FORWARD AIR CONTROLLER
My career as a Forward Air Controller developed from seeds planted many years before my arrival at Cam Ranh Bay in August of 1970. My father volunteered for military service in the United States Army Air Corps following the attack on Pearl Harbor. He flew B-24 Liberators in combat with the 831st Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 485th Bomb Group, 15th Air Force, from Venosa, Italy against German and Italian targets. He remained on active duty for 15 years and I grew up as an ‘Air Force Brat’ until I was eleven years old. From him I learned the virtues of duty, honor, country and the thrills associated with military aviation.
The conflict in Southeast Asia began to escalate during my senior year in high school and continued after I entered college. I enrolled in a two year AFROTC program and received my commission as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force just after my graduation from Pacific Lutheran University in June of 1968. I was the sole commissioned officer in a graduating class of 312.
I entered undergraduate pilot training at Webb AFB, Texas on September 10, 1968 in class 70-02, but I washed back to 70-06 due to a broken bone in my wrist. When it came time to fill out our ‘dream sheets’, indicating our assignment preferences, there were no fighters available, so it came down to combat and non-combat aircraft assignments. I felt it was the duty of a military officer to serve in combat in time of war, so I chose a FAC assignment as the best vehicle to get me into the war in Vietnam.
Following graduation from UPT in March of 1970, I attended the USAF Survival School at Fairchild AFB, Washington and then made my way to Hurlburt AFB, Florida on May 25th to attend the Air Ground Operations School and transition into the Cessna 0-2A at Holley Field. The training was interesting and good, but in retrospect, bore little resemblance to my work as a FAC over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. On the ranges of nearby Eglin AFB, I learned how to shoot rockets and direct tactical aircraft onto targets. I was able to get some rides on the ranges in A-1Es to see how the airstrikes looked to the attack aircraft. I graduated and traveled to Travis AFB, California where on 14 August I flew to Clark AB, Philippines on a Trans International DC-8 for Jungle Survival School.
Jungle Survival School lasted a week and I learned how survive a shoot down in a decidedly unfriendly environment. I learned how to climb onto a jungle penetrator, a device that hangs from a helicopter and is designed to penetrate triple canopy jungle to rescue a downed airman after a bailout over unfriendly territory. I also learned valuable skills such as how to operate hand-held survival radios, the importance of water to survival and how to find and eat tubers and other jungle delicacies.
All work and no play results in a dull boy so the Air Force provided a sporting opportunity for us students by letting us try to evade Negrito natives as a part of our escape and evasion training. Of course, the Air Force did not want it to be too easy, so they severely restricted the area in which we could hide. Each of us was given two ‘chits’ which we were to surrender if we were discovered as each chit was worth a bag of rice to the Negrito that found us. Strangely enough, most everyone was found twice in short order. I was found the first time when a Negrito, who had found someone else close by stepped back and stepped on my foot. I then stood up and remained standing as if I had been discovered again and no one bothered me. Later, all of my classmates were in amazement that I had not been caught twice.
I was now ready to go to the war zone. While I waited for a World Airways 727 to take me to Vietnam, I amused myself by playing a slot machine at the Officers’ Club. I then proceeded to the flight line and boarded the airplane enroute to war. We were flying to some place called Cam Ranh Bay.
When I disembarked at Cam Ranh on August 23, 1970, I thought to myself “I thought you had to die to go to hell.” It was hot and the air was full of strange smells. I made my way to the 504th Tactical Air Support Group where I was to be assigned to a squadron and undergo still further training and orientation. The training was a three day “Theater Indoctrination School” where we were acquainted with the disposition and mission of the 504th. Assignments to the squadrons of the Group was to be based upon seniority. I had heard that the place to be was the 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron (TASS) at Nakhom Phanom (NKP), Thailand on the west side of the Mekong River. This squadron and some elements of the 20th TASS were the two units engaged in attacks against the North Vietnamese in Laos. There was reputedly not much action in the in-country squadrons.
I “had it made”; there were three of us up for assignment and Lieutenants Hammer and Rummel were “brown bars” (Second Lieutenants) and I was a 1st Lieutenant by virtue of my 18 months in pilot training. We all requested assignment to NKP, known affectionately as “Naked Fanny”. Hammer and Rummel went to NKP and I was sent to the 20th TASS in DaNang! The war was not going well for me at this point.
Upon arrival in DaNang on August 28th, I was informed that the 20th TASS was the only FAC squadron that had both an in-country and out-country mission. I could chose between the Lopez FACs who worked in-country or the Covey FACs who worked over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. As I wanted to go where the most action was at the moment, I requested assignment to the Coveys. I became Covey 276 and moved in with Lt. John R. Browning, Covey 281, in an “H” shaped building that was reputed to be in the old French compound on the east side of the Airbase, across the street from a fuel dump. We Coveys were on the second floor of the concrete building and the 37 Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron was on the first floor. The 37th ARRS was courageous unit and the source of the best “training films” on the Base.
Our quarters were located within a compound that contained a number of buildings including the Officers Club. Lt. Browning and I shared a room about 8 feet by 10 feet in dimension. It was concrete and contained an air conditioner, but no windows. We had bunk beds, but little else. Much of our personal gear was stored in another room, but we did equip our palatial digs with a small refrigerator (for beer) and stereos, all purchased from the local base exchange or through a catalog. Almost everyone equipped their rooms with these “necessities.” Most FACs also purchased still and/or movie cameras to record their experiences. Next door was a room that became our party room as a hole was made in a wall that connected it with the adjoining room making it large enough to serve our needs. It was called the “Muffdivers lounge,” named after an adopted dog “Muff.” Across the narrow hallway lived Lt. Pickens Freeman, Lt. Larry Hull, and Capt. Jim Smith, the latter two later lost in combat.
After months of training, I was eager to get into combat, but there was still the in-country checkout before I could be declared combat ready. The process was to begin with flights with a check airman who familiarized us with the local area and supervised the firing of rocket in an area set aside for that purpose; it actually began with an enemy rocket attack on the airbase two days after my arrival. I was trying to get some sleep at two a. m. when I heard the impact of the 122mm rockets. The sound of a rocket attack upon your position is one of those things in life you recognize the first time without any instruction!
Rocket attacks were numerous enough to earn DaNang the sobriquet “Rocket City”. There was never any prior warning of the attacks; the warning siren always went off after the first set of impacts in the area. Our natural curiosity often got the best of us and we would run outside after the rockets impacted to see where they had hit. The rockets were not very accurate. They were fired from the Hai Van Pass, several miles to the north of our base, usually at night, and would occasionally fly over the base and hit the city beyond. While the chief result of these attacks was harassment, there were exceptions. One night a rocket hit the fuel dump down the street and it burned all the next day before it was put out. On another occasion rockets hit the barracks in “Gunfighter Village” and there were casualties.
Following my introduction to combat courtesy of the enemy, I began to fly some indoctrination flights. My instructor had served with the 101st Airborne and showed me the local disposition of forces and on one mission to me up the Elephant Valley to show me the villas that the French had built there in peaceful colonial times. I fired a few white phosphorus rockets and a small rocky island east of DaNang just to make sure I still knew how it was to be done.
