We were flying a night recon mission on an AC-130 gunship in Laos. It was 1971. It was getting close to the end of that mission, so we were low on fuel and completely out of 40 mm ammo, having only some 20 mm left. As a gunner, I was working the 20 mm guns that night. We got a request to assist with a TIC, which means troops in contact. It also means someone was in trouble. We left Laos and flew just over the border into Vietnam.
We overheard someone on the ground. I don’t remember how he contacted us or how we got the coordinates. I assume Moonbeam, the C-135 which flew above us directing strikes, sent us the coordinates and gave him, the guy on the ground, our radio frequency.
We were orbiting over him, not knowing what was happening on the ground. He was whispering to us. He was in trouble and needed our help. We learned he was an Army Ranger with the call sign “Idaho.”
Our pilot, Lt. Col. Bennie Castillo, switched the communication to hot mic so all the crew could hear the conversation even though it was a whisper. The Ranger on the ground, Idaho, was surrounded by Viet Cong troops and asking for help. He said he was going to key his radio mic and make a run for it. Once he keyed his mic we could follow his radio frequency and start firing. We would be shooting directly at his signal, directly at him. It was a desperate attempt to escape.
He keyed the mic holding the button down and started running through the jungle yelling, “Fire on me! Fire on me!” We started firing on his signal, saturating the area to keep the Viet Cong away from him. We had no idea if we were helping. We were trying to stay up with him as he ran. We could hear him running through the vegetation. Everyone in the plane knew what “fire on me” meant.
I don’t know how long that lasted or whether we ran out of ammo or he stopped running first. We kept circling after we ran out of ammo. He whispered, “Don’t leave me. They know you are up there. As long as you are there, I’ll be okay.” We continued to orbit the area without any ammo.
We got the message that Army helicopter gunships were coming in about 15 minutes, if we could hold our position. We circled until the navigator told Col. Castillo we were down to our minimum on fuel. The Ranger kept whispering, “Don’t leave me.”
The navigator said, “Sir, we are below minimum fuel.”
Col. Castillo informed Idaho, “I’ve got to go. I’ve got 14 SOBs (souls on board). I can’t lose them. We are out of fuel.”
Idaho pleaded, “Please don’t go. Please don’t go. They haven’t left.”
I was standing at the door by the empty 20mm gun as we pulled away. There was total silence on the plane. I don’t know why we didn’t or couldn’t land at a base in Vietnam. Maybe there wasn’t one close by. As the fuel was being depleted on the return trip to Thailand, the colonel started shutting down engines. The first to go was the No. 4 engine, then the No. 1 engine, then soon after the No. 3. As this was happening, we were throwing out the spent brass, ammo cans and anything that could be thrown out of our plane to lighten the load.
The colonel told us to get our parachutes ready and prepare to bail out. He waited until we were back in Thailand, but at that point we weren’t about to jump out of a plane that was still flying. We landed with one engine barely keeping us in the air.
At debriefing, we found out the Army helicopters had arrived. They recovered the body of the Army Ranger known to us as “Idaho.”