THE ORIGIN OF THE 23RD TASS
Benn Witterman, Gombey
(Submitted by Alice Witterman)
Editors note: Alice Witterman submitted the following information to me, Charles L. Pocock, on February 24, 2001. Mrs. Witterman’s husband Benn passed away in July 2000. On about June 30, 1966, Captain Benn Witterman wrote the following "Narrative for Planned Release File for the Director of Information 7AF/13AF." Captain Witterman was assigned at Da Nang AB, RVN from 5 August 1965 until 17 January 1966 when he led the first detachment of six pilots, five airplanes and 13 support personnel to Nakhom Phanom RTAFB Thailand. This is a verbatim transcript of Captain Witterman’s narrative.
The 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron, currently commanded by Lt. Col. Robert L. Johnston, is located at Nakhon Phanom RTAFB, Thailand. This Squadron is presently engaged in Operation Cricket. Operation Cricket is the unclassified name of the project involving airborne visual reconnaissance and interdiction of a network of footpaths and roads in Laos. This network originates in North Vietnam and meanders through Laos to its ultimate destination in South Vietnam. It is probably better known to the public as the "Ho Chi Minh Trail."
Allied Forces have long suspected and confirmed that the enemy was moving troops and large amounts of equipment for eventual use in the South Vietnam war. The "Crickets," as they came to be called, were charged with the mission of closing down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The mission is performed in the O1-F aircraft, popularly called the "Bird Dog." It is a light, unarmed single engine aircraft that normally flies somewhere in the vicinity of one hundred miles per hour. During missions, the aircraft is flown at altitudes varying from treetop level to three or four thousand feet depending upon the situation (terrain, ground fire, etc.).
The pilots serve as Forward Air Controllers—commonly referred to as FACs. As such, they are responsible for reconnoitering along known routes of enemy movement and adjacent areas for evidence of new enemy activity. If in the course of this surveillance, if a lucrative or fleeting target is spotted, the FAC can call for fighter/bomber aircraft and direct air strikes against it. Often the FAC is called upon to direct strikes against strategic targets selected by higher headquarters. He bears the responsibility for correctly identifying the target and conducting the strikes so as to avoid hitting friendly or neutral areas.
The group of FACs assigned to the 23rd TASS is an unusual assortment of pilots who previous to this assignment were flying such a varied range of aircraft as F-104s, F-106s, T-38s, T-29s, C-124s- C-133s and the B-52. Several were engaged in aerospace research and possess advanced engineering degrees. All of them were grossly surprised to find themselves suddenly flying as Forward Air Controllers in the small O-1F aircraft. Nevertheless, all agree that it is the best, most challenging job in the entire Southeast Asia War.
The 23rd TASS was officially activated on 1 June 1966, however it first came into existence as a small detachment consisting of five O-1F aircraft, six pilots, plus 13 support personnel to provide maintenance, communications and administrative support. This advanced group arrived at Nakhom Phanom RTAFB on 17 January 1966. Although there was little available in the way of maintenance facilities, the unit became operationally ready and flew its first combat mission the next day. The pilots in this original group were highly experienced Forward Air Controllers from the war in Vietnam.
Prior to the implementation of Operation Cricket, enemy traffic transited the area virtually unmolested both day and night. The volume of traffic was estimated to be 200 vehicles per day and 3,000 troops per week. Within two weeks after the Crickets started working, vehicular movement during daylight hours dwindled to practically nil. This was the result of several highly successful strikes against enemy convoys and troops after they had been spotted by Cricket FACs. Although the traffic continued to move at night, road watch team reports indicated that traffic had been reduced to one hundred trucks per night. We can reasonably assume that foot traffic was also affected.
The efforts of these few FACs during these early days were so successful that Headquarters 7th Air Force decided to expand the operation. On 8 February 1966 an additional five aircraft and six pilots augmented the original detachment. At this time Captain Benn H. Witterman commanded the detachment.
The increased strength permitted us to fly more missions thereby increasing our aerial coverage—both timewise and areawise. The inconvenience to the enemy was directly proportional to the number of flying hours spent over the area.
