A Low Level Airdrop Mission At An Loc RVN 18 APRIL 1972
As a USAF Major I was a flight navigator assigned to the 374th TAW Standardization and Evaluation Section, otherwise known as STAN EVAL at CCK AB, Taiwan from March 1971 to Aug 1972 flying missions out of CCK to Vietnam and various locations in the Pacific area. Vietnam activities were primarily out of C-130 Det 1 Operations at Tan Son Nhut AB Vietnam as well as the infamous HERKY HILL at Cam Rhan Bay. During this time frame a situation developed at the small provincial capital of An Loc, Republic of Vietnam (60 miles north of Saigon) in the spring of 1972 that I was to be a part of longer and in a significant way far greater than I could have imagined before it was over. The significance and magnitude of this particular phase of the Vietnamese experience would in time prove to be bigger than many others in the military realized as well. To tell this story I have used my personal notes and memory that has a way of fading with the passing of time but has been clarified and made more vivid by conversations over the course of time with others that were involved in the mission in various ways. The reunion at Little Rock AFB in April 2005 was one such time of clarification for me as well as the Tactical Airlift reunions held at Galveston Island since the Little Rock AFB reunion.
Without repeating all the military/political lead up to the An Loc situation in the spring of 1972 by the NVA and the eventual entry of the USAF C-130’s being used for the Tactical Air Drops at An Loc I’ll tell my part as a crew navigator. Little did I know at the time however that my involvement in airdrop re-supply to An Loc would increase far beyond my humble imagination, first as a crew member making a low altitude tactical airdrop and getting shot down in a C-130 and surviving but latter being the Briefing Officer for all High Altitude Airdrops in South East Asia, but first things first!
Almost immediately upon my arrival in country (A term used by USAF and other services for arriving in Vietnam) 15th of April, 1972 I was asked by an Air Force Col. in the 7th AF Airlift Office at Tan Son Nhut to evaluate the limited intelligence coming in from the An Loc area. In a very short time reviewing available Intel with the help of USAF Intel NCO, Sgt. Colley, it was evident the same tactics used by the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu where the French were defeated nearly 20 years previously were being employed at An Loc. Strange as it may seem I had just recently read Bernard B. Fall’s Book “Hell In A Very Small Place” which was about the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. From this reading I formulated the idea that rather than make low altitude air re-supply air drops it would be necessary to make the drops from a higher altitude because of the intense AAA (Anti Aircraft Artillery) and small arms fire the planes making the airdrops encountered. Since it was the same North Vietnamese General Giap that commanded the Viet Minh now commanding the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) with the intention not to allow any re-supply to the defenders of An Loc militarily compound, the Anti Aircraft Artillery (AAA) and small arms fire was extremely intense. With this bit of information I provided about the French situation at Dien Bien Phu the Col. at 7th AF suggested I brief my Wing Commander, Col. Andy Iouse ([Pronounced, Awes-Way] eventually becoming a 4 Star General), who was scheduled to fly a low level airdrop mission the following day, 16 April, 1972. I was taken to Col. Iouse’s quarters where I went over my assessment of the current intelligence on An Loc with Col Iouse and his Co-Pilot, Major Ed Brya, also a 374th TAW Stan Eval pilot (Later promoted to BG and has provided his personal account of the An Loc affair earlier at the website), with my idea of the high altitude airdrops. Col. Iouse was attentive but decisive, it was to late to make any changes for the next days airdrops, my briefing was terminated and I returned to C-130 Operations.
The following day, 16 April, 1972, two significant things happened; 1 – Col Iouse and crew returned from a successful mission with but one bullet hole in his aircraft, just forward of the most forward bulkhead in the aircraft which is just forward of the pilots’ rudder pedals in the cockpit or to be a bit more descriptive that would be about 12 inches in front of the Col’s feet as he was flying the aircraft, 2 – Airdrops for the 17th were cancelled. During this lull in the C-130 activities I spent the day at operations looking over the terrain features on the maps of the An Loc area reviewing current intelligence coming in from An Loc and generally discussing possible tactics for any follow-on missions that may come up. Sometime in the afternoon of the 17th I was advised that I would be the guest navigator on a crew making a drop at An Loc the following day, 18 April, 1972 (the Nav I replaced went on leave to Hong Kong with his wife) I didn’t know the AC (Aircraft Commander) from the 50th TAS of the 374th TAW out of CCK AB Taiwan, Capt. Don Jensen and Sgt Ralph Kent – Flight Engineer, (FE) who was part of his regular crew. In addition to myself as guest Navigator (NAV) being placed on the crew from the 374th TAW Stan Eval Section was, Major Leigh Pratt flying as CP (Co-Pilot) who I had never flown with prior to this mission, rounding out the crew was the Senior Loadmaster (LM) Sgt Ralph Bemis also from the 374th TAW Stan Eval (Sgt Bemis and I had flown together on several missions at Sewart AFB, TN and Little Rock AFB, AR prior to our arrival at CCK) and Airman Charlie Armstead LM, Sgt. Bemis asked Amn Armstead to fly along to help out on the mission for aircraft ground rigging and in-flight procedures.
