Seven Years of Vietnam
A Raven goes to war.
By Lieutenant Colonel (Ret) David S. Zook
I. Back into ECM
The Spring of 1962 found me at Mather AFB, California. It was a good time. I was back into Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) for the first time in over two years. It was where I wanted to be. Mather was the current home of the Electronic Warfare Officers (EWO) school and I was there to learn to be a Raven, an EWO.
I hadn’t been in the school long when I met Freda Hatton, an Air Force nurse, and I fell for her big time. We were married in the Fall at the Mather Chapel with a reception at the Officers Club. We were hardly through our honeymoon when she got an early morning call from the command post to report there immediately. The voice on the other end was a colonel and wouldn’t tell Freda what it was all about.
Twenty four hours passed and I still was not allowed to talk to or see her. That second morning we students were called to a large briefing room and informed of the beginning of the Cuban missile crisis. Freda was a fight nurse and had been alerted for duty at Homestead AFB, Florida. At my briefing we were told that in case of nuclear war we would be evacuated to the old state fair grounds in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
My new wife was going to war and I was going to the mountains! She remained on call for several months and wasn’t allowed to leave the base for a distance of more than 50 miles and to stay in phone contact with the command post.
I graduated from the school in Spring of 1963 and Freda resigned her regular commission. We were on our way to Eglin AFB, Florida where I would be a Research and Development Project Officer. We were two happy people; she was seven months from being a mom and I was in as nice a job as I could ever hope for.
II. Getting ready for Vietnam
I have several vivid memories of Eglin. One such is the day President John Kennedy arrived for the biggest fire power display I have ever seen. As soon as the President and his party were seated in the reviewing stand an RF-101 photo reconnaissance plane came over at very low altitude and the plane was enough ahead of its sound that it seemed to come at us swiftly and silently. The sound didn’t reach us until the plane had passed over us.
There was a great deal of bombing, rocketing and strafing being conducted before us. Toward the end of this extravaganza, a mock up of a F-104 fuselage, from behind the canopy forward was pointed out to the audience. It was fitted with a Gatling gun and this gun was aimed down range at a derelict F-100 which was loaded with jet fuel and explosives.
On the command of the range officer the Gatling gun was fired for about 3 seconds. The HEAT rounds flashed across the space between the shooter and the target. As the bullets hit the F-100 the entire airplane exploded in a fire ball. It was a real crowd pleaser.
As the noise died down a truck mounted with a photo processing unit stopped in front of the stands and a sergeant leaped from the door and ran over to President Kennedy. The sergeant handed the president a large aerial photo of the reviewing stand from which each member of the presidential party could be easily identified. The photo had been taken just a half hour before by the RF-101 that had flown over us. The next day President Kennedy was shot to death in Dallas, Texas.
I tested a variety of ECM equipment while at Eglin, but by far the most important turned out to be the QRC 160-1 jamming pod. The Guideline, Soviet Surface-to-Air missile system (SA-2) had been deployed to North Vietnam. Our fighter and reconnaissance planes could easily fly above the antiaircraft artillery (AAA) but by doing so entered the primary threat zone of the SA-2.
The SA-2 was controlled by a Track-While-Scan radar with the NATO name “Fan Song.” F-105 and RF-101 aircraft soon began to suffer heavy losses to the SA-2. A few years earlier the Air Force had contracted for a self protection jamming pod for the fighters under the Quick Reaction Capability (QRC) program. The QRC 160 series of pods were designed to aid penetration into the known Soviet radar defenses.
These pods had been given a combat test during 1965 at Ubon RTAFB, Thailand. The RF-101 was selected for the test because losses of these aircraft were higher than any other. If anything could be done wrong during a combat test, it was done wrong at Ubon.
The pods were incorrectly tuned, incorrectly mounted on the aircraft and not correctly checked before being sent into combat. If anything, the pod carrying airplanes seemed to be a better target then ones not carrying pods. The PACAF Commander was disgusted with the results and ordered the pods and the people supporting them out of the theater.
ECM had taken a real black eye. Unprotected fighters came under ever increasing missile fire as more SA-2 sites were established. TAC formed an office at Eglin with the name Tactical Air Warfare Center (TAWC). Under its auspices was the anti-SAM task force whose charter was to develops a defense against the SA-2.
I was assigned a project named “Problem Child” which was to retest the QRC 160-1 pods to determine if they could be made to somehow counter the SA-2. By virtue of my test of these pods I became involved with the anti-SAM task force. There was a lot to learn about the SA-2 and its Fan Song radar.
The Foreign Technology Division (FTD) had gathered the available intelligence on the Fan Song and had contracted for the building of a surrogate model to be placed on the Eglin Test Range. During the Problem child test I made frequent trips to this surrogate radar site to observe the missions from the point of view of the Fan Song radar operators.
Our version of the Fan Song was referred to as the Soviet Air Defense System-1 (SADS-1). At the heart of the system were three operator positions. The operators each had a “B” scope that was higher than it was wide and on one of them displayed azimuth and range. The other operator’s scope displayed elevation and range. A master operator sat behind his subordinates and operated an expanded range scope.
It was the job of the master operator to match up the azimuth, elevation and range information when more than one airplane was appearing on the scopes at the same time. When he had isolated the target airplane, and if it was between 6 and 30 miles, he could initiate a simulated missile launch.
Our Math Services people determined from the data we collected that the probability of a hit (getting a missile within 200 feet of an aircraft where the missiles proximity fuse would work) was 97% if the airplane(s) were not jamming and 4% if four airplanes in the correct formation were all jamming the radar.
The formation tactic was the original idea of retired Lt. Col. Ingwald Haugen who was employed as a civil service expert in our ECM test shop. “Inky” Haugen knew more about ECM than any other person I’ve ever met. He was involved with ECM from the very beginning when both the British and Germans were developing radar and counter measures to it. Working with Inky as my mentor was like getting a graduate degree in ECM.
Inky’s tactic involved positioning four airplanes in a formation with lateral, elevation and range separation of 1100 to 2000 feet. When in formation and with each aircraft jamming, the operators on the ground saw their entire radar scopes filled with noise. There was no way for the operators to pick out a single target aircraft. Firing a salvo of three missiles into the mass of jamming would only result in a 4% probability of getting a missile close enough to an airplane to cause the missile’s proximity fuse to trigger.
