By Tech. Sgt. Matt Hecht, 177th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published November 21, 2014
ATLANTIC CITY AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, N.J. -- Sometimes history can be elusive, and even events that happened recently can be forgotten. Such was the case of the 177th Tactical Fighter Wing's actions in Vietnam. A hodgepodge group of aviators and maintenance Air National Guardsmen from both the 177th as well as the 113th Tactical Fighter Wing volunteered for Vietnam service.
Initially, the Airmen joined up at Myrtle Beach Air Force Base, S.C., in 1968 to back-fill for active duty units.
Retired Chief Master Sgt. Richard Newell, then a Master Sgt. in the 177th Maintenance Squadron, knew that a wartime deployment might be coming.
"We were doing a lot of training in those days, going to bases in Florida to practice night bombing missions, so we were prepared for Vietnam," said Newell.
In May of 1968, the first Air National Guard aircrew from the 177th TFW arrived at Phu Cat Air Base, South Vietnam.
"The smell hit me, right off the plane," said retired Senior Master Sgt. Bob Hensel, who deployed to Vietnam as a Hydraulics Airman from Atlantic City.
"It was a frightening experience, being in a combat zone," said Hensel. "It took me about two weeks to get comfortable."
Retired Lt. Col. Bill Farrow, a former F-100 pilot from the 177th TFW, found himself at Phu Cat after ferrying planes to Vietnam from the United States.
"There were four of us from New Jersey, we took F-100's from California to Hawaii, then from Hawaii to Guam, Guam to the Philippines and finally to Phu Cat," said Farrow. "Once we were at Phu Cat, the commander asked us if we wanted to stay for a tour, and we agreed, so we went home for thirty days to get our affairs in order, and came back for a year tour."
Air National Guard pilots and maintainers were assigned to the 355th Tactical Fighter Squadron "Fighting Falcons," which was made up of approximately 85 percent Guardsmen.
The crews didn't realize their place in history.
Combat experienced fighter pilot volunteers came together at Phu Cat to form a top secret squadron, project name Commando Sabre. The squadron was commanded by the famous Air Force Col. Bud Day, who not only went on to be awarded the Medal of Honor, but also was the first person to bail out of a fighter jet (an F-84) without a parachute and survive.
The F-100F's, two seat Super Sabres, were evaluated as Fast Forward Air Control (FAC) aircraft in high threat areas, with the call sign MISTY - based on Day's favorite song by jazz pianist Erroll Garner.
The MISTY missions were to fly fast and low over enemy territory, and to find and identify enemy targets. Fighter pilots from the 177th flew as part of the Fast FAC, with hundreds of enemy targets destroyed.
Farrow, who flew 222 combat missions in Vietnam, also flew MISTY missions. He recounted one mission that stuck with him.
"We had a full bird from the Pentagon come out, a safety officer who wanted to evaluate our missions. I was in an F-100F Super Sabre, with the safety officer in the back seat, and we were providing close air support for soldiers on the grounds that were on a hill that was being overtaken by Viet Cong," said Farrow.
"I dropped napalm and bombs on the enemy side of the hill to defend those guys, and the FAC asked if I had any 20mm [bullets] left. I said I did, and he directed me onto another target. The guy in the backseat says, 'hey, I've never seen rain like that'."
It wasn't rain.
"What he was seeing was anti-aircraft fire coming straight at us, probably 75mm," said Farrow. "It didn't hit us, and I got a good laugh out of it. That was one of the missions I was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross."
From July to Sept. of 1968 the 355th TFS flew 600 combat missions as part of Operations JEB STUART III, WHEELER WALOWA, and MACARTHUR.
Flying during the Vietnam War was dangerous business, and the 177th wasn't immune to enemy action, as Maj. Ronald Standerfer found out when his F-100F was shot down over Laos, although luckily he was quickly rescued.
Farrow also recalled a harrowing experience during a mission on July 21, 1968.
"Unfortunately, I flew on a mission where I lost my wingman," said Farrow. "Lt. Col. Sherman Flanagan from the DC Air National Guard was flying with me on a strafing pass. We made a pass on the target and I called for him on the radio, but there was silence. I looked over and his aircraft didn't look damaged, but he never pulled up, never ejected and his plane went into a hill. Back at the base, they thought he was hit by small arms fire, a golden bb."
For the Airmen on the ground, the day-to-day job could be just as dangerous.
"I remember one day we were attacked by ground forces, and four Viet Cong insurgents made it onto the base,' said Newell. "They ran right past our guys on the flight line, but they weren't interested in us - they wanted to attack the Explosive Ordinance Disposal building, but luckily they were dealt with by security and no Americans were hurt or killed."
"I remember going to the base theater, it was an open air theater, kind of like a drive-in, and we could see the Spooky gunships at night firing in the distance," said Hensel. "There was also some kind of operation going on, and it was kind of wild seeing those tracers, knowing they were shooting at people."
The Guardsmen won a lot of praise for their accomplishments, and were credited with greatly reducing enemy capabilities in Ke Sanh, Da Nang, and the A Shau Valley. With nearly 2,800 missions flown, the Guard pilots were awarded numerous Air Medals, 16 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 11 Silver Stars, 2 Vietnamese Gallantry Crosses with a Silver Star, and 3 Bronze Stars.
13 enlisted maintainers were also awarded the Bronze Star, although according to Newell they never actually received them, however most of the enlisted force received numerous Air Force Commendation medals.
"The medals don't even really matter now," said Newell. "Most of us are already gone."
In a letter from 1978, Air Force General Wilbur L. Creech reflected on the service of the Air National Guardsmen from Atlantic City and DC.
"I can attest to the outstanding performance they turned in," wrote Creech. "A superb job in every respect."
Despite hardships, the Guardsmen wanted to be in Vietnam, to serve their country.
"It could be difficult, but we had a great group of guys," said Hensel. "We came because we believed in what we were doing."
Farrow noted the praise he received when wearing his Vietnam Veteran hat.
"When I wear that hat, people tend to stop and thank me for my service. I can't tell you how good that feels," said Farrow.
While the history books might have forgotten the contributions of the "Fighting Falcons' in Vietnam, these men will be remembered for the heroes they are - patriots, warriors, and Citizen Airmen.