Close to a half-century later, the men of the flying gunships are getting some of the respect they earned in the skies over Vietnam.
On a recent weekend, dozens of the former members of the 71st Special Operations Squadron came together in Columbus for a reunion, marking the 45th anniversary of their return from combat in Southeast Asia.
They gathered at Columbus Municipal Airport, which in another lifetime had served as Bakalar Air Force Base, the home for the 71st and its parent unit, the 434th Tactical Airlift Wing.
For many of the participants, the local reunion spread over into another event more than 100 miles away at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. There, former members of the 71st and an affiliated group, the AC-119 Gunship Association, gathered at a reception to thank the museum officers for establishing a permanent exhibit devoted to the role the converted transport planes played in the Vietnam War.
Actually the Dayton event was something of an afterthought, organized primarily by Herman “Al” Heuss, a former member of the 71st who now lives in Indianapolis.
“I just thought the reunion in Columbus gave us the opportunity to acquaint our members with what’s going on over at the museum in Dayton,” he said. “At first I was thinking of a small reception for about
15 people, but somehow word got out on Twitter and other social media outlets, and I started hearing from people throughout the Midwest. That original invitation list of 15 grew to more than 40. It just demonstrates the interest there is in our mission.”
If that is indeed the case, it is a recognition by the public that is long overdue, at least among those outside Columbus. The Flying Gunships are a little-known chapter in the Vietnam War. Even within the military there has been little recognition of what the converted transport planes and their crews accomplished.
That can be due in part to society’s ambivalent feelings about the war itself. Although attitudes have tempered in the early years of the 21st century, it is still hard to forget the controversy about the war and the feelings of abandonment by many of those who served in uniform.
Oddly enough, even the Air Force wasn’t sold on some of the flying gunships used in Vietnam. “It (the AC-119 gunship) wasn’t highly thought of by the brass,” Heuss said.
That attitude wasn’t shared among members of the 71st or in Columbus, where supporters have made a point of detailing the unit’s accomplishments. Admittedly, people in Columbus have had difficulty associating the heavily armed gunships with Bakalar Air Force Base.
Bakalar (first named Atterbury during World War II) had played host to a variety of aircraft in its history, but in the 1960s it was most closely associated with the lumbering C-119 transport planes used to deliver materials and personnel. That all changed in 1968, a time that is still fresh in the mind of Columbus resident Dale Burgan, who was then a member of the 434th Tactical Airlift Wing.
“That was the year Dr. Martin Luther King was shot, and we were called on to transport troops to various metropolitan areas to handle the civil unrest that was breaking out,” the Columbus retiree said. “We were on standby waiting for calls to go to specific areas, and one day when I received a call I assumed we were going to be shipped out to Washington, D.C. Actually the call was from my girlfriend, Karen, who was working at Bakalar at the time. We weren’t going to Washington. We’d been mobilized. Personally, I’d have preferred being sent to Washington.”
The mobilization in May 1968 was for only one of the two squadrons of the 434th, but the mission had nothing to do with transporting supplies or personnel.
Dale and some 300 other reservists were initially part of the 930th Tactical Airlift Group, but that name and mission were changed later that year when the group was designated the 71st Special Operations Squadron.
From May to December 1968, the unit trained in the old transport planes that had been outfitted with heavy armament and converted into flying gunships at Lockbourne Air Force Base in Ohio. They were deployed to Vietnam in December.
“We were the only Air Force Reserve unit sent to Vietnam,” Dale said.
Despite doubts about the plane by the Air Force hierarchy, the 71st compiled a memorable combat record during its six months “in country.”
An Air Force citation presented to the unit after completion of its mission attested to those achievements. The reservists were cited “for firing a new and relatively sophisticated weapons system being battle tested for the first time, working often under intense ground fire, in periods of inclement weather and almost totally during hours of darkness.”
The numbers backed up the words. In the six months the 71st flew 1,586 combat missions. Members were awarded 751 Air Medals, 143 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 18 Bronze Stars, 47 Air Force Commendation medals and two Purple Hearts.
The most important statistic is the unit suffered no casualties. That’s even more remarkable when considering the converted transport planes were extremely slow, often presenting inviting targets from ground fire.
One of the most remarkable missions involved a single AC-119 that received an emergency call to provide lighting so that medical personnel on the ground could perform emergency surgery. The plane and its crew circled over the nighttime scene for several minutes, bathing the crude operating area with a powerful spotlight but also presenting an easy target.
The tour ended in June 1969, and the unit returned to Bakalar for an emotional welcome from their families and the people of Columbus. Ironically they arrived as passengers. Their gunships had been left behind to be used by their replacements.
Although the 71st suffered no casualties during its tour in Vietnam, the passing years have exacted a toll. Several members, some of whom also served in World War II and Korea, have passed away.
Many of the survivors have made a point of getting together yearly, holding formal reunions in years like this, the 45th. They have quite a bit of history of which they can be proud.
Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at email@example.com.