This is the true story of Master Sergeant David M. Burns, an aerial gunner assigned to the deadliest squadron in air force history. Aboard the AC-130 Spectre gunship, he flew a total of 287 combat missions over Laos, South Vietnam, and Cambodia, in pursuit of the truck traffic coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. His squadron destroyed more than fifteen thousand trucks loaded with war munitions destined for South Vietnam and Cambodia. Despite heavy and constant anti-aircraft and missile fire, the loss of six aircraft and the lives of fifty-two men, the crew never wavered in its dedication to the mission.
Master Sergeant Burns has a distinguished military career that began in 1951 at the age of fifteen. He served one tour of duty in Phan Rang, South Vietnam, in 1967, and four tours of duty in the 16th Special Operations Squadron in Southeast Asia as an aerial gunner, lead gunner, and instructor gunner. He served in both the United States Navy and Air Force, earning three Distinguished Flying Crosses for heroism, twenty-seven Air Medals, as well as a Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Presidential Unit Citation, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm, Vietnam Service Medal with nine battle stars, and other decorations from the Korean War. He was wounded twice and is credited with saving the lives of fourteen crewmembers.
This is his story.
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SPECTRE GUNNERThe AC-130 Gunship
By DAVID M. BURNS
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Msgt. David M. Burns
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Squadron
After three hours, we arrived in Ubon Air Base. The scatback had radioed ahead and told the tower to tell the Sixteenth that they had an incoming crewmember. As I went into the small terminal I was greeted by a tall, sharp-looking technical sergeant with a marine haircut. He looked like a marine NCO. He introduced himself as Technical Sergeant Jack (his call sign was Gunner Jack) and put me in the back of a jeep.
We arrived at the squadron; the first thing I noticed when I entered the building was the emblem right above the entrance door. It was a ghost coming out of a full moon with a blue hood and two 20mm guns blazing. To the right of the front door, a sign said, Spectre: The Fabulous Four Engine Fighter! I saw Spectre on all the office doors.
I was introduced around. Everyone from officer to enlisted was very friendly and did their best to make me feel at home. I met the first sergeant, and he indoctrinated me into the squadron. He told me about the outfit's history, its nightly missions, and its outstanding, all-for-one-and-one-for- all mentality. The squadron's theme song was "Ghost Riders in the Sky." It did seem most appropriate.
The Sixteenth SOS call sign Spectre flew modified C-130 aircraft which became the AC-130. The aircraft were painted black and had four turboprop engines. For armament, they had four 20mm guns and four mini guns in portals on the left side of the aircraft. This was the most deadly gunship in the world!
When in the attack mode, the aircraft flew in a 30-degree left bank and circled the target. It went round and round the target so it was not hard for the communist (Gomer) gunners to figure out our position. The pilot varied his altitude and circle width to throw them off, but things got dicey after a few orbits! They flew secret missions into Laos, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, up by the Chinese border, Cambodia, and all over Southeast Asia, interdicting the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The squadron had six aircraft assigned with a normal eleven- or twelve-man crew. There was the pilot, aircraft commander (AC), copilot, flight engineer (FE), table navigator, night-observation device operator, the right scanner, a forward gunner, an aft gunner, two sensor operators, an illuminator operator (IO), and a combat camera man. Each man had a specific job and they all depended on each other for their very survival!
The first sergeant did not mince any words. He said they had lost a gunship that was trying to land at Ubon after being hit by anti-aircraft fire. Everyone bailed out but the pilot, copilot, flight engineer, and IO. The FE and the IO were killed when the plane crashed. The aircraft flew at a maximum of 5,000 feet and was a sitting duck! It depended on the night and the skill of the crew to survive. Most nights, at least one aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft artillery (AAA).
When he asked if I still wanted to spend a year here, I said, "Of course! Where did the name of that fabulous four-engine fighter came from?"
He told me that in early 1969, a Spectre gunship was on an armed recon mission in north Laos. They spotted what appeared to be a communist helicopter flying from North Vietnam into Laos with no lights. They received permission to fire on it and shot it down!
