Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, rage, rage against the dying of the light. Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, and learned, too late, they grieved it on its way, do not go gentle into that night.
– Dylan Thomas Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night
When I was young, I went to war. I say I went to war, but it wasn’t really a war, it was a ‘police action.’ Our politicians called it a police action, but to those who fought on the ground and in the skies of South East Asia, there was chaos, wounds, and death, it was a war. The Vietnam War was really four wars; North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. It was a war that took far too many years and lives before it finally ended. My father, a pilot, spent three years flying and fighting in the skies over Southeast Asia, it was now my turn to fly and fight in some of those same skies. Being young and single I volunteered to fly in combat as a gunner on fixed wing gunships, AC-119Ks to be exact. I figured that if Dad could go to war, I could too. So, off to war I went. On March 26, 1972 I arrived ‘in country’. My new home a ‘hooch’ on a small secretive base called Nakhon Phanom. Its name quickly shortened to NKP by those who knew her. It didn’t take long before I was familiar with my new environment, one that was consistently made up of boring days and more than a few exciting nights. No, we weren’t down town chasing women on those exciting nights. For it was at night that the black painted AC-119K ‘Stinger’ gunships took to the air hunting trucks along the famed Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Hunting trucks was our primary mission but we were always being diverted to help ground troops whose perimeters were constantly under attack. I didn’t consider combat flying hard other than the physical fatigue of gravity playing on your body. The continual buffeting about as the aircraft dodged triple A, would have you weighing zero pounds one-minute and twice your weight the next. Sure, there were a few times that you were a lot happier when you were back on terra firma, especially after a night of flying against heavy anti-aircraft fire. Still, for the most part, I thought flying in combat was okay but I wasn’t flying very much and I wanted to fly more. It was about that time, that I was put on Crew 13. Some might think this was an unlucky happening, but we didn’t. Our crew consisted of guys from all across America. Men with one thing in common, to fly and fight as a crew in the gunship. I will remember forever they guys on crew 13:
Capt. Terence Courtney, KIA, Pilot (Awarded Air Force Cross,)
Lt. Jim Barkalow Co-pilot
Capt. David Slagle, KIA, Navigator
SSgt. ‘Yogi’ Bare Flight Engineer
Lt Col. ‘Tash’ Taschioglou Forward looking infrared (FLIR) Operator
Lt. Larry Barbee Night observation scope (NOS) Operator
SSgt. ‘Ski’ Sledzinski Lead Gunner
SSgt. Dale Iman Gunner
Yours truly, A1C Craig Corbett Gunner
SSgt. Ken Brown, KIA, Illuminator (IO) Operator
Two days after being assigned to crew 13, we were on our way to Bien Hoa, South Vietnam. Bien Hoa wasn’t as pleasant as NKP. It was older and had more of a temporary feel to its facilities. They probably were temporary when they were built ten or so years before, I guess a lot of folks thought this was going to be a quick war. Almost immediately we started flying against North Vietnamese regular troops who, on this, their latest offensive, were making a major assault on An Loc, which was a provincial capital just 60 miles north of Saigon. If An Loc fell, Saigon was sure to be next. It was at An Loc the stand was made. We were flying so many missions over the area that there weren’t enough hours in the night so we flew during the day too. On May 2, 1972, we were assigned one of the dreaded daylight missions. Our mission orders were to destroy some ammunition that a C-130 cargo aircraft had dropped too close to the enemy at An Loc. The pre-flight intelligence briefing was like any other. I remember in particular the Intelligence Officer briefing us on possible anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) around An Loc and that the best area for immediate bailout was west of the city. The pilot and aircraft commander, Capt. Terrance Courtney, then gave us his crew briefing. He reminded us again about the AAA threat in the area. He also requested the other two gunners scan for AAA as I was inexperienced and it was extremely difficult to see AAA in daylight.
On the way to the aircraft everyone was nervous because of the unusual daylight mission. We all knew that other Stingers flying daylight missions over the same area had encountered considerable problems avoiding the AAA. In fact, the last mission flown over that area returned to base with expected battle damage. Ski, Ken, and I were talking about what each of us would do if we were shot down. We all know that this would not happen though as some Stinger aircraft had been shot-up pretty bad and made it home. We also had some whose crews except the necessary positions: pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer, and illuminator operator, jumped out over the base so that they would not be in danger while the stricken aircraft tried to land, but we had never lost one in combat. Not one single death, we knew we were safe. If it happened we knew it would happen to the other guy.
