Estimated reading time — 12 minutes
It’s a wondrous thing, getting to work in the U.S. military. Sure, to each their own, Army does its thing, the Marines, the Special Forces, the Navy. I always wanted to be in the Air Force, but one part in particular. I am… was, actually, the Gunnery Sergeant aboard the AC-130U Spooky Gunship. See, all that wonder goes out the window when you’ve seen what I’ve seen.
Those of you who do not know anything about the Spectre/Spooky family of fixed-wing gunships need a little background. Many people know about the C-130 Hercules cargo plane built by Lockheed, a turboprop plane that has been adapted for a lot of roles, mostly cargo. What makes the Spooky special? Not too much, just the 25mm Gatling gun, 40mm Bofors cannon and 105mm howitzer sticking out the port side, that and the infrared computer targeting system. If you think that a fighter jet is an angel of death on the battlefield, the 130U is the angel that will fly in a circle, about 7,000 feet over your head, and blasts the living shit out of you, or anything unfortunate enough to be within a block of you.
Being on the gunnery crew my main job is to direct or fire the weapons, but my primary job was to fire the 105mm, the big gun. That baby has the firepower to level an area the size of a Walmart parking lot; the shells are so big that the aircraft can usually only carry nine, or a dozen at most. Why would anyone need that kind of kill-power, you may ask? America, that’s why.
No, seriously, think of it this way. We have some of the most expensive equipment on the planet, and our style of fighting is tuned to invoke the most enemy casualties while saving as many friendlies as possible. If that means using a missile that costs more than a nice car, or 100 of those cars, instead of putting friendlies in a firefight, that’s fine. My job, my crew’s job, is to make sure that as many of our buddies on the ground make it out alive, and, as a bonus, we get to use the equivalent firepower of a naval destroyer, all on one plane.
The American dream, or so it seemed, to work on-board that plane. I was saving American lives on the ground, firing from a mile away at enemies that had no clue we were there. All they could do was run, and they could only get as far as how long it takes to reload a cannon. But part of me wishes I had never signed up. I’ve seen too much now.
Due to the nature of the operation, I can’t tell you exactly where we were, just know that it was likely where Bush had put so many of our boys in a war that didn’t need to happen, and certainly did not need to be ended the way it did. Place starts with an A, shit went down in early 2000 a.c., do the math. It was not too long after 9/11, and most of the personnel still had their fervor for revenge, we wanted to go in there and kick some ass. That was the Army’s job, the Marines, and the Special forces. Me, I was seated up in a non-pressurized aircraft sitting behind a gun that could knock God on his ass.
To be honest I don’t remember where we were exactly, and it wasn’t my job to know. All I needed to know was where the friendlies were, and where to expect hostiles. A lot of people think we see things in all green, that’s not how our night vision works. Military night vision puts everything in black and white, where hot bodies glow bright and white against the black, colder ground and buildings. Makes it hard to distinguish uniforms, which is why all our troops are tagged. So I watched as our boys got out of their HUMVEEs and started their long walk.
The main target, the area where the two Marine squads were storming, was this complex nestled at the base of these adobe-looking hills; pretty well camouflaged by brush and trees. It looked like a castle, with a set of walls, a big gate, and several towering buildings overlooking the outside. I don’t remember why the troops were going in there, in fact, according to what I could hear of their chatter, they weren’t sure either. But none of us, at least those on-hand, needed to worry, we were going in to take out targets. You may think that having the Spooky overhead was a bit overkill, but like I explained, we were there to make it as easy for the Marines as we could.
Everyone on-board the craft was in direct contact with the teams below, and they were in contact with us via squad leaders. I could hear the jarheads talking about nothing in particular, just how this was “another job” and how the hostiles inside did not stand a chance. Sitting behind the collective firepower of a squadron of tanks, I was apt to agree. I struck up a conversation with the first squad leader, a guy named Amos.
“Having fun down there Charlie 1?”
“Don’t you know it, Spook. Approaching the target zone now.”
I heard other voices, random Marines. “It’d be just as easy to get them from here, Spooky’s got the firepower to level the place, and we could all be home in time for lunch.”
“You do know they’re serving tacos again, right?”
“Well, maybe we can have some fun out here anyway, get back in time for dessert.”
I could hear a few chuckles before Amos growled “Alright, alright, tape it up, guys.” The Marines were coming to within firing distance of the compound. I told the boys to be ready. As I zoomed in, I could see that everything was about to go down.
Several glaring white forms showed up on the walls, filling out via doors and climbing up ladders. I saw them huddling behind ramparts, and each of them were armed. I called in to the leaders below to expect gunfire. You may ask, why didn’t I light them up to kingdom come already? Rules of engagement, that’s why. Simply put, you do not ever fire unless fired upon. It’s how we tell friendlies from hostiles, how we try to incur as few civilian casualties as we can. This goes for the Marines too, but I could see their bright forms spreading out, crouching their way towards the walls, ready to dash for cover. One of the defenders was waving his arms, seemingly gesturing to the ground forces, but I could not hear a word, over a mile away.