I remember very vividly arriving at the aircraft on the far side of the main runway with all the piles and piles of supplies, loading equipment, riggers moving about, the activities in the area were like a beehive only without the buzzing. All of a sudden the realization hit me, this wasn’t just a training mission. I suppose everyone has the same or nearly the same question, will I be able to do my job when things get a little heavy. We also found we would have an extra body onboard, a Sgt Kiem an ARVN soldier riding along to keep a watchful eye on the South Vietnamese assets loaded in the back of the C-130, Sgt Kiem didn’t speak one word of English. I only knew a few Vietnamese words, Vinegar and oil (dressing for a diner salad) [I’ll try an Anglicized pronunciation of “yo - yum”], wouldn’t be of much help under the circumstances.
All the preliminary stowing of equipment was routine until I came to the flak vest part. All the other crew positions had a nice new lightweight Kevlar flak vest hanging on the seat back or in the immediate vicinity of the crew position with the exception of the Navigator. There on the lower crew bunk were two pieces of heavy metal, not any reference to a musical group, shaped like the breastplates of an ancient suit of armor and weighed in at least 50 pounds. One piece for the front and one for the back held together over the shoulders and sides by web straps. I fitted this modern day system of torture and tied it back down on the lower crew bunk. I don’t remember ever wearing it again as the weight and bulk would seriously limit the movement I would need in the cockpit during the DZ run in.
Take Off (T.O.) and Start Engines check list were complete, the CP made a call to Ground Control with the Call Sign (CS) of Manta 75 (Actual Tail number was 63- 7775) for taxi instructions from our position on the far side of the runway, in normal operations the CS “SPARE” was used to indicate C-130 aircraft, a slight mental adjustment was made for the change. During one of our briefings we were given Escape and Evasion (E&E) individual Call Signs, something else not normal in our everyday operations, for our crew positions; AC – Manta 751, CP – Manta 752, Nav – Manta 753 and so on. Without any delays we were cleared for Taxi then on to the runway 24R and T.O. with a right climbing turn on course.
I had planned on using both the Tan Son Nhut and Bien Hoa TACANs to track out 030 radial till intercepting the planned DZ run in route. But as Bobby Burns wrote about the best-laid plans of mice and men, neither TACAN would lock on, so much for good navigation planning. But as a tertiary plan (a large word used by navigators when nearly lost) fortunately there was a significant mountain peak approximately 75 nautical miles north of the desired run in track, which I could see on my RADAR. With some simple calculations of bearing and distance I was able to determine a rough position, (mountain peaks are not very precise as a RADAR fix) at the run-in track interception we turned to the run in heading and set up an orbit pattern. The navigation difficulty in this area is that there is nothing but trees covering the ground; no visible rivers, roads or man made build up features for an accurate map reading fix to determine any lateral displacement or distance to run in relation to the DZ on the run in track (keep in mind this was before GPS).
The 20 and 10 minute warnings for the drop checklist were called on the climb out to the DZ run in track, as we turned inbound I called the 6 minute warning. We were ready and on our way, all we needed was clearance from the Area FAC (Forward Air Controller) it was at this time things started going further south.
