In December, 1963 I stepped out of a bus in front of the service club at Pope AFB, North Carolina and entered the world of the TAC-Trained Killers for the first time. Pope was home to the 464th Troop Carrier Wing, which was one of four TAC C-130 wings at the time. The others were the 314th at Sewart, the 463rd at Langely and the 516th at Dyess. A fifth wing, the 317th, was in France at Evruex and would be returning to the US within a few months to take up residence at Lockbourne, Ohio while plans were underway to create a sixth TAC C-130 wing at Forbes AFB, Kansas.
It didn't matter which base a person was at, troop carrier life in TAC was the same. General Walter Sweeny was the TAC commander at the time and he dictated that his troops would "look sharp." Our mission was working with the Army, particularly the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, and General Sweeny did not want his men to be an embarrassment when they appeared in the presence of the paratroopers. Dress for airmen was fatigues complete with blue name tags and aircrew badge, a TAC patch over the right pocket and a blue scarf when off the flight line. Officers usually wore the tan 505 and 1505 short sleeve Class B uniform and blues during the winter. Our flight suits were olive-green cotton - this was before the days of Nomex - and we wore the same blue dickie that was prescribed for the dress fatigue uniform.
While TAC troop carrier crews had once occupied a very low rung on the Air Force ladder, they had progessed upwards somewhat with the advent of the C-130. Our mission in TAC was two-fold, to support the Army's airborne and light infantry units and to provide logistical support for TAC's own fighter and photo-recon squadrons during overseas deployments and on exercises in the United States. The Vietnam War was in its beginnings, but at that time it was still in the advisory stage and being "fought" by the Air Commandos from down at Eglin, though the first USAF transports so see duty in Vietnam had been TAC C-123s from right there at Pope. I guess we should have known, but in 1964 very few C-130 crewmembers had any idea they would be flying combat in Vietnam.
A TAC C-130 troop carrier squadron was always involved in training. For those of us at Pope, it meant flying "around the flagpole" until we reached "Combat Ready" aircrew status, then it was off TDY on deployment somewhere overseas, which in the case of the 464th in 1964 meant Evruex, France or Leopoldville in the Congo. For the Sewart, Langely and Dyess crews, training meant either coming to Pope or going to Ft. Campbell. In either case, the training involved a lot of low-level flying followed by an airdrop of either cargo or personnel on one of the DZs at the two US Army airborne bases.
In the mid-sixties TAC was placing heavy emphasis on the low-altitude "Close Look" in-trail formation that was designed to approach a drop zone below an enemy's radar fence. TAC troop carrier wings were committed to the US Strike Command, whose mission was to deploy Composite Air Strike Forces supported by US Army airborne and infantry forces overseas at a moment's notice. TAC training was to be ready to deploy.
In early August, 1964 reality struck home to the troop carrier wings when the Gulf of Tonkin crisis led to the deployment of TAC squadrons to the Pacific. Sewart and Langely both deployed C-130 squadrons, along with Dyess though the Dyess squadron did not stay. The squadrons from the 314th and 463rd remained in the Pacific, supporting PACAF's 315th Air Division.
In November, 1964 the whole world found out just how good TAC's troop carrier wings where when a squadron from the 464th airlifted Belgian paratroopers to the Congo and then airdropped them onto Stanleyville Airport at dawn on November day. News of the rescue made headlines all over the world, though TAC's rivals in MATS tried to take credit for the mission. Though the airplanes and crews were TAC, they had been TDY to 322nd Air Division in Europe, and 322nd had switched to MATS a few weeks before the mission. The MATS PIO put out a news release "MATS Rescues Hostages in Congo" but, needless to say, that did not set to well with TAC Headquarters since the Congo was a Strike Command show.
There was a lot of rivalry between TAC troop carrier and MATS in those days, and the rivalry was made worse by the MATS PIO, who seemed to think that anything having to do with airlift naturally fell under their responsibility. MATS had their own C-130s and they were required to maintain tactical proficiency, but most of their flying was scheduled cargo missions in the MATS system.
TAC crews in the sixties were generally relatively young and low in rank, especially in comparison to MATS flight crews. Most TAC aircraft commanders were captains and some were even first lieutenants, with only three or four majors in a squadron. Enlisted men were usually below the rank of Technical Sergeant. MATS' manning documents called for higher ranks than TAC, which was another sore point because promotions came faster in the military airline business than they did in the combat squadrons.
But it was the 1960s, and as Bob Dylan was singing, "times, they are a'changing." Vietnam was heating up, MATS was becoming MAC, the C-141 was starting to come into service and it would not be long before the TAC-Trained Killers of TAC would be doing what they had been trained to do.
Click Pope to return.
The flight line at Sewart AFB, Tennessee in the early 1960s.