"Lord, guard and guide the men who fly
Through the great spaces in the sky.
Be with them always in the air,
In darkening storms or sunlight fair;
Oh, hear us when we lift our prayer,
For those in peril in the air!"
From the Navy Hymn" US Navy Band Sea Chanters
War: The 2nd Cruise
Following that relatively "moderate," first 7-month cruise of mine with VF-151 and CVW-5 in 1971, the USS Midway and our air wing were scheduled to have six months at home before we deployed once again to combat in Southeast Asia. But it was not to be.
In response to the large U.S. troop pullout in South Vietnam, the growing strength of the American anti-war movement, and the vulnerability of the South Vietnamese army, North Vietnamese General Giap launched an all-out Eastertide offensive on 30 March, 1972 with 200,000 North Vietnamese soldiers against the South. President Nixon countered by canceling the 1968 bombing halt in the North.
On April 6, 1972, we were conducting routine carrier qualification training operations aboard the USS Midway, 100 miles off the coast of California when we got the word:
"Proceed immediately to the Vietnam War Zone!"
This was nearly two months earlier than planned, and without any warning!
Fortunately, the high command reconsidered, allowing at least a very quick, weekend port call in Alameda, California to prepare for what would eventually become, the longest carrier deployment of the Vietnam War.
(Note – an astute reader - AQF2 "R.K." – correctly pointed out that the USS Coral Sea actually had the "longest carrier deployment" of the war by a few days more than the Midway, which I hadn't known. But the USS Midway would still hold the most number of days "on the line" flying combat missions of the war. Regardless, 11- month cruises were very long and fortunately were somewhat rare.)
A Most Rapid Deployment
The ship rapidly steamed back into Alameda on Friday. That night I flew a commercial airline (PSA) to San Diego. The next day, Saturday, I put my Volvo 1800E in storage, loaned my red MGA to a friend, closed out the rent, said my goodbyes, and packed all my belongings, putting most in storage.
Then late that night I flew the last remaining VF-151 F-4B (BuNo #153056) from its hangar at NAS Miramar, to NAS Alameda. Since our maintenance guys were still in Alameda or onboard Midway, maintenance personnel from another squadron at Miramar had been working feverishly all day to repair it. But it still had some "problems." Nevertheless, we desperately needed it for deployment.
After a tentative (and very rare if not against normal 'regs'), night test flight, we had to fly it to Alameda with its landing gear locked down (there was some serious concern this "hangar queen" aircraft could not lower its landing gear again, if they were raised - so we just left them down). The navigational instruments "didn't work too well" either, so we just visually followed the car lights on the Grapevine, and the I-5 freeway north beyond Los Angeles to the Bay area. We thankfully made it OK. In the morning, this last squadron aircraft was loaded aboard the Midway.
I spent the next day - a beautiful Spring Sunday - with my girlfriend of the time. She had happened to be in Lake Tahoe for the weekend, and drove to Alameda immediately when I told her the news. The next day, Monday, the Midway sailed underneath the Golden Gate Bridge - with its groups of both supporters and war protesters - for what would be a most arduous, record setting, and intensely climatic experience of the long Vietnam War.
Unlike the previous cruise, we all knew this one would be far different, and far more difficult. This time we seriously studied maps and enemy defenses religiously, rather than potential tourist sites and port visits. We would have no navigational aids over the "North" so we had to memorize the lay of the land.
Then, 19 days, and 7,800 miles later, we found ourselves back in the thick of a much angrier air war than ever before. And it would last nearly 10 months more.
Since we had deployed early and suddenly, without the normal "work-ups", we were not fully trained, nor quite as battle-ready as we would normally have been with a longer turnaround period.
So upon our arrival in the Gulf of Tonkin, instead of jumping into the hot air war over North Vietnam, we initially conducted close air support operations in the relative safety, south of the DMZ.
One of my first missions of this cruise was in support of ARVN and the few remaining U.S. troops in the Battle of An Loc. This battle was notable to me because it was the first time I could actually see from the air, some distinct battle lines between the good guys and bad guys.
