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C-130 Spare 617
Originally designed by Lockheed (now Lockheed Martin) as an assault transport able to operate from unpaved airstrips, the C-130 Hercules made its first flight in August 1954. Over the next half century, the US Air Force used various versions of this versatile aircraft for aeromedical evacuation, mid-air refueling of helicopters, mid-air space capsule recovery, search and rescue, reconnaissance, as a gunship, and for many other missions.
The C-130E (serial number 62-1787) on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force (and featured in the photos of this post) had a long career, including a mission in the Southeast Asia War that earned two Airmen the Air Force Cross. This aircraft was flown to the museum in August 2011.
This C-130E aircraft participated in one of the greatest feats of airmanship during the Southeast Asia War on Apr. 15, 1972. Operating under the call sign Spare 617, the aircraft attempted to airdrop ammunition to surrounded South Vietnamese troops during the Easter Offensive at An Loc, RSVN that began in April 1972.
Rick Lentz, navigator on Spare 617, provided a unique description of the events that involved Spare 617 at An Loc on Apr. 15, 1972 in the presentation he gave at a reunion of those who were stationed at Ching Chuan Kang (CCK) AB, in Taiwan from 1965-1978. Many of the attendees were C-130 aircrew members stationed at CCK between1965 and1973.
Lentz shared his presentation with The Aviation Geek Club.
A small drop zone for C-130 Spare 617
There are several men in this room who could speak about our valiant efforts and our trials during the Easter Offensive at An Loc, RSVN that began in April 1972. In a way, I was fortunate because I only had to fly one mission while many other crewmembers flew more than 20 missions. I am honored to tell the story of Spare 617, one of the first three aircrews which began the 374th TAW’s missions over An Loc on 15 April 1972.
To set the stage for the missions, I will provide the following information: On 5 April 1972 the PANV invaded III Corp from Cambodia and marched east to An Loc and by 12 April had successfully surrounded the city and cut off the only ground resupply route up Hwy 13. The only way to re-supply the ARVN 5th Division was by airdropping food, supplies, and ammunition.
Spare 617’s crew consisted of AC: Captain Bill “Buddha” Caldwell, CP: 1Lt. John Herring, Nav: 1Lt. Rick Lentz, FE: TSgt Jon Sanders, LMs: SSgt Charlie Shaub, A1C David McAleece, and a VNAF NCO.
Our mission was originally scheduled as a three-ship night CDS drop on Friday, 14 April 1972. At the mission briefing we were told each aircraft would deploy 12 pallets of 105mm Howitzer shells to a beleaguered ARVN unit at An Loc using standard CDS drop procedures. The drop zone (DZ) was a soccer field in a school yard about 270 yards square; my first thought was what a small the DZ; the second was how are we going to see it at night.
Hot Drop Zone
When I asked the question, the briefers told us it would be lit up as we approached the DZ. Intel also briefed us about possible heavy enemy fire. In fact, I was so concerned about proper planning to make sure our payload made the DZ, I don’t remember being concerned about enemy ground fire. In a way, it was just another day at the office. As An Loc is located 60 nautical miles due north of Tan Son Nhut (TSN), we would ingress from the south and egress to the northwest.
As we were completing our pre-flight and loading the pallets, I noticed a huge thunderstorm to the north. When I checked the radar, I determined it was right over An Loc. I notified Buddha, and a few minutes later, the mission was cancelled due to severe thunderstorms over the DZ and re-scheduled for the next morning. On 15 April 1972, we departed about 0815 as number three of a three-ship formation, although we would not drop in-trail, but come over the DZ at different times as cleared in by the Forward Air Controllers (FACs).
It was part of my job to stay in radio contact with the FACs. They advised us of small arms fire, and that the first aircraft had taken one hit in the vertical stabilizer. They said an AC-130 Spooky and two VNAF A-37s were providing fire suppression, and we shouldn’t have any problems with enemy ground fire. Boy, were they wrong when they cleared us in for our drop! The second aircraft developed a hung load and returned to TSN.
The reason I am alive today
Our run was supposed to be a standard CDS drop systematically descending from 6,000’ to 600’ AGL and dropping at an airspeed of 130 knots. However, due to the haze from the spring burning of the rice fields, we couldn’t see the ground. We descended below the haze layer to 1,500 AGL and came in on an in-bound heading of 342°. Because the drop point was a radio tower off the left side of the aircraft, I was standing behind the pilot instead on in my normal position behind the co-pilot. It may well be the reason I am alive today.
Everything was uneventful until just before the 5-second warning. At the one-minute warning, I advised the crew that when I gave the five-second warning it may be longer than five seconds before I gave the “green light” for the drop because the DZ was so small. Just before the five-second warning there was a loud explosion as a 51-cal shell ruptured a hot air line in the cargo compartment. I called out, “Crew, Nav, we’re taking hits.” Then I said, “Crew, Nav, five-second warning.” About eight seconds later I called out, “Green light!” The next thing I knew, I was flat on my back wondering if the payload was leaving the aircraft, and after 2-3 seconds I heard pallets rolling out of the aircraft.
Cockpit fills with smoke from a fire in the cargo compartment bulkhead
I looked up at the flight engineer, and saw TSgt Sanders was missing the left side of his head. Then I quickly scanned the pilot and co-pilot for wounds, and they seemed okay. I then checked myself and found a small hole in the right shoulder of my flight suit. I rose from the floor of the cockpit and put on my O2 mask to clear the fog from my brain. On a funny note, I had put in my polo helmet and 1Lt Herring looked back and laughed.
