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Story by: Sam McGowan
If you've found my home page, Sam
McGowan's Home Page, chances are you've read my bit about Blind Bat, which was
probably the most interesting and exciting of all the C-130 missions of the Vietnam War. A
few weeks ago I heard from my old AC, Bob Bartunek, who found my page through a link, and
who has refreshed my memory on a few incidents and raised a question or two. There are
also a few others on this list who were there, so this is for them, too.
I first heard about the Blind Bat mission during my unit indoctrination the day after I
arrived at Naha AB, Okinawa for my new assignment with what was then known as the 6315th
Operations Group. I was somewhat surprised to learn the briefing was classified. I thought
the Naha C-130 unit was just another troop carrier group. But I soon learned that while
the squadrons were designated as troop carriers, they were doing other things, one of
which was the C-130 flare ship mission which is now commonly known as Blind Bat.
At the time of the briefing, the flare mission was operating out of Da Nang. A few
years ago I happened upon a painting by noted aviation artist Keith Ferris featuring a
pair of B-57s formatting on a single C-130 with a USMCEF-10 hovering off in the background
as the whole flight headed north under a setting sun. I knew instantly what the painting
represented, even though the C-130 was camouflaged and featured the center-mounted pylon
tanks of the C-130E instead of the tip tanks of the A-model. Because that is how the
mission operated in those days - they would head north out of Da Nang with a pair of B-57s
with malice toward the North Vietnamese while the EF-10 jammed the radar. Yes, folks,
C-130s flew over North Vietnam - every single night of the year from 1965 until late 1966.
At first, they went pretty far north -all the way to Hanoi, in fact.
I had been at Naha about six weeks when my turn came for the flare mission. Along with
three other recently arrived loadmasters, Mike Cavanaugh, Willy Donovan and Sam McCracken,
all of whom had come from MATS, I was going in-country to kick flares on a crew commanded
by Captain Bob Bartunek (firstname.lastname@example.org). The trip promised to be interesting because
Black Bart had just got back from a tour with the flare mission and some stories had
comeback ahead of him. The co-pilot was Steve Taylor, who was also a captain and a Citadel
grad. If I am not mistaken, Steve went to work for Delta. The navigator was none other
than Dick Herman, whose aviation thrillers can be found in the nearest book store,
starting with The Warbirds and continuing through about five titles or so. Our engineer
was Cecil Hebdon, though he was only with us for the first half of the tour. By the time
we got there, the mission had been moved from Da Nang to Ubon, Thailand, where it fell
under the famous 8th Tac Fighter Wing. We were TDY to the 8th TFW FAC/Flare section. What
we were was four-engined forward air controllers! And what the four of us in the back were
was manual flare launchers. They called us kickers, and with good reason! (That was before
I moved to Texas and learned to 2-step!)
The mission had been at Ubon only a few weeks when we got there, but it had already
picked up the name Blind Bat from the call sign used on missions over Laos. The North
Vietnam missions used Lamplighter. As I remember, we had six airplanes at Ubon at the
time, maybe eight, and there were at least four missions ever night, two Blind Bats and
two Lamplighters. Ubon was home to the 8th TFW, but also to an Australian fighter squadron
flying F-86s as well as us. And for about a week it had been home to a detachment of AC-47
gunships out of South Vietnam. The Spookies had come to Ubon to try their hand working
over The Trail in Laos: it only took the NVA a week to get them both, along with all of
their crewmembers. One was shot down right in front of John Butterfield's crew. His
enlisted men lived in the same hooch as we did. For the crews of the 21st, 35th, 41st and
817th troop carrier squadrons at Naha, "going on Blind Bat" meant one thing -
flak! And we are not talking about piddly stuff like .51-caliber or 23MM, but rather the
big guns. Charlie had 37 and 57MM guns guarding The Trail and even a few 85s in the area
around the Mu Gia Pass. It was over the Mu Gia Pass that I had my first brush with37-MM -
in my first five minutes on the flare ship mission. I was flying with a 21st crew that
night, getting indoctrinated before I went out again the next evening with my own crew.
One of the loadmasters on that crew said that my eyes were as big as saucers when I looked
inside the airplane after those rounds whizzed by our left wing. He was probably right,
because I remember that my thoughts at the time were "I want my mother!" But,
surprisingly, you do get used to getting shot at after while if you are shot at enough,
and I guess we were!
Actually, it was not so much that we got used to it as it was that it became more of a
routine. We knew the guns were there and we knew more or less where they were thanks to
USAF photo/intell and as long as the navigator didn't fall asleep, it was his job to keep
us far enough away from the guns that they couldn't hit us. Surprisingly, even though we
over hostile terrain for as much as eight hours - we flew until we ran out of fuel or
flares, whichever came first we were not shot at constantly. But, we were shot at enough!
And there was the one night when the navigator DID fall asleep, at least that is what
Black Bart says happened, and we almost got it.
