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Vietnam Voices: 'I certainly did not expect to be sent to a combat theater'

Vietnam Voices: 'I certainly did not expect to be sent to a combat theater'

From the Vietnam Voices: Veterans' stories, told in their voices series
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Greg Childs

Vietnam veteran Greg Childs was an Air Force pilot.

Greg Childs is a pilot and Vietnam War veteran. He entered the U.S. Air Force through the ROTC program in 1963. He went to grade school in Laurel. His family moved to North Dakota, where Childs attended high school. He went to North Dakota State University. 

Childs went to Air Force Flight School in Lubbock, Texas.

Gazette: How did you imagine your Air Force career in 1963?

Childs: "I certainly did not expect to be sent to a combat theater. I was quite surprised in the fall of 1965 when my wing was rotated into the Philippines to stage into Vietnam on a rotational basis."

Gazette: Let's talk about training for a pilot.

Childs: "It was a 13-month course. It was exceptionally intensive. We had the first 60 days, which was called 'pre-flight.' Then we went into primary training, which was in the little T37 twin-engine jet, and I remember the first time I looked in the cockpit of that twin-engine jet and said, 'Oh my goodness, what have I gotten into?' ... It was amazing all the switches and dials and instruments. We flew that for approximately five months, and then we advanced to the brand-new supersonic T38 Talon, which was the supersonic airplane with a service ceiling of 50,000 feet, so it was a real hot rod and it was brand new. I remember getting in one and it had only been on the base for days and one of the flight instructors had flown it. It had only been flown by that one flight instructor, and I sat in that airplane and looked around and said, 'My God, this is like a brand-new car.' It smelled new. I was the first student to fly it."

Gazette: What was it like flying your first supersonic jet?

Childs: "Super. It was extremely fast, high-performance. One day I was with the instructor, and he asked the mobile control unit if we could have a performance climb. It was kind of a cool morning, which airplanes like. We took off in burner, and he was flying, and I was just riding with my mouth open and he pointed that thing straight up. At 24,000 feet he rolled off on the wing and the runway was exactly below us. We had climbed to 24,000 feet, straight up. It was pretty high performance."

Gazette: What's that like going straight up, 24,000 feet?

Childs: "Nothing like carnival rides. Actually, carnival rides are more scary. I won't ride the roller coasters. It has to do when you're in a jet cockpit, you're in a very familiar place and you have walls around you and you feel very secure in an airplane, where in a roller coaster you're out there all by yourself."

Gazette: Then is it a matter of getting a lot of flight hours?

Childs: "You start off with an instructor. To shed a little light on how novice I was at flying, my first instructor was for what we called the 'dollar ride' because you didn't have to do anything. It was like you paid a dollar for the old barnstormer days. We took off, and we were climbing out at 250 knots, which was pretty slow for a jet airplane, and I looked over to my instructor and said, 'Golly, lieutenant, these clouds really go fast up here.' And I remember him closing his eyes and saying, 'This is going to be a long year, Childs.'

Gazette: Was it a long year?

Childs: "It was stressful. There were 12 steps for ejection in a T37, and we had to stand at attention and repeat those 12 sentences verbatim in front of the classroom, and you never knew when you'd be asked to say that, and that was just ejection. There were probably a dozen critical items that you had to know verbatim and repeat them exactly. There wasn't any 'ums' 'ahs' or 'ors.' It was verbatim, and it was very intense."

Gazette: What other experiences did you have flying before you joined the service?

Childs: "As far as my first trip, my first time in an airplane was right here in Billings on Runway 26. I sat in my daddy's lap, and he rented an airplane and pilot and we flew over Laurel. I came back some 35 years later and landing a Boeing 727 as aircraft commander on the same runway, so that was kind of a giant circle."

After training, the Pentagon made pilot assignments.

Childs: "The Pentagon comes down with assignments. They need so many pilots for fighters. They need so many pilots for transport. That could be strategic air command. They may need B52 pilots. So there are always one or two fighters and always one or two B52s that most of the guys did not want to fly."

Gazette: Why?

Childs: "That was strategic air command. Promotions were very slow, the missions were extremely boring, just flying along. Certainly flying the airplane was challenging, but it wasn't very interesting where you were going to go. You'd just go out and spend hours and hours boring holes in the sky."

Greg Childs

Vietnam veteran Greg Childs holds a photo of him next to a plane he flew during the war.

Childs was assigned to fly the C130 Hercules. Out of a graduating class of around 45, 35 of the pilots he trained with became Hercules pilots.

Gazette: Were you disappointed with that assignment?

Childs: "No, because I graduated just about the middle of my class. I knew I wasn't going to get a fighter slot because there were only three or four of those that came down. The Hercules was my second choice because it had a worldwide commitment. It was a tactical airplane as opposed to military air transport. Our mission was to support the military everywhere in the world. I saw a lot of the world in the Hercules."

