Golden Gate Wing Guest Speaker Archive

Presentation Date: February 24, 2005

LT GEN John F. Gonge USAF (RET)

Speaker Photo

* Flew the "Hump" In China-Burma-India Campaigns (CBI) During WWII — * Career Transport Pilot, Remaining With Airlift Forces Through Air Training Command, Military Air Transport Service and Military Airlift Command — * Military Decorations Include: DSM, DFC, AM, Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal, AF Commendation Medal with OLC, and many others — * Retired 1 September 1977 With Over 35 Years Active Duty, Over 13,000 Flying Hours Logged, and a Three-Star GENERAL (LT GEN) * Command Pilot
* Born In Ansley, Nebraska in 1921
* Entered USAAC As Aviation Cadet; Received Wings & Commission December 1943 At Lubbock, TX
* Completed Multiengine Training March 1944, Then Flew the "Hump" In China-Burma-India Campaigns (CBI) During WWII
* Career Transport Pilot, Remaining With Airlift Forces Through Air Training Command, Military Air Transport Service and Military Airlift Command
* Served In Many Locations Throughout the World, With Increasing Command Responsibilities; e.g., Kelly AFB, Randolph AFB, Travis AFB, Clark Air Base- Philippine Islands, Norton AFB, McGuire AFB, National War College and the Pentagon (in Organization of the Joint Chiefs of Staff)
* Final Position: Vice Commander in Chief, MAC (Military Airlift Command)
* Military Decorations Include: DSM, DFC, AM, Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal, AF Commendation Medal with OLC, and many others
* Retired 1 September 1977 With Over 35 Years Active Duty, Over 13,000 Flying Hours Logged, and a Three-Star GENERAL (LT GEN)

Airlift: Special Cargo

Command Pilot LT GEN John F. Gonge, USAF (RET)

Born in 1921, and raised in his early years on a farm near Ansley, Nebraska, John Gonge says his family moved into a ‘great big’ town of 890 residents when he was a freshman in high school. His father bought a building there with a restaurant, beer joint and pool hall.

John says his grandfather was a great pool player, and "after four or five years of internship under his wing I became a pretty good pool player myself. I pretty much financed my career with that."

Playing pool also provided a direct link to John meeting his first and only wife. While working as a civilian at Wright-Patterson AFB, Gonge says he became an Air Force cadet. Six months before he was to be called for duty, John went home on leave to Grand, Iowa, where his father had been working in an ordnance plant.

While staying with his family, John went to the town grocery store and was smitten by the looks of a girl he saw there. "I got to know her by going over and being obnoxious, I guess."

Gonge asked her to the Sunday dance, and after the dance asked her for a date. She responded that he could come out to the house and pick her up the next Sunday night.

One day during the following week, Gonge was down at the local pool hall challenging anyone in the hall to beat him at snooker for a $25 bet.

John’s challenge was accepted by one man, while another unknown man bet $25 on John to win and others joined in the wagering. After five games of snooker, Gonge walked away with his prize money, as did the man who’d bet on John to win, who thanked Gonge profusely.

"Sunday I went to go pick up my date. I drove up, got out of the car and knocked on the door and guess who came to the door. A great way to start out... ‘and my daughter’s boyfriend is a pool shark.’"

In the long run though, it worked out just fine, as John and his wife were married more than fifty years.

John received his pilot wings and commission as a second lieutenant in December 1943, at Lubbock, Texas. Three months later, in March of 1944, he completed his multiengine training.

Gonge says he was a First Lieutenant assigned to Kelly Field, Texas, one of eight pilots who ferried aircraft around the United States. One day, the base commanding officer, a two star general, needed a pilot to fly his B-17 to Phoenix, and asked an officer which of the pilots should fly the bomber.

The response was, "We’ve got three guys who are very well qualified. One of them‘s name is Lucowski, one’s name is John Ong and the third one’s name is John Gonge.

Gonge says the general replied, "For Christ’s sake, don’t you have any Americans down there?"

Fortuitously, Gonge was the general’s choice. John ultimately turned that opportunity into becoming an aide to four different generals over eight years, helping pave Gonge’s way to success and an upward career path.

During World War II, Gonge flew the "Hump" in the China-Burma-India Theater with the Army Air Corps Air Transport Command. He says he flew out of the base at Jorhat, in the northern end of the Assam Valley near the Himalaya Mountains.

If the height of the Himalayas wasn’t enough, with more than thirty peaks rising higher than 24,000 feet, the weather over the mountains made Hump trips notoriously dangerous.