For the first time, after nearly 60 combat missions, I was able to tell there was indeed a hot war going on below me. Because of the lack of trees and triple canopy jungle in the area, I could observe unobstructed, real troop and enemy positions.
Fighter pilots of the day were just that - air-to-air fighter pilots, still taught and believing in the classic Von Richthofen, Red Baron tradition (honorable and chivalric combat, against a worthy opponent). While they relished the air-to-air missions against possible MiG's, they believed air-to-ground missions to be somewhat below them (no pun intended). Nevertheless, I must confess to one early and satisfying, "air-to-mud" as we disdainfully called them, close air support mission.
One day during the siege of An Loc, a FAC (forward air controller) vectored me to an enemy target - a suspected, captured 105mm howitzer thought to be hidden in a certain clump of trees. Apparently, it had been decimating both our US and ARVN troops for some time. I dropped 6 MK-82 500 lb. bombs on what I believed was the FAC's designated target, relative to his "smoke". Unfortunately, I had apparently dropped on a different clump of trees than he wanted, but only a very short distance away. The FAC began screaming about my errant miss ... then quite suddenly he was quiet. . . Had he been shot down? No . . . he was temporarily in awe.
To our mutual surprise, there were huge multiple, secondary explosions coming from that close-by, but "wrong" clump of trees, and they continued for some time. "Secondaries" ( multiple, subsequent explosions) meant success. It meant that I had hit not only that pesky 105 howitzer and maybe others, but more importantly, I had also hit a large - and heretofore unknown - NVA stockpile of weapons and ordnance. I really believe my successful strike saved a large number U.S. and ARVN lives by eliminating all that ordnance. (Even true fighter pilots will admit to that type of "air-to-ground" mission once in awhile.) It was a good day of many.
Our Strike Ops Plan cartoons of 12 and 14 May, 1972, denoting our move North and the rude awakening when we arrived:
Many more 'Snoopy' cartoons of that 11-month combat cruise can be seen here.
[This part is still under construction. But for a very interesting and surprisingly detailed and accurate overview of our Alpha Strikes, refer to this most well-researched and unusual game and website.]
Meanwhile here is how we planned our Alpha Strikes in Air Wing 5 aboard Midway, as depicted by multi-talented Fighter RIO Ben "Yossarian" Thompson in his private autobiography (and with Yoss's permission) :
I was at the peak of my profession at age 25. I was a superior fighter pilot, fresh from TOPGUN, and razor-sharp. My primary mission was to shoot down enemy MiG's and protect our guys. I was confident that I could do that without hesitation, under all conditions - even if against the world's very best fighter pilots - and that I would prevail. I was more than ready and eager to engage the enemy in aerial combat.
Unfortunately, the MiG's would not cooperate....
The North Vietnam Air Force (VPAF) had sustained some significant losses in early 1972 - primarily from my fellow Navy fighter pilots. By the time we finally had worked our way north from "Dixie Station" to "Yankee Station" and to the air war over North Vietnam, the enemy's MiG's were starting to become very reluctant to engage Navy fighters.
[Note: The common and often repeated, depicted point from Wikipedia for Yankee Station is inaccurate and incorrect.]
The Navy and Air Force would alternate their 3-daily "Alpha Strikes" over North Vietnam. When not flying, I used to watch on ship's radar, the air strikes over the north. It rapidly became apparent in the summer of 1972, that the North Vietnamese MiG's would routinely engage Air Force strikes, but would usually scamper and disappear during U.S. Navy strikes. Obviously, the Navy's new Top Gun school of new fighter tactics, combined with the extraordinary, recent success of Navy fighter pilots had made a real and immediate impact on the air war.
Try as I might - including "bait" and deception - I could never entice nor engage any MiG's in aerial combat. I did however, have four close encounters with enemy MiG's. One close encounter is described on the Top Gun page. Here is one other close encounter:
A Close Encounter
As MiG-CAP for an Alpha Strike, the Skipper, both our RO's and I were on-station at 3,500 feet, 420 knots, maneuvering above the North Vietnam delta area that we called, the "Hour-Glass" [because of the hourglass shape of the delta rivers].
