Story 5



The Gunships






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October 10, 2011

Contact: Bill Petrie
CMSgt, USAF, Ret.

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SHADOW (We own the night)
By Henry (Hank) D. K. Alau

On the night of 31 August 200l I received a phone call from Jose Cachuela. Jose and I go back to Tan Son Nhut AB, Republic of Vietnam. He was calling me about an AC-119 reunion and asked me if I were planning to go. It's difficult to plan to go to something that you don't know about, so I told him most likely not.

I met Jose for the first time in the first part of 1970, when he was a new arrival to Vietnam. It was 1 o'clock in the morning and I had returned from the flight line at midnight after flying two missions and had had a cognac and was ready to "rack it". No sooner had my head hit the pillow when Oscar Ferrell and Jose and a couple of others, probably, Bob Bokern and Rod Sizemore returned from the club and go to Oscar's room, which was next to mine and start yukking it up and drinking. After thirty minutes of this, I went next door to ask Oscar to keep it down. What I get was an offer to join the party and I'm not in the partying mood. So I look at Oscar and I say, "Fine. As long as you drink as I do." He agreed so I went to my room, got that bottle of cognac, went back to Oscar's room poured two glasses of cognac and said to Oscar bottoms up. Oscar thought I was crazy, but after two glasses for Oscar the party was over and I got my sleep. As it turned out I became the instructor for both Jose and Sizemore. I ended up crewing with Sizemore — talk about paying for your sins. Since that time, Jose and I have crossed paths many times. I relate this story purely as an introduction as to why I am writing this.

The remainder of this is my personal recollections. Some of the language you will read may be considered earthy, but not by combat standards. Those who flew the line in combat will probably consider the language tame. An "Ohhh, shit!", says, "Pilot we got a problem and it looks bad, but we are working it and it might be okay. If not we're in real trouble." much more succinctly and with the proper level of concern. If you are sensitive to this type of language, do not go any further.

The Calling

Time is a great healer. It is also a great thief. It softens the painful and uncomfortable memories, but the price is that time steals some of the good memories, like some of the names and some of the events. Because of this, it is important that we try to record and preserve these personal events.

My association with gunships starts in May of 1969 five months after my return from a 6 month temporary duty (TDY) flying B-52 ARC LIGHT missions, which was what the B-52 strikes against Vietnam was called. However there is a price to pay when you transition from the Bongo 52 Heavy to the AC-119, mistress of the night. The price was survival school at Fairchild, then on to C-119 training at Clinton County, Ohio. For me, I needed this transition to brush-up and re-learn navigation skills. I had been an Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) on a B-52. Fortunately, my partner in training, MAJ Jim Griffin (Griff), was a MAC navigator, so I got a lot of help. I will say that Clinton County had the best chow hall in which I had ever eaten. Since it was a reserve base, the reservists did their annual training there. The chow hall cooks were professional chefs in civilian life - good food.

Highlight of this training, for the instructors, was the "cross country" check ride to Ramey AFB, Puerto Rico. It was a "gallon of tax free whiskey" run. I remember the instructor/evaluator, whom we had not seen since we left Puerto Rico, coming up to Griff and I, as we were coast-in at Savannah and transitioning to airways, asking where were we. We told him coast-in to Savannah and his response was that we had done a hell of a job of navigating and passed our check ride. By the way, this was the same instructor who had invested in scotch whiskey, which was in bond in Scotland. I think instructing was just a hobby.

After Clinton County, it was on to Lockbourne AFB. It had not been changed to Rickenbacker AFB, yet. This was where we were to learn AC-119 tactics. While I may have learned to play golf at Lockbourne, the tactics that we learned were less useful than "tits on a boar hog". At least tits on a boar hog are decorative. All the tactics, which we learned at Lockbourne, had to be unlearned upon arrival in Vietnam. The one thing that we got out of Lockbourne was how to function as a crew, but most of us knew this because most of us came from aircraft flown by crews. After Lockbourne it was port call and Clarke AFB, Republic of the Philippines for Jungle Survival training.

