Robins historian’s book wins Air Force award

For a few brief years, Shadow and Stinger were the scourge of enemy ground troops in Vietnam.

The AC-119 gunships, orbiting overhead relentlessly, could pour a fusillade of hot lead into troop concentrations or supply convoys. The “Flying Boxcar” — as the original C-119 cargo version was called — was optimized for the gunship mission largely by managers and engineers at Robins Air Force Base working closely with Fairchild-Hiller, the original aircraft manufacturer.

Bill Head’s latest book, “Shadow and Stinger: The Development and Deployment of the AC-119G/K Gunships,” chronicles Robins’ role in the short operational lives of the two weapon systems and has earned the Air Force History Book Publications award for 2008 and 2009.

“It was a labor of love,” said Head, who has written a number of books and articles, including a history of Robins’ involvement with the AC-47, the fixed-wing gunship predecessor to Shadow and Stinger.

Head, the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center’s chief historian, will receive the Frank Futrell Award for Excellence in Historical Publications on May 13 at the Air Force Museum and History Program’s worldwide conference.

The original C-119 was first flown in 1947 and was extensively used during the Korean War to haul troops and cargo. It emerged as an interim gunship option as U.S. military leaders decided that more — and better — weapons were needed to fight the Vietnam War.

The Warner Robins Air Materiel Area — as the local center was known at the time — was the logical agency to meet that need. The AC-47 had been effective, but commanders said they needed an aircraft that could fly farther and higher with more payload. Also, enemy forces in South Vietnam had begun using Soviet-supplied, anti-aircraft weapons that made the AC-47 particularly vulnerable.

“They came up with a two-fold plan,” Head said. “The new gunship role eventually would be shifted to the C-130. But since the C-130 was the airlift backbone in theater, they decided to have an interim fix. That became the C-119.”

The AC-119G Shadow — the first to answer the call — was armed with four 7.62mm miniguns and a larger ammunition magazine than the AC-47. It also came with a Xenon observation light, flare launcher, rudimentary night vision equipment, foam-filled gas tanks and upgraded communications.

It was an instant hit with ground commanders. Jet close air support aircraft could spray an enemy unit with lead during a single pass but would have to pull up, circle and reacquire the target, allowing the adversary time to escape or redeploy. The gunships — with their continuous left-turning orbit and the ability to fire and keep firing — proved much more effective.

“There’s a great story of a commander on the ground who was surrounded and called for air support,” Head said. “The response was they’d send in some jets to take out the bad guys.” His profane reply left no doubt what he wanted, ending with the directive: “Send me some 119s.”

The AC-119K Stinger came on the scene in 1969. It had two auxiliary J85 jet engines that enabled it to operate from short runways. It also packed 20mm Gatling guns, more ammunition and better avionics. It was even more effective.

“By the time the Ks got to Vietnam, things were really changing,” Head said. “The plan was to go north and attack enemy supply lines, so the K was able to fly farther and carry more weight.”

Because of performance differences, the Shadow focused on enemy troops and airbase defense.

The Stinger, according to Air Force history accounts, was devoted to truck hunting missions particularly along the fabled Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Air Force history accounts said AC-119 aircrews developed business cards that touted their growing reputation. One read, “When uninvited guests drop in ... call for the Shadow.” Another said: “We provide lightning for all occasions.” Or “Who knows what evil lurks below the jungle canopy? The Shadow knows.”

The twin-engined aircraft was particularly versatile. Head, who has held a Robins history post since 1984, uncovered a story about an Army Ranger camp in the northern part of South Vietnam where an enemy raid had seriously wounded a Vietnamese ally.

“They were trying to do night-time surgery on the guy – on the back of a jeep – when the enemy took out the generator,” the Florida State University graduate said. “They had no lights.”

But an AC-119 came to the rescue. “The gun ship orbited the camp shining its light on the jeep as they did surgery,” he said. “That was very courageous of the flight crew because they took a lot of ground fire in the process. But the 119 was a typical American aircraft – strong and designed to protect the crew.”

AC-119s largely outlived their usefulness by the early 1970s because of growing surface-to-air-missile threats and the enhanced capability of the much newer C-130s. But it was a formidable weapon system during its brief lifetime.

“The Viet Cong used to call them ‘the dragon that flies by night,’ ” Head said. “They would listen for the C-47s and bug out. But the 119s flew higher and they couldn’t hear them. So it was pretty shocking when everything was zapped.”

Head’s book has been well-received, he reported. “An academic book that sells 500 copies is doing well,” he said. “We’ve sold close to 1,000. I’m very happy that people are interested.”

To contact writer Gene Rector, call 923-3109, extension 239.