We were supposed to follow a B-52 Arc Light Mission anticipated to be near 1200 hours local time, all during the climb out and establishment on the briefed inbound track; no radio traffic had been noticed that would indicate such activity to any aircraft in the vicinity of An Loc. When the CP contacted the area FAC to let him know we were ready for our part of the day’s activities, the FAC pilot was totally unaware of our mission. An attempt was made by the CP to use secure radio contact procedures with the FAC at which time we were informed by the FAC he didn’t have time for all that and eventually gave us clearance to drop at three zero past the hour (1230 Local time – just after High Noon), this was all in clear text on a non-secure radio frequency. Our position was such that from my estimated position we would arrive about 2 minutes before 1230, in my judgment by not having a positive position fix anything we did to adjust time could add unneeded confusion, getting to the DZ was the primary concern at the time. In addition of not following the Arc Light Mission, we were supposed to have fighter escort off our wing tips during the run in to the DZ to suppress any ground fire we were sure to encounter, it was obvious that we would not enjoy this bit of luxury either. Another aspect of our mission we wouldn’t be aware of until much later was that an ARVN Ranger position I that had been located near the run in track had been overrun by NVA forces a short time before we flew over the position, further compounding our difficulties with ground fire.
While establishing communications with the FAC we were orbiting leisurely at 1,000 ft AGL (above ground level) at 200 Kts, as mentioned before with all the current confusion I felt it would be best to just press on from present position and go with the 2 minutes early time rather than try any further time adjustments as I wasn’t absolutely sure of our actual position to determine a good distance/time to run that could be lengthened later if necessary but difficult to speed things up, nothing but tree tops in the area, so we were off to see the Wizard.
The pilots took up the run in heading, 301 Magnetic, descending to 100-200 ft AGL accelerating to 250 kts (According to an after mission report by the AC, Captain Jenson, the run in altitude was 25-50 ft AGL). A short time later I could see a village water tower sticking up above the tree tops just to our right and told the pilots that we should be approximately the same distance right of the tower as we were to the left of the tower on heading of 301. As the water tower at Ap Soc Tranh went by the left wing at the desired distance of approximately 600 ft, I noted the time approximately 26 past the hour, about one minute to slow down with a total of 2 minutes to the DZ; the estimated time of 28, two minutes early, was holding good. Normally we do a lot better on actual time over target (TOT) however it was still my judgment that the time element was the secondary concern in this case, getting to the DZ being the primary concern. The next minute of the flight was uneventful as we came upon the village of Ap Van Hien with a well-defined roadway running north to south. Simultaneous Slow Down and One minute warning was given approximately 10 seconds past the N-S road.
Flaps were set, power reduced with airspeed bleeding off to desired drop airspeed (130 Kts is normal but today it was up around 140-150 Kts) while climbing the few hundred feet to drop altitude of 600AGL and opening the ramp and door so the load can exit the aircraft (this all happens rapidly and in the proper sequence). We started taking some sporadic ground fire nothing very intense at this point, but just as we were getting stabilized at altitude and airspeed I noticed an orange flash on the horizon at our 1230 position about 3 miles out; in a voice about 2-3 octaves higher than normal I made the announcement on interphone to the crew; “We’re taking fire at 1230 – three miles”, about that time the aircraft made a significant jump with the sound of metal to metal contact, ground fire intensity started to increase drastically at the same time. With the ground fire and the orange flash we would discover later that the AC Capt Jensen and the 2nd Loadmaster Airman Charlie Armstead lost their interphone capabilities about this time, leaving both without the ability to communicate with or receive any information with the rest of the crew. Sgt Ralph Bemis the Sr Loadmaster immediately went to work scanning the damage of the AAA hit from the cargo area and informing the crew of the situation as he saw it from his vantage point.
Sgt Bemis reported the damage on the right side indicating we had a big hole, about the size of a basketball, on the right wing between number 3 and number 4 engines with fuel and the fire going well past the tail of the aircraft. We were still inbound to the DZ and had less than a minute to go when Sgt Bemis indicated he would probably need to jettison the load as things were heating up in the back of the acft, THE LOAD WAS ON FIRE, I told him to hang on as long as he could as we were about to the DZ. About this same time I looked out the left cockpit window and noticed an NVA tank with the hatch open, pennants on the antennae and a NVA tanker standing in the hatch with his pith helmet on looking up at us; I waved at him and he returned the wave. I knew we were on track to the DZ as the tank’s tube was visually parallel to our track. I was just about to announce “GREEN LIGHT” (the command by the navigator to release the load at the computed air release point [CARP]) when Sgt Bemis indicated he was jettisoning the load because it was on fire and exploding in the cargo area, the actual release of the load was made very close to my anticipated call.