"Red Crown" (Call-sign for the Navy ship in the Gulf who observed and controlled the air war) reported two "blue bandits" (MiG-21's) venturing way far south. Since their southern airfields had all been bombed, we knew these MiG's would soon have to be turning back northbound to return to "Kep", their airbase. We decided to "cut them off at the pass", with a 90-degree intercept.
Red Crown reported the MiG's very "fast and very low," so we also went lower and faster - from our usual 3,500 feet down to about 500 feet above the rice paddies, and well in excess of 600 knots. We were about 1,500 feet below a solid overcast cloud layer. With us heading due East, and the MiG's heading nearly due north, we became without visual or radar contact, what was known as the dreaded "merged plot". This meant we all were on top of each other, all in the same piece of sky, but we still hadn't spotted our enemy - a very dangerous situation.
Had the MiG's spotted us? We didn't know. The tension was incredible. We then immediately and deliberately committed a fighter pilot's cardinal sin - we turned on a merged plot.
Turning on a "merged plot" is something we were taught never to do . . . but we did it in this instance. (We were greedy.) Fortunately in our case, we rolled out of the turn in trail - and not in front - of the two speeding enemy MiG-21's. Apparently, they had been just above the 2,000 foot overcast cloud layer continuing northbound, while we were just below it. Out of our hard yet sweeping, 600 knots and 6.5G++ low-level turn, we continued chasing those fast flying and escaping MiG-21J's, almost all the way to Hanoi.
Although my RO, (call-sign, "TA" ) had one of them locked-up on our fire control radar, the MiG remained slightly out of range for our AIM-7 Sparrow missiles, so we had to hold our fire. I had pushed the throttles all the way to a "two-blocked" full afterburner position, and we were screaming along supersonic at a very low level. But because of our configuration-drag that day and their newer "J" models, the MiG's surprisingly increased slightly their range from us. (Normally, we should have been equal to them or a little faster.)
Meanwhile in the long, high speed and low-level chase, we began to become the target of substantial - and obviously alerted - enemy ground fire. Many tracers were flying by, we had SAM warnings on our RHAW gear (Radar Homing and Warning - Related), and we were rapidly running low on fuel for having our afterburners so long engaged. Finally and wisely, we broke off the attack. Going "feet wet" (over water) and very low on fuel, we desperately sought a "tanker" to in-flight refuel us, while the two MiG-21J's continued on and landed safely at Kep Airfield, to fight another day.
"For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heaven fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rained a ghastly dew
From the nation’s airy navies grappling in the central blue"
- Alfred,Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)
Sometime early in my second combat cruise, I regained a little "religion".
Having now seen a lot of enemy fire directed specifically at us/me as the intended target, and now on a near daily basis with the fire getting ever closer, I incorporated a new pre-launch checklist item - the quickie prayer. Well before the hand-salute that signaled the catapult officer to launch us off the aircraft carrier, into the air, and into history or oblivion, I made a quickie sign of the cross, and whispered my short pre-launch prayer.
My quickie prayer was: "Lord, please allow me/we not to screw up; to live through that day's mission; and (perhaps stretching things) if at all possible, for me to live long enough to enjoy my much anticipated and scheduled leave, then three months hence."
I did indeed live three more months, although I doubt it had anything to do with my selfish prayer. Nevertheless, even in a combat zone, we were allowed to have 10% of our crews on leave at any given time. My turn came up in the summer of '72.
I had met an American friend on the previous cruise who worked with the "State Department" in the Hong Kong U.S. Consulate. As the squadron buyer for furniture and trinkets, I visited Hong Kong often. On one visit, this friend originally from Pittsburgh and I planned a long vacation together in Southeast Asia. We were to meet in Bangkok to begin.
