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.

 

 

Red Blood of Patriots

Dong Ha Takeoff (2)

This morning as I was watching coverage of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, I was keeping track of Twitter. In his speech, President Trump spoke this line – “It is time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American Flag.” Immediately after he said it ,  Conservative, Inc. writer John Podhoretz, who has a reputation for arrogance, tweeted that traitors have red blood too, which is true enough but the way he said it really pissed me off. The president’s line reminded me of my own experience with red, American blood, although it was Podhoretz’ comment that caused me to dwell on it for some time. I know exactly what the blood of our armed forces, whether patriot or not, looks like after it has been spilled.

During the late Southeast Asian unpleasantness, I was an Air Force flight crewmember, a loadmaster assigned to squadrons that flew the now-famous, but not so much then, Lockheed C-130 Hercules. It was sometime in the spring of 1967. I was nearing the end of my tour. A year before, I was flying on missions over North Vietnam and Laos dropping flares for fighters to attack trucks bringing supplies south to the communists who were seeking to overthrow the government of South Vietnam. I had returned to routine transport flying, or hauling trash, as we were beginning to call it. Our flying really was routine – hauling troops and cargo, but mostly cargo, around South Vietnam and Thailand. We were physically based at Naha, Okinawa but we’d go TDY for sixteen days at a time to either Cam Ranh Bay in South Vietnam or Bangkok, Thailand to fly airlift missions. We called the stints “shuttles.” We’d take off early on our first day in country, then start later and later each day until we were flying mainly night missions, then we’d have a day off and start over again on the day missions. After two weeks, we’d go home for a few days then come back and do it all over again.

On this particular shuttle, I was flying with Captain Tom McQuaide, an experienced C-130 pilot who had come to our squadron from a Tactical Air Command C-130 squadron at Lockbourne AFB, Ohio. Some of our pilots had come from other commands and other aircraft types, and were restricted to airfields with runways at least 4,000 feet long because of several prop-reversal accidents involving the C-130As we were flying. Flying with them truly was routine but when flying with an experienced C-130 pilot like Captain McQuaide, we got into the short, unimproved airfields out in the boondocks where the war was. (We actually got shot at no matter what airfield we went to – one night after landing at Tan Son Nhut, the huge airport at Saigon, the air freight people who met us told me they’d watch us come in and that we’d been trailed by tracer bullets.)

We were a little over half-way through our two weeks of flying. We took off for our first sortie late in the afternoon and had then gone to night missions, which usually involved moving backlog cargo out of Cam Ranh to the major airfields around South Vietnam, particularly Qui Nhon. We went north to Da Nang for the last part of our mission and after dropping off our load, air freight brought out a stack of five empty pallets – we were required to always have five pallets on the airplane to insure a supply of pallets in the country – and were supposed to take off and fly south to Qui Nhon to pick up cargo for Cam Ranh. When we reached Cam Ranh, we’d be finished for the night. I had just finished chaining the empties to the ramp when a dispatch truck drove up to the back of the open ramp. The driver stuck his head out of the window and informed me that our mission had been changed – we were being diverted to a combat emergency air evacuation mission to Dong Ha. Combat emergency was the highest priority for airlift missions in Southeast Asia. My adrenaline started pumping just at the words.

I was well-acquainted with Dong Ha. I took the above picture there in the fall of 1965 when I was at a tiny island in the Philippines called Macton on temporary duty from Pope AFB, North Carolina. We took a hit that day, although we didn’t know it until we got back to Mactan. Miraculously, it was only one of two hits I took in more than 1,200 combat sorties although we got shot at on nearly every flight. I had flown air evac missions before, but not a CE. In fact, although air evac was one of our missions, we rarely flew them because Army and Marine helicopters usually flew wounded men to rear area hospitals. As the dispatcher was pulling away, a forklift came up to  remove the forklift. As soon as the pallets were removed, I went to the front of the airplane and got the emergency escape ladder and installed it just behind the wing – the ladder was part of the litter system. Then another truck pulled up and the air evac crew got out, a nurse and two enlisted medical technicians. The nurse was male – only male nurses were assigned to combat missions. They loaded their equipment on the airplane and got on.

The nurse, a lieutenant, told me that Dong Ha was under attack and that a Marine had been hit in the head. We were to pick him up and bring him back to Da Nang, hopefully in time for emergency surgery to save his life. Casualties were mounting and there were other wounded, some in litters and some walking, and we would be bringing them back as well because the field hospital at Dong Ha was running out of space. After engine start, I continued setting up litter stanchions and dropping the straps from the ceiling that served to secure one side of each litter. We continued rigging stanchions and dropping straps while we taxied out and took off. Each stanchion had steps that could be dropped down so someone could climb up and reach the straps – since it was my airplane, that someone was me. The medical crew and I also dropped the nylon seats on the sides to have them available for walking wounded.

