Eyewitness Account of a C-130 shot down by the North Vietnamese Army – by a Survivor.
The C130 Crash site in South Vietnam (callamatisse, Flikr)
These photographs were taken by a Cobra helicopter gunship crew member on 18 April 1972, when they arrived to help rescue the crew of a C-130 gunship that had been shot down by the NVA in South Vietnam. The Cobra was providing suppressing rocket and machine gun fire into the tree line to the left of the photograph, as the crew of another chopper, a Huey, which can be seen on the ground in front of the burning plane above, assisted in the rescue of the C-130’s crew.
I have added other C-130 crash photos from Vietnam, for illustration.
The plane was being used to drop ammunition to South Vietnamese troops who were besieged by the North Vietnamese Army in An Loc, a town close to the Cambodian border. The town was surrounded by NVA anti-aircraft batteries and resupply mission to An Loc were becoming increasingly dangerous.
Major Kirkpatrick was a guest navigator on the plane, and everything seemed to go wrong once they were in the air.
The Forward Air Controller was unaware of their mission, and told them where to drop their load, by way of an unsecure radio transmission, which could have been picked up by the NVA. They were supposed to follow a B52 bombing mission, which would have kept the NVA quiet, but they were not told whether that the mission had ever taken place, and a two-fighter escort the plane should have had, to protect it from the inevitable heavy ground fire they would attract, failed to materialise.
Adding to the problems, the drop area had been overrun by NVA troops only hours earlier; a fact the crew of the C-130 didn’t discover until later.
The below is my edited version of Major Kirkpatrick’s excellent account of this incident.
A Low Level Airdrop Mission At An Loc RVN 18 APRIL 1972
As we prepared for the drop, we started taking some sporadic ground fire; nothing very intense at this point, but soon I noticed an orange flash on the horizon, about 3 miles out. In a voice about 2-3 octaves higher than normal I made the announcement on interphone to the crew: “We’re taking fire at 1230 – three miles”, about that time the aircraft made a significant jump with the sound of metal to metal contact, ground fire intensity started to increase drastically at the same time.
On the right side of the aircraft we had a big hole, about the size of a basketball, and on the right wing the engines spewed fuel and the fire, going well past the tail of the aircraft.
bout the same time I looked out the left cockpit window and noticed an NVA tank on the ground, with the hatch open, pennants on the antennae and an NVA tank commander standing in the hatch with his pith helmet on looking up at us; I waved at him and he returned the wave. I knew we were on track to the drop zone as the tank’s tube was visually parallel to our track, pointing at An Loc.
After we had dropped our cargo things really started to accelerate for us, and the ground fire was extremely intense.
We were losing oil from an engine. Then we began losing oil pressure. The pilot tried to shut down the engine, and an effort was made to climb and accelerate with the idea of blowing the fire out, none of which worked.
The intense ground fire we encountered sounded like a shooting gallery at a carnival; it gradually subsided and the situation with the fire and controlling the aircraft brought up the subject of us bailing out.
I knew we were by then over an area where there was a significant concentration of NVA, so my immediate verbal response to the bail out idea was “let’s hold on as long as possible due to the NVA in the area” (I didn’t feel we would be very welcome guest of the NVA and even if we were, I was not particularly interested in being a guest at the Hanoi Hilton).
Sgt Bemis continued to scan and report the situation with the fire and condition of the wing from his vantage point in the cargo bay, when all of a sudden he announced in a very calm voice, “There goes the wing flap on the right side,” just very matter of fact, no obvious excitement noted in his voice. When we were getting one problem under control another would come up, and we started losing hydraulic pressure, causing the pilots to increasingly focus on the latest problems, which in all likelihood would soon increase in intensity.
For the first time the realization that we possibly wouldn’t get out of this came to my mind, however in about the same instant I was able to rationalize that if this was the way it was to be, it would be, but I wasn’t going to give up or just quit trying, so I maintained a can-do attitude and tried to keep the Grim Reaper at a respectable distance.
Sgt Bemis made another announcement, this time that the right aileron was leaving the right wing; the fire seemed to be spreading and globs of metal were rolling off the wing. This must have been about the time an Army helicopter recon team saw our plane and thought we could use some help, as they noticed the fire going past the tail and parts of the aircraft shedding off the wing. We were not aware of their sighting us until later in the day; we were not in any way involved with each other’s activities, and they just happened to be in the area and saw us go by.
An oxygen bottle exploded, leaving a gaping hole on the right side of the aircraft. Sgt Bemis reported that white smoke was visible (white smoke in an aircraft fire is not a good thing, it indicates a magnesium fire that won’t go out till it is all consumed) and I was convinced it was time to find a place to set the bird down, and quickly.
I noticed the pilots were both very busy trying to maintain altitude and directional control. I looked around for a clearing and dead ahead of us was a clearing that appeared level and free of trees.
I announced on interphone it was time to land “ASAP” and that we had a clearing just in front of us, and I turned and started to strap in my seat, facing forward.
Just then, our South Vietnamese Sgt Kiem came up on the flight deck with a bandage in his hand. He wanted me to help him put it on a neat bullet hole midway between his knee and ankle on his left leg. Since we were about to touch down I said “NO” and motioned for him to get back down the steps to the cargo area.
The pilots were beginning to really have some serious control problems since the right wing was melting off as we flew, including the right aileron and flap being gone; flight control hydraulics were also gone, making holding the wings level and aircraft directional control a real challenge.
