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MACTAN
Story by: Sam McGowan

A couple of days ago Jim Farrar, JCF102, sent me the URL for his new website (not up anymore). When I checked it out, Jim mentioned going to Mactan, "the best kept secret in the world." Jim got to Mactan in 1968, but I was there three years earlier, and my memories of Mactan are just as pleasant as Jim's. Like everyone else in the 779th TCS at Pope in the summer of 1965, I had never heard of Mactan Island. But when "the word" came down to the squadron, someone got out an atlas and looked it up. We soon found out that Mactan is an island just off of Cebu City on the island of Cebu in the south central Philippines. We also learned that Mactan was the place where the Spanish explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, lost his life during his history making voyage around the world. The "official" version of the story is that Magellan got involved in a battle between warring factions in the islands, but the truth is a bit more earthy. The Spanish adventurer had had a little adventure with a Filipino princess, and when her family realized he was going to sail off without her, her brother, King Lapaulapu, gathered up a band of his subjects and went off after Ferdie. He "lost his head over a woman," though that is not how the GIs in the PI told the tale.

The entire 779th deployed to Mactan in September, 1965. Actually, one crew came along two weeks later. I was on that crew, because I had been DNIF when the squadron deployed and my crew went with a replacement loadmaster until I could catch up with them. When we got to the island, we found a 10,000 foot concrete runway that had been built in the 1950s as an emergency field for SAC bombers to recover in the event of a war. The only permanent buildings on the field were the Philippines Air Force operations building/airline terminal and the PAF BOQ. Everything else on the airfield was still under construction, which meant that we were going to be living in wooden-framed hooches with tent roofs. (Some of the first officers to arrive had wangled bunks in the Filipino BOQ but most of them were in the tents just like the enlisted men.) The PAF based an F-86 squadron there, but until we arrived, there were no USAF personnel on the base that Uncle Sam had built.

But even though our living conditions were primitive, we had been sent to what can only be called a tropical paradise. Mactan is a small island, completely cut off from land, and it is blessed with white sandy beaches and coconut palms. Surprisingly, the Filipino people were the kind the islands are famous for, but whose reputation had been spoiled by the criminal elements around the military bases at Clark and Subic. For most of the Filipinos on the island, their only contact with Americans were the handful of Peace Corps workers and missionaries who were on the island. They actually liked us! As the blue Air Force bus passed by the villages on the way to the beach, the people would come out and shout "Hello Joe!" Though it had been 20years since the islands were liberated by MacArthur, the Filipino people still liked Americans.

We had not come to Mactan for a vacation, though the island offered every opportunity for recreation. We were there as a direct result of events on the other side of the South China Sea, where the Vietnam War was starting to pickup momentum. The 779th had been sent to Mactan to beef-up the 315th Air Division, PACAF's airlift unit. Other C-130 squadrons had deployed to Nahaand Kadena, Okinawa and up the islands at Clark. In fact, we were the second Pope squadron to deploy to PACAF that year; the 776th was at Kadena. We had been sent for an indefinite TDY because the squadron was slated to go into the Skyhook C-130 mission when we got back. Brand-new C-130E-(I)s were already on the ramp at Pope. But TAC wanted the 779th crews to get some combat experience before they kicked off USAF special operations.

In the fall of 1965 most C-130 missions involved either moving newly arrived troops from the coastal port cities in Vietnam to inland bases or moving cargo and personnel into Southeast Asia from Clark and Okinawa. The 779th had no sooner arrived at Mactan than they (I was still enroute) were sent to QuiNhon to move the 1st Cavalry Division to An Khe. This was rather ironic, because only a month before we had been sent to Fort Benning to drop the whole division for one last jump so the troops could qualify for combat pay during their year in country. The cavalrymen had been cocky as they told us what all they were going to do to the Cong. They were sure surprised to see the same faces moving them out of Qui Nhon as they left the ship that they had seen just before they left Bragg!

Shortly after I got there and joined my crew, we were sent to Vung Tau to move the arriving Aussies. I suppose that move was one of the highlights of my loadmastering days. Four C-130s and their crews were sent to Vung Tau with expectations of spending a week moving the Australians from Vung Tau to BienHoa. Our squadron commander, Col. Rodney Newbold, went with us as mission commander. He had just put on his eagles a few days before. When we got to Vung Tau, the only quarters we could find were in a Special Forces R&R center with large open bayed cubicles. As it turned out, Col. Newbold and I shared a double-bunk bed. As we got into bed, he commented "I bet this is the first time in Air Force history a full colonel and an airman second have been bunkmates!"

The move was typical TAC troop carrier, except that I had an AC who had already spent a year in Vietnam flying C-123s. Captain Marvin Shoupe was a good pilot, and he was an old Vietnam hand in 1965. And he had a crew who knew how to work together. We started at around 0800 and worked until the end of the day. The loads were all vehicles and troops; except for the first and last flight of the day and when we had to shut-down for fuel, every onload and every offload was with engines running. The loading operation was supervised by a Major Como who had just come to Vietnam from Sewart. He made it clear to me that he liked the way I worked, and the attitude of our crew. As it turned out, we were moving more cargo and troops than expected. After the second day, 315th began pulling airplanes off the airlift, until on the third day we were the only crew still involved. That was the day we flew 24sorties and carried more than 300,000 pounds in one day - and would have carried more except that half of our legs were empty. We were able to fly so many sorties because we were shuttling between Vung Tau and Bien Hoa - with a single side-trip into Tan Son Nhut - and the legs were only about ten minutes. (Heck, they were still long enough for me to take a catnap!) After we shut down on the last night, Major Como took me aside and gave me some special words of praise for the job I had done that week. He also told me he was putting me in for a Bronze Star, but his words were recognition enough.(I never got the medal.)

