Electric Goons of “Naked Fanny”
By Ed Marek, editor
March 28, 2011
Memoirs: Establishment of Det 3, 6994th Security Squadron, NKP RTAFB, Thailand
Much of this section has been assembled from memoirs from the men who flew with Det 3, 6994th SS at NKP. I inserted some history from my research to fill gaps, and reminisced a bit myself here and there. I should warn you up front that I will bounce around a lot, as certain things jog a memory of my own that I want to plug in there.
As is common among military men and women who have served at war, the Det 3 guys were largely reluctant to send me their memoirs. However, those who did provided enough to get this section together. That said, there might well be gaping holes and mistakes in the way I interpreted their memoirs.
There is no story that is better than a GI’s story. It is a characteristic of GIs at war to remember all kinds of things, many of which have nothing to do with flying and fighting. You will see some of that here. But these memories are a key part of our history, and to my mind must be documented.
I urge all who were with the Det 3 at NKP to send in their memoirs.
I’ve borrowed a lot of photos from Rick Yeh’s presentation I mentioned in the introduction, "6994th Security Squadron," This is among my favorites. It is of a crew after a fini flight for Guy Fox. L-R: Navigator, Capt Balki, co-pilot, Nick Keen (blocked), Rick Yeh, Guy Fox, Ed Flinchum, Lon Hamernik (white cap), Ben Spear, Jimmie Butler. This is at the end of a long flight, and young Guy Fox has been appropriately watered down as was the tradition for a flier on his last combat mission.
I look at this photo so many years later and I say, “Yep, those are the guys I am so very proud to have served with. I love ‘em all. They had spunk.” They also were smart, loyal Americans doing their duty in an unpopular war over the especially secretive Laos and doing it with uncanny courage and bravery.
Just to get it out of my system, here was my fini crew: Front left-right: Fred Daring, TEWS co-pilot. Standing, left-to-right, Don Whitman, Karl Hammerle, Skeeter Dickerson, Jim McGee, me, Ed Marek with hat and bottle and soaking wet from being “greeted” with pales of water, our TEWS navigator and the mission pilot and aircraft commander. Note my hat. We all loved wearing our special hats aboard a mission. Mine had a red, white and blue ribbon around it. My jaws are still tight that in all my military assignment moves I have lost it. That was a hat!
To show you I could pick ‘em, three of the enlisted crew on my fini flight would advance to the rank of Chief Master Sergeant, Don Whitman, Paul Weyandt and Karl Hammerle. As you’ll see in the next paragraph, one, Jim McGee, is now the US Ambassador to Zimbabwe! Love it.
Let’s get on with setting up this detachment and digging through the memoirs. First just a little more background is needed on NKP.
For anyone who knows anything about the Vietnam-Laos-Cambodia Indochina war, they know or think they know something of Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Base, NKP RTAFB, Thailand, known as "NKP" for short, or "Naked Fanny" to those stationed there.
She was carved out of the jungle along the northeast corner of Thailand where the Mekong twists from an easterly to a southernly direction. Navy Seabees arrived in 1962 to set up this air base. You can see them hard at work here clearing the area and leveling her up.
Compared to the other air bases in Thailand, NKP was in the boon docks and was a rudimentary base by USAF standards. That said, the Marines would come to NKP for rest and relaxation (R&R). They thought NKP was paradise! Compared to being on or inside the DMZ, I’m certain that is right.
Robert Kaylor, writing for the Washington Post edition of September 25, 1968, said what is typically said in one form or another about this air base:
"The U.S. Air Force is waging a secret and unconventional phase of the air war in Southeast Asia from this base across the Mekong River from Laos.
"The American pilots involved wear midnight-black flight suits and fly camouflaged twin-engine A26 bombers without identifying insignia. One of the seven U.S. bases in Thailand, theirs alone is cloaked in secrecy.
"Inquiries about the mission of the U.S. 56th Special Operations Wing at Nakhon Phanom are met with a terse 'no comment' from U.S. officials.
"The base is less than 5 minutes flying time from areas of technically neutral Laos where there has been fighting between Laotian forces and Communist North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces.
"U.S. officials have disclosed that American pilots fly 'armed reconnaissance' missions in Laos at the request of the Laotian government to prevent Communist infiltration over the Ho Chi Minh trail, which meanders several hundred miles down Eastern Laos. These flights are permitted to shoot back if fired upon.
"There never has been any official admission of U.S. warplane support for ground troops in the country."
The reason that Ambassador Sullivan in Vientiane wanted EC-47s at NKP was this: location, location, location. You’ve seen this map of the ARDF task areas before. The base was very close to Laos. On many missions, you could be into Laos, "across the fence" as the crews said, a few minutes after take-off.
You will recall that the Rolling Thunder bombing program of North Vietnam was terminated in 1968, after which the emphasis turned to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, at least for MACV. As I’ve said a number of times, the ambassador in Vientiane was interested in the war inside Laos. So it’s 1969, the EC-47s at NKP are about to go operational, and they’re going to handle both missions.
NKP RTAFB was about nine miles from NKP City. This is a photo of Steve Sperry on the left, “Ski” on the right, relaxing along the Mekong downtown. That’s Laos across the river. Those karsts were formidable and a warning of the tough terrain that marked much of northern Laos especially.
This is another shot from along the Mekong River embankment at NKP CIty. You can see a Thai Patrol boat docked and Laos across the river.
The base was close to the PDJ and the rugged terrain of Laos in the north. Two photos of the PDJ taken from Det 3 Goonies are shown next.
Northern Laos had a lot of high country, as shown next in a Det 3 photo.
The Bolovens Plateau, shown next, was in the south.
Then, of course, the Ho Chi Minh Trail traversing eastern Laos.
This is a photo of the trail which I believe was taken by a Pleiku EC-47 crew in 1967. By the time I got there in 1972, there was no way we would overfly the trail. She was too heavily fortified and crawling with enemy. I do not believe Det 3 crews overflew her, but I do know they got pretty darn close.
Furthermore, missions could be flown from NKP to the RVN, either round-robin or with layovers at Danang in northern RVN, and they could also be flown to Cambodia round-robin as needed.
Piecing together how this Det at NKP started has been the hardest part of assembling this report. I have found some histories but have relied a lot on the memoirs sent to me by the men who were there. I’ll do my best to synchronize the inputs but please speak up if you see glaring errors or wish to debate someone’s memories. Most important, I want more memoirs. Loosen up guys. The history has to be written, and you need to tell it. The last WWI Vet just died. The WWII guys are going. Next the men from Korea, and we’re next in line, so it’s important to get your memories down. Future generations are depending on you.
Lenny Lambert, at the time a technical sergeant, and Major Steve Mrak were sent in early (sometime June 1968-December 1968) to NKP to evaluate and document the establishment of the unit at NKP because of the wasted flying time from Pleiku, in most instances the lost time over target. They did their evaluation, HQ USAFSS and the 6994th SS evaluated it, and established Det 3. Lambert has said, “This was done because the area was cherry. You could not have picked a better spot.”
Col. Don Luttrell was the 6994th SS commander from 1968-1969 and was in command when Det 3 activated. Luttrell was a pilot and flew some of the EC-47 missions out of Tan Son Nhut. Lt. Col. Duane Russell followed.
The 460th TRW established Det 2, 460th TRW with three aircraft authorized at NKP on April 6, 1969, also as a tenant. However, Paul Halpern who was with the TEWS has told me they had five aircraft and nine crews to fly and maintain the aircraft. He said at times they were joined by a crew from Pleiku or Phu Cat for a one to three day TDY. He commented they were not used to the 57 mm AAA fire encountered on the Laotian missions.