The flight wasn’t that long, not more than twenty minutes at most. Dong Ha was about 50 miles northwest of Da Nang. It sat right on the Demilitarized Zone. On the other side was North Vietnam. When I went in there the first time in the fall of 1965, there was nothing much there but since then, the Marines had moved in and made it a major base. Navy Seabees had laid 2,900 feet of pierced-aluminum planking on the dirt runway, making it an “all-weather” runway. C-130s went in there every day, but not normally at night.  North Vietnamese troops probed the base nearly every night; it was considered too dangerous for routine missions at night.

The firefight was still going on right off the runway when we landed. The guys in the cockpit saw the green and red tracers flying back and forth. I didn’t see them. I was too busy in the back. I was so pumped up on adrenaline that I went outside and started opening the doors that covered the gas turbine compressor, the auxiliary power unit that provided power when the engines weren’t running with the #2 propeller still coasting down. As soon as I got the rear ramp opened, Navy ambulances began arriving with the wounded Marines. The number had increased drastically since we left Da Nang a half hour before. I don’t recall the exact number but there were around a dozen or so men in litters and around twice that many walking wounded. I remember noticing that none of the men were black. I noticed this because civil rights leaders in the US, particularly Martin Luther King, were claiming that blacks were being killed and wounded at rates far in excess of their numbers.

The men had received only minimal medical care and many were bloody and still bleeding. In addition to the Marine with the head wound for which we had initially been sent out, there was at least one other patient whose life was in danger. While the medical crew took care of the litter patients, I helped the walking wounded settle into their seats and fasten their seatbelts. Now, I had always thought I was squeamish; Vietnam proved that I’m not. The men were all bloody but they seemed lucid enough. Once all of the patients were loaded, we fired up the four engines. When the flight engineer switched power from one generator to another, there was a momentary power loss. A huge sigh of dismay went up from the patients. The loss was only momentary and the airplane was only dark for a couple of seconds. Captain McQuaide took off right over the firefight. He reckoned it was safer than taxiing to that end of the runway and then turning around, and exposing the airplane to AK-47 fire in the process. By taking off over them, we’d only be in range for a few seconds. As far as I know, we took no hits.

There wasn’t anything I could do once we were airborne but keep watch on everybody. The medics and the nurse were tending to the litter patients. They were cleaning their wounds and nipping away pieces of flesh, although I didn’t notice it at the time as they were in the back of the cargo compartment and I was sitting in the first seat aft of the entrance door at the front. The nurse was devoting his attention to the Marine with the head wound. He looked up then started walking toward me. I knew the Marine was dead. He told me to ask the navigator for our coordinates so he could put it in the death certificate. He told me not to say anything to the other wounded. He left the dead Marine’s head uncovered. I felt very deflated.

We continued to Da Nang. We taxied to the ramp and were met by a blue Air Force ambulance/bus. They are large busses that had been configured with litter stanchions in the back and seats in the front. More medical personnel were with them. I stood by the dead Marine while the medical crew offloaded the litters and the walking wounded filed by. The nurse had put me there to try to keep the other Marines from realizing he had died. It didn’t work. The other litter patients had been offloaded and the one litter remained in place. The walking wounded had to go right by it and they realized something was wrong.

The bus pulled away and the medical crew got their stuff and went with it, leaving me with the dead Marine. Because we were only a few minutes out when the copilot called and advised that we needed Graves Registration, it was some time before they arrived to take the body. The nurse had given me the paperwork recording the man’s death. I didn’t cover up his head. I looked at him and thought to myself, “What a waste.” I wondered about him. He had the rough face of a coal miner or a football player. I wondered if he might be from Pennsylvania. I didn’t have a clue how old he was. I was twenty-one myself. He could have been older or he could have been nineteen for all I knew. One of the officers, I think it was Capt. McQuaide, came back to where I was keeping watch over the dead Marine and kept me company until Graves Registration finally came out in their olive drab ambulance to pick up the body, or KIA as they are referred to in the military, or were before the military became “sensitive.” After they left, I went outside to keep watch on the engines during engine start then came back inside and closed the ramp. Once the engines were started, I went to work stowing the litter straps and moving the stanchions to their stowage at the front of the cargo compartment.

