By Richard Wood, Rustic 11
Editor’s note: Dick Wood was one of the editors of "The Rustics, A Top Secret Air War in Cambodia," and author of "Call Sign Rustic, The Secret Air War over Cambodia, 1970-1973." The following story is copyrighted and printed with permission of the author.
1970 was an interesting year in the history of the war in Southeast Asia. President Richard M. Nixon, under intense pressure from congress and the public, was determined to withdraw all American forces from Vietnam with some degree of honor. A process called "Vietnamization" was in progress, which essentially meant giving most of the military equipment to the South Vietnamese and returning all of the real estate occupied by the Americans to them. Each base -except for Tan Son Nhut- was in the process of closing. Tan Son Nhut would be the last to close and it was absorbing all of the bits and pieces left from disbanded units and it was hopelessly crowded.
The mood of the Americans in Vietnam was low. They knew that winning was no longer an objective (if it ever was) and there was no incentive to venture outside the American bases and pick a fight with anyone. In III Corps, the 1st Calvary Division was still sending out patrols and still providing work for the Rash FACs. The 25th Infantry Division was less active and the Issue FACs were under-employed.
At Ben Hoa, The Ranch Hand (Agent Orange) operation had been disbanded. The 3rd Tac Fighter Wing had traded its F-100s for A-37s and was gradually turning those over to the VNAF. The most active unit at Bien Hoa was the 19th TASS, which was still supporting O-2 and OV-10 FACs at 22 Forward Operating Locations throughout III Corps.
Up to that time, one of the real sore spots of the war was Cambodia. It bordered two-thirds of South Vietnam and was supposedly neutral. Its monarch, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, was actually pro-Communist and strongly supported the North Vietnamese. Sihanouk allowed the Ho Chi Minh Trail to come down his side of the border and dump tons of supplies into South Vietnam to support NVA and Viet Cong activities. In addition, he allowed Chinese ships to dock at his only seaport (Kompong Som on the Gulf of Thailand) and unload more tons of supplies for overland transport to South Vietnam.
The Americans and South Vietnamese knew exactly where the supplies were coming from and how they were getting there. Because of Cambodia's neutrality, though, operations in Cambodia were not permitted.
There were, to be sure, occasional clandestine raids across the border. The Covey and Rash FACs supported many of those. Also, in early 1970, President Nixon authorized B-52 strikes inside the Cambodian border. These activities were concentrated within 12 miles of the border and did not go deeply into Cambodia.
Meanwhile, the Cambodian general staff saw a growing communist presence in Cambodia (the Khmer Rouge) and strongly disliked Sihanouk's politics. In March of 1970, Sihanouk was on his annual vacation to France. His Chief of Staff, General Lon Nol, marched his troops into the palace and government buildings in Phnom Penh and deposed Sihanouk in a bloodless coup. Sihanouk was visiting Moscow when he learned that he was no longer the ruler of a country. He went to China for sanctuary.
Lon Nol was strongly anti-Communist and took two immediate actions. First, he closed the port of Kompong Som to Chinese ships and impounded all the military supplies then in transit to South Vietnam. He could do that, because he was only dealing with truck drivers; not military troops. Second, he shut down the southern end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and gave the communists 72 hours to get out of his country. This he could not do, because he was dealing with trained North Vietnamese army troops who outnumbered his small Cambodian army. He established friendly relations with South Vietnam (the two countries had been enemies when Sihanouk was in power) and asked the United States for help.
Help was not long in coming. On 29 April 1970 (give or take a day, depending on which side of the International Date Line you were on) ARVN forces along with elements of the 25th Infantry Division and the 1st Calvary Division moved into Cambodia to close down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and locate the Communist headquarters reported to be in the area. The fighting was fierce and the Rash and Issue FACs were particularly busy. In the view of the American troops in Vietnam, we were finally doing something smart that just might put an end to this silliness.
Back in the United States, though, this was not a welcomed development. We were supposed to be reducing military activity in Southeast Asia; not increasing it. There were riots, notably at Kent State University where National Guard troops killed four rioters. The Congress was absolutely opposed to the Cambodian "invasion."