By tenant I mean that the TEWS fliers and aircraft remained subordinate to the 460th TRW at Tan Son Nhut and Det 3, 6994th remained subordinate to the 6994th SS also at Tan Son Nhut. They were not subordinate to their host, the 56th SOW. The 56th SOW could provide only routine maintenance so aircraft were constantly flying back to Tan Son Nhut for the heavy duty stuff.
“During April and early May when I left, we had between three to five birds at NKP, all of them were TDY from Vietnam bases and one or two missions were being flown (per day). All these birds were either the ALR-34 or ALR-35’s.”
George said he and Lester were flown from Tan Son Nhut to Pleiku, RVN, picked up some fuel, and then arrived at NKP. He affirms their stature in the eyes of most men in the squadron. He said this:
"We flew up via Pleiku (refueling stop) and when we landed at NKP there was a big reception committee waiting for us with a large banner welcoming us. They even had a cake. The front end crew were shown to where they were staying and we were sent to the 3 tents allocated to our detachment. Everything was in the tents that we needed, the beds were even made. Then we were shown the vans that would be our operations area."
STANEVAL flights began within 72 hours of activation of Det 3. Luckily, George brought two Instructor Rated Operators (IROs) with him to help evaluate the men at the Det. I should emphasize here that STANEVAL was and remains an Air Force wide program. The front-end pilots and navigators went through rigorous evaluations, on the ground and in the air, and so did the USAFSS back-end enlisted crews.
I can speak only for myself, but I would much rather have the Inspector General (IG) come in to check out my operation than STANEVAL. The STANEVAL had too many very smart NCOs in it who knew the ropes inside and out, and they were like a bunch of old ladies with their incessant penchant for detail for the way we operated and kept records. As much as STANEVAL drove me nuts, I made sure I assigned the best two operators I had to run the shop and there was no way we wanted to run afoul of STANEVAL. STANEVAL teams were always given the red carpet treatment. The thinking was that those being evaluated should put their best foot forward, show the team at their best. That might smell of "brown-nosing," but it would do the unit no good at all to show themselves at less-than-best.
Using the three aircraft that got there initially, the Det was to fly two missions per day. These aircraft had two Det 3 positions, X and Y, each manned by a 292X1 manual Morse intercept operator, X operated by the AMS.
Later on, the Det received a fourth aircraft, this one equipped with four Det 3 positions, X, Y, Z-1 and Z-2. The Z-1 position was usually manned by an AFSC 203 (linguist) and Z-2 with a third 292X1 or another 203, depending on the mission tasking.
Speaking about the first operators to get there, George provided these comments:
“As to who the original personnel (were at NKP), I can guarantee that none of them were TDY (temporary duty) from any of the 94th, they all came in from outside Southeast Asia. They came in small groups and no one had a current flight physical so the IROs I brought with me had to fly the first mission that we were tasked to accomplish within 72 hours of the Detachment activation. As I mentioned in my first email, we even had those six from the states, three from San Antonio (HQ USAFSS) and three from Goodfellow (USAFSS Training Schools). As I remember it, most if not all the operations people were ex-94th but none had been flying since they left Vietnam. That is the reason I spent so much time along with my IROs. We had to get some of them up to speed so they could take over and we could leave. The only thing I am not sure of is if they were TDY or PCS (Permanent Change of Station).”
“I had to write a trip report on my TDY (to NKP) and most of it was commenting on the stupidity of the people that selected the personnel. While they did send personnel who were qualified to fly, they did not insist that they have a current flight physical and not one of them did. Then three of the people that came from U.S. bases were sent commercial all the way without a visa to enter Thailand and naturally they were denied entry and had to go on to Hong Kong and stay there several days until the embassy there could arrange a visa for them. Then it turned out that one of them had applied for an early-out to attend college. While he was en-route from Hong Kong we received a TWX telling us to put him on a plane back to the States for discharge.
“Most of my time was spent on administration, I only flew about three or four missions and that was a big pain. It was a first for me being in a unit starting up from scratch. But I will say that the CIA had a lot of pull, from the Base Commander on down we had all the support we needed. When we arrived we were assigned three tents and they were fully set up; we didn't even have to make a bed.”
So according to Montague, the other 94th Dets in the RVN did not have to contribute any operators to get things rolling at the outset. Montague said the idea of sending 6994th operators from existing resources in the RVN was an irritant for the 6994th. As rumblings of an EC-47 permanent basing requirement at NKP made its rounds, the 94th felt it already did not have enough operators to handle the RVN missions and was reluctant to send men TDY from those units to fly out of NKP. The 94th felt it was already doing “more with less.” Montague’s assessment was that 30 people would be needed, so the force structure for the needed resources was not trivial.
One issue the USAFSS had to face was that Thailand had a headroom ceiling and a ceiling on the number of Americans holding Top Secret Special Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) security clearances. The 6994th crews all had to have these clearances. Apparently there was a dog fight between the USAFSS and the Army, and the Army feared it would have to give up TS/SCI slots. One source indicated that eventually the slots came from reductions in EB-66 Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) missions staging from Thailand, though another source has said the Army did have to give up some slots. Montague said that had this issue been handled more swiftly, Det 3 could have been up and going months earlier.
As it turns out, the Thais were well aware that the US had many other ground-based and airborne intelligence collection units in Thailand. The Thai leadership began to worry that the US had too many “spooks” in country. The Thais acquiesced when assured that the EC-47 had a unique mission that did not duplicate anything else being done from Thailand. The US also emphasized that the EC-47 missions would be in direct support of tactical commanders on the ground, which meant to the Thais that they were not in the “spook” category.
Bobby ”BJ” Witt, about whom I will talk more in a moment, was among the very first NCOs to get there, and remembers him being there when he arrived.
Wheeler had to go through all the medicals and survival schools which would take some time to get flight qualified. Wheeler finished all those requirements and others and, according to Christy, got to NKP after Christy held the fort for a couple weeks.
Arvel "Beep" Bruce recalls Wheeler and Christy at the helm. The Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) in Charge (NCOIC) was Master Sgt. (MSgt) Edwards, NCOIC of analysis was Technical Sgt. (TSgt) Pierce. Wheeler had been the aide-de-camp to Major General Carl Stapleton, the Commander, of USAFSS.
Christy made a good side point in a note he sent me. The officers in the 6994th SS were there to command and manage the unit. They had no operational role aboard the aircraft, though there was one who did learn to become qualified as an airborne analyst and did serve as a crewmember. I’ll mention him later. He’s an interesting story.
But the commander and operations officer had to fly and were flight qualified, having gone to all the survival schools and having passed all the flight physicals. They flew perhaps once or twice a week at most, as their way to observe their men at work, experience the rigors of flying these missions, and also be faced with the dangers. Christy put it this way:
“I was only a ‘box-lunch-eater,’ proud to fly with these heroes, who defied the conventional wisdom and pioneered the tactics of real time intelligence support and protection to warfighters and tactical commanders.”
I think we all felt that way. It was not always easy for the officer to get aboard. In summer, fuel loads were always a problem, especially as we loaded up more equipment and more crewmembers. The TEWS liked to carry a flight engineer which was one more spot, and the 6994th eventually decided to fly an analyst, yet another body. There was always debate as to whether to also fly a Det 3 flight mechanic to repair broken mission equipment in flight. So the bodies aboard added up quickly and there had to be tradeoffs. Adding the extra freight of a non-mission essential 94th officer was tough to sell. However, the TEWS leadership understood and supported the requirement, and did the best they could to get us aboard. The Det schedulers would just have to make do.
To get started in this new phase of stepped up operations, TSgt Witt was top dog and became the NCO In Charge, the NCOIC of operations, and also served as the First Sergeant. By way of contrast, when I got there in 1972, we had an E-9 Chief Master Sergeant in this slot and another NCO charged to be the first sergeant.
