Story by: Sam McGowan
there was a name that struck fear in the heart of airlifters in
Vietnam, it would have to be Katum. Even though Khe Sanh, A Loi, Kham
Duc and An Loc were the scene of major events where C-130 and C-123
crews were forced to call on resources deep inside themselves, Katum
was one of those places that was there all the time. It was a place
whose name on a mission frag order instantly put an airlift crew into a
sober and somber mood, especially if the order read "Bien Hoa - Katum,
ShuttleX" which meant "Shuttle as required" between the two bases.
The airfield at Katum was constructed during Operation JUNCTION CITY in the late winter of early 1967. The site was the drop zone for the paratroopers of the 173rd Airborne Infantry who jumped over it in the only major American airborne operation of the war. Airborne engineers constructed two airfields in the same general region of their objective area. Tonlecham, the other airfield, along with Katum was one of the two most dreaded forward airfields in South Vietnam. In short (and they were!) they were the kind of airfields that combat airlift is all about. They are the kind of place where airlift is crucial, and where it is doubtful a commander in his right mind would ever send an airplane as expensive as the C-17. The problem at Katum was that it lay very close to the Cambodian border, so close in fact that North Vietnamese artillery across the border in South Vietnam's "neutral" neighbor could shell the airfield at will. It was also close enough that the Communists could transport crew-served weapons across the river and position them off the approach end of the runway and shoot up landing C-130s and C-123s whenever their little hearts desired. It was because of this that Katum was a name that caused men who were scheduled to go into there to search their hearts and souls. I very vividly remember a spiritual conversation I had with my maker on a day when my crew got one of those 'Bien Hoa - Katum ShuttleX" frags!
Sometime in 1968 a C-130E crew from the 314th wing was on approach to Katum when they suddenly started taking hits after taking off from the airstrip. Lt. Fletcher Hatch and his crew had been sent into Katum to take in a tire for another C-130 that suffered a flat. As they were climbing out, a burst of .50-caliber fire ripped into the left wing of their airplane and set it on fire. Number one engine erupted in flames. The crew shut down the engine and fired the bottle, but the fire still burned. Hatch turned the airplane toward Tay Ninh City, which featured a longer runway and was not far away. The fire, as it nearly always does on C-130s filled with 5606, burned up the hydraulic fluid and rendered the hydraulics systems useless. The flight mechanic, SSgt Joe Basillisco, went in back to help the loadmaster, Airman First Class Jerry Willard, crank down the gear. They were only able to get the left main gear "down and locked" before the airplane reached Tay Ninh. Hatch called them back up front to strap in for landing.
The fire in the left wing was spreading, and the wing itself was beginning to bend. The aileron had been shot way while the elevators were useless due to lack of hydraulics. The young pilot - Hatch was only 24 - fought to keep the plane as close to level as possible as they approached the runway. The left gear hit, and then the right side and nose. The wreckage slid off and alongside the runway for 3,000 feet before it came to a halt and exploded (so much for the theory that jet fuel will not explode!) Miraculously, the flames receded as the crew escaped from the cockpit escape hatch and ran away. They not only lived through disaster, everyone on the crew escaped with only minor injury. The incident is very impressive because of the age and experience of the crew. Hatch was 24, the copilot, Lt. Lee Blaser was 25, the navigator, Lt Jon Alexander was 23 - it was an all-lieutenant crew. Loadmaster Willard was 20. At 32, the engineer. Basillisco, was the oldest man on the crew. The crew survived because of the emphasis upon crew coordination that was a part of Tactical Air Command C-130 training. Contrary to popular belief among ill-informed civilians, the Air Force was stressing crew coordination decades before the aviation training industry coined the phrase 'Cockpit Resource Management."
Another crew was involved in a similar ordeal over Katum later that year. The aircraft commander, Major Curtis Messex, wrote about the story in an article that was published in AIR FORCE Magazine and reprinted in a special book they put out called VALOR, of which I have a copy. Curt Messex is also on AOL, and is on this list. His story would be a good one for republication in some of the journals for present-day airlifters.
Messex and his 21st TAS crew from Naha, Okinawa were on an airdrop mission to Katum on August 26, 1968. The camp had been cutoff and an emergency airdrop had been requested. They were dropping CDS under a 1,200 foot ceiling. On their first pass, the crew missed the airfield due to the low clouds and visibility after a vector from PARIS, a GCI site controlling the area. Messex and his navigator decided to make the second attempt on their own. They went back out and established their position with a radar fix from Black Virgin Mountain, a prominent landmark near Song Be, updated their doppler. (Yes, Virginia, there are ways of finding drop zones without a combat control team, ground radar, GPS, INS or AWADS.) They planned their descent to break out of the clouds sooner, now that they knew the bases were lower than reported.
As the C-130A was a minute out, they started taking hits. Hydraulic fluid shot out of one of the cargo compartment lines and instantly ignited, becoming a blow torch which sat the load on fire. They started loosing hydraulic booster system. Messex told the flight mechanic to shut if off. The load was on fire, as the wooden boxes containing artillery fuzes began to burn. They were only five seconds from the drop zone so Messex elected to drop on target in hopes that troops on the ground would be able to salvage most of the ammunition. The nose of the airplane pitched up to allow the bundles to roll out, but as Messex tried to lower it again after the drop, it would not go! The flight controls were locked! The hydraulic system was starting to fail. With the nose raised to a high attitude, one of the bundles caught at the rear of the cargo compartment and broke open, scattering 2,000 pounds of artillery shells in the cargo compartment.