It was after I had put everything away that I realized that our airplane looked like an operating room after multiple surgeries. Normally, I would sweep the floor and put the dirt in the trash can that was part of every airplane’s extra equipment. We were on our way back to Cam Ranh empty as we had already exceeded our crew duty day. I called Captain McQuaide on the intercom and told him we were going to need a firetruck. I’d never called for one before but had heard of others doing it. The floor was covered with blood but there were also pieces of flesh where the nurse had snipped them off of the wounds. The only way to clean it up was to wash it out.

By the time we landed at Cam Ranh, the sun was up. There was no firetruck but there was a water truck waiting for us. We pulled into our parking spot and shut down the engines. The maintenance dispatcher’s truck pulled up and the airplane’s crew chief got out. He bounded up the steps and took one look at his airplane, then turned around with his hand over his mouth and ran back down the steps, then started retching. The water truck driver took one look then handed me the hose and left. The officers and flight engineer had all left. It was just me, a water hose and a bloody, gory airplane. I started washing. The water mixed with the blood and turned red.

I grew up in West Tennessee about 75 miles from Shiloh Battlefield where one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War was fought. I’d been there once on a field trip when I was in elementary school. One of the features on the park is a pond called The Bloody Pond. According to local tradition, the waters of the pond turned red with the blood of the wounded soldiers, Confederate and Federal, who went there to drink and wash their wounds. As I washed the blood and gore out of the airplane that was now being returned to its crew chief, the bloody water reminded me of that pond.

Now, I don’t know if those young Marines considered themselves to be patriots or not. Seriously, I doubt that they did. Patriotism was not something young soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines talked about in those days. I’m sure they were volunteers, at least most probably were. Draftees only went into the Army as a rule, although the Marine Corps had started accepting them due to the lack of volunteers in a country where the youth were becoming violently “anti-war” and pro-Viet Cong. Nevertheless, we were serving our country, no matter our motivations – and we all bled red.

What upset me about Podhoretz’ Tweet is that he’s never seen anyone shed blood for their country and never will. He, along with the rest of the Conservative, Inc. crowd are good at using the word processor as a weapon but none of them will ever hear a shot fired in anger. They’re all talk. As for “traitors,” a traitor is a patriot to the country he or she supports. We all bleed red.

The Military, Heroism and “Gold Star Families”

 

DFC                                    AirMedal

The current flap over Pakistani immigrant Khizr Khan’s appearance at the Democratic convention prompted me to write about something that’s been bugging me for a long time. There seems to be a belief that anyone who serves in the military is a hero, particularly those who’ve died, and some seem to think that family members of military members and of those who died while in military service are somehow deserving, although deserving of what I’m not sure.

In the summer of 1963 my dad signed a document granting permission for me to enlist in the United States Air Force. He – or my mother – had to sign it because my birthday is late in the year and I was still seventeen when I graduated from high school a few weeks before. Air Force regulations required that although seventeen-year olds could enlist, they had to have parental permission. My dad had been in the Army Air Corps during World War II – his brother had also and had remained in service for twenty years – and he had mixed emotions about my plans to join the Air Force. He would have preferred that I stay home and farm, or perhaps go to college. I had been accepted at several colleges but didn’t know where the money was going to come from. I would also be subject to the draft once I turned eighteen and as a single teenager, would have been prime meat. So, daddy signed. (I heard later that my maternal grandmother accused him of “signing Sam’s life away.” No one ever told me until after she was dead.) A few months later I turned 18 but by that time I was already in the Air Force and in the final weeks of training to become a jet aircraft mechanic.

When my dad signed the papers for me to join the Air Force, the United States was not at war, at least not officially. Yes, we had military personnel in some Asian country called Vietnam few Americans were even aware of it. I wasn’t expecting to go to war myself and certainly wasn’t expecting to see combat, although I wouldn’t have minded. As it turned out, I spent 12 years in the Air Force with a good chunk of it in Vietnam where I saw war up close and personal. However, it was MY service and my family didn’t have a damn thing to do with it. I collected quite a few medals and decorations during those 12 years but just because I’m a decorated combat veteran doesn’t make me a hero. Had I died, it would have been my death, not theirs, and while they would have grieved over me, they were deserving of a no particular status other than that of a family that had lost a son. It wouldn’t have mattered if I’d died wrapping my car around a tree, I’d have been dead just the same as if I’d been shot down on a mission over North Vietnam. Maybe my mother would have joined Gold Star Mothers but somehow I doubt it since she never joined the DAR even though she had ancestors who fought in the American Revolution. No member of my family has ever joined the DAR, the DOC, SAR or SOC. I’m a member of three veterans organizations, one which I had a role in founding, another I was coerced into joining and the DAV, which I joined because I’m a disabled veteran and I thought they’d be of help dealing with the VA (I was wrong, they’re not.)

