ALAMOGORDO, N.M. — As an aerial gunner, Robert La Rosa waged war from the heavens by firing down a hailstorm of bullets from gunships so ferocious they were named after dragons.
La Rosa, 74, is a retired master sergeant from the U.S. Air Force who served as an aerial gunner in Vietnam. La Rosa was reminded of his years of service when Holloman Air Force Base held its open house on Saturday.
At Team Holloman's Legacy of Freedom open house and air show, an AC-130 W Stinger II gunship sat on display for visitors to see. Though visitors to the base saw the plane, none saw it the way La Rosa did.
"The plane is the latest version at the air force gunship," La Rosa said.
During Vietnam, La Rosa was an aerial gunner with the 18th Special Operations Squadron that flew the AC-119 K Stinger gunship. For La Rosa the ship brought back memories of pride and pain.
La Rosa said originally 26 of the AC-119 K Stinger gunship were made and brought to Vietnam but none of them returned home.
He said the gunship had a very specific and important mission during the Vietnam War.
"The mission was called the interdiction on the Ho Chi Minh Trail to hunt trucks, truck convoys, tanks and support the troops on the ground," he said. "We also flew cover and defense for different bases during Vietnam."
The retired master sergeant said his squadron was often on call all hours of the day to answer the needs of troops on the ground or to prevent enemy troops from transporting weapons.
"Our squadron flew round the clock missions," he said. "I flew a lot of night missions. Sometimes I'd fly three times in the same night."
La Rosa said most of the missions he flew on were extremely dangerous.
He said he was fortunate to have survived.
"We got shot at a lot," La Rosa said. "My plane was shot up on one particular mission really bad."
He recalled his gunship being shot by anti aircraft artillery so bad that it had a 6-foot hole in the belly of the ship.
"The first 57 mm artillery round hit the belly of the aircraft at the bottom and exploded and blew a hole through the belly of the aircraft," he said. "The second one past inside the gunners compartment and as it past through it blew up in there."
He said during that particular mission he and his entire crew were almost killed.
"What happened is when the round exploded inside the plane it destroyed all the rudder cables for the copilot so he had no control," he said. Then the rest of the artillery fragments and everything went through one of our cans of ammunition for the 20 mm guns. The rest of the fragments went up through the overhead fuel tank and burst out of the top of the airplane. So all of the fuel was pouring down out of that overhead fuel tank on us while we were flying."
He said while he and his crew were being drenched by fuel, they scrambled to strap on their parachutes to escape the damaged gunship.
"We were getting ready to bail out of the airplane because of the lack of control ability of the plane but the pilots still could keep it in the air," he said. "So you can imagine the fuel is coming out of the overhead tank through the compartment and flowing across the floor and going out the 6-foot hole in the belly and its streaming out behind the plane."
He said his crew decided not to ditch the plane and instead chose to try to fly it back to their base in Da Nang, Vietnam.
"Then we were trying to keep the airplane in the air and the pilots were struggling because of the big hole in the airplane and they were losing fuel," he said. "So we started throwing everything out so we could lighten the aircraft. Cause we had to go over a mountain range to get back home. We threw out all the ammunition and all the brass from the ammunition out."
Fortunately for La Rosa and his crew they managed to get to their base but the trouble wasn't over.
"With our hydraulic system shot out, we weren't going to be able to land with any flaps on the airplane," he said. "The other thing is that we couldn't lower our landing gear so we figured we might have to crash land it and you don't crash land that particular airplane. So, what happened is myself and the flight engineer hand cranked the main landing gears and the nose landing gear down."
After the pilot was able to land the plane, La Rosa said he and his crew leapt 10 feet from the plane to the runway and ran for safety while fearing the plane would explode.
La Rosa said that was probably the worst mission he endured. But he said he flew in many missions during his years in Vietnam.
"I flew a 156 combat missions over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia," he said.
La Rosa explained that even though his crew was shot at a lot they were able to give as well they could take.
"If you were to put all the guns at one time shooting from the airplane we could cover – in a 3 second burst — we could cover every square foot of a football field with a round of ammunition."
He said Vietnamese feared the gunships so much they gave them terrifying names like Spooky.
"Well, all of the gunships were named by the Vietnamese. They were named after fire breathing dragons," he said. "Since we were so bad."
La Rosa said not only were the gunships awesome but the airmen who flew them were amazing. As he choked back tears, he spoke about airmen he considered brothers who were killed in action.
Although his job was extremely dangerous, difficult and sometimes tragic, he expressed great pride in the work he accomplished as an airman.
"I feel I saved a lot of lives," he said. "Both Vietnamese and American."