War Can Be Fun

Waiting for John Kerry to speak at the Democratic Convention, Chris Matthews just now talked about the reality of war, quoting Kerry from a few years ago:

“When there was no shooting, and the rock music was playing, steering up the river, It was pretty nice.”

Viet Nam is a beautiful place. Kerry’s Mekong River is probably also a beautiful place, but though we often flew over it, the ocean captivated us, and we speculated that some day its amazing beaches would be lined with resort hotels and the Viet Cong guerilla soldiers’ kids would be on staff. It was a shallow and elitist vision, but also optimistic and prophetic.

Nha Trang Beach, Viet Nam, today. You oughta go.

I’m watching the run-up to Kerry’s acceptance speech and Max Cleland is describing April ’68, when he was headed home from Viet Nam on a stretcher and John Kerry was requesting transfer to Viet Nam. Max describes a moment I roughly quote: “I pressed a small bible into his hand. I knew he would need it.” This is an interesting dilemma for the aggressive Christians of the right. Every patriot and amateur soldier subscribes to and celebrates the adage that “there are no atheists in foxholes.” Combat service softens their skepticism of Kerry’s occasional reference to God. People who recommend war for others’ children but who don’t, like, actually serve, can’t claim that particular connection to the Almighty.

Viet Nam in the spring of 1968 is probably not on the tip of your mind, but it’s burned into mine. We C-130 airlift crews were unlike other aviators and soldiers:

  1. We flew the length and breadth of Viet Nam every week–circuit riders of the Viet Nam zeitgeist–unwittingly gathering material for a story told 3-1/2 decades later.
  2. Like fighter pilots, we went home every night to a hot shower and a cold cocktail next to the beach at Tuy Hoa.
  3. Unlike fighter plots, we flew into and hung out in places that fighter pilots would never visit for more than 8 seconds.

Here’s the reality Lt. John Kerry chose to engage, while others chose to stay home.

Command, Control & Connive, a war story
Kham Duc, 12 May 68: What combat enthusiast Rumsfeld reminds me of.

On May 12, 1968, I flew the most harrowing mission of my Air Force career. It was more impressive in some ways than being shot down six weeks later, because it had more of the dramatic elements you expect in wartime: a major battle, hundreds dead and wounded, and the constant of combat: not just the fog of war, but also the FUD of command.

Those were the forces at work around Kham Duc, RVN, 10 to 12 May, 1968.

Make no mistake, it was an authentic shitstorm. Losses were tallied by one of the Army CH-47 helicopter pilots, Larry Busbee:

With the Air Force, Marines, and the Army trying to evacuate Kham Duc in an “at all cost” operation, it looked at times like a Chinese fire drill. Every man for himself.

There were 259 civilian killed (plus 100 more that were on the C-130 crash) 25 – U.S. Army troops, 2 – CH-47 Chinooks, (AC’s 475 and 469) 2 – Marine CH-46’s, 2 – Air Force C-130’s, 1 – UH-IB Army Huey helicopter, and 1 – 0-2 Air Force Light Air Control aircraft destroyed that day.

Think of the families devastated by that list. The “100 more on the C-130 crash” is understated. The next week, Time Magazine called it the worst single aircraft disaster in history, about 200 souls on board.* The sad part is that many of them had been landed there just the day before, because a General promised something to “earn” his 2nd star and couldn’t deliver.

Here’s the description by Sam McGowan:

Although very little has been written about it, the events of May 12, 1968 are among the most heroic of the Vietnam War, in fact of any war. On that day, a handful of American US Air Force C-130 and US Army and Marine helicopter crewmembers literally laid their lives on the line to evacuate the defenders of the Civilian Irregular Defense Corps camp at Kham Duc, an outpost just inside the South Vietnamese border with Laos.

For years, the camp at Kham Duc had served as a base for intelligence gathering operations along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and in the spring of 1968 the Communists decided the time had come to take it out. By early May Allied intelligence sources realized that a large number of North Vietnamese were gathering in the mountains around the camp. On May 10 the camp was reinforced with members of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade who were flown in from their base at Chu Lai. The following day an outlying camp at Ngoc Tavok was attacked; apparently some of the Vietnamese troops in the camp turned their guns on their American allies. That evening General William C. Westmoreland determined that the camp was indefensible and, wishing to avoid the headlines of a camp being overrun, decided to evacuate the camp, beginning at dawn the next morning.