"You usually had either very, very bad heavy rains and a low ceiling in India, or you had terribly high winds and snow on the other end. You never really had any really good flying weather most of the time you were there. Weather was so bad that when you got blown around, you hoped you had enough gas to get back to your home station."

In all of his Hump flights, Gonge says he only saw the mountains about three times. Navigation was by radio beam, because a compass would swing wildly due to iron ore in the mountains. And, Gonge says pilots really, "Didn't need the radio. You could just fly the aluminum trail… because you could see where the airplanes went down."

Gonge flew two versions of the B-24 - - a cargo version with the designation C-87, and the C-109, a tanker with extra fuel tanks instead of a bomb bay. Most frequently, the cargo was fuel for B-29s mounting the strategic bombing campaign against mainland Japan. The C-87 version carried gasoline in 50-gallon barrels, hauling about 35 or 40 barrels depending on how badly the gas was needed in China.

To combat the weather, the B-24 had rubber de-icing boots on the wings, but Gonge says they didn’t always do the job because of the B-24 wing’s high angle of attack.

"The ice formed underneath the wing and you couldn’t get it off. What you did if you got into a bad thunderstorm or got iced up to where you couldn’t hold your altitude, you ‘d have to start coming down. You’d put the plane into a turn and keep it in that turn, down, down, until the ice melted off.

"Then, you’d give it all the power you can, including the turbo and climb as fast as you can to get up on top and thrown out of the thunderstorm. I’ve been thrown out on top at 32,000 feet and the airplane isn’t supposed to fly out there. But it did, with max power and max turbo all the way back home."

The rear fuselage doors of these high altitude fuel carriers had been removed, and to bear the low temperatures, crews wore electric-heated suits.

"India - - when we took off - - was about 140 degrees in the shade. You had to put that suit on, and you’d perspire, you would be wringing wet. At about 20,000 feet you started to cook, because the electric suit would get hot and you’d see steam coming out of the sides of the thing. You had to wear a mask and that would freeze to your face, to your nose. Everyone of us had no skin around the nose."

Radios in these cargo carriers had long wire aerials which had to be reeled out to trail behind the airplane, and made Gonge cringe.

"We were a short fused bomb, believe me. Every time you pressed the mic button, the radio would arc. The first thing I did every time I got in the airplane was unplug that damn radio. I didn’t want to get blown up with somebody playing with that thing with gasoline fumes in the airplane.

Gonge says they also hauled mules over the Hump, a job requiring unique rigging for the cargo planes.

"We had a special pan built for mules. We’d tie them in and snuggle them down and tie their legs together so they couldn’t kick a hole in the airplane. We’d take them up to 22-23,000 feet and they didn’t kick. They were having a hard time breathing but they didn’t kick. And when we got to the other side of the mountains, we’d just drive her straight down before they could get well again and start kicking holes in the airplane!"

One of Gonge’s most memorable experiences was a major cargo push dubbed "Tons for Tunner". Its goal was to haul as many tons of material over the Himalayas as possible in a day, to set a record for the Army Air Forces.

On the day this special push was scheduled, the weather was terrible on both sides of the mountains. Gonge says the word came to go anyway, to make that record for General William Tunner.

"Twelve of us took off from Jorhat, and I’m the only one who made it back out of the twelve airplanes. We were almost upside down when we got thrown out of the top of the thunderstorm, but we were able to stay there.

"We got some tons over there all right, but we paid an awful price. From then on, my boss said, ’Whenever you come back, if you tell me the weather’s bad, I’ll just shut the Hump down, you’re not going to fly.’ So that’s what we did."

On one of his last trips over the Hump, Gonge says his transport started losing engines. Number one engine died first, losing fuel pressure for no apparent reason. Number four died next, and John radioed to say he was heading for a landing at a base in Burma. When a third engine sputtered to a stop, the command pilot thought he’d be dead-sticking it down.

"Before I could get down, all three of those engines came back on. I flew around a bit to figure out what was causing it, but we couldn’t figure it out."

As the transport was coming back into the traffic pattern, all three engines quit again, and Gonge brought it in on a single engine.

Ground crew tested the plane but could not find the source of the problem. When the base commanding officer told Gonge to fly the transport out, he replied he wouldn’t until he knew why the engines failed.

Gonge says the commander told him, "It was pilot error."

To which John responded, "This is one pilot who isn’t going to make another error until you tell me what’s wrong with that airplane."

After the base commander called Gonge’s CO, who upheld his pilot’s decision not to fly, a local crew boarded the plane to fly it back. Gonge says they took off and were never seen again.

