It was March of 1967 when I and five others were whisked from The Annapolis Hotel in Da Nang by Jeep and escorted to the Da Nang U.S. airstrip. I had orders in hand to catch the USS Oxford, it did not say where we were to catch it. Hot, sticky, and humid, we sweated bullets waiting on the tarmac for the Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules aircraft to pull up. The roar of the plane, as it pulled up, lived up to it's name. The four turbo-prop engines were deafening. Each engine was capable of delivering 20,000 pounds of thrust. It looked short and squat, the loading ramp was lowered, probably to cool off the inside of the plane before we got in. We would not be flying to Phu Quoc Island in the comfort of a jet-liner, with drinks in hand, or anything like that. We climbed the incline of the rear loading ramp, and we were strapped in, side-ways, along the sides of the inside of the plane. The plane was empty when we got inside. It looked a lot bigger, inside, than out. There were no windows we could look out of. There wasn't much of a seat, more like a fold-down park bench made of strong webbing material. Crewmen aboard the plane made sure we five seamen were well strapped in. Without formalities, the plane lumbered towards the strip for take-off. The ramp was left open. The plane was to take off with it open. We were told by a crewmember it would keep the rear of the plane cooler.
Once lined up on the airstrip all four engines were revved to full thrust with the brakes on. It was an unforgettable experience. I thought the plane was going to shake into pieces, it made ones teeth chatter and rattle like you were shivering with a high fever. None of us five passengers had ever flown on a C-130J, so we didn't know what to expect, nor did anyone of the crew tell us. We could see the dust and debris the props raised go shooting past the rear of the plane, we could see it all out the back of the open rear loading ramp. This plane was a hurricane on wheels. "Sometimes we carry tanks," a crewman yelled out at us.
The planes' landing wheel brakes were released and the plane shot foward like it had been shot out of a cannon. A jet airliner will not put you back in the seat like a C-130J will. We were sitting side-ways, and the thrust put me into the lap of the guy sitting next to me despite the restraints. I could not straighten up, as much as I tried, until we gained altitude, very quickly, and leveled off at about 10,000 feet. Wow! It would make a good amusement ride, I thought at the time. I looked down, out the rear of the plane at the landscape of South Vietnam. I could see where major battles had been fought. The land was pock-marked by bomb craters randomly scattered here and there. We headed due west crossing over the low mountain ranges of South Vietnam. It was not long before we were over the Gulf of Thailand still flying very low. The Gulf of Thailand is that streach of sea just south of Thailand. I could see individual small fishing boats on the waters of the gulf. Soon, the C-130J slowed, it was most noticable.
"Brace yourselves!" A crewman yelled. We braced, losing altitude fast, tree tops appeared, coconut trees. The engines roared as the vanes on the turbo-prop blades were reversed, and the flaps were raised, and the plane seemed to have stopped in mid-air. Suddenly, I was thrown into the lap of the other guy next to me. The wheels hit the huge metal mats of the short take-off and landing strip. The airstrip was maintained by the U.S. Army. We hit the matting with a huge thud as the STOL (Short take-off and Landing) C-130J fought to come to a stop. It was like we landed on a Dime. It was surprising to us five passengers that the plane did not come apart. We couldn't have landed on a strip more than 300 feet long. I was completely amazed once we debarked via the ramp to actually see how long the airstrip really was. Not long, at all. Without formality, the plane loaded about seven passengers, bound for who knows where, whilst the four engines continued to turn. Once the new passengers were loaded inside, the plane revved and turned 180 degrees and took off as fast as it had landed. It shot off the end of the short airstrip almost at a 45 degree angle. I'm sure the new passengers were screaming. I could very well understand why the C-130J was called a Hercules.
"Welcome to An thoi, Phu Quoc Island, gentlemen, take a good look, you people won't be staying on the island for long." About ten U.S. Army personnel in full combat gear greeted us. They loaded us on a truck, got on the truck with us, and the truck shot off twoards the port of An Thoi. After a short ride to the shore, a motor launch pulled up to the shore, we got aboard. The launch took us to an APL (Auxilliary Platform for Landing), a floating barracks. The Army returned to base in their truck. The only boats I saw were Swift boats. Three were tied to the floating dock of the APL. The floating dock and the APL were anchored some 500 yards off shore of An Thoi. There were three Swift boats, others were at sea, we were told. Where was the USS Oxford? Nobody knows that, we were told. We were assigned bunks on the APL, we stowed our seabags and went back to the upper deck to take a good look around. Where in Hell were we, we did not know. We only knew that we had arrived, and we were now earning our combat pay. All we talked about all day was that crazy plane ride. I counted my blessings...we are all still alive!