Over the comms Amos was yelling in the native language. “Spook, they’re screaming at us but have made no effort to fire. They don’t seem too hostile, actually.”
“I dunno, Sergeant, that’s a lot of guns pointing at you. What’re they saying?”
“Not sure, it’s a bit far out to tell but they’re saying something to the effect that they want us to leave.”
“I don’t recall anything in the Intel about having that option.”
“I know, I told them. But… he says that for our own safety we need to go away.”
I could not see any of their guns being pointed at the Marines yet, but every single man was armed, a mix of Russian-made AK-74 assault rifles, G3’s, some older 47’s, and a few RPGs. But all of them were hiding, not yet aiming at the ground forces. “They don’t seem too hostile at the moment, but they’re packing heat.”
“He’s not backing down. He said this is our last chance. How’s the view up there?”
I took count of at least thirty gunmen, and more were climbing up, easily outnumbering the dozen Marines. “Thirty possible contacts, get your boys down and ready, they look ready to dig in.”
No sooner had I said this, that I immediately saw the flashes of white at the end of gun barrels all over the walls, but I could not hear the gunfire from over a mile away, so I called in to the Marines to confirm that they were under attack. I heard a clear confirmation from Amos.
“Everyone, down! Spook, they’re throwing everything they got at us! We are under fire! Repeat, we are under fire!”
The gunfight was on, and all the safeties were off.
The Marines were all lying prone, taking accurate shots and pegging enemies on the wall with precise accuracy, but they were heavily outgunned and the somewhat inaccurate, constant small arms fire was getting too close for comfort. The Marines confirmed targets, and now it was our turn.
I could hear the belching growl of the Gatling gun firing at nearly 4,000 rounds per minute, and could just see the white streaks like a swarm of bees falling on the enemy. The hail of lead tore them to pieces, knocking them off the walls like target dummies and tearing chunks of adobe from the walls. I could not help but stare when I saw more enemies charging up to their deaths, they were not going to retreat.
“God damn it, Spook, we got two tinkers coming out on top of us!”
I heard the call from Amos just in time to see two battered pickup trucks with hastily mounted machine guns peeling out the gate towards the boys on the ground. We call those technicals, and while they may not look like much, those Russian PK machine guns on the back are a deadly threat to infantry. Lucky for the Marines, we were able to respond with far-beyond-equal force.
I authorized the use of the Bofors cannon, two rounds per truck. The gun boomed like a sledgehammer, and I saw the bigger streaks falling like lightning bolts. The first burst of two rounds, a double tap, hit the lead truck dead center, instantly turning it into a giant, white fireball of burning fuel and twisted steel. The other truck must have had a quick driver, as he swerved to avoid his obliterated buddy, causing him to just barely dodge the incoming shells, but to my surprise he then kept driving towards the Marines. These insurgents were fighting to the death, and in that moment I could only wonder if what they were protecting in the compound was worth it. A quick adjustment, and two more shells finished the truck off.
The Spooky provided additional fire support with the 25mm, but the Marines had most of the heat taken off of them. They made their way to the wall of the compound, and through the gate that had been blown open by a hit from the Bofors. The friendly units were too close for comfort now, it was up to them to clear the compound, which they did with amazing speed. As ineffective as the militia were, they fought fiercely, and the Marines did not manage to take any of them prisoner.
Our orbit now took us where I could see the largest building at the back of the compound, farthest from the gate. It was heavily defended with two mounted machine guns, but an earlier strike of Gatling fire had rendered them inoperative. What was strange about the building was the single door, a hulking thing built like a vault door. The “gatehouse”, as I call it, seemed to be just that, made to house a gate and to keep people out. If I knew then what I know now…
The Marines found a switch to open the door, it slid sideways and one squad went in. After that I lost sight of them, and kept in contact over the radio. Here’s what I heard… how I wish I had not.
Amos was breathing hard as his squad went in. “Spook, you should see what we got in here.”
“What do you see?”
I was fed an image from his helmet camera, and I leaned towards the small monitor at my station. I had assumed that the building was some sort of garage, as it was not much bigger than a small hanger, but Amos’s camera showed a long ramp leading down, underground. The tunnel was big enough to drive a tank through, and it was dark (we must have hit the power in the opening bombardment).
“Wow, they really dug in here.”
“No shit. I think we’ll lose comms down once we’re down there, the walls look pretty thick.”
“Roger, Charlie 1 you are cleared to advance.”
The image cut out, and all I could do was settle back. Technically by now the gunship’s job was done, and we should’ve been flying back to base, but we had been given orders to remain on station, which was fine with me. Now I wish we had just flown home.
My attention must’ve wandered because the next thing I remember was some Marine from Squad 1 was screaming into my earpiece. He was panicked and out of breath, his voice an octave or two higher than a Marine’s voice should go. “Shit! Shit! Spooky, do you read! Come in, damn it!”
I shook my head clear and tried to speak calmly. “Marine, what’s going on, where’s your…”
He cut me off like I had not even said anything. “Aren’t you fucking listening?! Use it!”