Crew 13 was on board ‘Stinger’ gunship, tail number 826, with a call sign of Stinger 41. We had a normal take off, and immediately flew to an area close by to sight our guns not knowing that those would be the last rounds fired by Stinger 41. Ken Brown spotted some destroyed trucks on the ground, and we used those to bore sight our guns. While there, we were asked to hold our position as other aircraft were over our intended target area. Fighting in the area was extremely heavy, and at the time, An Loc was the busiest piece of sky in all of South Vietnam.
Once we were cleared into the target area we joined up with an O-2 spotter aircraft that would help us locate our target. We came into the target area at 4700 feet but the weather forced us down to a dangerously low 3500 feet. We had made about two orbits when SSgt. Brown said, ‘I can’t see it, but 37mm AAA is popping as it goes by, it’s exploding above us’. Capt. Courtney ordered a climb to 4500 feet, and asked Ken to see if he could spot where the AAA was coming from. I ran back to look over Ken’s shoulder to see if I could help spot the gun. Antiaircraft fire came up a second time and Ken spotted the location. Courtney then had Lt. Larry Barbee run back to have Ken point out the gun position to him. The enemy site opened fire on us a third time while the NOS was giving the location to the pilot and the Navigator. The lack of reference points made pinpointing the target difficult. As I was standing looking over Ken’s shoulder the persistent North Vietnamese gunner fired on us a fourth time, he was getting closer with each pass we made.
It was then that I alerted the crew another AAA gun was shooting at us. It was impossible to call any breaks as the tracers from the AAA were seen too late to react to them. Captain Courtney said he would make one more orbit and if we couldn’t find our target we would exit the area. On what was to be our final orbit, the persistent gun finally found its target as we were hit in the right wing by three or four rounds of 37mm AAA. Ken yelled, ‘We’re hit! We’re hit! We’re on fire!’ The whole wing, from the right reciprocating engine to the jet engine, was in flames. Flames that were trailing all the way back to the rear crew entrance door, the door we would have to use if we bailed out. The flames were so bright I could see them reflecting off the inside cabin’s dark zinc chromate paint finish. The right main wheel well was blown open and both right engines lost all power. I put on my parachute preparing for the worst. With only the two left engines running, and the aircraft still on fire, the plane was fast becoming uncontrollable. Capt. Courtney had full left rudder and full left aileron control trying to keep the old ship flying. In a very short amount of time we lost quite a bit of altitude as Capt. David Slagle called MAYDAY and provided a safe bailout heading. Then the pilot yelled the words no one wanted to hear ‘Abandon aircraft! Abandon aircraft!’ I remember looking aft and seeing Ken Brown acting as jump master checking everyone over. It was his job to ensure everyone was properly cinched up in their chute as they abandoned the aircraft. His crew position is normally the last, along with the pilot, to exit the aircraft. Ski was already outside of the plane. It was then that I realized this whole ugly situation was happening to me and it was deadly serious. As I made my way to the door I said to myself, ‘Don’t stop at the door, and don’t look down’. The next thing I knew I was outside the aircraft, in midair, and on my back looking up at nothing but blue sky. I pulled the ripcord and saw the parachute blossom above me. Looking around I could Ski in front of me, and I decided to make a turn toward the aircraft. Unknown to me at the time, turning was the smart thing to do, because Ski was being shot at as he came down in his parachute. After my turn, I saw Lt. Barbee, who had exited the aircraft after me, below and in front of me. Further in front of me I saw Dale Iman in his chute, and beyond him, the aircraft which was losing altitude quickly. I then looked down and prepared to meet the ground.
Jettisoning the parachute I started to escape and evade noticing that every sound I made seemed to be amplified 200 times. The area we landed in was flat and sparse, not at all like the jungle we had trained in. I heard several helicopters overhead and thought that maybe we would be getting out of there quickly. Finding a hiding place I turned on my survival radio and heard the pilot of the O-2, whose call sign was Sundog, talking to one of our guys on the ground. Waiting a few seconds after they finished, I too made contact with Sundog who said ‘sit back, relax, Sandy is on its way’. Sandy is the call sign of the rescue forces. Taking his advice and noticing how much I was shaking, I got out some water and began drinking. I told myself all would be okay.