Following the in-country portion of the combat checkout, I began to fly with combat ready FACs “across the fence”, our term for across the border separating the Republic of Vietnam and Laos, to familiarize myself with the Covey area of operations and its part in the interdiction mission against the North Vietnamese forces moving supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail into the Republic of Vietnam for use against South Vietnamese and American forces.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail was the cornerstone of a vast logistics network reaching from North Vietnam to the Mekong Delta. An article in the June 26, 1971 edition of the Pacific Stars and Stripes, the Armed Forces newspaper in our area said that “The consensus is that about 50,000 (North Vietnamese soldiers) are in Cambodia, 90,000 in Laos, including support groups on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and 100,000 in South Vietnam or along her borders and the Demilitarized Zone…Some 25,000 troops of Hanoi’s 559th Support Group are trying to keep the 1,500 miles of interlaced trails open.” The same article reported the trail was guarded by some 2,000 guns, of which 700 were large caliber weapons, many controlled by radar. Despite the statements of the American and North Vietnamese Governments that there were no combatants in Laos, that is where we were to fly and fight.
The use of Forward Air Controllers in Laos and other areas of Indochina was necessitated by the vast areas of jungle and mountains that made target identification and effective tactical airstrikes by fast moving strike aircraft very difficult. Laos, Cambodia and the Republic of South Vietnam were able to utilize FACs and other “slow movers”-aircraft of limited performance-due to the fact that the allied forces exercised air supremacy over these combat areas. North Vietnamese fighter aircraft seldom appeared outside of the built-up areas of their own country and were rarely seen outside of the borders of North Vietnam. Fighters-“fast movers” in the common parlance-could fly high enough to avoid most of the AAA, but they could not see the trucks and troops moving through the jungle at the speeds and altitudes at which they flew. They also had a limited loiter time in which to search for the enemy. A Forward Air Controller could remain “on station” for two to three hours at a time, enough time to find a destroy an elusive enemy.
My first flight over the Trail was on September 19th in the back seat of an OV-10A Bronco with Lt. Henry J. Yeackle. The flight took place over VR 12 & 13 (later known as VR 6&7) on a beautiful summer afternoon with blue skies, white puffy clouds and good visibility. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was clearly visible in this area known as “Steeltiger”, but all I could think of was how I was going to learn this territory so I could become effective. Henry and others showed me the landmarks and destroyed North Vietnamese Army (NVA) trucks still visible on the side of the road and I began to figure out how FACing was really done. There was a lot of geographical and operational information to absorb. In the States we had trained at low level (1,500 feet above ground level) simulating a “troops in contact” environment with the enemy anti-aircraft threat limited to small caliber automatic weapons. However, in combat operations in the Steel Tiger area of Laos we did not operate in these conditions.
In Steel Tiger we routinely flew at altitudes of 8,500 to 9,500 feet mean sea level. This was done for two reasons. First of all the Ho Chi Minh Trail in this area cut through mountainous terrain that would reach up to 4,000 feet, necessitating a higher cruise altitude. Second, the entire area patrolled by the Coveys and the Nail FACS who worked further north out of NKP was a designated “high threat” area due to the presence of a very large number of large caliber anti-aircraft artillery sites. These sites were of 23mm, 37mm and 57mm with radar controlled 85mm and 100mm weapons around the border area between North and South Vietnam (the DMZ or Demilitarized Zone). It was imperative that we learn to deal with this threat as one hit from one of these weapons could destroy an 0-2 and its crew.
One of the important items we had to learn in order to survive in a high threat environment was how to “mark” (identify by shooting a rocket) a target for the strike aircraft without being shot down. We were told –for good reason-not to become predictable in the manner in which we delivered ordnance. At Holley rockets were delivered from a low altitude from which we could accurately mark a target. Over the trail this was not possible due to the altitudes at which we were forced to fly by the AAA threat and the nature of the terrain in the area. These altitudes also rendered our CA-505 Non-Computing Optical Gunsights useless as they were only calibrated for low altitude use. Most 0-2 FACS took to using a “John Wayne Mill Setting” for rocket firing-a black grease pencil mark on the windscreen. Accuracy was a more difficult proposition as the altitude above the ground increased and was also adversely impacted in the 0-2 if the airspeed was to high or the pilot inadvertently had his foot on one of the rudder pedals. I suspect that every 0-2 pilot over the Trail discovered the latter problem when one of his rockets went veering off to the right or left to his embarrassment. I adopted a tactic of raising the nose to bleed off airspeed and then rolling in quickly with the aid of the rudder, dropping the nose below the target, checking to see that the rudder pedals were centered and firing the rocket before the airspeed could build up. I found that the rocket delivery was accurate under these circumstances. There were times when I had deliver rockets from “extreme” low level, but I tried to keep these at a minimum as they were risky and would be a source of consternation to a right seat occupant.
On a subsequent mission with Eldon R. “Sonny” Haynes, one of our numerous “SAC Killers” on loan to PACAF, I was in the back seat watching him direct a flight of F-100 Super Sabres on a prearranged target when suddenly he lost radio contact with them. At first we were baffled at what the problem could be, but then I noticed two open circuit breakers on the panel behind me. I turned around, reset the circuit breakers and UHF communication was restored. Sonny was able to complete the airstrike. This initial experience over Laos was the most valuable training I had received since my first flight at Hurlburt Field in Florida.
The 0-2 was not well-equipped for the day mission over the Trail. Forward Air Controllers were first utilized in numbers in World War II. In the Korean Conflict, T-6 Texan trainers were utilized in the role. While not purpose built for the Forward Observer role, they were constructed to military specifications and possessed a radial engine that could withstand small arms hits and still return the crew to base. The Cessna 02-A and 0-2B were derivatives of a low-cost twin-engine airplane that began its career with fixed landing gear. It was designed as an introductory twin-engine airplane for use in the United States with engines located in the front and rear of the passenger cabin so as to avoid the problems of single engine flight inherent in twin engine airplanes. The 02-A was fitted with military instrumentation and a rudimentary fire control system, but the problem of egress from a crippled airplane was not addressed. The airplane had no ejection seats to aid in the survival of the crew in the event of a fatal AAA hit on the airframe. The crew of an 0-2, like it predecessor the 0-1, was forced to open a door or crawl through a small window to bail out of a crippled airplane. The 0-2B, used for leaflet drops and psychological warfare retained its civilian instrumentation and interior.
The 0-2s operated out of Pleiku in the Central Highlands of Vietnam and out of Nakhom Phanom, Thailand were painted black for night missions and equipped with a shielded rotating beacon. In DaNang there were no 0-2s dedicated to the night mission, due to the number of airplanes assigned to the Squadron and the many missions they had to perform, so all airplanes retained their grey/white paint scheme and had unshielded beacons. This meant that these airplanes were easier to spot by the enemy and they could tell where the FAC was located during a night airstrike as the beacon had to be left on to prevent an air-to-air collision with friendly strike aircraft.
The civilian nature of the 0-2 was demonstrated by several incidents that took place during my time in DaNang. The heavy rains experienced during the Monsoon season caused electrical problems in our planes and so the battery was moved inside of the crew compartment. It was discovered during combat missions that the door handles on some airplanes were positioned that so when they were locked they could be inadvertently unlatched by the strap on a hand-held Starlight scope! The door handles were then modified. Some months later the Air Force came out with an update and upgrade for the 0-2. These updates were performed in DaNang, but then all of those airplanes were shipped back to the United States and we kept flying the unmodified machines.
