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Khe Sahn Runway, C-130

    Incoming rounds slammed into the runway and apparently struck the C-130's left main landing
    gear, causing the aircraft to swerve and smash into a forklift.

    NVA gunners had the airstrip zeroed in, and few fixed-wing aircraft were able to land without being hit or destroyed. My bunker was only a few yards off the edge of the runway, and every landing and takeoff was a nerve-wracking adventure. One quiet morning, I had my 35mm camera in hand as a C-130 Hercules landed and rolled toward the turnaround ramp at the west end of the runway. As I watched in horror, incoming rounds slammed into the runway and apparently struck the C-130's left main landing gear, causing the aircraft to swerve and smash into a forklift waiting nearby to unload the cargo. The wing tanks burst into flame that quickly engulfed the aircraft, as the courageous fire crew unsuccessfully fought to extinguish the flames. I ran down the runway toward the aircraft, capturing much of the action on film. Runway personnel had rescued the crew, who escaped with only minor injuries, but the aircraft and its cargo were totally destroyed.

    With landing and takeoff of fixed-wing transports becoming too dangerous, the Air Force attempted delivery procedures known as LAPES and GPES. Under LAPES (Low Altitude Parachute Extraction System) the aircraft made a low-level approach and a parachute dragged the cargo across rollers and out the rear doors. Under GPES (Ground Parachute Extraction System), the aircraft came in low to snag an arresting cable, which in turn yanked the cargo out of the rear. Both procedures were highly risky for the aircraft and ground personnel and were finally discontinued when runaway cargo pallets crashed through bunkers at the west end of the runway, killing several Marines. Thereafter, most resupply was made by parachute drop from C-123 or C-130 transports over the northwest perimeter of the combat base.

    During good weather, tactical aircraft flew extensive missions, dropping napalm and high explosives on enemy positions across the hills and the plateau in front of our northern perimeter. Some strikes were so close to our positions that the intense heat from the napalm was enough to singe our eyebrows. In March, under cover of fog and darkness, enemy troops dug a network of tunnels and zigzag trenches within a few meters of the perimeter wire on the east end of the runway. They went undetected until the weather broke the following morning, when F-4 Phantoms resumed tactical operations and spotted them from the air. The NVA had evidently hoped that they could tunnel under the wire and the runway to plant mines or explosives that would destroy inbound aircraft and/or the runway surface. Had penetration of the perimeter from this unlikely approach succeeded, our gun positions on the east end would have been the primary weapons responsible for repelling the enemy assault.

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