As I write this, it is August 22, 2015. Tomorrow is the anniversary of three important events of my life – August 23, 2003 was the day we buried my father, August 23, 1954 was the birthday of my youngest sister Shirley and on that same day Lockheed’s C-130 Hercules took to the air for the first time. While the first two are events of my life, the third was the one that, some ten years later, would begin to affect my life in a profound way.
I was eight years old the day the YC-130 took to wings for the first time, but as the son of a World War II airman and the nephew of an Air Force pilot, I was part of an “air-minded” family. Earlier that year, an Air Force C-119 had crashed on the outskirts of the county seat – http://www.sammcgowan.com/c119.html – and seeing the place where four young men and an airplane died made an impression on me. Whether or not I was aware of the event in far-away Burbank, California that day I can’t say but I know that within a few years I was well aware of the new Air Force transport called the C-130. My first “association” with it was probably when I bought a Revelle model of one in the Ben Franklin Store in nearby Milan, Tennessee. By that time, Sewart Air Force Base, Tennessee, where my dad was last stationed during the war, was home to two C-130 wings. We sometimes heard and saw them fly over, although they were usually at high altitude and I couldn’t tell much about them. They were easy to recognize because of their distinctive sound, they were jet-props and even though they were powered by jet engines, the engines turned large propellers that gave them a sound like that of some kind of machinery.
During my senior year at Trezevant High School (not the one in Memphis – the one in Trezevant, Tennessee), I applied for a Congressional appointment to the new Air Force Academy. I didn’t get the appointment – it was a competitive appointment and another boy received it – but as a result I saw a C-130 up close for the first time. My dad was injured in an automobile accident the day before I was to go to Sewart for a flight physical so my Uncle Larry took me. We drove close to the flight line where a C-130 sat just across the fence with all four engines running. I was back at Sewart a few months later for more examinations and saw more C-130s, and the men who flew them. Some were officers but some were young enlisted men only a few years older than myself.
After my high school graduation, I enlisted in the Air Force. After basic training and mechanics training, I was assigned to Pope AFB, NC where the 464th Troop Carrier Wing was transitioning into the C-130E after several years of flying C-123s and C-119s. When I went in the Air Force, I wasn’t particularly interested in C-130s but after I got to Amarillo for maintenance training, I decided it wouldn’t be a bad idea to be stationed at Sewart since it was only a little over 100 miles from my folks. I also wanted to fly and the best means for an enlisted man to go on flying status was to be assigned to transports since bomber crews were mostly officers and I wasn’t excited about tankers. I arrived at Pope a few days before Christmas 1963. I had to go through several more weeks of training before I would work on those beautiful silver airplanes but I was finally given an assignment as a member of the post dock crew in periodic maintenance. However, a few months later I had an opportunity to fly and I took it. Fifteen young mechanics were selected to crosstrain into the aircraft loadmaster career field and be assigned to flight crews and I took it. It was the best decision I’ve ever made. I left the maintenance squadron and went to the 779th Troop Carrier Squadron. Once again, I had to go through training but once I had completed the six-weeks loadmaster training course, my training was in the air. Actually, I had been placed on flying status just before the course started and made my first flight one Sunday afternoon while I was in it.
After ground training and the award of the loadmaster Air Force specialty code, I was qualified for basic aircrew duty as a loadmaster/scanner. Then the fun started. Pope was a Tactical Air Command base in those days and the mission of TAC was combat. Although TAC transports weren’t armed, we had a combat mission which was to deliver US Army and Marine personnel into combat and resupply them either by air-landing or airdrop. Air-landing was fairly simple for everyone on the crew but the pilots, who had to be proficient at maximum performance landings, but airdrop involved training for us loadmasters in the rigging and operation of the airdrop mechanism. Rigging and inspection of loads were performed by loadmasters assigned to the 3rd Aerial Port Squadron, which was separate from the wing administratively but attached to it for operational duty. Aircrew and aerial port loadmasters went through the same training but squadron duties were different. Aircrew loadmasters were assigned to an aircrew while aerial port personnel were assigned to sections in their squadron and while they flew, it was to supplement a “formed” crew from a squadron. Our training consisted of a couple of paratroop training missions – which were very simple as all the loadmaster had to do was open the paratroop doors and extend the jump platforms then retrieve the static lines – and a number of cargo drops. TAC C-130s were not equipped with the 463L cargo handling system at the time. Instead, the “dual rails” were kept in storage and installed in the airplane prior to a drop or palletized cargo mission and it was the loadmaster’s job to install them. It was a pain in the ass. Eventually, TAC got smart and made the rails part of the airplane’s extra equipment but by that time I was no longer in the command. We also made a drop using the old “skate wheels” conveyor system that dated back to the C-82. One skate wheel drop was of a platform and one was of containers.
