John Heimburger

Humble, Texas

Went to pilot training at Reese AFB in Lubbock in 1963 and wanted to get to VNam ASAP, so chose a C-130A assignment upon graduation to Naha AB, Okinawa…closest assignment to the war that Pacific Air Forces offered at that time. Our combat airlift sorties were all in-country within South Vietnam….everything from soldiers to sandbags to ammunition, food, construction materials, even dragging caterpillars from the back ramp while airborne over the jungles…many sorties to unimproved airstrips…even over the Ho Chi Minh Trail at night dropping 2-million candlepower flares to A-26’s and B-57’s so they could get a look at their targets…or dropping millions of leaflets over the North offering rewards for returning downed pilots to American forces. Remember making several ammo runs to Pleiku during a horrific monsoon season to supply Army troops with artillery and mortar shells — all through thunder and lightning and down to the very minimums required for landing. The night sorties were the most challenging but my navigators always seemed to have a handle on where we were going and how we were going to get back. One mission took us to a short PSP strip north of DaNang. Directions were: fly north of DaNang. Turn left at the 2nd river; fly for 60 seconds; make a hard left and an immediate right…the strip “should” be right in front of you. It was! But it was so short, upon touchdown and reversing the aircraft, we stopped with the nose of the A/C over the far end of the runway and immediately the aircraft began backing up!! With the runway a few PSP feet shorter, we’d still be there.

After over 300 missions in the C-130, 30 of us were selected by names pulled out of a hat, to take other flying assignments within SEAsia. I was one of the lucky/unlucky ones. The choices were C7 Caribous, C-47 Gooney Birds, or O-1 Birddogs (FACs = forward air controllers). As the senior officers were given their choices of aircraft, we Lts. were given what was left. (No one wanted to be a FAC) After 3 months at Nha Trang in a relatively calm environment with the 5th Special Forces, an unexpected change-of-assignment came for me to go to a place called Khe Sanh. I knew nothing about this Marine Base near the North Vietnam border and only 9 miles from Laos.

Had to stop in DaNang enroute to Khe Sanh and met Col. Kelly Cook, one of my English instructors at the AFAcademy, now an F4C pilot and Director of Operations with the 366th TAWing. He asked me to come see him in 10 days when I returned to DaNang for a modification on my O-1. When I did, there was a yellow ribbon around the trailer where he lived. He had been leading a 2-ship over North Vietnam. When the bombs were released from both planes, both F-4s simultaneously disappeared from the radar screens. Premature ordnance detonations were blamed on the immediate disappearance of the flight! He left a wife and 8 children in Colorado.

Khe Sanh was no fun. Flying the last 154 missions (out of a total of 661 combat sorties in both aircraft) out of that hilltop runway was a daily challenge. Even the takeoff was over a cliff at the east end of the runway where you were set up to be a target for snipers. How I survived with only several dozen hits over 4 years is beyond me…thank the Lord! Little did I know that the reason Khe Sanh needed replacements was because all 5 previous Forward Air Controllers assigned there had been killed-in-action over the previous 30 days.

Dec 21, 1967 was a huge memory. Was directing a flight of Marine F4B’s on an airstrike on the Ho Chi Minh Trail near Tchepone Pass when one took a direct hit from anti-aircraft fire. Both pilots barely ejected safely and hit the ground after only 2 swings of their parachutes. We were able to get the backseater up the side of a mountain from bomb crater to bomb crater. But only after nearly two hours of attempts. An unarmed Huey chopper passing by was summoned. He put his skids on the side of a crater while Pilot Lashley put his arms over the skids. The crew chief stepped on Lashley’s arms while the pilot lifted him and the Huey over the hill. They finally were able to pull him aboard. After a refueling at Khe Sanh and though it was raining and near the end of the day, a return to the site gave no emergency beeps from the pilot in the front seat. Gary Fors was given a memorable Marine salute at Arlington several years ago…nearly 50 years later. Backseater Lashley attended from Hawaii, and the Marine Honor Guard and F-18’s from Marine Cherry Point did a spectacular missing-man flyover.

Have been a Texan in-residence for over 16 years now, but still reflect on Lubbock and Reese AFB. It has been a long road, and I am deeply grateful for the American patriotism personified by Texas especially. #4 son has followed in his Dad’s footsteps and recently safely returned from his 4th deployment to the Middle East flying the same aircraft I did when starting a military flying career 55 years ago.

Oh yes, was made an Honorary Marine at Khe Sanh and will never forget the bravery and dedication of those men in 1967-68 during the Siege.

Stats for John Heimburger

Hometown: Humble, Texas
 Air Force
Rank: Lt. Colonel; Pilot
Years Served: 1965-68

John Heimburger Photo Gallery