The C-141, Lockheed's High Speed Flying Truck
by Harold H. Martin
Back to the World
FLYING WEST from Hawaii to Okinawa, the route of the Star-Lifter lies past Midway, Wake, and Iwo Jima, names burned into the memory of an older generation of Americans. Now they are merely checkpoints on the mid-Pacific flyway, with Wake an occasional rest or fuel stop for an outbound crew, who remember it chiefly for the fact that its transient crew billets are air conditioned, their windows painted black, and that from the Drifters Reef bar, which is open to the winds, some of the world's most glorious sunsets may be observed. But it was at Wake, the lonely sentinel island, that a garrison of fewer than five hundred Marines thrilled and inspired a stunned nation by hurling back a Japanese attack while the dead at Pearl Harbor were still being buried-a display of valor that set the pattern for the war to come. John Dos Passos called tiny Midway the Stalingrad of the Pacific. Here the Japanese fleet was turned back in a great air and sea battle from which Japan never recovered. And at Iwo was fought one of the bitterest and bloodiest battles in all the history of war.
Now, nearly thirty years later, as the big StarLifter streaks west in support of another war, Iwo's eight square miles of sand and rock show like a brownish-gray stain on the blue sea ahead of us. It is shaped, as memory recalls it, like a pork chop, with the flat-topped hump of Mt. Suribachi, the Hot Rock, showing at the bony end.
Now all is peaceful here. From 35,000 feet the air strip is a thin black line; the tiny buildings beside it look deserted. The blue sea creams against the steep-slanted beaches of black canic ash that once were slippery with the blood of dead Marines, and rust has long since dissolved into the sea the iron-hulled ships that brought them here. Only the bone-white scars where bombs and naval guns blasted away the surface cover down to the skeleton of the underlying rocks bear witness to the power of the bombardment that fell here. Never before in war had so much high explosive been concentrated in so small a space, and nowhere did so many men lose their lives on such a restricted battlefield. Of three divisions of Marines, 5563 were killed and 17,000 wounded; 21,000 Japanese died in twenty-six days of fighting here. Even after the island had been officially "secured," the dying continued. Weeks after the battle was over Japanese crept from hidden tunnels to cut the throats of sleeping Air Corps replacement pilots, staging through Iwo en route to Okinawa.
Jwo was costly, but it had to be taken, and in the long run it saved more lives than it had cost. Long-range fighters were based there that protected the Superforts, flying out of Saipan to bomb Tokyo, and crippled B-29's that never could have lasted for the long journey to the Marianas limped back the six hundred miles to Iwo. More than 2400 of them made emergency landings there, saving the lives of an estimated 26,000 airmen.
When the war was over, Iwo's usefulness was ended. We walked off and left it-a speck in the empty ocean, guarded now only by the ghosts of its dead and a tiny Japanese security force. So Iwo is now forgotten. But there was a time when all our seaborne strength, all our courage and valor and sense of purpose, all of our fighting will and resolution came into focus on this scarred rock. To that high moment in our history, it is still a monument.
Half the crew of this StarLifter were still unborn when the battle for Iwo was fought, and the others were not yet in their teens. They could not know therefore, how greatly the national attitude had changed from that war to this when, after their crew rest at Okinawa, they were given their on-going mission.
In the dark of a moonless night the aircraft commander came out of the command post to where his sleepy-eyed crew waited on the ramp, beside the aircraft they would take wherever their new orders read.
"Gentlemen," he began, "we have been highly honored," and his tone was half-serious, half-mocking. "We have been chosen to take into Bien Hoa support equipment for ALCE, the Airlift Control Element that will start bringing out the troops who are being withdrawn from the fighting there. We may even bring back one of the first loads ourselves, thus serving as instruments of our national policy, and giving our direct personal support to the President's plan to de-escalate the war. That de-escalating the war sounds good to me. Particularly while at Bien Hoa." He took from his trip kit the little book that gives background guidance on all airstrips where MAC planes can land. " 'There are no bunker facilities on the aircraft parking ramps at Bien Hoa/ " he read. " 'In the event of rocket attack, personnel should lie flat on the ground and cover their heads with their arms. On the west ramp, there is a drainage ditch between the ramp and the taxiway which offers some protection, if it can be reached before the initial impact.' But don't try to outrun a rocket to a protected area. Have a good flight."
"Yeah," the navigator replied. "And happy landings in that drainage ditch. .. ."