Well, I don’t know about that “most heroic” part. Fortunately, we were not one of the two C-130’s lost, though we were the last fully loaded C-130 to leave, carrying 150+ people, including, significantly, the Camp Commander. We were supposed to be the last aircraft out, which was why the commander was on board. A Special Forces Commander doesn’t leave unless all their men do, and this guy was no wimp.


It started two days earlier. With the buildup of regular North Viet Namese forces around the camp, Brig. General Burl McLaughlin promised General William Westmoreland that, By Gawd!, his airlift operation could reinforce that little base with men and material so fast it would withstand the war’s first major assault by North Vietnamese uniformed regulars. This is how one-star Generals earn their second star, promising the impossible, but his was a short-lived hope and a dangerous hype. By the following night, it was obvious that this was not to be an emergency resupply, but an emergency evacuation. All the reinforcements flown in on 11 June were added to the evacuation requirement on 12 June.

General McLaughlin was, I am sure, a fine officer and soldier. He was Commander of the 314th Tactical Airlift Wing with C-130 detachments in Japan, Okinawa, Taiwan and the Philippines. All of us spent 15-day tours in Viet Nam, then went home about long enough to do our laundry.

One of our missions was to fly a C-130 Airborne Command & Control Center (ABCCC) for 12 hours at a time, filled with radios and radar and staff officers directing air strikes. The ABCCC over “I Corps”, the north part of South Vietnam, was call sign “Hillsborough”. It was manned by professionals, captains and majors, and there was never a reason for a General Officer to be on board. But it was a bully grandstand, so I guess it would be a good place for grandstanding. Too bad I wasn’t flying Hillsborough that day, as I had so many times. No, Tex Wallace and I were just flying around South Viet Nam, “hauling trash” as we usually did, when we got two pieces of bad news in the same radio transmission from Airlift HQ in Saigon; Call sign “Hilda”, the wheedling bitch who never had good news.

  1. There was a humongous emergency evacuation in progress at Kham Duc in the Central Highlands of Viet Nam, right on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, hard by Laos and surrounded by hills and triple canopy jungle. We were to divert to Kham Duc, circle over the field and wait for orders from Hillsborough.
  2. By the way, fellas, this operation is being directed personally by Brigadier General Burl McLaughlin.

The General had ordered Hillsborough to divert from its vital mission to pick him up in Saigon so his name could be stamped on this glorious moment in military airlift history. Or maybe he was concerned about the fate of the troops he had sent in there, unnecessarily, the day before. You decide.

We didn’t hear the back story to our drama until later. Here’s Sam McGowan again:

“During the morning a C-130A flown by Lt. Col. Daryl D. Cole and his 21st Tactical Airlift Squadron crew landed at the camp with a load of cargo, apparently not knowing that it was to be evacuated. A flood of Vietnamese civilians rushed  aboard the airplane, so many that the loadmaster was unable to off-load the cargo. The airplane was shot full of holes and a tire was flattened, but Cole attempted a takeoff. The overburdened airplane would not fly, so they returned to the ramp, where the Vietnamese leaped off and into ditches. Cole’s crew worked feverishly to cut away the remains of the tire with a bayonet and a blow torch. While they were working, a C-123 flown by Major Ray D. Shelton came in and picked up a load of Vietnamese and US Army engineers. Cole loaded all remaining Air Force personnel at the camp on to his badly-damaged C-130 and managed to take-off, and flew to Cam Ranh Bay. There the members of the 3-man airlift control team who were aboard were told that they should have stayed in the camp. They were put on another C-130 and sent back.