We flew these test missions over and over. Each and every day the results were the same. We would start and end each test flight by flying the formation against the SADS-1 radar with jammers turned to standby. The other passes were with jammers on. We flew straight into the site and we flew off set runs. The tactic defeated the radar.
I had hardly finished the scheduled testing of the pods and written the first draft of a test report when I was alerted for an assignment to the 41st Tac Recon Squadron (TRS) flying RB-66C ECM aircraft. I was on my way to the “Big Show.”
III. The situation at Takhli
I wasn’t prepared to go directly into combat from Eglin. First I was sent to water survival training at Tyndall AFB, Florida. Next to the Air Crew Survival course at Stead AFB, Nevada and then to the B-66 Combat Crew Training Course at Shaw AFB in South Carolina. My last stop was to attend the just established Jungle Survival Course at Clark AFB, Philippine Islands.
That course at Clark was so interesting that I would have paid to go to it. It was like a National Geographic tour. We lived in the jungle and had native Negretos as our guides and teachers. I was sorry to leave the jungle but anxious to get on to the war. We were flown from Clark to Ton Son Nhut and then to Bangkok.
The taxi ride from Bangkok to Takhli was a wild affair during which I thought I would be killed without ever having flown a combat mission. Takhli is about 150 road miles north of Bangkok and the two lane road was crowded with heavy trucks hauling iron bombs north and empty trucks going south. This is how the bombs got to the Royal Thai Air Force Bases so they could be flown to North Vietnam and dropped there.
The cab drivers were in a great hurry as they would shuttle the newly arriving air crew members to the bases. They were constantly looking for even the slightest opportunity to pass the truck in front of them and avoid the oncoming trucks. These were small right hand drive Datsun four door sedans and I was riding in the left front seat. I really missed not having a steering wheel and a brake pedal!
We were deposited in front of the billeting office. At that stage of its existence the base was a collection of teak wood single story buildings set about three feet off the ground on concrete piers. They had screen wire and teak wood louvers for siding and corrugated steel roofs. A few of the buildings that needed to be secure, such as the command post and briefing room were air conditioned.
The rows of “hooches,” which each housed 12 crew members, had ceiling fans and everyone was offered a mosquito net for their bed. As soon as about ten or so of us would be dropped off at the billeting office, the Thai man responsible for providing us a place to live would dispatch a couple of large trucks to the next vacant spot at the end of the row of hooches and a new hooch would be built while you watched.
One truck carried teak wood, screen wire, metal roofing and concrete piers. The other was crowded with workers. Each worker had a hand-made tool box with a hammer and hand saw and other tools. The men jumped from the truck and went right to work. Before the afternoon was over our new home was ready for us.
Teak wood side walks lead from the hooches to the common latrines and then on to the officers club and mail room. During the rainy season I learned that the side walks floated and the hooches were high up off the ground because during a heavy rain the water would rise a lot faster than it could run off.
The tiny BX rarely had anything in it other than empty shelves and a couple of clerks. The air conditioned club was THE place to hang out. On the second day at Takhli we were notified that we were scheduled for a mandatory newcomers briefing that afternoon.
We walked down the wooden walks between the hooches to the O’Club for some lunch and afterwards to the wing briefing room. Almost everything was raw, rough cut teak wood and the briefing room was no exception. The air conditioned interior was Spartan with a rough wood floor and walls.
A stage at the front held a podium, an American flag and the Air Force flag. There were covered maps and a projection screen as well. Above the stage was a hand carved set of pilots wings and the motto, “The mission of the United States Air Force is to fly and to fight, don’t ever forget it.” We wouldn’t soon forget.
About two dozen of we “new guys” were in our seats when the room was called to attention. The 355th Tac Fighter Wing Commander, Col. Robert R. Scott took the stage and told us to take our seats. He was the only person I ever remember seeing at Takhli to wear his Dress Blue uniform. His chest was covered with ribbons he had won during World War II and Korea as a fighter pilot.
Col. Scott looked us over with a serious gaze before he spoke, “Look at the man on your left...now the man on your right. Only two of you will complete your tour here as our current loss rate is 33%.” He went on to give us a terse overview of our mission and then the room was again called to attention as he left.
He was replaced by an Intelligence officer who continued the briefing in more detail. It became more clear by the minute that this was serious business. We were shown the map of Indochina and it was divided into war zones. The next chart was of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and the Vietnams. North Vietnam was divided into sections called Route Packs. Hanoi was in Route Pack VI.
We were shown the approximate location of safe areas and friendly forces, and on the briefing went. After about an hour we were taken to the personal equipment area where we were issued our survival vests and revolvers. The Intelligence Officer issued us our blood chits and had us fill out a card with our personal information and a personal identification code.
Now I knew we were about ready to become true warriors. I found it rather exciting in my naïve way. Afterwards we went to see our squadron scheduler to get crewed up and put on the flying schedule. I drew a really great crew and we would fly a lot of combat together.
IV. Going to war on North Vietnam
I had arrived at Takhli in May of 1966 and losses at the fighter bases in Thailand were very high. The tour at that time was based on a year with one month taken off for every 20 missions flown in the high threat areas of Route Pact VI. The fighter pilots flew so often that they would complete there 100 combat missions in six months. One hundred missions in the high threat areas comprised a completed tour. Those of us in the RB-66Cs normally ended up with an 8 month tour and 80 missions in Route Pack VI.
Our job in the RB-66Cs was to gather signal intelligence, provide SAM warnings to the fighters and to provide standoff jamming support. The RB-66C was an unarmed reconnaissance plane with a crew of six. The pilot and navigator sat in the forward cockpit and four EWOs occupied a pallet in the small bomb bay.
Every day I would engage someone in conversation about my concern about the high loss rate of the F-105s and the lack of self protection jamming. I would tell about the success I had seen with the QRC160-1 jamming pods during my tour at Eglin.
One day a Lt. Col. Danny Salmon saw me in the O’Club bar and asked me to go with him to his squadron’s mission planning room. Danny Salmon was a Squadron Commander of one of the F-105 squadrons. Several people had gathered in his mission planning room to hear what I had to say.
