|Gen. John Borling, in flightsuit, and Ron Alexander talked about their Air Force experiences in Vietnam for the Saturday morning Warbirds in Review session. Alexander flew a C-7 Caribou like the example behind the two men. (photo by Frederick A. Johnsen)
By Frederick A. Johnsen
August 3, 2013 - With a twin-engine C-7 Caribou from the Cavanaugh Flight Museum looming behind them, Caribou pilot Ron Alexander and fighter pilot Gen. John Borling shared remembrances of their time in Vietnam with AirVenture 2013 visitors during the morning Warbirds in Review session Saturday.
Alexander trained with the U.S. Army on the Caribou, in time to assume the mission as an Air Force pilot in 1967, when C-7s became Air Force assets. He logged time with the 459th Troop Carrier Squadron (later Tactical Airlift Squadron) flying out of Da Nang, South Vietnam.
Typically, the rugged C-7s airdropped or landed with supplies at special forces outposts in remote locations where Navy Seabees hacked airstrips 1,500-2,000 feet long; one strip was only 800 feet long, Alexander remembered. "The airplane is quite capable of going in and out of 800 feet," he said. The supply airdrops were made at about 400 feet, and this exposed the Caribous to ground fire, Alexander recalled. The only return fire came from Alexander's flight mechanic, riding in the back of the C-7 with an M-16 rifle.
Though Alexander and his Caribou crew went for periods of time with no enemy fire, there were some locations like besieged Khe Sanh that were hot. "You generally knew when you went to Khe Sanh something was going to happen," he said. "We were issued a flak vest. We were supposed to wear them but we all sat on them," Alexander told his AirVenture audience.
Alexander's time in Vietnam included a harrowing series of flights to resupply a South Vietnamese army unit under attack and out of materiel on January 12, 1967.
Ground fire penetrated the aluminum hide of his Caribou. One round lodged in the cockpit against an impediment; without that, Alexander might have been killed. But his good fortune was not matched by the fate of his flight mechanic who died as a result of ground fire received in the back of the Caribou. Those perilous sorties earned Alexander the Air Medal.
Alexander was joined in the Warbirds in Review session by retired Air Force Maj. Gen. John Borling, a larger-than-life renaissance man who talked of his six and a half years as a POW in North Vietnam, revealed his penchant for writing poetry, and engaged the audience with wry humor.
When his F-4 was shot down, Borling's ejection and landing dumped him on a steep slope, injuring his back. Initially unable to walk, Borling found himself surrounded by North Vietnamese soldiers. "I crawled into a log, a log I wouldn't have crawled into" in less lethal times, Borling said, because of the indeterminate wildlife he might find sharing space inside.
He became aware North Vietnamese trucks were passing nearby, and the scrappy fighter pilot Borling decided to use his service revolver to commandeer one of the trucks to take him to the sea. The truck he appropriated turned out to be carrying armed troops in the back, and it quickly behooved Borland to hand over his revolver and become a POW.
"I was really angry about getting caught," he recalled.
Borland was taken to a prison the Americans called Heartbreak Hotel. "They'd take you in and hurt you..." he said with a memory-laden pause, "they'd hurt you."
General Borland said the POWs did their best to keep each other's spirits up, devising a tapping code when they were isolated and prohibited from talking to one another. "We wanted you to be proud of us," he said.
When the POWs were repatriated, they did their best to look sharp and professional as they walked to the waiting C-141 Starlifter that took them to the safety of Clark Air Base in the Philippines.
At Clark that first day, Borland left his hospital room, still in a robe, and went to the base exchange to procure a tape recorder to begin capturing all the stories and poems he had mentally stored during his imprisonment. His time in captivity was evident when the exchange manager handed him a small box-like device and called it a tape recorder. It was unlike the large reel-to-reel machines Borland expected, and at first he was unsure of his first glimpse of a cassette recorder.
Both General Borland and Ron Alexander showed pride in their service in Southeast Asia, mixed with frustration over how the war was conducted. Whether or not the war was conducted properly, as Alexander put it, "We were there to take care of each other."
The audience soundly registered their appreciation for the service of both fliers.