Survival training in the Philippines was different from that at Fairchild. At Fairchild I learned three things - when you don't eat you get hungry, when you run around a lot you get tired, and when it rains you get wet. Mind you, I knew all of this, but when I left Fairchild I knew it better. In the Philippines, they tried to teach you something and it was enjoyable. Who can forget the tour through the museum of VC booby traps. It was a lesson on how to wage war with very little. Who can forget the field exercise with an hour to hide before they released the Negritos to hunt you down and rice was their payment? You were given 5 chits, one of which was red to be used only for emergencies worth 5 pounds of rice and the other 4 chits to be given to Negritos who found you and they were worth a pound of rice. The instructors emphasized the fact that each time you lost a chit, it represented you being captured. Col Brown, the incoming DO to the 14th SOW, and MAJ Al Davy were in my survival class and also a LT Woodrow (Woody) Bergeron, a Cajun from Louisiana and an F4 "backseater/guy in back (GIB)".

For the field, exercise I teamed up with Woody. I had not teamed up with anyone and Woody asked if I knew about this type of terrain. I told him that it was similar to Hawaii, minus the snakes and some of the other animals. So he asked if we could team together. The rumors were rampant about the tracking and stalking abilities of the Negritos and their mystical abilities to track at night, read signs at night and smell you. In truth, they found you because you were careless and made a mistake. Woody and I walked down the road, walked up a downhill trail (making sure that the grass continued to point downhill) for about 100 yards, tunneled through the elephant grass for about 15 feet, closed up the hole and flattened an area for us to sleep. Having done this, we ate our rations. The area below us had a banana patch and I told Woody to throw the cans into the banana patch. He asked me why and I told him because that's where the rats live and I didn't want them to visit us at night. The night in the jungle was uneventful. Woody would wake me up during the night. Once he woke me because of the rats fighting in the banana patch over the food we had thrown down there. He woke me twice because of the Negritos running down the trail next to us trying to get us, the quarry, to break cover. He also woke me once because of the condensation on the banana leaves rolling down one leaf and dropping on another. In the quiet of the jungle night, this dripping of condensation on banana leaves makes a loud TOCK sound. The next day the choppers came in, we popped flares, rode the horse collar and were taken back to the main encampment for the ride back to Clarke AB.
As luck would have it one of the first people I see is Col Brown as his first words to me are "How many chits did you turn in?" My answer was "5, sir." And his response was "So did I".

"You remember that night we spent
in the jungle in the Philippines? Well, it works."

I relay this story for two reasons. First of all, it is part and parcel to the gunship experience. Secondly, it has to do with my running in to Woody about three months later at Tan Son Nhut on my way to - where else? - the club. I notice he had a cut on his nose and abrasions under his eyes. So in typical crew dog language I ask, "Goddamn, Woody! What the hell happened to you?" He says to me "You remember that night we spent in the jungle in the Philippines. Well, it works." Evidently, Woody had been shot down in Laos and had spent three days evading. Some 300+ sorties were flown to get him out. His pilot was probably killed by the Pathet Lao.

Anyway, two days later Al Davy and I are on a C-130 headed for Danang. RVN. We arrive at Danang with no idea in the world what to do. So Davy calls Phan Rhang and they tell him that they will send a plane. Anyway, Al and I are looking around the terminal and we see a sign saying "change money here." I look at Al and ask him if he knows what that's for and he says probably to get some Vietnamese money after all this is Vietnam. So we think it's not a bad idea to get some Vietnamese money. We walk over to the window and get introduced to military payment certificates (MPC). As it turns out we were supposed to trade all our green in for funny money and this was where you changed it. About 4 hours later the AC-119G shows up from Phan Rhang and this is my first meeting with the Mistress of the Night. This was no Lady Godiva. She was pure Valkyrie.