While getting the necessary visas in the Philippines, my passport was inexplicably lost. Needing a new passport proved to be an adventure. At sea in the Gulf, I decided to go to the U.S. Embassy in Saigon for a replacement. After three days of waiting for a space-available COD flight off the ship, I finally got to Da Nang. From there I begged and hitched a ride with a bunch of ragged, war weary guys packing an interesting array of weapons on a C-130 going to Tan Son Nhut Airbase near Saigon.
At the Tan Son Nhut Officers Club, I met an Army Captain on his way back to the "States" who briefed me on how to get downtown to the Embassy, which cabs to take, where to stay, and what to look out for, etc. (Ironically, we learned he had been on the ground at An Loc months earlier, when I provided him close air support there. Although he thanked me profusely, it was obviously an experience he desperately wanted to put behind him.
He must have had a very rough time of it there, and I didn't pry.)
After nearly being hijacked and mugged in an alley on the wild cab ride to downtown Saigon, (another long story in itself) I arrived at the Miramar Hotel on Tu Do Street [formerly Catinat and now Dông Khoï St.], not far from the U.S. Embassy. [Building demolished in 1998.]
Exhausted and hungry, I went to the hotel restaurant on the top floor. It was virtually empty, save for one other older Vietnamese gentleman at a table far across from me. This late in the war, most U.S. personnel had long departed Saigon and Vietnam. In fact, it almost seemed as though I was the last American in uniform in Saigon.
[As I later found out, I essentially was nearly the last. Except for a few remaining air units and the Marines at the Embassy, the last of US ground troops had left Vietnam by August, 1972...And this was now three months later, in November.]
But what really stands out in my memory was this most surreal dinner...
I sat there in front of this nearly empty restaurant's large picture windows, quietly sipping a scotch and water, alone in my thoughts while waiting for my dinner to arrive. Meanwhile I sat mesmerized watching fire-fights and mini-gun tracers well off in the distance, on the perimeter of the city.
Occasionally, the large picture windows of this hotel's top-floor restaurant would vibrate slightly from the distant, muffled explosions of mortars or other artillery - my not even knowing if they were either friend or foe's explosions. To be sure, watching a war from the ground was far different than watching from the sky . . . . even if it was, in this case very distant and non-threatening to me. [I later learned that this restaurant/bar was a busy and very popular place earlier in the war, for war correspondents to relax and watch the fire fights in the distance, just as I was doing now.]
Finally being somewhat relaxed for the first time in many months, I drew a deep breath and savored the bizarre moment. Thankfully albeit briefly, I was now merely a distant and uninvolved spectator, rather than a direct participant in the bitter and deadly, horrors of war.
surprisingly took a long two days to replace my lost passport in Saigon. I then hitched a ride to Bangkok on an Army U-11 (a.k.a. a Piper Aztec, I believe) to belatedly meet my friend.
After two days sight-seeing in Bangkok, we then went on to Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysia Central Highlands, Penang including its Snake Temple,
Singapore, Bali, and finally Hong Kong.
Ironically, during a fuel stop in Jakarta, looking out the passenger plane's window, I was shocked to see rows of parked MiG's - the same model MiG's I chased but couldn't see or ever catch over North Vietnam.
Return To War
Refreshed and rejuvenated, I was eager and ready to resume my duties on Yankee Station. While our sister squadron, "Brand-X", a.k.a., VF-161 had downed a number of MiG's (related Midway MiGs link) in a short period of time, no one in our squadron had. In fact, no one in our squadron had even encountered any MiG's yet, much less engage any, or shoot any down.
I was determined to change that!
During a short visit to Red Crown (the USS Truxton at the time), I was surprised to learn that the VPAF pilots were receiving nearly real-time translations of our fighters' tactical transmissions. Upon learning this, I devised a plan that we executed on our next flight over the North.
While on CAP (Combat Air Patrol) station well west of Hon Gai, we made up some deceptive transmissions, complaining about how our radar and missiles weren't working, and we were getting low on fuel, but we would remain on station, and just "fake it".
Sure enough, the MiG's took the bait. Shortly after our UHF transmissions, two "blue bandits" launched from Kep. They were coming straight for us. Excitedly, we then called for a "cross-turn" and "buster" (180 degree tactical turn, and afterburner) to engage them. But our aggressive transmissions must have been immediately relayed to them, as they quickly reversed course back to Kep. We were too far away to catch them. But it was a nice try.
