Fire in the Night Sky
Late in evening of February 22, 1967, at the Royal Thai/U.S. Air Commando air base at Nakhon Phanom (NKP), Thailand, fire trucks, ambulances, and other emergency, service, and Air Police vehicles rolled into place on the taxiways of the 6,000-foot pierced steel planking runway. One of the 606th Air Commando squadron’s A-26 attack-bombers returning from a combat mission on the border of Laos and North Vietnam had been badly damaged in a ferocious gun battle with North Vietnamese anti-aircraft guns. With their landing gear unusable, one of their two engines shut down, a fuel leak, and one of its main landing gear tires burning, their choices were grim.
There were no ejection seats in the twin-prop Invader aircraft first used in World War II, and the old fashioned method of popping off the cockpit canopy and hurling yourself toward the wing and then pulling the rip cord on your parachute had proved extremely hazardous under unstable conditions. The A-26 was also still over enemy held territory in Laos, just across the Mekong River from Nakhon Phanom. Two Jolly Green Giant HH-3E rescue helicopters were already alerted and flying toward NKP. But night helicopter rescue in enemy territory was difficult and hazardous and often had to be put off until daylight. Falling into to the hands of the fanatically brutal Pathet Lao Communists meant unspeakable torture and death. The other choice was to attempt a crash-landing on the pierced steel planking runway at NKP. Given the aircraft had only one engine, damaged and unusable landing gear, and fuel leaking onto to a burning tire, this was a desperate choice. There were only desperate choices left, and the aircraft commander elected to crash-land at NKP.
As all eyes searched the dark eastern sky toward Laos, a barely flyable burning aircraft appeared, a fire in night sky. Inside the A-26, the aircraft commander, J. L. McCleskey, and navigator-co-pilot seated to his right, were filled with the adrenaline created by the emergency. I was that navigator co-pilot. Despite the energy of the adrenaline, we carefully concentrated on and ran through the crash-landing check list. Our altitude was now only 700 feet off the ground, but a sister A-26 from the same mission bravely came underneath us to check the fire. The Air Commando Wing Commander, Colonel Harry C. “Heine” Aderholt, from Birmingham, Alabama, was checking the Air Base’s perimeter defenses when alerted to the emergency. He watched with great anxiety as Nimrod 37’s fiery image, still over enemy infiltrated territory in Laos, began its approach to NKP.
The A-26K “Counter-Invader” attack-bomber was an updated and remodeled version of the World War II B-26 bomber. Its mission in the Vietnam War was primarily night-armed reconnaissance—destroying enemy trucks coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North Vietnam through Laos into South Vietnam. Their call-sign was Nimrod (in the Bible a mighty hunter). Its most used weapon was a set of eight powerful 50-caliber machine guns in the nose, but it also had a bomb bay, which usually carried two immense 1000-pound bombs. It had four weapons stations on each wing, which carried rockets, flares, and a varying menu of smaller bombs. Its wings were reinforced, and it carried extra fuel tanks on the wing tips, that could be jettisoned in an emergency. The great advantage of the A-26 over jet combat aircraft was that it could stay on station for a long time—as much as four hours—and it was much more accurate. It had modern instrumentation but no emergency ejection system for the crew. The normal crew in 1967 was only two, the pilot on the left, and the navigator co-pilot on the right, but we could carry an observer seated behind the navigator-copilot. There was a separate mid-plane compartment that could carry a few passengers or luggage. In 1968, this was used for a third crew member operating a special night vision device for hunting enemy trucks. Until the A-26 was replaced by the AC-130 Spectre Gunship in 1969, the Nimrods had been the most successful truck-destroyer in the war.