He had been told of my thoughts and he wanted some details. He began by telling me the pods had been sent out of the theater by the PACAF Commander because they were worthless. How did they become better when being tested at Eglin?
Equipped with a few sheets of paper and a pencil I began explaining about the Fan Song’s antenna pattern and the importance of the formation tactic. I emphasized aircraft separation was essential to the success of the tactic. There was an EWO there that I hadn’t met, as it turned out he had been responsible for the first combat test of the pods, the test that failed.
V. Making the pods work
Within a couple of days I was asked to speak to the Wing Commander and some of the other senior officers from the Wing. This time I was provided a blank flip chart and some colored markers. By now I had sort of developed a briefing format and I made it through my pitch pretty well. When I finished there were a few questions and then Col. Scott called for a NCO who was a good magic marker briefing chart artist. He told the sergeant to work with me and make a flip chart briefing.
The briefing was put together and I gave it to Col. Scott one more time. He cautioned me to keep it in as “fighter pilot” sounding language as possible and not to sound like I was addressing engineers. He told me he had arranged for me to go to 7th Air Force Head Quarters in Saigon.
At Ton Son Nhut, I briefed the Director of Operations and several other of his staff. The question put to me by the DO was what do we need to make this work. I gave him the same answer I gave Col. Scott a couple of days before; we needed people that knew how to maintain the pods. I suggested the people from Eglin come over.
I also told him that we needed pilots willing to prove the concept by flying straight and level into the target while staying in formation. Col. Scott had told me he had the right men and the pilot project officer would be Major Dave Brenner. Dave was a former cowboy from Wyoming and was said to be fearless. He certainly was.
Everything went smoothly at Saigon except for my night’s sleep being interrupted. I was staying in the Visiting Officers Quarters on the main road through Ton Son Nhut. The VOQ was a squad tent with a wooden floor and it contained two rows of bunk beds. I got an upper bunk. An Army Captain, a helicopter pilot was in the bunk below me. At 0300 we were shaken awake by the sound of mortar rounds exploding near by. The Army Captain grabbed me and said to get under the bed. I was surprised there was room for us both under there. In rapid succession more mortar rounds exploded and they were coming our way.
At the same time lights were coming on and sirens were blaring. Base defense people were moving all over the place. The next round hit just outside our tent and blew the whole corner off. That was the last round to hit and it was the loudest sound I have heard in my life.
Later we were told that a couple of guys on motor bikes had stopped in the middle of the street, quickly set up a little mortar and were walking rounds right down the line of tents. A few people were wounded but no one was killed. I was really glad I was stationed in Thailand as I’m not the least bit interested in ground combat. I was glad when daylight came and shortly after that I was on a T-39 heading back to Takhli.
Seventh Air Force had passed their desire for a combat test to PACAF. As it turned out PACAF was still adamantly opposed to the use of jamming pods as a result of their first use in the theater. By this time my Problem Child test report had made it into distribution and was gaining interest at the Air Staff.
The staff at PACAF were getting a lot of pressure from below as 7thAF pushed for the pods and pressure from above by the Air Staff. With strong reservations, PACAF finally gave in. When the word came down that we were a go, I recall the Captain that had conducted the first test say, “Good, this test will bury those pods once and for all.”
That Captain shall remain nameless here, but I firmly believe that most of the losses of our aircraft and crew members during 1966 could have been prevented by the use of the pods. We were about to find out for certain with our combat test. These would not be training missions as the demand for bombing sorties demanded about four sorties per day per airframe.
Our plan was to load a QRC 160-1 pod on each wing of the F-105s and to start with a mission into a low threat area. The four F-105 “Thuds” flew the formation at an altitude above the AAA fire. I was in a RB-66C monitoring and recording the mission. Before we got to the threat area I called each aircraft by call sign and had them turn one pod at a time, first to operate and then back to standby.
I could see the jamming on my ECM receiver and all pods checked good. The mission went as planned; AAA was shot at the formation but they were flying above it. No missiles were fired at the jamming aircraft. On the next series of missions we repeated the airborne pod checks and moved up to targets in higher threat areas…so far so good. The pilots were used to the formation flying and were ready for the big test; a flight at bombing altitude in Route Pack IV.
After each mission I went to the fighter pilots’ debriefing to gather the details and then went to the command post to call my contact at 7th Air Force with the mission results. I would call on the secure phone which was very difficult to communicate over. None the less after several tries the message would always get across.
VI. The real test
The day came for the final combat flight test mission. The “frag order” came from 7th AF as it did everyday. The frag order outlined the number of aircraft and their targets for the next day’s missions. That day’s frag order specified 8 F-105s carrying the QRC 160-1 pods to be flown as two four ship formations. Their target was the Nguyen Khe fuel storage tanks in the most heavily defended area in north Vietnam.
The pod carrying planes were only part of this mission, there were many more non-pod carrying F-105s on this mission. My crew and I went into an orbit north west of Hanoi, not only to gather information on the mission but also to provide some standoff jamming for the F-105s.
It was a savage mission for the Thud pilots. In addition to jamming, I was watching for Fan Song activity and issuing threat warnings to the fighters. The radios were filled with reports of missile launches, inter and intra-formation chatter and the sound of distress calls. As the last of the Thuds passed through the target area we all headed back to Takhli.
As soon as we parked the RB-66C I was racing to get to the fighter pilot debriefing. Several planes had been hit by either AAA or missile fragments but none of our pod carrying F-105s had received any damage. Our 8 podded planes flew exactly as briefed; straight and level to the target keeping in the special formation.
I ran all the way to the command post to make my report to 7thAF on the secure phone. After repeating the simple message three times, the fellow on the other end said he understood, “All bombs on target — no podded aircraft damaged — everything went as advertised.”
I just stood there for a moment that seemed to expand time. It seemed at that point there was total silence and I felt a rapture. I knew I had made my point and also made a major contribution to the war effort and the acceptance of ECM.
My work at Eglin was rewarded with an Air Force Commendation Medal while the test at Takhli resulted in the award of the Bronze Star Medal. Far greater for me was the feeling of self satisfaction and knowing something had been done to diminish our casualty rate.
