C-123 landing
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Another day in the life of an Air Commando living by our motto: any time any place. This is about my experiences in the 19th Air Commando Squadron, South Vietnam for about a year beginning in 1966.

Generally most of our drop missions were to triangular fortifications that were built by the French when they were in control of Vietnam. It’s been quite a few years ago and I can’t remember the exact times or locations that we had our drops. We would drop at the same locations, at the same time, on the same day of the week. We picked up a lot of ground fire on drop missions and we tried to get the times and days of the drops changed. The Vietcong, knowing the time day and location of the drops, would be waiting for us. We were issued flak jackets for all scheduled drop missions.

C-123 in flight

The C-123 didn’t win any beauty contests, but it was a tough airplane.

We would leave Saigon and fly to the drop area and and descend to the drop altitude, usually 1,000 feet, fly to the initial point (IP), and then turn to the final approach heading for the drop zone. The load master would release all of the tiedown chains except for the fence (the restraint for the pallets on the rollers). We had some rheostats in the ceiling of the cockpit for overhead cockpit lighting. The navigator, usually standing on his flak jacket in the cockpit, would position his head between these rheostats in order to have the same reference point, and look over the nose of the aircraft for the drop point.

He would give us corrections similar to right 2°, or lift 2° to kill the drift, as we approached the drop point. The navigator had determined the timing based on wind conditions, and when the drop point disappeared under the nose of the aircraft, he started his timing. When the time ran out he would hit the green light switch and state, “green light” over the intercom. We would pull the nose up while adding maximum power. This caused the rear of the aircraft to drop away from the rearmost pallets, and, with the nose up attitude, and release of the fence, the pallets would roll out of the aircraft.

The navigators achieved very good accuracy with where the pallets would land. I’ll give you two examples of this accuracy. First, we were communicating with the G.I. on the ground and asked him where he wanted the pallets. He stated that the mess hooch was at the far end of the soccer field in the middle of the triangular fortifications. We made the drop and, while leaving, we received a radio communication saying that the parachute was covering the hooch and the pallet was blocking the door of the hooch so he was going to have to disassemble the load on the pallet in order to get into the hooch.

Second, we were dropping on a runway that was under water. Talking with the Special Forces we asked them where they wanted the pallet. They said to put it on the smoke that they were providing for us to see the wind conditions. We made the drop and as we were climbing out, we asked him how the drop was? He stated that it hit right on the smoke; however, he had the smoke fastened to the back of his Jeep to keep it out of the water on the runway.

On one mission, as we crossed the initial point, I rolled into a turn to the right to line up with the drop point. We were hit by ground fire and the sound did not resemble a rock hitting a tin can that we normally heard. The round had come through the window of the right front door of the aircraft and hit a litter stanchion. After continuing the mission and landing back at Saigon, one of the Vietnamese kickers came up and handed me some shrapnel that he had policed up off of the cargo bay floor. Had I not rolled into the turn at that time, the round would have come through the cockpit. Rolling around the longitudinal axis and turning, displaced the cockpit to the right and raised the left side of the aircraft. The picture shows the hole in the left door window where the round entered. I still have the shrapnel of that round.

hole in aircraft

The hole in the left door window where the round entered. I still have the shrapnel of that round.

We were dropping to some Special Forces in the Mekong Delta which was flooded. In our communications with them, they said they had come under mortar attack the night before. When they fired their mortars, which they had positioned on top of their hooch, the mortar tubes recoiled through the roof of the hooch and stuck into the mud. They asked us to bring back some 55 gallon drums so they could build platforms for the mortar tubes. On the way back into Saigon, we passed the request on to the Airlift Command and Control Center (ALCC).  After we landed and parked, they maxed out our cargo compartment with empty 55 gallon drums. When we got back to the Delta, the Special Forces on the radios told us to hold off dropping as the Vietnamese saturated the drop area to pick up anything they could from another drop. The Special Forces were not successful in clearing the drop area, but they told us to go ahead and drop.

We dropped our load and headed back to Saigon not asking if anyone was hurt. As we were climbing out, avoiding tree lines where the Vietcong might be, the load master was picking up the tiedown equipment from the cargo compartment. He bent over to pick up a tiedown chain, when we were hit by ground fire. A round came up through the right main gear compartment and exited out of the top of the cargo compartment. Looking at the two holes created by the round, had the load master not bent over at exactly that time, he would’ve been hit by the round.

We were free dropping chainlink fencing and concertina wire to the Special Forces so they could reinforce the security of their position. Free dropping is done by flying low over the drop zone to the drop point, and then adding max power and pulling up so that the pallets will exit the aircraft. Just as the navigator declared, “green light,” I saw a Vietnamese woman running across the drop zone just in front of the aircraft. We climbed out and headed back to Saigon. I never knew if she made it or not. Things like this happened more than once while we were over there and it shows that the Vietnamese had absolutely no idea how dangerous this equipment is.

We had to resupply teams that were out in the jungle on their own. We had a general location of where they were. The aircraft is equipped with direction finding equipment. We knew the color of smoke that they would be putting out, and would have them hold the transmit button down for us to home in on their location. We would fly the locator directions until we saw the smoke, drop on the smoke, and then depart the area. If we never saw the smoke, or the smoke was not the correct color, we still would depart the area and not come back. We didn’t want to give away their location.

