Joe Comeaux of Punta Gorda got out of high school in ’69, just in time for the last of the Vietnam War.
“I was in ROTC in college taking pilot’s training. I was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in the Air Force in May 1973 after soloing in a T-38 jet trainer at Craig Air Force Base in Selma, Ala.,” the 63-year-old local resident said. “I ended up flying C-130 (Lockheed-Hercules) four-engine turboprop transports.
“My first active duty station was Clark Air Force Base the Philippines. I was in the 776 Tactical Airlift Squadron, part of the Pacific Air Force,” he explained. “We did all kinds of things, but mostly we dropped cargo to the troops in Vietnam.”
Six weeks later the war in Vietnam was over. For 2nd Lt. Comeaux it was an interesting 45 days.
“I participated in the evacuation of Saigon. Our squadron flew refugees out of Saigon to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines and on to Guam,” he said. “Technically we weren’t going to Vietnam. I have no Vietnam ribbons to show I was there.
“On my early flights to Saigon I was a ‘door gunner.’ What I did, I was armed with a flare gun. I would hang out the window of the C-130 and scan the ground for SAM missiles being fired our way. If I saw one I’d yell to the pilot and he’d try and break in the opposite direction. I would fire my flare pistol toward the SAM and hope it chased the flare instead of our airplane,” Comeaux explained.
“I use to joke about my flare gun experience because my last job was working as a civilian for the Secretary of the Air Force managing a program called Large Aircraft Infrared Counter Measures. What we did was put infrared systems on large airplanes to protect them from enemy missiles. I’d tell people, I started out in this program in Vietnam and in those days all I had was a flare gun.”
“We would fly into Saigon at night. We’d come in at 10,000 feet and spiral down to the field. What we did was roll in on a 45-degree bank.
“We’d fly back from Vietnam in our C-130 loaded with Vietnam refugees. We’d put more than 200 refugees on floor mats. On one trip a flight had more than 300 people aboard,” he said. We’d have as many people sitting on the floor as we could get in the plane. Then we’d put cargo straps over them to try and hold them in place.”
A C-130 was capable of flying 60 paratroopers and their equipment to a drop zone. On the flights out of Saigon with the refugees they took upwards of five times that many.
Comeaux recalled that a C-130 from an Air Force Reserve squadron made the cover of Time magazine when it blew up on the runway at the airport in Saigon.
“They were flying in ‘Daisy Cutter,’ 10,000 pound bombs to be used against the North Vietnamese who ringed the capital city on the last day,” he said.”Unfortunately it was hit by a North Vietnamese mortar round and exploded on the runway. Somehow no one in the plane was killed.
“These guys in the C-130 that blew up after it was hit by an enemy mortar round were nominated for a Distinguished Flying Cross. Everyone just kinda laughed because they were getting a DFC for screwing up. They never got the award,” he said.
“We had an unspoken thing with the North Vietnamese. They would lay off taking the airport while we were flying refugees out. These were people they wouldn’t have to deal with after taking over the country if we hadn’t flown them out in our C-130s.”
Comeaux said the flights they made to Saigon on the last day weren’t nearly as hazardous as the ones the helicopter pilots flew during the final hours before the North Vietnamese took control of the city. The chopper pilots flew refugees to U.S. aircraft carriers waiting off the coast of South Vietnam. The people in the helicopters had a much greater chance of being killed by enemy fire than those on the C-130 flights.
After Vietnam, Comeaux was reassigned to Pope Air Base next to Fort Bragg, S.C.–home of the 82nd Airborne Division.
“What we did there was train. We dropped the 82nd on various training missions until I was seasick,” he said. “We were also involved in the Granada invasion and we almost invaded Angola by dropping the 82nd.
“I flew a lot of missions to Central America. Some of them were Special Ops missions, he said. “This was around 1979 when we were flying equipment into to airports in Central America. Someone would meet us at the airport and take the equipment.”
Possibly the deadliest mission Comeaux took part in happened about the time of Marshal Tito’s death in 1980 and the crumbling of Yugoslavia into a number of individual countries. By that time he was a lieutenant colonel working as an air traffic controller. He took part in a UN mission over there as the UN commander of the communications part of the mission.
“I worked with a bunch of good people including a one-star Marine general named Jim Jones, who was my immediate boss. He later became Commandant of the Marine Corps,” he recalled.
“It was kinda of a strange peace keeping operation that came after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was part of the Air Force component working out of Belgrade, Yugoslavia. We wore blue flak jackets, blue helmets and carried M-16 rifles. We rode around in white Blackhawk helicopter with UN in black painted on its side with a big, black .50 cal hanging out its door.
“There was serious genocide in these little countries Tito had controlled. Tens of thousands of people were killed.
“Although we didn’t stray off the concrete because of the many cluster bombs an land mines left behind, we were involved in dropping munitions to our people who were trying to keep the peace. We got hostile fire pay,” Comeaux explained.
The last three years of his 24 year Air Force career, were spent working at Andrews Air Force Base, outside Washington, D.C., as Director of International Programs. He was in charge of helping set up the Ops and Air Traffic Control programs for the Air Force.
On 1 Feb. 1998, Lt. Col. Joe Comeaux retired from the Air Force. He immediately went to work for the Airline Pilots Association, then he obtained a position with Delta Airlines and his last job was working as a civilian securement specialist for the Secretary of the Air Force. He retired from this position in June.
Joe and his wife, Theresa, just moved to Punta Gorda Isles. They have a son, Matthew, who lives in San Francisco.
Name: Joseph Jean Comeaux
D.O.B: 11 Aug. 1951
Hometown: Greenville, S.C.
Currently: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: 30 Oct. 1973
Discharged: 1 Feb. 1998
Rank: Lieutenant Colonel
Unit: 776 Tatical Airlift Squadron
Commendations: Air Force Commendation Medal, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal with four Oakleaf Clusters, Air Force Training Ribbon, Air Force Overseas Short Tour Ribbon, Air Force Overseas Long Tour Ribbon with one Oakleaf Cluster, National Defense Service Medal with one Oakleaf Cluster, Air Force Longevity Service Award with 5 Oakleaf Clusters, Humanitarian Service Medal with one Oakleaf Cluter, Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon, Combat readiness Medal, NATO Medal, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with Valor with eight Oakleaf Clusters, Joint Meritorious Unit Award with one Oakleaf Cluster.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014 and is republished with permission.
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