Two hours later, checked out and ready, the StarLifter braked to a stop at the head of the taxiway and waited, engines idling, while the pilots watched with professional eye the sleek contract jet lining up for takeoff ahead of them.
"Let's see how much that ground-loving hog will eat up before he gets off," the pilot said. The passenger plane began to roll, diminishing rapidly into the distance. Silently, the pilots watched.
"He's used eight thousand now and he's still on the ground," the pilot said. "I'd be thinking about doing some flying right about now."
"He's taking the scenic drive all right," the copilot said. Silence again, and tension, and then, in unison-"He's off!" Their relief was obvious.
"I envy the head guru on that thing when we are up around thirty-five thousand and he waves at me as he goes by," the pilot said. "All that speed and all those pretty stewardae to ogle, and bring him coffee. Down here, I'd rather be me."
"Down here, he would, too," the copilot said. "He was using up runway fast."
"I remember once coming out of Kimpo," the pilot said, "the Korean controller cleared us for takeoff and then told us to report passing five thousand feet. I started pushing everything forward as soon as I got the clearance, and by the time he had finished his transmission J gave him the tail number and said, 'Passing, five thousand now/ which we were, and he said, 'Say again?' and I said, 'Passing seven thousand five hundred now,' and he said, loud this time, 'Say again?' and I said, 'Eight thousand five hundred now/ and then there was a long pause as if he was trying to figure out whether or not somebody was pulling his leg. Then he said, very curtly, 'Good day to you, sir.' That was early in the war and not too many T-tails had been in there and we were going out very light."
The radio sputtered a clearance and the StarLifter turned and leaped forward like a spurred horse. In seconds the copilot called, "Rotate," and there was still nearly a mile of runway left when the plane broke ground.
Late that afternoon ninety-four men of the Third Battalion of the Sixtieth Regiment of the Ninth Infantry Division filed silently into the passenger terminal at Yokota. Lean and sunburned and quiet, except for the lack of bandages and casts they could have been walking wounded, for they had the same dazed, stunned look, the wondering stare. Yesterday, all around them had been the familiar things an infantry soldier knows, the sandbagged hole where he slept at night with his weapon close at hand if he was on the line, the crowded squad tent with its tilted cots if he was a headquarters soldier. The trail in the jungle, the wary watching for booby traps. His wrinkled greens, dug out of the bottom of a duffel bag, were clean, but, though he had washed, the grime of the foxhole was still ground into his skin, and he still had the classic aroma of the line GI, the blended smell of tobacco, gunpowder, C-rations, and sweat.
Now all around him, unexpectedly, unbelievably, is the peacetime world with all its alluring riches. Still half incredulous, he reaches out with monev in his hand, and in a few minutes the little souvenir shop in the passenger terminal is almost sold out of its garish wares. But first, as if putting the mirage to the supreme test, he gives himself a treat. He buys a mammoth double-malt and slurps it hungrily while a little Japanese boy puts a high shine on the leather of his jungle boots. Then, for his mother and his girl he buys hostess coats of silk in violent greens and yellows, with red or purple dragons embroidered on their backs, wall hangings of velvet, with scenes of Mount Fuji, and tigers, and flying cranes, and all sorts of ornaments of pearl- earrings and necklaces and brooches and pins for his mother and his sisters, and tieclasps and cufflinks for his father and his brothers, from which, unluckily, the pearls will soon fall out. He buys paintings on silk of geisha girls and the seasons of the rice harvest, and then, if he has money left, he buys himself a camera and a watch.
He is shivering a little as he goes out to the plane that will take him home, for he has left a hot and steamy place, and in Japan the rainy days are cool.
A McChord crew mans the aircraft that takes the first load home, the aircraft commander a big-shouldered, gray-haired lieutenant colonel with a strong jaw, a soft voice, and a courteous manner. An old SAC commander who started flying B-29's when he was nineteen years old, he is rounding out twenty-seven years in the Air Force. He has 3000 hours in the StarLifter, and only once in all that time has he had to shut down an engine. The day before, bringing an air-evac plane, a Travis aircraft, in from Cam Ranh Bay to Yokota, the No. 3 engine had started losing oil.
"No sweat, though," he says. "It's a great old bird and it goes along as safely on three engines as on four."