So Witt, a fairly young NCOIC by USAFSS standards, had his hands full trying to start up an entirely new unit, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. He said that his two sidekicks, Ray Ivey (left) and Gordie Steffens (right) helped him out a lot. Det 1 was asked to provide 17 292X1s to establish Det 3, on six month TDY status until the personnel pipeline could catch up and deliver warm bodies for PCS duty. As a result, another 15 292X1s followed the first three, mostly junior airmen.
While the Det 1 bunch coming to NKP amounted to 15 men, a group of them assigned themselves the nickname, “The Dirty Dozen.” Legend has it that the “Dirty Dozen" included Marion Gillam, Wiley Eggers, Johnny "Go-Go" Grogue, Joe Sutter (photo left), C. Byrd (photo right), G. Britt and two other guys named Thomas and Wesner. I’ll return to this crowd in a moment.
The TDY crews flew for about three weeks, concentrating on "hearability" tests. As expected, they found Laos to be "target rich," returning home with a lot of target location data on the enemy. A decision was then made to fly 3-4 missions per day out of NKP on a more permanent basis.
A note on JJ Pitzeruse. He has told us that when he arrived, BL Wtt met him using the mission van and took him to the nearby That Restaurant for dinner and a few brewskis. Witt then took him over to the Senior NCO barracks and signed him in as a master sergeant, even though Pitz was only a staff sergeant.
Pitz started flying the next day and flew several missions there. All together, for hi in-theater EC-47 flying, Pitz accumulated 100 missions while at NKP. He recalls working hard and playing hard, which really was the mantra of the 6994th as a squadron. He has remarked that when he went to sign out of NKP to return to Pleiku, he wore his uniform with those staff sergeant stripes on and the NCIOC of billets gave him a “royal butt chewing and threatened disciplinary action for falsifying records.” Thankfully the NCIOC let him go.
Pitz would return to Pleiku and finish his time in SEA with 353 missions on the EC-47. He said this:
“She was a grand old girl and the airmen that flew on them were the best I had met in my 22 year career. I have attended a couple of the reunions and it is like old home week and relationships have rekindled. I am proud of my ‘Gooney bird’ time and those that flew with me.”
These are two photos of busy X and Y operators flying with Det 3, but not necessarily at this time. I simply wanted people new to this business to see what busy operators looked like! The old hands have told me that in the early days there were so many targets to DF that they had them lined up in a queue, fixing their locations as fast as they could. They would brag how they came home with a bounty of good fixes and intelligence.
Don Bohannon operating X and serving as Airborne Mission Supervisor (AMS)
Ron Lightner busy on position, probably Y
During missions I was on, I can recall vividly standing in the aisle with my headset hooked into everything, the pilots, the nav, the X and Y operators, and even ABCCC and air traffic control communications. The headsets could really get busy. When the Y would pick up a lucrative target, you could feel the excitement rise as he passed the target to X. Then X would start working the target hard, in constant communication with the nav, and when necessary, with the pilot to re-position the aircraft to increase hearability and signal strength. Then it would be straight and level while the X and the nav did their thing to nail this enemy transmitter down. When they got a target in a circular error of probability of 1000 meters or less, they were jubilant because that meant they had really nailed their enemy. Not only did this provide high intelligence value, it also meant the target could get passed off to the ABCCC who could call in a FAC, and if the FAC saw the target and determined it lucrative, in came the air and those enemy weenies were gone. That was the name of the game. That’s when mission satisfaction was at its highest.
I honestly don’t know if this is a true story, though it was told to me by my commander. He said that he had been given feedback that on one mission the FAC went out and took a look at one of our fixes and was shocked to see that there was a NVA commander standing there surrounded by his troops and briefing them. The FAC called in an air attack immediately and that briefing was over. I don’t care whether it’s true or not --- I know we nailed a lot of those bastards.
I should remark here that we did not get a lot of feedback on attacks against targets we provided. The embassy and CIA were really tight-lipped. The TEWS crews got even less; in fact virtually no feedback. During my tour in 1972-73, the local TEWS commander and his operations officer were TS/SCI cleared, so I brought them over to our operations once a week to tell them as much as I could and help them “sanitize” what I told them to pass on to the others. It must have been tough on those TEWS guys to fly solely on faith and their sense of duty. But they did it.
The enemy was very active along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and inside Laos in general, in the PDJ area to the north and in the Bolovens Plateau in the south. This photo was taken from a Det 3 mission over the Bolovens plateau. You can see that an attack had just taken place there.
A judgement was made that three to four missions per day would be a good start for operations out of NKP. To do that would require at least five aircraft, which is what the Det 3-TEWS capability would be at NKP in fairly short order. These missions would for the most part be targeted at enemy forces in Laos. This, of course, was one of the reasons for having NKP in the first place, and one of the reasons why NKP was seen as a secretive place.
We now come to the wonders of NCO leadership. As TSgt. Witt, the NCOIC looking back at "the day," brings us back to “The Dirty Dozen:”
"The Dirty Dozen was aptly named. I think Det 1 sent us every disciplinary problem they had. Since I was First Sergeant (known in the Air Force as the "First Shirt," or "The Shirt"), I spent a good deal of my time at the Staff Judge Advocate's (SJA) office licking the boots of a major there to keep any of the troops from getting busted (in rank). Lots of lines and restriction, but I don't think we lost any stripes."
"We tended to ask a lot of questions and challenged the system more than others. We did our jobs but were quick to challenge the people in authority on things like schedule --- Why did the scheduling NCO have us scheduled to drive crews and also fly at the same time on the same day? -- and other things that didn't necessarily make a lot of sense. You might say we had a collective attitude problem."
I’ll insert a comment here. What Warters said is largely true. These young enlisted men were smart as a tack. That is how they were chosen in the first place to go through the training for USAFSS. The TEWS officers constantly remarked about how smart these guys were, how solid heir demeanor in the aircraft was, and how much they trusted their efforts and work. You pay a price for hiring smart people --- they ask questions, often those simple, short, seemingly stupid questions no one could answer, other than to say, “because.” I think they hated the answer, “because.”
When you’re young and smart, you look for a perfect world, and ours most certainly was not that. One crew member upon arrival could simply not believe that our aircraft were not pressurized, for example. All this said, I’ll add that the rule of thumb is a complaining GI is at his core a happy GI. It’s radio silence that is a killer; it spells trouble.
The Dirty Dozen was flown from Nha Trang to Saigon where they stayed over night, Warters says, because it was Ho Chi Minh's birthday, which was May 19. He said that enemy activity and those who admired Ho Chi were "very active" that night and, as a result, aircraft were not moving. So the Dozen got to Bangkok on May 20, 1969. Warters then relates this story:
"We got to Bangkok about 20 May and essentially went AWOL (Absent Without Leave) for three nights. We kept missing the timing of flight schedules to NKP due to a bit of partying. We figured by the fourth day that the APs (Air Police) would be looking for us so we got out of there and reported to NKP. As you may expect, we got a bit of a butt-chewing for it but no official action was taken. We pulled details for the first week we were there as punishment for our little Bangkok excursion."
To young airmen who had been flying EC-47 combat missions out of Nha Trang, RVN, coming to Bangkok would seem like Heaven, and in their minds it might seem natural to miss a few flights to their duty station. To NCOIC Witt, it took every ounce of energy to keep these guys out of the slammer. Witt had no choice. He had to get his crews in the air and back in the war. NCOs like Witt had ways of reminding men like this of the difference between right and wrong and who was in charge.
In fairness to the Dirty Dozen from Nha Trang, while they might have been young and daring, sometimes seemingly crazy, Warters and the others understood the deal. Following his remark about having a "collective attitude problem," he would add:
"Our main focus, however, was to do the job."
You can be sure that was true. Witt acknowledges that, saying:
“While the Dirty Dozen gave me fits while they were on the ground, they did an outstanding job in the air.”