The flight engineer went in back to help the loadmasters pour hydraulic fluid into the reservoir. The system would surge and die, then surge and die again as the cans momentarily filled it, only to be pumped overboard from a damaged system. The pressure surges did allow the pilots to get the nose back down to avoid a stall. Messex wrestled the airplane onto a heading for Bien Hoa, mainly by allowing a low wing to turn it then using physical strength to hold the heading. The pilots used the electric trim to level the airplane, but without feedback it was a hit and miss function. Fortunately, the fire was all in the load and while the airplane was filled with smoke, they were at least free of that danger. They still had the one pallet on board but at least it was not on fire.
Eventually the crew got the airplane under control. As the supply of hydraulic fluid began to dwindle, Messex told the crew to slow down the rate at which they were pouring it into the system. They decided to lower the gear while they still had fluid. The gear started down and eventually extended as the loadmasters and engineer added more fluid. The crew began considering options when they ran out of hydraulic fluid. They had drinking water - and the contents of their bladder! Messex thought about the problem and decided that the fluid was being pumped out through the return line. He hit on the idea of pouring fluid in with the system off in hopes it would stay there. They tried it and it worked. By this time the crew had put in all of the airplane's supply of extra hydraulic fluid along with most of the engine oil and a case and a half of propeller oil.
The weather at Bien Hoa was marginal VFR, with a 1,000 foot ceiling and 7 miles visibility. Bien Hoa GCA would bring them in. To compound their problems, one of the main gear tires appeared to be flat. Without the hydraulics to boost the control, the pilots had to use trim and brute strength to keep the airplane pointed in the right direction. As they came over the approach lights, Messex ordered the hydraulic system turned on. It was just enough to allow him to position the airplane for a landing before the system shut down. They landed safely. Messex and his crew loadmaster, SSgt Bernie Brown, each received the Silver Star for the mission. The rest of the crew, including a Stan/Eval navigator and loadmaster who were assigned for the drop, were awarded the DFC.
Katum continued to be a dreaded word through 1969 and into 1970. On June 23, 1969 a C-130B from the 772nd TAS at Clark was shot down while landing there. By this time the terror of Katum was caused by a truck-mounted quad-fifty antiaircraft gun that the NVA moved around in the vicinity of the airfield. Just before the loss of the 772nd airplane and crew a crew I went incountry with was shot-up over Katum, though I was not with them at the time. I had been selected to checkout in the COMMANDO VAULT C-130 bombing mission which was just beginning. Though I was in the 29th TAS, I was sent in-country for a checkout with a 774th TAS crew whose loadmaster was already qualified. MacArthur Rutherford and I had known each other since basic, and had crosstrained together at Pope. We had gone separate ways but ended up in the same wing again at Clark. I was only with the crew to have my lesson plans signed off to drop the big bombs. After two days of bombing the crew was put on the airlift schedule. Originally, I was going to go with them but I had my guitar with me and the night before the mission somebody kept buying me drinks in the all-ranks club on Herky Hill. I decided to pass on flying the next day since I had no need for another cargo flight. Mac said it was okay with him, so I slept late and went to the beach. I waited around the barracks at about the time he and the engineer should have been back, but they were late. Finally, I saw them get out of the shuttle bus by the barracks. I thought to myself, 'My, Mac sure does like white!" Now, considering that Rutherford was a negro from Americas, Georgia, looking white was a rather interesting phenomena! They told me what had happened - they were on approach to Katum when the gun opened on them. The airplane took 12 hits. Fortunately, no one was hurt and they made it to Tan Son Nhut.
My day of reckoning with Katum came later. We flew in and out of Katum all day without incident, though I certainly did a lot of soul-searching before the first flight! Eventually the Army was able to locate the quad-fifty and a pair of helicopter gunships took it out. But just because the gun was gone did not mean that Katum was any picnic - they didn't call C-130s "mortar magnets" for nothing!
It was largely because of Katum and a few other airfields in that vicinity that President Nixon authorized the "invasion" of Cambodia in the spring of 1970. Though the Cambodian incursion brought rioting in the US, including the Kent State episode, our ill-informed peers in the United States were out-of-touch with what was really going on in Vietnam. After more than three years of enduring artillery and antiaircraft from NVA units operating out of Cambodia, airlifters in Vietnam praised the move and were not in the least in sympathy with the protestors in the US. I landed at Katum a few days after the Americans and South Vietnamese went into Cambodia and we actually shut down our engines and got out of the airplane and walked around! A week earlier a C-130 at Katum would have brought in an artillery barrage!
There was one C-130 pilot who protested the move into Cambodia. Charlie Clements was a pilot with the 50th TAS at CCK. An Academy graduate, Clements somehow began to develop an anti-military attitude, probably while attending graduate school at UCLA. After Cambodia, Clements decided to protest the war and asked to be taken off of flight status. He underwent a psychiatric examination and was diagnosed as "situationally reactive." Clements spent six months in a psychiatric ward and was given a medical discharge from the Air Force. In civilian life he went to medical school and became a doctor. In the 1980s Dr. Charlie Clements went to El Salvador to provide medical aid to the Communist guerrillas in the country. He wrote a book and was featured in "PEOPLE" magazine and in the media.