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University of Missouri

Charlie Chaser

Larry Fletcher is filling retirement with books about his Vietnam War experience.

Larry Fletcher

Larry Fletcher stands beside a T-38 Talon jet trainer during flight school in 1969 in San Antonio. Photo courtesy of Larry Fletcher.

Larry Fletcher looked for 28 years for the book he wanted to read. Finally, he gave up — and wrote it himself.

Charlie Chasers (Hellgate Press, 2013) is the story of the U.S. Air Force’s 71st and 17th special operations squadrons, which flew combat missions in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War. It’s also Fletcher’s story.

Fletcher, M Ed ’66, EdSp ’81, Ed D ’81, flew 177 combat missions in the AC-119 “Shadow” gunship during his yearlong tour from 1970–71, earning two distinguished flying crosses, which are awarded for “extraordinary achievement” during combat flight.

Fletcher didn’t start out military bound, but he wasn’t drafted.

After receiving his bachelor’s in education from then-Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, Mo., he earned a master’s in education from MU, and then took a job with the St. Charles (Mo.) school district. One day in a high school current events class, a student of his asked why he hadn’t been drafted yet. The question caught him off guard. Fletcher’s father and uncle had seen action in World War II, but Fletcher had only seen the inside of a classroom, either as a student or teacher. He decided it was time to serve his country.

On a snow day shortly afterward, he trudged through deserted downtown St. Charles streets and walked into the military recruiting office. The Air Force was the only service branch to brave the snow that day. Fletcher, who had never been in a plane in his life, told the recruiter, “Well, I guess I could be a pilot.”

After flight school, Fletcher was disappointed by the assignments available for him to volunteer for. The “good” planes — the fighter jets and bombers — were gone. Only cargo planes were left, except for the AC-119 (“AC” standing for “attack cargo”).

“You mean it’s got guns on it?” Fletcher asked the officer.

“Yes,” he replied.

“I’ll take that.”

The Shadow was a cargo plane with guns added to it. Its genius was how, when its pilots flew in circles at a 30-to-45-degree bank, its gunners could continuously train four side-firing machine guns on one area. Whereas fighter jets lost sight of their targets after every pass, Shadow pilots could surround their targets for hours at a time.

From their base in Saigon, Vietnam, the Shadows provided close air support for the Cambodian army shortly after American ground troops withdrew from the country. What started as night-only missions in 1969 became anytime missions in 1970. “It was fly, eat, sleep. Fly, eat sleep,” Fletcher says.

Their secret effort to protect the people of Cambodia from the Viet Cong, Khmer Rouge and North Vietnamese was classified at the time. But Fletcher always believed it was a story worth telling.

After separating from the Air Force in 1973, Fletcher went on to a career in school administration, including six years as superintendent in California, Mo. He retired, in 1997, from the Camdenton, Mo., school system and now makes his “base of operations” in Lake Ozark, Mo., with his wife, Sue.

During his working years he had never found more than passing references to the AC-119 in books, so as soon as he retired, he started writing. In 2000 he self-published Shadows of Saigon, a novel based on his experience. He self-published a follow-up, The Shadow Spirit, in 2004.

“It needed to be recorded,” he says, “otherwise we little-known Shadows would have been forgotten.”