Vietnam - 1st Cruise
1971

"There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result."  

(Sir Winston Churchill)

War: The 1st Cruise

Air Medal Vietnam war 50th anniversary

Churchill's above quote was certainly appropriate in my instance.

Those who have experienced combat and enemy fire will likely understand. Those who have not had the experience will naturally have some difficultly in understanding. While the Vietnam War was certainly controversial, my nearly two years flying in combat were for the most part, two of the better years of my life.

Indeed they were, as in Churchill's words, "exhilarating" years.


In the spring of 1971, USS Midway under the Golden GateFar East Cruise I had to leave and trade my rented Mission Beach ocean-front house, for the USS Midway's junior officers' bunkroom #14 - (but it was still "ocean front" property, now wasn't it?).
     [ Our bunkroom 40 years later ]
It was to be the first of my two combat cruises to Southeast Asia.

Ghosts of the Past

Cubi Pt., Leyte pier

For a former landlocked Iowa farm boy who had watched in black & white awe, every original episode of the TV series "Victory At Sea", the long passage across the Pacific was a wonderfully fulfilling experience. From the USS Midway's passage southwestward beneath and beyond San Francisco's Golden Gate bridge, a week's port call in Pearl Harbor, passing by the Mariana Islands with their historic WW-II battles and exotic names, through the important San Bernardino Straits of the Philippine Islands with echoes of Leyte Gulf, the ghosts of the great war in the Pacific 25 years earlier, were everywhere.

Russian Bear Aircraft

It was indeed a thrill to now be in the same Navy, and in the same waters that I had watched on TV, in awe and respect as a child. It was also inspiring to be in the same Pacific theater as my father's good friend, and the individual who initially stirred my interest in military aviation at a very young age – a WW-II B-24 nose gunner and role model named Hartwig. Thus it was a great source of pride to now be a part of that same great legacy.



Aircraft Carrier Twilight Trap
Passing the time Fighter Crews Hot Dog Division Ordies loading Mk-82s Pave Phantom Skyspot Yankee Station Cubi Pt.


[For this and subsequent cruises - especially in heavy seas, sometimes with water over the bow - I found I was not the only one to be humming or whistling Richard Rogers' fabulous Victory at Sea (← Click to Listen! 228kb .wav) composition.]
Going feet dry and into harm's way

Combat Operations

Combat F-4Bs

Unlike the one to follow a year later, this cruise would prove to be only "mild" combat. The 1968 bombing halt over North Vietnam was still in effect in 1971. That meant that except for a very occasional "protective reaction strike" north of the DMZ, our missions were confined to South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Since the North Vietnamese MiG's never ventured into the South, we as fighter pilots were denied our primary mission - one we had trained for, and actively sought - air-to-air combat with enemy MiG's.

Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club

Of the 56 missions I would fly during this cruise...

[A cruise for me abruptly shortened by a non-combat, yet serious injury. This resulted in an early MedEvac, and a long and arduous journey back home on a stretcher. We evacuees were stacked 4 high on a packed C-141 shared with a lot of other shot up guys in much worse shape than I, to the Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego for surgery. It was both a physical, and emotionally painful flight.]

...a majority were close air support missions for U.S. and ARVN troops on the ground. Except for missions near Tchepone or the Mu Gia Pass on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and a few other areas where heavier anti-aircraft guns and AAA were common, we otherwise rarely saw any Cross of Gallantry really heavy enemy fire. Nevertheless, a multitude of unseen small arms fire directed at us was assumed to be always present.

[Although on one early mission, I did once mistake some multiple and rapid flashes of sunlight that were reflecting off of water-filled bomb craters, as heavy enemy fire. The burst of veteran laughter emanating from my back seat at my naiveté, quickly highlighted my mistaken rookie observation!]
Knee-board Vietnam map

As a fast moving F-4, our risks paled in comparison to our engaged troops on the ground, or the low and slow and easily targeted flying FACs who courageously directed us in for our close air support.

War Games PatchIndeed, the war sometimes seemed very distant. We flew off the carrier on "Dixie Station" in the Gulf of Tonkin, laid our bombs relative to where the FAC (Forward Air Controller) had laid his targeting "smoke" and then returned to the ship for a hot meal, some paperwork, and if lucky, a short combat nap. It was often very routine and relatively, low risk. Most of what we knew of the intense and high risk, ground war that was being waged, we learned from the daily newspaper, "Stars & Stripes"*.

Enemy Anti-aircraft WeaponsOf course there were always the occasional, sudden, and unexpected reminders of the true danger of our missions. But our "close-calls" during this cruise were fortunately few and far between.


 Little did we know then, how different - and tragic - our next cruise to the war's end would be!


Wenman Art
My old aircraft, NF-213 and me depicted on Aviation Artist Pete Wenman's site


*(Lt. Col. Jack Heslin has an excellent collection of old "Stars & Stripes" reprints of the Battle of Kontum, here.)



"Fate whispers to the warrior, "You cannot withstand the storm."
And the Warrior whispers back... "I am the storm."
(~Unknown author)

Sea Story:

Rocket Attack At The Red Dog Saloon

On rare occasions during a bombing mission, we would have a problem with our bomb release mechanism. One or more of our 500 lb. bombs would accidentally hang up on the F-4 and couldn't be released. With this unwanted condition of "unexpended ordnance", for safety reasons, we usually flew to Da Nang to offload the bombs rather than land aboard the ship with them.

Most flight crews welcomed this. It meant spending a little time on dry land, and was an interesting change of venue. military pay currency Vietnamese DongMore inviting, it offered the opportunity of having a "legal" cold beer, which of course, was 'prohibited' aboard ship.

Unlike the Air Force and Marines, the Navy had only a small detachment in Da Nang, and its facilities were very Spartan. What substituted for an officer's club was a small annex to the officers' quarters. It only contained a refrigerator, a small bar, and maybe 4 or 5 old wooden tables with chairs. We called the little place the Red Dog Saloon . . . after "Red", the Navy officer in charge of the Da Nang detachment.

One day we had to divert with hung bombs to Da Nang. Since we were in the day's last flight-operations cycle of the Midway, we therefore had to spend the night in Da Nang before returning. After dinner, my RO and I went to the Red Dog. There were only a handful of people there, including a young Vietnamese girl as barmaid.

Starting on our second beer and immersed in our own conversation of our day's events, looking up, we suddenly noticed we were now all alone in the bar. Suddenly we recalled hearing stories of whenever the Vietnamese barmaid abruptly and inexplicably disappeared, a Viet Cong (VC) rocket attack was imminent.

bunker Rocket Attack

As the only two now left in the bar, we decided perhaps we had better go to the protection of the sandbagged bunker, just outside.

As we casually made our way outside to the safety of the bunker, we heard three loud explosions on the base . . . but thankfully some distance away.

Joining the other Red Dog Saloon patrons already huddled in the bunker, we realized we had just "survived" our first Da Nang VC rocket attack. And my RO and I vowed that next time, we would definitely always keep an eye on the young barmaid. Next time we would be the first rather than the last to make it to the safety of the bunker . . . . whenever she unexpectedly disappeared.


  [And indeed, a few weeks later when she again abruptly disappeared for a bit, (thanks to our survival-driven, steep learning curve of war), we were now the first, rather than the last to rush into the relative safety of the outside sand-bagged bunker! (Good thing too; this time, the VC rockets hit a lot closer!) ]
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