Body Bags and Aluminum Coffins

IMG_0113After I published my article the Red Blood of Patriots, one of my friends commented that “these stories need to be told.” In that article I wrote an experience I had one night when my C-130 crew was diverted to an emergency air evacuation mission out of Dong Ha. There is another side to that story, and the story of the Vietnam experience as a whole, and this is my attempt to tell it – the transporting of the dead.

As a boy, I was not fond of graveyards and didn’t want to be around dead people. I was exposed to a graveyard every day at Lavinia School because the local cemetery was adjacent to the school yard. Some of my ancestors are buried there but it still bothered me. As for the dead, I once feigned sickness to avoid going to the funeral of a man I knew well and respected. Fortunately, there weren’t a lot of funerals in my family and circle of acquaintances although I did lose a few friends, one to a tragic accident when a hole he and some friends were digging into the side of a gulley fell in on him, a girl to leukemia and a boy who was hit by a car. I didn’t go to any of their funerals. As for graveyards, I finally got up enough nerve to wander through the cemetery at the church on the other side of the woods bordering our property and look at the old tombstones, but I was older by then. All of that changed for me, along with a lot of other things, in Vietnam.

The Air Force had two terms for the dead. Those who were killed on the battlefield or died of wounds were referred to as KIAs before they were transported to a mortuary. After they had been embalmed or processed – there were many who couldn’t be embalmed – they were called human remains. KIAs were transported in olive drab rubber battle bags; human remains in aluminum shipping coffins. I saw a lot of both.

I don’t remember the first time I transported a KIA in a body bag. It was sometime in the fall of 1965 when my squadron was TDY to Mactan, a tiny island ofnd f of the Philippines island of Cebu, from our home base, Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina. I know I was traumatized, which is probably why I don’t remember it. I no doubt picked it up at some airfield and carried it to either Da Nang or Saigon where the US had mortuaries. Originally, there was only one and it was operated by the Air Force at Tan Son Nhut but as the US role changed to ground combat, a second was established at Da Nang. I don’t believe the Da Nang mortuary was open yet because the first body bag I remember came out of there and went to Saigon. The flight wasn’t memorable because of the body bag, it was memorable because I also had a Vietnamese coffin on board and the deceased’s grieving young widow accompanied it. Vietnamese coffins were made of aluminum and weren’t that well made. Vietnamese undertakers put bodies in coffins partially filled with sand or something, and the bodily fluids tended to leak. When we got to Saigon, the US Graves Registration ambulance was there to meet us but the South Vietnamese were nowhere to be seen. The girl – she was around 19 or 20 – became hysterical while we were waiting and started trying to open the coffin. I was about ready to pull my .38 but she finally calmed down.

There was one flight with a body bag – it may have been the one with the grieving widow – I remember because I had become so used to carrying them that I sat on a nylon seat in the back of the airplane next to the litter with the body bag and ate my flight lunch.

My crew went back to Pope a few days before Christmas and I went on leave. When I got back, I learned I had overseas orders. I was going to Naha, Okinawa. I knew it meant more Vietnam flying. I got to Naha on a blustery Monday evening in February. The following Sunday I went to the newly opened air base at Cam Ranh Bay on a special mission for two weeks of flying in South Vietnam. I was flying with an instructor loadmaster because this was my first flight in the C-130A – I had been flying C-130Es and there were some minor differences so I had to be signed-off. We shuttled ammunition from Cam Ranh to Ban Me Thout and Tuy Hoa in support of a large operation. One morning we had a passenger on a sortie to Ban Me Thout. Although passengers were not normally allowed on flights with Class A ammunition, a waiver had been issued. The passenger was an Army Specialist Sixth Class. I remember what he looked like – he had dark hair and was wearing dark-rimmed military issue glasses – but I didn’t talk to him much. We dropped him off with the load and went back to Cam Ranh for another. That afternoon, we went back to Ban Me Thout. The ground radio operator – we called the forward field operations Transport Movement Detachments or TMD at that time – advised us that we’d be carrying a KIA on the outbound flight. By this time, I’d hauled quite a few KIAs and was used to the sight of body bags. The air freight guys brought the litter on and put it down at the front of the airplane and I wrapped straps around each end and ratcheted them down. As we were taxiing out, George, my instructor, said on the interphone that the KIA was the same Spec 6 we had brought in that morning. Now, I don’t know it if was or not. I do know that Spec 6s were not that common.

For the next 18 months I spent most of my time in either South Vietnam or Thailand. I have no idea how many I carried, but KIAs in body bags and South Vietnamese aluminum coffins were common. Fortunately, the number of Vietnamese coffins declined. I’m not sure why, but I believe there was some kind of policy change and that Vietnamese became responsible for transporting their own dead. It was fine with me. We didn’t have KIAs on every flight or even on most of them, but it was common to go into an airfield and take a KIA or two out. Since the KIAs were going to Saigon and our operating base was Cam Ranh Bay, we probably didn’t carry as many as the crews operating out of Tan Son Nhut did.