After our arrival at Phan Rhang, we signed in and were assigned rooms at the BOQ. It took a couple of days to complete the paper work and determine if you were staying here, or going to Thuy Hoa or Tan Son Nhut. Al Davy could have had a single room but he ended up bunking with me. On the way to the room we could hear 105 MM firing, I guess our concerned looks led to our escort explaining that we were not under attack. The Army was conducting H&I (harassment and interdiction) fire. It seems that, periodically, the Army artillery batteries would fire X numbers of rounds in a fan where there was suspected VC activity.
The BOQ was right down the hill from the o'club. When we got to the room, it was the size of a prison cell with a bunk bed. Fortunately, the room next door was empty, so we put all of our gear in the adjacent room. I looked at Al and I asked him which bunk he wanted and he opted for the lower bunk. I thought he didn't like climbing up to the top bunk. Not true, his rationale was, if a mortar round hits our room it would go through me on the top bunk before it got to him, so much for the myth of the friendship of comrades in arms. Two days later we were assigned to "C" flight at Tan Son Nhut (TSN).

TSN Training

Once we arrived TSN training started. Al Davy and I and the rest of us who had undergone the CONUS training were the replacement cadre to the initial cadre composed of reservists and regular Air Force. Remember the training I mentioned at Lockbourne, well it was time to learn the correct way.

It was time to learn how to leap frog fox mike (FM) radios from one artillery controller to the next. There was a whole new language called Army - down the redline; down the big blue; feet wet; firing illum my position max ord 5000 feet, canister impact 3 klicks from my position; firing H&I fire from my position max ord 6000 feet impact 12 klicks firing fan from 210 Tango Oscar 255 for the next three zero mikes. Pictorial map descriptions replaced coordinates and TACAN range and bearings like the angel's wing, parrots beak, and crows feet. In addition to learning this new language and running the FM radios, you were supposed to do night map reading like you never learned in nav school. GNC and JNC charts were a thing of the past. You navigated off of an acetate covered 1:250,000 map with 10 degree increment radials drawn from Paddy which was at Bien Thuy and Paris which was in Saigon. US installations had bright perimeter lights and ARVN installations had perimeter lights, which had a yellowish color. Once in the target area you used Army artillery charts. We carried two ammo cans worth of these charts to cover III and VI Corps and a little overlap with II Corps. We dropped a marker in the target box, located the marker in the target box and then ran timing runs off of the marker. When you commenced firing, you became the fire safety officer and kept track of ammo expended on a target. In addition to all of this, you were the escape and evasion briefing officer for each target area. On top of all of this, you had to ensure compliance with the rules of engagement.

Fortunately, I drew Billy Baker as my instructor, a little hard-nosed, but he was one of the best in the business. Since he was on Sid Petty's crew, I ended up training with Sid Petty's crew. This was a great crew. Sid was the type of pilot that if the plane was falling apart, he'd find a way to keep it flying. At least, that is the illusion that Sid created. All the stuff in the last paragraph, I learned from Billy Baker. He was the one that made sure I kept the plane moving towards a target area especially if it was a troops in contact (TIC) situation. One night while operating along the Cambodian border I asked Billy how you knew when you crossed into Cambodia. Remember all the AC-119G had for navigation aids was a window for night map reading and TACAN for range and bearing. Billy told me to look out the window and where the bomb craters stopped is where Cambodia began. When I became an instructor, I used that same piece of instructional advice. In April of 1970, after the incursion into Cambodia, that visual yardstick to define international borders went by the boards. I think the most valuable thing I learned from Billy, besides head-butting metal wall lockers, was to keep my eyes out the window. There were two reasons for this. First of all, the war and target area was outside that window and secondly, and most importantly, that window was your primary navigation aid. After about a month of training, I passed my check ride with Bill Joyce.

"There are eight minds, sixteen hands and legs,
eight mouths — all acting as one.

