Getting to ‘Nam’
by Huard Libby
Most of those who went to Vietnam during the conflict there either flew by commercial air, Military Air Transport Service, or by US Military Sea Transport. But, the legacy of the Shotguns began with an entire unit forming at Fort Bragg, NC, and then being transported by Military Air Transport Service from Pope AFB near Fort Bragg to the Tan Son Nhut Airport in Saigon, RVN. This is only one person’s experience. There are, I’m sure, 111 individual experiences getting to Vietnam, plus our Advance Party that flew by commercial air to Saigon, and their five experiences as well.
Once the loading and securing of our cargo down the center of our assigned C130 Hercules airplane was complete, ten very apprehensive folks filed on board. This consisted of one officer and seven enlisted souls from the attached 325th Signal Detachment (Avionics) who were the folks responsible for our communications while operating in Vietnam, and 1LT McMonegal and me, both from the 221st Aviation Company. After engine start and preflight necessities, we were able to look out the rear ramp as the top half had not yet been closed. As we began to taxi, I looked back and in the light from the area around the security fence and parking area, I saw my wife and her parents waving good bye. I had quite a lump in my throat at that moment.
My wife and I were married on April 16, 1965, and after a brief honeymoon trip, I was due to return to my unit at Fort Bragg in two days. I called the orderly room to see if I could get an extension on my leave; however, I was informed by the Company Clerk that they had orders awaiting me. I immediately thought (since I was on the promotion list there), Wow, I got married and now I’m being promoted to E5 as well! Much to my chagrin, I was told it was only alert orders for my reassignment to a unit on Post. What a let-down! It was hard to believe. The actual assignment was not yet published; consequently, I had to wait for my return to Bragg to find out what was happening. My association with some of the finest men I have served with begins herein.
As we taxied for take-off positioning, I was forlornly peering out of one of the windows trying to catch a last glimpse of my wife and her folks. Soon, the upper half of the ramp closed, and very quickly we were at takeoff power and roaring down the runway.
Since this was my first experience (and probably most of the rest of our group as well), flying in a C130, the noise was deafening! I learned immediately why a C130 seems rather quiet when one on the ground sees and hears it, because all the noises from the engines are first piped somehow inside and absorbed before letting loose onto the outside world!
Our takeoff and climb to altitude went smoothly, and our group settled in for a long night’s journey across the United States to Travis AFB, CA. The first thing noticed by all was that the aircraft seemed to be constantly hunting for a straight course. 1LT McMonegal spoke with one of the crew and we learned through him that the autopilot had a malfunction in the azimuth gyro, or heading lock, and consequently, with the seating on both sides in hammock type seats and facing the center of the airplane, we moved forward and backward all across the country. Talk about an uncomfortable ride! The rest of the journey to Travis was uneventful and as we started to let down for landing, there was a horrible noise from the wing root area. A lot of fluid began to spray around the inside! Fortunately, our landing went well and as we taxied to the parking ramp reserved for us, the flight engineer told me what the problem was and not to worry, because the flap pump motor would be replaced as soon as we shut down, and that we would soon be in the air again and headed to Saigon.
After all engines stopped and the necessary formalities between the zoomies (Army term for USAF personnel) and the repair folks, we were informed that due to the fact that our cargo consisted of the Shotgun basic load of ammo and weapons and such, someone would have to secure the airplane all the time it was on the ground. We arranged a sort of informal “guard duty” schedule and settled in for a short stay. My shift was, unfortunately, during the time after the pump motor had been replaced and the USAF folks were now refilling the fluid pump and reservoir. I’m thinking, great we’ll be on our way and my tour of guard will be short-lived! Think again. The Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) was screaming all this time, and now I was informed that the pump had to be cycled through, I believe a total of 50 cycles of flaps up and down with no signs of hydraulic fluid leakage! The noise of the APU now coupled with the whine of the flap motor being cycled, was beyond any description of what I had known as noise before! What a relief when the work and cycling of the motor was completed. Now all we had to do was await the arrival of the crew (so I thought), and we would shortly be wheels-up and on our way to Hawaii, the next leg of our journey. Well, the requirement for inspections, known as quality control, took a long time to complete. Once all the work was signed off and inspected, finding a flight crew began. The original relief crew was rescheduled for another bird as our aircraft was delayed for the aforementioned repair, and it took a little longer to get a replacement crew in place. As memory serves me after so many years, the original crew from Pope AFB arrived, and was now to fly us on to Hawaii. After 24 hours we were once again on our way!
After wheels-up and reaching altitude we noted the same problem with the autopilot. All the way to Hawaii, we experienced the C130 shuffle back and forth, back and forth. As we landed and taxied to the parking ramp, or as we discovered, the Maintenance Area, we were informed the crew had to shut down one of the engines due to a malfunction, and an engine change was required! Once again, all the noise, guard duty, and the additional engine test runs were conducted and 36 hours later we were on the way once again. This time I was fortunate to not have scheduled guard duty, and 1LT McMonegal took me under his arm (I was going to say “wing” but didn’t think it appropriate in this text). 1LT McMonegal, I found out, had been previously assigned in Hawaii, so he gave me a brief, but very welcome, mini intro to Hawaii and we enjoyed a little liquid sunshine to help us pass the time.
The events of each leg of the journey so far had certainly given us conversation material, but the remaining legs were simply monotonous beyond description. We did all get a chance to go up onto the flight deck and experience the Pacific from the front as we flew on to the next stop, which was either Midway or Wake, I honestly don’t recall. I know we spent a very short time at the refueling stops, and then the final leg was into Tan Son Nhut AFB and Saigon, South Vietnam. As we taxied to the parking ramp at Tan Son Nhut, the flight engineer opened the rear ramp upper door and allowed the overwhelming heat and humidity (did I mention humidity?), to envelope the interior. What a blast of heat! We were met by the rest of the 221st Shotguns and introduced to Camp Alfa and a hearty meal. As we landed at night, or early morning, it was a very short stay for us in Camp Alfa as we were soon transported by Hueys to Soc Trang. It was at Camp Alfa, though, that we separated one of our platoons to the 219th Aviation Company (Headhunters), to help in spreading out the rotation dates after a full year in RVN. We also gained a platoon from the 74th Aviation Company at the same time.
We all have many memories, some fogged by time, of the deployment of us Shotgunners to RVN in July of 1965, I hope I have sparked someone’s memory to help with my lapses of the same. My assignment with the 221st Shotguns, though interrupting the very early beginning of a marriage that has lasted for 44 years, was definitely the beginning of my Army career. Without a doubt, the influence of the men of the 221st shaped my life and convinced me that a career in the Army is a rewarding and honorable experience. It has been for me, and I am proud to say I retired from the Army after 20 years and 8 days. My very fond memories of the 221st have long been suppressed, but the Shotgunners are still near and dear to my heart. I am grateful for my experiences, and the recollections of our deployment as I saw it, will remain with me forever.