Sunday, November 04, 2007


Fred Cone probably still tells the tale about a Da Nang takeoff attempt, in 1967, which almost killed him. How could the Marine A-6 pilot forget the night his aircraft, which was carrying 500 lb. bombs, hit a C-141 transport carrying acetylene tanks. He and his bomber, Doug Wilson, were in the process of getting the aircraft airborne when the two planes collided.

Da Nang airport was the busiest in the world in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with a landing and takeoff every 30 seconds.
In 1967, Cone was part of the “Rolling Thunder” operation. His A-6 was full of bombs he was scheduled to drop on Hanoi.

It was about 3:45 a.m. on March 24, 1967, and his A-6 was maxed out carrying 15,000 pounds of bombs and 15,000 gallons of fuel. He had reached about 100 miles per hour on one of two parallel runways when he spotted the C-141 cargo plane taxiing across his runway directly in front of him.

The C-141 pilot had never been at the Da Nang airport and didn’t realize it had dual runways. To make matters worse, it was raining and overcast.

The C-141 was the biggest aircraft in the Air Force arsenal at the time and Lt. Cone was about to see it up close. He pulled his power, dropped the arresting hook, blew both tires stomping on the brakes and went off the runway.

The five people in the cockpit of the C-141 didn’t see Cone’s A-6 at all. They died instantly when his aircraft hit the larger cargo plane. The A-6 went right through the cockpit. Only the loadmaster lived, having jumped from the lowered loading ramp beneath the tail section.

The impact flipped the A-6 and left Cone upside down, burning and disoriented. Only the discipline of escape training saved them that night. Luckily for them both, one the many explosions actually blew out most of the fire allowing them to escape death.

Since this was less than a month (26 days) after the February 27, 1967 rocket attack, we rolled out of bed an onto the concrete floor of the hooches. I peered up at the night sky through the screen wire of the hooch and watched large red-hot pieces of either bomb or acetylene shrapnel whip through the air making a threatening whistling sound.

As the explosions continued, we all wondered why the barrage was continuing so long. Finally, someone ran into the hooch and shouted, “It’s okay, it’s just an aircraft crash!

Fuck you,” was the unanimous reply, “we’re staying right here! If rockets were not enough to keep us awake and paranoid, then this comes along!

We felt safe on the floor, below the newly stacked sandbags that we had erected on off-shift along the outer walls of all the hooches, and under the mattress and springs of our bunks.

The base came alive with emergency vehicles running toward the flight line, their lights flashing and the eerie sounds of the sirens in the darkness before dawn, but we did not move until the eruptions stopped.

That evening, I drew the lucky card. I stood guard in the base scrap metal and garbage dump, in the dark at the north end of the base, over what was left of the mishap – the huge tail section of the 141, which showed no signs of the earlier destructive explosions or resulting fire. Of course, there were piles of charred aluminum and twisted metal parts from both aircraft, but only the tail section was recognizable. Someone had to guard the mess until the final accident investigation ended.

At the time, I did not think to be scared of ghost that might still be wondering around looking for their body parts, it was the “pitter patter” of large rodent feet that kept my mind occupied and alert! These were not the average field mice, or even the large alley rats from back home, these were grotesquely sized jungle rats that would scare the hell out of any normal sized house cat!

I ran through all the batteries I had with me that night, just from frequently flicking my flashlight on and off – checking to see how close they were.

So, there I was, at the time, very “short,” just days from going home, and there was no doubt in my mind that I would be eaten alive in a dump in Southeast Asia!

Before that night, I held the majestic C-141 in high regard. I often created very good likenesses of the sleek bird using the aluminum foil I scavenged from my C-Rations, and wiled away the time admiring its beautiful lines. Some ten years later, my brother would be a loadmaster on a 141, but since that night, I can only think of the darkness, the sounds, the smells, and the insecurity of that night I spent listening to the “pitter patter” in the dump.


Mushy said...