In recent years – mainly since Reagan – an idea has developed that anyone who’s ever served in the military is some kind of hero. People like to greet veterans with “thank your for your service” or, if a veteran “welcome home.” Now, I don’t care for such bullshit. I do sometimes wear caps, one that says “C-130 Hercules Vietnam” and one with an emblem of the Distinguished Flying Cross on it but I don’t wear them to get recognition. I only wear them in hopes of attracting the attention of a fellow C-130 veteran so I can tell them about the organization I helped found. I don’t want anyone to thank me for my service because I didn’t do it for them and I don’t need to be welcomed home. I don’t want anyone to think me a hero because I’m not, even if I did fly some 1,500 combat sorties. My dad flew 30 missions over Germany and Occupied Europe during World War II and he didn’t think of himself as any kind of hero. He put his DFC and Air Medal lapel pins in the lapel of his suit but he hardly ever wore a suit. The fact is that just being in the military -and even being in combat – doesn’t make a person a hero, not even if they die while in service. To be a hero, a person has to do something heroic.

The modern perception of military service seems to be shaped largely on the service of the men who served during the period from World War II to Vietnam when military service was to a large extent compulsory, as it was in World War I and the Civil War. Young men were forced to serve in the military against their will, and their service was seen as sacrificial, particularly by politicians eager to get their vote after they returned to civilian life. But military service hasn’t been compulsory in the United States since early 1973 when the Department of Defense announced that there was no longer a need to draft men for military service. (The end of the draft came as the United States withdrew the last military personnel from South Vietnam.) Since that time, all men and women who have served or are serving in the military are there of their own free will. They are making no sacrifice as their fathers and grandfathers did who were drafted into interrupting their lives for a period of military service. They are compensated with a pay check, a pay check that is substantial for men and women in the modern military and often in excess of what they would likely be making in civilian life. This is true even of the lowest ranking enlisted men and women. Those who elect to stay in the military for a 20-year career draw 50% of their base pay; those who stay longer draw a higher percentage all the way up to 75%, which can amount to a considerable sum for senior officers and enlisted men and women.

Contrary to popular belief by those who’ve never served, military service isn’t particularly hard. New recruits must complete a period of basic training which consists primarily of physical conditioning and military training in regulations and such disciplinary skills as learning to march in formation and small arms training. Upon completion of basic training, a new recruit is sent on to additional training that may involve additional military training if they’re assigned to the infantry but may be classroom and practical training to learn a particular technical skill. Such courses consist of as little as a few weeks from some skills to as much as two years for skills such as nuclear reactor operators. Some new officers are sent to special courses such as military pilot training or submarine officer training. Once a young man or woman has completed their training, they are assigned to an operational unit, which may be a combat unit but could also be support. If they are assigned to a combat unit, they can expect to spend their time in continued training since combat units aren’t engaged unless they are actually in a combat zone. Military training in itself can be dangerous and hundreds of young men and women die each year in accidents, both while on duty and in vehicle accidents when off duty. In fact, accidental military deaths have exceeded deaths from hostile actions in many years since the beginning of the so-called “War on Terror” after the 9/11 attacks. This was true in the years 2002 and 2003 and has been true since 2008. In fact, in the years from 1980 to 1989, accidental deaths in the military exceeded 1,000 a year; the most hostile deaths in a year since 2002 is 847 in 2007. My point is that a military member is more likely to die due to accident than from hostile action. Military Deaths by Year, which brings me to my next point.

Just because a person serves in the military – or dies while on active duty – does not make them heroic. There have been men who truly were heroic in the military, starting with Sgt. Alvin C. York in World War I and continuing through such men as Lt. Audie Murphy, Major Edwin Dyess and Colonel Paul I. “Pappy” Gunn, but such men usually became heroes because of desperation. York decided to take matters in his own hands when he saw his buddies being mowed down by German machine guns, Murphy defended his men against a German attack, Dyess carried out attacks on Japanese ships in Subic Bay in one of the few remaining Air Corps fighters left in the Philippines and Gunn waged an essentially one-man war against the Japanese to free his family from captivity in Manila. Since then, military heroes tend to have been men who performed “selfless” acts such as jumping on hand grenades, acts that might be more correctly identified as thoughtless since they happened so quickly the individual didn’t have time to consider the ramifications of his actions.

