Then Lt. Harlan Elseth made a great video of pictures he took in 1967 – 1968 when he flew 148 combat missions in the F-4 as a member of the 13th and 555th Tactical Fighter Squadrons during the Vietnam war. He had 100 missions over North Vietnam and 48 missions over Laos while flying out of Ubon & Udorn Air Bases, Thailand.
This video made by PBS channel KPBS is about four men who flew aircraft in the VIetnam War. One man was a helicopter gunship pilot. Another was a Huey helicopter pilot. The last two men were fighter pilots – a Navy A-4 pilot and a USAF F-100 pilot. The intro to the video says:
“The honest, personal accounts of four combat pilots during the Vietnam War. From helicopters to jets, these men reveal how they felt risking their lives in a war that was confusing and unpopular, to say the least. They share their missions, the close calls, and how they were treated when they came home. Saving lives by taking lives, changed them forever.”
By Shelby G. Spires
During the Vietnam War, Johnston’s was the job of a jet fighter pilot blended with a forward air controller, or Fast FAC, he marked targets, controlled air strikes and found targets all from the front seat of an F-4. Finding the cave, marking it and setting loose two Navy aircraft on it is a prime example of what a forward air controller did on a daily basis. In Southeast Asia, the FAC had two general roles: support troops on the ground who were fighting off enemy soldiers and try to find targets to destroy with air strikes. The basic concept of Fast FAC was fulfilling the requirement for forward air controllers in a high threat area.:
Below is the text of a comment I posted today in the comments section of an article entitled “The tragedy of the PBS-Ken Burns version of the Vietnam War.” I just finished episode 7 of the 10 episode series.
I worried that the series would be slanted and biased, but so far I think it is evenly balanced. I like the series. It takes me back to that period of time and has made me re-examine my feelings about the U.S. involvement in the war. I highly recommend the series, but it does bring back the pain of losing 58,200 Americans, 2 million civilians on both sides, 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters and 200,000 – 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers.
One of the comments to the above article was from an F-4 pilot who started his comment with:
“In 1971 and 1972, I flew 120.5 sorties in the F4E out of Da Nang AB. I have a BA in Asian Studies and I have lived in Asia and the Pacific 5 times.
Like Burn’s Civil War ‘history’ the Vietnam War series also promotes false leftist narratives such as the claim that Tet uprising and the Easter Offensive were American defeats.”
What follows below is the text of my reply to the above comment.
I too flew F-4s in Southeast Asia in 1972. My squadron was the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron at at Korat Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand. We were TDY from Kunsan Air Base, Korea.
I just finished episode 7 of Ken Burns series. My impression is the series is neutral. You said “the Vietnam War series also promotes false leftist narratives such as the claim that Tet uprising and the Easter Offensive were American defeats.” I haven’t gotten to the Easter Offensive yet, but the series did not portray Tet as a victory for the north. To the contrary. The series clearly said Tet was a major defeat for the north and that the north lost 40,000 – 58,000 people.
The series did show that the U.S. media portrayed Tet as a U.S. defeat, including Walter Cronkite’s famous TV editorial in which he said the U.S. should exit the war.
One segment that really struck home with me was former Chief of Staff of the USAF General Merrill McPeak’s statements about his experience dropping bombs from his F-100 and being a Misty FAC in 1968 and 1969. He said dropping bombs in South Vietnam was a waste, but bombing trucks on the Ho Chi Minh trail was very effective.
McPeak mentioned BDA, bomb damage assessments, and what a joke it was. He said “at the end of any sortie where we dropped bombs on what we called “trees in contact” because there was nothing important down there we would always get bomb damage assessment” such as “twelve supply sources destroyed, two structures collapsed.” He said the BDA “was phony, just a waste of time.”
After each of my bombing missions with a FAC the FAC gave our flight BDA. For example, the FAC might say, 2 military personnel KIA, four military structures destroyed and 2 military pack animals destroyed. This meant we killed two people and destroyed four thatched huts and two water buffaloes.
I believe we did good work when we dropped our bombs to defend troops in contact, i.e., bombed the bad guys who were attacking the good guys. Sometimes, however, we did bad work. For those who never dropped dumb bombs from a high speed jet fighter you should know that accurate bombing was very much an acquired skill of each pilot. A huge factor was the wind because the wind blew the bombs while they were descending. A pilot could do everything perfectly to hit the target, but where the bombs actually landed depended on the wind.
We sometimes dropped bombs use a procedure we called “sky puking.” This was not dive bombing. It was flying straight and level at altitude and releasing the bombs. I remember one night in 1972 somewhere over the northern part of South Vietnam the weather was so bad we were not able to dive bomb. The airborne command post directed my four ship flight of F-4s to rendezvous with an F-4 that had a loran bombing system.
When our four airplanes joined the loran F-4 there were four Navy F-4s in a line on one side of the loran F-4. My flight lined up on the other side of the loran F-4. We were probably 15,000 – 20,000 feet high, nine Phantoms in a line abreast. There was a cloud under-cast so the steady lights from the airplanes caused the clouds below to be illuminated with an eerie light.
As we approached the target (we had no clue what the target was) the loran F-4 alerted us to get ready to “pickle.” Pickle was the term that meant press the bomb release button. When the loran F-4 said pickle all eight F-4s released 12 Mark 82 five hundred pound bombs. I remember watching the 96 bombs disappear into the soup below. I prayed we did not kill any innocent civilians.
I believe the F-4’s purpose in 1972 was to repel the North Vietnamese Army’s invasion of South Vietnam in April of 1972. We accomplished that goal. Unfortunately the goal of the U.S. through out the entire nine year war was not to defeat North Vietnam. The goal of the U.S. was to kill North Vietnamese and Viet Cong until they stopped fighting.
