Xavier G. “Cook” Villarreal, Navigator
18th SOS, Da Nang, Bien Hoa, and Nakhon Phanom, 1972-73
I graduated from the Air Force Academy in June 1970. My first assignment after navigator training was to the 18th Special Operations Squadron at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, with TDYs to Da Nang and Bien Hoa. I spent the rest of my Air Force career in SAC tankers. I retired from the Air Force in 1990. I live in Englewood, Colorado and work as an Aircraft System Instructor for United Airlines.
I arrived at NKP in May 1972 as a lieutenant NOS operator. NKP was an interesting air base with a fleet of airplanes that were almost all World War II vintages – lots of propellers and hardly any jets. Troops in contact missions were my most memorable missions.
Some of the highlights that I can remember:
One of the more memorable missions was at Bien Hoa, working a “troops in contact”, referred to as a TIC, at an American Special Forces camp – their call sign was “Jack 512”. I remember we worked them three nights in a row – it was pretty heavy, pretty intense. They were eventually overrun, but the good news was apparently all the Americans got out. They suffered some casualties, but about two days later we found out that after we worked for them three nights in a row with three gunships on station each night, those folks were able to get out, even though they were overrun and they took a lot of casualties. That was one mission that stood out.
Another incident that happened out of Bien Hoa – I remember we were taking off on 27L and I was flying with Larry Barbee that night. We were starting to take off – and at about 70 knots I remember very vividly there was a huge roar in the airplane. I was sitting on the tunnel upstairs, which was kind of a seat facing forward that puts you in a little bulkhead, and my head slapped the right side of the fuselage and then the left side of the fuselage (we wore these huge helmets). I just heard this roar, and the airplane stopped very suddenly. It turned out that as we were getting ready to rotate for take-off, the left engine went to full reverse thrust. We had full power on the right side, and full reverse on the left, but we had a great, great pilot by the name of Buck McCants, who was a Check Pilot. He was evaluating the co-pilot, apparently, and he recognized the malfunction immediately. But in that split second between the time he caught the malfunction and threw the right engine into full reverse, we had already skipped about 150 feet off the runway centerline and the left main gear was taking out all the runway lights. As I remember, after we came to a stop, nobody said anything – we just kind of sat there for 30 seconds; then called the tower and told them we had aborted the take-off, and that we were leaving the airplane on the runway. We just left the airplane on the runway with all the lights on, and walked straight to the bar, and kind of recovered there. In hindsight, we were not as afraid then as we were a couple of hours later; and it turned out we had about 18 propellers that had a malfunction with the oil mechanism in the reverse mechanism, and they grounded the fleet for a day to fix the problem. We were real lucky. In hindsight, I guess about another 30 seconds later things might have turned out dramatically different.
Another time we took off, again out of Bien Hoa, which always seemed to be a kind of interesting to fly out of, and we noticed on takeoff that we hit something, or felt something. It felt like the left main tire kind of went flat suddenly, and all of a sudden got air back into it. It just seemed to bounce. It was noticeable because it was abnormal. But everything worked fine. We checked everything out. After we took off and as we were up there orbiting over Bien Hoa, checking our computer systems and bore sighting the guns, we got a call from Bien Hoa tower asking us if we had noticed anything on the takeoff roll, and noticed something, a bump maybe. They said, “Well, we just had a Vietnamese A-1 call back about 20 minutes ago, saying he had lost a bomb on the runway 27L, and he finally decided to let us know.” That was the runway we took off on. In hindsight, we realized we’d taken off and run right over the bomb. Fortunately, it had not fused – it just dropped off the airplane, so it was not fused to explode; but that kind of shook us up. That was about 500 pounds of TNT we ran over, that didn’t go off. Sometimes I think we led some kind of a charmed life, mostly with guys like Gary Hokanson and Bruce Waylon and Gordy Pollock and some other good folks –really good folks.
I remember different personalities. There was a gentleman, a fellow FLIR/NOS named Bill Robinson – we called him Bunker Bill Robinson. Bill was terrified of rocket attacks, as all of us were, but Bill would build elaborate bunkers around his bed. He would take 30 caliber ammo cans, fill them up with sand, and build them up about 5 feet high around his bed. There was a little entry way, and it was even shaped like a letter “L”, so you kind of had to think of an igloo to get into his bunker. Every time we had a rocket attack, we would all sprint down to Bill’s room and try to get about six of us in his little bunker, but there was no way we could get in there. Another gentleman we knew was Rollie Clardy, who had a reputation of being terrified of rocket attacks, so he was notorious for wearing not one flak vest, but two flak vests! One facing forward, and it was zipped up, and one facing backwards. And he would sprint from bunker to bunker enroute to the briefing. He would never ride the bread van because he was terrified he’d get caught in it, so he would literally sprint from bunker to bunker, and that was his tour.
Rocket attacks were probably the most terrifying thing. It was, I guess, the realization you couldn’t control what was happening. You had no control over the outcome. And Charlie would usually fire them in a string of 6 or 8 rockets, and they would impact sequentially. They would start off in the distance, and as they got louder, you knew they were getting closer. But if you heard all of them, and then heard the “all clear”, then you knew you were going to be all right. Generally, if you just heard them walking, and you knew they were going to hit close to you, you could hear the impacts about every two seconds apart. And I’d always try to be in the air flying where I’d be able to do something, rather than go through the rocket attacks on the ground– it was disconcerting, to say the least.
A highlight was that on Sundays, in the afternoon, we would always get together and barter our brass from our 20 MM to our local Vietnamese military, and they would give us these boxes of steaks. They were Iowa ribeye’s, 120 steaks, 100 pounds to each box, and we would get charcoal from the Vietnamese, and we’d get French bread. I was tasked to cook the pinto beans, so I’d start the night before – I’d get about 20 pounds of pinto beans – my mother and my grandmother would send me boxes of pinto beans and salt pork, and I was the pinto bean chief. We’d invite our mechanics – they were in the tough tents that didn’t have air conditioning like we did, so we’d invite them over for free steaks, free pinto beans, French bread, and beer. And I tell you, those steaks were some of the best steaks I ever had. All we had was butter and soy sauce, but every Sunday afternoon we’d invite our enlisted guys; and all the officers would pick up the bill and THAT was always a highlight. We always had good pinto beans, good French bread and good steaks, and lots of Carlings Black Label and Pabst Blue Ribbon – that’s about it, as far as the beer went – it was always stale, but it tasted pretty good if it was cold enough. That was a highlight.
Regrets – I have no regrets; I was totally ignorant, I was very young. I had no idea what I was getting into. Vietnam is a beautiful country. I’d like to go back there sometime. Lots of mixed memories. I lost a lot of my classmates over there in the war, but all in all, it was an interesting time. It’s been many years, but at our Reunions it’s always good to see my friends and some of the guys I flew with!