He said, "Then we were off to see the commander and the rest of the crews. The squadron commander was a major. He seemed to be a very professional, friendly man who always looked after his troops. During the dry season (October to April), we will be flying every night full bore. During the wet season, we will still be flying, but the Ho Chi Minh Trail will be flooded out. We will be looking for targets of opportunity!"
There were seven engineers, six IOs, and twenty-something gunners. The majority of them were scheduled to leave as soon as their replacements arrived, including a small number of officers. I was taken to the barracks, which was a Quonset hut. It was called the Bat Cave because it was windowless and had air-conditioning! We were double-bunked, and each enlisted man had one locker. When they were not flying, they were sleeping or at the NCO or airmans club. At the front of the barracks, off-duty men gathered in a small room with two tables and a refrigerator.
I dumped my stuff on a bottom bunk and reported back to the squadron. The "first sergeant" had a clerk take me around the base to check in. Everything went smoothly, but when I got to the dispensary, the flight surgeon told me to take off my shoes; he took my footprints. When I asked why, he said, "These are to identify you if we recover anything when you get shot down! The combats boots are the last thing to burn!"
That got my attention—especially when he said "when." After checking in, most of the squadron was up and ready to fly. The missions started at about 1800. An aircraft would fly for about four and a half hours, return to base, and then a new crew would take it up again. This went on every night—seven days a week! Our last flight would land at about 0600 or right before daylight. It took about thirty-five minutes to get to the trail.
We flew into central Laos or farther, depending upon where we were assigned. When we flew way up north, we had to land at a Thai base to refuel in order to get back to Ubon. When I walked into the gunner section, Sergeant Jackson asked if I was ready to fly.
I answered in the affirmative, and he scheduled me for the next night.
Chapter TwoFirst Flight
I was assigned to a gun crew, and we reported to the aircraft at 1500 for preflight. I was fascinated with the aircraft and fell in love with it right off the bat. It was huge! It was black, and the Spectre emblem was painted on the left side near the upper fuselage. Inside the aircraft, it was cramped. The booth where the sensor operators sat was in the center on the right. There was a small aisle where the flight crew and gunners could go back and forth.
By the forward crew entrance, there were big binoculars where the night-observation device officer sat on a bicycle seat. There were ammo cans tied down everywhere with extra ammo for the 20mm guns and the mini guns. The lead gunner had me preflight the twenties and arm them to see if I remembered anything from Lockbourne. I passed the test.
After preflight, we went back to the squadron for briefing. We had all our combat gear, and it was the first time I had so much gear on. The aircraft commander briefed the crew on our mission. We were headed for what they called the Iron Triangle. It was called that because there were a whole passel of guns just waiting there! He briefed us on the mission, the bailout route, and our emergency identification signal of the day. I do have to admit that I was a "little" worried when listening to the briefing. He said that if we were hit badly, he would ring the bailout bell—and we better be gone! If any crewmember thought we were out of control and wanted to leave the plane, feel free to do so as a last resort!
He went over the escape and evasion part. I had paid attention in Clark and Washington, but this was for real! I was going into harm's way where a bunch of Gomers were getting ready to shoot me down! The rest of the crew was very calm—just another day at the office!
We got into the crew bus, which was nicknamed "Gertie," and the driver drove us to the flight line. We arrived at a big, black, beautiful monster that looked like it was raring to go into combat. I had mixed feelings about whether I would be up to the task. Everyone was relaxed; they had been doing the same thing for months. I followed along and paid attention to what everyone said.
After the preflight checklist was completed, the pilot started all four engines. Hearing all four of those turboprops sing, I thought, God help me. I have found a home!
We taxied out to the runway and took off over the city of Ubon. It was a small city with single-story houses everywhere except for two ten-story buildings. I found out later the two taller buildings were the Ubon Hotel. After circling the city and bore-sighting the computer, we were off to combat. When we crossed the Mekong River (the Fence), the crewmembers suited up in combat gear. For the officers, it included a backpack parachute, but the gunners only had chest packs that we had to put on if we were going to jump. We had survival vests, two radios, four flares, .38 ammo, a KA-BAR knife, and other evasion equipment. We each had two water bottles, a ballistic helmet, and a parachute harness. Some of the gunners wore their .38 pistol on their hips, and others had it on their vests.
