The Douglas Electric Goon
The Douglas DC-3 was the first airplane in which I flew, from Portland, Oregon to Eugene on United Air Lines in 1946. It was also the last plane in which I flew for the AF, in combat, as a Master Navigator and Flight Examiner. That was 28 years later, in the EC-47Q in the 361st Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron, a part of the 56th Special Operations Wing at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base in northeast Thailand in 1973-74. I took the picture below right here in 1973. It's looking northeast.
Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force BaseMY HOME FOR A YEAR
The plane's official name was the Skytrain in the U.S. and Dakota in the British Empire, but it was known to one and all as the Gooney Bird or simply the Goon. So our Electronic Cargo-47s were known as Electric Goons. Coincidentally, the first DC-3 flew within a week of my birth; we have grown up and become old together; no wonder it's my favorite airplane. There were more than 11,000 DC-3s and C-47s built and some of them are still flying. They will be flying long after I'm gone. Here's an interesting article from CNN on the DC-3.
The ones we had in Thailand were late models, built in '44 and '45. The airplanes were worth maybe $100,000 each but it had a couple of million dollars in equipment on board. Although they had many thousands of hours on them (some had taxied at least 200,000 miles) they were beautifully maintained by an outstanding group of guys, utterly reliable and great fun to fly once we got into the air and cooled off.
This picture at right was probably taken in April of 1973 at NKP. That's me hanging out the window. By that time only a couple of the airplanes still had names or nose-art on them. Below that picture is a recent EC-47 that was put on static display at Goodfellow AFB in Texas. Goodfellow has had an interesting history and has twice barely escaped closure. Seeing these great old birds on display in the weather at a base like Goodfellow fills me with mixed feelings. The very nature of weapons of war is transient, and a picture like this is a reminder that all glory is fleeting.
It was an interesting and useful mission, in which the navigator had a very interesting and useful role, which is about all I can say about it. My squadron lost a couple of planes just before I got there. In this assignment I was awarded two Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The Distinguished Flying Cross Society was founded in 1994 and now has more than 4,000 members, most from WW II, but some from Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm and the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are from all the uniformed services. I attended a convention in Las Vegas which was attended by more than 125 holders of the award. If you're eligible and interested, you can find further information at their web site.
Several people have responded to this page and I welcome the e-mail. Like me, they remember the Thais as good and tolerant of our presence. I have fond memories of a wonderful restaurant at Udorn, The Five Sisters, and a jeweler, a Chinese named Sengh. It was my first experience with transvestites, called "kitoys." I remember the guys in the 555th F-4 outfit, who regularly destroyed the officers club bar.
Above left is a picture of a model of one of our airplanes, correct tail number and all, made by Island Enterprises in the Philippines. They used a number of pictures I sent them in order to get all the antennas and paint job right.
They make superior models and their web site is here.
MSgt J.C. Wheeler was among the first to bring the EC-47's to SEA when the project was known as "Phyllis Ann" in September 1966. "
"I was the flight mechanic on about the 6th EC-47 to arrive in Saigon. We flew it over from New Hampshire. "
The airplanes had been equipped by Sanders Associates, a New Hampshire computer/electronics firm that made self protection countermeasures for the USAF and Navy as well as active electronic countermeasures. A vice-president of the company at the time was John Egan, a fellow student and friend at Grinnell, my undergraduate college. He was in charge of the Phyllis Ann project. He became a senior VP at Lockheed-Martin and retired in 1998.
MSgt Wheeler continues,
"I was fortunate enough to stay with the same crew I flew over with and we flew 114 recon missions, 610 hours and came home together. When I was there, we were sorta top heavy on rank. Most of our pilots were lieutenant colonels or majors. Navigators were mostly the same but we did have a few captains. No enlisted below the rank of SSgt. Personally, I liked it that way. No one was bucking for rank and there were no so-called hotshots. I will say something I have heard no one else say: my year there was the best and most rewarding of my 20 year career. A truly great bunch of folks to work with."
"We spent only 6 weeks at Saigon, then moved to Nha Trang for the rest of our tour. Lived on the local economy and lived at Number 2 Mei Lien. "
MSgt Wheeler has constructed a huge and excellent web site devoted to the EC-47, including many pictures, history, and links to other sites. To go there, click on this link.
Pete Ford, now retired in Florida, wrote:
"I was assigned to the 14th Supply Squadron at Nha Trang in August, 1966. Early in December of that year I was transferred to Pleiku (633rd Supp. Sq.) in support of Project Phyllis Ann, probably because I was excess to the manning document at Nha Trang. There must have been 80 or more of us piled in a C130 (no seats--we sat down on the 463L pallets installed on the floor). The assault take-off from Nha Trang and the assault landing into Pleiku were a trip! With nothing to hold onto we were tangled up in a knot like a nest of water moccasins. Of course this made the aircrew's day. At Pleiku I knew that whatever came across my desk (I am an E-3/E-4) concerning Phyllis Ann I jumped on it. If we didn't have what was needed, we got on the phone to the States most ricki-tick!
