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Thomas R. Combs Headshot

Hostage Rescue

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Thomas Combs
Thomas Combs

September 1970. Within an hour of landing our C-130's in England, we were airborne and heading south. I stood in the flight deck as the navigator ripped open a sealed envelope and read it over the intercom to the rest of us. Terrorists had hijacked a commercial airliner and flown it to the desert somewhere in the Middle East. We were headed for Incirlik Air Base in Turkey and were to stand by for further instructions.

We touched down at Incirlik Air Base and taxied to a hardstand and shut down engines. The pilots, navigator, engineer and loadmaster all went into debrief, leaving me alone to post-flight my aircraft. The pilot had written up a few discrepancies, so I set about the task of getting them fixed.

Once completed, I closed up my aircraft and cut the power. John Forsberg was a wingtip away doing the same thing. We then walked to base operations together. Within minutes, we began filing into a room dominated by a long rosewood table. The crews from both aircraft were present. Scattered about the table were paper cups and pots of coffee plus a handful of walkie-talkie radios. I grabbed an early seat close to the door. Across the room and at the far end of the table, sat the pilot of my aircraft; the phone to his ear. When he hung up, he indicated it was the Pentagon on the line. Our instructions were to remain here on one-hour alert. Two more C-130's from our sister squadron (the 348th) at Dyess were en-route. They had been diverted from our base in England just as we had.

"The terrorist group is the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine," said the pilot. "Over the past few days, the PFLP has hijacked a Swissair DC-9, a TWA Boeing 707 and a Pan Am 747. The aircraft are on the ground in Jordan." he continued. "The passengers and crews are being held somewhere outside of Amman. In case you haven't read a newspaper lately, I'll fill you in. Jordan is right in the middle of a civil war! These PFLP guys are armed and roaming the streets like they owned them." The pilot took a long drink from his coffee cup and continued. "And, they have already blown up two of the airliners and most likely will destroy the third."

"What's our mission Captain?" asked one of the navigators. "Wait, it gets worse," he answered. "The Syrians have launched an attack from the north. They have tanks and artillery and are capable of shooting us down.

"Our mission will be humanitarian, focused on getting as many people to safety as we can. We need to stay close and in touch with each other. We could launch at any time." The pilot rose from his chair and turned to me, "Chief, we need to stay close to each other. Keep your radio nearby and turned on."

Days were spent around our aircraft in constant preparation. I wanted to be sure my one-thirty was ready to go. I double-checked everything. At night, we hung around our room and played poker. The base had a club for officers but not much for the enlisted men. Air Police guarded our aircraft now, around the clock.

One evening, a couple of officers from my aircrew came by our room and invited us to the officers' club. "But we can't go in there," I protested. With a wink and a grin, the pilot gave me his captain bars and I put them on my flight suit, which normally had no rank insignia anyway. I was now captain Combs! "This way, we're all together if we get the call," remarked the pilot. John Forsberg and John Rhett were also 'promoted' on the spot. The officers were well known already at the club so the doorman wouldn't question their missing rank insignia. That was the idea and it worked perfectly.

We all laughed and patted ourselves on the back as we sauntered into the air-conditioned club acting as officer buddies. "Hey this feels cool," I thought to myself.

So we enjoyed a few nights playing officers and playing poker. I remember noticing the first night in the O'club behind the bar, a picture of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers.

"This is where he launched from," commented the co-pilot sitting next to me. "Some say it was the flight that changed the world."

"We sure got caught with our flight suits down that time," joked the navigator. "It all started right here at Incirlik, then over to Peshawar Afghanistan and on up to the Soviet Union" added one of the local officers, as he raised the table two more dollars.

The next morning's briefing we were told that we would be going into Jordan to rescue some of the passengers from the hijacked planes. It was decided we should paint red crosses on each of our C-130's. This was an attempt to look humanitarian and not like a commando raid. We hoped the red crosses would prevent them from opening up on us. That was the idea anyway.

With the use of a cherry picker (a large crane) and a man from the base paint shop, I was hoisted to the vertical stabilizer of my aircraft. We taped off then painted a giant white square in the center. Within this huge square, we then painted a cross in red. We did this on each side of the tail and under both wings. Forsberg and Rhett also had red crosses painted on their C-130's. 2013-07-06-816RedCross1970.jpg

During one of our Pentagon meetings, we got word that the terrorists had blown up the last airplane somewhere in the desert outside of Amman. The passengers were being held hostage at undisclosed locations.