The Nimrods frequently flew in pairs, sometimes also supported by C-130 flare-ships with the call-sign Lamplighter. Early on the evening of February 22, Nimrod 36 took off and with the help of a C-130 Lamplighter found a large convoy of enemy trucks crossing the mountainous border into Laos at Ban Karai Pass. We were Nimrod 37 but were delayed by some maintenance needs for about 45 minutes before taking off. When we joined Nimrod 36 they already had six large trucks burning. They were being fired at, however, by at least four anti-aircraft guns. In four attack dives, we were able to take out the two largest 37mm anti-aircraft guns with rockets and the two one thousand-pound bombs. We simply avoided flying near a Russian made ZPU-4 firing red tracers, and then used our nose-guns to strafe a 50-caliber anti-aircraft machine-gun near the trucks. Thinking this 50-caliber anti-aircraft gun had been destroyed, we began to strafe the trucks. However, as we turned from our strafing run, we saw the white 50-caliber anti-aircraft tracers streaming at Nimrod 36. We were determined to knock this gun out and made a shallow low-level strafing run, continually firing into the enemy position.
However, as we pulled off target only about 50 feet above the tree tops, I saw his white tracers streaming both in front of and behind us. With a loud clank and jolt, I knew we had been hit. I saw the right engine was smoking, and the right fuel tank was rapidly losing fuel. We “feathered” (shut down) the right engine and continued to climb until we were out of range with 5,000 feet altitude. We headed for a safe spot to jettison our wing-tip gas tanks and remaining armament on the wings.
Nimrod 36 came up under us to inspect our damage and reported that our wheel-well was on fire and being fed by a fuel leak. We tried to put out the fire with two remote fire extinguishers in the wheel-well. Nimrod 36, however, reported that the fire was still going. Just after we dumped our wing-tip tanks and the rest of our wing armaments, we tried something I had seen in a World War II movie, but never thought I would have to live through myself. We dived straight down from 5,000 feet and pulled out of the dive at only 1200 feet to try and put out the fire.
Nimrod 36 pulled up under us and said again that we still had a fire in our wheel-well. We decided to attempt a belly-crash landing at NKP, and notified the NKP tower, the C-130 Lamplighter, and Nimrod 36 and then started going down the grim crash landing checklist.
Nimrod 36 came under us for one last check as we began our approach to NKP at 1200 feet altitude, about 700 feet from ground level. Nimrod 36 said, “Your wheel-well is still on fire.” There was a short pause and Nimrod 36 exclaimed, “My God, My God, your whole wing is on fire. Get out, get out.” I immediately blew the cockpit canopy off, and we prepared to bail out.
My first attempt to bail out failed because the wind stream knocked me back into the cockpit. By this time both wings were on fire and the aircraft was increasingly difficult to control. I thought I had no chance to survive, so I prayed, “Lord, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Psalm 31:5a) and made a low lunge to the wing again. I was out. The chute opened (a good feeling) and by a strange amount of light for the middle of the night, I saw a tree on the ground and then hit hard. McCleskey was out a moment later.
Back at NKP, Col. Aderholt saw the fire in the night sky brighten and then saw the brightest flash, he had ever seen—“brighter than the sun”—as Nimrod 37 exploded in mid air, no more than three seconds after we had bailed out.
After releasing my parachute and loading my 38 Colt revolver, I was able to contact the C-130 Lamplighter on my hand-held radio. I was nervous about being in possibly unfriendly territory, although it was very close to NKP. Within 30 anxious minutes that seemed much longer, we were both picked up by the Jolly Green helicopters. I guided both helicopters to my location using my hand-held radio and bright flasher. My right foot was broken, and I had to be carried into the helicopter by a young para-rescue sergeant.
We learned later that the debris from our exploding aircraft hit Nimrod 36 and killed both crewmembers instantly. They were both good friends, so this was a heavy blow. McCleskey spent six weeks in the hospital and returned to NKP. I spent five months in hospitals and was then reassigned to Rescue HC-130s at Hamilton Air Force Base in California, where by God’s kind providence I met my future wife, who was an Air Force Nurse.
I am proud to be a veteran and especially a Vietnam veteran. My experiences in the Air Force gave me a deep feeling of comradeship with all those who are serving and have served in our Armed Forces.
I flew 35 combat missions in the A-26, and at least four were harrowing experiences that no one could ever forget. Having survived them, frequently reminds me that I must have a special place and purpose in the mysteries of God’s providence.
“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”—Ephesians 2:10 ESV