Gonge survived 1000 hours flying the Hump, and returned to the United States to an assignment with the 47th Bombardment Group at Lake Charles Army Air Field, Louisiana. He remained with airlift forces through Air Training Command, Military Air Transport Service, and Military Airlift Command, serving in many locations throughout the world with increasing command responsibilities. The National War College saw him from August 1965 to June 1966, and assignments then came to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and to Military Airlift Wing postings.

It was in his position as Commander of the 22nd Air Force, Military Airlift Command at the end of the Vietnam War, that he had the biggest highlight of his career.

Operation Homecoming

Gonge’s headquarters were at Travis AFB when negotiations with communist Vietnam succeeded in the release of nearly 600 U.S. servicemen being held as prisoners of war in Hanoi.

Gen. Chappie James called Gonge to meet in the Pentagon to develop a plan to pick up the POWs with his fleet of airlift planes, a plan that had to be absolutely letter-perfect with no mistakes.

"We sat down and wrote the whole plan, the way we were going to pick them up in Hanoi. Lo and behold, I guess about a year later, we got the word they were going to release some prisoners and we were going to go get them.

At that time, Gonge’s command ranged over all Air Force transports form the west side of the Mississippi River to Karachi, India, and from the North Pole to the South Pole.

"We had to set up communications and a system of how we were going to get these guys. We used C-141s and I got to pick all the crews. Fortunately, I knew all the crews because I flew with them all the time. And, everybody wanted that mission."

The mission’s parameters were set by Hanoi - - the transports could land at Hanoi’s Gia Lam Airport, but must land only on the hour and half-hour, and had to be loaded and off the ground so that the first airplane was away before the second plane touched down. And the planes could not be landed until someone the Vietnamese called the Airport Officer gave clearance to land.

Twelve aircraft chosen for the mission were flown out to Clark AFB in the Philippines, and Gonge says he put one of his very best friends, a colonel, in charge of that part of the operation. Crews were carefully selected, right down to the medical techs and nurses.

"We could be accused of probably picking some awfully good-looking nurses. But we thought that the guys that hadn’t seen anybody for six years ought to have a little thrill. We made sure we had some pretty classy looking ladies as the nurses on board."

The whole operation was commanded from the air. A couple of "talking bird" C-130s made up a communications relay, from off the coast of Vietnam to Gonge’s command aircraft.

"I could talk to my crews just as well as I’m talking to you right now. The plan stated I would have command and control, and nobody else would be on those frequencies, period. "

On the trip for the first load of POWs, Gonge says, all the Air Force command posts logged on to listen to the operation, as did the President in the White House.

The first two aircraft at Clark fired up, taxied out and flew off. The second ship of the pair got halfway to Hanoi and turned around. It had been an alternate transport, in the event anything happened to prevent the first aircraft from making the trip on time. Gonge says he didn’t care what happened, but a transport was going to be there, promptly on the hour.

The radio crackled with the voice of the first transport’s pilot, "We’re about 25 miles out. Do I have clearance to land?"

Gonge says he called the Airport Officer on the ground, asking for clearance for the first C-141, and got no answer. He tried again, and again no word. So, Gonge says he told the transport pilot to prepare to land and to keep in touch with Gonge.

Word came back from the C-141 pilot that he was on final approach, and then the Vietnamese Airport Officer responded with direction to land on the hour and put the transport on the blocks.

Gonge says he called the pilot, saying, "Pull the gear up, go around and make a fighter approach, and put the damn airplane on the ground. Make sure you’re on the blocks on the hour. I don’t care how you get there. You get there and be on the blocks on the hour."

The pilot responded with a sharp "Yes sir," and landed.

Listening in the White House, the President of the United States is reported to have commented, "If I’ve ever seen command and control, by God, that’s command and control."

The pilot pulled the C-141 into its ramp location, relaying a visual description of the airport to Gonge in his command jet. There was the rickety terminal building, but no POWs nor even any visible guards.

Among the rules for the POW return, there were to be no weapons or ammunition on board the transports. Gonge, though, was concerned that once the C-141s were on the ground, the Vietnamese might change their mind and try to take the airplane.

In a mission briefing Gonge says he told his crew, "If anybody tries to take that airplane, there better be blood all over the sand, because I don’t want anybody to touch that airplane. None of you guys better be alive. You better fight it right down to the last minute, because they’re not going to get that airplane."

Fortunately, that scenario never materialized.

The C-141 sat for about five minutes before the rear cargo door opened. An old bus finally came into view of the plane‘s crew, and it stopped by the terminal. One by one the POWs were released, starting with those who had been prisoners the longest time. They had been cleaned up and were wearing identical jackets over sports clothes.

A table was unfolded, and a representative from each government held a list of names to ensure POWs were accounted for as they came to the transport.