One segment of Ken Burns series is about the battle for Hill 875. U.S. Army men climbed Hill 875 because they knew tons of enemy were at the top. The North Vietnamese spent a month digging trenches and bunkers and preparing for the battle. After four days the Americans “captured” the summit at a cost of 115 men killed and 156 wounded. Helicopters quickly flew the “victors” from the summit and the U.S. left Hill 875 forever. One hundred fifteen brave American men gave their lives on Hill 875 for what?
The only thing General Westmoreland cared about was the body count. How many enemy did the U.S. or the ARVN kill in a battle? If we had small losses compared to the enemy’s large losses we won the battle. The goal of Westmoreland and President Johnson was to kill massive numbers of people and outlast North Vietnam rather than win the war as quickly as possible with the least loss of life.
There is an excellent September 23, 2017, interview with General McPeak. The following text is from the interview:
“In the Burns and Novick film, McPeak says that U.S. forces faced an impossible challenge in the Vietnam War because ‘we were fighting on the wrong side.’
In retrospect, McPeak edits that comment. ‘What I should have said is, when you get involved in somebody else’s war, you’ve got to pick the right side.’ The U.S. was supporting South Vietnam, and the documentary provides ample evidence of what McPeak says, namely, that the government there was corrupt, and lacked the support of the people.
‘It was blindingly obvious to me, and to a lot of other people in my squadron, that we were trying to prop up a government that had almost no chance of surviving on its own,’ McPeak says.
Had the South Vietnam government been closer to a true democracy, there might have been a chance at victory, McPeak says. Lacking that, he recalls, ‘This was not going to ever be a winning effort. I saw that quickly, and anybody with eyeballs could see it.’
The U.S. decision to fight using conventional means also made victory impossible, McPeak says. ‘I mean, we could have nuked Hanoi, and game over. That’s a win, if you think that’s a win.’
McPeak continues, ‘Given the limitations that we imposed on ourselves there, there was no way we could win.’
By the time McPeak arrived in Vietnam, he says, the U.S. government was so heavily committed that ‘it had become a matter of our prestige,’ and ‘we had to save face. So, we continued an idiotic intervention on behalf of a corrupt regime.’
I agree with the General. Why did our leaders sacrifice so much precious blood and treasure without ever intending to win the war?
What do you think about Ken Burns series? Please leave your comments below.
On December 16, 1972, for the first time in the nine year old Vietnam War the B-52 bombers entered Route Pack VI to drop bombs on North Vietnam. On the first night 129 Buffs launched to attack targets at Kép, Phúc Yên and Hòa Lạc and a warehouse complex at Yên Viên. The second and third waves of B-52s struck targets in Hanoi. Three B-52s were shot down and one crew was rescued.
On the second night 93 B-52s launched to attack targets at the Kinh No Railroad and storage area, the Thái Nguyên thermal power plant, and the Yên Viên complex. No Buffs were lost.
On December 20, 1972, the third night of B-52s flying the same headings at the same altitudes and making the same 140% post bomb release turn North Vietnam shot down 8 B-52s and only two of eight crews were rescued.
This 38 minute movie was made by the son of Brigadier General Glen Sullivan, the commander of the B-52 Unit at Guam. He called SAC headquarters and told his commanders that he would not order his men to fly any missions unless SAC eliminated its copy-cat tactics. The Buff crew members interviewed in the movie explain the stupid tactics ordered by SAC the first three nights of Linebacker II. People interviewed in the movie include Ed Rasimus, BC Connelly, Jeff Duford, Bud Day and Jeremiah Denton.
Air Force historian Earl Tilford wrote the following about the first three nights of Linebacker II,
“Years of dropping bombs on undefended jungle and the routines of planning for nuclear war had fostered a mind-set within the SAC command that nearly led to disaster. . . Poor tactics and a good dose of overconfidence combined to make the first few nights of Linebacker nightmarish for the B-52 crews.”
An original film about operation Linebacker II that brought an end to America's involvement in the Vietnam war. The filmmaker encourages comments from everyone and for sure those who have served our country.
In good faith, this film contains copyrighted and non-copyrighted material for non-commercial & nonprofit educational purposes. The producers have neither monetized this work nor sought any profit from its distribution.
Please view in HD and full screen by using buttons on bottom right of screen.
July 11, 1972
I turned off my Big Ben alarm clock at 0230, the usual wake-up time for our Linebacker mission. When the scheduling board simply indicated “Special”, we knew it would be a 0400 mass briefing at Wing Headquarters for a bombing mission over North Vietnam. We wouldn’t know our target until the mission briefing. The schedule was normally posted at the end of each day’s flying, and the previous day I had seen my name listed for the number four position in Jazz Flight for today’s Special. My Weapon Systems Officer would be Bill Woodworth.
F-4 pilots quickly become creatures of habit mixed with ritual, and I walked the short distance to the Ubon Officer’s Club to have my standard breakfast: cheese omelet, toast with butter, and coffee. I had successfully flown thirty-one Counters – missions over North Vietnam – and I wasn’t about to change anything without a pretty compelling reason. A few weeks earlier, the Thai waitress had misunderstood me when I had ordered, and brought me a plain Omelet. I politely ate it, and the mission on that day was the closest I had come – up until then – to getting shot down.
After breakfast, I walked to the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing Headquarters building, and performed my usual routine of stopping by the Intel desk and checking the Shoot-down Board. The Shoot-down Board was a large Plexiglas-covered board that listed the most recent friendly aircraft losses, written in grease pencil. We could tell, at a glance, if any aircraft had been shot down the previous night, the call sign, aircraft type, and survivor status. There were no friendly aircraft losses over North Vietnam to enemy action in the previous day.