It was called an invasion, but it actually wasn't. We were there at the invitation of the recognized government of Cambodia and with their full knowledge. Within days, senior Cambodian military officers were at Tan Son Nhut to discuss military cooperation and Cambodia's entire fleet of Russian Migs (all 12 of them) landed at Bien Hoa to be modified to carry American bombs. I was there. I saw it.
Under the law, President Nixon, as Commander in Chief, could launch military forces into another country, but he could not keep them there beyond 60 days without the approval of congress. Forget that idea! Nixon absolutely had to move the troops out of Cambodia by the end of June. This withdrawal started in the middle of June and continued right up until the end of the month.
Nixon did not give up easily. He reasoned that while ground troops would not be permitted in Cambodia, there was nothing that said that American airplanes could not operate over Cambodia—as long as they weren't actually based there. He now considered Cambodia and Lon Nol an ally and wanted to provide them with all the support he legally could. The Cambodian army did not have the manpower, the equipment or the training to resist the NVA. The Cambodian Air Force was a mixed bag numbering perhaps 30 aircraft with almost no close air support capability. Nixon directed 24-hour air coverage by FACs over Cambodia and full air support to the Cambodian army. That was the creation of the Rustics. The Rustic operation was run directly from the White House and classified Top Secret. Nixon did not want anyone, particularly congress, to know what he was doing.
The first Rustic mission was flown on the night of 19 June by Captain Jerry Auth in an O-2. Jerry was a Sleepytime FAC at Bien Hoa and was sent to Tan Son Nhut to be briefed and pick up a Senior Cambodian officer to ride in his right seat. The destination was Kampong Thom, a provincial capital under siege by the NVA. Jerry flew to Kompong Thom, which was not easy. It was dark; there were no radio navigation facilities, no lights on the ground and no accurate maps. Worse, Jerry was well out of radio range of any friendly radio station in South Vietnam.
There were a couple of American gunships on the scene, but they didn't have FM radios and couldn't talk to the Cambodian commander or understand him if they could. Jerry had a passenger who was both an interpreter and a senior Cambodian officer who could approve targets. They went to work in typical FAC fashion and directed the fire of the gunships on the enemy positions. A few weeks later, 7th Air Force recommended Jerry for a Silver Star for that mission.
Also on the 19th of June, Jim Lester, an OV-10 FAC and a staff officer assigned to the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi, was directed to assemble six planes and eight FACs and position them at Tan Son Nhut. They were going to fly into Cambodia under the Rustic callsign and he was going to be the commander. That original cadre of Rustics was Jim Lester, Dick Rheinhart, Anthony McGarvey, Roger Dodd, Paul Riehl, Dave Van Dyke, Dave Parsons, and Lou Currier. All were Issue FACs except Riehl and Parsons who were Rash FACs from Song Be.
Some rough fuel calculations showed that the OV-10 could make it to Cambodia and back, but it couldn't stay very long with just its internal fuel. The 19th TASS at Bien Hoa had the large (230 gallon) external fuel tanks for the OV-10 and four of Jim's six planes were cycled through Bien Hoa for fuel tank installation. The other two flew short missions over Cambodia with the fuel they had. By night of the 20th, everyone had the long-range tanks.
Operating out of Tan Son Nhut was a bad idea and it only lasted a few days. Tan Son Nhut had no room and no support for OV-10s. Initial mission planning was done out of the outer office of the Director of the Tactical Air Support Center (Blue Chip.) Bien Hoa had room and the 19th TASS, who owned the OV-10s anyway, could support the operation and keep track of the Rustic personnel. The Rustics moved to Bien Hoa and started commandeering 3rd TFW hooches, ops buildings, and ramp space. This did not make the commander of the 3rd TFW (who was also the base commander) happy at all. His mission was to close down Bien Hoa and here he had this group of FACs who were growing and taking over his facilities. They were looking seriously at his office, living quarters, and personal staff car. Since he was a full colonel and neither the Rustics nor the 19th TASS had one of those, tensions ran a little high. The thing that really irked him was that the Rustic operation was Top Secret and he wasn't allowed to know what they were doing. In typical FAC style, everyone ignored him and got on with the job.
Besides the 3rd TFW commander, the Rustics had a number of problems.
