Ben H. Swett
Colonel, USAF (Retired)
I was a navigator in C-123 aircraft and Civic Action Coordinator for
315th Tactical Airlift Wing at Phan Rang, Republic of Vietnam, in 1970
Mon 19 Jan - Attended the Ninh Thuan Province Civic Action Council, chaired by Mr. Nguyen Chu Hau, deputy province chief for administration. It was very interesting. There were many Civic Action projects going on, by many U.S. Military units in the Province, and they seemed to be very well coordinated with the Vietnamese people.
A representative of Luong Giang hamlet asked the Council for "electricity". After discussion, it turned out he was asking for a small gasoline-powered generator and enough wire to have a light in their hamlet office-school and one out on the perimeter of the hamlet so artillery spotters would know where they were. I said we could take care of that, and was assigned the project.
Thu 22 Jan - Briefed the 311th Squadron on our Civic Action Program, and took up a collection for the "electricity" project at Luong Giang hamlet. It was more than enough for a small Honda generator, two all-weather light fixtures and 300 meters of wire (total cost about $85.00). Two men said they were going to Phan Rang City in a few days to get a load of charcoal for bar-b-ques. They would buy all the material for the project and take it to Province Headquarters for delivery to Luong Giang.
Tue 10 Feb - Studied local Intel reports. Luong Giang was a Montagnard hamlet. It was colored pink on the map, which meant they might be supporting the VC.
Fri 27 Mar - Received a phone call from Province Headquarters: the people of Luong Giang hamlet want to thank me personally for providing them with electricity. Can I go there tomorrow? I said "Yes" and was told when and where to meet the helicopter.
Sat 28 Mar - Met a USAF Huey at the landing pad just outside the main gate, next to the Cham Temple. Kim was already on it. (Kim was a 15-year-old Cham boy who was a natural linguist, proficient in English and French and all the local languages.)
The hamlet people were nervous, all gathered together and not smiling. A young man said he was the hamlet chief, and I greeted him, but I thought he might be a token hamlet chief, considered expendable, so I looked around. At the back of the gathering was a very old man. I put the tips of my fingers together in front of my chest and bowed to him. He returned the greeting and came through the people to me.
He said, as a question, "My bak see? My bak see?" I didn't know what that meant, but Kim said, "American doctor. He is asking if you are a doctor." I said I wasn't a doctor, but I knew American doctors, and Kim translated. Then the old man did a very strange thing: he came up close to me and used his fingers to pull his lip up and back on one side. Two molars were missing -- and I understood. An American doctor (dentist) had been to this hamlet, pulled his abscessed teeth, and the pain stopped. I nodded and smiled and said "Yes" -- and he smiled, and all the people relaxed.
The hamlet chief thanked me for providing electricity. Then he led me to a little shed next to the hamlet office and showed me the generator. He said, when the Province people delivered it, they also gave the hamlet a few M-16s and ammunition and a brick. A brick? It was a hand-held two-way radio. He showed me how it worked by calling Province Headquarters and getting a reply.
As I started to leave, all the people smiled and bowed, and a little girl gave me a flower -- a cactus flower -- for which I thanked her. The whole visit was only about 30 minutes, because it wasn't a good idea to keep a helicopter on the ground very long.
Mon 27 Apr - The 311th Squadron was having supper on the patio at the Officers' Club. (The Club was on top of a high hill overlooking the base.) Someone said, "Hey! Come and watch this! And be reverent, a miracle may be about to happen. It may fly." So we all went to the railing at the edge of the patio and stood there with our hands over our hearts while we watched an AC-119 gunship taxi for take-off.
The miracle happened: it did fly, but instead of turning right in the traffic pattern, it turned left and continued to climb -- and turned off its lights. Someone said, "Oh ho! Keep your eye on that aircraft!" We walked around the patio next to the railing and watched. It was easy to see the aircraft, even though it was painted black, because it was silhouetted against the sunset.
About 10 miles northwest of us, the gunship went into a left turn, and as it came around, almost completing a circle, it opened fire -- a very dramatic conical shower of tracers focused on a point on the ground. I wished I had a camera. There were a lot of exclamations from the men: "Somebody just caught hell out there!" "I'm glad I wasn't under that!" "I wonder what he was shooting at." I thought, "Hmm ... that was pretty close to Luong Giang. I hope he wasn't shooting at them."
After I returned to my hootch, I got a phone call from Province Headquarters: "The Deputy Province Chief invites you to accompany him to Luong Giang tomorrow for honors." Honors? "Yes, to honor the people of Luong Giang hamlet." I asked if they were alright, and was told, "Yes, yes, very good. Helicopter to pick you up tomorrow at oh eight hundred hours."
Tue 28 Apr - Met a VNAF Huey at the landing pad just outside the main gate, next to the Cham Temple. Five Vietnamese officials including the Deputy Province Chief were already aboard. When we got to Luong Giang, there were a lot of Regional Forces trucks and troops around the hamlet.
Montagnards are normally taciturn people, hardly ever saying much, but not this time. They were all talking at once and pointing at the sky, and the kids were doing somersaults and cartwheels.
A Vietnamese Captain told me what happened. About 35 North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops approached the hamlet, perhaps expecting to be welcomed. They were heavily armed with AK-47s, satchel charges, machine guns, 82mm mortars, and a 57mm recoilless rifle that could have done significant damage to aircraft on the flight line at Phan Rang, which was apparently where they were headed. Someone in the hamlet saw them and sounded an alarm, and either the people or the NVA opened fire, he wasn't sure which. The hamlet chief realized they were in over their heads and radioed for help. Province Headquarters dispatched two companies of Regional Forces in trucks, and called the base. In only a few minutes, there was a rain of fire from the sky and the NVA were finished. None of the hamlet people were hit. The Captain said it was a good thing the gunship arrived as quickly as it did, because the hamlet could not have survived very long. [I heard later that the AC-119 was already taxiing for takeoff when they got the call, "Troops in contact, ten miles northwest, you're cleared to fire."]
Province officials thanked the people of the hamlet for what they did, and presented them with more M-16's and ammunition, many cases of Vietnamese rations, several bundles of cut-down fatigues from the base, and a bunch of bright-colored streamers for their flagpole. I thanked them for saving the base from being attacked.
When the ceremonies were over, I started to go look at the area where the NVA had been, but the Vietnamese Captain said, "You don't want to go out there, Thieu Ta (Major) ... get your boots all muddy." I knew what he meant. I didn't go out there, but I stood on top of the berm and looked. The gunship firing pass was perfect. The closest hits were about 40 yards from the berm, and if any of the NVA survived, they were long gone before the Regional Forces arrived.