Suddenly, a helicopter flew over firing rockets and mini-guns at something or someone close behind me. I decided I must be in the wrong place and began running toward the direction of his pass. I figured that his next pass could be shorter, he didn’t know where I was, he must be shooting at the bad guys, and I need to put some distance between us. Once in my new hiding place, I used my radio to started talking Sundog over to my position. This was difficult, as the noise level made it seem like the whole U.S. Air Force was on the scene. Every time I picked out the sound of the 0-2 an AC-130 Spectre gunship would fly over and its noise would drown the O-2 out. I finally got him over me and he now had my position. About then I heard some rustling and saw someone running through the area. I drew my weapon and quickly realized that was a stupid thing to do. Just then, the Sandy arrived! I was elated to say the least.
Sundog showed him each of our positions and Sandy made some low and slow passes to draw fire. They laid down some smoke and asked for Stinger 41 Delta and India to flash them with mirrors. Each crewmember used the aircraft call sign and a letter of the alphabet to distinguish themselves from the other crewmembers. Being Stinger 41 India, I was getting my mirror out when I heard Delta, Lt. Col. ‘Tash’ say the sun was too low and the light too poor to use mirrors. I knew then that time was getting short if we were to get out today.
Sandy then asked Stinger 41 Alpha to come up. When Alpha didn’t come up Sandy asked for the Stinger closest to the wreckage to come up. I guess nobody knew who was the closest, as the radio remained silent. Sandy confirmed that no one was coming up on the frequency and that any Stinger should come up. Chaos ensued as several Stingers came up simultaneously on the radio. Sandy reverted to the alphabet and called for Bravo to ‘pop smoke’ which Lt. Barkalow did. All calls after that were for the next closest man to ‘pop smoke’ until it was finally my turn. It took four and a half hours from the time we were hit till I was picked up. I was the last crewmember picked up alive.
The two Jolly Greens that hoisted us from the grip of the enemy flew us to Tan Son Nhut where they held us ‘captive’ in the hospital for the night. I wish we could have had a chance to thank the Jolly Green guys for coming to our rescue. The rest of the surviving crew seemed to have made it through the ordeal with only a few injuries. However, at first appearance, you would have thought they had been put through a meat grinder. Yogi Bare cut his head on tree branches while coming up on the jungle penetrator. By the time he was pulled into the helicopter he was covered in blood to his chest. Lt. Barkalow’s face was also a bloody mess. I helped clean him up, and when cleaned, his face was a mass of scratches. Apparently he was the last to exit the aircraft alive as his parachute was opening as he crashed through the trees. As he smashed through the jungle canopy, the tree limbs snapped off so furiously that he thought he was being shot at. Lt. Col. Tash, as we all called him, straddled a tree branch as he descended leaving a gouge with some meat sticking out on the inside of his thigh… which he said didn’t hurt until he saw it. Dale and I had a bunch of scratches and burns from the parachute risers. We later found out that Ski, who was being shot at on his way down, was picked up almost immediately by an Army chopper who flew with him dangling from a rope to a nearby fire base. Once he was inside the helicopter, he was flown on to Bien Hoa. During his ordeal he managed to hurt his back. I’m not sure if it ever healed.
It was much later that we learned three of our crewmembers, Capt. Terence Courtney, Capt. David Slagle, and SSgt Ken Brown would never return. We will never be sure why the last two didn’t make it, but I can tell you that none of us would have made had it not been for Capt. Courtney’s courageous efforts to fight for control of that crippled aircraft long enough for all of us to jump to safety. This was the last daylight mission flown by Stingers.
Twenty-five years seems so long ago, yet at times it seems like only yesterday. I stopped by the Vietnam War Memorial last year. It took me a long time to find my friends names among so many. You look and kind of hope they’re not there. But there they were: KENNETH R. BROWN, TERENCE F. COURTNEY, and DAVID R. SLAGLE.
I’ll never know why the rest of Stinger 41 was not on that wall. I’ll never know why there was a wall at all.