ATR2 Don Holder
It's been over thirty years since the crash but it is still clear in my mind. I often think about all the friends that were lost and what their lives would be like today. The pain is not near as great as the day it happened, but the pain still lingers inside of me. Thanks for this memorial page.
Guestbook Entry - Friday 10/11/2002
Email Received 3/17/2016
My name is Don Holder, a member of the PR26 crew. Attached is an article about my experiences that I wrote of which portions were published in the VQ Association Newsletter. You are welcome to use it on your site if you care to. The site continues to be informative to not only me, but to everyone that was involved. Thanks for all you do…
I was a member of VQ-1 2012-02-07I was a member of VQ-1 from Oct 1967 to Jul 1970. It was, without doubt, the most monumental time of my life. Graduating from Memphis AT”A” school, I attended several preparatory “C” schools at NAS North Island prior to my assignment with VQ-1 at NAS Atsugi, Japan. I have been a “fat boy” my entire life (still am) and even though most of the schools I attended were to prepare me for Aircrewman, I never believed I would be accepted. It’s apparent that wartime bends the rules to fit the needs. This is part of my story detailing the two years and nine months I spent with VQ-1.
I was assigned to the “I” level ECM Shop on arrival at NAS Atsugi. I was proud of being an ATRAN and eager to show my capabilities in repairing the equipment carried on the airplanes. The very next month it was my turn to do those things that Airman do…mess cooking! The catch being the job was a three month stint working, and living, with the 1st Marine Air Wing, deployed to Danang Air Base, Vietnam. VQ-1 was the only naval presence aboard Danang Air Base in 1967, and even though it had its own compound, no mess hall was available so we shared one with the Marines. Back in Atsugi, my Shop Supervisor (first name Fred), enticed me to accept the TAD with the Marines, by offering me a Ho Chi Minh advancement to Third Class Petty Officer. Come early Nov 1967, I was ferried from Atsugi to Danang, via the Philippines, to perform my first squadron assignment. Why does it seem like an eternity in time when one is going through the paces, but looking back it’s not much more than a footnote?
I was a “scullery rat” washing trays at the John Wayne Dining Hall. Having to work every day, I missed getting to attend the Bob Hope USO Show Christmas Special of 1967. I hoped he would come to the mess hall for lunch/dinner, but no such luck. The Tet offensive of Feb 1968 found us (me and another VQ-1 mess cook) crouched along with the Marines, fretting if our section of base would be overrun or not. As Sailors, we had no helmets, flak jackets, or weapons to defend ourselves, however, the Marines assured us we would be protected. Our barracks were next to the base perimeter and snipers were a problem. My tour ended in March of 1968, and true to his word, Fred saw to it that I was advanced to AT3 shortly afterward.
After a few more months of working in the ECM Shop, it was my turn to start training as an Elint Operator. I knew this was the start of an exciting time in my life. Completing the course, I was assigned to the crew of PR-21. If memory serves me well, I believe our name was “The Gray Ghosts” and our crew number was 2. Months passed learning to repair the ECM systems, growing proficient at being an Elint Operator, making deployments to Korea, Philippines, and Vietnam, and flying the Sea of Japan missions. The last part of 1968 I was offered the chance to transfer to “The Blue Crew” (Crew 6), flying PR-24. I made the switch not knowing what events would take place in Apr 1969.
Word spread very fast about North Korea shooting down our plane. The next few weeks were surreal in coping with the fact that our crew mates were gone forever. Pieces of PR-21 found floating in the Sea of Japan were retrieved by warships and fishing trawlers, and eventually returned to the squadron at Atsugi. The pieces were identified and arranged on the hangar floor as if the whole plane were hangered. The next few days the hangar was quiet as in memorial to those who lost their lives. Each day we would count the number of bullet holes that peppered the fuselage sections and shards of radome, trying not to think about the horror the crew endured. Days later it was decided by President Nixon (I think) that our missions flying off the coast of North Korea, in international waters, would resume. In the interim, a huge wet snow at Atsugi had caused all of the Willie Victors (the term Willie Victor and Super Connie for our EC-121M’s were interchanged quite often) to crash on their tails with damage to the many antennas located on the underside. Max effort to repair both the physical and electronic damage resulted in our being “mostly” ready to undertake our first mission. I was on that mission, scared like everyone else, but we were not alone. It was impossible to do any “cases” as the entire electronic spectrum was jammed with friendly emitters. Later we found out that over thirty aircraft and several ships were with us on that mission…just in case.