In addition to these operational problems, the 0-2 was not equipped with any armor plating. The 0-2 We were provided with an armored helmet that would purportedly stop a .30 caliber bullet, but there were not any at the altitudes at which we operated. An armored seat was tested, but it also was only effective against small arms and had the additional drawback of hindering the exit of the pilot from a wounded airplane. The altitudes we operated at also rendered our gunsight useless as they were not designed for our mission. The sum-total of these challenges led to some interesting designations of the “Super Skymaster.” Unlike the vaunted Phantom, Thunderchief, Skyraider, Super Sabre, or even Bronco, our sturdy ungainly warplane was known as the “Push-me-Pull-You,” “Oscar Deuce” or, most telling of all, “Suck-and-Blow Cessna.” I would have preferred an A-1E Skyraider or a World War II vintage P-47 Thunderbolt as my mount for flights over Laos.
While the day mission of visual reconnaissance and interdiction was interesting, the Covey 0-2 pilots and their navigators, known amongst ourselves as the “Covey Nightfighters”, operated from dusk to dawn over the Trail to interdict the flow of supplies at night. There were important differences from the day mission and these had to be learned primarily by experiencing them. The first of these, and the one most frequently omitted in accounts of the night battle, is the fact that the crews flew on what is called the “back side of the clock.” Deadly combat was conducted when most soldiers and airmen were sleeping. Night crews slept during daylight hours and arose to prepare for operations in the late afternoon. In DaNang this was at the time when support personnel were getting off work for the day. Flying on the back side of the clock meant that the Covey Nightfighters often had to battle fatigue as well as the enemy.
Combat operations at night were always impacted by the poor visibility that made the location of the enemy in the dark a strenuous task. This condition was exacerbated during the monsoon season by cloud cover and rain in the area of operations which often made airstrikes impossible. The only lights in the area of operations were the headlights of the NVA trucks and even these were extinguished in good weather when the moon was bright. Target acquisition was a difficult proposition on almost every night mission.
The Air Force had responded to these circumstances in two ways. Mark-24 airborne flares and LUU-1/B target-markers or “logs” were mounted on the underwing ejector racks of the 0-2, the former to provide short term bright light when needed and the latter to provide a way to mark the target for attacking tactical aircraft. This was necessary as darkness made the employment of marking rockets impractical. In addition, the right seat crew member, pilot or navigator, was given a hand-held Starlight scope that magnified light several thousand times to locate trucks and other targets in low light conditions. This device was pointed out the open window to search for enemy vehicles. These devices were not very sophisticated by current standards, but they were effective in the hands of a well trained and motivated FAC crew.
I finished my check out and was at last ready to contribute to the war against the North Vietnamese. I had learned that night interdiction attacks required skill, flexibility, patience, persistence and luck. Poor weather, enemy resistance and a less than perfect command and control structure all reduced our chances of success. Crew coordination was also an important aspect of the night mission. The pilot and the scope operator had to work together smoothly under adverse conditions in order to acquire targets and destroy them. A crew that did not work together in harmony would enjoy little success.
The night mission began with the drawing of equipment from the Life Support Section and then proceeding to the airplane. This equipment included helmets, parachutes, survival vests, water bottles, personal weapons-usually a .38 caliber revolver and a M-16-and a Starlight scope. Survival radios were checked and weapons were loaded. The crew then proceeded to the airplane which was then preflighted and the external ordnance inspected for proper installation. After checking with maintenance and fueling, the airplane was started and taxied to the arming area where the arming pins were removed from the external stores before takeoff.
The Covey crew flew to its area of operations (AO), a task not without its own challenges. Navigation aids used in Steel Tiger were few and far between because the ground was occupied by the enemy. Most of the navigation aids were located in Vietnam and Thailand and were often unusable to FAC aircraft due to the relatively low altitudes flown by the 0-2s over the Trail. Dead reckoning was often the only way that the FAC could find his way about in the operations area. In this regard the fact that the Xe Kong River flowed through the western part of the operations area next to the Ho Chi Minh Trail was very important as it gave the Covey FACS a reliable point of orientation that could be seen with the naked eye in good weather and with the Starlight scope in poor weather conditions.
Upon arrival in the AO, the crew checked in with the FAC they were relieving and received from him an update on the situation in the AO. If a target was under attack, there may have been fighters orbiting above the target awaiting the arrival of the new FAC as the one directing the airstrikes was down to “Bingo Fuel” and needed to return to DaNang. The arriving crew then checked in with ABCCC, whose nighttime call sign was “Moonbeam” and if the area was quiet, began to search for the elusive enemy. If an attack was in progress the process was relatively easy as you could see the AAA rising over the target area, particularly if the FAC was Lt. Browning, Capt. Thomas F. Bliss, or Lt. Harnden!
The search area was often determined by reports provided by other Sector FACS who had worked in the area in the previous few hours. Certain areas were known to be “hot” by virtue of attacks on trucks over a period of days, by signs of activity noted during daylight reconnaissance missions, or by frequent anti-aircraft fire. At other times the search area was determined by which locations were free of clouds. Sometimes we were limited to searching those road segments near the Xe Kong River which remained relatively clear when valleys and mountainous areas were obscured by clouds. This area was confined to Trail segments stretching from Delta Point 43 near Route 924 south to just west of Delta Point 87.
As the Sector FAC, we were responsible for the employment of any aerial ordnance in the sector we were controlling. At night there were seldom any preplanned strikes-with one notable exception noted later-but that did not mean that it was necessary to remain vigilant at all times. On two occasions, my FAN and I almost came to grief by the actions of friendly forces. Both times the “friendly force” was an AC-119 gunship, call sign “Stinger” based in DaNang. These Korean War vintage aircraft had been modified by the addition of sophisticated sensors, low-light television and Gatling guns of up to 20mm. They flew over the Trail at night searching for trucks just as we did, operating alone because of their lethal firepower. Due to their endurance and speed, they would cross several sectors in one mission. They could cover more area than the FAC, but were not as familiar with each sector as the 0-2s. As they approached each sector, they were supposed to get the FAC tactical frequency from ABCCC and call the Sector FAC before entering the sector to prevent any conflicts
One night while on patrol, I thought I saw something out of the corner of my eye. Suddenly, we were tossed about like a leaf in the wind by something unknown. After steadying the airplane, I noticed a black shadow in front of us beginning a right-hand orbit. It was a Stinger that had almost hit us before we were aware of his presence. I called ABCCC, found out who he was and what tactical frequency he was monitoring. I called him, told him who I was and what had just happened, followed by some “friendly” advice. A few weeks later I again noticed an AC-119 taking up an orbit below us. Again a gunship had not checked in with the Sector FAC. Following the same drill, I told him of our presence and asked him where he was located. He replied with a position that was twenty miles from where he really was at the moment. We knew our position by pilotage; in the moonlight we could see the singular distinctive portion of the Xe Kong River that runs east-west just south of Delta 43. I corrected him, but the other pilot insisted that he was twenty miles away. In a moment of pique, I dropped a flare and after it ignited, pointed out the River to the astonished gunship pilot. He departed immediately!
My first real baptism of enemy fire came on the night of 25 November. My Forward Air Navigator had detected trucks moving south on the Trail and we had requested tactical air support. We had marked the target with LUU-1/B Target Markers or “logs”, a device that looked like a flare when mounted on an 0-2 pylon and utilized a parachute to slow its journey to earth, but looked like a lit cigarette butt when it reached the ground. The candle was 27 inches long and four inches in diameter, contained in a 36 inch canister that weighed 26 pounds. From the air the candle looked like it was about one-quarter-inch in diameter. It would burn for 30 minutes on the ground. Placing a log where you wanted it was more of an art than a science due to the winds aloft and swirling around the mountains, but our FANS were quite good at determining the release point for these odd but effective munitions. One night when I was flying with Major Robert A. Heckman, our Executive Officer and a SAC veteran (spelled SAC p-u-k-e) he called the release and the log landed in the bed of a truck driving down the trail! We generally dropped two logs to mark the target and gave the attacking fighter distances to the target based upon the position of the two logs. It was a tricky business, but we made it work.