From that day forth every Thud pilot in the theater wanted pods on his airplane. I quote now from Alfred Price’s book The history of US Electronic Warfare, Vol III, page 88 and 89:
Once fighter pilots had become accustomed to the new formation, the improvement in survivability was clear beyond any possible doubt. With the zeal of a recent convert, Colonel William Chairsell, commanding the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing at Korat, informed the Director of Operations at 7th Air Force Headquarters:It would be fair to add that if the original introduction of the pods had been managed correctly they would not have failed so miserably and PACAF would have not sent them out of the theater. Every available pod, at that point about 140, was sent to Thailand. Well-trained GE support personnel were also sent to maintain them. The system worked, ECM’s black eye had healed and was looking good.
“The introduction of the QRC 160A-1 pod to the F-105 weapons system represents one of the most effective operational innovations I have ever encountered. Seldom has a technological advance of this nature so degraded an enemy’s defensive posture. It has literally transformed the hostile air defense environment we once faced, to one in which we can operate with a latitude of permissibility.”The jamming pod formation became fully accepted by 7th Air Force in October 1966. Yet as we have seen, this tactic could have been introduced several months earlier. The first phase of Problem Child had proved the effectiveness of the new tactic before the end of 1965. Given a degree of urgency, it should have been possible to introduce the pods and jamming formation in Thailand by mid-April 1966. For the reasons outlined above, six further months elapsed until mid-October when the pods and new tactics actually came into use. ...During those six months, seventy-two F-105s were lost over North Vietnam to SAMs and AAA. In the six months following the introduction of the new tactics F-105 losses fell sharply, to twenty-three. At a conservative estimate, it seems reasonable that the delays in introducing the new tactic cost the Air force at least forty F-105s and about thirty pilots killed or captured. These men paid a heavy price for PACAF’s long-standing prejudice against electronic warfare systems.
couple of DFCs and home
A mid-summer morning at Takhli RTAFB, Thailand began for
us early. It was still dark, warm and humid as we walked along the wooden
sidewalks toward the O’Club for breakfast. At 0400 the only people in the club
were some of the aircrew guys, a waiter or two and a couple of cooks.
The menu was very limited and even the limited menu items were not always available. The logistics for supporting the Royal Thai Air Force Bases had not been fully developed in 1966. I remember having Gai Kow Pad – stir fried rice with chicken – that was all I had an appetite for at that time of day.
We arrived at the briefing room at 0430. The mission was a little different for us because it involved a special JCS (Joint Chiefs of Staff) priority target. We would fly to northern Thailand and refuel, go northwest of Hanoi and sit in an orbit at about 36,000 ft. for an hour and then come home. These missions normally lasted 3 1/2 to 4 hours. We were there to provide standoff jamming support and SAM warnings for an F-105 strike force and then a RF-101 that would come in after the Thuds departed. The RF-101 Voodoo was to take pictures of the bomb damage. We would all be escorted by F-4C MIG Combat Air Patrol (CAP) and the Wild Weasel SAM suppression guys.
After the briefing we went to the personal equipment room to pick up our survival vests, S&W Combat Masterpiece revolvers, and blood chits. Next we grabbed our helmets, oxygen masks and parachutes. It wasn’t much of a walk from there to the planes. The parking ramp was filled with F-105s, EB and RB-66 ECM airplanes and KC-135 tankers.
As we walked out at 0500 and until sunup we would always see Thai workmen out on the ramp with baskets which they used to collect rice beetles. During the night the rice beetles would stuff themselves with rice and then look for the warm concrete to rest on while they digested their nightly repast. The Thais thought of the rice filled beetles as a delicacy. For my money the true delicacy was in the ripe, fresh cut pineapple in little plastic bags that the Thai women used to sell us. For a Bhat, about 25 cents then, you could buy a couple of thick slices of fresh ripe pineapple that was so good I’m surprised it was legal.
We went to work preflighting our bird. The pilot, Tom Crownan did his walk around while the nav, Peter Dunn did his. I was the EWO Crew Leader and the other three EWOs and I did our own preflight. Nutter Wimbrow was the position one EWO, Thornton was in the number 3 seat and Strickland was in position 2. I would be in the number four position directing the mission.
After the preflight and up to the time for scheduled engine start we all sat on the edge of the ramp drinking water and eating pineapple. At 0500 the tankers had made their take offs with the roar of their water injected engines forcing us to stuff our fingers into our ears. We were next and then the fighters. As we finished our refueling we made our way north across Laos and as we went we began picking up the dozens of early warning radars from North Vietnam.
As we proceeded, we jammed the radars we encountered, not so much for our own protection but also for denying the North Vietnamese a clear look at the attack force. A second RB-66C was flying to the south of the target area while we were north of it. We knew the instant the Thuds were starting down “Thud Ridge” because of the sudden increase in radar signals on our scopes. The threat radars for the AAA and missiles were coming on regularly now.
I was broadcasting SAM warnings now as were the other surveillance aircraft in the area. It was also clear that the Wild Weasel force was at work trying to keep the Fan Song missile control radars from operating. The pitch of battle increased as we heard MIG calls and distress calls adding to the radio chatter. One then another emergency beepers could be heard. More than one airplane would be shot down that day.
A F-4C flight leader was on the radio venting his disgust. We had listened as he lined up on a MIG and had gotten into firing position. There was a pause followed by an expletive as he bemoaned the fact he had failed to arm his air-to-air missiles. One of the Thuds was down and his flight was trying to give the downed pilot some cover until the rescue force arrived.
A second Thud had suffered battle damage and was losing fuel at a fast rate. A tanker pilot heard his call and decided to violate his restriction on flying into North Vietnam. The tanker would make it to the crippled fighter and once the fighter was hooked up to the tanker the two stayed connected until they were in northern Thailand. The entire strike force including the MIG CAP and Wild Weasels were now on there way south.