One night I was on a mission to Pleiku, a large base in the Central Highlands. An Army Chinook helicopter that crashed there the day before. On the way in, we were advised by the ALCE (the name of the Transport Movement Detachments had been changed) that we were carrying the remains. The helicopter had exploded. We came out of Pleiku with the remains of five men in a single body bag. Everything Graves Registration could find was lumped together. There was about a 5-pound lump inside the bag, and there was the odor of a meat market in the air. I’ve never forgotten that smell.

My four year enlistment was up at the end of my tour at Naha but I decided to reenlist. Believe it or not, my job as a loadmaster was a decent job. My new assignment was to a Military Airlift Command squadron based at Robins AFB, Georgia. The squadron’s primary mission was transporting nuclear weapons and they were in the process of transitioning out of Korean War vintage C-124’s to brand new Lockheed C-141s. The C-141 was essentially a jet version of the turboprop C-130, but it was longer and could carry ten pallets of cargo while the C-130 carried six. Our mission was transporting nukes and I flew nuke missions but we also flew Military Airlift Command “channel traffic” missions, and most of them went to Southeast Asia. We often had human remains as our cargo on the way back.

MAC used the crew stage system. Instead of keeping the same airplane all the way to our destination and back home, we flew different airplanes in stages. We’d take a squadron airplane from Robins to an onload point, usually Dover, Delaware, then proceed to Elmendorf AFB, Alaska where we’d surrender the airplane to another crew and enter the stage. After crew rest of some 15 hours, we’d pick up another airplane and take it to the next stage point at Yokota AFB, Japan. We’d crew rest then take another airplane on to its cargo’s destination, usually an airfield in either South Vietnam or Thailand. Most went to one of three airfields in South Vietnam – Cam Ranh Bay, Da Nang and Tan Son Nhut at Saigon. We’d then go to our next crew rest stop at Kadena AB, Okinawa. From Kadena we went to Elmendorf. After Elmendorf we’d take an airplane to it’s home base, hopefully to Robins but as often as not we’d go to one of a number of MAC bases on the East Coast then catch a scheduled shuttle back to our home base. Airplanes coming out of South Vietnam often came out empty, but those that went to Saigon as often as not came out with a load of human remains.

In the Vietnam years, human remains were transported without ceremony. There were no flag-draped coffins and no escorting officers. Human remains were considered to be cargo and were handled as such, with certain conditions. Air Force policy was that human remains were always loaded in the airplane headfirst and they were loaded so they’d be the last item on the airplane to be jettisoned. (I never heard of a C-141 crew ever jettisoning anything.) I believe there was a MAC policy that only three coffins could be loaded on a single pallet and they could be stacked no more than three coffins high. These coffins were not typical coffins. In fact, they were actually shipping containers and they were virtually identical to other shipping containers used for other items. The only way to know they were for human remains was – well, there really wasn’t a way. I suppose they were all unpainted aluminum. The name of the person’s whose remains were in the container were recorded on documents contained inside a plug on the end of the container.

Human remains went to one of two places, Travis Air Force Base, California or Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. That’s where the two military mortuaries were (and still are) located. Since we were East Coast, any human remains we carried were Dover bound. I was later based at Dover and remember the building well. It was a non-descript facility located by itself just off the flight line. Military morticians removed the remains from the aluminum coffins and placed them in cardboard containers for shipment to mortuaries near the deceased’s home. They were then transported to Philadelphia International and turned over to the airlines. A special unit at Dover provided escorting officers and enlisted men to accompany the remains.

We could pick up an airplane with remains anywhere from Saigon to Elmendorf. I don’t remember going into Saigon and picking up remains myself, but I do remember getting airplanes at Kadena with remains. We’d try to get a Robins airplane at Elmendorf but sometimes we’d get a Dover airplane and take it to its home base, and they sometimes were loaded with remains. Now, most of the time, there were only a few remains on board, anywhere from one or two to a dozen. There were times, however, when we got on an airplane and learned that it was practically full. Since number one pallet position was normally kept open, a full airplane would have eight pallets (human remains weren’t loaded in the last pallet because it sat at a slight angle on the ramp.) Each pallet would be loaded with up to nine containers, a total of 72. During the 1968 Tet Offensive, we often had several pallets of nine on board.

Some of the other crewmembers were distressed because of the remains we carried. It didn’t bother me. We were carrying processed remains of men who had been embalmed and prepared for shipment. The only odor was of embalming fluid; it smelled a bit like a funeral home. I had carried so many KIAs in Vietnam that I’d become desensitized to them. I was about to get another dose.

I’d only been at Robins for a year when a message came in that I was going back overseas. I was going back to C-130s, but this time I’d be at Clark AB, Philippines on the C-130B. I knew that the B-models had been bearing the brunt of forward field operations. The message came in toward the end of September but the squadron managed to get a waiver for C-130 training because I had previous experience so I didn’t have to depart until the end of November. I reported to my new squadron at Clark in February 1969. I was twenty-three years old and had been in the Air Force for six years, and had almost five years flying experience. The war had changed during the time I was at Robins. Conditions were worsening when I left Naha. The intensity of combat had peaked the previous year but it was still high, and US forces were still taking heavy casualties. We were flying into forward airfields like the one shown above, which I believe is Bu Dop. Bu Dop was one of about half a dozen airfields along the Cambodian border that we frequented, as in nearly every day we flew.