Mistake at Vinh
One day, the Skipper let me brief and lead our two-plane mission. It was a "road-recce" where we were free to look for any enemy targets of opportunity. With my RO and I as lead, flying low-level over the countryside for some time, we encountered no enemy fire. We also had not found any targets of opportunity, until much to our surprise, we came upon a steel-span bridge. Now unless they were heavily defended, there should not have been any bridges still standing in this part of North Vietnam, especially one like this - a large one, seemingly sitting out alone in the countryside.
We popped up, and because it was a windy day, we each dropped only two of our six Mk-82' 500 lb. bombs on the bridge for effect. Both missing the bridge, we would adjust for the wind on our next drop of our remaining bombs. With no enemy fire apparent or expected, we set up a lazy, racetrack pattern for our next roll-in attack. Focused on the bridge, what we failed to realize was that it was near one of the most heavily defended cities - Vinh. Fixated on 'our' bridge, we never saw the city. Now having unknowingly alerted every enemy gunner in town with our first drop, we were now flying directly over them, obliviously.
When I once again reached the same roll-in point for my second bombing run on the bridge, every anti-aircraft gun in Vinh must have by then been tracking us - and they all suddenly at once, opened fire! Immediately, our F-4 was totally engulfed in a thick cloud of AAA smoke! While I had seen a lot of AAA fire in the past, it thankfully was always in the form of tracers and puffs of smoke at least some distance from my cockpit. This time however we seemed to be engulfed in, and part of the explosions. We were IFR in AAA flak! That we were not blown out of the sky and didn't take a hit is a true miracle . . . and one I cannot explain to this day. Fortunately, we managed to abort our Vinh bridge attack to find a less well-defended target, and live to fight another day.
Happy Valley Gunnery School
Well into our second combat cruise, and now having over a hundred and fifty combat missions, we had a certain level of expectations. We expected successful results from our strike missions (in the form of secondary explosions, or post-strike reconnaissance bomb-damage-assessment - BDA photos). But we also had come to expect certain levels of enemy resistance, in the form of SAM's (Surface to Air Missiles) and AAA, if not any MiGs. When our results, or enemy resistance were lacking, I felt disappointed, and somehow, inexplicably cheated.
In fact, I had unwittingly become addicted to the repetitive adrenalin rush of combat! (Something I have later learned is not that uncommon for those living under hostile fire, over time.) Thus one day when my expectations of enemy opposition were not met, to compensate, I did something very stupid:
A squadron mate had informed me of an NVA anti-aircraft gunnery training site located between two karst ridges we called Happy Valley. For kicks, he had flown over the school as a target. But he flew at an altitude he knew was safely above their 23mm and 37mm AAA range.
One day, having some extra fuel following a CAP mission, we flew over to the NVA Gunnery School. Circling the school at 15,000 as targets, and just out of their range, we enjoyed the fireworks of their AAA (Anti-Aircraft Artillery) shells exploding 2,000 feet below us, at their maximum altitude. My wingman that day thought the many puffs looked like a large flock of white and grey "doves". Satisfied, we then returned to the ship.
Two weeks later, we again had some extra gas, and returned to the gunnery school. What we did not know was the North Vietnamese, obviously anticipating our return, had moved in some heavy AAA - 85mm guns - capable of shooting us down at very high altitudes.
As we set up our circle over the school as before, a large orange and black explosion occurred just off the right side of our aircraft. As we lit afterburners, turned, and quickly vacated the area, the sky was full of big, orange and black explosions - the signature of 85mm - all around us and at our altitude. Needless to say, we never did that again!
A Serious Blow!
We had been flying combat missions over North Vietnam since early May. Now, by August 1972, we had fallen into an almost 'comfortable' routine. Yes, our air-wing had lost a few aircraft and pilots, but except for the loss of one of our F-4's off the ship's catapult (crew safely recovered), both of our F-4B squadrons had remained mostly unscathed. Unfortunately, that would abruptly change.