After a while, the navigator told the pilot that we were twenty-five miles inside the Fence. We went black in the rear; there were no white lights of any kind. Any lights needed to have red lenses. We armed all the guns and got ready for combat. As we entered the combat area, our pilot reported to the Airborne Command and Control Center (ABCCC) for central Laos. Its call sign was Moonbeam. Its job was to keep track of us and vector us onto any targets they had. They were responsible for the whole area and were very busy.
I was assigned to help any gunner who needed it. When the action started, the instructor gunner wanted me up at the right scanner's window. He was on the right side of the aircraft—right next to number-three engine. We all had headsets so the gunners could talk to each other in private. There was a network just for us so we would not bother the other crewmembers with our chatter. Everyone monitored the main network because the pilot used it.
The AC and the sensors started looking for trucks. We flew up and down the jungle roads with the IR (infrared) sensor and the BC (Black Crow) sensors looking for the heat of the engine and the ignition from the spark plugs.
The IO in the rear yelled, "Triple A, five o'clock, no sweat!"
I looked back and saw a bunch of red balls passing by the aircraft. And all of a sudden they exploded! I thought they were close, but the crew did not seem to be concerned! I damn near had a heart attack!
The IR sensor told the pilot that he had numerous movers (trucks) on and off the road. We prepared to attack! The instructor gunner called me up to the right scanner's window. He told me to look over his shoulder and keep my mouth shut! The pilot put the aircraft in a 30-degree left bank and prepared to fire on the lead truck.
The right scanner called out, "Triple A is accurate! Break right!"
The pilot immediately broke right. I saw seven big red balls go right over the right wing and detonate about two hundred yards away! The right scanner told me they were 37mm shells!
I thought, God, these Gomers are trying to kill me! And there is nothing I can do about it except shoot back!
The pilot rolled in and hit the first truck. It exploded in a big ball of fire that really pissed off the gunners on the ground. Three gun sights came up, and they all tried to zero in on the gunship. The pilot flew through the flak and kept up his attack! He hit the next two trucks, and they all exploded, lighting up the ground and sky!
When the pilot was not attacking, he was jinking all over the sky to get away from the enemy fire. We were bounced all over the aircraft, but the gunners and the IO kept at their stations as if it was a normal day at the office! The pilot finally pulled off target and asked the crew to check for battle damage. The enemy rounds were so close that I could hear their hot sizzling sounds as they passed by. I could also smell the cordite! All during this time, I was looking over the right scanner's shoulder. Although I didn't know it, I had hold of his shoulder. He finally told me to let go! I had an iron grip on him; it was as if nothing could happen to me as long as I hung on! We pulled a couple of miles off target, checked our ammo and the aircraft, and then we went back! The sensor spotted more trucks, and the AC didn't waste any time in attacking again! This felt like an eternity, but it actually was about four hours!
When we finally ran out of ammunition (Winchester), the AC called for RTB (return to base). As we crossed the Mekong back into Thailand, we cleaned up the aircraft, picking up all the spent brass and putting it in big canvas bags. We always brought back our spent brass.
We finally went white in the rear. Lights went on, and the gunners razzed my ass! I looked like I had just gotten out of the shower! I had to admit that it was a rush like no other! I had found out that I had the guts to fly in combat in a kill-or-be-killed situation! We finally landed at Ubon and were met by Gertie. The officers went off to intel, and we went into Spectre ops. We put away our combat gear and went to the NCO club.
I felt as if I had been born again! I really loved flying combat! And the people I flew with were the greatest! They were all so calm and professional—even when looking death in the face. I could not think of any other place I would rather be! We all sat at one table and ordered ten beers at once! I was charged to buy the first round since I was the new guy! Since beer was only ten cents a can, I bought the first five rounds! After that rush of combat, it didn't take too much to get us feeling good.
Hank's band played "Ghost Riders" a few times! I was home!
Chapter ThreeOley Arrives
Two days later, Oley and the rest of the new guys arrived. They were taken to Spectre operations. Oley told me the first thing that the student leader said to the first shirt was that he had one man AWOL! He told Homer (the first shirt's name) that technical Sergeant Burns had gone AWOL in the PI over a woman. Homer looked at him and asked if he was talking about Technical Sergeant Dave Burns.
