By Christina Calloway
PNT senior writer
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Irl “Leon” Franklin said when he and hundreds of other servicemen were told about a secret mission more than 40 years ago, later found out to be the Son Tay Raid in Vietnam, they were given the choice to opt out.
“There were 300 men there and not a soul moved,” Franklin said.
It was that courageous and selfless attitude of his peers that made Franklin feel confident in his group of 13 men he served with who were among the men selected to carry out Operation King Pin.
King Pin was a special operations raid in 1970 on a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp where sources reported that more than 75 American POWs were being held in atrocious conditions. About 100 servicemen were deployed to rescue the prisoners, though the POWs had been moved by the time they arrived.
Franklin was the aircraft commander of the lead MC-130E Combat Talon I aircraft during the raid, aircraft 0523, an operation that was arguably one of the most important missions the plane was used for. He and a few of the others from his flight crew that day made their way to Cannon Air Force Base on Friday to commemorate the plane’s final resting place at a dedication ceremony for Cherry 01, the plane’s original call sign.
“We’re thrilled it made its final mission and home here at Cannon,” said Col. Buck Elton, the base’s wing commander, at the ceremony. “Thousands of man hours have been put in to prepare it for its static display.”
The plane made its final flight into Cannon on June 2012 and has undergone several months of demilitarization to prepare it for its display near the main gate of Cannon. The plane was brought to Cannon because of its special operations forces heritage.
Franklin and Elton, who flew the plane during a combat mission in Afghanistan, were on the aircraft during the final engine shutdown.
Franklin said the Pentagon asked for him by name to participate in the raid. He and his flight crew planned and trained for the operation at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.
The men agreed that teamwork was necessary to carry out the operation.
“We trusted each other with our lives,” said Randal Custard, who served as a captain during the raid.
Bill Guenon, one of the pilot’s during the raid, said they faced many challenges carrying out the raid, from repairing one of the ship’s four engines to navigation trouble.
But Guenon said there was no bigger disappointment than when they discovered the POWs were not at the war camp, until they found out what impact the raid had.
“Their food improved a little bit … there was no more isolation confinement,” Guenon said. “They were able to communicate and before they couldn’t. They served as each other’s support system.”
Thomas Eckhart, the navigator aboard the Cherry 01, said he got a chance to meet one of the POWs after they were released years later.
“Because there were no prisoners, we thought it didn’t work, but I found out by one of the POWs I got to meet that it did,” Eckhart said. “He said, ‘you saved our lives,’ and that made it all worthwhile.”
Maj. Lisa Howell said being in the presence of those men at Friday’s ceremony was a humbling experience.
“It’s exciting for the Air Force to see a plane that flew in combat that will be here forever,” said Howell, an electronic warfare officer. “My husband flew this plane.”
Howell said she’s taken nine tours, all to Afghanistan, within the 12 years she’s served in the Air Force, and it’s people such as Franklin and his crew that keep her going.
“I continue to serve in honor of all the men and women before me, without a doubt.”