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: http://www.ac-119gunships.com/.
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