A half hour had passed. The action had been intense. We were remaining on station until the time when the RF-101 had been scheduled to depart the area. The photo recce guys had the most dangerous job in the world as far as I was concerned. They would fly over a recently bombed area right after the strike force departed. The job was to take Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) photos. Their loss rate was so high that the probability of a pilot completing a 100 mission tour was zero. They lived for an average of about 60 missions. Of course averages included a few unlucky souls being shot down on their first mission and a few, very lucky men completed a tour. I only met one man who had flown and survived a 100 missions in a RF-101.
At about the time we were due to depart and head for home, a call came from Red Crown, our airborne command post. The first RF-101 pilot had not made it to the target area before he was shot down by AAA. Because of the high priority of the target a second RF-101 was on its way to take pictures. Red Crown wanted to know if we could remain in our orbit for another hour to provide jamming support.
Tom and Pete went to work in the cockpit estimating our fuel and trying to decide if we could stay. It was decided we could continue where we were but we would not make it back to Takhli. The second RB-66 said he was too low on fuel to loiter and needed to Return To Base (RTB). Tom asked me if our equipment was all working and did we agree to staying on. There was no question in any of our minds that we would stay.
Refueling and returning to the orbit area was out of the question, as we couldn’t have done it and made it back to our orbit on time. Therefore we advised Red Crown that we were staying. Each minute seemed to last a life time as we continued our orbit. I noticed that the early warning and search radars were still at work and then I began to get a Fan Song signal that showed up on my warning receiver. It was to the west of us! We were still northwest of Hanoi.
The Fan Song was only a weak one ring signal that came and went. As we turned to the southwest bound leg of our race track orbit the Fan Song came on strong and steady at our 2 o’clock position. It was a full three rings and then it went to the edge of my scope. I put jammers on it and alerted the crew. Nutter announced he had a launch indication and I passed that on to Tom.
I called for a split S maneuver to change heading and altitude quickly. I dispensed a burst of chaff as we started our evasion. We dropped 4000 ft. and ended up heading back to the northeast. We used this tactic often. Tom would roll inverted and pull back on the stick to make a half loop. Tom had seen one missile while we were inverted. As we rolled out we were faced with two new Fan Song signals, one coming from our 7 o’clock and the second from our 3 o’clock. I got the jammers on these signals and advised the crew. I also issued a SAM warning as it was time for the RF-101 to be making its run.
All of a sudden a bunch of Fire Can AAA radars came on as well as a third Fan Song. Soon there was a missile launch signal. We were at the north end of our orbit again and Tom called back to ask for instructions. I asked for another split S as the RF-101 should have been exiting his photo run if he was still in one piece.
We were now down to about 28,000 ft. and going about as fast as an RB-66 could go. Tom could see a lot of AAA below us and decided to stay at our new altitude. We headed mostly south rather than risk heading back into the SAM that was west of us. We heard the RF-101 call RTB and we congratulated ourselves.
About ten more minutes passed when Pete commented on the intercom that we might make U-Dorn RTAFB if we were lucky. Tom got on the radio and advised Red Crown of our fuel situation. Having declared a fuel emergency we were cleared for a straight in approach to U-Dorn.
I had no idea how close we came to not making it back until as we pulled off the runway onto the taxiway the right engine shut down. Tom called the tower to let them know we were out of fuel and then he shut down the left engine. We just climbed out of the airplane and stood there as we marveled at our luck.
The Reconnaissance Wing Commander was coming toward us fast in his station wagon. He stopped and jumped out to greet and thank us. He was a very happy man: not only had his pilot made it home but so had we. As a bonus the pilot of the first RF-101 had been picked up by the rescue forces.
We stayed the rest of the day and night at U-Dorn and then flew back to Takhli. The best tasting beer I ever drank was the one I had when we got to the U-Dorn O’Club that afternoon. The Reconnaissance Wing Commander nominated all six of us for the Distinguished Flying Cross.
A few weeks later he flew down to Takhli to award the medals to us. I was later awarded a second DFC at Takhli but that story pales in comparison to this one. My time at Takhli was about up and I was anxious to be leaving. I had my end of tour party and got on a C-47 for the flight to Bangkok. I arrived in Los Angeles on New Years day of 1967 after the long flight from Bangkok.
I was glad my tour in Southeast Asia (SEA) was at an end and that I had made a contribution. It didn’t know then that my time in SEA had not ended but was to continue for 6 more years.
When I returned from Takhli I was assigned to the 5th
Bomb Wing (Heavy), at Travis AFB, California. Within the year we moved our B-52G
planes to Mather AFB, California. Not an altogether bad place to be assigned.
The only down side of it was a lot of TDY, both to Bullet Shot and to stand
ground alert at remote bases. The Bullet Shot tours would start at Anderson AFB,
Guam then a rotation to Kadena AFB, Okinawa and finally to U-Tapao, Thailand.
A few hundred missions from these three bases comprised the most boring segment of my adult life. However, on my last Bullet Shot tour there was to be an exiting conclusion to my flying career. I flew four missions during Linebacker II. The reader will find an excellent description of these missions in the article, “A B-52 CREWMAN’S VIEW OF LINEBACKER II, THE ELEVEN DAY WAR,” by Wilton W. Strickland, Lt. Col., USAF (Ret). There are other detailed accounts available at <http://www.afa.org/magazine/1197lineback.html> and
From the first day that I flew combat in SEA it seemed to me the entire air war was being improperly fought. Tactical fighter airplanes were performing the strategic mission and strategic heavy bombers were handling the tactical missions. President Lyndon B. Johnson and his key cabinet members were micro-managing the strategic war in North Vietnam and Johnson would not allow significant targets to be attacked. It all seemed surreal to me.
For seven years I had seen friends die or get captured attacking truck parks and bamboo bridges while air fields and supply depots went untouched. As far as I was concerned the war was being orchestrated by mad men.
IX. Strategic bombers bomb strategic targets
I was on a “thrown together crew” flying B-52Gsand we only flew out of Guam. We carried a smaller bomb load than the B-52Ds and had a much inferior ECM suite to work with. Also because the B-52G had “wet wing” fuel cells it was far less survivable than the D,E and F models. Only one B-52G ever make it back to an American base after suffering battle damage.
Our crew was a strange blend. The Radar Navigator/Bombadeer (RN) was Lt. Col. Walt Nickerson and my Gunner was Master Sergeant John Martin. The three of us had been crewed up for a long time and had been on the senior standardization crew at Mather AFB. We had also been on the 320th BW(H) Bombing Competition Crew.
