What really happened to the ancient Roman colony of Leptis Magna? The story of the people who lived there is one of the most intriguing in the history of the Roman Empire. But what of their story after the Romans left? Did the people die out? Did they return to their homeland? Or did they continue to live in the city and, over many years, become a new people?
Historical records, such as the Bible, the Quran and the chronicles of various kings and queens, tell the tale of King David. However the story of King David is not one of a hero. The record of David’s life gives us a picture of a jealous, insecure, fearful man. His relationship with the woman he loved was fraught with tragedy. Not only did God allow David to suffer a severe physical illness, and his queen to die, but he also allowed David to take the life of Uriah the Hittite.
A shipwrecked medieval sailor must navigate his way through the dangerous waters around his island home on the remotest of the Western Isles. His ship’s log is his only guide; if he is to survive he must accurately record the islands he passes and record his progress on the way.
When an Australian journalist hitched a ride with a “Spooky” crew, the incredible firepower of an AC-47’s miniguns was on full show.
In 1967, in the minefield on the perimeter of Bien Hoa Air Base in South Vietnam, a charred, burned-out wreck lay nearby. It was simply one of hundreds of American planes shot down by the enemy, but there was something unique about this one.
The aircraft was an AC-47 gunship known as “Spooky.” They nicknamed it The Leper because it couldn’t seem to retain a coat of paint, yet it had one of the finest in-service records of any aircraft in the US Seventh Air Force. The Leper began life as a Douglas C-47 transport, serial no. 43-48356, which flew from the United States to the United Kingdom on August 5, 1944, to fight in another air battle. It had served as a VC-47 with Logistics Command and Air Defense Command in between wars. Tactical Air Command dispatched the transport to Eglin Field in Florida in September 1965 to be converted into a side-firing gunship.
The veteran warhorse was in Bien Hoa with Detachment 3 of the 4th Air Commando Squadron eleven months later. The squadron’s five detachments were dispersed throughout South Vietnam, from Da Nang in I Corps to Pleiku and Nha Trang (the 4th’s headquarters) in II Corps, Bien Hoa near Saigon in III Corps, and Binh Thuy in IV Corps in the Mekong Delta.
I was working as a stringer for an Australian magazine in South Vietnam in early 1967, and I was eager to fly in one of the old gunships. On the night of January 22, I had my first chance in The Leper.
A Spooky mission from Bien Hoa had a showtime of approximately 6:30 p.m. After climbing into the round fuselage of the militarized DC-3, which was painted sandy brown with two shades of green and had deep black undersurfaces, I became acquainted with the AC-47’s unique interior: the olive green walls, the flare boxes—one next to the door and one up front—the discolored white fiberglass flak curtains, and, looming over it all, the three General Electric GAU-2/A miniguns. Each weapon could fire 6,000 rounds of 7.62mm ammunition per minute via six revolving barrels, based on a concept that dates back more than a century to the original Gatling guns.
Before joining the 4th Air Commando Squadron in Bien Hoa, “The Leper” had already served in action. The AC-47 got its moniker from the gunship’s constantly peeling paint and haphazard camouflage scheme. (Birdsall, Steve)
One of the crew members assisted me into a parachute harness, telling me to tighten the crotch straps and explaining why. He showed me how to use the quick-release clips and put a chest-pack chute on the harness, advising me to turn aside if I needed to draw the D-ring. As we taxied off of the flight line in the late afternoon sun, I connected the jack of my headset into the clip-on lead and listened to the pilot and copilot go through the preliminaries. It was sweltering outside, and perspiration was dripping down the sides of my face. We took off while it was still light, and Major William H. Niemeier, our navigator, showed me where we were headed and what we were about to do: patrol a route approximately 60 miles from Bien Hoa, near the Cambodian border, searching for enemy convoys. We’d fly approximately a thousand miles at 135 knots throughout the six-hour trip.
The road emerged below at 7:15. I’d taken off my headset and returned to the main entrance, which was now protected by two diagonal safety straps. The Kool-smoking loadmaster motioned for me to tilt my head toward him, pointing to large holes in the ground below. “B-52s,” he said, speaking close to my ear. We continued to gaze at the flat, lovely landscape while I nodded.