The difficulties facing the FACs during these early days were formidable. Most of the terrain in the operational area consisted of tall, jagged rock formations known as Karsts and large areas of dense jungle canopy. Flying a light, single engine aircraft over this terrain for almost four hours per mission presented an ever-present hazard in itself as forced landing sites were few and far between. To add to this, a dense haze prevailed during this period, which reduced visibility to practically zero, especially instrumental in a fatal accident, which occurred when, a F-105 collided with one of the FACs during an air strike. (Hand written note: "Karl Worst’s death")
In addition to the natural hazards, the area was profusely dotted with anti-aircraft gun positions. The slow, unarmed O-1F was extremely vulnerable to ground-fire. As Operation Cricket increased in effectiveness more and more gun positions blossomed throughout the area. To date, six FACs have been downed by enemy ground fire and have been declared missing in action.
Another potential hazard existed in the length of the missions. The most lucrative enemy targets were so far away that often the aircraft would barely have enough fuel left to return home. Several pilots ran out of fuel on the runway returning from these missions. Also a couple of them had to land on sandbars along the Mekong River. Naturally, the threat of weather closing in on the return trip was a major concern, since their low fuel state would preclude diversion to one of the few alternate airports.
Maps of the area and depiction of the road network were incomplete in that some of the mountainous areas were uncharted and much of the route structure was inaccurately depicted. In some cases the roads were not know to be in existence. Aerial photomapping of these roads was not possible since much of the network ran under jungle canopy. It was up to the Crickets to scour the area, locate the roads and chart them. This mapping was an exceptionally difficult task because the jungle canopy afforded only occasional glimpses of the roads. Also, the jungle terrain was like an ocean as there were few distinct landmarks to serve as reference points. In this respect, the enemy assisted nature by ingeniously tying the tops of trees together over the road or constructing bamboo trelliswork and then helping vegetation grow over it.
In spite of the difficulties, the route network was accurately charted. A by-product of this mapping was the discovery of a new major road under construction, which lead from North Vietnam. This discovery aroused considerable concern at higher echelons and was considered to be the most significant finding during this period.
Our activities during this time were not confined solely to the Cricket area. On several occasions our FACs were called upon to operate out of remote airstrips in Northern Laos for several weeks at a time. In this area the terrain and weather hazards were even more severe than in the Cricket area. The tactical situation requiring the services of the FACs was that several of these remote, but strategic, airstrips currently under the control of friendly forces were in danger of being overrun by numerous superior enemy forces. As the situation developed, some of the airstrips were overrun and abandoned. In some cases, friendly forces rallied and recaptured the airstrips. In the course of these hostilities, Cricket FACs repeatedly distinguished themselves by spotting enemy positions and directing air strikes against them. These strikes inflicted heavy losses on the enemy and ultimately meant the difference between victory and defeat for the friendly forces on the ground.
In view of the continuing success of Operation Cricket, the size of the organization was further expanded. During the first week of April 1966, an additional twelve pilots and ten aircraft arrived at Nakhon Phanom from Vietnam. Also in this month, Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Johnston assumed command, relieving Captain Witterman. The organization was approaching squadron size and support personnel were arriving daily.
May 1966, we had become thoroughly familiar with the road network and enemy patterns of activity. Although we were having considerable success destroying trucks and road construction equipment, enemy convoys were still passing through the area in large numbers. We concluded that the present tactics were not an optimum application of the available airpower. The squadron formed a Tactics Board whose purpose was to review the existing situation and devise a system of tactics, which would effectively cut off the flow of enemy traffic. The Board developed a program of tactics, which was predicated on cratering a major artery in the road network at a critical location and maintaining round-the-clock harassment and surveillance on this "choke point" to preclude repair of the road damage. This concept was presented to and accepted by Headquarters 7th Air Force. On 1 June 1966, this tactic was implemented and the results exceeded our expectations. Intelligence reports indicated that no traffic passed through for a period of ten days. This stunning success prompted General Simter, Deputy for Operations, 7th AF to send a congratulatory message in which he praised the resourcefulness and effectiveness of the Crickets. As a result, the unit is presently under consideration for a Presidential Unit Citation.
At present, the enemy has attempted to by-pass the chokepoint and some traffic has passed, however the bypasses were quickly spotted by Cricket FACs and interdicted, an indication of the success of the choke-point concept. This concentration in itself has produced a most lucrative target, however if the defense becomes too formidable, new tactics will have to be devised. The situation is ever-changing for the enemy is a shrewd, determined opponent. The members of the 23rd TASS feel they are capable of meeting the challenge and anticipate greater successes in the future.