On August 25, an F-4 from our sister squadron, VF-161 was downed over North Vietnam. It's crew were two of the most respected and well-liked men in the F-4 Community. "Jack" would survive, albeit wounded and immediately incarcerated as a POW.
[Edit: A few years later Jack and I would be reunited into a same squadron - VF-1 - and in fact we became for a time, stateroom-mates aboard the USS Enterprise....As most would agree, Jack was one of the finest - and funniest - guys I have ever known.]
But my former instructor and friend, "Mike" sadly, did not survive. Whatever feeling of invincibility that was growing in the two F-4 squadrons was suddenly shattered. Then two days later, it was obliterated!
Still shaken by the loss of our sister squadron's crew, it was then our squadron's unfortunate turn.
On August 27, our own "Ted" and "Dave" were downed by a SAM and subsequently captured. Once again, it was the loss of two of the most respected, and well-liked squadron mates.
It was a most bitter blow.
Although Dave was far more seriously wounded than Ted, and very fortunate to survive given his serious wounds, thankfully both Dave and Ted would eventually be repatriated. Moreover, their loss shook some of us out of our relative complacency, while flying in harm's way. If it could happen to "them" it could happen to any of us. No longer feeling somewhat invulnerable because of our F-4's speed and maneuverability, we wisely began to take a few more precautions, lest we tempt the same fate.
Although I always sought MiG-CAP missions, perhaps the most enjoyable missions for me were Photo Escort.
Our reconnaissance aircraft were RF-8's - a very impressive aircraft for its time, but unarmed except for cameras. Since they went in by themselves to take "before" and "after" photographs of bombed targets, they were always an expected and a single, isolated, main target for the enemy. For this reason, they always received a lot of enemy fire. Indeed, a couple of our RF-8 friends from their small detachment were shot down - one captured, one recovered. We in our F-4's could not protect them from enemy ground fire, other than calling out that fire to them. Our mission was to protect them from enemy MiG's while they prosecuted their dangerous "photo-recon" mission.
To a man, these guys were fearless, and always fun, and always an honor to escort. We fighter pilots believed in the axiom, "speed is life" - that a fast moving target is much more difficult to hit than a slow one. And to our exquisite delight, no one flew faster over the "North" than these photo-recon guys.
They would come in at extremely high speed, following an Alpha Strike. While sustaining heavy enemy fire, they had to stop 'jinking' to avoid that fire (as escort, we thankfully could continue jinking) and line up straight for their very dangerous photo run. Our guys would nearly always get incredible low-level pictures, far beyond anything expected. Then they had to return to the ship - the F-8 being notoriously most difficult to land on a carrier. As escort, we had to follow these exceptional guys on some of the most dangerous missions of the war. To this day, I still remain in contact with a few of them; they all hold my deepest respect. Although fighter squadrons are notoriously cliquish groups, all our guys respected and embraced our air-wing's fearless RF-8 photo-recon drivers from VFP-63.
Danger and Death On Our Deck
The sky over North Vietnam was not the only place of danger. Indeed the flight deck of any aircraft carrier is some of the most dangerous real estate in the world.
On October 24, 1972 during combat night operations in the Gulf of Tonkin, a VA-115 A-6 Intruder aircraft lost its right wheel landing aboard the USS Midway. The remaining main stub snagged a wire, careening the A-6 into the "pack" of recently recovered crews, aircraft, and flight deck personnel on the ship's bow. Immediate crash crew effort prevented a major conflagration. Nevertheless five were killed and 23 injured, many critically. The Commander of the Wing (CAG) exiting his A-7 suffered compound fractures of both legs. Rapid helo MedEvacs to Da Nang saved many lives. Names of those lost including aircrew are on the memorial near the bottom of this page. [ Personal Account ] ... [Also Related]
The "Christmas Raids" of Linebacker II.
Of my nearly two years combat flying in SEA (Southeast Asia), the most spectacular and memorable sight occurred on December 20, the third and worst night of the of the historic Linebacker II Christmas Raids, designed to end the war.