My experience is that was almost always the case.
Craig Herron, at the time of his PCS arrival in mid June 1969, was an Airman Second Class (A2C), an E-3, as he put it, "at the bottom of the totem poll." When his commander Capt. Wheeler got there, Herron and his buddies nicknamed him "Big Tracks." When their lieutenant got there, he was called "Little Tracks."
He arrived with Tom Angstadt (left) and Tony Skok (right), all three were very new airmen, having finished basic training at Lackland AFB in San Antonio and technical training at Goodfellow AFB in San Angelo, both bases in Texas. They each then served for about 14 months with the Air Force Special Communications Center (AFSCC), as Angstadt has said, “forgetting most of what we had learned at Goodbuddy (Goodfellow tech training school).”
All three were AFSC 202 cryptanalysts. These three arrived on or about June 23, 1969. Craig has said there were other PCS arrivals there ahead of them, with a few more trickling in every week. All three had volunteered for flight status, but only Angstadt and Skok were selected. They both had gone through Jungle Survival School at Subic Bay, Philippines and were waived from going to Basic Survival School at Fairchild AFB, Washington. Angstadt remarked, “We may have been the only two crew members who dodged that bullet.” Most who attended Basic Survival School would acknowledge it was not much fun. Beyond that, however, they arrived with no "flight training." Herron would work at Det 3 as a ground analyst while the other two would fly.
Grady Phillips and Kent Thomas were other 202s. Thomas was in charge of the airborne 202s and Angstadt’s memory says Thomas flew the first mission with an airborne 202 aboard.
Herron has remarked that he didn't get to know a lot of the guys because they were coming in and out TDY. Nonetheless, Herron sent me a nice note that worked real hard at remembering some of the men that were in the Det when he was there. He worried a little about spelling and memory but gave me this list: James Breslin, Peter Lescarbeau, Daniel Guiterrez, Frank Moore, Averil Bruce, John Hostetler, Greg Renter, Lee Smith, Rick Little, Robin Kidd, Jim Darling, Greg Mederous aka Mateus, a big guy named Tree, a blond guy named Jay, and a First Sergeant named Gary Owen Davis, who signed his name G.O.D. Herron mentioned one other, William Dickerson, whom I want to highlight because I know him well, as do so many. I’ve mentioned him already.
American men going to war strike me the same no matter what war in which they participate. Seldom will you hear them talk of their fears and violence of warfare, but instead they like to talk about the food, the weather, and the amenities.
Here’s a great example, the certificate to be admitted as a “Chapter Member of the Loyal and Ancient Order of the NCO Open Mess at ‘Naked Fanny.’” It read:
“Having successfully survived the rigors and vicissitudes of duty midst the searing heat, numbing cold and wild jungles of the forgotten outpost of Nakhon Phanom. Constantly faced with the over-present, over-bearing perils of poisonous snakes, mud, bugs, and rats, low flying aircraft and bad breadth,” so-and so is hereby designated etc.
Herron was right in this mold. He dug up a letter he sent home to mom, dad, Jay and "Boots" on June 25, 1969, which provides his reaction to NKP:
"The base is pretty nice except for the living quarters which are still under construction. We have a swimming pool, theater, Airman's Club, BX (Base Exchange), library, recreation room and about 10 snack bars. They're even building an outdoor theater.
LC Cooley at NKP in 1969 when the squadron was still set up in tents.
"We're located in the middle of a forest or jungle about eight miles from the border (with Laos)."
All the guys who got there early remember living in tents. In looking at the photo, Army and Marine vets of the Indochina war might argue that Det 3 had something a bit better than a mere tent. BJ Witt remembers having to walk to the latrine several hundred yards away. Arvel "Beep" Bruce said their living tents were located at the bottom of the hill from the NCO Club. BJ Witt said just about everyone ate at the NCO Club, which was open 24-7, around the clock. The heat was blistering in summer, especially in tents, so many of the men would spend a lot of time in the "Club" to stay cool with the air conditioning.
Craig Herron added:
“After several months in the tents we moved into permanent quarters more or less up towards the flight line. In the later pictures I saw on the web site the unit seemed to be in a different place. We were sort of near the middle of the base near the mess hall I think. I never ate there so don't remember exactly. I spent the year living on hot dogs and canned chips.
“When we first moved into the permanent quarters there were still sand bagged mortar shelters in the middle of the buildings. We tore them down and spread the sand for a volley ball court.”
Now I understand that the first quarters they moved into were not air conditioned like most aircrews had on the base. I’m not sure which quarters we’re looking at here, but simply want to give you an idea. They would later move into air conditioned quarters. The top photo was taken from the back of new barracks, and you can see some protective wall to the right. I think the bottom photo of J.C. Payne (Left) and Ken Stengel (Right) show the mortar shelters about which Herron spoke. They were gone when I got there.
These were the air conditioned barracks for the flight crews. Other support personnel such as the communicators were moved into regular non-air conditioned barracks. I always felt badly for them. I visited them a lot, and they were almost always sitting outside.
At the outset, Det 3 worked in six trailers adjacent to mortar revetments. James Lidstone remembers the operations center being located in a suite of trailers secured behind bunkers at the far end of the base, at a place known as "Task Force Alpha", or TFA. You will recall from an earlier section that TFA was part of the Igloo White Ho Chi Minh Trail sensor detection program.
So Det 3's operation was in trailers behind revetments used to protect TFA. Story has it they leaked like a sieve during the rainy season. Marsby Warters has referred to getting to this location this way:
"If you look at it and imagine going through the front gate, turning right, then two lefts, then right and out the back along the revetments, you would get to the space where the 6994th HQ/OPS trailers were located."
The Det 3 men could use the TFA latrines and snack bar. They had two vehicles which were not in very good condition, but could be used to ferry the men around base, which was a bit of a clip from TFA.
At some point in time, TFA invited Det 3 to move its men and equipment into the main TFA building, a welcome move for the troops. However, in 1971 the 6908th Security Squadron was activated at NKP to operate Senior Book and Compass Flag Operations. The 6908th was a most important outfit.
It was associated with the U2 reconnaissance aircraft which gathered intelligence during the Indochina War under names such as “Trojan Horse,” “Olympic Torch,” “Senior Book,” and finally “Giant Dragon.” The sorties involved flying along North Vietnam and Chinese borders, generally gathering SIGINT.
The Compass Flag program involved the QU-22 Beechcraft Bonanza aircraft that replaced the EC-121 flying to detect movement along the Ho Chi Minh Trail documented by the sensors that had been dropped along the trail. The QU-22 could be flown by a man or remotely. I can’t go into it here, but this was one each troublesome aircraft for the assigned mission. I recall during my stay 1972-1973 the entire fuselage breaking away from the pilot who was left alone dropping through the air attached to his seat until he got rid of the seat and deployed his parachute. My memory says he was rescued.
The ’08th brought in an extensive amount of very complicated, high technology equipment, which had to be housed in the TFA complex. That forced Det 3 out of the TFA building and back into the trailers.
This is a shot of the interior of the command trailer. The Det commander’s desk was at the end facing the camera, adorned with a nice Christmas tree, and the operations officer sat at the desk next to it facing the wall. I suspect a clerk or the first sergeant sat in the other seat.
By August 1969, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger began his secret talks directly with Hanoi in Paris, Ho Chi Minh died in September, Nixon ordered the withdrawal of 35,000 soldiers from Vietnam and a reduction in draft calls, and by December Nixon ordered another 50,000 soldiers out. In a very short span of time, 115,000 US soldiers had been ordered out and over 40,000 American troops had been killed in action. You will recall earlier that I reported Nixon changed the mission to Vietnamization.
The year 1969 was one where the fighting in Laos broke out into the open. We’ve described this earlier. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee began hearings and many senators started raising hell.