Three General Electric GAU-2 (M134) miniguns were installed on AC-47s, with six revolving barrels firing 2,000 7.62mm rounds per minute (downrated from 6,000 rpm). Each of the miniguns was placed in an SUU-11/A aircraft gun pod that carried 1,500 rounds. The pilots usually shot five-second bursts. (Photo by Steve Birdsall)
As night fell, the two gunners and a Vietnamese observer—who had to obtain permission for The Leper to fire—found different ways to pass the time. By the light of a tiny lamp connected to the fuselage on a long flexible arm, two people slept and one read. The hours passed while Spooky dropped flares. Around midnight, I was startled awake and informed that we would be landing at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Air Base in a few minutes for my convenience. “The other bird is out where we were at the time, firing at sampans on the river—the it’s luck of the draw,” Major Niemeier said. Come back and see us.”
At that time I was heading north to Pleiku and Da Nang, and I wasn’t sure I’d be accepting his kind invitation. But The Leper, with its peeling paint and gray-patched wing edges scarred by the flicked-off phosphorus of the tracer streams, was hard to resist. So a couple of weeks later I again took the monotonous military bus ride from Saigon to Bien Hoa, and with more time to spend I visited some of the Spooky pilots of Detachment 3 in their quarters. Major Harley Jeans, the operations officer, talked about the flak curtains, which some of the gunners I’d met had less-than-boundless faith in. He explained how they were effective if they were slack, but rigid they could not “swallow” a hit. Jeans had a greater concern: “I haven’t felt safe since I saw my first flare, and I won’t feel safe until I see my last,” he said.
Two of the AC-47’s three GE GAU-2/A miniguns open fire on an opposing objective. (Getty Images/Larry Burrows) )
Magnesium parachute flares weighing 28 pounds apiece were the flares that created such a stir. The 30-inch cylinders had a diameter of 412 inches and produced 1 million candlepower for three minutes. If Spooky was struck by an incendiary round in a flare box, the aircraft would be destroyed. Most missing Spookys were assumed to have died in this way, and it was something you tried not to think about.
When a premature ejection happened, gunship pilot Bob Knopf had another flare problem: one of the metal cases went straight through an elevator. The most difficult aspect of his work on Spooky, he felt, was getting the flares in the correct spot. He also thought that 7.62mm ammunition was useless against targets like vehicles or a sampan into which he’d thrown 6,000 rounds without sinking it. But he was certain of one thing: the enemy would close up when Spooky opened fire.
My second Spooky expedition started aboard The Leper, with Captain Charles A. Boatwright and his crew, in the same manner as the first. The loadmaster provided me with yet another emergency procedure briefing. “The primary escape is the door back there,” he said flatly. He pointed to the left side of the airplane and added, “There are two emergency exits on each side, but the number-two gun is in that one.” “If we have to leap, you go out fourth and try to remain near one of us.” He didn’t need to say much more, but added, “If we have to jump, you go out fourth and try to stay near one of us.” At the height we’ll be at, count to three or four before pulling the D-ring.”
Under a beautiful sunset, the lovely countryside spread out below us once again. An midday napalm strike’s fading flames danced over a charred area of earth. One of the gunners, who was seated on a row of ammo crates near the number one cannon, was reading Stars and Stripes. It was soon dark.
When I felt a touch on my shoulder, I was drifting asleep. I took removed my headphones, which also had a secondary function of filtering out part of the engine noise. “We’ve got a mission,” said the speaker, and I sprang to my feet.
The gunners were loading the miniguns, the gleaming coppery glitter of the bullets catching the scant light of their little lights. I leaned against the main door’s rear bulkhead, watching the flares throw a weird light over the ground below, casting deep, frightening shadows. A small form passed below in his Cessna O-1 Bird Dog, a forward air controller (FAC). Another shooter used a tiny flashlight to ignite flares. He put the milky white plastic caps into a rapidly filling ammo box as he did so. Those lids reminded me of something I’d seen before, and I couldn’t help but think this would be a great location for a Tupperware party. The Song Be River’s flat curving gash mirrored the yellow flare light like a mirror down below. The on-and-off red glow of our overhead rotating beacon glinted off the wing as the light faded.