Gazette: One of the characteristics of the Hercules is that it can land almost anywhere. Pilots have to be pretty skilled at putting it down, right?

Childs: "After flight school, we went on to advanced flight school, which was the Hercules. After that, we went to combat training school, where we learned to land on short fields and of course drop all sorts of equipment from the back of the plane, sometimes as low as five feet off the ground, some at high altitude. ... It was designed so that it could take a tremendous hard landing. You just about couldn't land that airplane too hard. It was not atypical in Vietnam to land in 3,500 foot, hard-packed dirt.

"... Matter of fact, there were only four runways in Vietnam that were concrete."

Gazette: Let's talk about the power of the aircraft. It earns its name.

Childs: "What was so nice about it is that when you applied the power, you got instant response. As a matter of fact, one time we landed on a very soft field in South Vietnam, and because the airplane weighed so much, it sunk into the tarmac asphalt when it was parked. It sank right down to the gear doors and we were probably two feet into the tarmac, all four of the tires. All we did was put the flaps down and applied full power to the airplane. The propellers put so much lift over the top of the wings that the airplane actually rose up out of the sunken position and proceeded down the remainder of the runway. It was a tremendously powerful airplane."

Gazette: What were your missions in Vietnam?

Childs: "Most of it was resupply. When I say that, I mean it was everything. We carried ammunition. We carry tanks, heavy equipment, jeeps, howitzers. That was the biggest part of it. Of course, we carried troops all around, both South Vietnamese troops, Korean troops, mostly American troops. We did a lot of air evacuation. Qui Nhon on the coast of the South China Sea was the major hospital in South Vietnam and we would go in there with two flight nurses and we'd load, as I recall, 60 litters of patients. Some would be ambulatory, about half of them. We'd fly them to Clark Air Force Base, which was three hours away in the Philippines, near Manila. Clark had a first-class military hospital. They were just patched up until they got to Clark."

Gazette: When did you get your orders for Vietnam, and what were you thinking?

Childs: "We were sent temporary duty to Clark for these 10-day (in country) rotations (in Nha Trang). We did that in September of 1965. We were supposed to be gone in 60 days. At the end of 60 days (the Air Force said) not only are we extending you for another 30 days, so that would make 90 days, they said you're going home for Christmas, and February you're coming back for another 13 months. So that's when I spent all of '66 and part of '67. Then, in 1968, I went back for another 90 days of temporary duty. "

Gazette: So you flew all kinds of missions.

Childs: "We also did air drops, high altitude, low altitude, and we did air drops at 10 feet. These were called 'LAPEs' — low altitude parachute extraction. We'd fly across the drop zone at, as I recall, it was 10 feet above the ground. There was a boom hung off the back of the airplane with a microphone attached to it. That microphone was transmitted to our headsets, when we could hear that bouncing on the ground, we knew we were just 10 feet above the ground. At that point, the navigator would say, 'Red light, green light.' It seemed like I punched the extraction chute and it would drop out of the back ... and it would blossom and it would off load that cargo on a palette. It would just thump it on the runway. It was only dropping 10 feet, mind you, we're going about 150 mph. One time we were carrying an elephant, two actually."

Gazette: Why were you carrying an elephant. This is a more primitive war than I've been led to understand.

Childs: "The Montagnards of northern Cambodia, but it could have been Laos, were supportive of the American military. Part of the contribution to them was to bring them elephants because they really prized elephants. We had these two elephants and they were young ones. They weighed 3 tons a piece, which was 6,000 pounds. They were chained to the floor of the airplane with one chain. They were chained to the floor by the leg. Each of them had a handler. One of them elephants came loose during flight. If you can imagine in an airplane when this 3- to 4-ton elephant was walking from the front of the airplane to the back of the airplane. The airplane responded as you might expect with the nose pitching up and then down and then up and down. We were very happy to get that on the ground."

Gazette: What about landing?

Childs: "We could only hope that he wasn't going to move during landing. ... I imagine that airplane was pitching nose up, nose down maybe as much as five degrees. It was kind of a roller coaster ride up there.

"... We only did that once."

Gazette: When you flew in Vietnam, were you a target?

Childs: "Absolutely. When we went into short fields, unimproved fields, we were generally briefed as to whether it was considered hot or not. Sometimes, we would land the airplane, taxi to the departure end, turn around and with all four engines running, we'd lower the ramp, only to the horizontal position and push the cargo off. That way, if we took any incoming shells, we could immediately raise the ramp and push the power up and ... as they were pulling the ramp up from the back, we'd be running down the runway to get out of there. One time, we took on one of those hot fields, we made a short field takeoff. We heard a series of pop, pop, pops. The loadmaster said, 'Hey Captain, we just took some ground fire, and when we landed, there were 15 .50-caliber holes, and they all went behind the bulkhead. We always laughed that all it hit that was really important was the honeybucket. We had an empty honeybucket when we landed."


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