Several of the wives of the men in our squadron collected paperback books and sent them to us. Someone came up with an excellent idea of using beer case boxes half full of beer and the other half filled with books. The parachute shop gave us used cargo shoots and we dropped them along with supplies. We got a letter back from one of the teams saying that they were greatly appreciative of the beer and books, and they had just raided a Vietcong supply tunnel. They wanted the sizes of all of the crew members that participated in the drops. They were going to send VC black pajamas to each of us. This picture shows us clad in the VC pajamas that we sent back to them. I am the one who is fourth from left in the picture.

soldiers in vietnam

Our VC black pajamas – I am the one who is fourth from left in the picture.

We dropped both US and Vietnamese paratroopers. On my first drop mission with paratroopers, I was with the rest of the crew members as we were going into the aircraft to start the flight. We were going up the back ramp headed for the cockpit when we were given a ration of crap from most of the paratroopers that had already been strapped in. One said that they weren’t about to land in this thing (talking about the aircraft) and they were going to get out as quick as they can. I told him to look up to the front of the aircraft to the right of the entrance to the cockpit and tell me what they saw. They said that there was a rack with parachutes on it. I replied, “Yes there is a parachute for each of the crewmembers, and those parachutes are different from yours. The Air Force knows that we have enough sense to pull our own D-rings and we don’t have to hook up static lines.”   They were quiet as we continued to the cockpit.

Ralph Grigg
Latest posts by Ralph Grigg (see all)
11 replies
  1. Dale
    Dale says:

    Great stories of your resupply missions! I got to do one myself while flying OV-10s as a FAC in 1972-73. Flying out of Da Nang one morning, I spoke with a US advisor in the field with the ARVN in the vicinity of Buon Ma Thout and found that he had been in the field a loooong time. After affirming that the Buon Ma Thout airfield (which, at that time was abandoned) was close to him and he could get there, I told him I would be back that afternoon. When I landed back at Da Nang, I picked up a few things to deliver to him and took off on my second mission. When I got near, I spoke with him again and asked if he could meet me at the Buon Ma Thout airfield. I soon saw a jeep drive out on the ramp and, after verifying that the driver was the advisor I had been talking with, I landed on the abandoned airstrip. I taxied back to the ramp and, when he came up, and with my engines still running, I opened my canopy and handed him the current Stars & Stripes newspaper, the latest Playboy magazine, and a bottle of scotch. He grinned widely and gave me a thumbs up and a salute. I returned the salute and the thumbs up, closed my canopy and taxied back to the runway. I felt my ‘resupply mission’ was a success!

    • Ralph W Grigg
      Ralph W Grigg says:

      Thanks for the comment about your resupply to Buon Ma Thout. During my tour, I flew many missions to Buon Ma Thout. I was told that Pres. Teddy Roosevelt used to go there periodically to hunt the big cats and other animals.

  2. Lanny
    Lanny says:

    Half a century ago…and yet…yesterday. Thanks for the article. We don’t realize the history that we live in at the time is history being made. And if it isn’t written up…down the memory hole it goes. Encourages me to write up some of my bits of that history that I saw. Talked to pilots all day every day as Waterboy 15 at Waterboy Control up north. Constantly in awe of those at the controls of planes from Bird Dogs to B-52s…

    • Ralph W Grigg
      Ralph W Grigg says:

      I really appreciate your comments and hopefully, it will encourage others to write down the history that they participated in, and get it out to us to read about.

    • Richard Barnes
      Richard Barnes says:

      I was at Waterboy at Dong Ha from June of 1967 until June of 1968. Would like to get in touch with you to talk about hooking up fighter/bombers with their tankers. “Check standers altimeter 29.92, noses cold”.
      I can be reached at 9076690210 Alaska daylight savings time.

  3. Cal W. Tax
    Cal W. Tax says:

    Great stories from both of you guys who saw lots of action in a very dangerous place and are now passing it on to those of us who appreciate it.
    Keep those memories coming!

    • José Serra
      José Serra says:

      Yes, please continue to keep Your memories coming. I well remember those times and I’m sorry that now there are thousands (may be hundreds of thousands) to whom that war and the ones of those who fought on it doesn’t say a thing. So sad!

  4. Dennis Karoleski
    Dennis Karoleski says:

    While stationed at L.G. Hanscom Field, Cambridge Research Laboratories (AFCRL) helping to figure out a way to clear fog so fire bases could be resupplied during monsoon season “Patches”, supposedly the most hit C-123 was stationed at the field. Since it had been deployed as a defoliation bird it was also among the most contaminated.

    • Ralph W Grigg
      Ralph W Grigg says:

      A pilot, that went through C-1 23 transition training with me, at Hurlburt Field, was flying with the “Rranch”. He said that I needed to come over and fly with them. ” No”, I said, “sometimes when I’m flying missions I get shot at once or twice and it scares the crap out of me, but you guys shot at all the time continuously, that’s monotonous.”


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