May 24, 2019

Memorial Day 2019

As I do most years, I write an article for Memorial Day discussing my thoughts on those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this country.

It is my way of reminding everyone that although the Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial beginning of the summer season and is a great opportunity to pick up appliances on sale at the local big-box store, the day is meant to pay tribute to those who went off to fight our wars, but did not return.

Since the Revolutionary War, over 1,100,000 Americans have died in our wars. Almost 100,000 of those were on my watch (1970-1998). That's too many.

The photograph above is a compilation of the 17 members of the 6994th Security Squadron who were killed in action in the skies of Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. All of them were aircrew members on EC-47 reconnaissance aircraft, affectionately called by those who flew on, and loved, them - "Electric Goons."

The unofficial nickname is based on the E designator for "electronic" and the common nickname of the DC-3/C-47 Skytrain, the "Gooney Bird." Note the tail numbers of the aircraft listed below - the first two digits indicate the year the aircraft was procured, in these cases by the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1943 through 1945.

EC-47 "Electric Goons" over Vietnam

These 17 airmen were communications intercept operators and analysts, monitoring Morse code and voice communications between Viet Cong (VC) units, and later communications of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). That required the linguists to be trained in the Hanoi dialect of Vietnamese, markedly different from the dialect spoken in South Vietnam.

The aircrews, operating as a team on multiple aircraft, were able to locate VC and NVA units by employing a technique known as airborne radio direction finding (ARDF) - basically triangulating the signals. Once an emitter of interest was detected, operators on multiple aircraft would all take "cuts" on the signal, passing the data to the navigators who plotted the location of the target. The resulting intelligence - target coordinates - was passed on to battle managers who more often than not directed air strikes at those locations. It was an effective mission.

Monitoring these communications mostly transmitted on low-power radios, required the mission aircraft to operate at low altitudes and low speeds - the EC-47, the electronic reconnaissance version of the venerable C-47 aircraft of World War II fame, was a perfect airframe for the mission.

Operating over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia at low altitudes searching for low-power radio signals is inherently dangerous. A slow lumbering vintage EC-47 aircraft was an easy target for enemy gunners. By the later years of the war, the NVA had moved highly-lethal Soviet-made 37mm antiaircraft guns into South Vietnam and Laos. We believe that at least two of the losses detailed below involved a 37mm gun.

These aircraft losses resulted in squadron deaths. These do not include the "front-end" crews of the 460th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing and its three subordinate squadrons - the no-nonsense pilots, navigators, and engineers who got us into the target areas. Many of them also paid the ultimate price.

- EC-47P tail number 43-49201 / March 9, 1967 / callsign Tide 86 / Nha Trang AB, Vietnam / three 6994th Security Squadron members killed

- EC-47Q tail number 45-1133 / February 5, 1969 / callsign
Cap 72 / Pleiku AB, Vietnam / five 6994th Security Squadron members killed

- EC-47P tail number 43-49100 / October 8, 1969 / callsign
Prong 33 / Phu Cat AB, Vietnam / two 6994th Security Squadron members killed

- EC-47P tail number 43-48402 / April 22, 1970 / callsign Cap 53 / Pleiku AB, Vietnam / one 6994th Security Squadron member killed

- EC-47Q tail number 43-49771 / November 21, 1972 / callsign Baron 56 / Nakhon Phanom AB, Thailand / one 6994th Security Squadron member killed

- EC-47Q tail number 43-48636 / February 5, 1973 / callsign Baron 52 / Nakhon Phanom AB, Thailand / five 6994th Security Squadron members killed

These seventeen airmen gave their lives in service to the country. I wish all of you a pleasant weekend - there is nothing wrong with enjoying time with family and friends.

I would ask, however, that at some point, take a moment and remember what this holiday is about.