Since I did not have a crew, I filled in with other crews, when their navigators were on R&R or leave. This was a great training opportunity because you got to see how other crews operated and picked up navigation tips from other experienced navigators. In general, all of the crews operated in the same manner, however, each crew had little idiosyncrasies that made that crew unique with little efficiencies, which worked for that crew. These are the little things that allow a crew to act as a single person and, as with any person, crews take on a unique personality. Watching a gunship crew operating in combat in the firing circle is a marvel to behold. It is an absolutely elegant and deadly Rube-Goldberg entity. There are eight minds, sixteen hands and legs, eight mouths --- all acting as one. You have the pilot holding the bank angle and keeping the cross hairs aligned and firing the guns. The co-pilot is holding the altitude and calling out the bank angle. The flight engineer (FE) is managing the power settings. The navigator is monitoring the timing off of the ground marker, confirming the validity of the target detected by the Night Optical Sensor (NOS) operator, and also acting as the range safety officer. The NOS is holding on to the target, which is being passed to the pilot's "gunsight" and directing the 20KW light bulb, capable of operating as a white light or in the near infra-red (IR) range. The two gunners are ensuring that the four 7.62 millimeter GE Gattling guns are always ready to come on line. (The Gattling had a selectable rate of fire of 3000 or 6000 rounds per minute per gun. A three-second burst with the proper rudder and wing waggle action could put one round in every square foot of a football field.) The illuminator operator (IO) is monitoring the illuminator and gas turbine power unit (GTPU), which powered the illuminator, and standing by to dispense markers or flares upon request. This is the Shadow's crew - deadly organized bedlam. They give life to this deadly valkyrian mistress of the night. The AC-119G with its mini-guns was designed to kill enemy personnel and we spent the night hunting these people. The AC-119G a deadly man - machine interface capable of seeing through the fog of war.

The Night of the SHADOW

A normal day in the life of a Shadow crew started with wake-up at about 2 PM. Wash-up and then walk down to the BX and Class VI store down by the heli-pad. Get back to the BOQ at 4 PM and suit up. Walk to the chow hall and get some dinner and back to the BOQ to wait for the bus. At 5:30 PM, catch the bus to SHADOW Ops on the flight line. You arrive at 5:45 PM, checked the flight schedule and picked up your survival vest. If you had the early IV Corps mission, then you pulled strip alert at SHADOW Ops after you landed. If you had the early III Corps alert, you were on-call in the BOQ after you landed. The late missions just flew their mission and returned to the BOQ after landing. The pilots checked the weather and the maintenance records. The NAV and the NOS for the night checked on the target boxes for the night and taped the artillery charts for each target box together and tried to identify good locations to drop the markers off of which they would run the timing runs. A lot of times you only had time to do two or three of these target boxes before you had to launch, which was okay because once airborne the situation could change at any time. The gunners checked the ammo load and guns. The FE went with the pilots to check the maintenance records and started the pre-flight. The IO checked the marker and flare load and the illuminator and GTPU maintenance records.

The early launches occurred at about 7PM. About 6:30 PM you boarded the plane, stowed your gear and waited for engine start. Engine start of the AC-119G always felt like what I imagined the engine start of a B-17 during WWII. The blades on the 3350 engine would slowly turn and you would hear this "wee -ooo, wee-ooo" sound. Then the engine would cough and finally catch. The engine would belch white exhaust smoke and the whole plane would shudder and finally the sound of the engine would smooth out to the guttural staccato sound associated with radial engines. Once both engines were running the IO would fire up the GTPU and check out the illuminator. We had to ensure that no one was near this area or we would literally fry the person.

Once all the checks were complete we taxied out to the runway. Before taking the active, there were engine run-ups and magneto checks and prop reverser checks to complete. While all of this was going on the Nav was on the FM radio with Saigon Arty requesting artillery clearance from Saigon direct Tan An he had already tuned Tan An Arty requesting artillery clearance Tan An along the redline (highways on the map were colored red) to My Tho. Once the pre-takeoff and takeoff checklists were complete, we started our take-off roll. The twin 3350's are straining as we lumber down the runway and you hear the out of sync engine sounds canceling and reinforcing the engine drone. The gunship struggles to break free of the runway and at about 6000 feet down the runway it succeeds. The ungainly aircraft is brought to life by her crew and transformed into a deadly hunter, a destroyer of enemy personnel