Stupid said yes! Homer told him that not only was I not AWOL, but I had already flown two combat missions! Stupid looked dumfounded and then looked at Oley like he wanted to kill him! Oley had an innocent look on his face!
When the on-duty NCO brought the new guys to the barracks, I saw Oley. I was drinking a Coke when they walked in. Stupid didn't say a word to me; he just walked in the back and got a bunk. I already had one reserved for Oley. As soon as he put his gear on it, we went to the club. He filled me in on his mission in Bangkok. We talked for about an hour, and then I told him I had to get ready for another mission. When I reported to the gunner section, I asked Jack if I could have Oley on my crew when I got qualified. He said yes.
Oley and the rest of the new guys finished checking in and drawing their combat gear. It would be another three days before they got their first mission. In that period, I was almost qualified to be a full-fledged gunner. Because of my rank, I was going to be a gun crew chief. I had to have ten combat missions to qualify to wear my combat aircrew wings on a permanent basis.
As soon as Oley was through checking in, we went downtown to the Okay Hat Shop to get our Spectre hats. The hat shop was the only one in Ubon that could do the job. The black hats had "Spectre" embroidered in the front, aircrew wings in the middle, and "AC-130 Gunship" under the wings. I bought three of them, and Oley bought two.
I took two of my K2B flight suits down there to be dyed black. At that time, I was the only one in the squadron with a black flight suit. No one gave me any grief; before long, most of the gunners had black suits. We could fly in our combat fatigues, our K2B, or the black flight suit.
Oley and I walked around Ubon. I said, "God help me, Oley, but I love this place!"
The people were so friendly, and flying combat was what I had always wanted to do. He just looked at me like I was on something!
Chapter FourThe Men of Spectre
From December 1969 until March 1970, we were very short on personnel. We did not have enough pilots, navs, or sensor operators to go around. In addition,weonlyhadsixflightengineers,sevenIOs,andtwenty-something gunners. The original crew was completing their year; as soon as one of us was qualified, one of them left. So we were flying every night.
We would fly ten nights straight, work loading crew one night, and then get a night off. When we were not flying, we were in the club or downtown getting acquainted with the "locals." There was a resentment of the enlisted crewmembers from the ground-pounders because we were considered the "elite" of the air force. The non-flyers were working twelve-hour days, six days a week, paying income taxes, and not getting any of the benefits we were getting. We were drawing tax-exempt flight pay and combat pay. We were also getting paid to eat off base since our flight hours precluded us from eating in the base chow hall! And we lived in an air-conditioned hut!
We always traveled in groups of three or more. Wherever we went, we stuck together like glue, and the base personnel were always looking at us with distaste. We ate most of our meals at the NCO club or the airman's club. We would take up three tables at a time; this did not sit well with the ground-pounders. The Thai waitresses would serve us first because we tipped them every time they served us. The biggest reason they did not like us was because they had been ordered to Ubon, and it showed in their attitudes. We were all volunteers and wanted to be here. When we got back from a combat mission, we let it all hang out! It was so good to be alive!
Excerpted from SPECTRE GUNNER by DAVID M. BURNS Copyright © 2013 by Msgt. David M. Burns. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. The Squadron....................1
2. First Flight....................4
3. Oley Arrives....................8
4. The Men of Spectre....................10
5. Ubon Nightlife....................14
6. Dry Season....................16
7. The Warlord....................17
8. My 100....................24
10. Sockey Game....................30
11. Ladies of the NCO Club....................34
12. Gunners' Hooch....................38
14. Going Home....................44
15. Grand Forks Air Force Base....................45
16. Return to Spectre....................47
17. Spectre Maintenance....................50
18. One-in-a-Million Shot....................63
19. Near-Death Experience....................68
20. The Big Gun....................71
21. Aircraft 044....................74
22. The Easter Offensive....................76
23. The Gunners....................82
24. Aircraft 043....................85
26. Arriving in Okinawa....................93
27. Another Loss....................95
28. Return to Ubon....................98
31. Fall of Saigon/Phnom Penh....................109
32. The Mayaguez....................112
33. Don F. (DC)....................116
34. Leaving Spectre/Thailand....................118