We began to mark the target before the arrival of the fighters in order to make the most effective use of their loiter time. F-4s, our most common strike aircraft at night had a useful loiter time of 20 minutes and if they came from a great distance it could be as little as ten minutes. It usually required multiple attacks in order to destroy the target, so it was crucial to use the time wisely. As we marked the trucks on the road below, the enemy began to shoot at us with dual barrel 23mm anti-aircraft (AAA) weapons and continued to do so as we rendezvoused with the strike aircraft. I briefed the fighters on the target, weather, the enemy threat and bailout heading. The fighters gave me their “line up” (ordnance load) and we commenced the attack. AAA fire was in abundance and it was all concentrated on our little 0-2. We were at 7,500 to 8,500 feet altitude, about 4,000 feet above the ground and the AAA was exploding at our altitude. The strike aircraft destroyed one truck and damaged three others. We counted 220 rounds of AAA as we orbited over the target area.
The following night I was flying with Major William Scannell, Covey ‘Sierra’ and we again attacked a truck convoy, the strike aircraft destroying three “movers” which appeared as burning squares after being bombed with pods of CBU 24, a cluster bomb munition that looked like aerial bombs in an Independence Day celebration when it detonated on the ground. Once again 23mm AAA filled the air. It came close, but we were able to evade it. Here, early in my combat tour I learned the weakness of the NVA weapons. They fired tracer ammunition so you could see them coming, although sometimes that was scary when it came directly at you. The NVA also used timed fuses, which was a disadvantage because the AAA could (and did!) pass less than a foot away from us and not detonate. Many a FAC flying over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, including this one, would not have survived if the enemy had used proximity fusing for its AAA weapons. Since we flew with the windows open, you could hear the AAA detonate and when it was close you could smell the cordite of the shell and when it got really close you could see the shell explode into many hot orange fragments.
Not all nights were productive. My log book has many entries where there are no remarks about successes. There were maintenance aborts, and nights when the weather was inclement enough to prevent operations. On some nights there was little or no success due to AAA and our own problems in striking the target. A mission over the Trail on 12 December illustrates the nature of these difficulties experienced in tactical strikes against the North Vietnamese.
My FAN and I had located and stopped some trucks on the road near Delta Point 87 and Gunfighter 22 &23, a flight of two F-4Es from DaNang rendezvoused with us to strike the target. They were armed with six CBU 24s and two CBU 49s per aircraft plus 640 rounds of 20mm cannon mounted internally. The flight leader describes the progress of the strike:
“I split the flight up, had my wingman hold high and I began to work . Covey had the target between two ground logs and under a flare. The target position was easy to identify due to Covey’s expert R/T and descriptive commentary. On my first pass I released 3 CBU’s and during the pull-off the AAA opened up. Covey was fairly close to the target and was receiving the 23-37 MM that I wasn’t getting.
He gave me an excellent correction from my first delivery, and I commenced my second pass. Due to a system malfunction, only three of the remaining five CBU’s released. Again Covey gave my wingman a good correction from my hits as he began his attacks.
“ The AAA at this point was in abundance to say the least. After my wingman made his first pass, Covey requested we hold high so he could drop another flare and take a closer look at the trucks. In doing so he‘hung it out’.
“My wingman unloaded the remainder of his ordnance on his second pass only to be long. I must admit our bombing skill was not up to usual Gunfighter standards. I rolled in and tried to release my two remaining CBUs only to have another malfunction and they went extremely long. We all wanted those trucks desperately and I decided to make one high angle gun pass. For all our work, the three of us damaged two trucks.
“For Covey 276, this was probable (sic) a normal mission where AAA was predominant. It was the most exciting mission for me and I’ve flown 80 so far. The back seat pilot in the number two aircraft who has been in country for nine months confessed that in 175 missions he has never worked under the threat of so much AAA.”
This mission was less than successful despite the fact that the enemy was attacked in good weather by experienced fighter pilots (300 combat missions combined) in a state-of-the-art fighter with the proper ordnance mix for attacking trucks. Despite our desire to destroy the enemy trucks, we were defeated by mechanical problems and a lack of experience on the part of the strike pilots in attacking heavily defended targets in the night environment.
Generally, however, the dry season not only provided us with the opportunity to find the enemy, but we were able to hurt him despite AAA over the target. The entry for the night of 14 December, 1970 is not atypical: “Three trucks destroyed, two damaged, two large, seven medium and 13 small secondary explosions. 180 rounds of 23mm and ZPU.” Our continued presence over the Trail was vital if the interdiction campaign was to be successful and yield significant results.
The night FAC mission often consisted of long hours of searching with for the enemy, trying to discern his whereabouts so an attack could be made. Since there were no lighted roads or cities and signals from navigation aids were obscured by the mountains, we had to rely on moonlight, NVA truck headlights (often covered or turned off) and the starlight scopes to detect the enemy. However, while we did not possess the exotic detection equipment of the gunships, the skill of our pilots and navigators using the starlight scope could yield excellent results. This was most notably demonstrated during a ten day period in December of 1970 when Covey FACS discovered and led the destruction of a large NVA truck park and storage complex in what General William C. Westmoreland called an “outstanding success” and Time magazine wrote “Some American military men have called this the greatest single aerial success of the war.”
On the night of 19 December, 1Lt. John R. Browning, Covey 281 and Capt. Norman J. Monnig, were following the progress of a single NVA truck north of Delta 43 as it made its way south toward the Xe Kong River, the small cone shape of its headlights just visible in Capt. Monnig’s Starlight scope. It turned off the road and began to make its way through the triple canopy jungle. Capt. Monnig followed it for awhile, but lost it as the truck apparently turned off its lights. Lt. Browning, a Yale graduate, requested strike aircraft and when they arrived the strike flight was directed onto the last known position of the truck. The first pass resulted in large explosions which were to last for ten days and ultimately result in more than 7,000 secondary explosions, 225 sustained fires, 10,000 rounds of ammunition detonated on the ground and the destruction of 46 trucks. Within a few days, Lt. Browning and Capt. Monnig had received Distinguished Flying Crosses and a strike photo of what came to be known as the “Covey Bomb Dump” appeared on the cover of the “7th Air Force News”.
The storage complex at Ban Bak was located in a flat forested area between two road segments that wound their way along ridge lines to the east and west of the target area. It was just north of a point where the Xe Kong River ran east-west and the North Vietnamese had built a submerged ford to enable supply laden trucks to proceed southbound. The river was deep at this time of year and the storage complex was full of supplies waiting to be moved south. As daylight dawned, it became clear that Covey 281 had discovered a major storage area that would require a significant effort to destroy.
Enemy resistance was heavy. During the day operations there were often two OV-10s on station so that assistance would be immediately available in case the FAC directing the airstrikes was hit by the abundant AAA. OV-10s were often bracketed by enemy fire which consisted of ZPU, 23mm and 37mm AAA weapons and sometimes exceeded 300 rounds during one stint on station over the target area. Due to the lucrative nature of the target, ABCCC began to divert strike aircraft from all over Indochina to the “Covey Bomb Dump”. Several flights of strike aircraft could be observed orbiting at different altitudes over the target area waiting to drop their ordnance.
