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Then 1st Lieutenant Carl Gamble takes flight training at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, before going to Vietnam in 1968. CONTRIBUTED / "The Redstone Rocket"

Gamble flew 244 combat missions in Vietnam

MADISON – Carl Gamble flew 244 combat missions to drop propaganda leaflets as an Air Force pilot in Vietnam from 1968-1969. He still has nightmares about the fateful flight that led to his Distinguished Flying Cross.

“That’s the only one where I ever got hit by enemy ground fire. Out of 244 missions, that’s the one,” Gamble said.

March 1, 1969, seemed like just another day for the 9th Special Operations Squadron out of Da Nang. Gamble flew missions to drop leaflets telling the enemy to give up and turn in their rifles for food. Other pilots used the C-47 airplanes as gunships for air-to-ground attacks and for electronic jamming.

“Just scattered clouds that day, and we were flying just a regular mission. Usually the enemy – the Viet Cong – would not shoot at us because we were unarmed,” Gamble said.

Also onboard the pilot’s old C-47 airplane were his co-pilot, a first lieutenant, a navigator, the loadmaster, a tech sergeant and the flight mechanic. Two enlisted soldiers went along for the ride. The loadmaster typically emptied the 200 boxes of leaflets down the chute during the flight for distribution to the natives.

But 30 minutes into the flight, over the An Hoa River and about 25 miles from the air base, the unexpected happened. A .50-caliber bullet from an enemy machinegun struck the bottom of the airplane’s fuselage. The aircraft shook and the loadmaster said, “We’re hit.”

The bullet ripped through the fuselage, hit the hydraulic line, went through the left wing and into the left engine, which caught fire immediately. They had to decide to bail out the crew or return to Da Nang.

Gamble notified air traffic about their emergency and turned for Da Nang. But the fuel tank in the left wing exploded, filling the cockpit with smoke and heat. The airplane was flying sideways on one engine.

“I’m saying to God, “Please don’t let me die in this unforsaken place that I don’t want to be anyway. If I die here, I’ll never see my friends again back in the States,’” Gamble said.

The tower told them, “You’re too low. You’re not going to make it to the runway.” “That’s when I really believe my belief in God, I would make it to the runway. Going from doubt to courage,” he said.

The aircraft touched down, without brakes because all hydraulic fluid was lost. The airplane rolled to a stop and Gamble told everyone to evacuate. However, the loadmaster said the fire and smoke was too intense to exit.

Fortunately, the base helicopter, nicknamed Pedro, arrived and hovered above the burning plane. The wind from its blades pushed the flames and smoke enough so everyone could scramble out the exit. All seven occupants exited safely, only subjected to bruises.

Less than two minutes later, the auxiliary tank exploded. The airplane was totally destroyed.

Gamble received the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with six oak leaf clusters.

While picking cotton as a child in Madison, Gamble saw fighters flying and decided to become a pilot. A graduate of Tennessee State University, he earned commission from Air Force ROTC in 1965. After 56 weeks of flight training at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, he left for Vietnam in February 1968.

Gamble, 78, now lives in Matthews, N.C. near Charlotte, with wife of 48 years, Elaine. He owns a real estate company.

Their son Davian and daughter Leilana Vaughan live in Charlotte. Elaine and Carl have four grandchildren.

Gamble’s book, “My Blue Yonder,” tells his journey from picking cotton to piloting one of the world’s largest airplanes. He has 100-percent disability rating from Veterans Affairs. Gamble belongs to Charlotte Social Connections, Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals and Black Airline Aviator Pioneers.

“We have veterans participating in dialogue and events that are nonproductive. There could be a lot more dialogue about what’s going on in our country today,” Gamble said about the 50th commemoration of the Vietnam War. “I would not like to think Vietnam and our other wars are not a wasted cause. Peace and love to all our veterans around the world.”

For more information, visit theredstonerocket.com.

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