Lt. Fred Buckingham flew his C-130 “Hercules,” four-engine transport plane to Vietnam just in time for the North Vietnamese Army’s siege of the Marine base at Khe Sanh, the biggest single battle of the war, and the enemy’s massive Tet Offensive, where every major city and many American military bases were attacked in a countrywide coordinated assault.
For his efforts to resupply the beleaguered Leathernecks at their fire base during the 77 day siege of Khe Sanh, Buckingham received the Distinguished Flying Cross. His job: Parachute supplies to the Marines under siege conditions.
“I was over there when Khe Sanh was being shelled and overrun by the NVA (North Vietnamese Army)” Buckingham said. “The runway at the Marine base wasn’t usable, so we had to drop everything into them on pallets.
“We were lucky in one respect, the weather had a pretty low ceiling and we had low visibility. I’d stay in the weather until we were within a mile of Khe Sanh, then I’d come out of the weather, drop my load on parachutes at 500 feet and quickly climb back into the clouds,” he explained.
“The food, ammunition and other supplies were stacked on little wooden pallets. We could off-load 22 pallets at a time with one pass over the runway,” Buckingham said. “Everyone one of our pallets hit the right spot and were recovered by the Marines.
“I made two or three air drops a day for two or three days. We had a couple of small arms hits on our airplane from enemy ground fire, but nothing that caused serious damage,” he said. “We were very fortunate because we could stay up in the weather and they couldn’t see us.”
Khe Sanh wasn’t Buckingham’s only hazardous duty during his Vietnam tour in 1967-68.
“We were off-loading our cargo at Da Nang when our base came under attack from enemy mortar fire. I made the decision to get the heck out of there, but one of our engines on my C-130 didn’t start on takeoff,” he said. “Fortunately the engine that wouldn’t start was an inboard engine, so that made it less critical.
“I feathered the engine on takeoff and we flew back to Cam Rahn Bay without incident. I think we told them I shut down the engine in flight,” Buckingham said with a smile 40 years later.
He flew back to Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas from his tour in Vietnam in 1968 a captain in the Air Force.
Just by chance, Buckingham learned about a test program on the Boeing designed YC-14 prototype jet transport being flown at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He signed up as a test pilot in 1976. Because of his hundreds of hours in the air flying a C-130 transport, Buckingham was just what the Air Force was looking for. By this time he was a major.
“The YC-14 was a short landing and takeoff airplane that was bigger than the C-130 and capable of taking an M-1 Abraham’s tank. I began testing the airplane at Edwards. Two months before the Paris Air Show Boeing’s chief test pilot had a heart attack and was grounded,” he said. “Boeing convinced the Secretary of the Air Force that I should fly the airplane at the air show.”
This new transport was a big deal for Boeing. It was originally scheduled to take the place of the C-130 that was not only used by the U.S. Air Force as one of its primary transport planes, but it was also used by a number of this country’s allies.
Only two YC-14s were ever built by Boeing. The transport got caught in Congressional budget battles in Washington and never made it to fruition. However, many of the advancements used in the YC-14 were built into this country’s latest transport plane the C-17 Globemaster III transport.
In November 1980, Buckingham, who was a colonel by then, was sent to Yokota Air Base, Japan as commander of the 345th Airlift Squadron. After coming back to the States and spending two years at the Pentagon, he was reassigned in 1986 as commander of the 317th Tactical Airlift Wing at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas. A couple of years later he made brigadier general while serving as vice-commander of the 21st Air Force base headquarters at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey two years after that.
In December 1989 Buckingham and his airlift wing participated in “Operation Just Cause.” This was the invasion of Panama by U.S.forces to bring down the dictatorship of Gen. Manuel Noriega.
“We arrested him for drug trafficking and used one of my C-130s to fly Noriega out of the country to Miami,” he said. I was the airlift commander for ‘Operation Just Cause.'”
The following year Gen.Buckingham was also airlift commander for “Operation Desert Shield,” the first invasion of Iraq in August 1990 which was the beginning of the First Gulf War under the leadership of President George H.W. Bush.
In 1994 he retired from the Air Force after 30 years of service. At the time Buckingham was the commander of the 314th Airlift Wing based at Little Rock, Ark.
He and wife, Diane, moved to Punta Gorda Isles that same year. Since moving there, Buckingham has served on the Board of Directors and later as chairman of the Florida International Air Show that holds an annual fly-in at the Port Charlotte airport.
He and his wife have one son, Todd, who manages a Wal-Mart Store in Texas.
Name: Frederick Noel Buckingham
D.O.B: 24 Dec. 1941
Hometown: Kendallville, Ind.
Current: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: 11 July 1964
Discharged: June 1994
Rank: Brigadier General
Last Assignment: 314th Airlift Wing, Little Rock Air Force Base, Little Rock, Ark.
Commendations: Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with five Silver Oak Leaf, Meritorious Service Medal with three Oak Leaf clusters, Vietnam Service Medal with two Service Stars, Southwest Asia Service Medal with one Service Star, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm
Battles/Campaigns: Vietnam – Khe Sanh, Tet Offensive
This story first appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, June 27, 2011. Republished with permission.
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