I flew my first mission against the Bomb Dump in the early morning of 20 December. Flying with Capt. Michael Dreiling, I directed “Tango” Flight onto the target at 3:30 a. m. and observed 10 medium and 20 small secondary explosions. An hour later Wolfpack 85 flight from Ubon struck the target with even better results of 11 large, 15 medium, and 93 small secondary explosions and four large, four medium and two small sustained fires. This was followed by Wolfpack 93 hit the target and caused 8 large, 14 medium, and 37 small secondary explosions and two large sustained fires. At 5:27 a. m. “Zig Zag” flight struck the target setting off 3 large, 9 medium, and 20 small secondary explosions as well as igniting 4 medium sustained fires. We left the target area ablaze and headed back to DaNang in high spirits.
For once the Covey FACS could have all of the strike flights they could handle and they pounded the target area all of the next day. When I approached the target area the next evening with Covey “Easy”, Major Hall S. Elliott, an Air Defense Command (ADC) retread, the target could be seen from many miles distant due to fires burning on the ground. Arriving over the target, we expended “Popper” flight, a pair of F-4s, and they caused 6 medium secondary explosions and two sustained fires. We observed explosions of POL (petroleum, oil & lubricants) every few seconds for a period of two and one-half hours.
Twenty-Four hours later, “Easy” and I were back on station. At 0355, Wolfpack 87 hit the target causing 3 large, 17 medium and 16 small secondary explosions which caused some sustained fires. The NVA did not take kindly to our activities and directed ZPU, 23mm and 37mm AAA at us totaling more than 200 rounds. We responded by directing another flight of strike aircraft on the target with spectacular results. One secondary explosion resulted in a fireball that reached 2,000 feet into the sky and was surrounded by tracer ammunition that reached an altitude of 9,000. This fireball was accompanied by one large, 12 medium and 15 small secondary explosions.
By this time we had ascertained that the target area was about a mile square in area. If you were to draw a diagonal line through the square, on one side was stored ammunition and POL on the other. We were really hurting the enemy and thankfully we were given all of the strike resources we needed to pursue the total destruction of the target. Enemy resistance was often heavy and determined, but we had not lost anyone to date.
Weather began moving in on the 23rd and although I flew again on Christmas Eve and Christmas the target area was largely obscured on Christmas Day and most of the next. I did succeed in directing the destruction of a truck and got shot at again. The bad weather gave tired, but happy crews time to rest before commencing attacks again after Christmas until 28 December.
The results that followed Lt. Browning and Capt. Monnig’s determined effort to follow one truck were spectacular in every sense of the word. During one ten day period, the Covey FACS had demonstrated the effectiveness of a determined and well-planned aerial assault against an important and heavily defended enemy storage facility. Following the conclusion of the strikes against the Ban Bak complex, the acting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General William C. Westmoreland, sent the following message:
“The effectiveness of U.S. air operations in Steel Tiger operations was most clearly demonstrated by the out-standing success achieved by the TACAIR sorties directed against the truck park and storage complex in the vicinity of Ban Bak. We may never know precisely the degree to which the destruction of this storage complex affected the enemy’s logistic capability, however, I am convinced that his capability to support combat operations has been seriously degraded and the damage to the enemy represents one of the most outstanding achievements by TACAIR in Commando Hunt operations… The success of this strike effort is due not only to the skill of the TACAIR crews and supporting personnel but also to the determination of the Covey FACS in their surveillance of the suspected area.”
Covey FACS had directed 187 strike aircraft against the Ban Bak storage complex and despite heavy enemy resistance had seriously degraded the ability of the North Vietnamese to conduct large offensive operations in South Vietnam. I myself had spent fourteen hours over the target working with experienced Forward Air Navigators who acquitted themselves in an exemplary manner and whose survival had depended not only on their skill and judgement, but on that of a 24-year-old lieutenant and the reliability of an airplane designed to fly over the corn fields of Kansas.
After the conclusion of the strikes at Ban Bak, we continued to strike at trucks moving south toward South Vietnam. My logbook for the 14th to the 17th of January is typical of operations during this period: 14 Jan.-3 trucks destroyed, 5 damaged; 15 Jan.-7 trucks followed for 90 min. but no strike aircraft available; 16 Jan.-4 trucks destroyed of 7 sighted and 5 attacked; 16 Jan.-4 trucks followed for 90 min, but no ordnance available. Our effectiveness was compromised by the lack of available strike aircraft. It was during this period that we began to develop a friendship with the “Night Owls”, 497 Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) an F-4 unit in Ubon, Thailand. We often worked with them on strikes, as they flew at night as we did. When we diverted to Ubon after a sortie due to weather, we would party with them in their “hooch”. We learned that they kept two missions on standby alert which could be called out to strike a target in our area within 20 minutes. We began a practice of calling them on a secure telephone line to get the mission numbers of these fighters and then when ABCCC would tell us that there were no strike aircraft available to hit targets we had found, we would ask the status of particular mission numbers assigned to the 497th. We were usually told that they would arrive on station in 20 minutes! This was what passed for “rocket science” in a low-tech war.
The problem of the availability of strike aircraft to hit targets we had located was one that plagued the out-country interdiction mission of the Covey FACS, both day and night. At night there was little that could be done to redress the situation. The target could be passed on to the next Sector FAC or given to a gunship in the area. This was a rarity because they were seldom in our area of operations. During daylight hours there were three other options that I was able to utilize to bring some ordnance to bear on the target. Sometimes, as mentioned previously, a “Fast FAC” could be used to mark the target with cannon fire to destroy it. At other times frustration would lead the FAC to attack the target himself. This was not the best option due to the lack of good munitions, usually limited to 2.75 inch smoke rockets, and the exposure of the FAC to AAA at low level at low airspeed. The third option was to surreptitiously strike the target with ‘assets’ sent to attack another target.
During daylight reconnaissance missions FACS were routinely required to direct strikes on preplanned targets such as suspected truck parks and storage areas that intelligence had identified and which were given mission numbers by the Air Force and sent to the squadrons on a daily document called the “Frag” and known as “fragged targets”. On occasion when I had a “target of opportunity”, usually moving trucks in daylight, and ABCCC had indicated that no strike aircraft were available for that target, I would request that I be given permission to move a “fragged strike” to my target. If permission was refused and the target was lucrative in my opinion, I would proceed to the rendezvous point and proceed to brief the fighters on the target and the enemy threat while moving to the target I had located. We would attack the target, destroy it and I would give the location coordinates of the “fragged” target in my bomb damage assessment (BDA) to the strike aircraft so it would appear that the destruction had occurred in the area identified in the “Frag.” In this manner the trucks were destroyed and the “fragged” target would appear lucrative enough to strike again. I did this in order that we could keep the constant pressure on the enemy that an interdiction campaign required.
The enemy was clever and adapted to our tactics. When our attacks made driving certain segments of the Ho Chi Minh Trail difficult to negotiate, they would build new segments further West that we then would have to find and monitor. The NVA would construct a ford at a likely crossing point on a river, hoping that we would strike that location while they used another crossing nearby. A single low power light was installed on the front of trucks to make them more difficult to detect at night.
The North Vietnamese became aware of the fact that there were times at dawn and dusk when our aerial activity was at a minimum as we shifted from day operations to night operations and vice versa. I discovered this in our sector late one afternoon when I came out early on the first night mission just before dusk. The Trail was alive with moving trucks as daylight changed to twilight. I called for strike aircraft and there were none available and I could not attack them as my airplane was configured for nighttime operations and had no rockets on board. This situation persisted for several days until we took action to change it.
