Paul W. Culligan says the only thing he ever won in life was the draft lottery for the U.S. military while the Vietnam War was going hot and heavy.
But his status as a junior at Le Moyne College in Syracuse allowed him some time to continue his education and pick the branch in which he wanted to serve.
“I decided to take a look around and took testing for the Navy and Air Force flight programs and ended up choosing officer training school with the Air Force,” Culligan says. “I figured if I stayed in the military, I could have a career as a pilot, and if I left, there was the option of the airlines.”
At age 22, Culligan was flying an EC-47 Skytrain, a twin-engine propeller airplane that had been used during World War II. The plane was “a perfect platform” for the reconnaissance missions Culligan piloted.
“We had a crew of about nine people with electronic intercept capability and interpreters. We flew out of Thailand, and our missions included Laos, South Vietnam and Cambodia. We picked up intercepted radio transmissions. This was an effort to identify troop and supply convoys from North Vietnam into South Vietnam,” Culligan says.
The information was crucial because of the ongoing Paris peace talks, where negotiators for the combatants were trying to come up with terms to end the war.
“We were collecting significant intelligence impacting on the peace talks. For quite a long time, North Vietnam had denied there was any supply and troop movement through Cambodia,” Culligan says. “Our intelligence developed information regarding those activities.”
He has never forgotten his first recon flight.
“I was looking out the window, and I noticed a heavy stream of oil coming from the one engine,” he recalls. “Then I checked the other engine, and it had the same problem, and I figured we were going to die. But I was told the aircraft had been fitted with a huge oil reservoir because the engine seals were so bad.”
Culligan thought to himself, “Maybe we won’t die on this mission.”
But death was in the air.
“Later in the same flight, I looked out the window, and a Cambodian fighter plane joined us in formation, about 4 feet off our wing, and the pilot was waving at us,” Culligan remembers. “I waved back to the guy as he went into a steep dive toward one of the rebel positions on the ground. He was going to strafe the Khmer Rouge. He went in against that position, and he never pulled out. He went right into the ground.”
Culligan says he has carried the memory of the pilot’s smiling face: “It’s a haunting image to this day.”
Pilots on the recon flights flew with a map in their laps that identified the known enemy surface-to-air missile sites, he explains.
“We would draw a large circle around the sites, and that represented the effective range of the missile,” Culligan says. “But the guys in the back of the plane would give us various headings to locate the radio transmitters that were also on the ground. Sometimes we had to interrupt the collection effort due to the missile sites.”
Besides keeping American negotiators at the peace table in Paris up to date, the intelligence was also used for targeting purposes, Culligan says, though the aircraft he flew was unarmed.
Later in the war, he piloted a C-141 Starlifter, a four-engine jet transport.
“We delivered troops, equipment, evacuated orphans, the wounded, and flew congressional delegations on fact-finding missions,” he says.
In the chaos when the war ended in 1975 as Saigon fell, he was flying overhead and listened to different land and sea radio transmissions. He even saw some of the havoc from above.
“We heard that the U.S. Embassy in South Vietnam was overrun, and South Vietnamese pilots were trying to land on our aircraft carriers. They were bulldozing the helicopters off the flight decks into the ocean,” he says, recalling the scene as U.S. officials tried to ensure that the carriers’ operational capabilities were not compromised.
“The South Vietnamese pilots were loading their families on aircraft that had been assigned to them and even putting their animals in the planes and flying them to different bases in Thailand. What they put in these aircraft was beyond the design limitations and certainly not equipped for creatures.”
At one point, South Vietnamese pilots began strafing American C-130 planes attempting to get off the ground at Tan Son Nhut air base, outside Saigon.
“Boy, just listening to when they started strafing our aircraft, and the previous day they were allies,” Culligan says. “It was horrifying.”
After the war, Culligan says, his military experience in intelligence-gathering served as a foundation for what he thought would be an even more interesting career than flying.
“I applied to the FBI, and because of their foreign counterintelligence mandates, this afforded me a chance to eventually work in counterintelligence and espionage matters,” Culligan says. “This was during the Cold War. I ran double agents, and I opened the investigation that led to the arrest of John Walker.”
Between 1967 and 1985, Walker was an especially damaging spy. He was a code clerk for the Navy and supplied the Soviet Union with crucial computer code cards that allowed for the interception and deciphering of massive amounts of the secret information transmitted not only by the military, but also by other government agencies, Culligan recalls.
Now 64, Culligan has been retired since 2004. He says he misses his FBI days, though “not the stress.”
Of his service in Vietnam, he said, “It was such an unpopular war, but I never thought of that. I remember people in Thailand being so grateful for our presence.”
They did not, he says, want to live under Communist rule.