||July 13, 2006|
Puff, The Magic Dragon
by lyle e davis
This AC-47 gunship, (above and below) commonly referred to as "Spooky" or "Puff the Magic Dragon," is very familiar to people who know about this conflict. Basically a world war two vintage C-47 Skytrain transport armed with 3 miniguns, each capable of firing up to 6,000 rounds of 7.62mm ammunition per minute. These gunships could pour an enormous amount of firepower onto ground targets, usually Viet Cong forces besieging a military base or village.
I had two days booked solid. Tonight I was to fly "Spooky," also known as “Puff the Magic Dragon,” an old C47 aircraft (a cargo plane that saw much service over "The Hump" in Burma during WWII). This afternoon I had flown a FAC (Forward Air
Controller), the military version of a Cessna 170 that would fly low and slow over target areas and mark the target area with WP ("Willy Pete", the nickname for White Phosphorus rockets) followed by an attack on the marked target area by F100 jet fighters or some similar fighter
aircraft. Tomorrow morning I was to be on the other end. . sitting in the back seat of an F100 which would be delivering ordnance to targets marked by a FAC.
But for now I was on board "Puff." There were several versions of Puff in Vietnam, the best known was the C47. There was also a helicopter version that utilized a giant spotlight and heavy cannon/machine gun suppression fire. The C47 Spooky/Puff had a modern day version of the old Gatling Gun which delivered something like 6000 rounds a minute. I would have termed it a machine gun but I believe they called it, technically, a chain gun, a type of cannon. Probably has something to do with the size of the cartridge. About every 5th or 6th cartridge was a tracer round (which means it lights up as it speeds toward its target).
The C45 Spooky does not use hight intensity spotlights. . .it drops white phosphorus illumination rounds by parachute. They light up the target area as though it were mid day.
On this particular mission we were supporting a Special Forces Camp that had come under fire by NVA (North Vietnamese Army) troops. They were located in a powder keg area that was used by both NVA and Viet Cong units. It was in a pass. . .(again, the name escapes me [we're talking 39 years ago]. . .I want to say An Loh. . . . . .maybe it will come to me). . .our job was to circle above, drop the WP illumination rounds and provide suppression fire. The pilot places the C47 in a constant circle to the left; he has an electronic gunsight affixed to his helmet that is configured to his eye. As he looks down at the ground and sees the target he wants he pushes the fire button and the cannon goes off, directing the rounds right to where the crosshairs point on his electronic gunsight.
It is a horrific sound, this Gatling Gun. One has to understand that the sound of the shells being discharged is like one continuous sound . .
BRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAKKKKKKKKKKKKKK - not "bang, bang, bang . . ." nor the traditional sound one associates with a machine gun - it is a constant sound, more like the sound one would hear in a giant factory with giant machines going full speed and at full pitch. The BRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAKKKKKKKK is then amplified within the metal tube that is flying around in the sky. This metal tube is our airplane.
All aboard have ear sound suppressors on. They help somewhat . . . but the noise is still unimaginable.
The second phenomenon is that the tracer rounds (every 5th or 6th shell), because of the rapid delivery of ordnance, appear as though the line of fire is one continuous yellow Dixon #2 pencil that is linked from the plane to the ground.
The Yellow Dixon Pencil, the incessant noise, the constant circling, the bumps (for it was a turbulent air evening which makes for bumpy plane rides), the acrid smell of burning cordite, the fumes from the exploding illuminating rounds, the several hours of flying I had experienced in the afternoon. . . all began to tell on me. I began to feel nauseated. I fought the nausea as I was in the midst of way too much adventure and excitement to be bothered with getting airsick. I flat didn't have the time! I breathed deeply, put my head between my knees for a few minutes, regained my composure and I snapped out of it.
We ceased firing for a time but continued to circle. We stopped firing because the air controllers had advised us that a fighter strike was heading into the target area to drop CBU's (Cluster Bomb Units - these are bombs that explode 50 to 100 feet above ground and spray hundreds, possibly thousands, of tiny bomblets over a wide area. It is a very effective anti-personnel device).
We continued to circle and observed the ground action. We could clearly see the Special Forces camp that was under attack; we could clearly see the incoming and outgoing fire, small arms, machine gun, mortar.
Then came the CBU's. We could not see the fighters below us that were delivering the CBU's but we could see their ordnance.
One purple/orange/white puff after another, four, five, six in a row. Then another series. Then another. It is the most spectacular fireworks show I have ever seen.
It is hard for people who have not been in combat, or who have not witnessed combat, to understand what I am about to say.
There is a certain beauty to war.
Yes, I know, it sounds like blasphemy. It sounds bloodthirsty. It is not drawing room conversation. It may not be in good taste.
But, dammit, it is true.
Ask any combat veteran and he may tell you the same. I say "may" because most combat veterans know it is a touchy thing to say and they may not wish to engage in debate; but amongst themselves, they know.
They have seen it and they know.
Sure, you know that people are being killed down below. You know that bodies are being mangled, bones broken, skin burned, lives ruined forever. I am not saying that death is beautiful; or suffering.
I am saying the color, the majesty, the adventure, the panoply of excitement and its colors . . . the orchestration of men, materiel, aircraft, ordnance. When it all comes together . . . it can be beautiful.
Provided you are not the recipient.