Once airborne, the pilots clean up the after takeoff checklist. The gunners ensure that the guns are loaded and, since we will be flying at 3500 feet, check the depression angle of the guns for that altitude. The IO checks out the illuminator with the NOS making sure that the NOS can slew the illuminator from his position and they run limits checks on the illuminator. The FE syncs the engines. The navigator leap frogs the FM radios, drops Saigon Arty and calls My Tho Arty requesting clearance down the redline Tan An, My Tho, My Tho down the red line to the blue line (rivers on maps are colored blue), down the blue line Vinh Long. By this time the Nav has moved to the jump seat and is looking out the window monitoring the aircraft position and having the NOS confirm some ground features. The night sky of III and IV Corps is his home. He knows the towns, roads, rivers, canals, lights, terrain better than his own hometown and he knows to within a couple of minutes how long it would take to get anywhere in those two corps. He has to. The effectiveness of his crew depends upon it and, more importantly, the lives of soldiers depend upon it. He lets the pilot know which target boxes are going to be worked. While he has some dead time, the NAV and the NOS discuss the target box and where they will drop the marker and how they will work the target box. This box is along the coast just south of Vinh Long with the Mekong river marking the northern edge. There are very few natural features except a lot of canals. When the tide is out, every little sand bar shows up and the canals except for the larger ones go dry. The Mekong river becomes, comparatively speaking, a stream. When the tide comes in, it literally stops the Mekong and backs it up all the way to Chau Doc, a town on the Vietnamese/Cambodian border about 120 miles in-land. Tonight the tide is in and the ground features will resemble those of the map. The copilot calls Paddy to tell them our destination, i.e., Vinh Long and we are at 3500 feet VFR (visual flight rules).

This is the monsoon season and the monsoon rains fade in and out. The occasional lightning flash provides the stroboscope that stops the motion of the props. The AC-119G has three of its four doors removed one for the flare dispenser, one for the illuminator, and one for the night optical sensor. When it rains, it seldom comes in through the open doors. However, it will leak through the floor where the centerline drop doors are located. The rain would run along the bottom of the aircraft and percolate up through the seams of the drop doors.

We leave Tan An Arty and call Vinh Long Arty for clearance from My Tho to Vinh Long down the blue line. You can see the My Tho army base in the distance. It's the one with the bright white lights around the perimeter. Once you depart My Tho, you call the ground controller for clearance into the target box and reconfirm the validity of the box. The greatest fear of any SHADOW crew is a short round (inadvertently firing on friendly forces). The target box is still valid as a free fire zone and we are cleared in and cleared to fire. We fly into the box and find the area to drop our marker. We drop it mark the point and take timing runs off of the marker. It takes a minute and a half before we reach the edge of the box. You err on the side of safety and start your reciprocal heading at one minute, instead of a minute and a half. Meanwhile the NOS is scanning the area for targets. Normally this target box has a lot of sampan activity, but not tonight. We make six timing runs and on the last run the NOS picks up a target. The pilot rolls into a firing circle and calls for one gun on the line with low rate of fire. You ask the NOS to describe the target. He identifies it as a large sampan. You ask him how large and he tells you it looks at least 100 feet long and about forty feet wide. The numbers and the size just do not sound right for a VC sampan. You call the ground controller and he confirms free fire zone and recommends engaging the target. You tell the pilot not to fire on the target because it just does not look right and our 7.62 would do little or no damage to the target. You tell the ground controller of your decision not to fire due to size of target and your caliber of weapons. He requests the coordinates because he has an Alpha Sierra (Air Strike) coming into his area and he will divert them to the sampan. The NOS is a little disappointed. He liked that target. You check out of that target box and get cleared into another target box about four kilometers south of the first box and under the same ground controller. You go through the same routine with the marker and timing run. On the first timing run the NOS picks up a sampan running for cover. The target description is good and you lay down a 15-second burst of 750 rounds and the target goes dead in the water. You mark down the coordinates of the target and the amount of ammo expended. You get ready for another timing run when the ground controller calls you. He tells you it's a good thing that you didn't fire on the "sampan". It was an RMK dredge, which had run aground and no one had been told about it. The crew was sleeping nearby and they intended to re-float it in the morning. Your judgment call was good one. RMK (the MK stood for Morrison and Knudsen I don't recall what the R was) was one of the major US construction firms operating in Vietnam during the war. After three more timing runs, you are ready to leave this target box for another target box when the co-pilot tells you that we have been diverted by TACC (Tactical Air Control Center) to support a troops in contact (TIC) near Chau Doc.