Tactical training missions were flown at low altitude, as in at 300 feet above the ground normally and 500 in the mountains. Now, Rising heat causes turbulence and we were subject to it. The airplane bounced around as we flew a training route and a lot of people got sick. Fortunately, I wasn’t one of them. Although I got nauseous, I never threw up. The drops themselves were thrilling to watch. An extraction parachute would deploy into the slip stream and pull the load out behind it. The load would just be setting there then all of a sudden it started moving and was gone. Some drops were double and triple extractions of multiple loads. They were even more thrilling to watch. After the drop, we usually went back to Pope or to the assault landing strip on Fort Bragg where the pilots practiced takeoffs and landings. Once we had completed all of the tactical training requirements, we new loadmasters were designated as “combat ready” and assigned to a crew.
A TAC C-130 crew consisted of five men, two pilots, one designated as the aircraft commander, a navigator, a flight mechanic and a loadmaster. On cargo drops, a second loadmaster was assigned, usually from aerial port. On flights recovering at another field where no C-130 maintenance was available, a member of the ground crew would be assigned to accompany the airplane to take care of it on the ground. Although they were on aeronautical orders for hazardous duty pay, ground crew were not members of the flight crew. They had no inflight duties or duties of any kind pertaining to the flight. Their job was to take care of any maintenance items while the airplane was on the ground. Early in C-130 history, the flight mechanic worked on the flight line when he wasn’t flying but that soon changed when crew duty day requirements were established. Another member of the ground crew flew as a scanner but that also changed and scanners were relieved of flight line duties. By the time I started flying in the summer of 1964, scanner and loadmaster duties had been combined and scanners were done away with except in the “school squadron” at Sewart.
Once I was assigned to a crew, I was gone from Pope most of the time. My new crew consisted of Captain Marvin “Gene” Shoupe, AC; Captain Cornelius J. Carney, copilot; Lt. Dereck J. Eller, navigator; A1C Don Sweet, flight mechanic and me. By that time I had been promoted to airman second class. Our first mission was a week dropping experimental loads at the joint Army-Air Force A&E board across the ramp from our squadron. The 779th has just assumed a rotation at Evreux, France and right after the A&E Board stint, we deployed. We deployed a week early because a squadron crew was killed in a night training accident. The loss hit the squadron hard. I knew all of the crewmembers well. We were only in France for about three weeks because the White House decided to mount a bombing campaign against North Vietnam and additional C-130s were needed in the Far East. A squadron from Pope had deployed without notice to Kadena AB, Okinawa and we were to relieve them. From then on, my overseas C-130 flying was all in the Pacific except for a trip to the Congo later that year through Recife, Brazil (where my profile picture was taken.)
