When Larry Alderson finished his high school education at Worth County R-1 near Grant City, Missouri, in the spring of 1966, he felt that his greatest competency was in drafting. He went on to spend a year in drafting courses at a local business college before applying his skills while employed in the office of a farm implement company in Independence.
“I was there for about eight months or so when I got my draft notice,” said Alderson. “That’s when I went and talked to an Air Force recruiter and he advised me to take my induction physical and then come see him.” He added, “The recruiter said he’d take care of everything else from there.”
The recruiter was true to his word and Alderson was inducted into the U.S. Air Force in Kansas City on July 25, 1968. He was then sent to Amarillo Air Base, Texas, to complete several weeks of basic training. As Alderson explained, he was one of the last classes to finish their training at the base before it was deactivated later that year.
“After basic, they sent me to Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, Colorado, for the weapons mechanic course,” he explained. “That lasted several months and we mostly learned to maintain, load and unload the guns, missiles and rockets used on different types of aircraft.”
His first permanent duty assignment came in January 1969 when he received orders for England Air Force Base near Alexandria, Louisiana. For the next 18 months, he helped load and unload the munitions from fighter aircraft used to train members of the South Vietnamese air force.
“It seemed like everyone I had gone to basic with was getting orders for Vietnam to load bombs on F-4s (Phantoms)—and that, I was told, amounted to 14-hour days spent in the hot sun,” he said. “But I had a friend that came back from Vietnam, who had been on gunships. and said if I volunteered for that duty, you get air-conditioning and chow hall privileges.”
Volunteering for the gunship mission, Alderson spent several weeks in the Airborne Weapons Technician Course at Lockbourne Air Force Base (now Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base) in Ohio. He learned to load and maintain the weapons on the AC-119K Stinger—a side-firing gunship fulfilling several roles such as defense of ground positions, armed reconnaissance and interdiction. His next stop was Spokane, Washington, for a couple of weeks of survival training before traveling to Clark Air Base in the Philippines, for additional survival training focused on jungle-like conditions. From there, he flew into Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, in October 1970 and hitched a ride on a small plane to his duty assignment at Phan Rang Air Base, South Vietnam.
“I spent my first month there in training and then flew an actual mission as a gunner,” he said. “During that first mission, there was a sergeant that reviewed my performance to make sure I was prepared to do my job on the AC-119K,” he added.
The veteran noted he was responsible for loading and maintaining the weapons on the AC-119K. It had both a Starlight and infrared scope used by the pilot to maneuver the aircraft to line up the four mini-guns or the two 20mm guns to fire on a target. Additionally, the gunship had a rudimentary onboard computer that calculated wind speeds to ensure better accuracy in firing.
“They sent me to the air base in Nakhon Phanom in Thailand and we began flying mostly night missions from there,” he said. “We were doing about five missions a week and attacking enemy trucks that were running from North Vietnam and Laos along the Ho Chi Minh Trail carrying weapons and supplies.”
Alderson added, “On one mission, after we had transferred to Da Nang, we had a journalist flying with us. On that night, artillery was fired at us and came up behind the cockpit and in front of the wing, exploding above us. That,” he continued, “would have been deadly had it hit our wing or the fuselage.”
In other situations, the former airman recalls, artillery exploded in close proximity, creating the sound of “pinging” from shrapnel striking against the aircraft’s metal exterior.
Completing more than 100 missions, he returned to the states in October 1971 and was assigned to McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas, where he maintained mini-guns on the F-105 Thunderchief. During a special function at the base, he was presented a Distinguished Flying Cross for demonstrating “professional competence” and “aerial skill” in a dangerous mission in Vietnam on April 22, 1971.
“I was able to get an early discharge in May 1972—about a month early—to return to Missouri and enroll in college,” he said. “I was accepted at Missouri Southern State College (now University) in Joplin and used my GI Bill to graduate in 1976 with my bachelor’s degree in Environmental Health Technology.”
The veteran moved to Jefferson City in 1979 and went on to retire from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources in 2004. He and his wife, Deborah, have remained active with Roscoe Enloe American Legion Post 5, which, he recognizes, affords him opportunities to continue his service.
“Like most, I am proud of my military service and would do it again if I wasn’t an old man,” he laughed. “It’s nice that I can still serve with organizations like the American Legion Riders to support events such as welcoming back veterans who have gone to Washington, D.C., with the (Central Missouri) Honor Flight.”
He concluded, “When I signed up for gunships in Vietnam, I thought it sounded exciting but I quickly realized how dangerous it really was when we started encountering anti-aircraft fire. I was one of the lucky ones that made it safely through; unfortunately, there were too many air crews who weren’t so lucky.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.