First, their normal FAC procedures didn't work in Cambodia. In Vietnam, the FAC's A/O was fairly small and he was always in radio contact with his ground radio station. The ground station kept track of where he was and coordinated air support requests by telephone to Blue Chip. Cambodia was roughly the size of the state of Missouri and the Rustics covered it all. Nobody was keeping track of where they were. Phnom Penh had the only VOR in the entire country and it only operated occasionally. At normal FAC altitudes, the Rustics couldn't talk to anyone except army commanders on the ground and other aircraft. The OV-10 had an HF radio, but it was not secure in any sense of the word. For a while, though, this was the Rustic's only means of communication with 7th Air Force. This problem wasn't solved until the Rustics established a radio relay station on Nui Ba Den. This was a 3200 foot mountain nearTay Ninh and the Cambodian border, and the only access to the top of it was by helicopter. The 25th Infantry Division already had a radio station up there, so adding a FAC radio pallet (without the Mk 108 Jeep attached) and some operators wasn't difficult. At 3200 feet, the radio station was higher than most of the FACs in Cambodia and could provide a direct and secure link to Blue Chip. This relay station, callsign Rustic Alpha, was eventually replaced by ABCCC aircraft operating from Udorn, Thailand.
Second, there were no maps. The U. S. Army map people located some old French maps which dated back to when Cambodia was part of French Indo-China. They reduced them to a 1- to-50 scale, overlaid them with the American grid system, and overprinted legends in English. Overall, they did an excellent job, but it took time.
Fortunately, the Rustics learned that Cambodia was a fairly easy place to navigate, even without maps or navaids. Most of it was open agricultural land unlike the triple canopied jungles of South Vietnam. The cities and towns were well laid out and looked a lot like American towns. The dominate features of the country were the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap (great lake). The Mekong is the ninth largest river in the world and bigger than the Mississippi. The Tonle Sap, depending on the season, is about a third of the size of Lake Ontario. From 3,000 feet, the FAC could usually see one or the other from anywhere in the country. Primary means of in-country navigation was plain old pilotage, which all pilots had been taught but many had forgotten.
The third problem (and the biggest of all) was language. Nobody in the United States Air Force spoke Cambodian and few of the Cambodians spoke English. Initially, English-speaking Cambodians were used as interpreters, but there weren't enough of them and few of them understood radio procedures or close air support terminology. The solution came with the realization that Cambodia had been part of French Indo-China for a long time and most educated Cambodians spoke fluent French as a second language.
The air force was scoured for French-speakers of any rank or position to volunteer for a highly classified mission. The classification was so high that they weren't told what it was until after they volunteered and had demonstrated their fluency in French by conversing with a Cambodian officer. If they passed that test, they were taken immediately to the aircrew supply shack where they were issued a flying suit, gloves, boots, helmet, parachute harness, survival vest, .38-caliber revolver, and a barf bag. That was their first clue that they were going to be flying combat missions. Some found themselves strapped into the back seat of an OV-10 within a few hours of volunteering. That's how badly they were needed.
The first of the backseaters, as they were called, were already available within Vietnam. They consisted of one officer and six enlisted men who had little in common except that they spoke French and were volunteers. None of them had any experience as aircrew members and, for some of them, the most important piece of equipment given them was the barf bag. The OV-10 was fully aerobatic and could show the new backseater a few things he never experienced at Disneyland. Airsickness problems disappeared after a few flights and the backseaters all got free flying lessons. On a six-hour mission, it was nice to have someone in the back seat who could steer the plane for a while.
The air force could see that the demand for French-speaking interpreters was going to rapidly exceed the supply. Tour extensions were granted to some of the original backseaters; a practice almost unheard of. The air force expanded its search to all USAF bases to find anyone who spoke French and hadn't yet served a tour in Vietnam. That produced another group of volunteers. The air force also started sending pilots to French language school in Monterrey, California before sending them to OV-10 FAC School. Those pilots didn't begin showing up until 1972.
Enlisted interpreters flew combat missions with the Rustics from late June 1970 until mid-August 1972. A total of almost fifty enlisted volunteers found themselves flying aerial combat in Cambodia. They became part of a very efficient FAC team and, with the pilot, shared the duties of coordinate-plotting, aerial photography, visual reconnaissance, support coordination, and score-keeping. Not only were they part of a Top Secret operation which they couldn't talk about, they were given no credit for what they were doing for nearly a year. Finally, in June of 1971, a special letter from the Air Force Chief of Staff awarded them aircrew wings, flying pay, and air medals. That was a happy day for the Rustics. Without the dedication of the backseaters, the Rustics would have been out of business.