I was sitting on the door at the time, holding four flares in place with my feet. I was
on interphone but could only hear the rest of the crew, not the radio conversation. As I
remember, we were working with a pair of fighters and one of them called out to us to
"Break!" That was the word that told the pilot to do SOMETHING! In this case Bob
did a split-S! Yep, a full-scale split-S in a "giant, globe-Herculing C-130
circulees!" (I heard that one on the radio one night. A MAC C-141 crew told ATC they
were a globe-circlingC-141 Starlifter and a C-130 crew came back with it!) I knew we were
going upside down when I felt my bottom get light. I grabbed onto the cargo door where I
was sitting and held on for dear life, and expected to see flares all over the place. But
old Black Bart was so smooth that the navigator's cup of coffee did not even spill!
Honest! In fact, the crew got into a argument as to whether or not we had gone upside
down. The nav thought his coffee would have spilled if we had! (I don't guess he had seen
the Bob Hoover video yet.)The fighter pilot told us that if we hadn't took the break when
we did, the flak would have got us because the shells went right where we would have been.
Speaking of falling asleep, that was one of the hardest aspects of the Blind Bat mission, at least for the loadmasters. The second hardest thing was walking around in the cargo compartment with a parachute on your back and carrying a 27-pound flare while the pilot was throwing us all over the sky dodging flak. One night we had a lull in the action and Bart told us to pull in the chute and close the door while we flew around with our lights off to see what we could see. All four of us loadmasters fell asleep. One of the pilots came back to take a leak and saw us. He took a tie down device and slammed the floor with it right next to each of our heads - and none of us even budged! Bob came down and woke us up. He said he didn't think it was a good idea for us to be falling asleep in such a hostile environment. The reason we had a hard time staying awake is because we had a hard time sleeping in the hooch at Ubon. While the officers had air-conditioned quarters, we enlisted swine lived in open-sided hooches, and once the sun came up, the heat and humidity rose with it. We might get 4-5 hours of very fitful sleep, the kind where you are half asleep and half-awake. We flew one night on and one night off. On the off night, we tried to use "medicinalalcohol" to help us sleep. We would go to the Airman's Club and buy a 40ounce bottle of whiskey, then head downtown to a huge dance hall and consume it! Then, when the club closed, we would hop a samolar and ride back to the base and pass out on our bed. At least when we did that, we got some sleep.
Even though we were in Thailand, we were subject to attack on the ground. And one night that very thing happened. Our crew was flying that night, so we missed it. But an enemy commando team - as in North Vietnamese special operations - attempted to penetrate the base one night. In fact, they were evidently planning to hit the Blind Bat enlisted men's quarters because that is exactly where they were headed. But when one of the NVA commandos cut the Chinese Nung guard's throat, he was a little bit slow doing it. The Nung managed to fire off his shotgun which tipped the guys off. They doused the lights and hit the floor. The enemy troops fired off a couple of bursts, but then they headed off into the rice paddy. If it had not been for that guard, several of my buddies would have been slaughtered. And it would have been that all right, because there was only one weapon in both hooches - a Swedish K submachine gun that one of the loadmasters, David Rae, was keeping in his locker.
One night my crew was directly involved in an enemy incursion. We were working over
Southern Laos when the ABCCC told us to hotfoot it back to Ubon. They told us to drop
flares and search the clearing on the ground looking for signs of enemy aircraft, probably
a helicopter. We didn't find anything though we did drop the rest of our flares. When we
got back to Ubon, we learned that a slow-moving unidentified airplane had been spotted on
radar. The alert F-4 was scrambled to investigate. The crew got a lock-on and tried to
fire their Sidewinder but the weapons NCO who was supposed to pull the pins before they
took off didn't! We heard there was a new Airman Basic on the base, and that his sleeves
showed empty spots where his Tech Sergeants stripes had been!
Though our primary mission was finding trucks, we sometimes were told to drop flares at certain places without explanation. One evening we were told to flare south of Vinh for a ground team on the coast. At the time, I had never heard of Navy SEALS - and neither had anyone else! Bob Bartunek thinks our crew found the escaped Navy pilot, Dieter Dengler. I don't remember all the details on that one, but I do remember one night when the cockpit crew was discussing a fire on the ground and thought it looked like someone was signaling us. Bob has since learned that Dengler reported that one night he and his companion built a fire and tried to signal a C-130 flare ship that was operating above them. Anyone who knows anything about the whereabouts or anything else about Dieter Dengler, send Bob an Email at email@example.com. In many ways Blind Bat was a frustrating mission. At a time when the press was telling the world that American pilots were flinging bombs and napalm all over the place indiscriminately, we were actually following very strict rules of engagement that as often as not caused us to lose a target before we could get fighters in on it. The bad guys had fake "villages" all over the place that they used as sanctuaries for their trucks; they knew villages were off limits and the trucks were safe if they were inside one. We also dropped bombs on very dubious targets that intelligence had briefed us on. One in particular was a bridge that no one knew where it was. Actually, it was underwater and invisible from the air. But, we found it one night.
