71st SOS Mission in Review: April 1968 - June 1969

 Notification of Call-up: 11 Apr 1968

On Thursday morning 11 Apr 1968 newscasters on Indiana radio stations were announcing the call-up of an Air Force Reserve unit from Indiana. The news flash announced that reservists of the 930th Tactical Airlift Group of the 434th Tactical Airlift Wing, Bakalar AFB, Columbus, IN were being called to active duty. Nearly 600 men and women were included in the initial notification. The report date for active duty was 13 May 1968 to allow the reservists 30 days to get their personal matters in order. The recall alert on April 11 came four days after many Reserve Units had been involved in transporting troops to troubled areas following the Martin Luther King assanation. The 930th/71st had departed Bakalar AFB late on Saturday 6 April 1968 to transport troops from Ft. Benning, GA to Andrews AFB, MD. Most of the crews completed the mission and returned to Bakalar as part of a UTA weekend, 6 and 7 April 1968.

Two days prior to the report date, the same newscasters announced that selected units of the 930th would not be required to report to active duty. These elements included the Combat Support Squadron, Supply Squadron, and other support units. The remaining units to report for active duty on 13 May were the members of the 71st Tactical Airlift Squadron (flight crews), the 930th HQ, and the aircraft maintenance and aerial port squadrons. Many members of the 930th felt a genuine letdown when they were released from the call-up. Others were relieved, and resumed their normal civilian occupations. Of the 600 members of the 930th, about half were affected by the call-up.

As could be expected, some hardships were created by the call-up. There were college students with only weeks to finish work on degrees, farmers, sole bread winners, and expectant fathers and grandfathers. Hardships were reviewed and handled on an individual basis.

The circumstances surrounding the selection of the 930th Troop Carrier Group over other units for recall and eventual deployment to Vietnam were not generally known until many years later. The next paragraph is the best recollection of those circumstances by Col. Al Heuss.

Prior to 1968, several Air Reserve Technicians (ARTs) that served with the 434th Troop Carrier Wing and 930th Troop Carrier Group had moved to positions at Reserve HQ in the Pentagon. The conflict in Vietnam had escalated drastically as a result of the 1968 TET offensive and the Pueblo incident. The aging fleet of AC-47 Spooky gunships in Vietnam came under close scrutiny by the Air Force. It was determined the only readily available fleet of aircraft to replace the AC-47s was the Reserve C-119 fleet. At that time there were about 450 C-119s in the Reserve force. A decision was made to develop a gunship weapons system for the C-119 in early 1968. There is some indication the recommendation to call the 930th/71st to active duty came from two former 434th ARTs, then Col William Crandall and then Major Billie Knowles.

Report Date: 13 May 1968

Training began almost immediately with air crews receiving updated ground training, medical and personal record checks, and preparation for the mission assignment. By the end of May, word was received that the unit would be transferred to Lockbourne AFB, Columbus, OH, and the mission would be the transition to the AC-119 gunship, a new concept in aerial warfare. The 930th/71st was activated for the specific purpose of expediting the new gunship platform into the Southeast Asia conflict as quickly as possible. The call-up of a well trained and experienced C-119 Reserve unit was the most logical way to expedite the new platform into combat in a timely manner.

Transfer to Lockbourne AFB, Ohio

During late May and early June, the activated units at Bakalar AFB planned and executed the move to Ohio using the unit's own C-119G "Flying Boxcars". No direct support from the regular Air Force was requested. Prior mobility training during weekend UTAs and summer encampments proved a great benefit in moving the entire complement of equipment - one quarter million pounds of it, including records and personnel.

Transition from C-119G Cargo Aircraft to Gunships

The gunship version of the conventional C-119G was designated the AC-119G, "A" being the Air Force's designation for Attack type aircraft. The AC-119 variations were known also as Gunship III, the third generation of the Tactical Air Command's newest aerial combat platform. The AC-119s were modified to employ gunnery techniques pioneered on the AC-47 "Spooky" gunship. The AC-47 was designated as Gunship I and the AC-130 was designated Gunship II in the development sequence.

Shortly after the unit's arrival at Lockbourne AFB, flight and maintenance crews were introduced to the gunship technology and attack philosophy. The newly designated 71st Special Operations Squadron (SOS) was initially scheduled to leave Lockbourne AFB on 27 July 1968 for deployment to Vietnam. The deployment was delayed until December 1968 as a result of aircraft weight and single engine performance concerns, and slow delivery of key components. Modifications were made to armor and equipment to meet the performance criteria.