Flying in the Far East involved mostly flights into Southeast Asia, although by the time our crew got to Kadena, the deployment of troops to South Vietnam was in a lull. We made our first trip into South Vietnam; it was the first for everyone but Capt. Shoupe, who had come to Pope after a year flying C-123s out of Saigon. On July 4, 1965 we left to return to Pope. When we got back, the crew went on leave then came back to Pope expecting to go on rotation to the Congo. However, the White House decided to terminate the Congo mission so we only went over to pick up cargo and personnel and return them to the United States. Right after that, the 779th deployed to Mactan, a tiny island in the south central Philippines just off of Cebu. This time, we got our fill of flying in Vietnam. We also spent two weeks in Bangkok flying around Thailand. We were on a mission into Dong Ha, an airstrip on the demilitarized zone that separated Vietnam into two countries, when I took the above picture. Although we didn’t know it, we were hit by ground fire that day. I found a bullet hole in our left flap when we got on the ground at Mactan. Some of our missions were taking troops into South Vietnam. One mission took the Korean Tiger Brigade from Seoul to Qui Nhon. We were “Chalk One,” meaning we were the lead airplane. The Korean general rode on our airplane, along with his staff, which included his private nurse. Another mission was a week at Vung Tau shuttling Australian troops who had just arrive by ship to their new base near Bien Hoa. We set a record for the most cargo ever carried by a C-130 in a single day during that move. It was something like 350,000 pounds. We flew 24 sorties that day, with most of them only ten minutes in the air. One more would have qualified us for an Air Medal. (I was told by the officer in charge of the operation that I was being put in for a Bronze Star for that week’s work but if I was, I never got it.)
When I got back to Pope after the leave we took after our Mactan tour, I got a shock when I walked into the barracks and the clerk, Willy Singletary, told me that orders had come in for me. I was going to Naha, Okinawa. I had escaped a mass relocation when the 776th left Pope for the Far East on a permanent assignment. Some of my buddies went but I was held back to go into a new mission involving special C-130s. Somebody in TAC personnel thought otherwise and when a sudden need for loadmasters developed at Naha, I was picked for one of two loadmasters from Pope. The other was John Kilcher, who was in 3rd Aerial Port. We were supposed to leave immediately but I had to take a flight evaluation check flight first. Personnel told me to go home and wait. Overseas assignees were supposed to have a 30-day leave but when I left Pope, it was with the expectation of only being at home a few days. However, the travel office at Pope had a hard time getting a seat for me on a MAC flight out of Travis AFB, California due to the volume of personnel traveling to Southeast Asia and elsewhere in the Pacific. I finally went over on a commercial flight out of Seattle, along with a whole passel of loadmasters who, like me, got special orders and were supposed to be high priority. When I got to Naha and reported to my new squadron, the 35th Troop Carrier Squadron, I learned that the reason for my sudden transfer was because the four Naha squadrons were heavily involved in classified missions that required more than one loadmaster. One mission, dropping flares over North Vietnam and Laos, required three additional personnel. Maintenance personnel had been supplementing the crew as flare kickers but someone in a higher headquarters feared that an airplane might be lost and the loss of men who were not supposed to be flying would cause problems.
PSP ramp at Cam Ranh
At Pope I had been flying brand new C-130Es. The 6315th Operations Group at Naha flew C-130As. The A-models were the original C-130s and some of those on the Naha ramp were already ten years old. While there was no difference in operations, the A-models had different systems and were lacking in amenities such as underfloor heat, which meant they got really cold at altitude, especially in the cargo compartment. They were also extremely noisy. When I go to Naha, only a handful of airplanes had yet been painted in camouflage colors. Most were still unpainted, except for a few that had gray anticorrosion paint. After a trip to Cam Ranh Bay to shuttle ammunition into Tuy Hoa and Ban Me Thut in support of some operation, I flew a couple of leaflet missions, one over North Vietnam and another off of North Korea, a trip to Gifu, Japan to take an airplane for paint and pick up another – with some of those “this never happened” missions in between – I went to Ubon, Thailand for the flare mission. The mission had originally operated out of Da Nang but had moved to Thailand shortly after I got to Naha. It was an interesting and potentially dangerous mission. We were shot at it every night, at least we could see it. We were shot at all the time in South Vietnam too, but that was with small arms. The folks in North Vietnam had big stuff although most of what we saw was 37-MM. http://www.sammcgowan.com/flareships.htm
