Under Enemy Fire
by Capt. Ian Adamson
It should have been a routine MAC [Military Airlift Command] cargo trip from Travis AFB, California, to Saigon, Vietnam, late January 1968, with John McGrail. We had made the Pacific fuel stop. We were overflying the Philippines in contact with Manila Control, then requested and were granted descent and later cleared to approach by Tan Son Nhut Control and cleared to land. We landed toward the southwest. By now it was dark. Up to then everything had been routine. However, while taxiing toward our usual ramp area, I was overcome with an uncomfortable feeling. There was an eeriness, an absence of usual ground traffic and lights - extra guards. As soon as we parked and switched off, the Seaboard rep. burst into the cockpit. "You weren't expected," he exploded. "Why not?" I asked. His answer came like a thunderclap: "We have been Condition Red for the last 6 hours!"
Condition Red meant, enemy on the perimeter of the airport. Ordering the cargo thrown off, we made the quickest turn-around ever. Being empty, we taxied to the runway's intersection for an immediate take-off. It was the copilot's turn, so John went to full bore. During liftoff, the tower control began to yell, "SW, climb, climb!"- unnecessary warning as we were already aware of the ground fire coming up at us. All the lights at Tan Son Nhut went out. John had his control wheel pressed into his stomach, I grabbed my wheel, and it seemed, I pulled it back 3 more feet! Obviously, it looked to me, out of the left cockpit window, that the heaviest fire was on that side. A glance at the flight-engineer's panel showed that the fuel indicator of number 2 main fuel tank was unwinding as fast as it could. I figured that there must be a three foot-hole in the tank. Since we were now at 29,000 feet, we leveled off most carefully, and all indicators returned to normal. So far, so good, so we insisted on that level to Tokyo, our scheduled destination. I was to learn, much later, that that was the start of the Tet Offensive; and it had started against us! - a most doubtful honor.
On the leg to Tokyo we passed a number of southbound flights destined to Saigon. After hearing our tale they diverted to other airports.
Inspection, on landing, showed a few bullet holes, but little damage due to the small projectile caliber. The report of the incident produced a "couldn't care less" attitude from the base USAF authorities. This didn't depress me as our next destination was to be Clark AFB in the Philippines, the largest AFB outside the US. There I would surely get my answers.
On arrival at Clark, John and I went to see the senior base intelligence officer. I recited our story and asked what provisions existed to warn of such situations. He handed me a page listing procedures. Instinctively, with just a glance at the paper, guessing at its shortcoming, I told him. "Yes, this covers aircraft on the ground, how about airborne aircraft?" I couldn't avoid saying: "Yes, just like the Pueblo," referring to the recent capture of a U.S. Navy spy-ship by the North Koreans. They had extensive briefing on all emergencies, except on being boarded!
Leaving the bewildered officer, we made for every red "No Entry" door. Through the last one, we entered an enormous area with a floor to ceiling wall-map, on the far wall from India on the left to the right which included the Japanese main islands-obviously a war-room. I asked a corporal for the senior officer on duty. A sleepy colonel shuffled up - just awakened or under some sort of influence. I stated our case. "Well Captain," he drawled, "we have difficulty in contacting civilian aircraft." "How so?" I asked, "we and every aircraft in the air are listening out on 121.5 MHz emergency frequency. Furthermore, we were under Manila Control." "Well, Captain, I'll tell you, we have difficulty in contacting Manila Control." To that I had to say, "Have you ever heard of the Bell Telephone Company? They could run you a cable to them overnight, they are only 60 miles down the road!" At this, John tugged my sleeve, saying: "You are embarrassing our forces." "They damn well deserve it," I replied. The whole scenario was ridiculous. I addressed the colonel and said: "You know what, I fought enemies like the ones we have now, and you know what, we won. And you know what, you are not going to win this one!" Acceding to more sleeve pulling, we left. John should not have worried. The guy just wasn't reading me, he had the lost, forlorn, vacant look of a drowning man. Many years later, I was to find that U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, "as early as '63 and certainly by mid '65" had the same no-win opinion. 11 Hendrickson, Paul. The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996, p.366
Originally published in SPAR newsletter, September, 1997
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