Vietnam gunship crash survivors: We’re still here because of our hero – Osage County Online | Osage County News

Vietnam gunship crash survivors: We’re still here because of our hero

An AC-119G Shadow flying over Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Saigon, in 1969. Public domain photo.

Many heroes among us often go unrecognized for their acts of heroism. Such as it is for a former Air Force sergeant who saved two of his crewmates after an AC119G gunship crashed near Saigon in 1969.

Bill Slater, a former Air Force staff sergeant, now from Somerville, S.C., wants his former crewmate to know he will forever consider him a hero. Slater recently contacted Osage County News to tell about the hero who saved his and a crewmate’s lives.

Slater was the head gunner of a crew of 10 flying a night mission on AC119G Shadow 76, on Oct. 11, 1969, out of Tan Son Nhut Air Base, at Saigon, South Vietnam. Only three crew members survived when the plane crashed into a rice paddy and plowed into a residence not far from the end of the runway: Slater, A1C Gale “Pat” Jones, and Sgt. John Lelle, who now lives in Quenemo, Kan.

Slater and Jones give credit to Lelle for saving their lives.

“John saved both of us,” Slater said. “John came back for me, but couldn’t get to me. Pat hollered for help and John pulled him out. I was able to get on top of the wreckage and then John carried me away from the plane.”

Seven people on the plane were killed, Maj. Richard Knapic, Maj. Moses Lopes Alves, Maj. Jerome James Rice, Capt. John Hooper Hathaway, SSgt. Abraham Lincoln Moore, SSgt. Ellsworth Smith Bradford of the 600th Photo Squadron, and Vietnamese Air Force interpreter Lt. Biu Kien. A Vietnamese civilian was also killed when the crash hit a house.

Slater and Lelle were gunners on the flight; Jones was the illuminator operator. The AC119G gunships such as Shadow 76 were formerly built as cargo planes known as “Flying Boxcars”, but the Air Force had retrofitted the twin-engine aircraft into a gunship capable of carrying large amounts of ammunition along with crew and passengers.

The Shadow squadron was known for its nighttime missions and ability to light up a target area with flares and powerful spotlights. With its 7.62 “mini-guns”, it could rain down a hailstorm of rounds “every three inches and 50 yards wide” according to an article in the April 1968 issue of The Air Reservist, the official magazine of the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve at the time. The 17th Special Operations Squadron motto was, “Deny him the dark,” which refers to the AC119G gunships’ ability to spot the enemy.

Emblem of the 17th Special Operations Squadron features the “Shadow” with the squadron’s slogan “Deny him the dark”. Public domain.

The 17th SOS had been activated in 1968 with personnel from the 71st Special Operations Squadron at Lockbourne Air Force Base, with a mission to be trained on the newly retrofitted AC119 gunships. The 17th SOS was made up of Air Force personnel and reservists when it was deployed to Southeast Asia. Shadow 76 was the first AC119 to crash during that deployment.

Slater’s and Jones’ recollections of the crash many years later match the official crash report. Jones wrote about the ordeal for the AC-119 Gunship Association, and his account of the crash is published on several websites pertaining to combat in Vietnam, the aircraft used, and personnel stationed there.

Slater’s description of the crash 53 years afterward still offers a stark image of his and Jones’ rescue by Lelle. Slater said the plane was taking off from the Tan Son Nhut Air Base on a nighttime combat mission, fully loaded with ammunition and crew. It was barely off the ground when an engine caught fire.

“That engine just disintegrated and shot parts through the plane,” Slater said. He said as he realized the plane was going to crash, his first thought was to put on a parachute. He explained the planes were equipped with emergency chest parachutes and the rear door could be used as an emergency exit.

“I jumped up to put my parachute on and that’s when we started crashing into trees,” he said.

He said he was near the rear of the plane by a flare launcher when the plane was crashing.

“As it was about to crash, I turned around and my right side hit against that flare unit,” he said. The impact caused injuries to his arm and right side.

Slater said the plane was carrying a heavy load of ammunition for the mission, some which started exploding due to fire and the impact.

After the engine disintegrated,“then 30,000 rounds of ammunition started firing off and bullets were going through the plane,” Slater said.

He lost consciousness in the impact, but “when I realized I was still living, that’s when I said ‘let me out of this plane,’ and got on top of the wreckage.”

In Jones’ description of the crash, he says he saw the engine torching badly as the plane was taking off. “Only a second or two later, a big bang came from No. 1 engine and it erupted into a blazing fire. The last time I looked, the engine was engulfed in flames,” Jones recollected. He was knocked unconscious in the impact, but woke up in the forward bulkhead with his hands on fire and a severe eye injury, among other injuries.