While I was at Ubon, we got word that the 6315th and the 815th TCS at Tachikawa, Japan had started rotating to Cam Ranh. I wasn’t happy to hear the news. I’d been to Cam Ranh, once while TDY to Mactan when the sand dunes were so high you couldn’t see anything but the aluminum runway, and then the two weeks there right after I arrived at Naha. For one thing, Cam Ranh was restricted in that personnel were not allowed too leave the base. There wasn’t anything there anyway, no towns, no bars, no whore houses like there were in Saigon and places like Vung Tau and Nha Trang. It was basically just one big pile of sand. For the next year, most of my time was split between Cam Ranh and Bangkok, where the 6315th had picked up the Bangkok Shuttle, with a few days at Naha in between (usually very few, not more than three.) Our flying was either scheduled passenger runs or flying cargo from Cam Ranh or Da Nang – sometimes from Saigon or Bien Hoa – into forward airfields where the Army and Marines had established bases. Dong Ha was a frequent destination. Nearly all of the airfields had paved runways; some were old French or even Japanese airfields and some had been built by Army engineers using pierced aluminum planking or the old Marsden Matting from World War II. There were experiments with “membrane,” which was some kind of rubberized material that was sprayed over dirt to keep down the dust. I don’t recall going into very many, if any, dirt runways during my Naha tour. A few weeks after I got to Naha, a crew from the 41st suffered a malfunction while landing on the old French airfield at Tuy Hoa and ran off the end of the runway into a ditch. Another C-130A that had been modified to carry drones had a similar malfunction while landing at Bien Hoa and as a result, all C-130As were restricted to paved runways with a combined landing distance – including overruns – of 4,000 feet.
Cam Ranh Sunrise
Although Viet Cong took potshots at us every time we flew, our flying was generally “routine,” although routine in Vietnam was a lot different than routine flying anywhere else. We carried a lot of body bags, so many that eventually most people got used to it. Once in awhile, a Viet Cong gunner would get lucky and hit an airplane. One of our crew was hit and a passenger was killed. I had a Marine died on my airplane after we picked him and a couple of dozen others up at Dong Ha one night when we were sent in there on an emergency air evacuation mission. The poor guy was the reason for the mission, him and that the airfield was under attack and the local field hospital was over capacity. We were shot at by AK-47s going in and going back out, but weren’t hit. The Marine died about halfway between Vung Tau and our destination at Da Nang. When we got back to Cam Ranh at daybreak, there was so much blood and gore on the airplane floor that I had to wash it out with a firehouse. The crew chief stuck his head in the door then turned around and started puking. The fire department guys took one look and handed the hose to me. I washed the blood and water run off the back of the ramp. One night we landed at Tan Son Nhut and when the aerial port people came out to meet me, they asked if we knew we were being shot at on the way in. I said no, and they said they had watched us come in and that there were tracers following us all the way to the airfield boundary.
Ubon, Spring 1966
My enlistment was due to end while I was at Naha so I agreed to extend for six months so I’d get an assignment when my tour ended. Then I decided to reenlist. I reenlisted at Cam Ranh while I was there on duty loadmaster duty. It was a good thing I did because my place of enlistment for my second tour is shown as being in South Vietnam, which saved me a lot of hassle when I applied for a VA disability due to diabetes caused by exposure to herbicides (Agent Orange). My assignment came in. I was going to Robins AFB, Georgia which came as a surprise to me because I didn’t know there were any airplanes there that used loadmasters. It turned out there was a former Logistics Command squadron there which operated C-124s, but I soon learned that it was converting to C-141s. I left Naha thinking my C-130 days over. I was wrong.
After leave at home in Tennessee, I reported to my squadron at Robins in early September. When I walked up to the door, another loadmaster dressed in fatigues met me there. We recognized each other instantly. It was Stony Burk, who had ridden with me to France over two years before. Stony was stationed in France and had been home on leave. He’d married a French girl and stayed in France then moved to Mildenhall, England. He’d just returned to the States. Almost a year later to the day, Stony and I got orders back to C-130s, only this time to Clark Field, in the Philippines. We were supposed to be at Sewart in two weeks to start C-130 training but MAC got a waiver for the two of us because we had previous C-130 experience. We remained at Robins until November. I left the night before Thanksgiving to go on leave prior to attending survival school in Spokane, Washington right after the first of the year. Stony and I decided to drive out together. We ended up on the same airplane to Clark and when we reported to the 463rd Tactical Airlift Wing, we found out that we were going to the 29th Tactical Airlift Squadron, which was commonly known as F Troop.