In truth, much of what is hailed as heroism is merely a military member doing the job they were trained to do, whatever it may be. Some medals – the Bronze Star in particular – are often awarded as commendations for routine performance of one’s administrative duties. In fact, the Bronze Star was originally authorized as a counterpart to the Air Medal, which was authorized in 1942 to recognize the role of airmen flying combat missions – often against great odds – at a time when ground forces had yet to enter combat. A colonel felt that infantrymen, in particular, should be awarded some kind of decoration to recognize that they had been in combat. No particular act of valor was required for award of the medal – any soldier who had qualified for the combat infantryman’s badge was eligible – and the award was also approved for administrative actions, such as maintaining files in an orderly room.  The Bronze Star It and the Air Medal were equal in prestige – until 1985 when military politics led to the elevation of the Purple Heart from a low-level award to prominence above the Meritorious Service Medal and dropped the Air Medal to the lowest precedence of any combat award and below the level of the MSM, which is only awarded for non-combat  service. (By doing so, the DOD robbed hundreds of Army Air Corps and pre-1985 USAF airmen of the recognition they so richly deserved for their meritorious service in aerial flight.)

Military medals are a story in themselves. Prior to the Civil War, there were no medals and even then, the Confederacy did not recognize its heroes with medals. The Medal of Honor was authorized during the war and was often awarded for such mediocre actions as reenlisting. (Hundreds of Medals of Honor were taken away when the criteria for the medal was changed in the early Twentieth Century.) The Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star were authorized just before World War I and the Purple Heart was authorized in 1932 for presentation primarily to men who had been wounded. The Distinguished Flying Cross was authorized in 1926; it was awarded to civilians such as the Wright Brothers and Amelia Earhart. The Air Medal and Bronze Star came along during World War II, along with the Legion of Merit, which is essentially an award for high-ranking officers. Since Vietnam, a veritable library of new awards have been authorized, to the point that it seems that the modern military man and woman gets medals just for showing up for chow! In short, most military medals today are meaningless.

This brings us to “gold star families,” a term little heard of before a Pakistani immigrant named Khizer Khan made a speech at the Democratic Convention. To begin with, there is no such thing as a “gold star family.” It’s a term that the Army has on its web site to refer to families of military members who lost their lives on active duty. However, there’s no official organization or recognition of such families even though the military was authorized to present lapel buttons to family members – parents, spouses, children, step-children, brother and sisters – of those who die while  on active duty starting in 1947. The lapel button carries no significance and no benefits to those to whom it is presented except recognition. It’s something for family members to have to remember their family member, the same as the flags used to drape coffins and which are then presented to the family, usually to either the wife or mother of the deceased. The design is different for those who died in a combat theater, regardless of the cause of death. There is no organization and they have no official standing.

There is, however, a formal organization for Gold Star Mothers, women whose son or daughter has died while on active military service. Gold Star Mothers was formally organized in 1928 when the mother of a US Army Air Services pilot who died during the war decided to start an organization for mothers of men who had died while in military service. They got their name from the gold-starred flags family members displayed in their windows during the recent war – families with men in uniform displayed a flag with a blue star and those whose sons were lost displayed gold stars. The blue and gold starred flags became prominent during World War II but they died out after the Korean War. They were not popular during the Vietnam War – in fact, they were hardly ever mentioned. They were resurrected in the 1990s and began attracting some attention from the media – and politicians. In September, 2012 Barrack Obama proclaimed the last day of September as “Gold Star Mothers and Families Day.” However, the memo must have got lost because no one seems to know anything about it.

Families of men and women who die while on active duty have recognition, but not status or standing, as members of the media proclaimed that Khizer Khan and his wife have. The Khans claimed they have made some kind of sacrifice because their son died in Iraq. In fact, they have made no sacrifice at all and whether their son’s death was a sacrifice is debatable. Captain Khan’s commander, Maj. General Dana Pittardi, (Gen. Pittard was Bill Clinton’s military aide 1996-1999), wrote a piece for the Washington Post but was very vague as to how the officer died. He says only that he was killed by a suicide bomber and that he “may” have been trying to prevent the death or injury of innocent Iraqis. The captain was awarded a Purple Heart, which is awarded to all military personnel who die as a result of enemy action, and a Bronze Star, which is basically a glorified commendation medal. If his actions had been seen as “heroic,” he would have been awarded at least a Silver Star and possibly a Distinguished Service Cross. In the Khan’s minds, their son died a hero but in reality he was the victim of a bomb. Regardless, their son’s death reflects solely on him, not on them.