The backseaters helped in other ways, too. Early on, the Rustics set up a training school at Bien Hoa for Cambodian ground radio operators and Cambodian pilots. Since most of the instruction was in French, the primary faculty for the school were the enlisted French-speakers. Normally, the Cambodians were sent four at a time for a one-month stay with the Rustics to learn the close air support business. This generated a lot of friendships between the Rustics and the Cambodians. It also created another problem with the Bien Hoa base commander.
Since the Rustic operation was highly classified, they kept to themselves and avoided outsiders. The backseaters, for example, were instructed to never speak French in the mess hall or movie theater. That was Top Secret stuff. To preserve the security, the pilots, backseaters, and Cambodians were all housed in the same hooch. That hooch was a very lively place with three languages bouncing off the walls of the bar. That suited the Rustics just fine as they considered themselves a team and everyone was on a first-name basis. When the base commander found out that he had officers, enlisted men, and Cambodians living in the same hooch and drinking at the same bar, he blew his cork. That little discussion got all the way to 7th Air Force and got to someone who knew where the Rustics' orders were coming from. The base commander was suddenly reassigned as an assistant to some general at 7th Air Force. The Rustics took that as a good excuse for a small celebration.
Providing 24-hour coverage over an area that was about an hour's flying time from Bien Hoa used up a lot of resources. The Rustics were rapidly running out of airplanes and people. Night missions were particularly difficult. The OV-10 canopy could not be opened in flight, which ruled out the use of the night vision scope. Worse, the curvature of the canopy tended to reflect the cockpit instrument panel lights and seriously hampered night vision.
Jim Lester went to Perry Dahl, III DASC commander, and suggested that the Sleepytime O-2 FACs start flying the night Rustic missions. They were already at Bien Hoa and were flying the night Saigon rocket patrol; a mission that was almost as boring as it was useless. They had the planes and the pilots; the night experience; and routinely used night vision scopes. Perry Dahl bought that idea and the Sleepytimes began flying under the Rustic callsign. They continued to fly the Sleepytime mission, but those sorties dropped off and disappeared altogether in mid-1971.
The Night Rustics commander was Jim Hetherington who was originally trained as an OV-10 FAC. Hetherington became Lester's deputy and took over scheduling of both the day and night Rustic operations. Dick Roberds came in and took over as commander of the O-2 Night Rustics. Jim Hetherington regained his OV-10 currency and became commander of the OV-10 Day Rustics. By the end of 1970, each had about 35 pilots on their roster.
The Rustics had grown from their original six airplanes, eight pilots, and a handful of backseaters to 52 planes, 70 pilots, 20 backseaters, 10 radio operators and 10 intelligence specialists. At that time, it may have been the biggest American air operation in Southeast Asia.
Initially, little was known about how the Cambodian army was deployed and what was actually happening in that country. Most of the information on that was brought back by the Rustics based on visual reconnaissance and radio contact with the Cambodian ground commanders. Because little was known of operations in Cambodia, the Rustics created their own intelligence section head by Jim Gabel who transferred from the 3rd Tac Fighter wing. Intell was a 24-hour a day operation as there were always briefings, debriefings, and the twice-daily DISUM (Daily Intelligence Summary) to prepare and send to 7th Air Force. In many organizations, Intelligence personnel were viewed with the same suspicions as weather forecasters. Not in the Rustics. They knew that they themselves were the primary source of intelligence and the debriefing of a six-hour Rustic mission could easily last two hours. The Intell shop was also responsible for maps and maintaining the ROE (Rules of Engagement.) Initially, there were no ROE for Cambodia, which led to daily changes; mostly for political reasons. Some directly from the White House.
Most of the missions involved direct air support of the Cambodian army units and most of those were TIC situations. Most of the army units were ill-equipped and ill-trained and were no match for the NVA forces. Air support was their only salvation.
Lon Nol initiated an operation called Chenla in the fall of 1970. Its purpose was to break the siege at Kompong Thom and reopen the highways in Cambodia's central region. The Rustics provided around-the-clock air support. In December, Lon Nol claimed Chenla to be a great victory. Actually, it was a failure and nobody knew it better than the Rustics.