For a young, homesick kid in 'Nam (four months in-country) my arrival at Pleiku was a Godsend. The dark red clay in Pleiku reminded me of the red clay of home..."
Another wrote, concerning NKP:
"I remember one night while watching a movie at the base theater a call came out for blood donors. A shot-up EC-47 had crashed at the end of the runway. We all jumped in a truck and headed to the base hospital. We waited there for hours. I never did give blood because they had too much of my type, but I thought it was great that so many would want to help." And he added, "I liked the Thai people, but hated the war."
I never knew anybody who liked it. But we were in it together and all these years later there's a strong bond between those who were there.
A 1990 lousy book, "Kiss the Boys Goodbye," claimed that the EC-47 was "an aircraft designed to be a death trap" and that the crew was "compelled to commit war crimes." The book also says "Because of the sophisticated electronic equipment on board, arrangements existed for the immolation and destruction of the aircraft before it could fall into enemy hands. The electronic equipment was packed in so tightly that it was almost impossible for men to bail out."
All of that is just plain not true. Not one word of it. Nobody was forced to do anything. We were just doing a job, and a pretty good one, compared to some of the idiotic schemes tried in SEA. There was plenty of room: more room than flying in coach these days. And the idea of a self-destruct mechanism on an ancient Gooney Bird is just plain laughable.
John Fuertinger, a USAF mechanic, sent an e mail as follows:
"During my tour as a mechanic at Plieku and Da Nang from 1969 to 1970 we lost three aircraft to enemy action. One was shot down, with two KIA, the co-pilot, I believe his name was Lt. Wall, and an electronic console operator, whose name I don't recall. I heard that an A-1E air strike was called in to make sure the wreck was totally destroyed. The other two were hit by mortar fire on the ground. 804 gallons of 115/145 AvGas makes a good bonfire! As for that self-destruct device; if there was one installed, we would have been told to inspect it or to stay the hell away from it! Besides, one well placed Very pistol round would accomplish the same thing, and we were told to keep our mitts off of that thing too. Although I would not have any way to confirm that air strikes were called in to destroy the wrecks, that was the scuttle-butt that went around. Maybe there is someone out there who can corroborate this."
Jon Ohman, a crew chief on EC-47s in the 362nd TEWS at Pleiku and DaNang, and a manager at NASA Goddard in Maryland, provided the corroboration: "John Fuertinger's quote is on the mark. There was NO self destruct button on my bird and if there was, I did not know where to find it. John is also correct with respect to the loss of aircraft shot down and lost to mortar fire. I know because I was there. All three aircraft belonged to the 362nd TEWS while based at Pleiku."
If you want to read a good book on the subject of MIAs, I suggest Prisoners of Hope; Exploiting the POW/MIA Myth in America by Susan Katz Keating. There are loads of POW/MIA sites on the Internet and it's really very sad. All those guys are dead. Some of them were my friends. But we're spending $100 million a year in Federal funds looking for fewer than 60 unresolved cases, while the North Vietnamese have more than 400,000 dead men, women and children they can't account for and can't afford to look for in their own country. It's really very sad, all the way around.
Another book that deals with the frauds surrounding Vietnam is Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of its Heroes and its History by B.G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley. It deals with the fraudulent image of Vietnam veterans as "sad-sack, haunted, violent, drug-and-alcohol-addicted, wife beating, convenience-store-robbing" planted in the American psyche by people who claim to have been Vietnam war heroes. I met one at the University of Colorado who went all the way and claimed to be an Air Force general working under cover. I don’t know why some now claim to have been in combat when they weren’t. The actor Brian Dennehey in a Playboy interview said he was in combat in Vietnam but never got closer than Okinawa. And Brian Williams said he was in a chopper hit by a dud grenade. Why do they risk almost certain discovery? It’s a mystery.
We didn't have any USAF Security Service patches (below), since we didn't really exist, but somebody made this up and we all wore it. We thought it was funny, but it was true, too.
We had a certain amount of time to goof off, as in any other flying mission, and one day when we hooked up with a couple of other Goons I decided to take some pictures. The guys in the other plane told me to wait a minute. Finally they said, "Okay, take it." I did, and didn't know the reason for the delay until I printed the picture. People think the title should be "Goon Over Cambodia," until they look closely at the third window (below).
"Moon" Over Cambodia(c) David Steiner
I flew 441 hours in EC-47s.
"The Douglas DC-3 was the first airplane in which I flew, from Portland, Oregon to Eugene on United Air Lines in 1946. It was also the last plane in which I flew for the AF, in combat, as a Master Navigator and Flight Examiner"