‘I just did what I was asked to do’
Frank Montgomery doesn’t fit the image of the typical Vietnam veteran.
First of all, he’s 89 years old, and Vietnam wasn’t his first taste of a combat zone. A World War II veteran who also served during the Korean War, Montgomery was flying P-51 fighter planes before most of his fellow Vietnam vets were flying kites.
Second, the High Point native wasn’t cursed or spat upon when he came home from Vietnam. By then a career military man, he simply came home and reported to a base in Ohio, where he was shielded from a public that largely disapproved of the war.
“I was fully aware that the military was not well-received after that war, but it didn’t happen to me,” Montgomery says softly. “I was not politically active. I just did what I was asked to do.”
Today, which marks the 40th anniversary of U.S. troop withdrawal from South Vietnam, Montgomery is reminded of another Vietnam milestone — May 12, 1968 — the day Lt. Col. Franklin B. Montgomery earned a Silver Star by, well, doing what he was asked to do.
It was Mother’s Day, and Montgomery — who piloted C-130 cargo planes during the war — had embarked on what was to be a routine supply mission. Before returning to base at Da Nang, though, the mission suddenly changed and became anything but routine.
“We were called to divert from our normal flight to a spot that was being overrun by the North Vietnamese,” Montgomery recalls. “It was called Kham Duc. I’d never been there before, and we didn’t know much about it, but we found it on the map and we went.”
Kham Duc was a special forces camp in a mountainous region about 40 miles from the American base at Da Nang. Over the previous two days of intense fighting, the Viet Cong had gained a stronghold at Kham Duc, and U.S. leaders had ordered an evacuation.
Montgomery’s mission was to rescue the remaining troops and South Vietnamese civilians — “the survivors,” he explains — and airlift them to safety at Da Nang.
Montgomery arrived at Kham Duc around dusk — and plumes of fire and smoke from the battle lined the airstrip where he needed to land — so visibility was limited.
“We had no radio contact with the ground,” he recalls. “The ground detachment had disappeared.”
To the side of the runway, Montgomery saw another C-130 that had been knocked out of commission. A little farther up, he saw the partial remains of a helicopter that had crashed and burned. In the distance, he saw a huge fireball, which he later learned was another C-130 — loaded with passengers — that had crashed and exploded on impact.
Bomb craters, debris and hastily dumped cargo littered the airstrip itself, giving even an experienced pilot such as Montgomery a short, dicey target to shoot for. He had his orders, though, so he landed the plane, even as it was strafed with anti-aircraft artillery.
“We looked around, and there was nobody there — not a soul,” Montgomery says. “All we saw was American fighters coming in on both sides, shooting rockets, dropping bombs. And smoke going up.”
Then, from a low embankment beside the runway, heads began to pop up over the horizon.
“It was people coming to get on our airplane — Americans, Vietnamese, children, old women, old men,” he says. “To get to the plane quicker, the Vietnamese were running directly under our propellers, which were still turning. We were yelling at them to go around. Luckily, they were short enough and didn’t get hit.”
In the 5 or so minutes the C-130 sat on the runway, upwards of 150 evacuees scrambled onto the plane. Montgomery ordered the ramp closed and quickly took off again, not even bothering to turn around and take off into the wind, as protocol normally required.
Less than an hour later, the plane touched down at Da Nang. It’s a memory that still gives Montgomery chills, some 45 years later.
“I heard this tremendous, tremendous, tremendous roar from the back of the plane, and I didn’t know what it was,” he says.
He heard it despite the communications headset covering his ears. He heard it above the din of the four jet engines and the four turning props. As he realized what it was, the hair on the back of his neck stood up.
“Every soul on that plane, all of them in unison, yelled at the top of their voices, cheering because they were safe,” Montgomery says. “I can still hear it now — just a roar.”
U.S. forces lost nine aircraft that day at Kham Duc, but Montgomery’s was not one of them. His heroism earned him a Silver Star for “gallantry in action” — the third-highest military decoration for valor that can be awarded.
Montgomery displays the Silver Star in a shadow box on the wall of his basement, along with his other military honors. He doesn’t brag about it, but he’s clearly proud of his service to this country during the Vietnam War.
He also feels regret for those Vietnam veterans who, for a variety of reasons, to this day cannot share that sense of pride.
“They gave up a lot to be in the service,” he says.
Obviously, they can’t be awarded Silver Stars, but it’s clear that Montgomery wishes they could hear from their country what he heard from the cargo hold of an airplane 45 years ago — a tremendous, tremendous, tremendous roar.
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