For a few months prior to our last trip to Guam, we had been TDY to Beall AFB, California, conducting B-52G difference training for new SAC crewmen who had just finished the B-52 Combat Crew Training School (CCTS) at Castle AFB, California. SAC was sending the last of their B-52G planes to Guam and all remaining crewmen were going there as well.
Walt, John and I were put together with Captain Brad Lorris who had been flying helicopters and Captain Mike Moore for Co-Pilot, who had been flying light observation planes as a Forward Air Controller. The Navigator, Andrew Michaels had come to us from a desk job and had been getting his flying time in Air Reserve KC-135 tankers. Just before we were to depart and fly our last B-52G to Guam, John was taken off the crew and replaced by A1C Bobby Williams. This was the first crew assignment for the airman. (Note: The names of the pilot, copilot, navigator and gunner are fictional as I have no record of their real names. Walt Nickerson and John Martin are actual names.)
We had been on Guam for a few weeks flying the routine iron bomb missions over South Vietnam. Even though these were real bombing missions they were also crew training as well. Except for Walt and me, none of the other crew members had flown as a regular SAC Combat Crew. A lot of mistakes were being made and Walt and I tried as best we could to train the new crew members in normal crew procedures.
The copilot was really trying to learn but the pilot was taking our suggestions as a challenge to his authority as the “Aircraft Commander.” It was a touchy situation for all of us. Sometimes the tension between the pilot, and Walt and I became a matter of grave concern to me.
X. The First Night
We weren’t expecting what we found when we went to the briefing room on the 18th of December 1972. There were a lot more than the normal number of crews at the briefing. In fact the room was packed. It was all very dramatic as it unfolded. First the briefing officer took the stage and announced, “Standby for a time hack.” After the time hack he called for the curtains to be drawn back from the screen and as it was coming into view he said, “Gentlemen, tonight’s targets.” There, before us, was a map of North Vietnam and the targets were all in the Hanoi area.
The silence was deafening and seemed to last for several seconds as we all took it in. The briefer went on, “129 B-52s from Guam and U-Tapao are going to join in three waves to bomb the Hanoi area.” My only thought then was, “Well it’s about bloody time -- we’ve had this war dragging on for seven years of my life and we’ve wasted too damn many fine airmen bombing some pretty meaningless targets.”
After the primary briefing, we separated for our specialized briefings. I could hardly believe some of the things I was told we could and could not do during the mission. No chaff was to be dispensed unless we were under attack by a fighter. Even with the phase III ECM suite I would have on my B-52G, I was to allocate one jammer for jamming the missile downlink signal. That would be more than wasted jamming power, it would also take a jammer away from the more important role of jamming a threat radar.
We went over the known threat radars in our target areas and there were a lot of them. The SA-2 sites overlapped so there was solid coverage from before the Initial Point (IP) to the Egress Point. The boundary was termed the Lethal SAM Line (LSL). We were told that we were going into the best defended area in the world at that time.
After the specialized briefings, the crew reformed outside the alert compound to await transportation by crew bus to our airplane. Captain Brad Lorris seemed not to know how he was to act or feel. He had only a couple hundred hours flying B-52s and he still felt awkward trying to manage a six man crew. For want of anything better to do, when we reached our plane and got off the bus, he ordered us to line up for a pre-mission personal inspection. He wanted our helmets lined up and us to stand behind them. Walt and I hadn’t done anything like that since we had been at the Bombing Competition a year and a half earlier.
Walt looked at Captain Lorris and asked, “Captain, do you want to take a group picture?” Lorris answered that, ”No, (he) wanted to conduct an inspection.” I had a small 35mm camera in my helmet bag and I handed it to the crew chief and asked if he would take our picture. I asked him to take three shots; one close in of just the crew, one with the crew and the nose of the airplane and one further away to include more of the airplane.
When the pictures were taken the crew chief brought me the camera. I turned to Lorris and said,” Brad, you were just kidding about the inspection, right?” I patted him on the back and we started loading our gear on the plane.
The bombers had received their preflight inspections by crews not scheduled to fly that mission. The reason for this was the mission was to be 16 hours long. The mission duration plus briefing and debriefing was to constitute a very long crew day. All that remained for us to do was climb into the airplane and start the engines. The after engine start checklist items would be completed and we would be ready for takeoff.
Anderson AFB was so full of B-52s and other airplanes that not one more plane could have been parked on the base. Munitions loading crews had been working feverishly preparing the bombs and loading the bomb bays and wing racks. Maintenance trucks scurried all around the ramp area as maintenance personnel made last minute repairs and adjustments.
Finally it was engine start time for the first wave and the noise level rose as the eight engine bombers came to life. Tankers were already airborne and waiting at the rendezvous points to top us off. We were scheduled for a total of three airborne refuellings.
The bombers taxied to the active runway and began a minimum interval takeoff (MITO). Bomber takeoffs were to continue for 87 minutes. The noise level rose to an ear splitting level. All over the airfield people stopped to watch as one after the other of the B-52s lumbered down the runway. At about the midpoint the wing tips would rise and then slowly the bombers would separate from the concrete and fly.
The end of the runway at Anderson went almost to the cliff at the edge of the island. As each bomber made it to the edge of the island it seemed to descend slightly as it picked up more speed before starting to climb. About a mile from the end of the runway the plane and its black exhaust would reappear and the plane would climb as it disappeared from view.
Our call sign was Charcoal 02 and we were next for takeoff. We swung onto the active runway and the pilots advanced the eight throttles to maximum power. The bomber began its roll and the nav team as well as the pilots watched the airspeed and time pass as we became committed to our takeoff.
I heard the landing gear retract and I knew we would be over the cliff. Only a few seconds passed when I heard the RN tell the pilots to get the nose down, we were almost at stall speed. The AC had tried to climb too fast and the plane began to shutter as it began to stall. Again Walt called over the inter phone to get the nose down.
The copilot acknowledged the intercom call and pushed forward on his control column to start a shallow descend and pick up some airspeed. I’m eternally grateful that Walt had been monitoring our airspeed and altitude. It was reassuring to have a veteran crew member there to pull our butts out of the fire.