"For those of you who think wars
are fought and won with aviation gas
and ordinance, you're wrong."

You clear out with the ground controller and tell the pilot to head north pick up the Mekong River and follow it in land to Chau Doc. You start the whole process of artillery clearances. Whenever possible you try to travel on the blue line because the blue line is the boundary for a lot of the provinces and rarely will they fire artillery across the Mekong. Each of the province chiefs jealously control and guard their province. The air space above the river is probably the safest air space in Vietnam. The pilot boosts the airspeed to 170 knots from the 120 knots we normally use in the firing circle. You provide an ETE (estimated time enroute) of 40 minutes. Meanwhile, you work with Paddy and the TACC on getting the clearance to fire. Part of the rules of engagement (ROE) is that you be cleared to fire, even if it is a TIC. Clearance to fire must be coordinated with the village chief and the province chief. Twenty minutes into the flight to Chau Doc, as you pass Binh Thuy and head into Long Xuyen province, you still have no clearance to fire. You call Paddy and ask what's the hang up on the firing clearance and Paddy tells you they are having problems finding the province chief. What away to fight a war. You look up ahead and you can see Chau Doc and still no clearance. As you approach Chau Doc, you call the ground controller. He clears you direct to the canal that runs north south 1 klick away from the Vietnamese/Cambodian border. The canal is 50 to 60 meters wide and goes all the way to the ocean. The ground controller tells you that you will be providing cover to a Navy barge located about 15 miles south of Chau Doc. The Navy patrols this canal regularly and the barges are well armed with 30 and 50 cal, mortars and lightweight howitzers. At night, the VC normally cross from Cambodia and try to get to the Seven Sisters Mountains, a VC stronghold about 20 miles from the border. The barge made contact and had a "fire fight". You arrive at the Navy barge establish radio contact get coordinates of enemy locations and you still have no clearance to fire. You let the Navy know what the problem is and he understands because he has the same rules of engagement and frequently has the same problems. After 15 minutes in-station we are cleared to fire. An hour and ten minutes from being notified we get clearance to fire and only within a five klick radius of the barge. We fire on co-ordinates provided to us by the Navy. We have now been airborne for four hours and are bingo fuel and need to return to base (RTB). Saigon and Tan Son Nhut is an hour away. The Nav starts getting the artillery clearances for the return trip. For those of you who think wars are fought and won with aviation gas and ordinance, you're wrong. There is a group of people who believe that it's the correct tonnage of paperwork that wins wars. On the way back besides getting artillery clearances and navigating, the Nav is also cleaning up the paperwork on the target coordinates, which were fired upon, and the amount of ordinance for each target. Meanwhile, the FE is logging all the aircraft maintenance discrepancies. It is midnight when we land at TSN logging 5.3 hours of flying time. We taxi into the parking stub shut the engines down and another routine mission is done. After maintenance and ops debriefs and talking to the crew that is getting ready to go to IV corps, you head for the BOQ. Take a shower. Have a drink or two and talk about the mission and, finally, hit the rack at about 3AM. Mission Complete — for tonight.


Stories are submitted based on the authors recollection and verification of events and equipment of many years ago. If you detect an area of the story that needs to be corrected please contact the webmaster. When doing so it will be helpful if you have personal information or supporting documents to justify making the correction.

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