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.

 

 

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.

Why I Detest Fireworks

Long ago, in a land far away, I saw my share of fireworks, only those fireworks were deadly and every one of them was designed to kill somebody and sometimes that somebody was me. Now, I am sitting here in my den and fireworks are going off all over the place – even though it is against the law and the rules of the HOA for our development to set them off. They are supposed to only be used by professional pyrotechnics experts in carefully monitored displays. But that doesn’t stop these idiots. More than likely some of the booms and bangs we’re hearing are actual gunshots. Every Fourth of July and New Years somebody is hit by a round falling back to earth. Earlier today, we went to friends for burgers and socializing. When we got home, our little dog had diarrhea that was probably caused by fireworks. She is a very sensitive little dog and has always been frightened by them. Our dogs are inside but I guarantee there will people missing their pets in the morning.

Some of the explosions were damn close. One sounded like it went off right over our house. We heard something hit the roof. I went outside to make sure the roof wasn’t on fire. It sounded just like a war, except there were more explosions. Although I was told by a shrink that I don’t have enough symptoms for a diagnosis of PTSD, I became very agitated. I wanted to go upstairs and get my shotgun and go around to my neighbors house and mow the bastards down. They fired off a rocket and it exploded right above me. I could hear particles whistling just over my head.

Yes, fireworks are pretty but for most Americans, that’s all they are. They’ve never been shot at and have never used explosions to kill someone. After all, they’re supposed to represent the rockets seen over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. Ironically, no fireworks were shot off on the Fourth of July in 1776. In fact, no one even knew that a group of rebels in Philadelphia had signed a document declaring independence from Britain. For one thing, the document had yet to be signed. The document on display in Washington, DC was signed on August 2, 1776. Supposedly, somebody signed something on July 4 but if they did, no one knows what happened to it.

If you gotta have fireworks, go watch a public display. Don’t fire them over my house!