The hurried design of the new training program also created some problems - no mock-ups and few training aids were available. Flight crews, familiar with hauling men and cargo, had to learn how to use sophisticated electronic gear and to thread their ways at low altitudes across battlefields blanketed with artillery barrages from ground gun positions. They had to learn to operate advanced aerial floodlighting devices, and to fire mini-guns and flare launchers. Each pilot and crew flew only ten practice missions along with about 40 hours of ground school. One bright aspect to the training was the convenient location of ground and water range facilities. Camp Atterbury served as the practice range for land operations and Lake Erie provided over water range facilities.

Familiarization with the gunship

The most obvious visual difference of the AC-119 is the black and camouflaged paint scheme. Additional, not so subtle external differences include special radio antennas, protruding gun barrels out of the left cargo compartment, and sophisticated equipment occupying each door opening. A look inside the cargo compartment quickly reveals the very serious nature of this night fighter. The compartment is now filled with four 7.62mm mini-guns, a million candlepower illuminator with its 20,000 watt turbine generator, and a pneumatic flare launcher capable of holding 24 two million candlepower Mk-24 Mod 3 flares. Ammunition racks with a capacity of 35,000 rounds now occupy spaces that troops once occupied on more peaceful missions.

The original front crew entrance door now serves as the Night Observation Scope (NOS) station. It contains a precision electro-optical instrument capable of amplifying reflected ambient night illumination to produce a clear image of ground targets on the darkest of nights. On the flight deck, the lead computing optical gunsight is located just aft of the pilot's left shoulder. The navigator's station reveals the fire control system composed of an analog computer and gunfire control display unit. The unit receives target data from the NOS, digests it and transmits it to the pilot's gunsight, enabling him to strike a target on the ground with no direct visual contact. Two FM radios, two UHF radios, and two other special radios for homing, tracking, and navigation complete the installation.

The gunship flight crew consists of eight members; two pilots, two navigators (one as the gunfire control officer and the other as the NOS operator), flight engineer, two aerial gunners, and one Illuminator Operator (IO).

The gunship attack philosophy is to orbit above a target in such a manner as to effect nearly continuous accurate ordinance delivery from a firing point on the circumference of a 360 degree circle. The pilot holds the turn by sighting the target through his side looking, side mounted optical sight.

Aircraft and Aircrew Deployment to Vietnam

Air crews ferried the eighteen AC-119G aircraft over a 10,000 mile route across the Pacific Ocean. The shortest time en route was 11 days and the longest was 51 days. The 4440th Ferry Group was not adequately prepared en route with C-119 spare parts. This was nothing new to the Reservists who had been flying the "dollar nineteen" for twelve years, and were used to problems of this nature. It was because of en route maintenance support kits, prepared by the reservists that the aircraft movement was accomplished without more serious delays. All aircraft had safely arrived at Nha Trang, Vietnam by early March, 1969.

Post Arrival in Vietnam

Once the aircraft had arrived at Nha Trang, they were inspected and prepared for combat ready status. Flight crews were required to attend survival school, or "snake school", at the Philippine Islands prior to combat flights.

Typical Night Combat Mission

A mission begins in the intelligence briefing room where targets are assigned by direct air support control agencies. Enemy actions are briefed; escape and evasion, safe ground havens and rescue procedures are covered. Navigators plan their routes to the target, obtaining all artillery activity and heavy bomb strike data. Pilots brief their crews on all aspects of the mission: survival gear is donned and the mission is airborne.

The 1st navigator now takes over all air-ground communications to obtain necessary clearances to traverse the many artillery sectors en route to the target. Many times he is working three radios and as many ground agencies at the same time. He clears and directs the pilot along the sometimes devious routes to the target - obtaining assistance from his pilotage, radar vectors, and TACAN, the primary navigation aids. Approaching the target area, both navigators work as a team to accurately acquire and identify the target. Meanwhile, the pilots, gunners, and illuminator operator are running checks lists to ready all weapons systems for action. Positive target identification accomplished, the 1st navigator now must obtain the clearance to fire from a control province chief. There is a definite and positive requirement for this clearance to preclude injuries to friendly troops or damage to friendly real estate.

Firing clearance obtained, both navigators continue their close teamwork, supplying the pilot with necessary data. The pilot has maneuvered the aircraft to the target, enters the firing circle, and transitions from aircraft instruments to the gunsight. While the co-pilot maintains altitude control, he presses the trigger and delivers the deadly 7.62mm rounds of ordinance.

Navigator and NOS operator must now assess the damage they can observe from the air. They look for secondary explosions, fires, dust, and any other indications of a kill. Usually this is obvious to ground troops-in-contact (TIC) as enemy action ceases when "SHADOW" fires.