For the record I couldn’t with any certainty say where the load impacted on the ground, one such report indicated it was one of the few loads that did land on the DZ while other sources indicated with great certainty that it didn’t impact on the DZ. I was also told after the siege of An Loc; over a bottle of Jack Daniels Black at my BOQ by one of the American Advisors, Major Jack Todd USA Abn Ranger who was on the ground at An Loc, that some of the loads even on the DZ were not recoverable due to the intense fire from NVA troops surrounding the Military Compound and Soccer Field, doing all they could to deny the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) forces the supplies with intense concentrated fire. Often with ammunition in the supplies providing secondary explosions making recovery all the more difficult for the ARVN to recover the load. Recovery of a 2,000-pound CDS (Container Delivery System) bundle under normal conditions is no easy task but while being shot at, with secondary explosions, the normal heat of the day, limited food and drinking water supplies, load recovery could be a challenge.
When the Loadmaster reported load clear things really started to accelerate for us as the ground fire was extremely intense; Sgt Ralph Kent the FE (Flight Engineer) very calmly announced; “pilot, we are loosing oil on number 3 engine” and in a calm voice as if it were just one of those things one encounters while flying everyday the CP, Major Leigh Pratt, said; “when we start loosing oil pressure let me know”. At the completion of that conversation between the CP and FE, I gave the escape procedure command of; “Take up heading 180 and climb!” when that command was complete and the pilots started the heading change the FE announced; “we’re loosing oil pressure!” CP announced the command; “Pull number 3 T handle”, which was pulled (Pulling the “T” handle shuts down the engine by stopping fuel supply, CO2 is discharged to extinguish any engine fire and the prop goes to the feather position). An effort was made to climb and accelerate with the idea of blowing the fire out, none of which worked.
The intense ground fire we encountered sounding like a shooting gallery at a carnival was subsiding and the situation with the fire and aircraft control brought up the subject of Bail Out. We were in the vicinity of Chon Thon (approximately 10 miles south of An Loc) which during our pre T.O. Intelligence Briefing it was indicated there was a significant concentration of NVA in that area; my immediate verbal response to the Bail Out idea was lets hold on as long as possible due to the NVA in the area (I didn’t feel we would be very welcome guest of the NVA and even if we were I was not particularly interested in being a guest at the Hanoi Hilton). It must have been a good idea as there were no more suggestions of bail out; I noticed the AC – Captain Don Jensen – giving it his all, putting full left rudder and right aileron input to maintain wings level for aircraft directional control.
While all of this was going on Sgt Bemis was trying to open the paratroop doors with no luck, both were jammed, when the ramp and door were open the fire from the right wing was whipping back into the cargo area – fire and parachutes are not good combinations. It appeared we made a good decision not to bail out. All during the mission and especially since taking ground fire it seemed as if we would solve one problem and two more would pop up. It is without a doubt the combined actions of all the crewmembers anticipating and reacting to the needs at hand without any hesitation or need to have any in-depth request for action by the pilots that we were able to stay ahead of the various emergencies that kept popping up.
Sgt Bemis continued to scan and report the situation with the fire and condition of the wing from his vantage point in the cargo bay, also in a rather high pitched voice, when all of a sudden he announced in a very calm voice; “There goes the wing flap on the right side”, just very matter of factley, no obvious excitement noted in his voice. As mentioned previously we would get one problem under control and another would come up, we started loosing hydraulic pressure for the flight control boost all about the same time causing the pilots to be even more focused on the latest problems which in all likelihood would soon increase in intensity. For the first time the realization that we possibly wouldn’t get out of this came to my mind, however in about the same instant I was able to rationalize that if this was the way it was to be it would be but I wasn’t going to give up or just quit trying, maintain a can do attitude and keep the grim reaper at a respectable distance.
Sgt Bemis made another announcement to the fact that the right aileron was leaving the right wing, the fire seemed to be spreading more on the length of the wing and globs of metal were rolling off the wing. This must have been about the time an Army helicopter recon team saw our plane and thought we could use some help as they noticed the fire going past the tail and parts of the aircraft shedding off the wing. We were not aware of their sighting us until later in the day, we were not in anyway involved with each other’s activities, and they just happened to be in the area and saw us go by.
