Leonard Eugene “Gene” Van Over, Pilot
17th SOS, Tan Son Nhut, 1970-71
I was born in McPherson, Kansas on August 25, 1944. I was an Air Force brat. My father was in the Army Air Corps when I was born, stationed in England fighting the Nazis. He was a Nose Gunner and Bombardier on a B-17 “Flying Fortress”. I started college at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. At the advice of my father, I signed up for ROTC. Little did I know that this would be a rewarding decision in my future. I received a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration with a major in Marketing and a minor in Management from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas in 1966.
Upon graduation, I was immediately commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the USAF and assigned to Laredo AFB, Texas for pilot training. One year later, I earned my silver wings and was assigned to fly KC -135s at Altus AFB, OK. But first, I attended advanced pilot training at Castle AFB, California to learn to fly the KC-135. Then, I was sent to Altus, flying co-pilot and promoted to 1st Lt. I spent three years at Altus, but was gone from home almost 9 months every year. I had two TDY assignments to Thailand, pulled alert at Altus and Goose Bay Labrador about 10 days every month, and was able to travel to Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, Spain, and numerous stateside bases. After 3 years, I was promoted to Captain and received my regular commission.
I spent six months in Ohio (Wilmington and Columbus) training to fly the AC-119G gunship prior to departing for Vietnam. During my tour of duty in Vietnam from November 1970 to September 1971, I was stationed at Tan Son Nhut AB, Saigon with Fighting C Flight of the 17th SOS. I flew 187 combat missions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and 10 Air medals as well as other decorations. Following are some of my combat missions and experiences in SEA that I vividly recall:
We were on a night mission out of Tan Son Nhut heading toward Cambodia; we had all lights blacked out except for the top beacon. I noticed a red light at 12 o’clock. I immediately flipped on the landing lights to see a Vietnamese-piloted C-47 coming straight toward us. The Vietnamese and I both broke left. They were so close I could see the pilot’s slanted eyes as he flew by us.
A Shooting Story
I remember one-night mission when we were named C Flight Shadow Shooter of the Week! During this mission, I was taking my instructor check ride from Col. Strickland. The NOS located multiple campfires in an area known to be occupied by the enemy. We pulled off of the target and made multiple radio transmissions to ensure there were no friendlies in the area. Once this was confirmed, we returned to the target area and opened fire with all four guns at high rate. The next day, we received confirmation from friendly ground forces that we had 600 confirmed kills.
A Lucky Day
On a late afternoon mission out of Tan Son Nhut, I had a substitute co-pilot (my regular co-pilot was Ralph Lefarth at that time). Our Flight Commander, Col. Teal was in the jump seat for this mission. We had a normal preflight and engine run up but immediately after calling for gear up, the right engine failed. We tried to lighten our weight by launching some of the flares, but that proved too slow and we didn’t want to start any fires on the ground (too much paper work). We flew out about 4 miles, never reaching an altitude of more than 150 feet. The left engine was starting to overheat so we slowly turned back toward the base, managing to obtain an altitude of 200 feet prior to final approach. We were able to land safely. They gave us the night off; we were pretty shook up.
Distinguished Flying Cross
On another afternoon mission, we were called by a Cambodian ground commander that his location and his village were being overrun by a large number of enemy forces. We confirmed the location of the friendlies and bad guys and drove the enemy back from the village, causing a high number of enemy casualties. During this mission, we took three fifty-caliber hits during the firefight but we were credited with saving the village and our Cambodian friends. We were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for our efforts.
I was one of the Instructor Pilots chosen to train the Vietnamese to fly our mission and prior to my departure from Southeast Asia, was awarded a Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry medal for my efforts.
The AC-119G was the most enjoyable airplane that I ever flew. This aircraft was truly a ‘fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants’ airplane. No auto-pilot, no high-altitude airways. The Esprit de Corps we shared with our crew throughout our tour cannot be duplicated ever! One person, in particular, that I always remember is fellow Shadow pilot, Bill Carter. Bill passed away about 17 years ago after fighting what we assume was the effects of Agent Orange that he was exposed to in SEA. Bill left a loving wife, son and daughter.
After my Vietnam tour, I resigned from the Air Force to seek my fortune in the civilian world. Unfortunately, the airlines were not hiring in late 1971. Since I couldn’t find a job flying, I tried my hand at the beer business. For the next 33 years, I worked in the beverage industry. I eventually retired from the beer business and worked as a general manager for a furniture company in 2003. In 2006, I decided to call it quits and I retired permanently. This is definitely the best job I have ever had.
I was married twice before and have a son, Cory and a daughter, Debbie; both are now adults. I have 2 grandchildren, Miranda and Collin and one great grandson, Jeremy. Today, I am happily married to my third wife, Cindy, and we reside in Rutledge, Tennessee. I enjoy working in the yard, touring the Smoky Mountains National Park and looking outside at the view from our Tennessee Mountain home.