I’ve shown you a lot of maps of Laos as viewed by the US military. Here’s another one. The Det 3 crews used the terms in this map a lot: “I’m going to the Barrel Roll today,” or “Our mission is over in Steel Tiger.” They might then give the number of the ARDF area they were tasked to fly over. Most Det 3 EC-47 missions were flown against targets in the PDJ, largely in support of the Hmong Laotians fighting against North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces in the north, and against the Ho Chi Minh Trail, in an area known as Steel Tiger, mostly in the southern half of Laos. I got there in 1972, and do not recall our flying over Barrel Roll North or East. The men before me may have gone up there. God bless them if they did. We did a lot of flying in Steel Tiger West, especially to the south over the Bolovens Plateau. We also flew over Steel Tiger East, the area of the trail, but as time went by this area became increasingly dangerous for the lumbering, unarmed and unescorted Electric Goon. Over time we were virtually forced out of that area by heavy defenses.
I do want to interject my own 1972 story here about my first flight. It was to Area 15 over the PDJ. I was filled with excitement, and, of course, butterflies. Naturally, the entire crew knew this was my rookie run. Most of the time I sat on a bench alongside the aft fuselage, behind the navigator, and would walk around during the mission flight to watch what was going on. I, like the others, had to be on headsets and if I were to want to move about I would inform the pilot.
We would have to go off headsets to go to the “Head,” which was located in the far rear of the aircraft (red arrow applies). Well, of course, I would ask the skipper for permission to go off to the head. The whole crew would hear that announcement on their headsets. So “Rookie Marek” went back, and began to conduct business from the vertical position, into the trough. It was a small trough requiring careful aim. Thankfully I did not have to use the bucket. In retrospect, the skipper must have counted to 5 or 10, and then he employed his rudder to swing the aircraft back and forth. The rear where I was standing would swing the most! So as I emerged soaking wet, well, the entire crew was just roaring with laughter. I laughed too, you bastards, you got me. At 10,000 ft. it got pretty chilly on a wet flight suit. But, it was my initiation. In hindsight, it was a compliment and a warm welcome. I say that with a smile and a tear.
He recalls two hairy missions. For one, the navigator got lost and the mission was perilously close to the Laos-North Vietnamese border. The nav finally found his location and got them “outta there.” On another mission down in the Barrell Roll they received a serious MiG call. The Goonie had limited options to escape a MiG attack so Jim recalls this catching everyone’s attention. Fortunately, no MiG came after them.
INurre added that once he qualified to be an AMS, he formed what he called the “Action Crew” with core members Ernie Woods (left) and Charlie Bibbs (right). He said the “Action Crew” developed the “For Meritorious Service” plaque I showed at the opening of this section.
Paul Halpem, who was with the TEWS, has confirmed the “legend” to me. He identified Captain Dickie Formica as the pilot.
Prior to coming to NKP to become the Det commander, Jim Clapper served as an executive assistant to the Director, National Security Agency, then VAdm. Noel Gayler, the latter of whom would next become a four-star admiral and take command of the Pacific Command in Hawaii. Jim would rise through the ranks to become a three-star general and Director, Defense Intelligence Agency. After retirement, he served as the director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and then became the first Director of Defense Intelligence within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence alongside, dual-hatted as Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence.
As younger officers, I served with Jim at the National Security Agency and both I and Christy served with him on the staff of the Pacific Command. As an old friend, I am compelled, it is my duty, to show this great photo of Jim opening his bottle of “Thai Champagne” following his last flight, his “fini flight.” You’ll note he is soaking wet. The ritual was to douse the fini flight crewmember with ice cold water on disembarking from the mission aircraft. Commanders were included, happily so.
That’s Jim Clapper on the right. He always took his work seriously, as you can see! To the left is TSgt. Bob Sherwood and center is SSgt. Johnny Fuller, both first-class NCOs, top leaders in the Det. Sherwood seems to be wondering whether Jim is gonna get that thing opened or not. There is no way Sherwood would allow his skipper to not be able to open that bottle, so his eyes are really honing in on the cork, almost demanding through the ether it become unglued! Sherwood himself would rise to the rank of chief master sergeant.
Clapper has commented that during his tour, June 1970-June 1971, Det 3 was the only flying unit not to have air conditioned quarters, which I touched on earlier. As also mentioned earlier, they had two dilapidated vehicles. Jim told me this (remember he was a captain at the time, a det commander):
In fairness to the 56th SOW, the EC-47 mission was not a good fit for the rest of the wing. I think what bugged the base the most was that our Goons took up a lot of scarce ramp space, our more troublesome birds took up a lot of hangar space while getting repaired, and only a handful of people on the base knew what we did. Plus the only guns we had were our .38 cal six shooters strapped to our survival vests and we carried no bombs, though I have heard a story about a nav who was known as the “Brown Bomber,” emptying the bucket in the head into a plastic bag and hurling it out the aft cargo door over some village, to my mind, not cool at all.
While the wing often saw us as a nuisance, from a big picture standpoint with regard to the war in Laos, the Det 3-TEWS EC-47s were very important, and the wing leadership knew it. For our part, we knew our place with the guys with the guns and bullets, A-1Es, Jolly Green Giant search and rescue helos, AC-119 gunships, and all kinds of forward air controller aircraft. We respected them a great deal. As I mentioned earlier, our aircrews were in hootches next to those of the pararescue men, and they all got along famously.
In addition to the other issues he raised with General Nazzarro, Capt. Clapper had made a lot of noise about needing a new building and getting out of those vans over at the TFA complex.
Some shots of the new facilities.
In any event, Clapper left in April 1971 and by January 1972 all of Det 3 command, operations and maintenance moved into this building on the the flight line. It was made of corrugated aluminum, I think, with zero windows. It was air conditioned and very comfortable inside. One comment Jim did make to me was, “You were very plushed in!” That is true given what he and his predecessors worked in.
“I’m just a poor Louisiana boy trying to make it through the day.”
Believe me, he was far more than that. He knew the men well, but the crews could not be lured to be too cosy by his smooth southern approach. They did not want to cross him. From my perspective, he knew the ropes and if you needed something done, it was done, and if you wanted to get excited about something, he would take you down a bit and bring some frame of reference to the situation.
Oh yes, I have adopted his “poor Louisiana boy” line, saying, “I’m just a poor GI trying to make it through the day,” and use that phrase to this day!
In the section about the EC-47 aircraft I showed you two pictures of EC-47 #029 after she recovered at NKP RTAFB. She was hit in the port wing by enemy AAA in February 1973, after the loss of Baron 52. Here is another photo. I do not remember much about this flight except that the skipper babied her home and all hands were a-ok. The only thing I do remember is Buck Bill Beatty telling me that one shell came right through the belly between his legs. I have always held Buck Bill’s story to be true, though I did not examine the interior of the aircraft. Buck BIll was a legend and even I dared not challenge his rendition!
Another short story from my day. Again I believe this happened while my commander, Jim Golden was away. The air conditioning system went out during the heat of the Thai summer in our new operations building. Given there were no windows, the interior became very hot. The men brought in as many fans as they could and we managed to get through the days. I do not recall how long we were out, but I think it was at least a week before I decided I had to do something. My men told me they thought they had exhausted every avenue to get the air conditioner fixed. So, like the exuberant young captain I was, I felt obliged to take the matter higher. I went to see the vice wing commander of the 56th SOW, skipping the chief of maintenance and all those below him.
