Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Guarding Alfredo - #22

As the Federal Sky Marshal (lately, Air Marshal) program ambled along through late 1971 and into 1972, we shifted from chock-a-block flights here and there as undercover, in-flight, armed guards to other kinds of jobs. At SFO we initiated pre-flight inspections with Magnetometers – the first carry-on baggage screening apparatus, we ran errands for the local Customs brass, and we provided in-flight escort for assorted dignitaries…which is how I came to meet General Alfredo Stroessner, then the dictator (oops) President of Paraguay.

At the time, Stroessner was about mid-way in a reign that was to span nearly 35 years, beginning with the 1954 military coup that he lead against his mentor Federico Chaves, and lasting until he was overthrown by his own top aide, General Andres Rodriquez, who also happened to be an in-law. However, in 1972 Stroessner was firmly astride Paraguay thanks to an anti-Communist stance that pleased the US Government, and a windfall of graft surrounding the construction of Itaipu dam which was eventually completed in 1985, and benefited few others than the members of Stroessner’s Colorado political party.

Back in 1972, Stroessner and about 70 groupies were traveling to and from Tokyo on what I was told was a trade mission. Since he chose to travel to Japan and back on scheduled PanAm flights, those flights were assigned Sky Marshals for Stroessner’s protection – even though he traveled with his own Chief of Security. More about the COS later.

The trip from Asuncion, Paraguay to Tokyo, and back, was broken up into multiple legs. I and my partner drew the final return leg of the trip from Panama City to Asuncion. We flew to Panama the day before to get a few hours of sleep before joining Stroessner’s party.

I’ve forgotten the departure times and other such details, but I clearly remember the pre-flight briefing that I and my partner attended with Storessner along with his COS, who we’ll call Colonel Boca de Riego, because he was built like a scary, 250 pound fire hydrant…Throughout the briefing, Col. de Riego looked at me with the beady eyes of a Marine drill sergeant contemplating a fresh maggot, that is to say, new recruit for which he had little regard. He didn’t say a word to me that I recall, but I got the sense that if anything happened in-flight he was going to shoot me first.

For the final leg of Stroessner’s journey, PanAm had scheduled a 707. My designated seat was the aisle seat of the first row in First Class – directly behind the cockpit door and across from the 707’s galley. Seated next to me in the first row was Col. de Riego. Directly behind us were seated Stroessner and the groupies who rated First Class seats. The rest of El Presidente’s party had to content themselves with riding in Coach…or so I thought.

Once we reached altitude and the seatbelt lights were turned off, I got up to stretch my legs and was immediately swept up in the tide of sycophants that rushed forward from the back of the plane to curry favor with Stroessner. The scrum around El Presidente was so thick that I spent the rest of 6-hour (at least) flight shoved into the plane’s galley while Col de Riego looked daggers at me.

Eventually, we landed in Asuncion. The plane taxied some distance away from the terminal to accommodate the pomp and circumstance scheduled for Stroessner’s arrival. Arrayed in tight ranks opposite the plane appeared to be the entire Army, Air Force and judging from their uniforms Paraguay’s Navy. Being a land-locked country is no reason to pass up the opportunity to dress like an Admiral.

Stroessner and his party disembarked to the sound of rifle salutes and a marching band. A line of black limousines had drawn up a few feet away from the rolling ladder. At the head of the limousines was an open Mercedes Benz touring car for Stroessner, in which he stood waving to the multitudes as the limousines pulled away from the plane. But before that could happen there were some speeches and more rifle salutes and band playing.

Once Stroessner's entourage departed and the noise finally died down I stuck my head out of the doorway. It was a warm, clear night so I decided to get some air while they refueled the 707. I climbed down the ladder, turned and walked under the fuselage…and ran smack into a Paraguayan sentry who immediately swung around, pointed his rifle at me and began yelling at me in Spanish. From behind me came a short, sharp command and just as suddenly the trooper lowered his weapon and came to rigid attention. I turned to see Col de Riego give me one final glare before he left to catch up with El Presidente.

© Stephen Rustad, 2008

Monday, March 10, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Saigon - #21

From late spring of 1971 to the fall of 1972 I flew as an undercover Federal Sky (Air) Marshal – technically a United States Customs Security Officer – on Pan American Airlines fights originating in San Francisco and winging as far west as Bangkok. These were the years when General Creighton Abrams was gradually winning the war in Viet Nam, but not as fast a Jane Fonda was losing it stateside.

In 1972 combat troop strength in Viet Nam decreased from about 110,000 to around 30,000 and a fair number of those soldiers and Marines flew back to the “world” courtesy of the big blue ball. Since PanAm flew scheduled (as opposed to chartered) flights in and out of Saigon, many of them were guarded by Sky Marshals like me. Though, I doubt if my – or any other Sky Marshal’s – help would have been necessary should some fool have attempted to skyjack a planeload of combat weary GI’s headed home. In that event, I doubt that there would have been any remains to bury – let alone bring to trial.

