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Ghosts of the Ia Drang: A Firsthand Account

By William A. Barry
12/5/2018 • Vietnam Magazine

A young C-130 navigator comes face to face with the human toll of war.

As a 25-year-old first lieutenant, I flew on tactical airlifts in Southeast Asia—not the most glamorous job in the Air Force to be sure, but still an essential part of America’s military buildup early in the war. Although many of the missions were challenging, one experience in particular remains seared in my memory to this day. It provided a horrifying view of the war’s first major battle and, in hindsight, a prophetic look at what was to come.

My home station was Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, where I’d been located for 11 months on my first assignment with an operational unit. In the spring of 1965, while I was still in checkout training within the wing, we deployed to Clark Air Base in the Philippines to fly cargo-hauling missions to Vietnam. We were restricted in the number and type of airfields that we could use. These included only main cargo bases, or hubs, such as Tan Son Nhut at Saigon, Bien Hoa just 20 miles across the river from Tan Son Nhut, Da Nang on the northern coast of the South China Sea, and Pleiku in the Central Highlands. All of these bases—American enclaves with long runways—were also the centers of the expanding American war effort in the country.

The cargo that my unit—the 774th Tactical Airlift Squadron—carried was largely food and ammunition. It came on pallets that had been configured and secured in the United States, then sent to Southeast Asia on ships or large commercial or military transports. Our C-130B flights distributed the pallets within Vietnam. When space and weight allowed, we also carried passengers. Some were newly arrived U.S. servicemen of all branches. Others, and these were the majority, were U.S. personnel stationed in Vietnam who had come to Clark on leave, on pass or for official business in the Philippines. The missions were all daylight flights, and all stops were planned. We would take off just after dawn and fly three hours to Da Nang, where we would onload and offload both cargo and passengers. From there we would continue to Tan Son Nhut and repeat the process. On our way out of Vietnam, we would stop at one other base (which varied from day to day) and drop off cargo before re-crossing the South China Sea and returning to Clark. In going in and out of Vietnam, we flew over the ocean and off the coast as much as possible. Each mission usually amounted to a 12- to 14-hour crew day, and was followed by a one- to two-day rest period in the Philippines before we were scheduled for another.

I returned to Langley from this brief temporary duty (TDY) and completed my aircrew training. In the interim our wing was ordered to maintain one of our three squadrons at Clark to continue the resupply effort into Vietnam on a permanent rotation basis. In November 1965, I flew with the new crew to which I had been assigned across the Pacific to Clark and the start of a two-month TDY. The pilot and aircraft commander was Captain Jack Ryan. He was new to tactical airlift, having previously flown F-100 fighters. The co-pilot, Cal Roulson, was a lieutenant, and just as inexperienced as I was. Our flight engineer, Al Storey, had 10 or more years in flight-line maintenance, but this was his first flying assignment. Finally, the loadmaster, Hans Ulrich, was fresh out of his initial training and on his first TDY. The wing leadership tried to form crews that combined different levels of experience, with seasoned personnel overlooking the newer members who had just become qualified. We were certainly one of the lower parts of that mix. Ryan had extensive experience, but previously he only had to worry about himself in an aircraft.

When we got to Clark we found that the mode of operations for resupply missions had changed from just months before. Now there were two primary mission profiles, both requiring multiple-day deployments. The first profile flew two- or three-day cargo-hauling missions out of Clark to Bangkok, Thailand, with multiple stops in Vietnam and up-country Thailand on the way in and out. These were Air Force support missions, and the cargo and passengers carried were largely Air Force related. These routes had stops at Da Nang, where the Air Force was moving in a fighter wing, and at the up-country fighter bases in Thailand. From Da Nang we would fly due west across the narrow neck of Vietnam just south of the DMZ, over Laos and then into Thailand to whichever bases needed resupply, en route to Bangkok. Depending on the length of the crew day, which varied according to loading times and mechanical problems, we might land in Bangkok and fly out the next day, or get an extra day’s ground time there. Our route back to Clark was the reverse.

The other mission profile was to go into Vietnam for 10 days, flying sorties all around that country from a home base at Nha Trang on the South China Sea coast. Nha Trang was a U.S. Army base adjacent to the medium-sized Vietnamese town of the same name. Since the base was overflowing with newly arriving Army units, we stayed in the guest quarters of an old French villa that had been converted into a hospital complex. We ate meals at the Army officers’ club on base before and after missions, and rode jeeps and small vans back and forth between our quarters and the base. In the daytime, Nha Trang offered a few small local restaurants and walks on the beach for recreation. At night, however, the beach belonged to the Viet Cong—allegedly by local agreement. The hills overlooking the base were a nightly scene of flare drops and tracer-lit firefights between fighter aircraft and the local guerrillas.