Now you have to remember that the vice wing commander’s number one mission was A-1E air attacks in Laos and search and rescue with A-1Es and Jolly Green Giants, forward air controlling with O-1, O-2 and O-10 FACs, gunship runs with AC-119s and a host of other missions I did not know about. So there was a lot of heavy stuff on this officer’s plate. Nonetheless, here came Capt. Marek into his office bellyaching about a lack of air conditioning. I explained the problem, I explained the hardship on the men working inside our tin, windowless sweat box, and he just stared at me in disbelief, disbelief that I would come to him to complain about this trivia while he was trying to run a very dangerous special operations war. I felt like climbing into a hole, but I stood there hoping he didn’t see my knees shaking. After what seemed a 10 hour pause, he stared at me again, and said something to the effect, “I’ll take care of it, now get out of here.” I saluted and did just that.
The air conditioner came on the next day I believe. It might have been repaired by then had I not gone in there to see the man, I’ll never know. I have forgotten this colonel’s name, but I will never forget his face. The truth is I admired him a lot.
Steve also reported that they had some close calls while airborne, but no one was hit, shot down and no lives were lost. That said, he does recall one mission up to the PDJ where one engine spouted an oil leak. The skipper said he’d watch it and pressed on. About an hour later, the pilot started to get worried and he and his co-pilot decided to abort and return to base (RTB). They discussed feathering an engine, which he did, and then restarted it on final approach to land.
Stephen flew the next day, different aircraft, different TEWS flight crew. Someone barked out over the intercom that there was an inverter fire. Steve said he did not know what the inverter was, so glanced out the windows looking for a fire and found none. Steve remarked he did not like the sound of “fire,” and promised himself “there was no way he was jumping out of this aircraft.” He then learned it was an electrical fire in the aft section of the aircraft. They put it out and aborted.
Yet the next day, he flew on the same aircraft that had the oil leak from the port engine. One of the pilots from the first flight was on this one, and told the crew he’d monitor the engine closely. This engine worked well, but the starboard engine threw a pretty heavy leak, and within 30 minutes they were back at base.
Stephen’s stories are very relevant. This is what it was like to fly on the Electric Goons. I want now to convey, word for word, how Steve said he felt at the time. There is no doubt in my mind that his thoughts were shared by many. He was courageous to pass this on to us:
“I could not believe my luck, and, yes, I think it was luck because nothing serious happened the next two days, except that we had further mechanical problems each day, and each of the missions was aborted, just like the previous three. The longest mission in those 5 days lasted two hours, from take off to landing. My rational thinking was no where to be found, and my courage was found only in liquified form at the NCO club. I didn't know what to do. I did not believe in omens, but I had a very strong feeling that someone was trying to tell me to stay on the ground.
“When I did return a week later, I was ready to go back to the air, and never flew on another mission where we had to abort due to a mechanical or electrical failure. I am glad I had the courage to speak directly with Sgt. Kessler. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Bangkok and solidified another friendship with the Thai people.”
Such is the character of war and the men and now the women who fight it.
In June 1971, Major William Graham (right), a navigator, arrived to replace Clapper as commander and Capt. John Ritner (left) was his operations officer, later replaced by Capt. Chuck Purkiss. I arrived close to the end of Major Graham’s tour. I recall him to be a very quiet man, a good commander, he allowed me to run the operations end of the business without much interference.
As the legend has it, at a commander’s call, Major Graham referred to the crews as “Alley Cats” because of their exploits downtown, in a place known as “The Ville,” exploits which, well, I think that’s all I’ll say.
Lon Hamernik has said that Uncle Ho thought of the idea to put it on their hats. Uncle Ho has responded, “I sure don't know if I'm the one that suggested putting the nickname on the hats, although it does sound like something I could have suggested in one of my alcoholic flashes of brilliance.” What a crew!
Many of the guys wore them instead of their official unit baseball cap and I think Bill Graham just sighed and let it go. When I got there and learned of the story, well, I fear I thought it was fantastic. I loved those hats, seeing them as a morale booster. But I kept my mouth shut as I was not sure how well Bill liked them.
A funny story about Jim and me. We knew each other pretty well. When he got there, he moved into a half of an air conditioned trailer, sharing a head in between the two halves with the guy on the other side. There was very little room in his half, room for a double bunk bed, a desk, a chair, and a locker for clothes, but plenty for one man.
Since I was only an operations officer, I was put in a wooden BOQ, luckily with air conditioning. Actually it was a fairly large room which I shared with another officer. I had problems with my roommate. He was a maintenance officer on base, a quiet guy as opposed to my loud Polish ways, and he was avidly studying Mayan history and culture. He studied it every waking hour while he was not at his day-job. We were completely different personalities. He studied, I partied. But the worst problem was that I would have to get up at about 2 am to prepare for a mission. Well, he studied his Mayan stuff until at least midnight every day. There was no way I could get any sleep before a mission, and I would frequently go on a mission bone ass tired.
I sensed he was not a wild guy, a man of the world shall we say. So I retaliated by posting every Playboy centerfold I could get my hands on all over the wall next to my bed. I knew that would upset him. My plan did not work. He never uttered a word of complaint, which speaks in his favor to be sure. Well I told Golden about this problem and incredibly he invited me to stay in his half of the trailer. I got the top bunk. I jumped at the offer and that’s the way I lived for the duration of my tour. We got along very well and there was no conflict because he was my boss.
I am gong to come back to the “uniform” you see me wearing at the trailer in a moment.
But to the point of the photo of me next to the trailer. We were also allowed to wear old-time USAF flight suits, and adorn them with all kinds of patches. Let me point out that round red patch on my right chest. I have a war story about it below. Keep it in mind.
Anyway, this was the “uniform” I was wearing to work on the day this photo was taken. I wore it a lot. Each flying squadron on base had similar ones. Boy you should have heard the 6908th guys take me on when I wore that to the club. But all the other fliers were wearing those too, and I was so damn proud the 08th guys just could not get to me. I knew each one of them well, and I know where they were coming from --- they were all first rate officers, top of the line, but then again the RC-135 was a Strategic Air Command thing, up in the ether there at 35,000 ft., four jet engines, fully pressurized, and floating along at 400-500 knots flying over the Gulf of Tonkin and northern Laos, usually one located over the Gulf, another over Laos, every day, with plenty of fighters in their area to look after them. I reminded them every once in a while that the Electric Goon was a bit of a different animal --- we were tactical, to wit, war fighters, so “get off my back.” Ha! Love the RC-135s --- they and their crews have made enormous contributions to our national defense effort for a long time, and they are still flying.
This concludes my assemblage of memoirs from the men who flew with Det 3. I am hoping this section will cause others to write in, as we have a bunch of gaps.
But I do want to tell just a few more stories I encountered during my stay from June 1972-June 1973. It’s odd what sticks in my mind!
Perhaps foremost on my mind, especially in the second half of my tour, was EC-47 maintenance. I am not saying the TEWS did a poor maintenance job. The TEWS record in the RVN was astounding. But by 1972-1973, I am saying the aircraft were old, we ran them to death, we overloaded them with electronic equipment and crew, and they were feeling the beating. You recall Stephen Carlile’s stories. It was like that for all of us. We spent a lot of time lying under the wings waiting for the engines to be repaired. Most of us were on maintenance aborts more than once. Here you see a line of EC-47s on the ramp at NKP getting engines maintained. Following the 1973 “cease-fire,” we had 18 aircraft. My memory says we would schedule eight lines a day and be damn lucky to get six full missions. I tip my hat to those terrific TEWS maintenance crews who kept the aircraft aloft. During my tour, we did not lose one aircraft to maintenance. The pilots found her tough to handle at times, but the old Goon would just come back for more. Nonetheless, it was an issue.
To make the point best, Mike Christy recalls going down to the flight line to give a “sanitized” briefing to the incoming front-end crews. He told me:
“One bright day, I was doing the briefing to new pilots and one of them, a very old Lt. Col., looked up at the EC-47 tail number and said: ‘Goddamn! I flew this son-uva-a-bitch over the hump in WWII!”