Military valor reflects solely on the individual, not corporately on their family, regardless of how close. My actions while in the military reflect solely on me and if I’d died, while my family would have suffered loss, they would have made no sacrifice. Neither would I if my son’s submarine had gone to the bottom of the China Sea while they were playing cat and mouse with the Chinese navy. Several of my ancestors served in the Revolutionary War but I have never been a member of the Sons of the Revolution and no one in my family has ever joined the DAR (except my great-aunt.) At least two of my ancestors were Confederate soldiers but I’ve never joined the Sons of Confederate Veterans – and never will. My valor is my own and no one else’s. Similarly, while I’m proud of my father for flying 30 missions in B-24s over Europe, his service is no reflection on me, nor was it a reflection on his parents, brothers and sisters.

What I’m saying is that military service and any recognition for it only applies to the one who serves, not their mother, father, spouse, brother, sister, children, grandchildren or anyone else.

 

 

 

 

 

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.)

cropped-dong-ha-takeoff-2.jpg

 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.

asatcamranh (3)

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

Howie

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The other day I was on one of the groups on Facebook where  I posted this picture awhile back. The subject is Major Howard (nmi) Seaboldt, who was my aircraft commander when I was assigned to the 29th Tactical Airlift Squadron at Clark AB, Philippines in 1969-70. I first heard about Howie when I went in country on my first shuttle at Tan Son Nhut right after I got to Clark in early February 1969. The crew I was with was Howie’s crew, but he wasn’t with us. He was on a stint as an airlift mission commander and our squadron operations officer was the AC. Chick Anderson was Howie’s engineer and he told me all about him. I met him a few weeks later when I was on duty NCO one Saturday morning and he came in after returning from a trip to the US to take an airplane for modification work.

Sometime around September I found myself without a crew after my crew got into trouble while I wasn’t with them and were all busted back to student status. I had joined that crew after I was qualified on the M-121 bomb – http://www.sammcgowan.com/bomber.html. It turned out that Howie’s loadmaster had just left to return to the US. Howie was without a loadmaster and I was without a crew. One Saturday morning we were at the squadron for commander’s call. After it was over, I was standing in the hall in front of the operations desk when Chick and Howie came over to me. “Sam, we want you on our crew,” said Chick. From that time until I went to Stan/Eval nine months later, I was part of Seaboldt’s Flying Circus.

There is one word that describes Howie Seaboldt; he was a character. He’d been in the Air Force for about twenty years when I first met him. I found out later that he had started out as an enlisted man then had gone to cadets. He started out flying F-84 fighter/bombers in SAC, then went to B-47s and finally into B-52s. He was based at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana when he got orders to C-130s at Clark. It turned out to be a marriage made in heaven.

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Howie got to Clark just as the Vietnam War was escalating dramatically and he found himself involved in intense combat. One one mission into an airfield in I Corps, a round came up through the floor and hit  his navigator in the ass. Howie told me years later that he thought Vietnam flying was like that all the time. He also found himself in a bit of a sticky situation. The 29th commander was Lt. Col. Bill Coleman, who had been Howie’s commander at Barksdale and was an old friend. When he reported to the squadron, Col. Coleman told Howie he wanted him to conduct an investigation of the first sergeant, who was involved in the black market. They were just about to arrest him when he suddenly went berserk on an airplane while on the way to Saigon and was hauled away in a straitjacket. Consequently, the man was never prosecuted. Howie had been at Clark for about fourteen months when I joined the crew.

By this time I had been in the Air Force for a little over six years and had been on flying status for five. I had already had an overseas tour at Naha AB, Okinawa and flying in country was old hat to me. I think that was one reason Chick told Howie they ought to ask for me for their crew. Another was that I was laid back while their previous loadmaster had been high maintenance. That I was asked to join the crew was a great honor for me. In the past, operations had simply put me on a crew. Most of the crews I had been with were a pleasure to fly with but my first crew at Clark was commanded by an idiot. (That wasn’t the crew that was busted, although that AC was sent to supply after he made a major boo-boo at a Marine airfield in Vietnam.) The crew had a reputation because of Howie. He was one of these people that you either love or hate. Most people loved him but there were some officers – and officers wives – who looked askance at the way he conducted himself. He was divorced but lived off base with a beautiful Filipina and had a daughter with her. He was a major but didn’t act like one. One night I went to the American Legion with a couple of C-141 flight engineers I had known in the States. We were eating dinner when Howie came in. He saw me and came over. I introduced them. After he left, they said they couldn’t believe he was a major. They said he looked like an old alcoholic airman first class. The alcoholic part was probably right. Howie loved to drink, particularly San Miguel Beer. However, he was never drunk on a flight.