During the morning, a battle had raged around the airfield. Several airplanes and helicopters had been shot down, including an Air Force Foward Air Controller, who managed to crash-land his shot-up O-2 on the runway. In the early afternoon General Westmoreland notified Seventh Air Force to commence a C-130 evacuation. The first airplane to land was a C-130B flown by a crew from the 774th TAS, commanded by Major Bernard Bucher. Major Bucher landed and loaded his airplane with more than 200 Vietnamese, mostly civilians. As his airplane lifted off, it flew through the apex of fire from two .50-caliber machine guns, trembled, then crashed into a ravine and exploded. A C-130E flown by Lt. Colonel Bill Boyd landed behind Bucher. Boyd took off in the opposite direction and, in spite of more than 100 hits, managed to make it to safety. The third C-130 was an A-model from the 21st TAS, commanded by Lt. Colonel John Delmore. The airplane was hit repeatedly by automatic weapons fire that ripped out the top of the cockpit and shot away the engine controls. Delmor had no choice but to feather the engines – he crash-landed the shot-up C-130 and managed to steer it clear of the runway. Meanwhile, airstrikes had been directed at the guns that brought down Bucher’s airplane and other strikes laid down protective fire alongside the runway. The fourth C-130 crew got in and out safely, and was followed by three others.

Would this have happened if General McLaughlin weren’t micro-managing the evacuation? I have no idea, but it’s the kind of thing that happens when people with creases in their trousers try to run a combat operation.

Here’s a drawing of Joe Jackson’s C-123 on the airfield at the end of the day, pretty much as I remember it. Behind it, you can see a burning C-130, one of two lost that day. But it wasn’t our turn yet.

Keith Ferris "The Miracle at Kham Duc"

Here’s the sanitized description from the Air Force Association:

“In May 1968, the special forces camp at Kham Duc, South Vietnam was tucked away in the central highlands, 16 kilometers from the Laotian border. After the fall of Camp Lang Vei during the Tet offensive in February, Kham Duc was the only observation camp remaining in I Corps, the northernmost military district in South Vietnam. When Kham Duc came under heavy mortar attack on May 10, Army Gen. William Westmoreland ordered it evacuated. On May 12, Mother’s Day, a heavy fog hung over the camp, obscuring enemy movements in the surrounding hills.

Bingo Fuel

Bingo Fuel is the fuel level that’s just enough to return to a safe base and land. You never declare bingo fuel if it’s not true, and no one responds to the declaration with an order to not return to base. The military doesn’t like to risk men or machines.

When we got to the Kham Duc area, it was a dismal sight. Overcast, with low hanging clouds to dodge, helicopters and fighters everywhere, lots of ground fire and the saddest-looking Special Forces base you can imagine.


There were about seven other C-130’s circling, waiting for orders, because the General would brook no shortage of resources. Never mind that there was no way that we would all be used. At the time, we didn’t realize that another C-130 was inbound, carrying the Airlift Control Element assigned to bring order to this “Chinese fire drill,” as Larry Busbee described it.

This was nothing like the elegant choreography you might hear on United’s air-to-ground Channel 9. There was no radar control in Viet Nam. You landed when you could see the runway, more or less, and when there were several of us waiting to land, we worked it out among ourselves.

“This is Homey 305, what’s the plan?”

“We’ve got seven aircraft, stacked with a thousand feet separation. You’ve got 11,000 feet”

High and Mighty

“Roger.” Well at least we were well above the action. It was pretty clear they wouldn’t need us today, and from the look of things, that was good. Now we started discussing our options. If we waited until we hit bingo fuel, we’d have to return to Danang, refuel, then head for Tuy Hoa, on the beach, where we would indulge in our little ritual: a hot shower and a cold cocktail. We trash haulers led an ignominious existence, but it had its rewards. Back at the bar we’d hang out with the F-100 jocks who’d regale us with tales of their derring-do, having hurled their pink bodies at the earth at prodigious speeds, making things go boom. Impressive, but they’d freely admit that they’d never, under any circumstances, land an airplane on one of those godforsaken strips, no way in Hell.

So why should we circle around here uselessly when we could leave a little earlier and proceed direct to Tuy Hoa? There we could enjoy the sunset on the beach, and relate yet another narrow deferral from duty above & beyond? We just needed to be diplomatic to pull this off.

Great plan, lousy outcome.

I wasn’t lying about our reserves and we never declared bingo fuel. I waited until the fuel was just about right to avoid the Danang detour and calmly announced our status. Things definitely looked bad down there, so, to paraphrase Mel Brooks, it was good to be number eight for landing. Here goes.

“Ah, Hillsborough, This is Homey 305. We can hold for maybe 15 minutes more, then we’ll have to declare bingo fuel.”