The last thing I remember about the pilots before touch down was of them expending a lot of effort trying to hold the wings level. The significant aspect of the entire thing was just prior to touch down the right wing started to drop significantly, if the landing aircraft has a wing tip touch down before the rest of the plane, disastrous results can be expected (like a cartwheel and aircraft disintegration). However just prior to touch down, the right wing came level almost simultaneous as we crashed, and we were going straight ahead.
With rice paddy dykes and craters from artillery or B-52 bombing, the crash landing was not very smooth. As it turned out, we had landed downwind instead of the preferred into the wind but even that turned out to be rather fortunate for us since the aircraft made a180 degree turn with the nose of the aircraft facing into the wind and all the smoke from the aircraft fire was blowing back toward the tail section.
Again we were lucky because the wind was light and kept the smoke away from where everyone was located in or near the aircraft after the crash landing without fanning the flames, making recovery so much easier.
I was strapped in with the seat facing forward. During this short span of time which seemed to be an eternity, I was hanging on to the navigator’s desk with all my might; things were flying all around the cockpit and I was just about to give up trying to hang on when all the motion and noise stopped, and a deadly silence settled over the airplane.
The airplane was burning, a lot of smoke was in the vicinity but the cockpit appeared to be fairly clear of smoke. I was attempting to untangle myself from radio cables that had wrapped around me and the seat during the crash landing and there was an eerie cry for help coming from the cargo area, “Don’t Leave Me” – it was Sgt Ralph Bemis, with all sorts of debris on top of him.
I was having difficulties with the seatbelt release, it wouldn’t release in the normal fashion, so I got my knife from the pocket on my flight suit, and I started cutting seat belt and the radio cords . Just after the crash, I must have been rendered unconscious for a short while as I don’t have any recollection of the pilots departing the flight deck.
Fortunately for Sgt Kiem, the South Vietnamese soldier, he was able to hang on throughout the crash landing about mid way down a 3 1/2 foot ladder that goes between the flight deck and cargo floor level. When the aircraft came to a halt, the nose gear was collapsed and under the aircraft, the crew entrance door had been torn off, and all he had to do was step out onto the ground that was level with the lower floor.
Capt Jensen, once outside the aircraft, noticed Sgt Kiem was unable to walk, so he picked him up and carried him away from the aircraft and eventually to one of the rescue Hueys that would pull up in front of the aircraft nose.
Capt Jensen later relayed to me his thought was one of the Cobra Helicopters may have mistaken Sgt Kiem for an unfriendly and done him in, so picking him up would take care of that potential problem.
During the crash landing, with the wheels hitting soft ground, rice paddy dykes and craters, the aircraft slowed down much faster than it was designed to do; therefore a considerable amount of debris from the back of the cargo bay had come loose, pinning Sgt Bemis to the floor with a broken arm and ankle. Airman Armstead was free and relatively unhurt., and he attempted to dig Sgt Bemis out of his predicament with no success and found it necessary to exit the cargo area through a large hole in the right side of the aircraft for some fresh air, due to the smoke in the cargo area.
He exited and re-entered several times, not wanting to leave his fellow loadmaster. I went down the ladder and immediately saw a pile of twisted metal and an assortment of other aircraft parts all on top of Sgt Bemis. I made an attempt to clear them, but it seemed to be an impossible task as I couldn’t move anything and started bleeding rather vigorously from cuts on my forearms and hands from the jagged, sharp edges of the various pieces of metal I was trying to remove.
After some time in my attempt I decided we would need some outside help in extracting him from his position so I went out of the crew door opening and walked a few steps to about the nose of the aircraft and promptly found myself up to my chin in water. I had stepped into one of the bomb craters that had filled with water and which was covered with thick elephant grass on top. I figured it would be best to just stay there and try to call for help on my SAR (Search and Rescue) radio from that position, keeping a low silhouette in case someone was looking for a large upright target to shoot at.
I pulled out my radio to make a “Mayday” call, and the antenna fell off and went ‘Plop’ into the water – a bad thing. Next I heard a helicopter approaching from the front of the aircraft – a good thing, and I started to climb out of the watery hole. I had just got clear of that when I heard this very loud swishing sound. At first I felt the aircraft was exploding from the fuel fire but I no; it was a rocket being fired by a Cobra gunship overhead.
I eventually made it to the Huey that had pulled up near the plane, and all the C-130 crew had by now been rescued from the burning aircraft.
We had just lifted off when both door gunners started firing their .30 cal machine guns. Someone had seen fire coming from the tree line, which the door gunners were trying to suppress.
Upon arrival at the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon we all scrambled out of the Hueys and walked, limped or were carried into the emergency room. Since only Sgt’s Bemis, Airman Armstead and Sgt Kiem had wounds requiring immediate attention and hospitalization, the rest of us wandered out of the hospital and found a ride over to Tan Son Nhut.
Two days later, my entire body became black and blue from the banging around I received during the crash landing. I still had not had contact with any medical personnel. That was a big mistake.
Sp4 Shearer was the Huey crew member that had the job of getting out of the Huey to make a close up visual of the wreckage. I found out much later that he was positive he would find a group of mangled bodies in the wreckage, and not knowing the fate of the survivors was something that was to haunt him for 32 years, which is when we met at the coffee shop of Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, in 2004.
Full article: http://anloc.org/?p=11
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
© Peter Alan Lloyd
BACK Parts 1 and 2:
Reviews: Amazon.co.uk: Customer Reviews