Published: 1 March 2009
Air & Space Power Journal - Spring 2009
Shadow and Stinger: Developing the AC-119G/K Gunships in the Vietnam War by William Head. Texas A&M University Press Consortium (http://www.tamu.edu/upress), John H. Lindsey Building, Lewis Street, 4354 TAMU, College Station, Texas 77843-4354, 2007, 352 pages, $49.95 (hardcover).
Readers love conflict, and author William Head has provided it at every level and turn in this history of the AC-119 gunship’s development, deployment, and combat in the Second Indochina War. Not a droning historical narrative, the book dives into the billowing controversy, political indecision, interservice turbulence, and stormy resistance of senior officers to adding high-tech sensors and side-firing guns to an “old piece of junk” (p. 48) cargo plane. From takeoff, the author punches through Gen William Momyer’s “myopic” (p. 48) dream of an all-jet Air Force and the machinations of several well-intended general officers that delayed deployment of the AC-119, which eventually did prove effective. Irony is a dominant feature of the story.
Head points out that advocates of an all-jet Air Force claimed they were fighting for a fair share of resources for the newest military service. They disdained reciprocating engines, special operations, and slow-moving aircraft that were perfectly suited for survivability, lethality, and cost-effectiveness in the jungle counterinsurgency.
Detailed and documented, Shadow and Stinger offers delicious history. In providing background for the concept of the fixed-wing gunship, Head serves up the “originator” (Lt Col Gilmour McDonald), the “catalyst” (Maj Ralph Flexman), the “tester” (Capt John C. Simons), and the “seller” (Capt Ronald W. Terry) (p. 19). The original FC-47 (changed to AC-47 after the fighter community heard about this designation) needed an interim replacement by 1968 while C-130s were located for a long-range modification program. The AC-119G and K (with added jet engines, bigger guns, and better sensors) emerged in shifting political winds that required frequent contract modification. Head shows how one could call completion of the project “a miracle” (p. 76).
Geopolitics play a key role in the drama. The Tet offensive in early 1968 ended President Johnson’s political career, and President Nixon’s Vietnamization policy caused the AC-119 to become a weapon that would cover American retreat from Southeast Asia rather than fight for victory. The author recognizes Tet as a huge defeat for the communists, but brief enemy successes in urban areas and bases (areas that gunships were ideally suited to defend) added priority to the development programs. Tet also showed the massive logistic success the enemy enjoyed along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, where the AC-119K, armed with 20 mm cannon, could have an effect. Ironically, headspace problems created by Nixon’s drawdown of troop levels in Vietnam delayed deployment.
Contracting details and jargon slow the pace some, but the “tempestuous marriage” (p. 120) of the Warner Robins Air Materials Area and Fairchild-Hiller Company, original builder of the C-119, keeps conflict alive. Add “senior level indecision and waffling” (p. 92), the interaction of five depots and numerous subcontractors, bureaucratic roadblocks, legitimate aircraft-modification problems that had to be resolved, and the story of “changing the C-119 pumpkin into Cinderella’s coach” (p. 85) moves noisily along. The author’s comparison of these actors to the contemporaneous movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is valid. Looking closely at political micromanagement and the delay of a priority program took this Vietnam veteran back to the era!
Head throws harsh white light on congressional shenanigans, as Senator William Proxmire assailed the program with wrong information for his “Golden Fleece” award. Head observes that “throughout the Vietnam conflict, far too many Washington leaders acted in a publicly derisive manner even though the safety of young soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines was hanging in the balance,” a practice symptomatic of the “haphazard method of formulating defense policy” (p. 183).
Finally finding quarters and ramp space, the 71st Special Operations Squadron, an activated Reserve unit, became operational in the AC-119G at Na Trang on 10 March 1969 under the call sign “Creep,” which changed, after complaining ensued, to “Shadow.” The AC-119K became combat ready as the 18th Special Operations Squadron at Na Trang on 4 February 1970. These were the “Stingers.” Head provides some combat details, but he is clearly moving toward the “so what?” question. Was it all worth it?
The author reaches an affirmative answer in a rather sweeping characterization of the war in a political context. I think that the combat record of the AC-119G and K speaks for itself. I personally worked with these crews as a forward air controller over the Ho Chi Minh Trail and found them to be professional, fearless, and every bit as effective at truck killing as the author contends. I would have enjoyed learning more about the colorful individuals in this proud Reserve unit that found itself jerked into combat at a time the tide was turning hard against the war.
I recommend Shadow and Stinger as a great story well told. There is something for everyone here, and reviewing problems in the past is appropriate for planners today.
Col Jim Roper, USAF, Retired
Colorado Springs, Colorado
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.