Back in the cargo area Sgt Bemis had just moved from the right rear paratroop door where he was scanning and reporting the situation of the wing. As he walked forward of the right main wheel well the walk around Oxygen bottle located on the aft side of the wheel well exploded as well as the right rear main tire, leaving a gaping hole on the right side of the aircraft, Sgt Bemis was also keeping the grim reaper at a distance. With his report of the fire spreading on the wing, metal rolling off the wing with white smoke visible (white smoke in an aircraft fire is not a good thing, it indicates a magnesium fire that won’t go out till it is all consumed) I was convinced it was time to find a place to set the bird down and quickly. I noticed the pilots were both very busy trying to maintain altitude and directional control.
The AC, Capt Jensen had the flight controls still fully deflected trying to maintain directional control the CP Major Leigh Pratt, the only pilot that had interphone capability and was adjusting symmetrical engine power to maintain wings level. I looked around for a clearing and dead ahead of us was a clearing that appeared level and free of trees. I announced on interphone it was time to land “ASAP” and that we had a clearing just in front of us, the CP looked over the instrument panel and seemed to acknowledge my suggestion to land at which time I turned and started to strap in my seat, in the full down position and facing forward. As I was pulling the shoulder harness over my shoulders to interconnect with the seat belt our Vietnamese ARVN Sgt Kiem came up on the flight deck with a bandage in his hand. He wanted me to help him put it on a neat bullet hole midway between his knee and ankle on his left leg. Since we were about to touch down I said “NO” and motioned for him to get back down the steps to the cargo area.
At best our altitude was at a maximum of 500 ft AGL (Above Ground Level) when I started to strap myself in my seat and getting the ARVN Sgt to go back down the ladder to the cargo area. Several things were going on up front that I wasn’t fully aware of till some days after the event. The pilots were beginning to really have some serious control problems since the right wing was melting off as we flew, including the right aileron and flap being gone, flight control hydraulics were gone making holding the wings level and aircraft directional control a real challenge with rudder and aileron. Before actual touch down we made a 120- degree heading change going toward another clear area less than a mile away from the original spot I had indicated as the place to land. The last thing I remember about the pilots before touchdown the AC with a lot of effort was holding full left rudder and full aileron control trying to hold the wings level. The significant aspect of the entire thing was just prior to touch down the right wing started to drop significantly, if the landing aircraft has a wing tip touch down before the rest of the plane, disastrous results can be expected (like a cartwheel and aircraft disintegration). However just prior to touch down the CP was adjusting symmetrical power and the right wing came level almost simultaneous as we touched down and we were going straight ahead. With rice paddy dykes and craters from artillery or ARC Light bombing the crash landing was not very smooth.
As it turned out we had landed down wind instead of the preferred into the wind but even that turned out to be rather fortunate for us since the aircraft made a180 II degree turn with the nose of the aircraft facing into the wind and all the smoke from the aircraft fire was blowing back toward the tail section. Again we were lucky because the wind was light and kept the smoke away from where everyone was located in or near the aircraft after the crash landing without fanning the flames making recovery so much easier.
I was strapped in with the seat facing forward, fully down and locked, shoulder harness and seat belt all secured. During this short span of time which seemed to be an eternity I was hanging on to the navigators desk with all my might, things were flying all around the cockpit and I was just about to give up trying to hang on when all the motion and noise stopped, a deadly silence settled over the airplane. The airplane was burning, a lot of smoke was in the vicinity but the cockpit appeared to be fairly clear of smoke, the AC and FE were not on the flight deck when I was attempting to untangle myself from radio cables that had wrapped around me and the seat during the crash landing and there was an eerie cry for help coming from the cargo area, “Don’t Leave Me” – it was Sgt Ralph Bemis the Sr Loadmaster who I later found with his feet near Station 245 and his body angled 30-45 degrees toward the left side of the aircraft with all sorts of debris on top of him.
I was having difficulties with the seatbelt release, it would not release in the normal fashion, I got my knife from the pocket on my flight suit (this particular knife in addition to a straight blade also has a specific blade to cut parachute II risers in the event the parachute quick release doesn’t function if an when one were to bail out) I started cutting seatbelt and the radio cords from the portable FM radio that had been installed in the bookcase just over the navigator’s table. During the crash landing the FM (commonly referred to as the Fox Mike radio for contact with ground troops) had come loose and wrapped power cords and microphone cords around me and must have rendered me unconscious for a short while as I don’t have any recollection of the AC or FE departing the flight deck. The FE indicated he had exited the aircraft through the overhead hatch that was located just to my left and behind me; he would have had to be within a foot or so of my position by using the overhead hatch which makes a lot of noise when removing the hatch, the AC, Captain Jensen, exited through the front cockpit swing window without his parachute on (no small feat as the window is rather small and the AC wasn’t).