Our daily missions usually began at dawn and were supposed to be concluded by 1800 hours so the maintenance force could have the airplanes ready for the next day’s missions. Occasionally we flew missions at night between Tan Son Nhut and Pleiku, both of which had full all-weather lighting and approach aids. The cargo loads consisted of people, materiel and civilian items—everything from palletized sacks of rice to ammunition to 5-ton trucks. Occasionally we’d carry a dead body or two, or an injured American or Vietnamese soldier. Sometimes we carried planeloads of GIs mixed in with Vietnamese troops and their families. We continued to fly into Saigon, Bien Hoa, Da Nang and Pleiku, but now we also landed at sites such as Qui Nhon, Vung Tau on the southern coast of Vietnam (which had been known as Cap St. Jacques when it was a French seaside resort during an earlier war) and Ban Me Thuot in the center of the country. These all had shorter runways than the main bases.

We also flew frequent missions into two new U.S. facilities, An Khe and Cam Ranh Bay. The former was the new home of the Army’s first large airmobile unit, the 1st Cavalry Division. The airstrip there was short and narrow. It was also situated right next to the Army’s mass helicopter parking area and just adjacent to a several-hundred-foot hill, which made for hazardous landings at night or in bad weather. Cam Ranh Bay was just the opposite. Situated on the ocean with large open sand dune beaches, it was destined to be a major air and sea port. In 1965, however, it was just under construction. Daylight-only air operations brought in building materials and needed equipment. The runway surface was being constructed of formatted aluminum planking, and only about 5,000 feet were usable.

Earlier in November, the VC had laid siege to a small Special Forces camp named Plei Me, which was located halfway between Ban Me Thout and Pleiku, and just west of the air route and highway that lay between them. The Communists appeared to be challenging the new U.S. ground combat forces at An Khe to come to the camp’s relief

The siege got considerable coverage in American newspapers. Through the Stars and Stripes newspaper and the Armed Forces Radio Network (AFRN), we were able to keep track of the fighting around Plei Me. On our cargo-hauling trips in and out of Pleiku and An Khe, we passed close enough to Plei Me to observe some of the ground combat. At night, tracers and flares marked the area quite clearly.

The Plei Me siege was followed by a larger battle in the Ia Drang Valley, which was farther to the west, near the Cambodian border. We knew much less of that fight. We had never seen any evidence of the fighting from the air, and neither Stars and Stripes nor the radio seemed to have the complete story. On November 20, 1965, late in the morning, we were making a stop at Da Nang. The Airlift Control Element (ALCE) told us we’d be going from there to Tan Son Nhut, but there would be a longer than usual delay to reload, because some higher priority missions were coming in just behind us. We had already made one stop at Pleiku, and on the radio at my navigator’s station I heard an AFRN broadcast reporting a U.S. victory in the Ia Drang Valley with some 30 to 50 American casualties.

Da Nang had changed considerably since my earlier TDY just four months before. What had been a very congested cargo loading area in front of base operations was now a large open ramp on the north side of the base. Shortly after the new area opened, it was rocketed, and the rocket impact area still sat unrepaired in the center of the ramp space as we taxied in. Da Nang also was one of the first bases to use local labor in moving the cargo pallets on and off the aircraft. Everywhere else, the loadmaster, the crew and a few U.S. ground-support personnel helped to push the pallets. At Da Nang there were five or 10 Vietnamese who assisted the loadmaster. One of them was taller, had different facial characteristics and his skin color was slightly different from the others. We had noted him on previous missions into Da Nang and joked that he must be a Chinese spy.

As we sat in the cockpit of our plane, we watched another C-130 pull into the Da Nang cargo area. The plane and crew were from our TDY unit at Clark. We recognized the call sign and even the co-pilot’s voice as he talked to the ALCE asking for offload instructions while the plane taxied in after landing. The plane’s crew parked it to our left and slightly behind us. From our cockpit windows we could see an unusual number of fire trucks and ambulances following that C-130 as its crewmen shut down the engines and prepared to offload. But we weren’t paying too much attention to their activities until our loadmaster came over our rear interphone system and said, “Look at the crew scatter from that plane!”

As soon as the propellers had stopped spinning and it was cleared to exit the stopped plane, the entire crew ran out as if it was evading a cockpit fire. The crewmen then stood away from the plane at a distance of about 30 yards.

Now our interest was piqued. Since our onload was going to be delayed, we had nothing better to do than go over to see what the problem was with the other aircraft. We walked up to the crew members and asked what had caused their rapid and unorthodox departure from the cockpit. No one answered directly. They only told us to “go take a look.” They appeared antagonized and hostile to our approach and questions.