"The plane has a lot of faults," he says, "but they are all minor." The curtain around the crew bunks on the flight deck, for example, is hard for a man to manipulate while lying on his back. The stool the navigator stands on to take his star shots is a Mickey-Mouse rig unworthy of a multimillion dollar airplane. The pilots' seats leave your tail numb after a while. MAC sent Warner Robins a request that Air Logistics Command develop a more comfortable seat. The answer came back that any seat would leave the pilot's tail numb if he sat in it too long. He should get up and move around now and then.
A tired crew grumbles about little things like this and the colonel and his crew were tired. They'd been flying steadily for a week. The first day they'd flown fifteen and a half hours, from McChord to Travis to Hickam to Wake to Yokota. They had rested twelve hours and then drawn the run the pilots call the trash-hauler-the Japan-Korea shuttle from Yokota to Mishawa to Taegu to Osan and back to Yokota again. The third day had taken them from Yokota back to Taegu, and then to Yokota for a quick stop before going on to Clark, in the Philippines, to rest. From Clark the next day they had flown to Tan Son Nhut and then back to Clark to pick up an air-evac and take it into Cam Ranh Bay and bring a load of wounded out to Yokota. So far, they had spent forty-two and a half hours in the air, with at least two more hours in the plane every day getting it ready to fly. Now, ahead of them lay the last long grind-ten hours from Yokota to Seattle, where the bands and the brass would be waiting to welcome the troops that were coming home. This was longer than it usually took to fly this northern route nonstop to McChord. But with all the big shots waiting, the navigator knew he had to make his blocks on time, so he had thoughtfully cranked into his computations a full half-hour of padding.
In the chair back of the navigator's desk, the loadmaster filled out his last form and spoke to the AC on the intercom. "We can take off now, sir," he said. "The weight of the paper work is now equal to the cargo weight." It was an old gag, but the colonel smiled. "Roger, load," he said. "When you brief the passengers, tell them once we are at cruise, they can come up two at a time to take a look around if they like."
Back in the cabin the loadmaster blew in the PA system and asked for attention. He got it. Air Force personnel would have drowsed through the routine announcement they had heard so many times before. But these were Army troops, unused to flying, and this new environment, in which they suddenly found themselves shut up in a metal cocoon, their nerves assailed by an unending screech and whine and hissing, was almost as strange and frightening to them as night in the Vietnam jungles once
Back to the World/777
had been. The announcement was reassuring-flying time ten hours . . . altitude 35,000 . . . good weather all the way ... no smoking until permitted, no smoking any time in the aisles . . . oxygen available . . . coffee soon . . . chow later. . . .
In the dim yellow light, as the plane lifted off, the troops opened up the presents, bought so hastily in Yokota, looked at them, felt of them, and then wrapped them clumsily up again. Aft, toward the cargo ramp, the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Peter B. Petersen, of Arlington, Virginia, a lean, blond, self-assured man, read over the brief speech he had prepared for their landing. ". . . It is a wonderful thing to command the first battalion returning from Vietnam. These eight hundred and fourteen men of the Third Battalion, Sixtieth Infantry, of the Ninth Infantry' Division, are representative of the young men America has placed in Vietnam. Each has met trial and challenge with maturity and valor. They have done a superb job in the defense of their country's objectives and for free men everywhere. The American people can rightly be proud of them as I am proud of them. The Old Reliables thank you with all the means at our command. . . . God bless you all."
Behind him in the darkened plane his troops sprawled in the lean-back seats. Shoes kicked off, blanket wrapped, twisted into odd shapes, they looked less like proud warriors going home to a triumphant welcome than tired boys asleep. They had fought in Kenwa Province in the Mekong Delta, the colonel said, and they had fought well. They had been an aggressive battalion. In the six months just past, they had killed 1200 of the enemy. But the body count wasn't the main thing. The main objective was good soldiering. If your tactical maneuvers are good, the body count will take care of itself. Your own losses will be very light, the enemy's more than he can bear. Now in Kenwa Province where they had fought, the enemy had been almost wiped out.
Forward on the darkened flight deck the pilots watched a sliver of moon, a golden sickle, climb up the sky over America- "the world" to the sleeping troops. The word got back to the cabin, and singly or by twos, the men began to come up. Moving cautiously in the strange surroundings, half naked or in T-shirts, they climbed the short ladder to the flight deck and stood peering
about them in the dark, looking, listening, like men on patrol in enemy country, like cats in a strange house, sniffing into every corner, ready to jump.