After looking closely at the "sand bag" photo on the right, the big Staff Sergeant that sang "Dinah," in the post by the same name, is leaning against the bags on the left in the photo!

Cool...didn't know I had a shot of him!

Les Becker said...

Brrr! I have my own "rat" memories. Even a tame brown rat will terrorize a house cat.

I can't quite wrap my head around what being under fire (or explosions that make you think you're under fire) might be like... but I was right there with you with the "pitter patter"...

Chuck said...

Damn, what a terrible plane crash!

Hey, got a question....when you were taking these pictures were you just hoping to have memories, or did you plan to publish them someday? You certainly had skills at an early age.

Also, I like your "Rocky Top Tennessee" picture over to the right. Could I steal it and add it to my blog?

Mushy said...

I always had a camera Chuck, and did weddings and sports photography later in life. The ones I took back then just happened. Had I known, I would have taken so many more. We bloggers should document our never know!

I stole the photo from Sarge's page and added the text, so go ahead. If you want, I'll email the original size to you.

Lin said...

Egads, Mushy, if your foodie post don't kill me from vicarious cholesterol, your war stories are going to give me the big one! Wow! Wow! Wow!

Chuck said...

Thanks Mushy! It'll have a place on my blog for a long time!

GUYK said...

I was in Turkey at the time..and we were a refueling stop for the 141s heading to SE Asia from the USA east coast. I have pumped millions of gallons of JP 4 on those birds and might have refueled the one that got hit..

pat houseworth said...

141s, KC 135s, B52, and a dozen other AF Planes....I am still "humping" them in my sleep.....and we ain't talking sex.

Mushy said...

You probably did brother flew on some of the ones I saw 10 years later. The one I photographed here was the first one ever to come to Da Nang. What a beauty!

Later most of them got stretched and renumbered and are still flying.

Mushy said...

Forgot to point out that the real "Gordon" is in the sand bag photo on the left, and that's Keller in the center with the hankie tied around his leg.

Buck Pennington said...

Great story about a bad subject, Mushy.

I've flown more than a few miles in the back of 141s, both with and without the palletized "PAX package." And those rear-facing seats on the PAX pallet are SO much better than the webbed-sling seat alternative. Warmer, too!

david mcmahon said...

Riveting, Mushy, absolutely riveting. Didn't know your brother was a loadmaster.

~Fathairybastard~ said...

Cool story. Can't believe your year in 'Nam is almost over. I flew back to the States from the first Gulf War in one of those 141s, maybe. Paratrooper seating. Stopped for fuel and to switch crews in Diego Garcia, on the way to the PI from the gulf.

I'll never forget when the PATCO air traffic controllers went on strike and got fired by Reagan in '81. The govt. decided to briefly turn to using military controllers, and the PATCO guys said that military controllers didn't have the experience. My dad (who commanded Air Force towers all over the country) just laughed his ass off and told me about Da Nang, and a plane every 30 seconds. Best safety record of any airport back then, dispite this incident you report here.

He still hates unions.

BRUNO said...

RATS!!! I HATE RATS!!! That, and WATER up to my neck, still to this day!

You're FIRST inclination was to shoot them. However, if you had done your "homework" right, you knew better than that, even if they WERE in the same hole as you! That's what the Kabar was good for---silence...!

Jerry said...

Wow. That was a terrible crash. Your memory is incredible. Jungle rats? Thanks for sharing!

phlegmfatale said...

Holy crap, what a terrible mess that crash had to have been, and a damn shame, at that.

oh - fyi - my grandpa's music is up on my Monday post. I hope you can stop by and hear it.

Scott from Oregon said...

I would find it hard to have memories where over three million people died.

I am glad I am only a second hand ear...

Suldog said...

Good God, Mushy. The stories you have to tell! Thanks for sharing.

*Goddess* said...

After reading some of these stories, it's amazing more people don't have post traumatic stress syndrome.