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We were a bomb crew so when we went in country to Cam Ranh Bay where our wing, the 463rd Tactical Airlift Wing, had moved its operation, we spent a good part of our time on bombing missions.  I found out later that if our crew was in country, we were number one for bombing missions because of Howie’s reputation. Some people called him “The Mad Bomber. The bombing itself was not particularly exciting. It was actually quite routine. However, once we’d dropped both bombs, we were turned back over to 834th Air Division, the organization responsible for airlift operations in Vietnam, for airlift flying. This meant we got the missions that had popped up during the day, missions that usually meant they were combat essential and were mostly carrying either ammunition or fuel into forward airfields. http://www.sammcgowan.com/bomber.html

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One of Jim Sweeny’s comments about Howie is that he “didn’t fly an airplane, he wore it.” Truer words were never spoken. Howie was a natural born pilot and the master of any airplane he flew. It’s not surprising because he had been flying since he was sixteen. In fact, he had his own airplane, an Ercoupe, and flew it from he and his mother’s home outside of Philadelphia to Miami when his mother decided to move south. We did things that most pilots would think twice about. One morning we went out on a mission to a special forces camp somewhere in the Highlands. When we got there, we found that the airfield was socked in. Howie found a break in the overcast and dropped down through it. We broke out at about 700 feet and found the airfield. This is a picture I took of the tower that day below. Note how the clouds are starting to break up.

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There were about half a dozen airfields that were our “favorites,” meaning they were out in the boonies and surrounded by enemy forces. There were three that were especially noteworthy – Bu Dop, Katum and Tonlecham. They were all right on the Cambodian border and North Vietnamese rocket crews had them zeroed – except that their rockets weren’t very accurate. One day, I think it was a Saturday, our crew didn’t have a bombing mission. Another squadron bomb crew was also in country so they scheduled us to take off at about the same time for Bien Hoa, where we were to spend the day shuttling into Bu Dop. Our crew was just ahead of the other crew on every flight. We’d land, drop off our cargo and get the hell out. The other crew would come in behind us and get caught in a rocket attack. I think they were rocketed at least three times. We never heard or saw a single rocket. We were told that it took the rocket crews more than five minutes to get ready so if we could get in and out in five minutes, we were safe. Apparently the rocketeers would set up for us and would be primed for the other airplane that came in right behind us. Fortunately, none of the rockets hit close enough to do any damage. The two crews rode the shuttle bus up to Herky Hill together. There were several older sergeants on the bus. We were kidding the other crew about being snake bit. The other passengers were intent on our conversation. It was the closest to the war they ever got.

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Bu Dop

I don’t know the circumstances but Howie somehow was put in charge of the construction of an officers club on Herky Hill. Just before it opened, he called me up in my trailer at Clark and told me he had an important piece of cargo to take to Cam Ranh the next day. It was a velvet nude that he had made to hang behind the bar. The next morning he brought it out and supervised as I tied it down on the ramp. He insisted that I had to come to the club on opening night to see it. I wasn’t too excited about going to an officers club but I went. They treated me like a king. Howie put a drink in my hand as soon as I walked in the door and took me to the bar to see the painting. Although I never saw one, Howie was famous for the skits he put on at the officers club at Clark. My former AC was busted to student by our wing commander, who no one ever saw. He was like Major Major Major in Catch 22. Although the wing commander made the decision, Steve never saw the colonel. One night, Howie and Steve put on a skit about it.

Although I never saw it, Howie somehow managed to scrounge a Jeep that he kept somewhere, I think at Nha Trang. I’m not sure I heard how he got it other than that it was while he was on his mission commander duty. There was also a rumor that he had a helicopter stashed somewhere. I don’t know if he was helicopter-qualified or not.

Howie had a reputation as a fantastic pilot but for some reason he refused to accept designation as an instructor pilot. He may not have been an IP but the squadron put new copilots with us to break them in. Our crew consisted of Howie, Dick Sullivan as navigator, Chick as engineer and me as loadmaster. All of us but Howie were instructors. We never had an assigned copilot but instead had new copilots with us for a couple of shuttles. One young pilot who flew with us on several shuttles was Bill Leneave, who was also from West Tennessee. Bill’s family had a bottling company in either Fulton, KY or South Fulton, TN. They lived in Tennessee. Bill liked to talk on the radio and often carried on conversations with air traffic controllers and GCI operators. Bill went with us to on our stateside trip. We were flying along somewhere over the West when Bill got into a conversation with an air traffic controller. It was late at night and there was little traffic. Bill said to the guy, “Say, you’re from Hazard, Kentucky. I can tell from your accent.” The guy said he was. Bill then told us “They drink more Pepsi in Hazard per capita than anywhere in the world.” Howie was flabbergasted. When I saw him years later, he brought up Bill’s Hazard comment.

