Danny B. Thompson, Gunner
17th SOS, Phu Cat and Tan Son Nhut, 1970-71
I grew up in Independence, Kansas where I was born on March 4, 1948. We moved to Fredonia, Kansas in 1962, where I finished junior high and high school, graduating in 1966. I then moved to Wichita where I worked for Boeing Aircraft Company on the B-52 Modification Project. Since the job was a government job, I had a military deferment.
When the job was finished and I no longer had a draft deferment, I went to Independence Junior College. In the summer of 1968, I moved to Kansas City and worked for the Ford Motor Company. I got a call from home, telling me that I had draft papers in the mail. I said my goodbyes to Ford and thanked them for the job. Crunch Time had arrived. Some old guy was sitting behind the desk at the Navy recruiting office and a good looking WAF welcomed me to Air Force office. I joined the Air Force!
From Basic at Lackland, I was sent to Tech School at Denver, Colorado to learn the correct way to load five- hundred pound bombs on a B-52 jet bomber. From Chanute, Kansas, I started my journey around the world to a place called U-Tapao, Thailand for my first overseas duty station.
I returned from U-Tapao to learn about loading nukes on B-52s at Wright-Patterson AFB. It was during this duty that I met my hero, a sergeant just back from Vietnam and a gunner. WOW! This guy had stories about gunships that blew my mind; stories of how they would fly in and hose the area down to save our boys on the ground and stories of how they would fly two or three missions a night, only getting rest to and from the target areas. I knew then that was what I wanted to do. After some checking and a lot of leg work, I found the right people and signed up for the AC-119 gunship program. It wasn’t long before I was off for Lockbourne.
I can remember the first time I climbed onboard an AC-119. I couldn’t believe how big it really was. My first flight was one I’ll never forget, nervous from all the hype, getting to see the guns fire from the air, the smell, the motion, the air sick bags. Yep, I sold Buicks to Ralph most of the way home. (I got sick). Later, I found these little white pills that took care of all that motion sickness. Life was good again.
From Lockbourne, it was back to Wright-Patterson to check out and get ready for my trip to Vietnam. I flew out of Kansas City Airport to San Francisco where they made sure we had all of our shots, and sure enough, I needed a couple.
From Travis AFB, we flew to Clark AFB, Philippines where I attended Jungle Survival School. To see a man walk out into the jungle and just disappear was really cool. We were taught how to find drinking water, identification of edible foods and cooking techniques in addition to skills in evasion of the enemy. After I personally learned that big rats live in the jungle, I was ready to board a plane to Vietnam.
Our plane landed in Saigon in early evening. The next morning, we were on a C-130 heading for Phan Rang. Being new to the country, we didn’t know all the customs yet. We were about to get a crash course in combat readiness. The guys in the barracks had a little fun at our expense by setting up a fake fire fight. They came running in, grabbing us out of our beds, and told us to get to the top of a huge hill outside the barracks. We would be told up there what to do.
All we had on were our skivvies and a smile. On the way up, I told one of the guys, “I think I smell a rat”; there was too much laughing going on in the distance which made me believe that we had just been had. They had strobe lights going off, tape recorded gun shots, smoke; they had the works. After all was said and over, they popped a top and we all laughed.
The next day half of us got back on the C-130 and headed to the Shadow Fight at Phu Cat, my home base for the next nine months. Upon seeing the Operations Center for the first time, I thought to myself, “I’m going to be seeing a lot of this place in the next year.” Boy was I right.
After we got all settled in and our crews assigned, we started flying. We flew a lot of day missions out of Phu Cat. After four or five missions, we were checked-out to fly as regular crewmembers. There were a lot of jitters and a lot of gun jams that took us longer to clear than the old timers, but we caught on quickly and it just became second nature. I carried a set of extra barrels, slides, and bolts just to make sure my guns stayed online.
The missions kind of ran all together after a while. I think we were becoming numb from the lack of sleep. There were some missions that were better than others, but we were doing what we were supposed to do to save our boys from being killed. There were too many nights we would just fly around letting the bad guys know that we were in the area and would really like for them to meet us. I know that being on the guns all that time, I didn’t get to hear everything that was going on, but there were times that we just knew. We could tell by the long bursts from the guns that we were doing some good. The return to base and the debriefing was another way we could tell if we were doing any good.
Phu Cat was one of the best bases that I had been assigned to so far. We had a house girl to clean our rooms, shine our shoes, and do some cooking. We had a swimming pool just behind our barracks, a miniature golf course just to the front, an NCO club, a movie theater, tennis courts, hand ball courts, and an awesome view of the mountains. Time passed fast and my short-timer calendar was getting shorter.
Orders came down that we were being pulled out of Phu Cat and being reassigned to Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon for the remainder of our tour. After packing all our things and moving, we found out that we would be living off base at the three-story Merlin Hotel in Saigon. A shuttle- bus took us to and from the base every day. The hotel was located behind a bar named “The Blue Bird.” I spent many an evening there!
The missions out of Saigon were mostly into Cambodia, around the river system. The ancient ruins of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom were awesome! Something else that was awesome was the fact that I had an R and R due me and I could take it any time now. I took my week to Sydney, Australia, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to go down under.
Back to the war after seven days in Aussieland, my time in Vietnam was really getting short. Combat missions were becoming more intense, our bus was being fire-bombed, and we were told to move back on base. When I finally climbed aboard that big “Freedom Bird” to fly home, I had mixed feelings. I was leaving behind a lot of good buddies, but my tour was up and it was time for me to return to the real world.
When our plane finally touched down in California, there was a feeling in the plane that I just can’t explain, the stillness in the air, not a sound. When the wheels stopped rolling and the doors opened, we knew we were really home again!
From San Francisco, I flew into Los Angeles where we were met by some really angry people who spit on us and called us Baby Killers. They really made us feel at home! I did inform one young man that I had been protecting our boys on the ground in Vietnam just 24 hours earlier, so he could have the right to stand there and do what he was doing. I think I kind of got to him, because he just hung his head and walked away. Later as I was getting on my plane to Kansas City, the same guy came up to me and shook my hand and said, “Sorry, Man. I was out of line.” I didn’t get his name, but I remember his face to this day.
My next duty assignment was Eglin AFB, Florida and that is where I decided to separate from the Air Force. I graduated with an Associates of Arts degree in Business Administration at Chanute Junior College and then enrolled at Pittsburg State Teachers College in Pittsburg, Kansas. I was working on my B.S. degree when I met a pretty girl who was after her Mrs. Degree and that ended my college career. Today, I live on a small lake outside Chanute, Kansas. It’s been a good life with all the memories, and the gunship years were probably the most exciting ones of all.