Since we had no FACS specifically scheduled to be on duty when daylight began to wane or at dawn, we scheduled “training” missions to cover the gap, but no training was conducted. We sent out 0-2s configured with what we called the “Number 1 Night Load” a combination of flares, logs and a pod of rockets. Flares and logs were of no use for attacking daylight targets, so the pod of rockets would allow us to attack when there was sufficient light in the target area. At dusk we could then transition to night tactics at the appropriate time. The second action we took was to include comments in our mission debriefings that would then be inserted in the DISUM, a daily intelligence summary, in order that 7th Air Force could make strike aircraft available to impede the movement of North Vietnamese vehicles during these hours. It was a “cat and mouse” game that we did not always win.
Despite the deadly environment in which we operated, it was often difficult to remain alert at all times. We were usually “on- station ”-flying over the assigned area of operations- for two-and-half to three hours and we often had to battle boredom as well as the enemy. At night weariness could also adversely impact truck hunting, but the primary danger periods were during daylight and the low-light periods of dusk and dawn. During daylight inattention could mean not sighting enemy movements, but more importantly, it could result in being shot down by the AAA you did not see. I was hit by a weapon that I did not see shooting from behind me. More than one FAC was shot down by a gun he did not see.
At twilight our airplanes were often silhouetted by the setting sun. While it was dark on the ground, the light grey color of our 0-2s were easy to see when illuminated by sunlight. It was difficult for us to see ground targets, unless of course, we were under AAA fire. Inattention near the end of a three hour mission could have deadly consequences. If a FAC was shot down at this time of day and survived, he could expect to spend the night on the ground in enemy territory before a Search and Rescue effort could be launched the next day.
The FAC flying over the trail had to be attentive at all times, but also had to avoid concentrating on one task too long, an undesirable practice known as “tunnel vision”. Flying more than a few seconds in one direction, remaining on a rocket pass too long or spending too much time using the binoculars could have disastrous consequences. Lt. Jack Butcher was looking at a suspicious area one morning through his binoculars when a 37mm weapon blew the bottom out of his OV-10. When he looked inside the cockpit, the instrument panel was a mess and when he looked at the floor all he could see was flames and jungle. Jack activated his ejection system, but feared it would not work. He “woke up” in his parachute and landed just west of the Trail near the wreckage of his airplane. Fifteen minutes later he was captured and so began a long tortuous journey to Hanoi where he would spend the next two years.
I experienced an unexpected consequence of “tunnel vision”. I was flying as a back seater on a day mission over the Trail in an OV-10. It was not uncommon for a Covey Nightfighter on a day off to accompany another FAC on a mission to provide another set of eyes and to see the AO in daylight. On this day I was flying with Covey 252 (name omitted to protect the guilty!) and we were conducting visual reconnaissance near the trail in a left-hand orbit looking at what appeared to be a building in the trees. As we circled we were losing altitude with each orbit. I began to get uncomfortable with the low altitude at which we were flying and mentioned my concern to the front seater, who replied to my question with a question: “Aren’t you flying?” I answered, “I thought you were flying!” Needless to say, we solved our communication problem and got out of there!
Boredom or lack of observable targets, particularly on those rare occasions when we had strike aircraft sent to us and we had no target, would result in what we called “trolling for guns”. We would turn on our landing lights and fly along a Trail segment hoping that the NVA would shoot at us so we could discover their position and attack them. I can remember as if it were yesterday flying along a road at twilight with three A-7s orbiting above me and “spoiling for a fight.” It sometimes worked and we were fortunate that never lost a FAC in this admittedly dumb practice. It was almost as dumb as trying to get movie footage of the enemy shooting at us!
“Break left!” This was a command that a FAC never ignored, especially at night if screamed by the FAN or pilot in the right seat. This cry signified that the FAC aircraft was under fire from the right side and it was close. Instantaneous response was necessary for survival. You could gauge how close the enemy fire was by how hurried the call and by its tone. The closer the AAA, the higher the tone. There were, however, when you could not break to avoid the enemy fire. One evening while flying with Major Heckman, Covey “Tango”, he called a left break and I took a look to my left just before commencing the break. There were tracers also coming up on the left side! The AAA passed close by on both sides of the front engine. We referred to enemy gunners this good as ‘nine-level’ gunners and they would certainly get your attention in the midst of an air strike.
Most often we would receive AAA when actively attacking a target as the North Vietnamese were quite disciplined in not giving away their positions unnecessarily, particularly during daylight hours. More ground fire was expended at the night FACS than those who flew the Trail during the day because darkness made it more difficult to locate their position. My experience was that I received more sustained AAA at night than in the daytime. At one time the disparity in reports of AAA noted by returning FACS was so heavily weighted toward the night mission that there was doubt of the veracity of the reports turned in by the Covey Nightfighters. In response I invited one of the OV-10 pilots to accompany me out on a mission at dusk to observe for himself the AAA threat at night over the trail. We had not been on station for more than ten minutes when the enemy opened up on us with some 23mms. The fire was close and sustained. There were no more doubts about ground fire reports.
There were times, however, that the enemy would fire on us for seemingly no good reason. One afternoon I was flying with Capt. Tom Bliss over the “Golf Course”, a large flat area around Delta Point 96, a few miles north of Ban Bak. As we checked out the area, we came under fire from several batteries of 37mm weapons. We avoided the AAA and began to look for what they might be protecting. I began flying in a left-hand orbit while Tom and I looked for trucks, troops or buildings that might be the reason for being shot at on a sunny afternoon. Every time we passed to the East of the guns, they opened up on us “just like clockwork.” As the resistance continued, we requested strike aircraft from ABCCC. Two sets of F-4s were sent and we struck the guns. The 37mm AAA fired continuously at us and the attacking fighters, even shooting through the smoke of the detonating bombs. The iron bombs carried by the fighters did not destroy the enemy guns which continued to fire at us after the F-4s left the area. We never did discover why they were firing at us and exposing their position.
The occasional unpredictable behavior was not limited to daylight missions. As the FAN and I patrolled near the Xe Kong River about ten miles south of Ban Bak, the ground lit up and the light came up at us at a high rate of speed. I broke to the left and it passed behind us. We saw nothing else for the remainder of the mission. When we returned to DaNang and began to debrief, we could not readily identified what we had seen. We consulted all of the books on NVA weapons and military units. After almost an hour we discovered that there was an NVA unit located where we were flying that was equipped with 107mm rockets. They had fired a salvo of six rockets at us and then went silent.
I continued to fly throughout January, scoring regularly with occasional disappointments. On January 23 I flew the first of three missions recorded on audio tape by the fighters I controlled. On this night flying with Major Heckman and working with Gunfighter 24 &25 from the 366 TFW in DaNang, we destroyed two trucks, damaged another and destroyed a dual barreled 23mm gun despite heavy enemy resistance. The enemy gunner had made an error that cost him his life; he opened up on Gunfighter 25 just as the F-4 had begun his dive down the ‘chute’ and the fighter moved his gunsight onto the enemy gun and released two canisters of CBU 24. The ordnance exploded directly on the enemy position and as it penetrated the gun barrel, the last few rounds left the barrel slowly and wobbling and then fell to earth. It was a good show. The next night we attacked five trucks with two Korat, Thailand based F-4s with “wall-to-wall” CBU 24s and scored not a single hit.
