Preflight

What happens when you give a big airplane to some 25-year-olds, tell them to haul stuff around Vietnam in the spring of '68, and whatever they do, don't make a mess, 'cause we're not supposed to give this airplane to 25-year-olds? Everything went pretty much according to plan until one day when their wing started burning off...

The 50th Tactical Airlift Squadron has a proud history of close air support of America's combat troops. Its first combat mission was flown over Sicily in June, 1943, dropping paratroops from C-47 transports. In 1968, 50th TAS C-130s were flying into postage stamp airstrips in South Vietnam, often flown by young men who hadn't been born when the campaign for Sicily was fought.

The Squadron's Commander, Col. Clay Balch, had a well developed sense of both history and drama. Balch entered combat at about the same time as the 50th TAS, winning the coveted Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) as a B-25 Bombardier over Sicily. Years later, when Balch was an English Professor at the Air Force Academy, he and Catch-22 author Joseph Heller discovered they had been doing the same job at the same time and had been similarly decorated.

Col. Balch decided the squadron deserved a birthday party since a 25th anniversary is worth celebrating but mostly because trash haulers seize any excuse to throw a party. Having this party may just have been the 50th's logistical high point, since the crews were never home. The 50th was based at Ching Chuan Kang (CCK) Air Base, Taiwan, but the crews spent about 25 days a month in Vietnam, flying out of Cam Ranh Bay or Tuy Hoa Air Bases. Bringing them back for a celebration meant getting the 50th's sister squadrons, the 345th and 776th, plus others out of Japan and the Phillipines, to pick up the slack. What would be wrong with that, fellas? Sure, Clay.

Balch was clear: Unless every crewmember, officer and airman alike, could attend, there'd be no celebration. We'll never know how many chits Colonel Balch had to call in, but it all got put together and the party was scheduled for the weekend of July 11, 1968. The preceding May, Balch was looking over the crew lists and realized that his personnel were varied enough that he could put together a crew of 50 year-olds and a crew of 25 year-olds. As part of the month long observation, the crew assignments were switched around to make it so. A newly designated (but singularly talented) aircraft commander, Pat Hatch, 24, was given the crew, accompanied by the most seasoned lieutenants in the squadron, Britt Blaser, 25 and Jon Alexander, 23, as Co-pilot and Navigator. Joe Basilisco, the Flight Engineer, was the gray eminence on the crew at 32. Loadmaster Jerry Willard was the baby at 19, appointed to offset Basilisco's advancing years. Average age: not quite 25. Hard as it is to believe, the C-130 was a joy to fly and much of our time was a celebration of being young and skilled and landing safely every night. We knew our mission was a rarity in this miserable war, but we took advantage of it anyway.

Balch probably was out on a limb on both counts of age discrimination. It can reasonably be argued that the crew was not as experienced as most, although Hatch had been flying since he was eleven. Looking at flying from the far side of 50, it's easy to imagine that a crew of fifty year olds might miss something which at least one set of younger eyes and ears might not. It turned out that neither concern was justified.

The Day Before: June 24, 1968

A day off! Pat, Britt and Jon go down to the beach at Tuy Hoa lugging an ample supply of refreshment, and are surprised when a Navy PT boat pulls up on the beach. The young captain, eyeing our refreshments, asks if we'd like to go for a ride, "Y'all just throw your gear up on deck!" including, of course, our refreshments. We soak up some rays and suds and watch the crew check out the native fishermen, who seem to love the attention. As soon as they are interrogated, the Navy guys throw a grenade in the water, bringing a whole days' catch to the surface for the gathering. A surprise R&R cruise for the Air Force lieutenants! The trash haulers never knew what they'd be doing next. At the end of the day, the Navy brings the guys back to the beach, where they jump down from the boat's deck, unencumbered by the refreshments, of course. Blaser stretches an achilles tendon. No big deal, certainly nothing to hamper flying a Herk which is, essentially, a desk job.