Excerpt from Volume 1, Chapter 13: Straygoose, by Richard H. Sell, USAF
Date of hire by Western Airlines: 4/22/1968
Our primary navigation mode became map-reading! Thankfully the Lockheed C-130 was designed with large cockpit and lower side windows for ease of vision in getting in and out of small unimproved airfields. We used this to our advantage because we had three pilots, two navigators, an electronic warfare navigator, two flight engineers, two loadmasters, and a radio-man – lots of eyeballs!
After planning our route around the known enemy defenses and plotting the easily visible landmarks such as isolated mountains, river junctions and small towns, we next had to consider the weather. One of our requirements was that the moon had to be more than half-full and we had to have about 10-15 miles flight visibility. The forecast for this night was marginal, but due to the urgency we opted to go.
Continuing the briefing, we covered communications. We would not have fighter escort and we would maintain radio silence other than several quick code busts to headquarters of success or failure of the mission. Our own GCI (Ground Controlled Intercept) radar sites would only be told that a friendly would pop up at 0100 at a certain location about 90 miles southwest of Hanoi. We reviewed our escape and evasion procedures, knowing it was one long walk out (would we trust that one of our own would come in and pick us up? – that would be much better than a bamboo cage!)All insignia and identifying personal articles were collected in bags and held for us. We checked our green mesh survival vests for the emergency radio, the E & E (Escape and Evasion) survival kits and the Smith & Wesson Combat Masterpiece .38 caliber revolver (the enlisted men also had M-16 rifles, which was the total of the armament on our aircraft).
Normally for our cross-border missions we would fly to Nakhom Phanom Air Base (NKP) Thailand on the border of the panhandle of Laos. It was a forward field nearly on the same latitude as the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) between North and South Vietnam. It was heavily used by allied commando aircraft to interdict the flow of munitions and troops along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Also the A-1 Skyraiders (call sign Sandy) were there providing air cover for rescue operations. We often used this base to rest before the night missions as it was many miles closer to our targets than NhaTrang.
However, due to the secrecy of this mission and its deep penetration into northern Laos and North Vietnam, we would start and end the flight at our home base of NhaTrang. We would depart NhaTrang and fly up the coast to Da Nang, then over Laos to Udorn RTAB, Thailand. Instead of landing, we would make a low pass over the field as if we were landing, then depart on a low-level route to the north. On return we would again make a low pass over Udorn before proceeding to our home base. Hopefully this would confuse any spies, but it made for a long, seven hour mission.
The night of January 16th we launched for our mission and for once the weather man got his forecast right; visibility was marginal at best. This was the dry season in interior Vietnam and Laos, and the farmers were burning off their rice fields.We had flown nearly half of our route to the target when our Doppler radar failed. This, and the poor visibility, was cause for an automatic abort (cancellation) of the mission, so we returned to NhaTrang.
Our crews used a first-in, first-out rotation for our missions but since we had already briefed and planned the mission, we were told we had to do it again until we got it right! So we crawled into our air-conditioned barracks (a real rarity in Vietnam, even the Base Commander did not have A/C) and slept the day through. That night the weatherman came into the briefing room smiling like a Cheshire cat, with a forecast of 15 miles visibility and a bright moon. The mission was on.
We launched about 2200. Everything on the airplane was working perfectly and the crew was full of adrenalin, feeling the fear and excitement of being in enemy territory in a large unarmed transport airplane. After crossing over Udorn Air Base, Thailand, we raced along at 500 feet above the ground, observing orange flashing anti-aircraft fire tracking us from the Ho Chi Minh Trail mountains below us on the right as we proceeded north up the 250 mile track in Laos to our target in North Vietnam. The gunners did not seem to have a clue to our altitude as the shells exploded well above us. Our navigator, Captain Les Smith commented,“Wow! That sure looks close.” Major Howard Reeve, the aircraft commander, responded, “No, it’s way off. They’re just firing for effect.” Captain Smith came back with, “Well, it’s effective as hell as far as I’m concerned!”