That was not surprising. The Special for the previous day had been canceled when the strike leader, my Squadron Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Brad Sharp, crashed on takeoff when his left tire exploded at 160 knots. He aborted, taking the departure end barrier, and his aircraft caught fire when pieces of the shredded tire pierced his left wing fuel tank. Brad’s emergency egress was delayed when he got hung up by his leg restraint lines. As he sat in his seat, seeing the canopy melting around him, his WSO, Mike Pomphrey, ran back to the burning aircraft and pulled him out, saving his life. As Mike dragged him to a drainage ditch 100 yards away to hunker down, the ejection seats, missiles and, eventually, bombs cooked off. Ubon’s only runway was out of commission, and the entire Linebacker mission, for all bases, was canceled. Overnight, the runway at Ubon was repaired, and our mission was on for this day.
Air & Space: “In December 1972, the B-52 bombers that North Vietnamese missile crews had been waiting for came to Hanoi. Night after night. Over virtually the same track. I had come to Hanoi to research my second book about the air war over North Vietnam: the story of the December 1972 B-52 bombing of Hanoi, known as Linebacker II. I had arrived with the standard U.S. understanding of the raids. In early December 1972, President Richard Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, faced a political defeat. The North Vietnamese had broken off negotiations in Paris. It was clear that they were waiting for an anti-war U.S. Congress to return in January, cut off funds for the war, and give them a victory. To force the North Vietnamese to sign the agreement, Nixon decided to bomb Hanoi. After initial heavy U.S. losses, B-52s were able to attack with relative impunity and, after 11 days of raids, the North Vietnamese returned to Paris to sign the agreement they had rejected in December.”
If you’re a regular viewer of CBS’ reality series “Amazing Race,” you know that the current program is being filmed in Vietnam. The show raised the ire of many last week when the contestants visited a war memorial in Hanoi to look for a clue. The war memorial was the wreckage of an American B-52, shot down in December 1972 where two airmen died. Apparently, the program showed little if any regard or reverence for the sacrifice of two American patriots for their country.
The next week, the show and their parent company apologized for their cavalier approach to veterans and those of us who served in Vietnam, in particular. The incident took my memory back to an earlier time four decades ago. It was the spring of 1972 and I was flying combat missions from DaNang Air Base, South Vietnam. In early May, we received the orders to “take the gloves off” and go after the North Vietnamese who had escalated the war by ignoring a cease-fire and invading South Vietnam in late March.
The air offensive was code-named Operation Linebacker and would continue unabated for the next five months. Our targets were key combat infrastructure points that the north used to move war materials to their troops in the south. This included railroads, truck parks, bridges, ferries, airfields, communications, etc. These and the north in general had been off-limits to our airpower since 1968. In that four year hiatus, the North Vietnamese had built up their defensive infrastructure of fighters, missiles, guns and radars so that flying north was much more difficult and hazardous.
My squadron (35th TFS Panthers) was permanently based in Korea and filled with very experienced pilots. Our commander only sent highly experienced crews on Linebacker missions because they were more demanding and dangerous than normal combat flying. The pilot I was crewed with was a North Carolinian named Charlie Cox. Charlie was my flight commander; had a previous combat tour; more than 2000 hours in the Phantom; and was a Fighter Weapons School graduate. In fact, we had eight weapons school grads in the 35th, which might be a record.
Linebacker missions were complicated affairs requiring as many as a hundred or more aircraft flying from as many as five different bases. Most were fighters like the F-4 my unit flew, but there were also air refueling tankers; electronic combat aircraft; airborne weapons controllers; etc. Standing by on alert were rescue helicopters and their escorts in the case of an aircraft loss which frequently occurred.
On one missions I recall, there were 12 flights of four (48) fighters just from our base, not counting support aircraft. I’m sure there were more than 200 aircraft scheduled for that mission. At Korat (the second base we flew from), we had a single taxiway and runway. Anyone with either steering or brake problems was instructed to taxi off the taxiway into the dirt to keep the traffic flow moving.
These missions were flown over long distances and involved flying between 3 to 5 hours depending on the route. Since we couldn’t carry that much fuel, we nearly always refueled before entering North Vietnamese airspace and tapped the tanker upon exit before returning home. The tanker we used was the KC-135 (same design as the old Boeing 707) which incidentally, is still being used by the Air Force.
I have no idea how many Linebacker missions I flew that summer. Of my 121 combat missions, 43 were flown over North Vietnam, but not all of those were in support of Operation Linebacker. All the remainder were flown over South Vietnam, generally close air support (CAS) missions. In my six month tour, I didn’t fly against any targets in either Laos or Cambodia, although we often overflew those inland countries transiting to and from our base in Thailand.
In early October 1972, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger was sure he had a peace accord with all parties. The Linebacker missions were halted and my squadron deployed back to our home base in Korea. It had been more than six months since we deployed. Then the deal fell through. Two months later, Linebacker II began in mid-December, but this was much more intense. Now, B-52 bombers went north to join the fighters in taking the air war to the North Vietnamese.
The campaign lasted only 11 days but did the trick. Fifteen B-52s were shot down including the one that Amazing Race visited, but the bombers packed quite a wallop. At the end of the Linebacker II, the north was literally defenseless. They ran back to the bargaining table to beg for peace and an end to hostilities. We had to wonder – if President Johnson had done this seven years earlier in 1965, how many lives and tragedy on both sides would have been avoided?
In 1964, British pop star Petula Clark went to the top of the charts with her hit song “Downtown.” If you’re my age, then the tune is familiar but the song is a classic and various forms are trotted out periodically. There is a current commercial which uses “Downtown” as its background musical theme.
About the same time that the song was first released, Operation Rolling Thunder was initiated in the skies over North Vietnam. For three years, the Johnson Administration sent Air Force and Navy fighters over North Vietnam to bomb selected targets. The theory behind Rolling Thunder was that we would send a message to Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese communists that we were really serious and if they would stop their aggression against South Vietnam, we would stop the bombing. Rolling Thunder lasted for three years until early 1968 and was unsuccessful in its political objective.
The Pacific Command (PACOM) air planners divided North Vietnam into six regions which they named Route Packages. They were numbered sequentially from south to north. Route Pack VI was the large industrial heartland of North Vietnam, bisected by the Red River Valley. This route package was divided into two sub regions: Route Pack VI Bravo included the port city of Haiphong and was the primary responsibility of the Navy and their 7th Fleet air wings.
