The Ides Of March -- A Da Nang Tragedy
"Wham! Ka-Pow! Ka-Boom! Ka-Bam!" Leaping up from the cot shouting "Incoming!"and jerking on my zippered boots with the left hand while grabbing the .38 Special revolver from under the pillow with the right hand was a reflex action to the detonations. It seemed my ears were the alert for my three heavy sleeping hootch mates. The tin roofed hootch was about 12 feet by 16 feet square and divided in half by four wall lockers. As ranking majors we had stretching room with only two cots in each half. Colin Ruthven bunked eight feet from me on our side of the lockers. Rocky Plant and the Iggle, short timer Bill Ridings, were in the front room nearest the half door. "Incoming! Incoming!" I continued to shout as I plunged out the door and jumped into our sandbagged bunker.
The explosions seemed to come from the runway area just a couple of hundred yards east of our location. "Ka-Pow! Ka-Bam!" Iggle jumped in the bunker followed by Rocky and finally Colin. Timed with the explosions were brilliant flashes of light including lots of white phosphorous. "Ka-Pow! Ka-Boom! BALOOM!" A gigantic explosion told us a 500 to 1000 lb bomb was detonated. Were sappers on our flight lines? The smaller explosions seemed continuous. "Ka-Boom! Ka-Pow! Ka-Pow!" Sirens wailed in accompaniment with the detonations. We could not see or hear incoming rounds but we kept seeing the bright flashes and hearing secondary explosions. My watch indicated 4 AM.
Iggle shouted above the racket, "Nearly ten minutes of booms and no small arms fire! Let’s go climb the steel tower and see what’s going on!" The Iggle [named for his shiny bald pate] and I ran over to the metal tower and climbed up high enough to see the runways and taxiways. We had a perfect view of a spectacular fireworks display. An Air Force C-141 was in flames cross-ways to the runway heading. Continuous explosions were occurring in the fuselage of the huge aircraft. Behind the C141 white phosphorous kept shooting brilliant light over the eerie scene.
By 5:30 AM the explosions were over and the fire was only a glow. We went back into our hootches wondering how many had died in the night catastrophe. Sleep was out of the question so I dressed and walked over to the Command Post to get the straight scoop on the night spectacular.
The Duty Officer reported that A-6 Intruder pilot Captain Fred Cone and Bombardier Navigator Doug Wilson of VMA(AW)-242 of our MAG-11 Air Group were cleared by the Da Nang tower controller to take off on a night combat mission. Fred started his takeoff roll. The ground controller who was Vietnamese Air Force apparently was not closely monitoring the tower radio or was having language difficulty and in the darkness did not see that the A-6 was on takeoff roll on the duty runway. He cleared the Starlifter to taxi across the duty runway in front of the A-6. Captain Cone saw the huge transport loom in front of his A-6 too late to do anything except to attempt to lift off while steering left to miss the C-141. The right wing tip of the A-6 punctured the Starlifter’s cockpit causing the A-6 to cartwheel and summersault upside down. The A-6 slid down the runway inverted facing opposite to the runway heading. Fred Cone, who was lean and compact, crawled through the shattered canopy. In the light of the burning C-141 Fred could see his Bombardier-Navigator was not exiting the cockpit. Fred Cone crawled back into the cockpit and cut Doug Wilson from the smashed cockpit and helped him to safety. Both crewmen escaped serious injury. The A-6 had an ordnance load of 18 MK-82 500 LB bombs and 10 LAU 3 rocket pods [190 2.75 rockets] while the C-141 had 72 Acetylene tanks amongst the cargo. The C-141 burst into flames upon impact of the A-6 and the acetylene tanks soon exploded in the fire along with some of the ordnance on the A-6. Tragically, five Air Force crewmembers died in the fire. Only the loadmaster escaped out the aft section of the plane.
Marine Marty Lachow remembered the night of 23 March 1967 quite clearly. Marty recalled that he was the Electronic Counter Measures Operator in the right seat of the EA-6A second in line for takeoff as the tragic accident unfolded on the runway. Chris DeFries was pilot of Marty's EA6A and watched the accident and aftermath as he waited for takeoff. Chris also gave his account of the accident which I have used with Marty's account to describe the catastrophe. Chris recounted how later when he was on the runway for takeoff in an EA6, "The number four F4 Phantom in an Air Force combat loaded flight taking off, pulled up his landing gear too soon and settled back onto the runway. A Sidewinder missile streaked toward the tower and lots of additional colorful ordnance cooked off for another exciting fireworks display."
Marty also recalled how the squadron Tech Rep, Tom Lawrence, had tried to catch a ride from Japan to Da Nang aboard the doomed C-141. Tom was not allowed aboard because of the acetylene tanks. That probably saved his life.
Colin Ruthven is a gifted artist who practiced his drawing ability while a VMF(AW)-235 Crusader fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. Colin drew this picture as he saw the action the night the C-141 and the A-6 were destroyed and five aviators died. Another day in Paradise.......
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Donald Cathcart, LtCol USMC Retired