it out of the airplane okay, but I figured he must have drowned once he was in the water. A few days later, the Navy reported back; they had found a Vietnamese boat crew with a parachute canopy. The Vietnamese had told the Navy that there had been a body on the end of the chute, but they had cut it away and kept the canopy. It is a different world in Southeast Asia.
I will never forget June 6, 1970, the call sign Lemon, and my friend Clyde. I was responsible for Clyde’s death and have three reasons why. As the flight engineer, I should have known and understood the aircraft’s system better and not have gotten scared during the performance of my duties. The worst part was earlier that year, in the spring, Clyde wanted to quit flying. He was scared of all the triple “A” gunfire – flack – that we flew against while trying to destroy trucks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I talked him into continuing flying – peer pressure. The date June 6, 1970 will haunt me for the rest of my life.
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