Route Pack VI Alpha included the capital of Hanoi and was the primary responsibility of the Air Force wings operating from bases in South Vietnam and Thailand. The fighter pilots who flew into VI Alpha to attack targets around Hanoi referred to this as “Downtown.” It had the reputation as the most heavily defended air space in the history of warfare, protected by a layered system of interceptors, surface to air missiles, and anti-aircraft artillery.
After three years, LBJ halted Rolling Thunder in an effort to bring the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table. Over the next four years, we stayed out of North Vietnamese airspace, however when the Communists launched their Spring Offensive with 200,000 troops in 1972, the only way to stop the onslaught was with airpower.
At the time, I was a lieutenant newly assigned to the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron “Panthers” at Kunsan AB, South Korea. On April Fools Day, our 18 F-4D Phantoms deployed to Southeast Asia, the first of many Air Force, Navy and Marine squadrons to join the fray.
Our supposedly “quick” period of temporary duty lasted 196 days. We flew first from DaNang AB, South Vietnam until mid-June and then moved to Korat AB, Thailand. During that period of time, I flew 121 combat missions, 78 of which were flown over South Vietnam primarily in close air support of ground units in contact with the enemy. I flew 43 missions over North Vietnam including 16 “Downtown.” Without exception, these Linebacker missions over Hanoi were the most hazardous I faced.
Generally we flew at about 15 thousand feet and kept our speed above 480 knots where our energy gave us good maneuverability to defeat the SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missiles. If we carried a centerline fuel tank, we drained that first and jettisoned the sluggish tank. As a result, our jet was cleaner, lighter and more maneuverable.
Most of my missions “Downtown” were escort missions for the bombers, so we were light and maneuverable, ready to tangle with any MiGs that might interfere. On the few occasions where we carried bombs, we were quite heavy until the ordnance was cleaned off the aircraft. We would ripple all twelve 500-pound bombs on a single attack; our motto was “one pass and haul a**.”
My closest encounter with the enemy came during a late summer mission. We escorted Oak Flight from Ubon that dropped seven laser-guided 2000 pound bombs on Gia Lam just east of Hanoi. We made a wide sweeping turn north of Hanoi over the lake where John McCain went swimming five years earlier. The gun positions on the south side of the lake put up a lot of flak, but no one in our flight was hit. Exiting the target area to the southwest, my radar warning receiver lit up indicating a SAM was headed our way. The cumulous clouds below us made picking up the missile difficult. At the last possible moment our lead aircraft saw the streaking SAM and called for Finch 4 (my aircraft) to break right. Our 5-G barrel roll was successful in dodging the missile. Close but no cigar!
So go downtown, things will be great when you’re Downtown – don’t wait a minute for Downtown – everything’s waiting for you.
On May 10, 1972, the USAF and Navy shot down 11 North Vietnam MiGs in the skies over North Vietnam at a cost of two USAF and two Navy F-4s shot down. Jeffrey Ethell and Alfred Price wrote a great book about this day called “One Day in a Long War, May 10, 1972, Air War, North Vietnam” that describes in detail events of that day. I recommend this book. It’s in my collection of books written about the Vietnam air war. A lot of people I know are mentioned in the book or the appendix that contains the names of all USAF and Navy F-4 air crews who flew north that day. F-4 drivers of the Vietnam war era will probably recognize a lot of names.
“One Day in a Long War recounts firsthand accounts of almost one hundred eye witnesses, analyzes cockpit voice recordings and draws from official documents, many declassified for the first time, to tell its story. During May 10 an elite corps of American fighter pilots – many of them first-generation Top Gun graduates – flew more than 330 sorties against major transportation centers around Hanoi and Haiphong. But the Vietnamese fought back with 03 ground to air missiles and 40 MiG fighters.
What words are spoken in the cockpit of a Phantom as the crew prepares to engage MiGs closing in at nearly 1,000 miles per hour? What thoughts go through the mind of a pilot struggling to hold his crippled plane in the air for one minute longer, to get clear of enemy territory so he and his crewmen can parachute into the sea? How does it feel to be in a Phantom running in to attack the notorious Paul Doumer Bridge at Hanoi with laser guided bombs as missile after missile streaks through the formation? And what tactics would enable a force of 16 of these fighter bombers to carry out such an attack without the loss of a single plane?
One Day in a Long War is a definitive reconstruction of the most intensive air combat day of the Vietnam conflict.”
F-4 fighter pilot and author Mark Berent writes about one of his close air support missions over the Ho Chi Minh trail. His mission that night was to escort an AC-130 gunship as it destroyed targets on the main supply line between North and South Vietnam. Here is a part I especially like:
“Steadily we climb, turning a few degrees, easing stick forward some, trimming, climbing, climbing, then suddenly—on top! On top where the moonlight is so damn marvelously bright and the undercast appears a gently rolling snow-covered field. It’s just so clear and good up here, I could fly forever. This is part of what flying is all about. I surge and strain against my harness, taking a few seconds to stretch and enjoy this privileged sight.”
One of the things I loved about flying the Phantom was the incredible views from the air of the earth, sky, stars, the moon, clouds and storms.
This is a war story from my service in Vietnam. Although the incident happened 40 years ago, the details are still fresh in my mind. It was June 1972. My fighter squadron, the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron, had just transferred from flying combat at DaNang to Korat Air Base in Thailand. On this day, I was assigned to fly in the rear cockpit of the third aircraft in Gator Flight piloted by my flight commander, Captain Charlie Cox. Our Linebacker target for the day was significant – the Thai Nguyen steel factory located about 30 miles north of Hanoi.
Gator Flight’s responsibility was to bomb the rail marshal yards adjacent to the factory. Each of our four F-4D Phantoms were armed with twelve 500-pound bombs carried on MERs (multiple ejector racks) located on the outboard stations.