During the 1968 Tet Offensive, a time-lapse exposure shows firing from an AC-47 defending Tan Son Nhut Air Base. A tracer was fired every fifth round. (Air Force of the United States of America)
A Special Forces camp was being mortared in the darkness below, and they needed air assistance, but the FAC couldn’t locate a target for us. As a result, Spooky lingered, dropping flares. The crew established a chain to transfer additional down from the front box as the supply in the rear compartmented box was depleted. The flares were meticulously placed by a gunner, and the loadmaster connected them to the lanyard and heaved them out at regular intervals by the loadmaster. They descended, their light illuminating the ground and, to a lesser extent, the airplane cabin. The loadmaster then saw groundfire. The Viet Cong were firing tracers at us, and everyone was attempting to identify the location for a fire pass.
Suddenly, the whole plane lighted up. Nothing like a rifle, the noise was deafening, like an incredibly loud, grinding hum. As Boatwright swapped weapons, a molten glare was cast up the aircraft, framed by the tiny windows. I saw a large light yellow tongue extending out from the plane’s side, and I could smell the smoke. As streams of red tracers arced toward the earth, the AC-47’s interior was as light as day.
The pilot sighted the weapons and discharged them one by one. His firing pass was a left bank, and he altered the pattern of each pass in response to incoming fire. It’d be a figure eight one time, then an oval the next—enough variety to keep Charlie from following Spooky too closely.
The number-three gun roared as we got on target again, and a thick stream of brass shell cases poured down into an ammunition box that had been empty just minutes before. Everyone worked swiftly and precisely. The flame died and the barrels of the gun glowed dull red. Another was firing as I moved down the fuselage close to the forward window and watched the pattern of fire from the number-one gun, the tracers spraying out. It was beyond description—people were always pleased to cite the gee-whiz fact that the miniguns could spread a projectile every six inches over an area the size of a football field, but it’s still not easy to imagine. Moving forward to the cabin, I looked over Boatwright’s shoulders at the lit-up reflector gunsight at his side. Below the dully glowing, red-lit instrument panel his feet were constantly moving, manipulating the rudder pedals.
On March 23, 1967, the AC-47 burns at Bien Hoa after losing an engine to sniper fire before takeoff. (Photo courtesy of Chuck Boatwright and Steve Birdsall)
All 60 flares had been used up, and 7,500 bullets had been fired by the time it was finished. After a three-hour operation, the enemy had been “suppressed,” and it was time to return to Bien Hoa. Spooky would reload and re-enter the fray. Chuck Boatwright had finished his 169th Spooky mission, while I had completed my second.
Boatwright was taking The Leper out on Spooky 41, the “early CAP” mission from 1900 to 2400 hours, about seven weeks after I departed Bien Hoa. The aircraft yawed to the right as the gear came up, and it was still light. The right engine was going to die, so Captain Erik Vettergren, the copilot, feathered the prop while Boatwright attempted to turn around, decided it was impossible, and headed for an open region. The Leper landed gear up, skidded approximately 80 yards, and then turned around, turning the tail assembly 90 degrees. As the left fuel tank burst, the gunship skidded to a halt backwards. The pilots jumped 15 feet to the ground after exiting via their overhead hatch. Boatwright fractured his wrist, leg, and a few minor bones in his foot after making a bad hit, while Vettergren injured his elbow. The remainder of the crew escaped with minor injuries. They discovered numerous bullet holes in the right wing the following morning and concluded that they had been shot down by sniper fire near the runway’s end. The Leper’s luck had finally run out after 24 years.
Steve Birdsall, an aviation historian, writes from Sydney, Australia. Grand Old Lady: Story of the DC-3, by Lt. Col. Carroll V. Glines and Lt. Col. Wendell F. Moseley; and Douglas DC-3: 60 Years and Counting, by Ed Davies, Nick Veronico, and Scott Thompson, are two books he recommends for additional study.
Aviation History Magazine published Log of the Leper in their July 2017 edition. Here’s where you may sign up. Do you want to make your own AC-47?
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