Shoot-Down at Katum Special Forces
|The Katum (A-322) Special Forces Camp was opened officially
on 21 February 1968 in northern Tay Ninh Province. It was a border surveillance
camp located just slightly more than 4 kilometers south of the Cambodian
border in War Zone C. All resupply was by air onto the 2900-foot North-South
runway which had been built on top of an old unused road. Or by Huey helicopters
onto the pad within the West starpoint inside the camp or by Chinook helicopters
onto the chopper pad just East of the runway.
Katum had long had a reputation as a "hot trip" for the Air Force
crews making resupply runs from Bien Hoa or Tan Son Nhut. Every fixed wing
aircraft or helicopter which landed could count on being mortared while
on the ground or at any time during the landing and take off. Additionally,
there was at least one crew-served weapon located to fire on approaching
and departing aircraft. All approaches were from the south and departures
were also to the south. Nobody flew north of the camp except the F-4’s,
B-52’s, Cobras, and MEDEVAC Hueys. Too many bad guys with guns up there.
Staff Sergeant (E-6) John Campbell (Junior Commo Man) and I (Senior
Medic) had been out on a 5 day sweep straight north from Katum up to the
Cambodian border, then turned East along the border for about 4 clicks.
We had a 40-man Combat Recon Platoon (some of our better troops) and had
had a relatively quiet time on this excursion.
On day five, we had started back sort of Southwesterly in the general
direction of Katum. Just taking it slow and easy because we didn’t want
to enter the camp confines until after dark anyhow. That way, the bad guys
perched up in the trees with the glasses wouldn’t know if we were back
inside or still out roaming around out to the Northeast.
About 2.5 clicks Northeast of Katum, we pulled up in a real thick
place to eat the absolute last of our rations at about noontime. Then,
the CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group) have to take pak-time. Everybody
takes a nap. The good guys. . the bad guys, everybody. The whole war comes
to a screeching halt for pak-time.
So, we’d eaten whatever was left for lunch and I had leaned back
against a tree to cool it for awhile when I heard my PRC-25 radio go off
with one of our ALLEN FACs in his O-1E announcing "C-130 coming into Katum
on fire". I grabbed up rifle and radio and stepped out of the thick stuff
so I could see. I could hear the C-130 Southeast of me and approaching
but couldn’t see it yet for the trees being in the way.
I moved about 15 meters further to get out from under some stuff
and then could see the airplane flying South to North just to the East
of where we were on the ground. When I first located him, he appeared to
be less than a mile away to the South crossing across my front as I faced
to the East. I’d guess that he was somewhere around 1500 feet AGL, had
the rear ramp down, the nose trimmed ‘way up, was flying very slowly, and
had fire streaming off the back of the right wing ‘way back past the tail.
The fire would sort of blossom and die, blossom and die.
When he was at a point due East of us (John had joined me by that
time), we saw the nose pitch up sharply and all forward motion stopped.
The right wing dropped followed by the nose. Big increase in engine noise.
It entered a relatively flat spin with the right wing still tilted lower
than the left with the nose down about 15 to 20 degrees. It made two complete
360 degree spins before it went into the trees with the nose pointed along
the line of the original heading.
Did you ever run over a beer can in the Club parking lot? That’s
the exact sound that it made when it hit the ground. Of course, there was
a thump which we felt and heard. Followed almost immediately by a billowing
cloud of black smoke going straight up.
One point I should make here. The aircraft was carrying 3 speed pallets
of 105mm HE ammunition.
As we watched the aircraft spin down, we both saw something fly off
(or out of) the aircraft. To this day I believe that it was the Loadmaster
being pitched out the rear ramp by centrifugal force.
The ramp was down and the nose was pitched up. It’s my opinion that
they were attempting to jettison their load of ammo. I also firmly believe
that when the pallets were rolled to the rear of the aircraft to push them
out, the Center of Gravity shifted aft. That caused the nose to pitch up
and stall the airplane. And when it started going around and around, the
Loadmaster (who probably would have been the one cutting the tie-down chains
loose and jettisoning the cargo) just got spun out the ramp door.
I started yelling at my troops to get them up and organized so we
could start back toward the crash. We got organized and started back up
the same trail we had just broken through the brush earlier except, now,
we were going back in the opposite direction.
We had been holed up in tall trees but had to cross about 250 meters
of chest-high brush to get to the next bunch of tall trees where the C-130
By this time, ALLEN is orbiting over us and the crash, we’re strung
out in the weeds and brush moving back to the Northeast, more airplanes
are responding to the ELT beacon (Emergency Locator Transmitter on 121.5)
and to the column of smoke that was up to Lord knows what altitude by that
We had been moving for less than ten minutes when ALLEN reports to
me that one of the helicopters which had arrived had reported "a column
of about 40 people approaching the crash from the Northeast and that the
point man had what appears to be a machine gun".