I would say that every aircraft on the line was older than most men in the Det.
During my 1972-1973 tour we had a red alert at night. For some reason, Golden, was not available so I was the only officer in the unit to respond. I think he was on leave. The word from base was that the perimeter on the other side of the runway and ramps had been breached and possible hostile forces had entered the base. If true, that meant they were across the runway from where our building was.
This was threatening for us, because we had a lot of very highly classified information inside our building along with critical cryptographic codes and keys used for our secure communications aboard the mission aircraft. We could not let anyone get in the building.
We had a contingency plan for these kinds of things. One of the actions was to issue M-16s to the first batch of troops to arrive, which we did. There was a ditch parallel to the ramp near our building and I positioned the troops in the ditch looking squarely across the runway. I have to tell you my greatest fear was that some of the base’s security police would be on the runway tangling with the intruders and one of our guys might shoot them. So I told each guy not to insert his clip until I told them to. I think they thought I might be a bit nuts but after I explained to them that I did not want to shoot any of our own guys by mistake or accident, they agreed. I would authorize the clip and subsequent fire only when we saw the “whites of their eyes” so to speak. That never happened and we all went back to quarters. Boy was I relieved!
I remember our handing our guys their M-16s and ammo to take with them for the security guard duties. I must say I had a twitch in my stomach doing this, as none of them were trained to guard aircraft. As I told Steve, “While you were all superb operators and airmen, I am fuzzy on your fighting skills.”
Off they went. A day goes by I hear nothing from them. And another, and another, I do not remember how many, perhaps 3-5 in that range. I’m sitting at NKP sweating bullets over these guys. They finally returned. I grabbed Steve and brought him in my office. I was mad as hell because he had not communicated to us their status. Steve then began telling his story and somehow felt loose enough to tell me that he and the guys climbed up a hill where there was a huge party going on with the local women. Of course they had a big hoop-de-la and the whole thing sounded like fun and games. I just threw up my arms, bounced off the idea of shooting him right there, and then decided, “Those are my boys, for better or worse,” and let it go. They were back safe and sound.
Steve has since told me that there was a CIA guy there who was able to blend into the local culture, and he dragged my guys along. There was also an ARVN colonel or general there staying in the same barracks Steve and his guys were in, with his helicopter parked within walking distance of the barracks door. Well this guy invited my boys for drinks and dinner and the story goes on. I’m sweating on their behalf, they’re partying!
Steve also recalls that they had to get checked out on the M-16 again, it had been so long. He does recall there were a few times they themselves were sweating bullets, which makes me happy. Why should I be alone? He also said they were not allowed to take their Det 3 caps with them, so he wore a plain one with his enlisted wings on it. As a result, everyone he passed saluted him thinking he was a flight officer. He said, “I remember that as being really cool at the time.” As an aside, the CIA guy made them change out of their USAF uniforms and into camo fatigues, which our guys thought were really neat.
While on this kind of subject, our guys had patches made up by the locals that had the USAF Security Service command emblem on it with an EC-47 flying across and at the bottom, “Unarmed, alone and afraid.” There was another one which had an EC-47 embroidered on it with the words “Electric Goon,” and then also the words, “Unarmed, alone and afraid.” I think all the Dets had these. Each unit put on their own home base. I guess it’s why I never made chief of staff of the USAF, but I thought these were all great patches. I still have mine, and my daughter mounted them in a beautiful case hanging in my office.
“Awe man,” I thought, “I can’t do that. There’s no way I can do that.” My squadron commander, Lt. Col. Dave Eddy, shown here, was sitting there and did nothing to bail me out here. I honestly think he was getting great joy watching me sweat.
From where I stood, I felt we had to understand the GI’s way of thinking, especially in this war, and not get bent out of shape with stuff like this. General Stapleton just sat there quietly and stared at me. I took what seemed like five hours to get my mouth hooked up to my brain, and responded with something like, “I understand what you’re saying sir. But I have been here almost a year and you and I know well the bravery and courage of our aircrews. I have not met one who has ever had any problem with going on his assigned mission. I suppose we are all a little anxious up there over Laos, but I can assure you they are not afraid and will do their duty. This is a morale thing. Please let us keep it.”
General Stapleton looked over at Col. Novy and smiled. That was the end of it. Ten more years off my life! In the mean time, I had thought we had gathered to talk about war.
We also had been tasked to conduct a special, out-of-the-ordinary and very secret and time-sensitive mission which to my mind had nothing to do with our primary mission. Worst of all, we had only one aircraft equipped to handle the job. Just my luck the stupid engine broke when we were supposed to go. I got daily calls from Col. Novy demanding the engine get fixed. Fixing engines was a TEWS job, not mine, but the good colonel didn’t buy that approach. He kept telling me to get my ass over there and tell them to fix it, like I was the wing commander or something. Like I said, the mission was time sensitive and we had to get that damn bird in the air. This all occurred right before he came over with the general. So, of course, once again during the briefing, he interrupted and asked me the status of that aircraft and mission. Praise the Lord, I was able to respond, “She’s in the air right now and on station.” Again General Stapleton looked at Col. Novy and smiled. So ten more years gone from my life.
That evening we had a little cocktail party for the general and his colonel and our squadron commander, one of the all time great officers of all time, Lt. Col. Dave Eddy (shown here in civvies) was there. Novy was standing with me and Eddy saw I needed help, so he walked over with his drink and told Novy to stop climbing over my back, that I was doing a great job. That made Novy mad at Dave because he ridiculed Novy in front of me, but the heat was off me and good ol’ Colonel Eddy knew how to handle him. As an aside, Col. Eddy was a pilot and one of the early founders if you will of this whole ARDF program, a legend in 6994th annals. One each terrific man and officer. I was blessed to work for good commanders and bosses for most of my career. Davy Eddy sits among the top on my list. Now take a look at that photo --- you can tell that is one each top-drawer commander.
This was also a time when the services were experiencing the same kind of race relations problems experienced back home. There were tensions, Det 3 included. I have been told that early on the Black airmen were upset over something and there was some talk of boycotting a mission. One of the NCOs, SSgt William “Skeeter” Dickerson (right), stepped in and the problem went away, at least on the surface. Here you see Skeeter and Jim DeGaetano boasting their new short haircuts. I was not there for this, but suspect some sort of bet. I personally credit Skeeter with playing a major leadership role in the Det when it came to race relations. He was a hard-charging, no-nonsense AMS, and he knew we had a war to fight. He never talked to me much about the subject, if at all, but I was aware of his leadership role in the background.
I recall spending a fair amount of time on this matter. Racial relationships at NKP while I was there were tense and fragile. There were special problems with the Security Police Squadron as I recall. That said, they most surely did a great job protecting the perimeter of the base and its resources.
I recall a couple Det 3 guys inviting me to visit the NCO Club. Officers were allowed to visit once in a while as guests just to experience it. I was sitting at a table with Det 3 men and all of a sudden a fight broke out between whites and blacks. Before I knew it, a couple black guys, they must have known who I was, they might even have been Det 3 guys, yanked my buns out of there to safety. I’ll always be grateful to them.
I do remember one NCO in the Det coming to me over and over with the same arguments. I felt obliged to listen. He was smart, articulate, believed in what he was saying, and he was an AMS I believe. But he came to me over and over and over, with the same complaints. I tried to look into them, but in those days the smoke associated with these kinds of things was hard to sift through. At long last, I had to tell him that I understood what he was saying and was doing my best to do what I could to improve things. I was never sure if I satisfied him. I think I did not.
You know, we were not infantry or armor on the ground in the RVN, we were not special forces sneaking around the Ho Chi Minh Trail, or Marines creeping around the mountains in Laos and inside the DMZ, but we were flying aboard an old aircraft at pretty slow speeds and medium altitudes, unarmed and unescorted, over some of the most hostile territory in Indochina, Laos. I for one learned a lot about men at war, even though we did not experience the terror our men on the ground witnessed.