“The big fucking gun!”
My face must have gone pale, the Bofors gunner looked at me with widened eyes. I still tried to keep my cool. “Son, I’m not authorized to use the 105, what the hell do you want me to shoot at?”
“Fuck your authorization! We’re all gonna die if you don’t… “
His voice trailed off, and I could now make out noise in the background. His boots clopping on the floor, his heavy breath, and a loud crashing sound, like a semi truck driving through a wall. “No, no, no no!”
After I heard that sound, I felt all the blood run from my cheeks like someone had thrown snow in my face. I can only describe it as a mix of a lot of ferocious beasts, and yet they all sound like mice compared to it. It was a roar, a roar mixed with a buzzsaw, and the shriek of a trapped cougar. I could just hear the last scream of the Marine before a loud racket made me throw my headset off, that awful noise when someone drops the microphone on the hard floor.
I saw that everyone’s face in the gunnery department had gone deathly white, but no one left their stations. I jammed my headgear back on and looked back down the sight.
The Marines in Squad Two had surrounded the massive gate, and had their weapons out, but were slowly backing away. I listened in on their leader, a big black guy whose name I can never remember.
“Everyone, hold position, safeties off, keep trying to get Squad One on the…”
I heard everything go silent, and this hulking beast of a man let out a shrill gasp.
“What the… what the fuck?! How is that possible?!”
He was trying hard to stay calm, but it was not the tone of his voice that scared me.
I could see the massive door, built to withstand a tank blast, bulging outwards, like a bubble about to pop, and whatever was pounding it was hitting the door with such force that I could hear it over the comms, like the deepened tolling of a distant bell.
And then, as soon as it started, the bulging stopped, as did the thunderous pounding, and I could hear the squad leader trying to steady his confused voice.
“It… I… what the…?”
His voice was cut off by static, as the door flew like a massive shuriken, immediately crushing two of the Marines. In my opinion, they were the lucky ones, after what I saw next.
It must have been so hot, this massive, glowing white blur came rushing out of the now vacant doorway, almost as tall as the gatehouse. It was shaped like a boulder, must’ve been nothing but muscle, like a horrifying Hulk. All I could see of it was the outline, the outline that towered over the remaining four Marines.
I heard their pitiful gunfire over the comms, but the thing was barely affected, I saw it backhand one of the Marines in one swing, smashing the elite soldier into a harmless bag of broken bones and crushed organs. It lunged forward, grabbing another, and with the Marine clenched in its gargantuan fist, pounded a massive hole in the wall of a building, and punched the ground several times. I did not see it drop a body, he must have been reduced to a pulp.
The last two did not run, but to be fair, they barely had time to even turn. It came down on one them like a mountain, crushing him under its fists, and it kept smashing. I saw it stop, and slowly turn to the last, poor Marine. I could barely make out his voice over his choked, tearful, final gasp.
It swooped down, grabbing him by the arms and legs, and with barely any effort ripped the Marine in half at the waist, like a child pulling the legs from an ant. It swung the bisected parts over its head, and threw them to the ground.
I must have done it on a reflex. I could not feel my body, I could only guess how I looked, with my jaw hanging and my eyes so wide as to nearly pop from my skull. Before I realized what happened, my hand had clenched, and the aircraft shook with the sound of a clap of thunder right next to my ears.
I saw the huge, white blur of the 105mm shell, streaking towards the target with pinpoint accuracy. It seemed to glide in slow motion, but in reality, even at this range, it only took two seconds.
It struck the thing dead center; everything in the sights, the bodies, the buildings, and the thing vanished inside a small mushroom cloud of fire, dust, and shrapnel. I saw the nearest building collapse, the lower level blasted in on itself. A second later, I thought I heard the thump of the impact, but I could not hear anything else. I could not tell if my fellow gunners were screaming, muttering, or trying to get my attention. I could not hear the comforting drone of the four turboprop engines, or the beeping of equipment. I did feel my heart pounding in my chest, like the thing’s massive fist had pounded on that door, like the Marine’s hearts must have pounded in their short lives.
I barely reacted when I felt my commander’s hand on my shoulder. He was as pale as the rest of us, and he was likely clenching my shoulder to steady his own trembling grip. As the dust and debris settled, I could see almost nothing was left, nothing but a large, bright mass, a thankfully still one, and a crumpled building.
Surprisingly, I never got in trouble, but you can bet your ass I handed in my resignation and shipped home quicker than you can say “Hell to the fuckin’ no”. Some things should not be seen. Some things should not be let out, I know that now. I saw six men die, and six more died on my watch, yet all I was able to do was shit bricks at 7,000 feet. There ain’t therapy for that kind of stuff. That’s what PTSD really is, it’s the human soul breaking at the seams, seams pulled by stress that the soul was not made to be subjected to.
Yes, I still have nightmares every now and then, but it’s during the day when it’s the worst. Know why? Because I think back to those last few seconds before I went to cry in the back of the plane. Those last few seconds of looking down that gun-sight. Those last few seconds, where I swear, to this day, that I saw that thing still moving.