The remainder of 1969 was spent chasing Russian ships around the Pacific along with our regular missions and deployments to Danang. On one Danang TAD we were flying the northern portion of the dog leg, parallel to North Vietnam, gathering data and issuing warnings of enemy planes in the air and missiles that had been launched. I had completed a routine break from operating one of the consoles, and was walking aft to relieve someone else, when it was evident looking at their faces that something was happening. I grabbed a pair of headphones and plugged in to the intercom just in time to learn that two Migs, flying close to Hanoi, had turned and were heading straight towards us at a fast clip. The Pilot pulled power from the engines, lowered the flaps, and for a few seconds we were in a freefall as our plane dropped like a pancake. It seemed as if we were about five feet above the water before we stopped the plunge! All electronic systems in the aircraft were shut down to prevent lock-on by the enemy fighter weapons systems. Our inability to turn south to safety, because of the low altitude, meant that we were getting closer to the North Vietnam coast. For some reason the Migs turned back and didn’t attack us but nobody breathed easy for some time afterward. I never knew what turned the Migs but it wasn’t our protective cover (four F-4 Phantoms flying Barcap) because we were unable to raise them on the radio until much later.
March 1970. We departed NAS Atsugi not aboard our usual aircraft PR-24, but onboard PR-26. I believe the routine at the time was to leave aircraft at Danang and change out the crews. PR-26 was loaded with the usual cargo, including a small motorcycle, being ferried to Danang. By now I was a “seasoned” ATR2 and had been selected as Crew Leader. The flight to Tainan, Taiwan, for the night was uneventful. An important thing to remember when walking to the taxi stand on base at night, one must stay in the center of the road and either sing or whistle to let the Chinese troops know that you are friendly. Taiwan and mainland China were at odds with each other during those years. We departed the next morning for Danang Air Base to begin our deployment. You can easily find out what happened when we tried to land, so I’ll only tell you what happened to me.
I regained consciousness, laying on a gurney, in a medical facility close to the runway. I was trying to get off the gurney thinking we had landed in Danang and I was ready to start the post flight. An Air Force Major was telling me to lay still and I would be OK. Turning my head I saw more of our crew laying on gurneys and several medical personnel in attendance. I didn’t ask anything of anyone but kept my eyes open staring at the ceiling. I listened for familiar voices to try and discover what the matter was. Someone finally offered that we had crashed on landing. Those of us in the room started exchanging names, and calling out names of those who were aboard, to try and determine who was alive. Most of the names answering I didn’t know. I was one of the lucky ones as I used a ditching station next to the rear door. I had a few cuts, one caused by that motorcycle we were ferrying, and lots of bruises. I spent a little over a week total in hospital and the squadron gave me a couple of weeks to recover. It took about three years before I didn’t cry thinking about all my lost friends, and after about ten years I no longer thought about the crash every day. It’s a life event that still is in the front of my mind and sometimes seems like it happened yesterday. I still have guilt about being one of the eight that made it through the crash.
I went back to flying and made one last deployment to Danang prior to my separation from the Navy in Jul 1970. I wasn’t a civilian for long, and in Oct 1970, I reenlisted making the Navy a career. In Aug 1986 I retired with twenty years service at the rate of ATCS. I would like to share two last things with you. I remained on weight control my entire career and my life was nearly destroyed by over indulgences of alcohol. Learning to cope with who I am and how circumstances have changed me, has taken decades. Like everyone else, I have more stories but this is what I wanted to share. Thanks for reading.
Donald Wayne Holder, Wichita Falls, Texas, 7 Feb 2012