A few days after the January 23rd mission, Major Heckman and I were called into the office of 366th TFW Wing Commander, Colonel John R. Spaulding. Col. Spaulding was a nattily dressed, cigar smoking man of slight build who flew as regularly as his duties would allow. I wondered what it was that we had done to be called in from our tenant unit to see the big boss. We reported in and it was then we learned that he had been Gunfighter 24 and he then played some of the tape recording his backseater had made of our strike. He complimented us on our skill and courage and later sent us a copy of the tape with all three strikes on it. I, a lowly lieutenant, had become his “favorite FAC”-probably the only one he knew. As a result of this meeting, Major Heckman and I were able to fly combat missions over the Trail in a F-4E with Colonel Spaulding. I had the interesting experience of attacking trucks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail under the direction of a Nail FAC from NKP.
In February I took advantage of a new leave program and flew home to the Seattle area for two weeks. I spoke to some history classes about my participation in the war at my alma mater Pacific Lutheran University. It was an unusual experience to describe the life and death struggle in Southeast Asia to students almost my age in a comfortable classroom setting. I had an interview with the commander of the F-106 equipped 318th Fighter Interceptor Squadron trying to secure a fighter assignment when I left Vietnam and then went skiing. In my absence and without consulting me, American and Vietnamese Forces invaded Laos in Lam Son 719, the largest Allied out-country ground offensive of the war.
I returned to Vietnam at Cam Ranh Bay, but could not get back to DaNang, because the in-country airlift shuttle had been shut down due to all resources being committed to the Laotian offensive. After a few days the 20 TASS sent an 0-2 to return me to the squadron. Major Heckman told me I was needed in DaNang, but I suspected they thought I was having too good a time relaxing with an old college chum and C-7 transport pilot in Cam Ranh Bay.
The goal of the offensive into Laos was Tchepone a heavily defended village on Route 9 astride the Ho Chi Minh Trail. American forces would advance as far as the Laotian border and a large force of ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) units would continue along Route 9 to cut the Trail and deny it to the enemy. A separate FAC unit was assembled from Coveys, Nail FACs from NKP and others. It was under the command of Covey Commander Lt. Col. Edward P. Cullivan and experienced some of the heaviest fighting of the war. FACs directed strikes against NVA tanks, artillery and troop positions. Resistance was very heavy and FACs were shot down and killed. I did not fly any missions in support of this offensive, but I did fly up there one afternoon to sneak a peek at what was going on. I have never seen so many troops in one place in my life. On my return to my AO, I was passed underneath by an Air America C-46 flying supplies somewhere to someone. Despite a massive effort and some successes, the operation ultimately failed to complete its mission due to heavy counterattacks by large well-equipped NVA units.
South of Route 9 the war continued unabated. On the 8th of March I flew what was for me a most unusual mission. I had just arrived on-station on a solo daylight mission when ABCCC called me and asked me to “come up green” a code transmission for me to call them on my secure radio. I called them and was told that NVA forces were attacking a fortified Laotian unit and the FAC directing air strikes against the NVA positions, Raven 44, was out of fuel and a replacement Raven was not available. I was asked to proceed to the area and take over.
The Laotian unit was at a camp known as PS-22 located on the Bolovens Plateau, a craggy elevated limestone rock formation that rises to the West of the Xe Kong River and which was the geographical and strategic key to the “secret” war in Southern Laos. Air support was directed by Raven FACs flying out of Pakse, Laos on the Mekong River and other forward locations. These FACs had been released from Air Force active duty and sent to Laos as “forest rangers” for the US Agency for International Development. Emergency airfields-known as Lima Sites, for landing sites- for their operations were located on the Bolovens Plateau and other areas. These airfields were surrounded by barbed wire and defensive strongpoints manned by Royal Laotian Army units. It was one of these airfields that was under attack. The previous August the NVA had gained the eastern rim of the Plateau and were now trying to overrun the entire Plateau so it could protect the Trail network and provide a springboard for attacks on Paksong and Pakse to the West.
ABCCC told me to contact a Laotian-call sign “Red Deer ”-on VHF frequency 119.2 upon arrival. As I approached the Plateau with a full load of rockets and plenty of fuel, I could see that the “friendlies” were under heavy attack. I called Red Deer and he responded in good English and briefed me on the situation. An NVA unit was firing on the camp from a tree line on the Northwest perimeter. From my altitude I could see rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) coming from the trees into the camp. On the South side of the camp the enemy was lobbing mortar rounds into the camp and on the East side of the camp the enemy was shooting 122mm rockets into the friendly positions from several miles away below the plateau and across the Xe Kong River.
Red Deer called me with apprehension in his voice and asked me if I could do something about the RPGs attacking his position. I called ABCCC and requested strike aircraft and then rolled in and fired two rockets at the tree line from a low level. The enemy attack from that position stopped. Within a few minutes the strike aircraft arrived and I began to do something I had never done; direct airstrikes with troops-in-contact (TIC).
As I orbited the camp and briefed the A-1s above me, I noticed that as I turned from North to West I was receiving ground fire in my blind spot from across the river. The fighters could see it and so we attacked the gun and rocket positions in that area. The enemy positions were silenced and a large building approximately 60’ X 120’ burned to the ground. Additional strike aircraft arrived and we attacked the tree line and the mortar positions to the South with good effect.
As daylight began to wane, the attack was broken and the area seemed quiet. But we were not through. A Laotian AC-47 gunship arrived in the area and I spoke to the pilot, but his English was very bad. I called Red Deer and told him that he would have to relay between me and the gunship. I moved off to the Northwest behind the tree line where the heavy attack had come from hoping to spot enemy activity. I spotted troops in the open and directed the gunship in an attack on their position. The AC-47 opened up with his Gatling guns with devastating effect upon the NVA formation.
With my rockets expended and fuel running low, I departed for DaNang feeling good that tactical airpower had broken the enemy attack and prevented the Lima Site from being overrun. Unfortunately, this battle for the camp was not the last one. Three weeks later while on a visual reconnaissance mission I flew down to the camp to observe the situation. As I approached the camp, I could see a Laotian T-28 was dropping bombs and strafing inside the camp perimeter. The camp was being overrun. It was to fall later that afternoon with friendly forces fleeing across the Plateau. Sadly, I turned away and returned to the North. The battle for the Bolovens Plateau would last for two more years before it fell to the enemy.
The attack on PS-22 was part of the North Vietnamese effort to create three supply lines into Cambodia. Intelligence reports and our own observations indicated that new road segments were being constructed west of the Xe Kong River. These roads were to eventually extend down from the Bolovens Plateau through western part of the Laotian panhandle, lightly defended by Royal Laotian forces, and into the Elephant Mountains. This area was the headquarters for the 1st North Vietnamese Division. From south of the Bolovens another road network would extend to an area northwest of Saigon and also to the “Parrot’s Beak” to the west of Saigon. By the end of the war the Ho Chi Minh Trail would comprise four north-south routes in a network totaling 12,000 miles.
On the 8th of April I flew my 100th mission over the Trail and, flying with another pilot, managed to direct the destruction of four trucks and the damaging of a fifth truck. I scored steadily over the next three weeks, accounting for 25 trucks destroyed, two damaged, one probably destroyed and one 23mm AAA gun destroyed. On April 21st, I was shot at by a battery of 107mm rockets and on the 23rd sustained a shrapnel hit from a 37mm gun. I was flying more missions with two pilots in the plane as there were not enough navigators to fly the missions. Our training on the starlight scope was informal and accomplished within the Covey organization.
At this time of year the weather proved to be as intractable a foe as the North Vietnamese. It was the beginning of the Laotian wet season, known as the southwest monsoon, stretching from Mid-May through September. Low clouds and heavy precipitation were common during this period in Laos and Thailand. Precipitation can exceed 40 inches in a month. The weather made it difficult to detect , attack and destroy enemy trucks, supplies and troop concentrations. Conversely, the bad weather and swollen rivers made it difficult for the enemy to move supplies south along the Trail network.