Fortunately for Sgt Kiem the ARVN soldier was able to hang on throughout the crash landing about mid way down a 3 1/2 foot ladder that goes between the flight deck and cargo floor level. When the aircraft came to a halt the nose gear was collapsed and under the aircraft, the crew entrance door had been torn off, all he had to do was step out onto the ground that was level with the lower floor. The AC, Capt Jensen, once outside the aircraft noticed Sgt Kiem unable to walk so he picked him up and carried him away from the aircraft and eventually to one of the rescue HUEY’s that would pull up off the aircraft nose; again remember we had landed down wind, did a 180 turn before coming to a complete stop so the II nose of the aircraft was clearly visible out of the smoke that was blowing toward the tail of the aircraft. Capt Jensen later relayed to me his thought was one of the Cobra Helicopters may have mistaken Sgt Kiem for an unfriendly and do him in, in picking him up would take care of that potential problem.
I was still in the aircraft getting myself extricated from the seatbelt, shoulder harness and radio cords while hearing the eerie cry from Sgt Bemis to not leave him. I finally got clear of all the various things keeping me in my seat, I looked forward to see a Green Brain Bucket (The head gear flight crew wore in combat situations but was not usually worn by the C-130 slick crews) at the CP position, the Co-Pilots head was bent forward and motionless. My immediate thought was that Major Pratt was dead, as his head was not moving and bent forward. I got up took the few steps necessary to get behind and to the CP’s right side and said Leigh! When I notice he was also having difficulty getting his seatbelt released the same as I had experienced. He was trying to get the seatbelt release to release and saying in a very casual voice; “Beautiful, Just friggin beautiful” (I am sure he was not using the infamous “F” word so many would associate a military person of using). He seemed to be OK so I turned to go down to the cargo area to see what I could do help Sgt Bemis.
Aircraft Positions in the aircraft are given as Stations related to a reference datum plane usually so many inches aft of the datum plane. The back wall of the II flight deck and the forward wall of the cargo area are located at a common point, referred to as Station 245. Sgt Bemis and Airman Armstead had taken up positions and had braced for the crash landing between Station 245 and the buffer boards that are installed to prevent forward movement of the drop load. The buffer boards also provided an additional thickness of material from the small arms fire coming through the floorboards. In theory their idea was sound with the exception of one little fact.
During the crash landing with the wheels hitting soft ground, rice paddy dykes and craters the aircraft slows down much faster than it was designed to do; therefore considerable pieces, parts and various equipment from the back part of the cargo bay comes loose and is slammed into Station 245 then as the aircraft decelerates to a stop all the loose items that slammed into Station 245 falls down. In this case on top of the two loadmasters, pinning Sgt Bemis to the floor with a broken arm and ankle but leaving Airman Armstead free and relatively unhurt. Armstead attempted to dig Sgt Bemis out of his predicament with no success and found it necessary to exit the cargo area through a large hole in the right side of the aircraft for some fresh air due to the smoke in the cargo area, he exited and re-entered several times not wanting to leave his fellow loadmaster.
I went down the ladder and immediately saw a pile of twisted metal and an assortment of other aircraft parts all on top of Sgt Bemis. I made an attempt to clear things from Sgt Bemis but it seemed to be an impossible task as I couldn’t II move anything and started bleeding rather vigorously from cuts on my forearms and hands from the jagged, sharp edges of the various pieces of metal I was trying to remove. After some time in my attempt I decided we would need some outside help in extracting him from his position so I went out the crew door opening and walked a few steps to about the nose of the aircraft and promptly found myself up to my chin in water.