Our Phantoms were grossed out at the maximum takeoff weight of 58,000. That meant that our takeoff roll would be longer than usual and because our center of gravity was shifted forward by the bombs on stations 1 and 9, our nose wheel liftoff speed and takeoff speed would be nearly identical and quite fast.
Everything was fairly uneventful through preflight, engine start and taxi. When tower gave us our clearance, we wheeled four aircraft on the runway, checked engines, and released brakes. With combat loads, we took 20 second spacing between aircraft so 40 seconds after our leader released brakes, Gator 3 began to rumble down Korat’s 10,000 foot runway. Even with 34,000 pounds of thrust from our two J-79 engines, it took a while for our speed to build.
As advertised at 185 knots, the nose wheel lifted off the runway. A few seconds later the aircraft began to fly and the main landing gear struts extended. What happened next was not as advertised – stray voltage was sent to the jettison circuits on stations 1 and 9 and both loaded MERs departed the aircraft.
Fighter aircraft have jettison circuits to release external stores in case of an emergency; however these circuits are disabled when the aircraft is on the ground. A squat switch runs through the main landing gear; when the struts extend the jettison circuit is armed.
In the cockpit, we had no idea what was happening behind and underneath the aircraft because the underside of the wing is not visible. But since we had just jettisoned about 15 percent of our gross weight, the aircraft accelerated like a banshee!
There were a lot of puffy cumulous clouds that day, and when we joined formation on our leader’s left wing, no one gave us a look as they navigated around the clouds. A minute or so later, we heard from the fourth aircraft as he joined the flight: “Gator 3, this is 4; you lost all your bombs on takeoff.”
Well, to say that came as a shock would be an understatement. Our leader was squadron commander Lyle “Sky King” Beckers and he immediately snapped his head in our direction and confirmed that we were missing both MERs and their bombs.
About a minute later when Cox and I had sorted out all that we knew and our pulse was under control, we called back to lead, “Boss, there’s not much point in us going with you.” Now that was an understatement – there’s little to be gained by taking a bomber to the target if he can’t do anything more than sight-see.
We got a chuckle out of that logic and Beckers cleared us to leave the formation. I dialed-in the frequency for Fort Apache (Korat’s command post) and we heard quite a commotion in the background. At this point, the incident caused by our takeoff was only about 5 minutes old.
When the noise died down, we called in and requested permission to RTB – return to base. An excited controller called back, “Negative, negative Gator 3, we’ve been bombed. The runway is closed. Divert to another base!”
We patiently explained that we had more than an hour of fuel remaining, that our aircraft would be impounded upon landing and it would be a much better plan to land the jet at our home base rather than another airfield. After some consultation, Korat agreed and about an hour later, they announced that the runway was reopened. We received clearance to land and did so uneventfully.
Of our 12 bombs, three exploded in a low-order detonation which damaged a couple of aircraft on the field but fortunately, no one was hurt. Poor old Gator 4 had been lumbering down the runway at about 60 knots when this entire conflagration occurred in front of his aircraft. He swore that when he took off with his right wheel in the dirt, but we later determined that his tire, although off the runway, was still on asphalt.
Initially, maintenance could not duplicate the stray voltage problem which energized the outboard jettison circuits, and the wing commander ordered the jet sent back to our home base in Korea. About two months after our little incident, the same aircraft jettisoned two 370-gallon wing fuel tanks from stations 1 and 9. Because stray voltage is here one moment and gone the next, it is very difficult to trace.
In retrospect, our saving grace was that the two bomb racks released simultaneously. Had they come off asymmetrically, we would not have been able to stop the roll into the heavy wing at barely 200 knots and … well I wouldn’t be writing this column right now.
So ends the saga of Gator 3 and the day I bombed my own airfield.
Not sure of the exact date, but late in the DaNang AB (366th TFW “Gunfighters”) part of the TDY by the 35th TFS (F-4Ds) from Kunsan AB, South Korea. (DaNang became a “turn” base in July of 1972; 35th moved to Korat RTAFB (388th TFW.))
The approximate date would be May 22nd or 23rd 1972. The mission was what we called a “Bien Hoa double turn”.
Launch from DaNang, work with assigned airborne FAC (O-2/OV-10) for Close Air Support (CAS) mission (usually helping US or SVN Army units engaged with enemy ground forces) or a fixed target identified by the FAC (usually a Viet Cong truck park, troop formation, small AAA activity, etc.). Land at Bien Hoa for gas and rearm; launch again and recover at Bien Hoa; then launch and recover at DaNang. Armament load was normally 10 MK 82 HiDrag 500# bombs (called Snake Eye, Snake or Shake) and 6 Napalm canisters (called Napalm or Bake). (Usually called ‘Shake and Bake’.)
This mission was the first mission of the day for our 4 ship, call sign “Bullet”, I believe. Capt Will Mincey was the scheduled flight lead. We were briefed a “standard” FAC mission with a couple of other options depending on where we were sent after takeoff. The procedures applied for all 3 scheduled sorties. As you might imagine, some in-flight procedure revisions (audibles) were often required. Normal items covered: bingo fuel to Bien Hoa by drop region (Corp area); bomb pattern (altitude, dive angles, right hand wagon wheel, FAC called roll-in headings, only 2 passes with any ground fire, bombs ripple, then napalm ripple, etc.); visual overhead pattern recovery, weather permitting; weather drop options, diverts, airborne emergencies, etc.
An unknown (unremembered) Lt was #2. Jim Beatty was #3 and I was #4 (As a SEFE, I may have been giving a tactical or instrument check to someone in the flight.)