“Roger, 305, stand by.” Heh. This was good. It was unthinkable to pluck the top airplane off the top of the overpopulated stack and drive it through all those other equally useful aircraft. Especially when the others were so much closer and surely more willing.

“Homey 305, You’re now number one and cleared to land.”


What had gone wrong? How could they do this? Why hadn’t we waited and declared bingo fuel? What evil force was at work? Professionals would never do this! You’d have to be an idiot to send in…… Aha! That’s it! General Burl McLaughlin, The sanctimonious author of the “From the Left Seat” column in Airlift Times! Only an operational amateur would do this to us!

“Roger, Hillsborough, Homey 305 commencing approach.” Understatement. The junior officer’s only ally.

It was a wild ride. We dropped the flaps and gear and flattened those four huge props, each of the 16 blades the size of a Cessna’s wing. Our stock in trade was not what you’d expect from a big transport. It was the Assault Landing, by which you maneuvered like a fighter plane in a tight steep spiral to stay as close to the runway as possible. It seemed impossible until you’d done several hundred. Miraculously, we didn’t take a hit.

The C-130 that took off before us was our pal, Bernie Bucher’s–shot down on takeoff, killing 200 or so passengers and crew. The one behind us belonged on The Twilight Zone – three people flying toward Kham Duc!

“While the C-130s were landing, Army and Marine helicopter pilots took advantage of the distraction – the Communists were concentrating their fire on the larger transports – and got in to make pickups of their own. Within a few minutes, some 500 of the camps defenders were evacuated, although the bulk of the Vietnamese were left to attempt to exfiltrate through the enemy forces. But as the last C-130 came out of the camp with the staff of the US Army Special Forces team, another C-130 was landing with the three members of the airlift control team who had been brought out earlier. Here’s more from the Air Force Association description:

An Army CH-47 helicopter and two Air Force C-130s tried to land and takeoff with personnel, but were disabled by enemy fire. One C-130 burst into flames at the end of the runway, killing the crew and more than 150 Vietnamese civilians. Finally, a C-130 was able to land and takeoff with some passengers.

That would be us. Funny, the Kham Duc partition in my brain is much larger than those 12 words suggest. “Some passengers”, my ass. There were 150-200 people left in camp, half of them Vietnamese. I later discovered that, as we landed, the North Vietnamese owned about half the base. As we touched down, the ammo dump blew up on the starboard side of the airplane–fire and smoke everywhere, shit falling on top of the airplane. These are the details they never talked about in training.We took out everyone with the moxie to run to the airplane: U.S. Marines and Army troops and Vietnamese men, women and children, 150 or more, but who was counting?

Most of them had hunkered down in the ditches on either side of what was left of the runway. We taxied down the strip with the rear ramp down as people sprinted to the “safety” of our light-gauge aluminum tube. We had our cockpit windows open, waving at shell-shocked troops to run to the airplane. The Camp Commander, a Special Forces Lt. Colonel looking like death warmed over, clambered up to the cockpit and ordered us to take off. There were still 2 or 3 dozen soldiers lying in the trenches, heads down, not going anywhere. The Commander said to take off and save the ones on board: if the stragglers wouldn’t run to the airplane, that was their problem. We had taxied back to our landing point, over pieces of quonset huts and holes in the runway. F-4 Phantoms were strafing both sides of the runway, keeping everybody’s head down. We gunned it and took off for what should have been our last departure.

The hills around Kham Duc are 1,000-1,500 feet higher than the base. The NVA gunners were firing down, as they had been all afternoon at targets just like us. It was a frickin’ shooting gallery.

We were overloaded and we lumbered out on takeoff leg. We expected more performance, since the C-130 is an eager and powerful airplane, even with so many scared people on board but lighter by the fuel we didn’t have. Surprisingly, we didn’t take a single hit. As we climbed through 6,000 feet, a safe height, I looked down and saw that the gear lever was still down!