A good part of our time was spent flying out of Clark. With several TAC TDY fighter wings newly arrived in the region, there were all kinds of airlift chores to perform. Some of our missions involved moving men and equipment between the TAC TDY bases at CCK and Clark and their forward locations in Southeast Asia. We got to know a couple of F-104 pilots pretty well. One, like me, was from Tennessee and we got to be friends. One day he caught a ride with us at Clark to go back to CCK. He was wearing his G-suit and carrying a parachute. He told us he had a firelight over Clark and dead-sticked his F-104 into the field.

The 779th opened up the C-130 Bangkok Shuttle. Previously, the mission had been flown by C-123s TDY to Don Muang from Tan Son Nhut. But with so many newly arrived units up-country, 315th decided it was time to put C-130s to work in Thailand. The Bangkok mission was an interesting and enjoyable in1965 as it was for other crews in 1970 and afterwards. We lived in the Federal Hotel in downtown Bangkok and flew out of Don Muang, the civilian field at Bangkok. It was ironic that we were enjoying life in a big city while TDY from a primitive base! The stay for the younger enlisted men was made even more pleasant by the presence of several teenage girls who had been brought out of Dacca, Pakistan a few weeks earlier with their families.

When we left Bangkok, my crew was sent to a brand-new base in Vietnam at a place called Cam Rhan Bay. When we got there, all we found was a partially completed runway surrounded by sand dunes 30 feet high. We were met by the base commander, a full colonel, driving a forklift! We were one of the first C-130s to land on the new runway at Cam Rhan.

One interesting mission was a trip from Clark to the most northerly airstrip in South Vietnam, Dong Ha. Though it would soon be a major USMC base, when we landed there the only building was a shack for Air Vietnam passengers. We brought in a load of USAF radar operators and support personnel who were setting up a GCI site to control traffic over North Vietnam, where the skies were getting crowded. It wasn't long before "Waterboy" would be a familiar call sign. Getting to Dong Ha was an adventure. We flew IFR across the South China Sea to Da Nang, then got vectors to clear air beneath the 600 foot overcast. Then we flew "feet wet" up the coast until the navigator picked up the Song Ben Hai River on his radar, and then we followed it to the airstrip. All the time we were conscious of the many sampans we passed over, each of which was probably filled with VC with Springfield rifles. As it turned out, when we got back to Mactan that night, we found a bullet hole in the left flap, about 3 feet from the wing root.

When we were not flying, we were either at the beach or downtown in one of the handful of dirt-floored bars that were the only social spots on the island. San Miguel beer was the drink of choice, though there was also an island rum known as Tandarary. The GIs called it TDY, because that is where it would send you! A "modern" night club opened while we were there, but my favorite place was the old club with the dirt floor and the young hostesses who were fresh from the farm. I made a special friend, a girl my age whose father was from Texas. Her name was Ismelda Canales; she had taken her father's name. I guess you could call her a Fil-Tex!

I turned 20 at Mactan and got promoted to E-4 the same day. My crew got called out but I had gone to the beach so they got someone else. That night the several of us who had gotten promoted on November 1, 1965 put on a party in the all-ranks club. One of the pilots made major, an engineer put on Staff Sergeant's stripes and I put on the three stripes of an Airman First Class (with just over 2 years service, which was unheard of in those days.) To say that I got drunk is putting it mildly, and to say that I threw up would be like saying that John Dillinger was a minor criminal. I got drunk on San Miguel and threw-up all over the place!

Snorkeling was a favorite past-time. We would pick up gear on the trips to Clark, and then swap our gear around. One day several of us went to a lagoon that was just down the beach from where everyone went. A group of Filipino fisherman told us to watch out for a HUGE barracuda who lived in the lagoon. They said the fish was as long as their canoe. We swam out into the lagoon and dove down in the crystal clear water to pick up conch shells. There weren't a lot of fish. The water got progressively deeper and darker. After awhile we turned back toward shore. I was following along behind, when I felt that something was watching me. I turned and looked behind me - all I could see were eyes and teeth! The big barracuda was following along behind me, checking to see who the intruders into his underwater realm were. I kicked my feet as fast as I could and sped toward shore. The fish gradually faded into the darkness! Talk about one scared little puppy!

I had an even closer call while at Mactan than my encounter with the fish. We all took the air mattresses out of our mobility kits and used them at the beach. We would lie on the mattress and look into the teeming waters with our face masks. The waters off the beach were full of fish and coral, and the clear waters were like an aquarium. One day I was drifting along watching the bottom when I looked up and saw that I was getting further and further from shore, and the current was catching my mattress/raft. I was not wearing flippers, and my attempts to get back in were fruitless. Fortunately, my engineer, Don Sweet, saw my plight. He swam out with flippers and mask and between the two of us we made our way to shore. I understand that Don was killed several years ago in a traffic accident.

Even though we had been told when we left Pope we would be training for the Skyhook mission when we got home, rumors persisted that we would be staying at Mactan for a full PCS tour. The B-model crews from the 463rd who were TDY to Clark were the ones who kept telling us we were staying. As it turned out, Mactan was going to become a permanent C-130 base, but we were going home and the 463rd, at least the 772nd and 774th, were coming to Mactan on permanent duty. The base was building up. MATS was using Mactan as a crew rest stop for C-124 crews to relieve congestion at Clark and more and more PCS personnel were coming in every day. Still, everyone was still living in the hooches, eating out of mess kits in the chow hall, and taking cold showers in the communal latrine.

I was at Mactan until mid-December. We went home the same way we had come, byway of Wake Island and Hickam. We took 24-hour crew rests at both places. As we left, PCS B-model crews came in to replace us. For them, as Jim Farrar says, Mactan was as pleasant an experience as it was for us.


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