We didn’t pick up KIAs every time we went into a forward field but we did often enough. I remember one conversation with a young airman who had come over from Robins with me. He was having trouble dealing with carrying KIAs. I told him to not think about them as dead soldiers, that what we were carrying was what was left after the soul departed. (I believe I referred to the remains as pieces of shit, since vulgarity was common in the military. After I said it, I wished I’d used a different term.) That must be how I dealt with it because I have no problems from carrying so many dead, but I know men who do.

The most pathetic KIA I ever carried was the body of a young nurse. The girl had been killed in a communist sapper attack on a military hospital. There is a discrepancy in my recollections and the records shown on the Internet of women killed in Vietnam. Only one woman is shown as having died as a result of enemy action. First Lieutenant Sharon Case was killed on June 8, 1969 at Chu Lai. My recollection is that the girl whose remains I carried was killed at Cam Ranh during an attack on the Army 6th Convalescent Center on Thursday, August 7, 1969. The convalescent center was just up the beach from Herky Hill where we stayed when we were at Cam Ranh. The flight engineer and I were in bed in our quarters when we heard the sound of explosions. We went out on the balcony of our barracks and saw the fires burning and heard firing at the Army facility. Helicopters were flying low over us. The next morning, as I was on my way in to C-130 Operations, I ran into Fred Sowell, one of the detachment loadmasters who was assigned permanently at Cam Ranh. Fred told me that a nurse had been killed the night before and I was taking her body to Saigon. He said her body was in a refrigerated CONEX container.

I went on out to the airplane to preflight and check the load. A little while later, an aerial port truck came out with the body bag. He back up to the crew entrance door and we brought the litter in through it and I tied it down. God only knows how many KIAs I’d carried by this time – there were dozens and perhaps even hundreds. This one was different. The body in that bag was that of a young American girl, the object of every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine’s eye. The aerial port people, the airplane’s ground crew and the rest of my crew all came to take a look. I looked at the name tag, which was something I rarely do. I did not unzip the bag to take a look – I never did that. The girl’s name came out in Stars and Stripes a couple of days later.

Now, I am almost positive that the body of the nurse I carried was of someone other than Lt. Lane. Lt. Lane was killed on June 8, a Sunday. I am pretty sure that was the day I departed Clark for my first shuttle with my new crew. I know I had been in country in late May and early June to check out on the delivery of the M-121 bomb (that’s another story). We were still in country on June 23 when another significant accident occurred and we left for Clark the next day. The only explanation I can think of is that the death of the nurse was classified because Cam Ranh was supposed to be a secure base and her name somehow slipped through the cracks. Some would say, “people would have known.” Actually, the only reason I knew a nurse was killed was because I carried her body. The attack occurred at 1:00 AM and we took off for Saigon with the body around seven hours later. Graves Registration had taken the body and transported it to the aerial port on the West Ramp and it was put in a CONEX until it was brought out to our airplane. One reason I don’t believe the nurse was Sharon Lane was because I’m certain Fred Sowell told me about her death and that I would be carrying her body. Fred took a consecutive overseas tour to Clark and got there just before I left to go back to the States. I left in late July or early August, which means Fred wasn’t at Cam Ranh in June.

I have no idea how many KIAs I carried in some 40 months of flying in South Vietnam (I wasn’t in South Vietnam all the time, but spent much of those months at either Cam Ranh or Saigon. Nor do I know how many human remains I transported in a year on C-141s. All I know is there were a lot of them.

Before I close this, let me mention that there are myths about the dead from Vietnam. A common expression is that a soldier might “go home in a body bag.” That did not happen. KIAs were transported to one of the two mortuaries where they were embalmed and prepared for shipment. If they couldn’t be embalmed, they were processed as best as the military morticians could. They were then shipped to the States in an aluminum shipping container. Another myth is that a buddy accompanied a body home. This is ridiculous because units couldn’t spare men for such duty. Escorts came from units at the mortuaries and were “professional escorts” if you will. I only remember one passenger during my year in C-141s who was escorting a body to the States. I’ve forgotten the details, other than that he was a young Marine and the body was either a buddy who had made some kind of special request or was a family member. I’ve also seen claims by sailors that they transported bodies on ships. Nope – all remains were turned over to the Air Force and transported by air, first by Military Air Transport Service, or MATS, then by Military Airlift Command, MATS’ successor.

Records exist of 58,300 men (and a handful of women) who died in Southeast Asia. It’s not unreasonable to estimate that I transported the remains of some 200-300 of them, either as KIAs in South Vietnam or as human remains on C-141s.

 

 

Association with a Legend

FirstFlightScan

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.

Blues

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.)

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 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.)

Tent City (2)

Tent City

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.

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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

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

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.

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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

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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.

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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/

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Bu Dop

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