The Air Force had re-designated all of its troop carrier units as “tactical airlift” just as I was leaving Naha. The 29th had formerly been at Forbes AFB, Kansas where a SAC B-47 wing was shut down and it’s personnel transitioned into C-130s. The 29th was one of eight TAC C-130 squadrons that transferred to 315th Air Division in the Far East in late 1965 and early 1966 and was the least experienced. The squadron had so many accidents and incidents that it came to be known as F Troop after the TV series that was popular at the time. As I was getting on the airplane in Memphis on my way to Clark, I had a premonition I wouldn’t be coming back. When Stony and I found out we were going to F Troop, I was convinced. At it turned out, the 29th was the best assignment of my USAF career.
Since we hadn’t gone to Sewart, Stony and I arrived at Clark unqualified because we’d been out of C-130s for over a year. A special training program was set up for us, which meant we spent two weeks at the local field training detachment bullshitting then took a check ride. The first thing we did was fly a training mission a few days after we got there. When I walked into the cargo compartment of that C-130B, I felt that I had come home.
During the 18 months since I left Naha, a lot had changed in Vietnam, particularly with the C-130 force. A year before I got to Clark, all hell broke loose when communist troops attacked Khe Sanh then launched their Tet Offensive. The war rapidly escalated and was reaching its peak just as I got back in it. I found that I had suddenly become a hot commodity. A lot of new loadmasters were arriving at Clark but I was the only one with previous 315th Air Division experience except for some who had been TDY from TAC during the Tet Offensive. I had over two years experience in SEA under my belt. Consequently, the squadron lost no time in not only checking me out, but upgrading me to instructor. A few days after I got to Clark, I went in-country with a crew whose AC was TDY to 834th Air Division as an airlift mission commander. The engineer was Chick Anderson, with whom I would become very close. Chick told me that the 463rd was starting a new mission dropping 10,000 pound bombs. That crew had flown the test drops several months before.
Freddie Banks working on flat tires
The first crew I was assigned to had a real lulu for an AC. I want mention his name but he was the worst aircraft commander I ever flew with, at least in C-130s. One day he screwed up big time when he ignored the engineer’s advice and took an airplane with a low tire into a dirt strip at a Marine base in I Corps. We blew two main gear tires and a Marine colonel ended my AC’s flying career. Another AC was sent in to finish the shuttle and when I got back to Clark, I learned that I was going right back in country to check out on the bomb mission, which was known as COMMANDO VAULT http://www.sammcgowan.com/bomber.html
Dropping bombs was interesting, if not downright fun. I had visualized turning the C-130 into bomber right after I started flying at Pope when I was on a local and had nothing to do but sit in the cargo compartment and daydream. Now I was actually dropping bombs and they were big ones. I still flew cargo missions and an occasional passenger missions but bomb dropping was what I did most.
I finally had a good crew with a great AC. Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to last. Through a comedy of errors in which I wasn’t involved due to having gone in country early to replace another loadmaster, my crew were busted back to student status and I was without a crew. That’s when I got on Howie’s crew. https://tennesseeflyboy.wordpress.com/2015/07/24/howi-the/
My eighteen months at Clark turned out to be some of the best days of my life, At Naha, I had been gone from home most of the time but at Clark we got more time at home, in part because we had formed crews that flew together nearly all of the time. Because we were a highly qualified crew and a bomb crew, most of our missions were into forward fields along the Cambodian border. After I’d been at Clark for a little over a year, I was asked to extend and go to Stan/Eval. I did but then PACAF disapproved the extension because they said I was too close to my date of my return home to extend. I was told that the wing could pull some strings because of my experience and qualifications but then my orders came in and they were to Charleston, SC which had been my first choice on my dream sheet. This time when I left Clark, I was leaving the C-130 forever. It had been a great time.
To read more about my flying experiences – http://www.sammcgowan.com/haulingtrash.html
To read more about the C-130 – http://www.sammcgowan.com/trashhaulers.html