After the failure of Hanoi’s Tet offensive in early 1968, the North began building up forces for another widespread attack throughout South Vietnam. One of Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap’s targets was Duc Lap, a Special Forces camp in hilly, forested territory near the Cambodian border. More than 4,000 North Vietnamese regulars were committed against Duc Lap’s defenders. By Aug. 23, the enemy had breached the camp’s outer perimeter, cutting the ARVN troops off from the rough airstrip that had been used to supply them.
In the center of the camp was an open area about 200 feet square where supplies would have to be air-dropped. Hitting that small drop zone called for a low-altitude run-in at 200 feet. Making an airdrop at Duc Lap was roughly comparable to flying into a stadium with the surrounding stands occupied by unfriendly spectators, all armed with AK-47s. This was a job for the Air Force’s rugged, maneuverable C-7 Caribou.
The C-7 was a light, two-engine short takeoff and landing transport built by de Havilland Aircraft of Canada; it was sold to the US Army in 1962, and turned over to the Air Force in January 1967.
The Air Force formed six C-7 squadrons in Southeast Asia. They were unique in several respects, not the least in their level and variety of manning. About half the pilots were recent flying school graduates on their first cockpit assignments. Most of the others were older men, some with World War II or Korean War experience. In the spring of 1968, more than 50 C-7 pilots were lieutenant colonels, two were World War II fighter aces, and six had Ph.D.s. With all that varied talent and experience, these were well-run units.
One of the C-7 pilots who came directly from an operational outfit was Maj. Hunter Hackney. Having earned his wings in 1955, he had accumulated several thousand hours of flight time as a T-33 instructor and as an aircraft commander and instructor in KC-97s and KC-135s. He had refueled fighters over the Gulf of Tonkin and Laos, but he wanted an assignment closer to the shooting. Major Hackney requested a Vietnam tour and ended up in January 1968 flying C-7s with the 458th Tactical Airlift Squadron based at Cam Ranh Bay. Flying four to six sorties a day, he soon logged several hundred hours in the Caribou.
At Duc Lap on Aug. 24, ARVN troops and their American advisors were running out of medical supplies, ammunition, and water. To get them through the night, Hackney’s roommate, Maj. George Finck, volunteered to fly the first-ever C-7 operational night drop, guided by tracer fire and one white light that identified the tiny drop zone. He was awarded the Air Force Cross for that mission.
At noon on Aug. 25, Special Forces officers reported that Duc Lap’s survival was doubtful without prompt help. Major Hackney and his crew immediately took off from Cam Ranh Bay, stopped to load cargo at Nha Trang, and were forced to land at Ban Me Thout until the fighting at Duc Lap subsided enough for the friendlies to retrieve dropped supplies. A few hours later, Major Hackney took off again and orbited east of the camp until air strikes lifted. He then took up a run-in heading and descended to 200 feet above ground.
Heavy ground fire began two miles from his release point. The C-7 took several hundred hits but completed an accurate drop on the first pass. Major Hackney then made another run from a different direction, again flying through a hail of ground fire to make another drop “on the money.” Incredibly, none of the three-man crew had been hit, and the C-7 operated normally as they returned to Ban Me Thout. After landing, they discovered that all cells of their “self-sealing” tanks were leaking.
Major Hackney and his crew picked up an undamaged C-7, loaded four pallets of ammunition and water, and flew back to Duc Lap. Taking fire from all sides, they dropped the pallets in the center of the small drop zone. Miraculously, they emerged again with an uninjured crew and made it back to Cam Ranh Bay, their C-7 riddled with bullets. Duc Lap survived the siege, which was lifted several days later.
For tenacious heroism in penetrating the “stadium” at Duc Lap three times, contributing so notably to the survival of the camp, Maj. Hunter Hackney was awarded the Air Force Cross and the RVN Gallantry Cross with Silver Star.
In December 1968, Hackney returned to KC-135s and, shortly, to Southeast Asia. He retired as a colonel in 1981, after serving in several senior posts, including deputy director for Command and Control, 8th Air Force. He now lives in Bossier City, La., as does his one-time roommate and fellow Air Force Cross recipient, retired Lt. Col. George Finck.
Published August 1994. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.