Whoa! I looked up ahead and saw that our point man was carrying an
M-60 machine gun so there followed several exchanges attempting to determine
whether the "40-man column" was approaching from the Northeast or
the Northeast. Finally, one of the OH-6s which was buzzing around made
a low pass over us, I waved my hat at him, we exchanged some hand and arm
signals to give him our radio operating frequency, and we got it straightened
out that we’re the good guys and we’re headed Northeast.
By then, the air was really starting to get crowded. Another one
of the ALLEN FACs had come over from THIEN NGON (A-323 was our sister camp
on the border about 30 or 40 clicks to the West of us). Our ALLEN told
us on the radio that he had put the other ALLEN to work directing traffic
and keeping all the sightseers at different flight levels.
There were helicopters of every shape and size. Cobras from the 1st
Cav Division AO just down to the South of us, Loaches, even a Chinook.
And fixed wing! We had everything but a B-52. It was amazing to look up
and see all the stuff orbiting around up there. I guess you could see the
smoke all the way back to Bien Hoa and Saigon because it was going just
about absolutely straight up for forever.
I already knew what was going to happen with all the FACs and fighters.
Everybody in the world is here now when we don’t especially need them.
And when we really do need some help, everybody will be out of gas and
gone home. And that’s what happened later . Everybody left at about the
So, we’re moving and talking to ALLEN and he’s saying that the crash
is just inside the next bunch of big trees. We’d just about figured that
out because we could now see the fire through and above the trees. And,
by this time, the propellant charges inside the 105 ammo are starting to
cook off from the heat. When that happened, the inert projectile (no fuze)
would fly in one direction and the brass shell casing would take off at
high speed in the other direction. And those things were starting to pop
We eased on into the trees and the first sight I had of the aircraft
was when I bumped into the port side elevator. It was about belt high and
the entire tail was intact. In fact the whole airplane was intact except
for the back being broken about two thirds of the way back from the nose.
It had come straight down flat and only contacted one tree. That was with
the left wing. It had bent over that 8 to 10 inch diameter tree at about
a 45 degree angle and dented the leading edge of the wing..
John and I had moved to the front of the column as we approached
the trees because I didn’t want a possible survivor who had just lived
through a plane crash to open up on my friendlies. I wanted them to see
two white faces first.
When we bumped into the stabilizer, I told John to go around the
left wingtip, that I’d go around the right side and meet him at the right
front corner of the airplane. I stepped up on the stabilizer and had taken
about three steps to walk across to the other side when the whole thing
I can remember seeing my feet going through the air and the trees
pointed the wrong way. It seems as though it took 20 minutes to ever hit
the ground. Finally did and immediately gathered up my rifle and radio
bearer and got us behind a BIG tree. He’d taken the same ride I had and
didn’t seem too anxious to expose any skin at all anymore.
I hollered at John to see if he was OK. He’d almost reached the left
wingtip when it blew and he, too, had hunkered down behind a tree. I told
him to stay there ‘til things quieted down a bit.
Radio Toter and I are about 10 feet directly behind the rudder which
was still sticking almost straight up. Brass casings are flying, projectiles
are thumping our tree and knocking really big limbs down off the trees
around the crash. I have no idea where my little people are with the one
exception of the radioman.
By this time, I’d guess that maybe twenty minutes had elapsed since
we had heard ALLENs first call of "C-130 on fire".
We’re hunkered down behind our tree, John is behind his tree, and
all the booming and banging in the world is going on the other side of
Our ALLEN comes up on the radio and asks if we can "find and turn
off the ELT". There followed a long conversation about what it was and
where it might be found. He said it was back by the tail somewhere and
was screwing up the Guard Channel commo all over half of South Vietnam.
I asked him what the thing would look like. He had to talk to one
of the (many) C-130’s that were overhead by this time. He came back and
told me that the ELT panel was about 2 feet by 3 feet by about 4 inches
thick and would be somewhere back by the tail. I looked down at my feet
and there was a Styrofoam lined panel the size and shape he’d described.
I scooted down and got the thing and got back behind my tree. I read
the directions on the thing and still remember that it said something about
"Take the 9-volt battery from the pocket. Apply the 9-volt battery across
the two terminals". Problem was that there was no 9-volt battery in the
little pocket. Informed ALLEN and there was more conversation about how
to turn the beacon off. Someone in one of the C-130’s overhead started
talking about a "thorough review of Maintenance Procedures to insure that
the battery is in place on every single aircraft". We really didn’t need
a review of Maintenance Procedures at this particular point in time, so
I made a friend for life by telling him to "hush up".
ALLEN came back and told me to shoot it. But since I didn’t know
where my people were, I wasn’t about to shoot anything. So I decided to
stab it to death. I pulled out my Buck knife and started poking holes in
the Styrofoam trying to hit something vital. I poked it in one place and
apparently shorted out the wires from the (unseen) internal battery and
the Styrofoam started smoking and stinking and melting down. Radio toter
got the big eye and was about to take off! But it stopped smoking and ALLEN
told us that we’d killed it.