On 18 Sep 1965, 19 days after arriving in Vietnam, Captains Tom Tolliver and David Benson were passengers on a C-130A Hercules, Tail # 55-038 on their way to the 20th TASS at Da Nang, when the C-130 crashed into the water attempting to make a visual approach to land at Qui Nhon air base in low clouds and rain. The C-130A, 35th Troop Carrier Squadron, call sign “Abner 79,” had taken off from Tan Son Nhut AB at Saigon with five crew members, five passengers, and 27,900 lbs of cargo on a tactical emergency mission to Qui Nhon air Base, RVN, 233 miles to the northeast on the coast. It was an hour and 10 minute flight at 11,000 feet. Starting at 500 feet altitude, the aircraft made a steep left turn to final approach to runway 36 with low clouds and rain causing reduced visibility. When the pilot rolled the wings level on final, he immediately hit the water in landing attitude 500 yards short of the coast near the end of the runway. The aircraft skipped once or twice and came to rest about 200 yards from the coast on the runway centerline. The water impact caused the aircraft to lose all four propellers, all landing gear, and all wing pylons and the fuselage broke in two approximately in line with the propellers. The aircraft sank up to the wings in seconds with the nose completely submerged. The pilot in the left seat and navigator escaped out the pilot’s left window. The pilot in the right seat and the flight mechanic were recovered from the nose section 4 days later. Three passengers survived although they have no knowledge of how they exited the aircraft. The cargo had broke loose, carrying the loadmaster out of the aircraft with it. The aircraft sank in 25 feet of water about 42 minutes after the crash.
Two crew members and two passengers were fatally injured. They were Capt. Fred R. Tice, Pilot in Command but in the copilot seat; FM Walter O. Tramel, Flight Mechanic; Capt. Thomas J. Tolliver, Passenger; and Capt. David E. Benson, Passenger.
That’s a matter of fact description of my father’s death along with three others in a far off place and a time long since gone.
Much was changed that day. From that point on I could only know and bond with my father through second hand information and “artifacts” from his life. As bad as that would be for any child to have to do we were blessed with an abundance of what historians call primary documents that allowed us to put together a story that was pretty full.
We have his attendance records from Sunday School at Zion Church in Union, Missouri where he grew up. He had near perfect attendance from the crib through confirmation and some were even signed by his own mother, a grandmother I never met.
We also have all his transcripts from high school to his Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from Arizona State University. Looking at his transcripts next to his career trajectory as a senior pilot and pilot instructor in the U.S. Air Force AND a family man and father of at first, one child, then three children in the midst of all this and you get a feeling that someone special was building a great life.
Because he was killed in the Vietnam War we can’t know what he would have done with his training had he come home but there are indications he was being groomed for the space program and NASA; not necessarily as an astronaut although he flew everything from a Cessna to the most advanced fighter interceptor in the Air Force inventory. He probably would have been an R & D guy and someone to liaise with manufacturers for the space program.
A look at some of his course work gives us a clue: Tom earned A grades in most of the technical courses, including Analytical Geometry, Calculus, Differential Equations, Engineering Mechanics, Electrical Networks, Thermodynamics, Engineering Statistics, Engineering Measurements, Rocket Propulsion, Rocketry, Human Factors of Space Travel, Technical Communications, Mechanical Orbits and Trajectories, Mechanical Engineering Lab, Fluid Mechanics, and Heat Transfer.
I could speak more to the effect it had on our lives losing our father and maybe I will sometime but I want to put up his biography as published in “Flight to the Future Vol. II” but Richard Pierson Lt. Col. USAF Ret. and Colonel Billie Parker USAF Ret. Both men went through pilot training with my father as member of Class 55N. They were friends and together with these gentlemen my brother Tom and I put together a neat history and solved some mysteries surrounding our father.
Among everything he had with him when he was killed were some three inch audio tapes plus one he mailed to us from the Philippines. He’d arranged it so we could send audio mail to each other. Pretty cutting edge stuff, huh? These were carefully stored and somehow Tom ended up with one and I the other. Playing these back after so much time could have disastrous results so Tom sent them to an audio lab to safely recover whatever there was to listen to.
All we could do was wait. Would we hear our voices from fifty years ago or would we end up like Geraldo Rivera at Al Capones’ vault. It was pretty emotional waiting and it was very emotional when the CD’s came in. One had what our father sent put down as four tracks. He made it and sent it well before August 30, 1965 because on the four tracks we made for him my mother gives the date as Saturday, September 4, 1965 and this gives rise to a bit of a mystery because the tape couldn’t have been mailed to him on that coming Monday, September 6, 1965 because it was Labor Day. The earliest it could be mailed was on the 7th from a small rural town all the way to Vietnam. I don’t know how fast mail was to our soldiers so we can’t know if he even heard our greetings. He had less than two weeks to live.
I’m posting the contents of both tapes at a later date or maybe on Facebook or YouTube because of size issues. When I get them uploaded you’ll have a chance to hear our voices from 50 years ago, mid-western Missourah drawl and all. I hadn’t forgotten that dad was pretty softspoken and in listening to him Elvis comes to mind. My brother, Tom and I think mom made notes or scripted herself because there are very few ah’s or uh’s. On track two you can hear my squeaky voice taping a very technical description of my new glasses. For a minute I wondered why the Hell I did that but then thought , “I wanted to communicate on his level” that’s all. I hope it will be worth the wait. It’s definitely NOT Al Capones’ vault.
The running time for each approaches tape 30 minutes so some endurance is an asset.
Click here for the biography of Capt. Thomas J. Tolliver as it appears in Flying into History: Meet the Heroes of Air Force Flying Class 55N (Volume II)