Well. For professional aviators, this was an embarrassing moment. We left the gear down? WTF?! That’s a student pilot error! Had we lost our heads? We just laughed, put the wheels up and headed for the safety of Danang. We still couldn’t figure out how we got off scott-free. Why should we be the only aircraft in and out of Kham Duc to take no hits? Surely it was because of the intense fighter support, but there was more to it than that. Because the gear was down, our takeoff climb was flatter–lower–than if the gear were up and we had less drag. If the NVA gunners had locked in so skillfully on the previous C-130s, maybe they were firing above us, like a hunter leading the last duck, missing a lower-flying duck. Whatever the reason, it was a great escape.

We thought that was the end of it. We felt badly about the guys left on the ground, but the Camp Commander was right in saving who he could. Later we got the full story about how they got out of there.

The camp had been evacuated, or had been declared so by the Special Forces team, at a cost of two C-130s and several other aircraft and helicopters, seven in all. What happened next is the event for which Kham Duc is most remembered, although in reality it was but a footnote to the day’s events. The eighth C-130 flew into the camp and off-loaded the three men, Major John Gallagher, a C-130 pilot from the 463rd Tactical Airlift Wing, and Sergeants Mort Freedman and James Lundie, both combat controllers with the 8th Aerial Port. The three men ran off the ramp of the C-130 and into the camp; the pilot, Lt. Col. Jay Van Cleef, waited several minutes then when no one came aboard his airplane, took off again.

Jay Van Cleef was from our home base at Ching Chuan Kang, Taiwan, and the version I heard was slightly different, that he took out the people we left hiding in the ditches, dropping off three guys who had no reason to be there except that someone was paying more attention to procedures than to reality. And that they drove their radio-festooned jeep off the ramp, spiked it into a ditch and assumed the stance of the conquering hero: face down in the mud, arms over one’s head.

As he was climbing out he heard someone report that the evacuation was complete. No it wasn’t! Van Cleef protested into his radio that three airmen were still on the ground. Those present later reported that there was a dead silence in the airways afterwards.

Hostile forces had overrun the forward outpost and established gun positions on the airstrip. They were raking the camp with small arms, mortars, light and heavy automatic weapons and recoilless rifle fire. The camp was engulfed in flames and ammunition dumps were exploding and littering the runway with debris. In addition, eight aircraft had been destroyed by the intense fire and one remained on the runway, reducing its usable length to only about 2,200
feet. To further complicate the landing, the weather was deteriorating rapidly. As the last C-130 was about to takeoff with the last of the men on the ground aboard, the airborne commander ordered jet fighters circling overhead to descend and destroy the camp.

It looked as if Jackson’s aircraft wasn’t going to be needed in the rescue attempt. But then the radio crackled, informing them that the three-man combat control team, in charge of directing the evacuation, was still on the ground. As they searched the camp for anyone who had been left behind, they realized they were the only ones left.

Ah, the endless stream of FUBARs that is the wellspring for the black humor that sustains combat troops everywhere. A management fuck-up in the Fortune 500 is a sad waste of human potential and an inspiration for Dilbertian farce. A management mis-step in war kills hard-working young Americans and maims ten for every KIA. Joe Jackson had to rescue the three poor SOBs who never should have been there in the first place. A testimonial to a management fuck-up.

The rest is an Airlift legend. Joe Jackson drives his C-123 through a withering hail of fire, rescues the ACC Team, takes a zillion hits and gets the hell out of there. Joe and his crew deserve every honor heaped on them, which, for Joe, includes the Congressional Medal of Honor, the only airlift crewmember so decorated in Viet Nam, and deservedly so.

Am I a cynic to wonder at the irony of Joe Jackson’s celebrity? That there was no reason to risk six lives and an airplane because of hardening of the regulations? Might I be so cynical as to observe that we patriots, inspired and moved by Joe Jackson’s authentic heroism, are less likely to dig below the surface, into the failures of ego and logistics that have defined war through the ages?

These are the reasons that people with a memory–like Dwight Eisenhower–are slow to go to war. Combat is always a sad, desperate monument to man’s inability to get it right, either diplomatically or tactically. The wise but uneducated people in a culture generally clean up the messes created by the over-educated fools who just know they can manage a war better than the similar idiots who screwed it up last time.

*”Souls on board” has always seemed to me a quaint way to describe passengers and crew. Inherited from the Navy, it’s the count of people aboard a craft, usually in the past tense.
3:22:28 AM    

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