In early 1971, Phnom Penh was slowly starving to death. Route 4, which connected Phnom Penh with their only seaport and oil refinery at Kompong Som, went through the Elephant Mountains at the Pich Nil Pass. This was a natural ambush point and the NVA and the Khmer Rouge regularly shut the highway down. The Rustics could reopen it, but they couldn't keep it open. No supplies were getting to Phnom Penh.
The Mekong river was navigable from the South China Sea to Phnom Penh. During the Sihanouk regime, South Vietnam refused to allow ocean traffic to pass through the Mekong delta. Now, the two countries were on friendly terms and this became possible. Convoys, organized by the U. S. Navy and the navy's of South Vietnam and Cambodia, began resupplying Phnom Penh while the Rustics provided air cover. This was in addition to the Rustics' normal support of the army. During the wet season, the Mekong overflowed its banks and the air cover missions were horribly dull. The NVA couldn't get close enough to the convoys to do any serious damage. During the dry season, though, the Mekong was narrow in places and the convoys were highly vulnerable. Convoy cover could get exciting.
In the summer of 1971, Bien Hoa was definitely closing and the problem of what to do with the Rustics was attracting a lot of attention. They were still growing and so was their mission. The OV-10 Rustics were moved to Ubon, Thailand, which added about 30 minutes to their travel time to central Cambodia. From Ubon, the O-2's would have less time on station and it would not be practical. By now, the Sundogs (Tan Son Nhut) and Tillys (Binh Thuy, which were assigned to the 19th TASS, were also part of the overall Rustic organization. They had been flying O-2 missions into southern Cambodia for nearly a year. Some of the Night Rustic pilots were reassigned as Sundogs or Tillys, and some went to a new TASS established at Phan Rang. As an organization, the Bien Hoa Night Rustics were disbanded.
The Night Rustics only existed for 14 months, but that small group of pilots literally wrote the book on night FAC operations in direct support of ground commanders. Because the mission was highly classified and there were so few people involved, the Night Rustics never received the recognition they deserved. They did earn the respect of everyone familiar with the Rustic operation. They did a hell of a job.
In the fall of 1971, Lon Nol launched another campaign, this one called Chenla II. That meant the earlier campaign would now be called Chenla I. The objectives of Chenla II were essentially the same and the Rustics were helping the Cambodians fight for the same real estate they supposedly captured a year earlier. The Rustics' move to Ubon came in about the middle of this campaign and was completed with no break in the action.
At Ubon, the Rustics became an FOL of the 23rd TASS at NKP . This didn't really change anything, as the Rustics were still working directly for Blue Chip and the White House.
Chenla II was even less successful than Chenla I. The Cambodians were able to open Route 6 to Kompong Thom, but it didn't stay open. The NVA recaptured it and overran all Cambodian villages on that route. The Rustics poured in a lot of air support, almost all of it under TIC conditions. Air support can do a lot, but it can't occupy and control territory all by itself.
In the spring of 1972, there were rumblings about peace talks in Paris. The Cambodians were not a party to the peace talks, so nothing decided in Paris would affect the war in Cambodia. The war in Vietnam turned into a land grab as the North Vietnamese concluded that any resolution in Paris would call for an in-place cease fire; no withdrawal.
NVA units in Cambodia were pulled back to help with the land grab and both the Rustics and the Nail FACs from NKP were deployed to Danang to help defeat it. There, the NVA were able to send trucks, tanks, artillery and guided missiles into the action, and the Rustics learned a lot about weapons they hadn't faced in Cambodia. They became experts at locating and destroying tanks. With that situation more or less under control, the Rustics returned to Ubon to pick up the war in Cambodia again.
August of 1972 saw the final flight of the enlisted backseaters. French-speaking pilots, fresh from language school, were showing up in sufficient numbers to handle the interpreting. The enlisted backseaters earned themselves a paragraph or two in the history of USAF combat operations. Most of them flew over 300 combat missions and experienced air war as it can only be experienced by a Forward Air Controller. They were all volunteers and were absolutely dedicated to the mission.