Like the draftees on the ground led by their NCO corps, most of our crews were young first-term airmen. We too had a solid core of NCOs. While the crews never showed any fear that I could detect, you know that there always has to be a butterfly or two in there when flying these kinds of combat missions. So when they got on the ground, well, the men liked to party and drink. I suppose one can interpret this photo of the lads revving it up in multiple ways. Mine is that they knew what was going on in the States regarding the anti-war protests, and each of them had their own view of the war. But at the end of the day, they were in it, not for the political stuff debated back home, but for each other and their sense of duty and professionalism. So here, following a day in the air, they tell the camera guy, “up yours pal, we’re gonna enjoy ourselves to night and go back at flying tomorrow.”
This particular squad has been labeled “The Buckaroos.” Front, L-R: Will Neal, Paul Weyandt, Richard Lewis, Guy Fox. Back row, L-R: Tom O’Keefe, Jack Clancy, Lon Hamernik, Don Whitman, William Simpson, and Curt Cross. It looks like the photo was taken at one of the haunts downtown.
We had our own Det Hootch Bar. This is an interior shot during what was called “Happy Hour,” though I always wondered what that was. The guys who did not have to fly were either there or downtown anytime during the day, and as soon as the guys got off a mission they came in here immediately if not sooner, having ripped off their sweaty flight suits and put on something more comfortable to get down to their next task, getting some relaxation, some brewskis or whiskey, and bullshit time with the other guys. Left-to-right here you see Ben Spear, Guy Fox, Rick “Uncle Ho” Yeh, Ron Lightner, Stith one of our barmaids who did her best to maintain law and order, and Jack Lidstone.
So let’s talk a little bit about NKP City, known as “The Ville.”
A Thai bus, known as the Baht Bus, would take us downtown, about 10 miles away, where booze and women were plentiful. I think it’s fair to say the men would burn most candles at all ends. This photo shows a Baht Bus leaving the downtown area.
The Office Bar
This photo shows Bill Beatty (left) and Dave Sterrett (right) at Pat’s Place in downtown. During my watch, they were both staff sergeants, boths AMSs, and two of our very best leaders. Beatty was known as “Buck Bill.” Never, and I mean never, did I know a guy like Buck Bill who could pack ‘em away like he did and be “stand-attention ready” to fly the next day. He loved his job as much as anyone in the detachment. What a guy.
This was the Florida Bar. That’s Dave Mason guarding the door. This too was a favorite Det 3 hangout. I sort of remember being bored on one afternoon and I took the Baht Bus to “The Ville” and ended up in the Florida Bar. There was a bunch of Det 3 men in there and, well, we did let our hair down.
Every photo album of NKP City has a photo like this in it of the Ho Chi Minh clock downtown. Frankly most of us got a kick out of it. That said, Dave Sampalla was a Vietnamese linguist and recalls walking around downtown NKP were many Vietnamese lived, in his words, speaking with a North Vietnamese dialect. He and some others would talk back to them in their native tongue which always through them for a loop. The truth was that NKP was in a region of Thailand where communist sympathizers abounded. There was a certain amount of danger venturing too far off the beaten path, especially between NKP and Udorn RTAFB to the west, and even worse, to Ubon RTAFB to the south. God only knows what was going back and forth across the Mekong between Laos and NKP especially at night. I was always surprised NKP RTAFB never experienced a serious attack.
I do not know which carried more risk, flying combat missions over the PDJ on the EC-47 or taking the Baht Bus. This photo was drawn from the 56th Security Police Squadron web site. The driver went about Mach 2, the bus was held together by bailing wire and bubble gum, and shook like it were in an earthquake. You can see the battle damage on this one.
The only more dangerous thing you could do would be to take a cab, which went Mach 4-5. This is Jim Collins inside one of the cabs, and he kind of has the look on his face that this might be his last mission! The Thais had right hand drive. I never understood why the taxi driver would sit so far to his right, body slammed up against the door. I always thought he might be ready to bail leaving us in there!
Let there be no question in anyone’s young military mind that the Det 3 guys, and the men of the entire squadron for that matter, could put away some hootch, and did exactly that. We had a “12 hour bottle-to-throttle” rule which I doubt anyone, many pilots included, followed. Most of our men burned the candles at as many ends as you had on it, whether in “The Ville” or in the barracks or in the clubs. Unless we had a mission problem, I pretty well left the issue alone, figuring the buddy-rule would apply and each of them would take of the other. I chalked a lot of it off to the stresses of the job and the war. Everyone knew the war was unpopular back home, many heard the arguments being employed back home against the war, and of course, because of their work, they knew how the war was going. All that said, they got up and flew and did the best they could.
I was fairly young myself, only 28, and still holding my college fraternity days close to my heart, so arguably I might not have been the best of role models! I fear that’s me in the blue shirt drinking beer from the “Buckaroo Bottle” at the Det barracks, where we had an outing. Of course, if the troops are drinking from the Buckaroo, they made sure their ops officer did the same. A guy thing I guess. There was no way the ops officer could say no.
The guy in the red hat was a real character, Dennis “Hoagie” Ryan, a linguist, and to the right Lon Hamernik, I think a linguist as well. Loved these two guys, though they were a handful and could have used frequent basic training updates from their Tactical Instructors down at Lackland! Hoagie would wear his red hat on every mission --- his good luck charm I guess. He took one of my favorite “I love me photos” of me standing by our mission aircraft before we went off. I still display it proudly. That Hoagie was a pistol. And old Hamernik, I don’t think he had a worry in the world.
I have to show you these two photos.
On the left in the orange shirt is Capt. Jim Golden, my Det 3 commander in the day. That’s Hoagie drinking from the bottle. Please note how Golden is studying the problem, almost in disbelief. I mean he studied this carefully through several drinkers from the bottle.
And alas, not even the commander could escape the pressure brought to bear by his troops. Here goes Golden with a long way to go! The truth is, very few escaped the Buckaroo Bottle! Note the cameras clicking in case the old man were ever to bring the subject up in a negative way with the troops!
A crazy way of bonding I guess, but that’s the way it was and we weren’t the Lone Rangers on campus. Our barracks were next door to those of the pararescue guys, the PJs, whose search and rescue efforts were far more dangerous than what we did. So all together, our block of barracks was, well, let’s say, active.
I will add that, as has always been a tradition among American GIs, the men of Det 3 took great interest in the kids of the community, and adopted a local Thai School.
Here you see them delivering furniture to the local Thai School. Where did they get it? “I know nussing.”
I have tons of stories to tell, but will leave with just one more, sad I must say.
His aircraft was on final approach at NKP with a C-130 on his ass. Frankly they were too close together and the C-130 was closing rapidly. The EC-47 touched down and was rolling down the runway when the tower told the C-130 to “go around,” which meant he had to pull up, give her power, and fly around the air base for a later landing after the Goonie got settled and off the runway. Unfortunately, the crew of the Goonie thought they were told to go around, so they cranked up to full power, kept heading down the runway and took off. But something went drastically wrong, and the aircraft tilted to the right, the right wing clipped the trees, and in she went. The aircraft caught on fire. All aircrew got out except Jock.
By the time of the ceasefire, Det 3 at NKP has grown from initially three aircraft to 18. They took up a lot of ramp space to be sure.
I’ll close here for the time being, hoping that others in the unit send their memoirs which I will weave into this, their story. Just this one last photo of NKP RTAFB, Thailand. This is a view of her I used to love the most, as we approached from the south and west heading north to get in line for landing, mission accomplished, RTB, return to base. There’s nothing better than coming home!
Or, as Wayne Kendall of Det 3 fame would say, “Thumbs Up. Job well done.”