I had stepped into one of the craters that had filled with water with a thick covering of elephant grass on top. I figured it would be best to just stay there and try to call for help on my SAR (Search and Rescue) radio from that position keeping a low silhouette in case someone was looking for a large upright target to shot at. During my winter survival training in the mountains of Washington in March the previous year it had been stressed to be very careful when you extended the antenna of the SAR Radio as the antenna would come all the way out, rendering the radio unusable. So with all this in mind I very carefully pulled the antenna out until I felt the slight resistance on the extended antenna; I then keyed the mike button to make a MAYDAY call (I didn’t remember hearing any MAYDAY call on the aircraft emergency frequency prior to crash landing), as I keyed the mike to make the call several things happened simultaneously. The first and very depressing thing was the antenna fell off and went PLOP into the water, a bad thing; next I heard a helicopter approaching from the front of the aircraft, a good thing, and I started to climb out of the watery hole I was in and just got clear of that when I heard this very loud swishing sound. At first I felt the II aircraft was exploding from the fuel fire but I no more than had that thought and another sound was noted, another rocket being fired by a COBRA overhead. I found out the next day the guy in the COBRA – Call Sign SABRE RED was, Capt. Don Gouch USA – F/9 Air CAV, who for the past many years has been one of my main HEROES.
I eventually made it to the HUEY that had pulled up to 50 yards or less of the 130 and I entered on the left side took up a reclining position on the left side behind the Mission Commander Capt Robert Franks and next to the Crew Chief Sp4 Bruce Shearer who was manning a 30 Cal door gun. I was the last 130 crewmember onboard followed by Sp4 Bruce Shearer at the left door gunner position, the pilot was pulling in pitch and I immediately started hollering; “we can’t leave – we still have people inside that need help!” when SABRE 20, WO Robert Monette or Buffalo Bob, in the green brain bucket that occupied the right seat turned around revealing a beautiful very red handlebar mustache and a pair of light blue eyes, then in a very calm voice; “that’s alright Major they have him out” SABRE 20 became another personal HERO of mine. At the same time I saw our CP, Major Leigh Pratt, pulling Sgt Bemis to the other HUEY that had pulled in behind and to the right of the one I was in. With that I relaxed my thought of pulling my snub nosed S&W .38 to prevent leaving without the CP and Loadmaster. The AC, Capt Jensen with the ARVN Sgt Kiem, FE Sgt Ralph Kent, 2nd Loadmaster Amn Charlie Armstead and myself were onboard the HUEY, we II lifted off headed for where I had no clue, Major Pratt and Sgt Bemis were following in the other HUEY.
We had just lifted off when both door gunners, Sp4 Bruce Shearer on the left and Sp4 John Deslarious on the right side started firing the .30 cal machine guns. We later found out that someone had seen fire coming from a tree line, which the door gunners were trying to suppress; SABRE RED in the COBRA took care of the tree line with some more rockets. Climbing out Amn Armstead indicted his right arm hurt and wanted us to take a look at it, someone grabbed his left arm and he let out a serious ouch, so we took a knife and slit his left sleeve which revealed a nice neat bullet hole in the fleshy part of his upper arm just above the elbow. I later found out that Amn Armstead wouldn’t leave the downed 130 till ordered to do so by Major Pratt, and was found by Sp4 Shearer near the back of and on the right side of aircraft sort of aimlessly wandering about in some of the smoke. Sp4 Shearer was the HUEY crew member that had the job of getting out of the HUEY to make a close up visual of the wreckage, I also found out much later that he was positive that he would find a group of mangled bodies in the wreckage and not knowing the fate of the survivors was something that was to haunt him for 32 years, which is when we met at the coffee shop of Luke AFB, AZ in 2004 that story later.
The immediate destination was Lai Khe that was only a few miles away from the crash site. We had to change HUEY”S as the first one was getting very low on II fuel (The HUEY pilot, SABRE 20, indicted his fuel quantity indicated 90 pounds remaining). Four engines on a C-130 with 90 pounds of fuel would be in the neighborhood of a minute and a half of run time. With the HUEY’s remaining fuel it wouldn’t allow a flight all the way to the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon (for many years I didn’t remember changing aircraft at Lai Khe).
Upon arrival at the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon we all scrambled out of the HUEY’s, we walked thru a little gate then to the hospital emergency. I had waited till Sgt Bemis was removed from the other HUEY on a stretcher, as he passed by me coming off the other HUEY he raised his good hand to clasp mine and said; “We made it!” Then we all walked, limped or were carried into the emergency room. There I noticed Sgt Kiem with his trousers removed exposing the fresh bullet hole in his leg he had wanted me to apply a bandage to just before impact. It was also evident from the scares on both legs that he had been through this drill before as there were many healed wounds on both of his legs. Since only Sgt’s Bemis, Airman Armstead and Sgt Kiem had wounds requiring immediate attention and hospitalization the rest of us wandered out of the hospital and found a ride over to C-130 Det.1 at Tan Son Nhut.
