“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” ― Nelson Mandela
“Scared is what you’re feeling. Brave is what you’re doing.”
― Emma Donoghue, Room
Landing Hard – Vietnam, 1967
The mission was simple—and dangerous. Ten soldiers were holed up, under enemy fire, on a small base northwest of Saigon. Captain Carl Bradford Johnson, an Air Force pilot, and his C-123 crew were assigned to get them out.
“The best time to do it was at night,” he recalls, “so we had to do it with a blackout landing, no lights on the field. We flew what we thought was the downwind, and the airplane would shake every once in a while from the war going on under us.”
The men below had set up two jeeps, each at one end of the runway, and on a signal, they would flash the headlights very quickly so Johnson could get his bearings. “It was a dirt runway, and it was wet,” remembers Johnson. “It was terrible weather. It was not comfortable.”
That was an understatement. Johnson gave the signal and saw the lightning-fast flash of the headlights below. “We knew that as short as the runway was, and being wet, that we were going to have to go in reverse before we landed,” he says. “You know, in the air, we were going to have to put these propellers in reverse. And we were going to land standing on the brakes.”
And that’s pretty much how it happened. They came down low and fast, touched down, put the engines in reverse, and stood on the brakes. When the plane touched down, it hit a hole in the runway, knocking the [wheel] gear doors completely off the plane. “We skidded around, and finally, we saw a flashlight waving to us. We taxied down, turned in, and we lined back up again [on the runway] because we knew we just might get a second’s warning to get out of there.”
The plane’s engines remained on as the soldiers on the ground loaded valuable supplies and artillery (including a 105 Howitzer) onto the plane as quickly as they could. Johnson helped, then heard a voice demanding to know “who the blankety-blank” was flying the plane. Johnson looked around and saw an Army sergeant, covered with mud. “All you could see were his white eyeballs and white teeth,” Johnson recalls.
He grabbed Johnson and hugged him, saying, “I love you. I never thought I’d say that to an Air Force officer in my life, but I love you.” The sergeant had been in one of the jeeps, and when Johnson landed, he thought the plane was going to hit him. He dove out of the vehicle, into the mud, then he lay in the mud and laughed because he was alive— and help had arrived.
They finished loading up the plane. “Then we lined up and released the brake,” Johnson says. “And there wasn’t a soul on that base when we left. It was empty.”
Captain Johnson, who eventually would retire as a colonel, received a Distinguished Flying Cross for this mission, along with his co-pilot. After flying 1003 combat missions during his 1-year tour in Vietnam, he returned home to a very thankful family.
Note: The above story was mostly written by the fine folks at Remember My Service Productions, based on an interview with my dad. It will appear in an upcoming book entitled, A Time to Honor: Stories of Service, Duty, and Sacrifice.
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