After 0730 takeoff, contact was made with Hillsboro (?) control who passed the flight off to a Covey (?) FAC in II (two) Corps. Covey briefed a TIC (troops in contact) situation; mixed USA and ARVN forces under fire from Viet Cong holding a line of 10 to 15 huts/hutches along a north-south segment of road WSW of Qui Nhon. Covey is in contact with ground FAC, who states they are in trouble and are receiving heavy automatic gunfire from 50 to 100 Viet Cong. Due to location of friendly forces, our run-in is restricted from the east to west (good, since sun will be behind us; but, bad because the road and line of low buildings run north/south) and between 260 to 300° release heading. As we arrive in the target area, Covey marks (2.75” FFAR white smoke rocket) the northern most hut.
Lead calls ‘tally smoke’; echoed by 2, 3, 4. Given the friendlies’ situation and the perpendicular attack heading to the line of huts, Will, the flight lead, calls “pairs”.
The Lt missed the “pairs” call, apparently, and holds high and dry after his pre-briefed 2 passes. His strings of 10 Snake and 6 Nape ran a ‘little’ long to the west of the road and made the friendlies hunker down.
The 3 remaining of us (all target arms) give a text book demonstration of FWS Grad accuracy low angle weapon employment. The Covey FAC would occasionally move our aim point up and down the road based on the ground FAC’s info on where the automatic gunfire was coming from. Our 15 MK82 High Drag releases decimate the huts along the road with some surprisingly large secondary explosions. The Covey FAC is pretty cool, telling us the ground guys are jumping up and down in glee as we wipe out the enemy. A couple of times we could hear the ground FAC’s excited voice over Covey’s radio.
(On about our 3rd bomb pass, I was a little too close behind Beatty on his pass, so I moved my aim point to a remaining hutch toward the north end of the line. As I am lining up for my run-in, I check #3 to see if he’s taking any ground fire. What I do see is one of Beatty’s 2 MK82s come off in “slick” configuration, i.e., the fins on one bomb did not open up and cause it to decelerate – it was sailing along pretty close to Jim’s F-4. I called “Beatty, pull up, bomb went slick.” He snatches the jet up and away from the frag pattern (I don’t think there was any damage to the jet). Whew!
Not sure now if Will called singles for the napalm, but we all dropped singles, burning what was left of the structures along the road. Covey’s feedback to us during and after our drops was really heartwarming. He and the ground FAC made us feel like superheroes for ‘saving’ our US and ARVN troops from serious casualties. The BDA report (as I remember) from the ground was ~ 5 buildings, 11 structures destroyed and 79 KIAs.
This was the most personally gratifying combat mission I ever flew. I was proud to have helped out our Army brothers. (And eternally grateful to be an Air Force jock instead of an Army platoon leader on the jungle floor.)
From Jim Beatty:
I clearly remember the call to pull up as it scared the living s–t out of me. Thank God you called or I would probably have been a mort. If there had been a bitchin’ Betty in the jet she would have been a-squawkin’. I think the LT’s name was” Larry Taylor” but wouldn’t swear to it… I do know we all jumped in his chili for not paying attention to lead as to what he wanted and when, plus putting the friendlies at undue risk. It was surely a gratifying mission as we accomplished what CAS is all about and did so in a very accurate and professional manner. Considering the experience level of at least three of us, one would expect nothing less. God, it is so great to remember the good things we accomplished. It made it all worth while and I am sure we would all gladly do it all over again “no questions asked”.
The author is Joe Lee Burns, USAF Fighter Pilot & Colonel, USAF retired
Thirty-eight years ago, I stood on the tarmac of DaNang Air Base, the northern-most fighter base in South Vietnam. DaNang had the unenviable reputation of absorbing frequent rocket attacks, hence the nick-name “rocket city.”
My base of assignment was in South Korea, but the North Vietnamese changed that when they began their Easter 1972 offensive by attacking the South with more than 200 thousand troops. Since the American ground presence had been drastically reduced since 1969 and the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) was quickly overwhelmed, the only way to stop the onslaught was with airpower. My squadron, the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) “Panthers,” was the first (of what turned out to be many) to deploy to augment the fighter units already operating from South Vietnam and Thailand.
Initially I was assigned to the 421st TFS “Black Widows” to help replace their combat losses. I quickly learned that the “widows” were appropriately named – their losses resulted in frequent funerals. They were poorly led – the squadron commander was a glory-seeker. I vowed to get out of that unit as quickly as I could. Three weeks after I arrived, the Panthers were reunited as an integral unit. I had survived my short stint with the Black Widows.
As opposed to the home-based units, my squadron was very well led. For one thing, we had far more experience – eight of our pilots were graduates of the Air Force Fighter Weapons School, the graduate school for fighter pilots. Our commander Lyle “Sky King” Beckers was one of those graduates and very professional. Our operations officer Bill Mickelson was extremely good with people. Together, they made a good team.
The fellow I flew most often with was North Carolina State graduate Charlie Cox. Charlie was my flight commander, had 2,000 hours in the Phantom, and a previous war tour. Charlie was a very demanding pilot who pushed me quite hard. I would follow him into a fiery furnace.
I turned 24 shortly after arriving at DaNang. With my 65 hours of Phantom experience, I was pretty typical of the young lieutenants in my squadron. We had to grow up fast.
Our squadron was assigned to the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing “Gunfighters” and we lived in Gunfighter Village. It was pretty crowded – my room was built for two, but I had three other roommates, two of whom were subsequently shot down (but fortunately rescued). The food was rotten. Our dining options were limited and none of them were good. I got food poisoning more than once.
I said that DaNang was often called rocket city. There was a North Vietnamese artillery battalion within a dozen miles of the base and they would launch an attack at least weekly and always at night. A minor attack would be five 122mm Kutyusha rockets and a heavy attack would be 15, all in the span of five minutes. The Kutyusha was an unguided rocket with a five inch warhead – if it ever hit anything, it would cause significant damage. I only recall one ever hitting Gunfighter Village, exploding just outside the building next to mine. It hurt a couple of fellows pretty bad.