Our best night in some ways was also the funniest. Willy Donovan was sitting on the
door holding six flares in place with his feet. Bob had lost sight of our target and a
pair of F-4s were screaming that they were low on gas. Willy's feet were hurting like the
devil, so he finally got fed up and let all six flares go! Bob says now he wasn't upset -
but I know better because I was on the headset! But, when the flares popped, there was the
target - a "suspected ammunition dump" right below us! The first fighter came in
and dropped their bombs but missed. The wingman not only missed the target, he dropped on
the wrong side of the river! But unknown to anyone especially the F-4 crews, that was
where the real ammo dump was hidden! The bombs, completely by accident, hit the ammo dump
and blew it sky high! And the pilot got a Silver Star for missing what he was trying to
Despite fighter pilot bravado, missing targets was what they did best on night missions over The Trail. Anyone who flew Blind Bat will tell you that they were amazed at just how much trouble the fighter pilots had finding and hitting their targets in those days before the advent of "smart" bombs. The one weapon that was effective was the cluster-bomb, which had been developed for use against gun positions. The guns were easy to find because all the fighter pilot had to do was drop where the tracers were coming from! Now, that was a dangerous task, and we all were very grateful to the fighter pilots who took out the gun crews who were stupid enough to show us where they were.
The one group that seemed to be consistent in the truck war were the Nimrod pilots flying A-26s out of NKP. Heinie Aderholt and his buddies in the Air Commando Association attribute their success to the fact that they were air commandos, but the truth is that the A-26s had been designed for night attacks and most of the Nimrod pilots were Korean-war veterans and some had even flown A-26s in World War II. That they were assigned to a squadron with an Air Commando designation had little, if anything, to do with it. We worked with an A-26 pilot early one evening just at dusk over the Plain of Jars. It took him an hour to get rid of all of his ordinance. While an F-4 carried a load of bombs or maybe a few missiles, that was it. An A-26 carried, bombs, napalm, rockets, .50-caliber guns and flares all at the same time. When they found a target, they could stay there and work it over. The A-26s did not fly over North Vietnam, though their territory was exclusively in Laos.
As the war progressed, the NVA brought more and guns into southern North Vietnam, and
eventually into Laos. The Mu Gia Pass on the Lao-North Vietnam border was heavily
defended, as was the town of TchePone in Laos. A huge gun was hidden inside a tunnel at
TchePone. They would pull it out and take a shot at an American airplane, then roll it
back inside before the attacks came. That gun almost got a 35th crew one night. They were
hit in the leftwing and set on fire. The crew was just about to abandon ship when the fire
finally burned itself out. They managed to land in one piece at Nakonphamom, Thailand. The
loadmasters, two of whom were my roommates, and the flight engineer and navigator pulled
on tie down straps to help the pilots control the ailerons. Major Frank and his crew got
the PACAF Able Aeronaut Award for getting their airplane down in one piece.
One crew, also from the 35th, had an encounter with a pair of MiGs over eastern Laos
one night. They were dropping flares to support a ground team when the fighters scrambled
at Hanoi. The crew dropped down into the mountains and wove between the ridges at night
and in an unfamiliar area! The enemy planes came so close they could pick up the energy
from their search radar on the C-130 unit! But they managed to get back to Ubon.
Several Blind Bat airplanes were hit over Laos and got home with heavy battle damage.
One crew from the 35th and another from the 41st both took hits that wounded some of the
loadmaster crew. The 41st crew had an extremely hard time getting rid of the flare chute.
While I was at Ubon a new flare launcher was sent down. It was mounted in the left
paratroop door and allowed the crew to drop flares without opening the rear ramp part way.
All of the crews were supposed to test it. But before it became our turn, a flare hung up
in the thing while it was being tested on a mission by a 21st TCS crew. The unit was
supposed to jettison but it didn't! One of the loadmasters, whose name slips my memory
right now, kicked the whole thing out of the airplane with his feet - while the flare was
burning! Allegedly, he was put in for a Silver Star but the group commander at the time
turned it down- he said an enlisted crewmember did not deserve any medal higher than an
Air Medal because he had no control over the airplane. Ironically, an AC-47 loadmaster,
A1C John Levitow, became the only USAF enlisted man in history to win the Medal of Honor a
few years later for doing essentially the same thing!
The Blind Bat mission lasted from the very beginning of the Air War against North Vietnam and Laos until 1970. By that time the Air Force had gotten around to equipping a few C-130s with guns, and sending them to Laos. Though the Blind Bat mission was still effective, the Pentagon decided to switch the funding over to the AC-130s. Two Blind Bat C-130s were shot down over Laos, one on May 22, 1968 and one on November 24, 1969. Both crews were lost and are listed as MIA. One flight engineer, Don Wright, was my friend.
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