PanAm Flights into Saigon landed and took off at Tan Son Nhut air base, originally built by the French in the ‘20’s, and since the early days of the Viet Nam war it functioned as both a military and civilian air facility. Since Saigon is now officially Ho Chi Minh City, they spell the name of the airport in a slightly different way, but I’m using the spelling as I remember it.

Stops in Saigon rarely lasted more than 12 hours – enough time to ride an armored bus with heavily grated windows to and from the city center, rent a room for the night and grab some chow. My visits there were generally pretty unmemorable except for one layover when I got to see a “spooky” at work.

Actually, I don’t know if it was actually a “Spooky,” “Spectre,” “Shadow” or any of the other nicknames for the various types of gunships. I only know that while I was eating dinner in the roof-top restaurant of the Caravelle Hotel, I was treated to a lightshow on the outskirts of Saigon the like of which I doubt I'll ever see again.

It was night (of course) and I was just finishing a solitary dinner when through the window of the rooftop restaurant flashes sparkling on the barely discernable horizon caught my eye. As I was trying to make out what I was seeing, a swath of fire erupted from the black sky and streamed earthward. Just like the words of the famous hymn, “…He loosed his fateful lightning like a terrible swift sword…”

To give you an idea of the sight, I’ve included a photo that I found on the Internet which according the photo’s caption was taken by (then) Sp5 (Specialist Fifth Class*) Tom Zangla right around that period of time. *For those who don’t, a “spec-five” was an enlisted rank in Army with a pay grade of E-5 that was roughly equivalent to “buck,” or three-stripe sergeant.

I had no way of knowing what type of gunship was raining death that night. The Air Force operated a number of planes that could have created the holocaust playing out before my eyes: AC47’s, AC130’s and AC119’s among them. By coincidence, sometime later on I did have an encounter with the latter type of aircraft, a Fairchild AC119 “Flying Boxcar” gunship.

On occasion our stop-overs in Saigon would last only a few hours – time enough to drop of a load of passengers, refuel and tidy up the plane, and take off again. There wasn’t time to time clear customs and go anywhere worth going, so the Sky Marshal team would hang around the terminal or just stay on the plane.

One such time, I elected to stay on the plane. I’d been in the terminal once before and there wasn't much to see. So I chose to hang around the plane, that is until they turned off the air conditioning in the passenger cabin. You know how quickly the comfortable environment of an airplane cabin can change into a steaming aluminum box? About as fast as it takes to read that sentence.

So, there I am, alone on the plane save for the clean-up crew of Viet Namese civilians and their American security minder who was watching them as intently as a Las Vega pit boss eyeball’s a new croupier. I’m standing in the open cabin door to take advantage of what little breeze was available in the stultifying mid-day heat when I looked across the tarmac to see a row of squat, black, AC119 gun ships with nary a soul around them.

I asked the security guy if I could wander over to look. He grunted something that I took to be, “Yah, if you must, butthead, but don’t touch anything,” and I bounced down the ladder and across about 40 yards of blacktop towards the hulking planes.

AC119’s weren’t originally designed be bullet fountains. Like most “gun ships” of the time they were converted from their original and more prosaic functions as cargo or transport planes and an “A” was added to their designation. The AC-119’s were smaller than the AC130’s (which by the way are still use today making life for our enemies in Iraq more than a little uncomfortable) though they packed a similar wallop. I’m no weapons expert, but if my memory serves me the plane that I ran up to sported four 7.62 miniguns and a 20,000 watt Xenon light that could light up an entire football field like it was half-time. If anyone reading this is interested in more info about these planes, I encourage you to go to:

No sooner had I jogged up to the plane and poked my head in the fuselage door when I heard a distinctly Viet Namese voice cursing in my direction. No, I don’t speak Viet Namese so how did I know it was cursing? Trust me. Cursing is always more about tone and volume than it is about content. I turned to face the verbal onslaught and came face-to-face with a squad of ARVN (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam) troops in tiger-striped fatigues – all pointing M-16’s at me.

Fortunately for me, and I’m sure disappointing to the ARVN who looked like they wanted to clear their gun barrels with a few bursts in my direction, not to mention test the sharpness of their bayonets, the PanAm security guy had begun to wonder what mischief I’d gotten into and spied the scene unfolding across the tarmac. He yelled a couple of terse Viet Namese phrases at the ARVN who lowered their weapons. One of them, who I presume was in charge, crocked a thumb in the direction of the 707 and I hot-footed it back to the safety of the plane.

© Stephen Rustad, 2008