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Charlie Chasers: History of USAF AC-119 “Shadow” Gunships in the Vietnam War,

by Larry Elton Fletcher, Hellgate Press, 2013

Falling chronologically between the more famous Douglas AC-47 “Spooky” and the more potent Lockheed AC-130 “Specter” gunships, the Fairchild AC-119 “Shadow” was very much an interim weapon, selected because it was newer, more powerful and could carry more electronics and weaponry than the AC-47 and because there were not yet enough C-130s available for the job. With C-130s in critical demand worldwide as cargo and troop transports, 52 C-119G “Flying Boxcars” were each packed with four 7.62mm miniguns to become AC-119G Shadows. A second batch of 26 were given two J-85 jet engines to provide the supplemental power to allow them to carry two 20mm cannons as well as the four miniguns and more advanced fire control, sensors, Doppler radar and illumination systems. These AC-119K “Stingers” proved far more effective than the AC-119Gs in dealing with Communist truck traffic and antiaircraft artillery during operations over the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Larry Elton Fletcher, who flew 177 missions in Shadows with the 17th Special Operations Squadron, earning the Distinguished Service Cross among other honors, wrote two novels on Shadow operations before producing this nonfictional account of the AC-119s in action. As such, it is certainly a detailed eye-opener when the author sticks to the subject—his forays into the “big picture” are not always as accurate, as when he refers to a second attack by North Vietnamese torpedo boats on the destroyer USS Maddox on Aug. 4, 1964. (A reappraisal by both Maddox and the accompanying destroyer USS Turner Joy determined that the “attacks” that provoked the war-escalating Gulf of Tonkin Resolution had in fact been nothing but radar “ghosts.”)

There are also occasional bits of less-than-pristine editing. This should not detract from the main subject, which deserves telling. However much “in the shadows” the AC-119 has been, the impression it made from its introduction to combat early in 1969 may best be summed up by an American radioman whose position was in danger of being overrun by Viet Cong: “Screw the F-4s—get me a SHADOW!”


Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.