In early 1970 we had two plum missions. The first was to take a mod bird back to the Lockheed factory for modification and inspection. We took off out of California and learned that the airfield at Dobbins was closed until 7:00 AM. We diverted to Robins, where I had been stationed. A guy I knew at Robins came through Clark and told me that someone had sworn out a peace warrant on me. A woman I knew casually told her husband, who was overseas at the time, that she had been having an affair with me to protect the guy she was actually involved with. She gave him my name because I had already left for overseas myself. I wasn’t too happy about landing at Robins but Howie thought it was a hoot that his loadmaster had a peace warrant out on him. As it turned out, we hardly saw a soul. We sat on the ramp until time to takeoff so as to land at Dobbins when the tower opened There wasn’t an airplane ready for us to take back so we went back on a MAC contract flight. When I got to Travis, the first person I saw was Howie. He rushed me to the pax service rep and made sure he got me on the flight with him. We were both dressed in our Class A blue uniform. Everybody in the place was looking at us and wondering what was so special about this staff sergeant who had a major with him, We went into the civilian side at Hickam. Howie and I went to the bar and sat with a bunch of young Marines on their way to Vietnam. They couldn’t believe Howie was giving them the time of day. Howie loved Marines His son was one. The second was to Sidney, Australia to take some communications people for one of the space shots. We were only supposed to be on the ground for 12 hours. Everyone was disappointed and we were all hoping the airplane would break or something so we could have  a chance to go to town. As we were on approach, I looked down and saw two beady little eyes looking up at me. We had a mouse on the airplane! Believe it or not, a rodent on an airplane is a grounding item. We ended up getting two nights at Richmond RAAF Station and got to go to Sidney. Then we had a few nights at Townsville due to an oil leak. We were supposed to go in country on Sunday. Howie was on the phone to Clark daily, Col. Wolfe, our wing commander, told Howie he wanted to see the two of us in his office as soon as we got back. He said, “Tell McGowan he’d better have a damn mouse.” We never saw the colonel. We got back to Clark on Sunday and left for Cam Ranh early the next morning.

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Not long after the Australia trip our crew went to Kadena, Okinawa for two weeks of alert duty. While we were there, MACV invaded Cambodia. Two 15,000 pound bombs kicked off the operation. Howie was fit to be tied that we weren’t there. We went in country soon after we got back and found an entirely different war. Before, if a C-130 was on the ground for more than five minutes, the crew could count on a rocket attack. Now, those forward fields were secure. We were able to shut down engines and offload our pallets one at a time with a forklift. It was like being at a country airport in Georgia. I took the above picture at Quan Loi.

When my tour at Clark was up, Howie was there to send me off. The night before, he had gone to the NCO Club with me, a young WAF I was hanging out with and my buddy Chuck who Howie had picked to replace me because he was an airline pilot in civilian life. We went to the club again the next morning for breakfast and Bloody Marys. We went from the club to get my bags and then to the passenger terminal where they waited to see me off,

I saw Howie again twice in 2000 and 2003. Howie retired in the Philippines and initially worked for Bird Air flying missions into Cambodia on USAF C-130s. He was there the day the war ended. He went back to the Philippines and settled in Baguio, where he edited the base paper at John Hay Air Force Station. His Filipina wife got involved with some kind of religious group and started giving them all their money so he left her and moved to Angeles City. He’d come to the States every year to check on his property in Miami and have a physical at the VA hospital since the US military had left the Philippines . I had  a trip to West Palm while he was there and drove down to see him. He was the same old Howie, but older. We went to an Irish pub by the airport where he told me about the movie he had made about C-130 flying in Vietnam, then to his house. In 2003 I happened to have a few days at MIA while he was there for what turned out to be his last visit. He was selling his property and gave me some pictures of the original bomb crew. He said he wanted to come and stay with me in Houston the next year and get together with Chick Anderson and some of his other close friends. It never happened, Howie died of kidney failure the following spring. By chance, I had a trip to Sun Valley the next weekend and was able to drive over to Boise and visit with Chick. Our main topic of conversation was Howie.

I learned a lot from Howie. I believe the most important thing is to never ask for permission. Tell whoever is in charge what you’re going to do and they’ll most likely approve it. If they have a problem with it, they’ll tell you.

My novel “Mortar Magnets” is based on my experiences with Howie – http://www.sammcgowan.com/mortarmagnets.html.