In the late fall of 1972, the Paris peace talks stalled and President Nixon sent battleships and aircraft carriers to South Vietnam and B-52s to North Vietnam. The Rustics deployed to Tan Son Nhut to help out. By the end of December, the North Vietnamese decided to return to the peace talks and there was rumor of a possible cease-fire.
That was announced in late January, 1973. A cease-fire in South Vietnam would occur on 29 January 1973. The cease-fire in Laos would be on 23 February 1973. There would be no cease-fire in Cambodia. It was not included in the peace talks.
After the cease-fire in South Vietnam, American air assets focused on Laos and Cambodia. The North Vietnamese stepped up their flow of supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail (in violation of the agreement) and the Rustics rotated between Ubon and NKP to support the Nails over the trail. That was a new mission for them as there were no friendlies and no TICs.
After the cease-fire in Laos, the only war left was in Cambodia. The NVA reinforced their troops there and all American air assets were available to the Rustics in Cambodia. This was more than they could handle and the Nail FACs rotated to Ubon to help out. This wasn't easy for them because the Nails had no French-speakers, were unfamiliar with the Cambodian geography, and were not used to a daily diet of Troops-in-Contact situations. They were superb FACs, though, and fast learners.
With no more American involvement in South Vietnam, there was no longer any reason for secrecy in Cambodia. The U. S. Embassy in Phnom Penh obtained permission for the Rustics to refuel at Pochentong airport in Phnom Penh. This cut the transit time in half and made the missions much more efficient. A typical sortie consisted of a French-speaking Rustic pilot and a Nail pilot. They would refuel at Phnom Penh, switch seats, and fly a second mission. These "Phnom Penh Turns" as they were called, lasted right up to the final day.
In June of 1973, President Nixon realized that if he didn't end all U. S. military activity in Southeast Asia, congress would do it for him. He agreed to a cessation of all activity on 15 August 1973.
On that day, the Rustics and the Nails flew their final sorties in Cambodia. At precisely noon on 15 August 1973, four OV-10s crossed the Cambodian border outbound and joined up in close formation for the return flight to Ubon. There, the Rustics and Nails flew a missing man formation and pitched out for landing. It was all over. That was the last combat flight of the Rustics.
The Rustic operation lasted slightly over three years. During that time, the losses were relatively low, which was probably due to the ability of the armored OV-10 to absorb a lot of damage and the permissive environment in Cambodia. Because of the distances involved, it was nearly impossible for the NVA to use any weapons that could not be carried on a bicycle or someone's back. This limited them to AK-47 assault rifles and 12.8mm machine guns. The 12.8mm gun was a deadly anti-aircraft weapon, particularly when mounted in pairs or fours. It was visually aimed, though, and a serious threat primarily during actual weapon deliveries.
The Rustics lost four aircraft to enemy fire in Cambodia and another one in I Corps during their deployment to Danang. Don Brooks and his backseater, Gil Bellefeuille, ejected successfully near Prey Totung and were rescued by South Vietnamese helicopters. Lanny Trapp was carrying Cambodian Sergeant Khorn as an interpreter when he was shot down near Kompong Cham. Ejection was successful and they were picked up by Jolly Green helicopters. In late May, 1972, Jim Twaddell and Jack Shaw (a Nail FAC) were shot down by a heat-seeking Strela missile near the DMZ in South Vietnam while on deployment to Danang. Both ejected successfully and were picked up by South Vietnamese helicopters.
On 1 October 1970, Garrett Eddy and Michael Vrablick were KIA on an O-2 mission near Tang Kouk in Cambodia. On 7 April 1973, Joseph Gambino, Jr. was KIA on an OV-10 mission near Kampong Thom, Cambodia.
There is not much good that can be said about the war in Southeast Asia. The Rustic mission was a very satisfying one and the Rustics took a lot of pride in it. The cessation of all American activity on 15 August 1973 was a real downer. Those who were there felt like they were abandoning friends they had made. The Rustics that weren't there felt the same way.
In 1996, the Rustics began locating each other and formed The Rustic FAC Association. Their website is www.rustic.org. At their first reunion they discovered, among other things, that there was no official air force history of the Rustic operation. It never happened.
It did, though, and it is fully chronicled in the book published by Smithsonian Institution Press. The title is Call Sign Rustic: The Secret Air War over Cambodia, 1970-1973. Author: Richard Wood.