The mission I flew at dusk on May 28, 1971 with Capt. Tom Bliss was one where we had to battle the weather as well as the enemy. I was flying in the right seat and spotted a small convoy of five trucks moving south and Tom immediately contacted Moonbeam requesting strike aircraft. As we reconnoitered the target, we came under fire from two 23mm and one 37mm weapons. They continued to fire at us as the fighters arrived and Tom briefed them on the target.
As it was still daylight, Tom began to direct the strike. The weather in the target area began to deteriorate, restricting the “run-in” headings for the strike aircraft. This did not, however, deter the AAA gunners from shooting as both the fighters and we were silhouetted against the setting sun. Tom directed the fighters against the AAA and succeeded in silencing one 23mm gun and killing its crew. The fighters departed the target area and a second set arrived. They were briefed by Tom who emphasized the AAA threat and the rapidly deteriorating weather.
As the strike began, we came under fire from additional AAA sites that had not previously been in action. The target area was no longer visible due to darkness, so I marked the target area with a “log” target marker and began to direct the strike from the right seat using a starlight scope. Despite the antiaircraft fire, the fighters began to register hits on the trucks. Clouds soon totally obscured the target and we were flying in instrument flight conditions. We had to halt the strike for 15 minutes until we could see the target again, although visibility remained poor and run-in headings were once again restricted. My starlight scope then malfunctioned and I was forced to conduct the remainder of the strike visually.
Despite the weather conditions, the fighters managed to destroy five trucks and their supplies, cause one medium and five small secondary explosions, two sustained fires and silence a 23mmweapon. Believing the target still lucrative, we requested additional strike aircraft. When a strike flight arrived, I briefed them on the target and the AAA threat and then marked the target with a log. Unfortunately, the log malfunctioned and I had to conduct the strike utilizing the fires burning from the previous strikes as they became visible through the occasional holes in the clouds. The weather was again deteriorating and it was difficult for the fighters to get lined up to strike the target. Fortunately, the weather also compromised the accuracy of the enemy gunners. The strike resulted in 11 secondary explosions and three sustained fires before the weather completely obscured the target area.
Frustration was a common companion in our battle with the North Vietnamese. Weather, rules of engagement and mechanical problems were not the only sources of frustration. Sometimes problems involving the strike aircraft and even our own fellows could rise up to “smite us”. Inaccurate bombing in good weather conditions by strike aircraft were very frustrating. One night I worked a strike flight of two F-4s from Udorn Royal Thai Air Base loaded with “wall-to-wall” CBU-24s, an area type munition designed for use against targets like trucks, and they could not hit closer than 500 meters from the target! If we destroyed any trucks that night it was because the laughing truck drivers missed a corner and drove over a cliff!
My mission of June 4, 1971 was another study in frustration. One of our FACs had just returned from R&R (Rest and Recuperation) and it was felt that he should fly with someone else to get back into the routine of combat operations before flying again in command of a mission. I was to fly in the right seat and provide encouragement and critique. There are two sides to this story so let us first look at it from the viewpoint of the strike flight, Gunfighters 10 and 11 of the 390th Tactical Fighter Squadron, based at DaNang. (I have used my call sign to protect the identity of my protégé)
“On the evening of 4 June 1971, it was our particular pleasure to work with Covey 276. The courage and professionalism reflected in the performance of this crew were the highest we had ever seen in over 14 months of accumulated flying time in SEA between Gunfighter 10 and 11, and perhaps the most challenging mission either of us had seen in that same time period.
“Our fragged mission had been on a weather hold pending launch if the cloud cover would break and/or a target for our mixed load of CBU and Fuse-extender 500 pound bombs could be found. It wasn’t until 1910 hours on that particular evening that Covey 276 called for air and we responded. It was dusk and a cloud cover was moving over the target area. The particular geographic location where Covey 276 had stopped 10 trucks is a most heavily defended area with AAA ranging from mixed 37mm to 23mm caliber. On the initial marking pass Covey 276 took approximately 30 rounds of accurate 37mm and 23mm fire, forcing him to break off his pass resulting in a short mark. He was nevertheless able to accurately pinpoint the target by using terrain features and bearings from his first rocket. Gunfighter 10 made his first of four passes taking over 50 rounds of very accurate fire. Gunfighter 11 experienced the same accurate fire on his passes. Because of the lighting conditions during dusk, the gunners were able to track us as well as the FAC during our passes. We estimated from 250 to 300 rounds of AAA were fired at the three of us in the 18 minutes we worked the target. Covey 276 advised us as best he could which way the fire was coming from [on] each pass and made continuous passes trying to pinpoint the gun positions and evaluate our bomb damage. He credited us with one truck damaged, 1 37mm position silenced and one secondary explosion. We later learned he worked yet another flight in the face of the same gunners against the remaining trucks.
“The determination and courageous effort of Covey 276 inspired us to press our attack in the face of heavy and accurate AAA fire with the resultant destruction of enemy supplies and equipment.”
This account came from a letter sent to my Commander. It was accompanied by an “endorsement” by the Commander of the 390 TFS who wrote in part: “Our effectiveness is a direct relationship of the cooperation between the FAC and the fighter pilot to place the ordnance on target and sometimes under the most hazardous conditions.” How correct he was! The Commander’s fighter pilots had left the target area impressed and no doubt excited, but how effective were we?
The strike had begun as a result of the fact that I had found ten trucks in the open slowly driving south on the Ho Chi Minh Trail north of Delta Point 87 at dusk. This was a juicy target and yet when the mission was completed we had only destroyed one truck, not a very effective use of strike aircraft in my opinion. What had happened?
Clearly, the fighters could have been more accurate with their bombs. If the CBU had been dropped closer to the target more trucks would have been destroyed or heavily damaged. Five hundred pound bombs with fuse-extenders are also a good weapon to use against trucks, but require more skill to get good results. No doubt, the gunfire from the AAA batteries affected the accuracy of the strike aircraft, but the pilots continued to work despite the threat to their personal well-being, unlike some others I have seen who lost their taste for battle when the enemy began to vigorously contest the attack. No, the primary factor in the lack of positive results rested in the lack of effectiveness in the FACS direction of the attack.
My colleague had just spent a number of days taking a well earned rest in an exotic location far from the battle area. He was no longer used to the ‘sting of battle’; he was ‘rusty’. The pressures of concentrated enemy action combined with the visibility problems resulted in his being overloaded with information rendering him less effective than he would normally be in such a situation. I became frustrated with him and his performance because I knew that we should have been able to destroy all ten of the enemy vehicles in this situation. When the attack started, the trucks were in the open and weather was not a factor.
As the attack developed, my colleague was having trouble directing the Fighters onto the target because he could not keep it in sight. I could see it, but was helpless to do anything about it other than relay information to my companion. Despite the enemy AAA none of the aircraft sustained any damage, but apparently only one truck had been hit.
A second set of strike fighters did arrive for a second attack on the trucks, but weather had begun to move into the target area and it was now totally dark. I directed the strike from the right seat with a starlight scope, but the weather closed in and no further positive results were obtained. A lucrative target had slipped away from us because of weather and our own ineffectiveness at getting the bombs on target. My colleague in the left seat would soon again function effectively , but the frustration I felt that night in letting the enemy escape is a feeling that has not left me in thirty years.