We pressed on for our first refueling point. It became increasingly clear how nervous the pilot was as he made several attempts before getting hooked up to the tanker. We had one emergency disconnect before the short refueling was completed. We continued on to Thailand and entered a timing pattern so we could join up with the planes from U-Tapao.
The first attack wave was formed and we continued north across Thailand and Laos. We had been proceeded by F-4s who had laid down a blanket of chaff for us. Unfortunately the high winds at bombing altitude had blown most of the chaff cloud away before we arrived.
The night sky over North Vietnam was filled with a variety of American aircraft. Some 102 aircraft were there to support the B-52s. While still in Laos I began to see the North Vietnamese air defense radars appear on my receiver. By the time we reached the border to North Vietnam it was clear they knew we were coming as they must have had every radar they owned turned on.
Soon the first planes in our wave were over the target and were releasing their bombs; that must have been about 8 in the evening in Hanoi. It was clear that a major air battle was under way. My receiver’s scope showed clusters of strong Fan Song signals as well as missile launch indications.
I would notify the crew on the intercom of the greatest threat signals. The radio chatter increased as crews broadcast SAM sightings. Occasionally one of the pilots would describe to us what they were seeing. What I wasn’t hearing was anything from the nav team. I went to private intercom and called the RN. I asked, “Walt, what’s happening down there?” He answered that the navigator had folded his hands and bowed his head and had been praying from the time we turned inbound.
Walt was getting ready for the bomb run and said he had to go back to normal intercom. Shortly afterward he announced we were at the IP and told the pilot to center the PDI. I was calling out missile launches and the pilots were occasionally describing the battle scene. The radio chatter continued to mount and now there were also distress calls being made.
Only moments before our bomb release the copilot announced that Charcoal 01, our cell leader had been hit and was going down in flames. The copilot knew we were close to bomb release but he would mention he was seeing missiles coming up at us. We were too close to “bombs away” to do anything but press on. I had covered the strongest Fan Song signals with my jammers and I knew that we were probably being tracked.
Walt announced bomb release and then called for the post-target turn. I realized we were at a point of maximum vulnerability to the missiles. As a B-52, in a high banked turn, doesn’t send its jamming energy straight down toward the radar but rather to the area to the outside of the turn. We would be more easily tracked by the missile radars.
At that moment I decided that since the bomber in front of us was gone we had lost any mutual support jamming we may have gotten from him. We were flying a B-52G with an old, low powered set of jammers; so, therefore we were a target that the Fan Song operators should have no trouble tracking. I decided I would violate the order to not dispense chaff.
I put out three bursts of chaff as we began our turn. My rational for this was the Fan Song operators were only human beings. I guessed no one else had dispensed chaff. My dispensing chaff added one new element to the tracking problem for the operators to take into account. It might just help us survive. It was at that time we began to hear the emergency beepers of air crewmen that had bailed out.
We had a strong tail wind going into the target and, as we turned, that became a head wind slowing our egress. The turn seemed to last forever and the SAM radar signals were saturating my receivers. The strobes on the scope went to the left, right and behind us. I was still receiving missile guidance signals but the pilots could not see any more missiles coming our way.
Finally we were wings level again and departing the target area. Walt and the navigator were having a conversation on private intercom and the navigator was finally back to work. I realized I must next do something I had never planned on doing before. That was to dig out the reports book from the mission brief case and send a “Missing Aircraft” report to SAC, via the high frequency radio.
I pulled out the book of report formats and using a grease pencil, filled in the blanks for the shooting down of Charcoal 01 and our own after action report. We were now well out of SAM range, so I sent the radio reports. It was a chilling moment for me and one I’ll never forget.
The flight back to Guam was long and quiet. By daybreak we were flying over the tops of towering cumulus clouds painted gold by the early morning light. By the time we were landing at Anderson, the second day wave was getting ready for takeoff.
We had the rest of that day off and discovered we were scheduled to fly on day three. No B-52s were lost on the second night. As air crew members, we were finding it difficult to learn what was going on beyond what we heard in our the pre-mission briefings.
We did have a pretty intense crew meeting in our crew room. Walt and I called it and all six members of our crew attended. I guess the experiences of the first night were the motivating factor to get everyone trying to work as a team, both to accomplish the mission and to survive.
XI. The Third Night
The powers that be were trying to evolve plans based our
the first two night’s experiences. Night two had been a variation on the First
Night’s Theme. Altitudes and timing were adjusted and evasion action was
allowed. It seemed to make a difference as there were no losses on the second
We were given a special breakfast on day two, of steaks and eggs and just about everything else you could imagine seeing in an Air Force mess hall during the morning. It was a consolidated mess hall so there were maintenance and support people as well as air crewmen eating there. I remember a lot of the airmen asking for a steak and being told they were there only for the air crews, “Flight Surgeon's orders.”
I know those people had been working around the clock, and working hard. I felt badly that there weren’t steaks for everyone. I thought, “Maybe it was our last meal like the condemned get in prison before being executed.” We also had a massive amount of in-flight meals to take with us.
After eating and picking up our mission kits we were on our way to the briefing room. As always we started with a time hack and then the route and targets were shown. It was very similar to nights one and two. Same route and same general target areas. We were told of the absence of a shoot down on night two and emphasis was placed on the differences in tactics to be employed.
I found it difficult to believe that for three nights in a row, massive B-52 strikes would so closely follow the same routes and use the same tactics. It seemed to me that American Air Force planners were violating conventional rules of war by becoming predictable. The North Vietnamese seemed to be adaptable and pragmatic, we weren’t. It seemed we were to be the turkeys at a turkey shoot.
I felt better about the airplane we were to fly on night 3 compared to night 1. It had an improved ECM suite to afford us better protection. My concern was the primary search receiver, an ALR-20, that was not working properly. I called for maintenance. We had already started engines and were close to our taxi time so I started removing the receiver from its rack mount.
The technician arrived and the two of us pulled out the malfunctioning receiver and installed the replacement. I turned it on and the technician stayed with me as I checked the receiver out. The technician was prepared to ride with us as far as the hold line prior to the runway so away we went. He was out of the plane and the hatch was closed only a few moments before our scheduled take off time. Had he not finished we would have been replaced by a plane on standby.