At our speed of 250 knots it would take us about one hour to get over the target once we crossed into northern Laos. We were easily able to pick out the lights of towns (Vientiane and Luang Prabang come to mind on the way in and Dien Bien Phu on the egress), and silvery river junctions and dark mountains stood out plainly in the moonlight. Two minutes before drop time we lowered our wing flaps and slowed the airplane to 115 knots, opened the back cargo door, lowered the ramp, and prepared to drop the five heavy pallets. One minute out and we popped up to 1200 feet. Thirty seconds to go and suddenly we saw the lighted flare pots in the form of a long cross. We were only a few hundred yards out of alignment so we kicked the rudder and made a shallow turn to line up.
“Green Light”! Just 15 seconds off our planned TOT. Verbal, mechanical and electrical signals immediately dumped the load out the aft door in a matter of seconds, dragged by heavy cargo parachutes. (This procedure was called low level extraction. The floor of the C-130 cargo compartment had tracks with small wheels so the pallets could be loaded with a fork lift, then rolled into position and secured by hand. A cargo parachute was attached to the end of each pallet so when coming up on the drop zone the cargo door was opened and the pallets were released from their tie downs.The aircraft was flown with the wing flaps extended, in a nose up attitude and at a low speed. The pallets then rolled back to the end of the ramp where the parachute would deploy in the slip stream and pull the pallet out. The pallet then would basically free fall from 1200 feet.)
“Red Light!” The navigator signaled the end of the drop and the loadmaster declared, “Load Away.” As we popped up to 1200 feet for the drop we could plainly see the lights of Hanoi some 90 miles away, but we thought we still had not been detected by enemy radar.
Buttoning up the cargo door and raising the wing flaps, we turned left off the target and accelerated to 250 knots as we started our descent to 500 feet for radar avoidance on the egress south back toward Laos, then to Thailand and on to South Vietnam.
Suddenly the sky lit up with tracers and flashes as anti-aircraft shells exploded around us. We ducked and dodged left and right for what seemed like minutes but was really just a few seconds, then soon found ourselves back in the serenity of the quiet, moonlit skies, coasting along the ridge tops and karst peaks and down into the valleys. A damage report on interphone said, “No hits, no damage, let’s go home.” The radio operator sent his specially coded“Mission Successful” message out on his secret HF radio frequency (which went to an operator named “Bugs” in the Philippines), and we all took a deep breath and wiped our sweaty hands.
Three and a half hours later we made our recovery back at our home base, NhaTrang. During the debriefing, intelligence was surprised (really!) by the report of anti-aircraft fire at that position. We told him he should have been there. Our compassionate flight surgeon had provided the debriefing team with some Bushmill’s medicinal whiskey, so we all congratulated each other on this, the first successful C-130 resupply mission over North Vietnam.
Our crew soon received a personal message from General William Westmoreland, Commander of U.S. Forces in Vietnam, commending us for flying a critical combat mission in support of unconventional warfare operations in a hostile environment (unclassified version). For this mission, the entire crew of SG-5, six officers and five enlisted men, received the Distinguished Flying Cross. We also heard,in a report from the team on the ground, that four of the five pallets had hit directly on the drop zone and the other was a hundred meters to the left (needed more wind correction).
I had six more missions over Laos, North Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin, dropping leaflets and supplies. There were many in-country (in South Vietnam) flights, re-supplying the Special Forces SOG teams at forward air strips. I was also the unit intelligence officer and helped plan several Skyhook rescue attempts of downed pilots in North Vietnam, using the Fulton Recovery System in the spring of 1967. Regrettably, one pilot was captured before we could get there and another lost radio contact and was presumed killed.
I recall one humorous event of interest; our mascot was a white duck named Maynard, even though he should have been a “stray goose.” We brought him all the way from Pope Air Force Base and he was familiar with every Officers’ Club and bar we frequented. His favorite drink, I believe, was a martini, very dry (shaken, not stirred). In any event, he died of cirrhosis of the liver and his owner, who was on another SG crew, buried him at sea from 20,000 feet while on a psychological warfare (leaflet) drop over North Vietnamese waters.