The next morning we were gathered in the office for another State Department and Pentagon meeting. "A tentative cease-fire has been agreed to," the captain explained. "Let's hope they all agree not to fire on the red crosses."

"Hell we've probably just made it easier for their gunners to find us! X marks the spot!" joked one of the loadmasters. No one laughed. It was decided that we would wear our flight suits inside out, so as not to show rank or any military insignia. Also, we were given white armbands with red crosses on them to wear on our left sleeve. It looked as if today or tomorrow would finally be the day.

Hours later, my two-way radio crackled to life. "Chief it's a go, meet at the aircraft." We grabbed our gear and drove out to the flight line.

I was on headphones and standing in front of my aircraft as we began engine start. Three of the four C-130's would go as directed, with the fourth staying behind as a backup. John Forsberg and John Rhett were going along with their respective aircrews as well.

We were airborne in a matter of minutes and headed south. The copilot got out of his seat and went to the cargo area and returned with an armful of pistol belts. I was given a 38-caliber pistol in a black holster. I casually strapped it on around my waist. I began to realize how serious this actually was. Everyone was upbeat and 'business as usual' though, at least on the outside. I had no doubts about our capabilities. Everyone knew their task and got it done. We had been waiting for this moment for many weeks now.

Serious as it was, we still found time to laugh. We were wearing our flight suits inside out, with our armbands tied on one sleeve, carrying a pistol. We looked silly. Most of us agreed it was unusual and we teased each other. Quickly changing the mood, the pilot came on the interphone and informed us that we were now descending into Amman, Jordan. The civilians from one of the hijacked airliners had been taken to the airport in Amman and we were to pick them up and fly them to Turkey. "One of our additional concerns," explained the pilot "is the possibility that one or more of the hijackers will infiltrate the group and might pull the pin on a grenade on the ground or once we're airborne again. Blowing up an American military plane would be a bonus for their political cause."

As we circled the airstrip in Amman, we could see tanks and gun placements everywhere. Our three camouflaged C-130's with red-cross markings, touched down on the rough strip, one after the other. I noticed as we came to a taxiing speed, that the barrels of the tanks and guns along both sides of the landing strip were aimed at us!

As we came to a stop near the terminal, the loadmaster in the back started opening the rear cargo door and ramp. I came back to his station in the rear of the aircraft and surveyed the scene. There spread out before us, was the large group of hostages with their belongings. We kept engines running as the loadmaster and I started to let some of the people come aboard. We only allowed women and children to line up first. We searched each one before allowing them on the aircraft ramp. The co-pilot soon joined us. We checked baskets and bags. I was particularly weary of the men and expected one to pull a gun or grenade at any moment. They were very quiet and orderly, which to me was spooky. I kept watching their eyes for any sign of trouble. Soon the loadmaster was raising the ramp and we began to move among the hostages helping them get situated safely.

We had about 100 people -- men women and children -- all crowded aboard along with their belongings and soon we were taxiing away from the terminal. Looking out the porthole, I could see the other two C-130's were doing the same thing. As we rumbled toward the end of the runway, I noticed the turrets on the tanks were slowly moving as they followed our progress. The turrets were aimed low and directly at us! I expected the tanks to start firing at us as we taxied by. Like ducks in a gallery, I thought. We were in a small valley with renegade tanks and RPG's on both sides of us! I'm sure I was holding my breath as we moved from the taxiway to the end of the runway. Wasting no time, the pilot brought our engines to full throttle and released the brakes. The C-130 practically jumped into the air! We were not out of the woods yet, but I was feeling better as we flew higher.

Before long, all C-130's were in the air and heading back to Turkey. I roamed the aisles in the cargo area, still concerned about a grenade attack. Most of the people reached out and patted my hand in thanks for their rescue. Ten minutes into our flight, I walked up the ladder to the flight deck and looked outside. I saw numerous tanks roaming the desert below us. I watched from the flight deck for a while, expecting to see shells bursting all around us. Later, I kept the loadmaster company as we both looked over our passengers. It wasn't long before we landed back at Incirlik and the civilians reached out to us again, shaking our hands as they filed off the cargo ramp. They were put on blue Air Force buses and whisked away. We were told our mission was over and we could head home.

We had by now given our weapons back and turned our flight suits back around. We stashed our Red Cross armbands into our pockets and, except for the giant red crosses on my airplane, appeared "normal" again. It was a long flight back to England and most of us on the crew rehashed the day's events. The aircrew said I had performed an excellent job and should be proud. I was.