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Air Force veteran Bill McGahey recalls interesting year of combat

Note: This article appeared in the June 17 edition of the “Redstone Rocket.” This article was written by “Redstone Rocket” editor Skip Vaughn and reprinted by permission. (

MADISON – The front lawn of Bill McGahey’s home in Madison proudly has both the American flag and POW/MIA flag.

McGahey wants everyone to remember prisoners of war and those missing in action. “… We never should forget that we had people that didn’t come back,” the retired Air Force Master Sergeant said.

In 1984, he retired after 20 years of service, including his combat tour in Vietnam from April 1968 until April 1969.

McGahey joined the Air Force in November 1963, the month in which President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

“I was sitting in a lecture on basic training when JFK was assassinated,” McGahey said. “That was an unreal moment. What a way to start your military career.”

McGahey originally was a nuclear weapons technician and eventually became an aircraft munitions loader. In 1965, he was assigned to Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, Colo. On April 1, 1968 – April Fool’s Day – he received orders to report to Vietnam by month’s end.

He was assigned to 16th Special Operations Squadron at Ubon, Thailand. He would become an aerial gunner on the first AC-130 gunship designed to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The airplane was armed with four 762-mm miniguns and four 20-mm Gatling guns.

McGahey flew on 116 combat missions. He earned a Distinguished Flying Cross and six Air Medals.

“Every mission was a little different. We got hit a couple of times (with antiaircraft fire),” McGahey said.

In 1968 over Laos, their aircraft was looking for enemy vehicles and (encountered) intense antiaircraft fire. One 37-mm shell went in front … another behind the airplane.

One shell penetrated the airplane’s center — right through the belly. The shell’s concussion blew the backdoor open. McGahey was the back gunner that night.

Fortunately, no one was injured. The aircraft had enough fuel to safely return to Ubon.

“That was probably the most memorable type thing,” McGahey said. “It was a shock to everybody.” The airplane now is located at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.

McGahey returned to Lowry and then arrived at Vandenberg AFB, Calif. in 1978. He was NCO-In-Charge of the 394th Munitions Area when he retired there six years later.

He worked for Lockheed Martin at Vandenberg and retired as Operations Safety Engineer in 2007 after 23 years. He moved to Madison in 2008.

His wife of 47 years, Judy, died Dec. 31, 2014 from cancer. Their daughters, Kimberly LeChien and Deborah Brooks, live in Madison. Son Daniel lives in Lompoc, Calif. McGahey has seven grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.

McGahey, 76, belongs to American Legion, Post 229 of Madison; Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 1067; and CASA of Madison County. He likes cars and traveling.

He supports commemoration of 50 years since the Vietnam War. McGahey is involved with Huntsville’s Vietnam War Lecture Series.

“It was one of those wars that we really shouldn’t have got into,” McGahey said. “Too much politics in that war.”

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