The C-130: Feeding the Needful Beast
War is a needful beast, consuming vast amounts of things. Munitions. Construction materials for protecting fragile bodies from munitions. Or to build boardwalks and nail salons that protected minds from the war going on outside the construction material. Vehicles and other equipment. Petroleum, oil, and lubricants — lots of them — to feed the vehicles and equipment. And people. People to run the vehicles and equipment, to fire the munitions, to walk on the boardwalk, to absorb the munitions (hence the term “bullet sponge”), and to eat — MREs and water, if you are a bullet sponge. TGI Friday’s if you are a board walker. Add food and water to the list.
The business of feeding the beast is called logistics. The staff types puff, “Amateurs talk strategy, but professionals talk logistics.” These professionals dream of iron mountains and bringing a little slice of America to the world — such as obesity, for example. They call this being expeditionary. One example of being expeditionary is that troops at a fixed base somewhere in Iraq once only could buy Lays potato chips at the exchange because the convoy full of Pringles was destroyed by insurgents. A Marine infantry unit kept watch over the convoy to the laconic midday accompaniment of insurgent mortar fire until Graves Registration or some such unit could arrive to prise from the cabs of the trucks the charred bodies of contract drivers who gave their lives for Pringles. Professionals call Pringles “Class VI,” defined as personal-demand items. When amateurs hear Class VI, they think of booze, since that is what the booze store on base is called. Only in the States though. There was no alcohol allowed in Iraq or Afghanistan. That would detract from the war effort.
War is needful of things and the Class VI store is needful of customers so, during the Korean War, the staff types determined that the best thing for that would be an aircraft designed from the ground up as a combat transport. Thus was born the C-130, which first flew on August 23, 1954, 60 years ago this week. The C-130 was to war as blood doping was to a cyclist’s career. They both contributed significantly to expanding the frontiers of the sport. Anyone who has been to war after Korea has probably ridden somewhere on a C-130 and almost certainly has seen a C-130 landing at (or at least headed for) some small, obscure patch of dirt or sand where before only trucks or helicopters could go.
The C-130 is an amazing aircraft and those of us who flew it developed a relationship with it approaching friendship or perhaps even love. We talked to the planes, patted them on the nose before getting in the saddle, petted the glare shield between their ears during difficult rides, noted their temperaments, and cooed and cajoled them into doing things they didn’t really want to do long after they should have been done doing such things. But like once-magnificent, ever-proud steeds, they kept on at it into the arthritic throes of age, until a new generation came along to follow the trail they blazed.
The two generations conducted their relief-in-place during another era of American wars. The youngsters came in fresh and eager. A decade later, they have aged well beyond their years, ridden far harder than the staff types ever expected. But, like their forebears, they are a proud and reliable lot. Old, or new, a C-130 at work is a practical and purposeful thing. Its collection of systems make a symphony of hums, rattles, roars, and hisses while it goes about its business. This collection of systems has enabled the C-130 to do all manner of things, and do them well: landing or air dropping troops and cargo, refueling jets and helicopters and now a strange hybrid of the two, turning night into day with hours’ worth of flares, and even loosing ordnance on the heads of unsuspecting enemies.
When it returns to ground and ends the day’s work, the C-130 becomes a different creature. Like all of us, it takes some time to unwind after a mission. First, it lets out a massive sigh as its four engines cease their combustive rotation. It remains tense as the auxiliary power unit’s (APU) shrill tones emerge from the cover of the propellers’ roars. The crew scrambles about, putting the aircraft to bed, when finally the loud protest of the APU trails away. When it is the last flight of the night, calm returns to the airfield, stroked occasionally by the evening winds and punctuated finally by the random ticks born of the cooling of complex metal components.
Human presence is signaled only by the wandering pools of cold white cast by tactical flashlights. It is during these hours that the aircraft tell their stories of places like Khe Sanh, Kham Duc, Kuwait, Camp Rhino, Shamsi, Kabul, Baghdad, Mosul, Marjeh, and so many more. They kept the beast of war fed and they took away its waste. They landed on the hilltops with fuel or ammunition and left with a fresh haul of body bags. Worlds away, families slept unknowing while the planes flew. Sometimes they were able to hose the blood off the deck before the next run; sometimes the needful thing didn’t allow for such niceties.
It was said that when the body haulers came back to the world from the Nam and were sent away for heavy maintenance, they pulled up the floorboards to inspect the creatures’ ribs and found them caked with blood that had seeped through. This offal was carefully cleaned away and the aircraft returned to service. But some things cannot be washed away. And these stories came down through the years to those of us whose fathers, too, might have memories they couldn’t wash away, and then to a generation who grew up under a rumor of war going on somewhere far away to fathers who knew only peace.
It came down to us that some of the old planes were haunted. That unexplainable things happened on them in the dark of night. It was an oral tradition passed down on long flights or lazy afternoons in the maintenance shops. They probably had more of an effect on young night shift maintainers sent off alone to check a component on one of the old birds. But none of us had any frame of reference.
When our wars came, they were different in scale and tenor. There were no enemy regiments laying siege to hilltop fire bases or overrunning airfields. The beast was as needful as ever and we flew and flew, but thankfully our decade of strategic floundering did not produce offal on the industrial scale that a C-130 was needed to collect it fresh from the slaughterhouse. For the most part, our dead were carried away from the point of injury in their single digits by helicopter. We didn’t get them until later in the day when they had been sealed away, body still cooling, in a clean transfer case covered by a taught, crisp American flag. We stood at attention as the body was carried aboard and again as it was carried off to await the next C-17 or C-5 back home. The C-130 was not meant for such epic journeys over vast seas. It was just a battlefield transport.
So, we carried on with the plan of the day, some of us contemplating the brief, aseptic, solemn diversion and the deeper implications it held for our particular war. It wasn’t the same as our fathers’ war, but we took that as a blessing, having been dispossessed of any childish regret that we missed out on some supposed test, and we started to understand the stories that we had inherited.
War is a needful thing. It consumes and destroys, producing only waste.
Peter J. Munson is responsible for preventive services and global crisis management for a private sector corporation, coming to this position after his retirement from the US Marine Corps in 2013. He is a Middle East specialist with professional proficiency in Arabic. Munson is the author of two books: War, Welfare & Democracy: Rethinking America’s Quest for the End of History and Iraq in Transition: The Legacy of Dictatorship and the Prospects for Democracy.