I spent 11 weeks at DaNang before our squadron was sent to another base in Thailand. In that time, DaNang lost 13 Phantoms and many other aircraft as well. We flew a lot – in May, I flew 41 missions. In some cases, we were attacking targets within 15 miles of the base; the enemy was that close. All of my missions were flown against targets in either South or North Vietnam; I never flew a single mission into either Cambodia or Laos.
In mid-June, the 35th packed its bags and headed for Korat Air Base in Thailand. It was a huge change. Korat was a paradise – the food was much better; we didn’t have to worry about getting rocketed at night; our living conditions were improved; and the nearby city of the same name was a mecca of exotic sights and sounds. The missions were quite long (some as long as 5+ hours which is a long time to be strapped into an ejection seat) and frequently hazardous, but coming home made it worthwhile.
I spent four more months flying combat until mid-October when the Panthers returned to our home base of Kunsan, South Korea. By that time I had flown 121 combat missions, 43 of which were over North Vietnam. We had helped to blunt the Easter attack and bring the enemy to the negotiating table. A few months later, an armistice was signed and our POWs began to return home. It was a hard job well done.
I was fortunate to have been able to fly the F-4 Phantom II supersonic (mach 2+) fighter bomber for five years from 1971 – 1976. Although I joined to United States Air Force to avoid being drafted into the U.S. Army and going to Vietnam, fate ultimately sent me to Vietnam.
During the summer and fall of 1972, I was a member of the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron flying combat missions over South Vietnam, North Vietnam and Laos. The 35th TFS was based at Korat Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand, but was on temporary duty (TDY) from Kunsan Air Base, Korea. We brought our F-4D models from Korea, but we also flew the F-4E models based at Korat. The primary difference between the D and E models was that the D model did not have a 20mm canon and the E model had a 20mm canon built into the nose.
During the summer and fall of 1972, the 35th TFS had two primary missions:
Strike escort missions as part of operation Linebacker I into Route Pack VI, the most heavily defended area in the history of aerial warfare. Each strike escort mission consisted of four 35th TFS F-4s flying in “fluid four” formation on the perimeter of the strike force (the Phantoms carrying bombs) as the strike force ingressed and egressed the target in the Route Pack VI area of North Vietnam. The strike escort F-4s were the second line of defense if enemy MiGs got past the MiG CAP (combat air patrol) F-4s. The job of the strike escort was to engage and destroy MiGs that threatened the strike force. If the MiGs got too close to the F-4 bombers, the bombers would be forced to jettison their bombs and take evasive action to avoid being shot down.
- Close air support missions primarily in the northern part (Military Region 1) of South Vietnam. These missions consisted of dropping bombs (usually Mark 82 500 pound general purpose bombs – slick, with fuse extenders and snake eye, but sometimes cluster bomb units “CBUs”) under the direction and control of a forward air controller. These missions were in defense of the good guys who were being attacked by Viet Cong or North Vietnamese army men.
When I arrived at Korat in the summer of 1972, the 35th TFS was divided into two groups. One group, the older and more experienced guys, flew daily Operation Linebacker I missions into Route Pack VI and the other group flew close air support missions. Because I was a young, inexperienced and very green 1st Lt., I was assigned to the close air support missions. I did not mind too much because the Route Pack VI missions were much more dangerous.
Although I did get to fly combat missions into Route Pack VI, most of the combat missions I flew were close air support missions at night in the northern part of South Vietnam or Laos. I usually flew two missions a night. After dropping all my bombs on the first target, my flight of two F-4s landed at DaNang Air Base, South Vietnam, to rearm and refuel. I then rendezvoused with another Forward Air Controller and dropped another load of bombs on the bad guys and returned to Korat.
My typical bomb load was twelve Mark 82 500 pound general purpose bombs. It was common for six of the bombs to have fuse extenders. Every bomb had at least one fuse, which was the device that caused the bomb to detonate. A fuse extender was a three foot metal tube that screwed into the nose of the bomb with the fuse on the tip of the tube. The purpose of a fuse extender was to cause the bomb to detonate three feet above the ground for maximum blast effect against troops in the open. Each bomb had a nose and a tail fuse that was selected by the pilot before dropping the bomb. If a building or a structure was the target, the tail fuse was preferred because it would cause the bomb to detonate after the bomb first penetrated the structure so that the full force of the blast would occur inside the structure.
A Normal Day at the Aerial Office
My normal work day consisted of waking in the late afternoon then showering, shaving and getting dressed in my nomex green fire retardant flight suit. I then rode the shuttle bus or hitched a ride to the Korat Air Base Officer’s Club for breakfast just before dark. After eating, I went to Fort Apache (scroll to the bottom of the page for two pictures of Fort Apache taken by Col. Grady Morris), the intelligence building on the flight line, to plan and brief my mission for the night.
Mission briefings usually started two hours before take off. First, an intelligence officer briefed all the crews on recent events in the ground and air war and specific information about my target area. We also got a weather briefing. Next, the flight leader of each flight of two or four F-4s conducted individual briefings for his flight. Most of the night missions involved flights of two F-4s.
During the briefing, we talked about the types of weapons delivery to be used to drop our ordnance, emergency air fields, search and rescue procedures, missing wingman procedures, rendezvousing with the forward air controller, and return to base (“RTB”) procedures. I usually had 10 – 30 minutes after the briefing to prepare to go to the airplane.
This 10 – 30 minutes of inactive time was when I was most afraid because the idleness allowed me to think about what I was preparing to do — use a multi-million dollar supersonic flying machine to drop bombs on fellow human beings who were trying to kill me at the same time I was trying to kill them. It was during this time I always went to the bathroom at the insistence of my nervous bowels.
My Flying Gear
About fifteen minutes before station time (the time designated to depart Fort Apache for the flight line and my airplane) I dressed for aerial combat. I put my wallet, money and all personal affects in my locker. The only identification I carried when I flew combat missions was my Geneva convention card and my US Department of Defense military ID card.