I mounted the steps leading to the cockpit and forward cargo area of the aircraft. The plane had been rigged for personnel air evacuation, which allowed it to carry up to 70 casualties in stretchers. In this configuration, the C-130 had a series of metal stanchions that clipped into the floor and ceiling and created a U-shaped aisle formation inside the cargo compartment. A web of heavy nylon straps were hooked into the stanchions and intermeshed into triple-tiered levels of stretcher supports, somewhat in the manner of old railroad Pullman car beds. This particular aircraft had 50 or 60 individual stretchers, three levels high and in four rows.

Slowly and silently, together with the rest of my crew, I walked down the aisle on the right side of the cargo compartment between two rows of stretchers stacked three high. I took a left turn at the end of the aisle, walked around the end of the double row of stretchers in the center aisles and then took another left turn and walked forward down the second, double-rowed aisle, to the flight station wall on the other side of the plane. Each stretcher contained one green body bag. In some of the bags the outline of a soldier could be traced horizontally from the feet to the head. In others, the occupant appeared contorted. Some were clearly less than a complete body. One, about the size of a basketball, sat alone on its stretcher, taking up little more than a quarter of the stretcher space. Each body bag was held in place by a seat strap.

They were all dead. This was an airplane full of dead men.

My walk through the darkened aircraft took less than five minutes, but I smelled the sickening, sweet odor as soon as I entered. The longer I stayed in the compartment, the stronger and more nauseous the smell became. This was what had driven the aircrew from the plane as soon as the doors were opened after their 50-minute flight. In carrying only a very limited number of bodies in the past, we had never before known that odor to permeate an entire aircraft as it did this time. It was the smell of dead human bodies that had sat too long in the Vietnamese heat while decomposing. It was a smell never to be forgotten, and one with which we would become increasingly familiar.

I left the aircraft and exchanged words with the flight crew. The bodies were from the recent Ia Drang battle in the central highlands. All of the dead were Americans. They had been loaded onto the C-130 at Pleiku, the closest main airbase to the battle site, and had been sent to Da Nang, since it had the only American mortuary operation in Vietnam at the time. There were two more similarly configured and loaded C-130s coming in to land behind this one. We returned to our aircraft where the palletized cargo bound for Tan Son Nhut was now ready to be loaded. The rear cargo door of the other C-130 had been opened and the body-laden stretchers were being put into waiting ambulances. As we took off for Saigon we heard the other two planes from Pleiku call in for landing and parking instructions. One held another 50 bodies and the last had about 30. Evidently, despite worldwide communications and staffs of press release officials in Washington and around the world, the Armed Forces Radio and the rest of the media had been misinformed about the American casualty numbers at the Ia Drang.

On the 11⁄2-hour flight to Tan Son Nhut our cockpit was largely silent except for the mandatory flight list actions and responses, and the co-pilot’s conversations with the ground control agencies. Normally we would have been involved in a discussion of what had transpired that day, or where we’d eat that night, or what we might expect for the next day’s mission. After about an hour, when we were at altitude and there was a lull in the co-pilot’s conversation with ground control, Captain Ryan asked if anyone had any thoughts on what the planeload of U.S. casualties meant for the future. We all soberly agreed that the context of our Vietnam experience had just undergone a major change. And we could begin to guess what it foretold.

After leaving Da Nang we landed at Tan Son Nhut at 1400 and expected to pick up cargo and go back to Nha Trang on our final sortie of the day. Instead, we sat at base operations for five hours while our mission was changed. Finally we were told to go to Bien Hoa and spend the night there.

The next morning we left Bien Hoa, as the Army was starting one of its first search-and-destroy operations. During the next two days we flew 15 short round-trip flights from Bien Hoa to a small laterite strip at Vo Dat, some 50 miles to the northwest. Ten other C-130s were involved in the operation. All uploads and downloads were made with the engines running. The loads were Army troops in battle gear and their vehicles, filled with provisions and ammunition. During the operation, a C-130 took off just after another one landed, every five minutes, at either Bien Hoa or Vo Dat.

At the close of the second day, we left Vo Dat and flew back to Nha Trang to pick up our clothes and belongings before flying back to Clark. We didn’t fully realize it at the time, but in the three-day period from November 20 to 22, 1965, the war and the C-130 operations supporting it had changed to a very great degree. We had been there at the beginning.

 

William A. Barry graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy and spent 20 years in the Air Force as a C-130 navigator, war planner and intelligence officer. He recently retired from a second 20-year career as contractor for the U.S. Army’s Theater Missile Defense development in Huntsville, Ala. For additional reading, see: Herk: Hero of the Skies, by Joseph Dabney; and We Were Soldiers Once… and Young, by Lt. Gen. (ret.) Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway.

Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.  

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