En route back to the base after completion of the support, the 1st navigator must again obtain clearances, plotting and navigating through all artillery sectors and control zones. The pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer are now computing fuel, making power adjustments, assessing battle damage, running check lists, and readying the aircraft for a possible call to more action on the trip home. Gunners reload, police spent brass, and repair weapons. Assuming there are no calls for additional support, the crew returns to base and attends a debriefing where they provide information to intelligence personnel for compiling mission reports. At that time, they also shed 70 odd pounds of survival gear they have been wearing during the mission.

This is a simplified but fairly typical mission flown by 71st SOS crews in Vietnam. Some were merely routine and others far more intense with actual duels with .51 cal. ground sites. One crew provided airborne illumination while a Doctor operated on a badly wounded soldier. One crew saved many lives by calling off a B-52 bombing in an area where friendly troops were located. The list went on and on. Most crews brought back audio tapes from their missions that are truly enlightening. One in particular, ends with the ground troop (Hotel 4 Bravo) saying "Thank you much...you made DEROS possible". Those seven simple words, packed with meaning, are the essence of Shadow's mission, and similar words were repeated hundreds of times.

Most missions were scheduled for five hours. Many times they rearmed, refueled, and relaunched. Assigned target areas would range from infiltration trails to base camps; from troops-in-contact to villages under siege. Many times a frantic call to divert would require a full power run to action as far as 80-100 miles away. Crew integrity, training, coordination and aircraft MAINTENANCE were vital factors in a combat ready unit.

A review of the 71st SOS's Presence in Vietnam
1 Jan 69 through 31 May 69

The accomplishments of the 71st SOS during the period 1 Jan 69 through 31 May 69 were very impressive. The unit operated at three locations in Vietnam. "A" Flight was located at Nha Trang and flew 2,697 hours with 764 combat missions. "B" Flight, located at Phan Rang AB, flew 1,985 hours on 372 combat missions. "C" Flight at Tan Son Nhut AB (Saigon), flew 1,568 hours on 350 combat missions. Together the three flights accounted for 1,586 missions, expending 14, 555, 150 rounds of 7.62mm ordinance. Battle damage assessment from the 7th Air Force confirmed 682 enemy killed, with an additional 1,104 presumed killed by 71st SOS gunships. With its night time flying missions, the 71st caught and destroyed 43 enemy vehicles en route to battle zones with much needed supplies from the Communist North.

The 71st SOS also participated in a number of Army and Marine ground operations. The Shadow gunships supported I Corps "Purple Mountain" and "Dewey Canyon" operations, the II Corps "Green Basket" and "Putnam Panther" drives on the VC, and operations such as the "Toan Thang" in III Corps and "Speedy Express" in IV Corps. The air support provided by the 71st SOS proved essential to land operations in destroying enemy movements throughout their assigned areas. Additional Air Force operations supported by the 71st while in the combat zone included a UFO hunt, operation "Whiskey Box", the choke-point interdiction operation, and support of Ben Het area operations.

The final 71st SOS action in Vietnam was turning over the unit command of the AC-119Gs to the 17th SOS. The majority of the Reservists of the 71st SOS departed Nha Trang on 5 Jun 69 and arrived back at their home base on 6 Jun 69 (ironically, the 25th anniversary of D-Day).

71st SOS Accolades and Commendations

For service performed in Vietnam, the unit was awarded the Air Force Outstanding Unit Citation. Members of the unit were also submitted for 751 Air Medals, 143 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 18 Bronze Star Medals, and 47 Air Force Commendation Medals. Purple Hearts were awarded to two men for injuries sustained on missions.

Indiana Governor Edgar D. Whitcomb presented each reservist with a Service Recognition Certificate from the State of Indiana - the first such award ever given by the State.

Governor Whitcomb was a B-17 navigator assigned to the 19th Bombardment Group (Heavy) and stationed at Clark Field, PI on 8 Dec 1941. He witnessed and survived the Japanese bombing attack on Clark Field on that day. The unit was ordered from Clark Field on 23 Dec 41 to nearby Corregidor. After being captured by the Japanese, he was faced with a split-second decision that set off a sequence of narrow escapes, captures, and final extrication from enemy territory. Ed rejoined the Army Air Corps in the Pacific until the end of WW II, and retired from the Air Force Reserve with the rank of Colonel.

"Escape From Corregidor" is an autobiography by Edgar D. Whitcomb that documents his captures and escapes. Henry Regnery Company, 1958.

Development of the Fixed Wing Gunships | AC-119G Successor units of the 71st SOS

Selection and Activation Chronology of the 71st  | Detailed Activation Description, by Col. James E. Pyle

Development of the "Shadow" Graphic, by Phil Bender | Development of the "Shadow" Calling Card by Al Reynolds

Lineage of the 71st | Flight Crew Roster, Mar 1969 | 71st SOS Mission in Review | Guest Book

Return to:

The 71st Special Operations Squadron | Home