Gonge says he ordered the ‘prettiest nurse’ to go bring the first repatriated prisoner to the C-141. By the time the first 45 or 46 prisoners in the bus were loaded, there were only six minutes left to take off the first transport and bring the second plane in to land. There was no time to run up the engines. Just go.

The POWs were seated in the transport, four abreast in rows of seats facing aft. Gonge recalls asking the crew what the prisoners were doing, what kind of reaction they had to being released. He remembers the crew telling him everything was very quiet on the plane. The crew had a hard time getting the POWs to sit down and put their belts on.

John Gonge faced an extra, personal dimension in this mission. Five of the POWs were colleagues of Gonge’s, classmates from the National War College. The pilot said that as soon as they cleared Vietnamese air space, he’d gather and relay information as to who was aboard.

"When they told them they’d cleared the coast of Vietnam, all hell broke loose in that airplane. You’ve never heard so much yelling, clapping and cheering in your life. They’d left the radio open so we could all hear that.

"Pretty soon, the pilot said, ’ I think there’s a man here that you’re looking for.’ The guy’s name was Norm Gaddis (USAF BRIG GEN, RET). And he got on the phone and said, ‘John, I knew you’d come. But for Christ sakes, what took you so long?’

MilitaryAirlift Command has rules against dogs in airplanes, and MAC’s national command post called Gonge while the cargo plane was en route to Clark to say there was a prisoner with a dog on the first transport. MAC brass wanted verification.

Gonge says he called the pilot, who confirmed the C-141’s canine passenger. One prisoner had somehow been able to have a pet dog, and it was being carried in the man’s arms. Gonge told his superior officers he didn’t believe there was a dog, but if that proved wrong, he’d let them know about it.

"I switched frequencies and got ahold of my commander in the Philippines and I said, ‘You get in a jeep and get out along the end of that runway. When that guy slows down to make the turn, thrown that dog out and carry it in your jeep. Don’t unload that airplane with that dog in there!’ "

The plan went into effect, and the transport was unloaded without incident. The next day the serviceman was seen reunited with the dog. Gonge commented, "How he got there, I never did know."

The repatriated prisoners first landed at Clark AFB and then flew directly back to Travis AFB before being sent home or to hospitals for treatment. Gonge was asked by the President to personally meet the airplanes and welcome the prisoners back to U.S. soil.

"If ever there was a proud moment in your life, that was a proud moment. Believe me, it was just absolutely out of this world!

"To a man they came off the airplane, stopped and saluted the flag, then came over and shook hands with us."

The families of the POWs were supposed to stay back. But in most cases, with separation for more than five years, families broke ranks to be reunited with their missing men.

"Probably the most touching thing I guess... was when one of the guys’ sons was in junior high school when he was shot down. That boy was now a third year classman in the Air Force Academy. You’ve never seen a reunion like that."

Operation Homecoming saw the safe return home of about 600 servicemen. For the transport crews under the command of John Gonge, the mission was perfect - - the transports never missed a landing or takeoff time.

Lt. Gen John Gonge started his Army Air Corps career as a ‘one-striper’ with no college education and retired a command pilot with more than 13,000 flying hours in 34 years of service. His military decorations and awards include the Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal with oak leaf cluster, Army Commendation Medal, and the Distinguished Unit Citation Emblem.


The POW’s Best Friend


from the website "Operation Homecoming" - -

No one on the ground or in the aircraft had noticed the dog, but Wayne (Everingham) did so he asked about it. The man had zipped the dog into his ditty bag and somehow kept it quiet. It was just a stray that some of the Americans had befriended and made kind of a camp mascot.

The man told Wayne that on the morning of this departure, the men were awakened early and given very short notice to load onto the bus, their first "official" notice of release. He saw the prison cook trying to catch the dog, so there wasn't much doubt about its fate! He broke ranks and got into an argument with the cook about the dog. The guards rushed in and because the American refused to board the bus and leave the dog, they gave in - they knew about the publicity that was focused on this release. The American took the dog with him and got on the bus.

< north.jpg caption> Wayne Everingham was an aeromedical technician during Operation Homecoming. He commented that each of the newly freed men was dressed in the same colored clothing, carried a ditty bag and wore a very somber face. But that changed immediately to a beaming smile as they got inside of the aircraft - they hadn't wanted the Vietnamese to see any expression!

< nurse.jpg caption> We were met at the door by pretty young ladies, the first American women we had seen in years. We sat down in the seats and looked around. Everything seemed like heaven. Just like heaven. When the doors of that C-141 closed, there were tears in the eyes of every man aboard.