Dorm name honors first USAF enlisted casualty of Vietnam

  • Published
  • By Jim Malachowski
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Historian
The first known Air Force combat loss of the Vietnam War occurred on a classified mission.
Some aspects of the operation remain classified but much of the story can be told.
The leaflet drop mission had become routine in the months Detachment 2, 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron had spent in Vietnam. The first leg of the out-and-back flight between their air base at Bien Hoa, about 30 miles northeast of Saigon, and Da Nang was uneventful. The C-47 crew arrived in Da Nang on schedule and stayed there overnight.
The next morning, March 11, 1962, the crew boarded their antiquated "Gooney Bird" for the return flight. The plan was to over-fly several villages; dropping leaflets in an area intelligence believed could be persuaded to support the South Vietnamese government.
Airman 1st Class Bob Westfall volunteered to serve as loadmaster for the mission, as the regular loadmaster had just returned from an all-night flare-dropping mission. Airman Westfall had always been outgoing. His friend, Robert Hollowell, said Airman Westfall had two big things in life, "flying drop missions and driving his white Corvette ... fast!"
Airman Westfall joined the highly secret outfit officially known as the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla., in 1961. Unofficially they were known as the Air Commandos. After training, they would fight a covert war in Vietnam long before the American people knew.
Airman Westfall was assigned to Detachment 2, the Farmgate detachment, commanded by Lt. Col. Robert Gleason. The detachment underwent intensive training at Hurlburt including training in unarmed combat and in marksmanship with the untested AR-15. After survival training in California, the detachment deployed 140 personnel, four B-26s, four C-47s and eight TF-28s on short notice to Vietnam in early November 1961, demonstrating the "Any Time, Any Place" motto that Air Commandos have lived by ever since.
The crew flying with Airman Westfall included Capt. Edward Kissam, 1st Lt. Stanley Hartson, 1st Lt. Jack LeTourneau, Tech. Sgt. Floyd Frazier, Army 2nd Lt. Lewis Walling, Army Spc. 4 Glen Merrihew and a Vietnamese Air Force observer. Back at Bien Hoa, the operations center received a message from the crew reporting ground fire before losing radio communication. Soon, nearly the entire detachment crowded the operations center waiting for news.
After declaring the aircraft missing, an intensive search began covering the area village by village through communication channels. Late in the afternoon, one village reported hearing a loud explosion nearby. By the time two TF-28s flew over the area and reported seeing a large burned area but no sign of survivors, the sun was going down. The area was deep in Viet Cong territory and too dangerous to enter at night. The detachment prepared a search and rescue team for launch at first light.
Dawn found the SAR team getting off a Vietnamese Army helicopter on a dirt road several miles from the crash site. The team, led by Colonel Gleason, hiked across the side of a mountain where they found the C-47 had plummeted into a ravine and burned almost completely. There were no survivors. They recovered the remains of the crew and returned to base. After returning to the states, the colonel personally visited each family, including Airman Westfall's family in Reading, Pa.
In the spirit of perpetuating the names and deeds of heroes who have given their lives in the service of their country, the Air Training Command's vice commander, Maj. Gen. John Murphy, presided over a ceremony at Vance Air Force Base on April 7, 1972, dedicating the enlisted dormitory after the first known U.S. Air Force enlisted combat loss of the Vietnam War. Hurlburt Field also named Westfall Circle after him.
Airman Westfall gave his life in the service of his country. The least we can do is honor the memory of this fallen Airman and remember the young man who loved flying and driving fast.