Visitors relieve the tedium of the long night flights and the flight crews are happy to explain their specialties to anyone who will listen. The flight engineer flicks the switches that make his panel glow in the dark like a Christmas tree. The navigator demonstrates his black arts. The pilots explain how the automatic pilot makes the tiny adjustments that keep the plane in straight and level flight. The troops slide into the jump seat at the pilot's elbow, peering into the darkness ahead as if hungry for the sight of home. Their interest in the plane is perfunctory, their questions simple. "How far is it from Nam to the world?" Sixty-five hundred miles. "How much further still to go?" Five hours more.
The visitors dwindle away and on the flight deck the talk begins. As always, it ranges the world. McChord crews fly the Antarctic run and they speak with nostalgic fondness of the crew rests there. They also fly the cold and gloomy "garbage run" from Elmendorf down the Aleutians, taking fresh fruits and vegetables and the mail to the Air Force at Shemya and the Navy at Adak. Sardonic comments in the guest book at the BOQ at Shemya reflect the disenchantment of MAC crews that have been fogged in there. Under "Reason for Visit" some disgruntled lieutenant wrote "Honeymoon." Another, "Weather below minimums at Lages"-Lages being an air base in the Azores, half a world away and in another ocean. A yellowing memo, obviously apocryphal, says, "Second Lt. Curtis LeMay was here, testing the ultimate weapon, the C-124."
Gloomy and fogbound as this run may be, once it is over, the pilots who hate it for its boredom take a sort of somber pride in having made it, as if they had flown some mission beyond the call of duty. "You go in there with a little bag of mail and some oranges and the guys stationed out there act like they want to kiss you," the loadmaster said.
When flying west to east, the sun leaps like a rocket from the rim of the sea and the pearly light of dawn turns swiftly into the bright glare of day. Back in the cabin, the loadmaster serves breakfast. Somebody goofed at Yokota, and Fleet Service loaded on sliced breast of turkey, sweet potato souffle", and mixed vegetables-the same meal the troops were served as they came out of Saigon the day before. There were no protests. If the troops, their taste buds tuned to C-rations, felt it a hardship to have turkey twice in a row, they gave no sign of it. They gave no sign of any emotion, neither anger nor joy nor eagerness. Tousle-haired, dull-eyed, humped and limping after their cramped sleep, they picked up their trays, took them to their seats, and ate voraciously.
Now the plane is beginning its long glide down to McChord and the loadmaster is on the intercom, announcing the landing. The pilot paints it on, smoothly, and before the troops know quite what is happening, they are moving down the ramp into the glare of the sun and the blare of band music and the shouts of a crowd waving banners that say, "Welcome Back to the World." They line up on their guidon, looking rumpled and unmilitary in their slept-in greens, with their bags and bundles of gifts in their hands. Awkwardly and hastily they put them down and salute, as General Westmorland, the Army Chief of Staff and an old Vietnam hand himself, steps up to shake their hands. Then the bands strike up a march tune and they pick up their packages and move off smartly, past an honor guard. They line up before the stand where the dignitaries wait, including a trio of beauty queens, at whom they stare, mouths agape. To one side, in bleachers, waits a clamorous group of welcomers, a few of whom are families looking hopefully for sons and brothers in the ranks.
The commanding general at Fort Lewis presents the Chief of Staff, and Westmoreland, lean and gray and hard-jawed, tells them that they can stand tall, they can look any man in the eye, for they have served their country when they were called. They have done their duty, when other men stood idly by and talked and demonstrated. The Vietnamese ambassador, Bui Diem, thanks them from the bottom of his heart for what they have done to save his country. It is now time for their own commander to make the little speech he put together on the plane. He thanks General Westmoreland for all the things he has said
in praise of the Third Battalion, and declares that the whole country could be proud of these men, as he is proud of them. And that is all.
The men break ranks, mingling with the crowds and making their way hungrily toward the beauties. Behind them, more StarLifters are landing, bringing the rest of their buddies home.
The speeches, the bands, the banners, and the cheers had made of this troop withdrawal a seeming triumph, the welcoming home of a conquering army after victory in war. This obviously was not so. The only clear victory that had been won was each man's personal victory over his own doubts and fears. There was present, too, a mood of hope-the hope that this gesture of conciliation would open the door to peace. This, too, was an illusion.
There was one pointed truth, however, about the whole exercise, which neither friend nor foe could overlook. If a fleet of airlift planes could transport a force of fighting men 6500 miles in less than eighteen hours as they left a combat zone-it obviously could fly them into battle at equal speed.