On the way to Det 1, we somehow managed to stop at a PX where I picked up a six-pack of Olympic beer in the familiar rusty cans. Upon reaching Det 1 I had 3 maybe 4 cans remaining of the six pack, Col. Iouse was seated at a desk and I casually walked up, put my 3 or 4 cans of beer on his desk and sat down and II said; “Now we have to go high.” This was in reference to a conversation I had with him when I first arrived in country some two days before at his quarters, the night before his low level airdrop mission to An Loc the 16th of April. The Col’s generous reply was simply “BOB – go have some more beer and we’ll get back with you on that in a few days.”
The Follow Up
After leaving Det 1 and arriving at the BOQ, Major Pratt asked me if any of the medics had checked me over and my reply was NO, he indicated that he hadn’t been looked at either and said; “I think we should check each others backsides to make sure everything is intact where we can’t see.” So in the latrine we pulled off our sweaty, dirty flight suits and made a quick visual examination of each others backsides, with the word from both of us regarding the other that everything looked OK. We both started laughing and ended up on the floor of the latrine laughing so hard that tears came to our eyes. After taking a shower, composing myself a bit and getting dressed to go to the O-Club to meet with the AC, CP and FE for drinks and dinner. As I left the BOQ I passed by a rose bush where a honeybee was collecting nectar, a process I stood and watched with great fascination for a rather lengthy time; I now have greater understanding of the saying “Take time to smell the roses”.
The following day while at the 3rd Field Hospital to visit Sgt Bemis and Amn Armstead I encountered a young Army Captain, Marvin Zumwalt, who was on a gurney off to one side, who according to the ward orderly had nearly every bone II in his body broken. The story of his being saved from NVA capture by an AC- 130 Spectre is another magnificent story; I have made a few feeble attempts at contacting the young Army Capt. with no positive results. While at the hospital I went down to the main floor and found an Air Force Sr. Sgt that was assigned to the hospital and told him of the previous days activities and asked if I should get a tetanus shot which he agreed I should have, we went to a nearby room with a refrigerator containing the serum and he gave me a tetanus shot.
I wanted to see the Vietnamese Sgt Kiem and found out where the hospital was that he was taken. Major Ron Harris another Navigator from the 374th accompanied me to the Vietnamese hospital where the ARVN guards were very hesitant to let us enter, I later found out that it was not common for an officer to inquire or look in on an enlisted man. After some time we were admitted and there was considerable activity trying to find the duty Dr. who was finally located in the emergency section, which had sawdust and oiled wood floors just like the old-fashioned meat markets of my youth. The good Dr. spoke only Vietnamese and French, as mentioned previously my Vietnamese is non existent but after several years in Canada I was able to explain in my poor French who we were there to see and why, through the Dr. we found out that Sgt Kiem was about the same age as myself and he had two children a boy and a girl again like myself. I had intended on leaving Sgt Kiem some cigarettes but after watching the activities of the Ward I felt it would be in his best interest and safety to forget the cigarettes. After a few more pleasantries we left through the amputee ward. Any one that feels slighted by living in the U.S. of A. or who complains about the II American medical system I would highly recommend spending some time in a 1972 Vietnamese Military Hospital.
The following day I was on my way back to CCK, within a day from my arrival at CCK my entire body became black and blue from the banging around I received during the crash landing, still no contact with any medical personnel, big mistake.
After the incident of the An Loc Low Level exercise a practical high altitude air drop system was developed by 374th flying personnel along with the help from parachute experts from TAC, CCK aerial port and U.S. Army’s 549th QM C0. (Aerial Delivery). Then later 70 additional men came to Tan San Nhut from the 549th to assist the Vietnamese with rigging chutes and loads using ring slot chutes that allowed very accurate delivery of supplies (Similar type chutes are used as a drogue chute on high-speed landing aircraft and eventually by automotive dragsters to help in a rapid deceleration). The first part of May I became the Sr. Briefing Officer for all USAF C-130 high altitude airdrops in SEA as this new method of delivery was instituted, till the arrival of Col Billy Mills and the 61st TAS AWADS Squadron out of Little Rock AFB in late May early June 1972.