The G Suit
While flying the F-4, I wore a G suit or technically I suppose it was an “anti-G suit” because its purpose was to allow me to withstand Gs when turning hard in the F-4. The normal force of gravity we all experience is called “one G” or one gravity force. When a fighter turns hard, it can cause the airplane and its occupants to experience multiple gravity forces. During normal combat maneuvers, the F-4 frequently “pulled” 4 or 5 positive Gs. Five Gs means that the pilot’s body weights five times its weight. Moving while pulling 4 or 5 Gs is difficult, especially turning the head around to check the five or seven o’clock positions. While pulling Gs, I sometimes had to use my arm to push my head backwards so I could look behind the airplane.
The purpose of the G suit is to help fighter pilots pull more Gs before they gray out (lose peripheral vision) or black out (become unconscious). The G suit looks like an ugly weird set of pants and is worn over the flight suit. It zips on around each leg and the abdomen. The G suit has air bladders over the stomach, around the thighs and the calves of each leg. It also has a hose that plugs into an outlet in the cockpit. When the G forces increase, the airplane pumps air into the bladders in the G suit. More Gs means more air pumped into the suit. When the Gs decrease the air pressure in the G suit decreases until there is no air pressure in the G suit when the G force equals one. The G suit increases a pilot’s ability to withstand G forces because it constricts the lower half of the body and makes it more difficult for blood to flow from the upper body to the lower body. The result is that it takes more G forces to push blood from the brain thus giving the pilot the ability to withstand greater G forces before graying or blacking out.
My G suit was also a place to store items that otherwise could not be carried in the cramped cockpit of the F-4. My G suit had a pocket on the inner thigh in which I carried a USAF issued switchblade knife tied to a lanyard that was secured to the G suit. One end of the knife was always open because it was a special hook shaped blade the sole purpose of which was to cut four parachute lines to make the parachute more maneuverable. I also had a large jungle knife in a sheath with a sharpening stone attached to my G suit. I made sure I had several strips of gray USAF tape on the thigh area of my G suit. I used the tape to cover instrument lights that were too bright when I flew at night.
The Survival Vest
Next I donned my survival vest made of light-weight nylon material. It contained the following survival gear: two two-way radios, 50 rounds of .38 caliber ammunition, compass, tourniquet, first aid kit, two smoke flares (to make a lot of colored smoke) and several pen gun flares (to be fired into the sky). When I flew, I also wore a parachute harness into which the parachute straps contained in the ejection seat connected. The parachute harness had two under arm life preserver units (lpus) to be inflated if I ejected over water and three hundred feet of nylon line in a pack on the back of the harness. Because much of Southeast Asia was covered by thick jungles with trees over 200 feet high, the nylon line in the parachute harness would allow me to slowly lower myself to the ground if I ejected and my parachute got stick in the trees.
I took special care to check the two radios I carried in my survival vest. I made sure each radio worked properly and that the batteries were fully charged. I also put two extra radio batteries in my anti-G suit pocket along with two plastic bottles of ice. If I were shot down, the only way I would be rescued would have been to make contact with US forces on one of the three radios I carried (two in my survival vest and one in the survival kit in my ejection seat).
The last thing I did after putting on my survival vest, anti-G suit and parachute harness was to check out my Smith & Wesson .38 caliber Combat Masterpiece revolver from the survival gear people. I then grabbed six .38 caliber bullets from the big tin of bullets and loaded my little pea shooter and inserted it into the holster strapped to my leg. Although I had an additional 50 rounds of bullets in two bandoliers on my survival vest, the weapon was no match for an enemy soldier with an AK-47, but it might be useful for self defense against tigers and cobra snakes than inhabited the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Arriving at the Airplane
An hour before take off a USAF step van took us to the airplanes. The first thing I did was put my gear in the cockpit and do the Preflight Checks that consisted of:
- Before Exterior Inspection Check
- Exterior Inspection Check
- Before Entering Cockpit Check
- Cockpit Interior Check
- Before Electrical Power Check
- After Electrical Power Check
Checking the Ordnance
During the Exterior Inspection Check, I inspected each ordnance item. I made sure the ordnance was securely fastened to the airplane and that each fuse had a safety wire in it. The fuses had little propellers on their tips. The bombs were not armed (ready to explode) unless they had a fuse and the fuse was active. Before a fuse could become active, the propeller on the fuse had to spin in the wind fast enough to cause the fuse to become active. The purpose for the fuse, the propellers and the arming of the fuse was to prevent a bomb from colliding with another bomb when released and detonating under the airplane or from simply detonating spontaneously when released.
Before bomb release, the propellers on the fuses could not spin in the wind because they had a safety wire inserted in the propeller that prevented the propeller from spinning. When the bomb was released, the safety wire remained attached to the airplane and pulled free from the propeller. With the safety wire removed, the little propeller spun in the wind and armed the fuse. Once armed, the bomb would detonate when the fuse was “jostled.”
My airplane usually carried three AIM-7 Sparrow radar guided missiles and one ALQ-119 jamming pod in the four missile bays on the bottom of the fuselage. There were no MiGs in the South Vietnam airspace so the AIM-7s were not needed. Although there were a few SA-2 Guideline surface to air missiles (“SAMs”) in the northern part of South Vietnam during the NVA’s Easter 1972 offensive, I do not recall one being fired at me outside of North Vietnam.
by Walter J. Boyne: It was the most dangerous of the “Route Packages,” taking airmen into the deadly defenses around Hanoi. In every war, there is a place that comes to symbolize its most ferocious moments. For airmen in the Vietnam War, it was Route Pack 6, taking the battle to the heart of Hanoi-“going downtown.” A relatively small band of US pilots fought a long and valiant war under conditions that rarely made sense to them. Handicapped by onerous-foolish might be the better term-rules of engagement, they nonetheless flew into battle every day, delivering bombs on the most well-defended targets in history. Many brave men died in the process, and more suffered the fate of imprisonment by a cruel enemy.”