For this, the third night of Linebacker II, we had the call sign Tan 02 and our target was the Kinh No military complex just on the northwest side of Hanoi. We would be closer to downtown Hanoi then on night 1 when our target had been the Yen Vein military complex northeast of town.
The crew seemed more together that night than on any of our previous missions together. The air refueling went well and we were settled down and ready to do our jobs. Ninety nine B-52s were to make up the strike force for the third night. We would proceed to Thailand and start a timing pattern to form the third wave of the strike force.
In all, our wave consisted of 12 B-52Gs and 9 B-52Ds from Anderson, plus 18 more B-52Ds from U-Tapao. We formed up and headed north to our targets. I was monitoring all of the radios and I could hear on the High Frequency radio the reports from the first wave. From what I could gather, 3 B-52s had been shot down and perhaps one or two others had been hit. It seemed the North Vietnameese had gotten their act together.
Six B-52s with the old low powered ECM suite had been recalled by SAC. It was becoming clear that too many of the G models with the older ECM equipment were being shot down. As we approached the Hanoi area I could again hear the battle activity and our pilots could see it. A lot of SAMs were being fired. Later I was to learn that over 220 SA-2 missiles would be fired at the B-52s that third night.
There was a mass of Fan Song signals on my search receiver as we flew into the SAM defended area. The little round screen of the APR-25 threat warning receiver was showing strobes from our 9 o’clock position around to the 12 0’clock and continuing to the 3 o’clock. It was plain to see that this was an electronic war that was being waged.
I was picking out the more intense signals on my search receiver and positioning jammers on each one. The wave leaders were over their target, the Hanoi rail yards. One of these planes was hit by a missile but managed to fly southwest to a place where the crew could eject.
The cell directly in front of us was assigned the call sign Olive. They had gotten out of formation while taking evasive action while inbound to the target. Olive 03 ended up about two miles ahead of Olive 02 at the target. Olive 01 was struck by a SAM and only three crewmen ejected. Olive cell had been bracketed by 7 SA-2 sites and they reported 38 SAM missiles during their time over Hanoi. We were next.
Less than 10 minutes after Olive cell had released their bombs we were in the target area. Tan 03 reported he had lost his bombing navigation radar. Our gunner had Tan 03 on his gunnery radar and the plane seemed to be falling back and far to the right of the position he should have been in. A missile hit Tan 03 and the plane blew up, only one crew member was able to eject.
We released our bombs and turned off target for the flight back to Guam. The toll for the night had been 4 B-52Gs, 2 B-52Ds shot down, and one B-52D seriously damaged. I was again filling in the blanks on the lost airplane report format. We all tried to relax on the way back, but the adrenaline was slow to wear off. I learned later that Tan 03 had been equipped with the old ECM suite.
XII. New tactics
The SAC planners were finally seeing the light. The
B-52Gs were pulled out of the lineup for the time being, and only the more
survivable and better ECM equipped B-52Ds were to carry on the Linebacker
missions for a few nights. We were not asked to repeat the single line of
bombers tactic again. Rather, we would tighten up the time between cells and
waves to give the North Vietnameese less time to reload there missile launchers.
The bombers would no longer be required to make a high banking turns coming off
their targets. That banking turn made the bombers too vulnerable as their
jamming was less effective when the plane was tipped up on its side.
We would also make the North Vietnamese air defense problem more difficult by attacking from different directions and altitudes on different headings. This was beginning to make some sense to me. The B-52Ds from U-Tapao were still taking losses. On night 4 they had two more bombers shot down.
Although President Nixon had declared a Christmas bombing halt, Work at Anderson and U-Tapao continued at a fever pitch. Planes were being loaded and prepared for the next maximum effort for night 8 of the campaign.
The new bombing plan was put into action. We would have 120 B-52s, 72 targeted against Hanoi, and the remaining 48, against Haiphong. It was to be a concentrated attack by all 120 bombers. We were going to bomb 10 targets in the Hanoi and Hiaphong areas with a common time over target. And all bombs were to be dropped during a 15 minute period.
On the 8th night we put together the biggest wave of B-52s ever assembled. Of the 120 bombers, 78 flew from Andersen. There were 45 B-52G's and 33 B-52D's.The other 42 planes were B-52D's from U-Tapao. The better ECM equipped B-52D's were used to strike targets in Hanoi.
We would be in a force of 15 B-52Gs and 3 B-52Ds targeting the Thai Nguyen rail yards north of Hanoi. The B-52Ds that attacked in the heavily defended Hanoi area suffered two losses. One plane blew up in the air and the other crashed while trying to land at U-Tapao.
Our cell of 18 airplanes did not take a hit. From our perspective it sounded worse than it was for us. There were strong Fan Song signals and launch signals. The pilots could see missiles in flight but they were not close enough to us to cause harm. Our after release turn was to the left and we proceeded back out over the Tonkin Gulf and home.
The new tactics had produced good results and the North Vietnameese defenders were unable to meet the challenge. I was to fly only one more mission in the B-52 and that would be on night 10 of the campaign. On that night we flew against Lang Dang rail yard. There were no B-52 losses that night.
All told the B-52 and support forces had flown over 3,000 sorties in 11 days and dropped nearly 40,000 tons of bombs. The Air force had succeeded in its objective of forcing the North Vietnamese to return to the peace table where there had been a stalemate since October.
During Linebacker II 26 American planes were shot down. Of these, 15 had been B-52s. The losses resulted in 92 crew members being killed or captured. Twenty-six were recovered, 33 became POWs and 8 were either killed in action or later died of their wounds.
One point of light shines clearly through the fog of this war: In this age of electronic warfare, the side that stays ahead of the technology of their adversary wins. An essential lesson learned is if America goes to war, it had better be to win, to hit hard, and destroy the enemy’s will and ability to fight on. All else is destined for failure and remorse.
Census Records | Vital Records | Family Trees & Communities | Immigration Records | Military Records Directories & Member Lists | Family & Local Histories | Newspapers & Periodicals | Court, Land & Probate | Finding Aids