The cockpit began to fill with smoke from a fire in the cargo compartment bulkhead, and A1C McAleece came up and told me to open the pilot’s and co-pilot’s side windows while he removed the overhead hatch to clear the smoke from the cockpit. As we climbed to 2,500’ AGL, we saw fire warning lights on both port engines. SSgt Schaub checked the left wing from the cargo compartment, and I checked the left engines from the AC’s window. Although there was no visible fire or smoke, the temp gauges were reading high. We leveled off at 2,500’ and ran the appropriate engine shutdown checklist.
As things in the cockpit slowed down, I notified Hilda, the 834th Air Division command center, of our emergency situation. I also talked with the FAC and was told one of the A-37s had, belatedly for us, destroyed the machine gun.
87 rounds on the right side of the aircraft
When we shut down engines one and two, it meant there were no hydraulics to the main landing gear. After two failed attempts to hand-crank down the landing gear, the pilot sent me back to help the loadmasters, but that attempt also failed (I still have no idea what help Buddha thought I could be).
I went back to the flight deck and for some reason looked at the co-pilot’s lower circuit breaker panel and noticed the two landing gear circuit breakers at the bottom of the panel had not been pulled. I asked the co-pilot to go slowly through the checklist again and this time he read “pull main landing gear circuit breakers on the co-pilot’s lower circuit breaker panel.” For whatever reason, we had missed that step the first three times. I pulled the circuit breakers, and A1C McAleece was able to lower the gear, and the sound of the landing gear clunking into place was a welcomed relief.
The right side of the aircraft received 87 rounds from a dual-mounted 51-cal machine gun. TSgt Jon Sanders was killed by a shell that went through the co-pilot’s upper circuit breaker panel, through his head, and between me and Buddha where it hit the pilot’s side window and fell to the floor (Buddha recovered the shell and wore it around his neck for the rest of his career). I was hit in the shoulder by metal from co-pilot’s upper circuit breaker panel which knocked me to the floor. It was finally removed when I had shoulder surgery in March 2014. 1Lt John Herring received some small slivers of shrapnel. SSgt Shaub burnt his hands while putting out the fire in the cargo compartment. I don’t remember Buddha or A1C McAleece being wounded.
C-130 Spare 617 Landing safely
As we approached Tan Son Nhut AB, Buddha had me run the engineer’s checklist. As we turned from base to final, the number three engine’s power dropped to 30 percent, Buddha looked at me and asked, “Did you see that?” I replied, “Yes.” Thankfully, just as we leveled out on final, number three went back to full-speed, and we landed safely. When the aircraft came to a stop, SSgt Schaub and I were immediately placed in an ambulance and taken to the Army’s Third Field Hospital. During our ride, Charlie told me what had happened in the back of the aircraft.
Buddha Caldwell and SSgt Charlie Shaub received the Air Force Cross, and SSgt Schaub also received a Purple Heart. 1Lt John Herring, TSgt Jon Sanders (posthumously), and I received the Silver Star and the Purple Heart, and David McAleece received the Silver Star.
Two pallets exploding mid-air
One other thing. When the cargo compartment bulkhead caught fire, the two forward-most pallets also caught fire and wedged together as they slid down the rails. SSgt Schaub, A1C McAleece, and the VNAF LM pushed them off the aircraft and the ammunition began to explode halfway to the ground. Contrary to Ray Bowers on page 542 of The Unite States Air Force in Southeast Asia: Tactical Airlift, the other ten pallets and the 12 pallets from Spare 615 landed on the DZ and were used to repel the PANV and VC forces.
How do I know this; a U.S. Army major and advisor to the ARVN received shrapnel wounds in his abdomen on 16 April, and was on the same hospital ward with me at the Third Field Hospital in Saigon. He came over to thank me and the crew for our courageous efforts and offer condolences for TSgt Sander’s death. Then he confirmed the explosion of the two pallets in mid-air and the recovery of 22 pallets. He also described how they used the 105 rounds to defend An Loc against the PANV and VC forces that weekend. The bottom line: if SSgt Schaub, A1C McAleece, and the VNAF LM had not taken the quick actions they did, we would have all been killed.
The Hercules is one tough and reliable aircraft
One final note. After being released from the Third Field Hospital in Saigon, I went out to the aircraft on 25 April to retrieve my flight gear. While on the aircraft, I spoke with two SSgt flight mechanics. They wanted to know why we were so stupid as to shut down two perfectly good engines, as there was no evidence of fire in either engine on the left wing. They then told me there was no way engines three and four should have been turning as each had been hit by twelve rounds of 51-cal shells. As has been said before, the Herk is one tough and reliable aircraft.
As I departed the aircraft and got on the crew bus, I couldn’t help thinking that maybe God, through our guardian angels kept the aircraft in the air. Considering that I was a Christian in name only, it was a fleeting thought. Yet, as I look back on the incident, it is the only reasonable explanation.
In closing, An Loc was just one of the offensives many C-130 aircrews took part in from 1961-1975, but for us with 374th TAW, it was the one in which we lost 17 comrades, and that is something we will never forget.
Photo credit: Michelle Gigante and Jeff Fisher U.S. Air Force