Lt. Col. Doug Gilchrist was flying a four-engine C-130 Hercules cargo plane, used as a command ship, from a base in Thailand over North Vietnam when he came as close to “buying the farm” as he did during any of his 102 combat missions over enemy territory during the Vietnam War.
He served in the 376 Air Transport Wing, part of the Tactical Air Command, supplying Green Berets on the ground with ammunition and supplies. It was 1967 and conditions in Vietnam were heating up for both sides.
“We were orbiting over the Green Berets when our controller started talking to us: ‘This is Hotel. Bandits, Bing 135.’ Hotel was our controller and Bing was Hanoi. What he was saying was, ‘MIG (fighters) were coming our way from Hanoi on a compass heading of 135 degrees.
“I didn’t pay much attention because we heard that kinda stuff all the time on the radio,” Gilchrist said four decades later. “Then our controller said: ‘This is Hotel, Bandits, Bing 135 at 25.’
“It was then I realized the MIGs were 40 miles away and would be on top of us in a couple of minutes,” he said. “I radioed our controller: ‘Leaving station. Headed for deck.’
“I chopped the power and started wondering around among the trees in the valley below. I went from 25,000 feet to 1,500 feet in a hurry. The MIGs flew right over us.
“In the meantime our controller called in air support. A short time later the Air Force showed up with their F-104s (fighters). That’s the last we saw of the MIGs,” Gilchrist added. “I was glad to see those Air Force boys show up.”
This wasn’t the only incident where he ran into hot spots fighting in the Southeast Asia war.
“I was involved with the first serious siege of Khe Sanh. The Marines were surrounded by the enemy and we were flying in ammo, food, water and gas to them,” he said. “Every time a C-130 would show up Charlie would throw everything but the kitchen sink at us.
“We’d land at Khe Sanh and turn off the runway onto the taxi-way. As we started down the taxi-way the loadmaster aboard our plane would open the tail gate and push everything out the rear while we were still taxiing,” Gilchrist explained.
“A C-130 was like a magnet to the NVA (North Vietnamese Army). “Several times enemy mortar fire followed us down the runway before we took off again,” he said. “We never got hit. It was like our plane was in a plastic bubble. I never got one scratch on any of the planes I flew and no crew member or passenger was ever wounded either.”
The NVA’s 325 Division was northwest of Khe Sanh. There were also two more division of the NVA in the area. The 320th Division was northeast of the Marine’s base. More NVA troops–the 304th Division–was waiting as reserve in eastern Laos.
Gen. William Westmoreland, the American commander in Vietnam, and Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, commander of the NVA troops attacking the base, went head-to-head.
Some 40,000 enemy soldiers, with considerable fire power, attacked the Marine base and overran the Special Forces Camp at Lang Vei in January 1968. The 304th NVA Division made a frontal assault on the 34th ARVIN Ranger Battalion that held its ground and stopped the enemy’s charge.
The U.S. 1st Cavalry relieved the siege at Khe Sanh and reopened Road-9. The NVA melted away to fight another day.
After 15 months Gilchrist left Vietnam and thought he was going to finish up his career in the service at Hickam Field in Honolulu, Hawaii because he had pulled some strings to get there. It didn’t happen.
“I was relocated to Castle Air Force Base in California which didn’t seem too bad until I found out I was going to be retrained to fly a B-52 bomber for SAC (Strategic Air Command). It was 1969 and the Cold War was on,” he said. “Unfortunately I wound up at T. I. Sawyer, a SAC base on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where it snows 144 inches in the winter,” he recalled.
To make matters worse, Gilchrist’s assignment was to fly along the Russian border in the arctic armed with two nuclear missiles on the wings of his B-52 and two more bombs with multiple warheads internally.
“I had a specific target to bomb in Russia. We’d go up and fly along the Russian coast. Ever half hour we’d get a message from SAC command. If the message was meaningless we kept orbiting. If we received a coded verification we’d change direction and fly into Russia to bomb our target,” Gilchrist said.
“If we had attacked Russia we would have come in at 200 feet to drop our bombs and fire our miscalls,” he said. “We had detailed charts of the terrain we studied for years. We knew every last bush and could fly the route if everything electrical went out in our B-52.”
He was lucky. That coded verification was never received. He never made that fateful flight.
In 1972 Gilchrist, a lieutenant colonel, retired from the Air Force after 22 years, six months and two days. He and his wife, Carol, moved down to South Gulf Cove, west of Port Charlotte in 2002. He has four grown daughters from a first marriage: Glenda, Patricia, Christi and Katherine. He also has 12 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Name: Douglas Walter Gilchrist
D.O.B: 1 May 1929
Hometown: Kalispell, Mont.
Current: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: 16 Sept. 1953
Discharged: 31 March 1972
Rank: Lieutenant Colonel
Unit: 42nd Bomb Group, Military Transport Service, Strategic Air Command,
Commendations: Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters
Battles/Campaigns: Korea, Vietnam, Cold War
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla, on Monday, Nov. 29, 2010 and is republished with permission.
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