“I then yelled to John, hoping he was okay. For a couple of seconds I heard nothing and expected the worst,” Jones wrote. “Then I felt a tug on the back of my chute harness. I was being pulled from the wreckage by John. John had safely gotten out, but came back for me, still in the burning wreckage amid explosions from live ammo, flares, and fuel. He pulled me into a rice paddy or ditch away from the burning wreckage. At that point, I think the fire burning me had gone out. A few minutes later, I was thrown in the back of the rescue helicopter and whisked away to 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon.”

Jones said he spent almost two years recuperating in the hospital requiring plastic surgery and optical surgery. “I never broke a bone but had lot of cuts and a lot of burns,” he said.

Slater said his injuries kept him in the hospital for about eight months. “My right arm took most impact, and I still have a plate in my right arm,” Slater said. At 81 years old Slater said he still had “scars from the bottom of my feet to top of my head.”

“After eight months of seeing all of the military that got injured in Vietnam, I stopped feeling sorry for myself, though,” he said.

Slater said he believes the three survived the crash due to their helmets.

“The only reason we made it, I think, is we were required to wear helmets,” he said. “Me and my buddies had helmets on.” He explained that other crewmembers were equipped with communications headsets and were not wearing flight helmets.

“My helmet was split in half and John said his was knocked off,” Slater said.

The official crash report says that due to the amount of ammunition together with a full fuel load, “the single-engined performance of the AC-119G was insufficient to enable it to stay airborne.”

Jones said he later found out that while the No. 1 engine was on fire, a fire extinguisher for the No. 2 engine had been activated in error, causing that engine to also fail. He describes a moment of silence with no engine noise that occurred right before the crash.

Lelle was the least injured in the crash, Slater said, which allowed him to come back and save the survivors.

“He’s my hero,” Slater said. “Pat would say the same thing.”

Osage County News contacted Jones, 75, at his home in Morehaven, Fla., and he offered wholehearted agreement that Lelle was a hero for taking lifesaving actions that day.

“I absolutely say the same thing. I would not be here if John hadn’t saved me,” Jones said. “John is the best person I know.”

Also agreeing with Slater that Lelle wouldn’t want any recognition for what he did that day, Jones said, “He doesn’t have to be a sung about hero, but he’s a hero to me every day.”

“I used to call John every Christmas to thank him for saving my life,” Jones said. “He helped me live by his actions. Especially considering the conditions he had to go through to save us, he is a hero.”

Slater said the crew had flown together since their training at Lockbourne, Ohio, in December 1968, when the unit transferred to Saigon. Most of the crew were roommates and they worked together as a tight-knit team.

“We got along as a crew,” Jones said. “When you’re relying on someone for your life, and they rely on you for their life, you form a pretty tight bond.”

When the crash happened the following October, there was only two months left on the crew’s tour.

“We were all ready to go home,” Slater said. “We all came home, but eight people went home how we didn’t want them to.”

Contacted at his home in Quenemo, Lelle was just as humble as Jones and Slater said he would be.

“I don’t really think I was a hero,” Lelle said. “I don’t feel like I need any recognition. I sure as hell didn’t plan it.

“Just another day out of life, some are good some are bad,” Lelle said. “I just helped some friends.”

He said the three were roommates and crewmates at the time and “we’re still friends.”

Lelle said his injuries from the crash were minor compared to Slater’s and Jones’: “Nothing bad, broke a couple ribs, had a concussion. I had two weeks off from flying, and then I just wanted to finish those last couple months and go home.”

As for recognition for his heroism, Lelle said it isn’t necessary. “My reward is that my friends are still here and that’s all that matters.”

Saying it was “all what you’d call fate,” Lelle, now 76, said after his stint in the Air Force as a weapons mechanic, he went on to retire after working years as an industrial and maintenance mechanic. Jones retired as master machinist and tool and die maker, having worked in industry since leaving the military. Slater trained in business management in the Air Force after he recuperated, and eventually retired from the Department of Defense as a civil servant.

The three have rarely seen each other over the years, but Slater has visited Lelle several times.

Jones said although he will always remember the crash as the time Lelle was his hero, “Who in the hell wants to remember the worst day of your life?”

An excerpt from the story “The Night People” by MSgt. Harvey Inouye in the April 1969 issue of The Air Reservist tells of the Shadow76 crew getting ready to attack a target:

The aircraft becomes a beehive of activity once in the hostile area. Gunners, Staff Sergeant William Slater and Sergeant John Lelle, check the guns to insure they are ready. Captain Bo Busse, the navigator, checks the location, while Captain Bill Joyce. the star light scope operator, searches the area for any activity.

The pilot, Colonel Beyl, and copilot Captain Darwin Bell keep the aircraft over the target. To the enemy, the only sound is the steady drone of engines. No sense in getting excited. It is just another transport plane flying to one of the bases. But … when they least expect it all Hell breaks loose.

Pat Jones’ account of the crash can be read in full on the AC-119 Gunship Association’s website at (page 132).

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