Although we (F-4's) never flew 'planned' night MiG-CAP "feet dry" overland, some of us were now tasked for this major strike to do so.
My RO "TA" and I set up our CAP station in the vicinity of Haiphong, and hopefully on the outer ranges of their SAM sites. Fortunately, we took no serious enemy fire that night due to our range, but especially because of the North Vietnamese concentration on the higher value B-52s targets, rather than us in an F-4. Also, there were no MiG's in our immediate vicinity, so we could somewhat 'relax' and just watch in total amazement.
We knew the Air Force had taken some serious losses on the first two nights of raids. We hoped that on this night, their tactics and fortunes would change. Looking up, high above our F-4, we could see the B-52's still flying in their familiar, cells-of-three formations, same altitude, streaming observable contrails with each cell directly in trail of another. "Hadn't these guys ever flown in hostile territory before," we wondered? Apparently, they hoped their advanced electronic countermeasures (ECM) would protect them. Unfortunately that night, it would not.
[We had a 6-second rule: If you flew in the same direction, and same altitude for longer than 6 seconds, you were dead. We therefore always 'jinked' (abruptly and aggressively changing heading and altitude, dipping, diving, climbing, and turning ... like a white wing dove during hunting season) so the enemy could never draw a good bead on us.]
That night, not only were the B-52's flying straight and level at a most lethal SAM altitude, but they were in trail. [Enemy gunners usually didn't pull enough lead, and their fire often went behind their intended target. Therefore, the last place you want to be obviously, is directly behind and "in trail" of an enemy targeted aircraft ahead.] But what was really incredible to us, they all had their lights on! We immediately knew it would not be a good night for them. And it was not.
My RO and I had seen a lot of SAMs and flak fired at us and our wingmen in the many months prior. But that night, it seemed the North launched more SAM's and AAA than we had seen in all the many months before, combined! To the west, the darkness was lit up with literally sheets of AAA. It reminded me of the slanting sheets of rain coming from a Midwest thunderstorm. The barrage AAA was so thick, it had to hit some of the B-52' flying through it, we thought, regardless of their very effective ECM (Electronic Counter Measures).
As spectacular was the sight of the intense Triple-A fire, the many SAM's were totally mesmerizing. Launched repeatedly in pairs, over and over, from a distance they looked like multiple Roman candles fired on the 4th of July. Every few seconds, another pair would be launched from various SAM sites. It was an astonishing sight! Usually, the bright orange glow of the distant SAM's in the night sky continued until their rocket motor burned out, and they abruptly disappeared into darkness.
Unfortunately, that was not always the case. We watched a few whose glow never went out. Their orange glow rose to altitude, stopped, became much more brilliant, then the glow much more slowly returned brightly back to earth, sometimes splitting. We realized we were witnessing some shoot-downs, both of B-52's and a Navy A-7.
"Overall Air Force losses included fifteen B-52s, two F-4s, two F-111s, and one HH-53 search and rescue helicopter. Navy losses included two A-7s, two A-6s, one RA-5, and one F-4. Seventeen of these losses were attributed to SA-2 missiles, three to daytime MiG attacks, three to antiaircraft artillery, and three to unknown causes."
(All losses in just a few days. Linebacker II link )
Thankfully, the Midway left Yankee Station after we returned that night, to spend Christmas in Singapore, and enjoy a Bob Hope show. But the "Christmas Raids" continued without us. It had been a long and extended line period . . . we had some losses, and we were all long overdue for a break.
Nevertheless, I will carry forever the vivid memory of that December night's spectacular fireworks display - one that a lifetime of 4th of July's could never approach.
(And one I still vividly recall in a flashback - unfortunately - whenever I see spectacular, but now thankfully benign fireworks even today, decades later.)
Juxtaposed with that spectacular, visual, pyrotechnic memory is also the agonizing and sickening feeling of watching helplessly, some of our courageous brethren dying before our eyes in the glowing night sky over the "North" on that fateful evening. Day by Day Losses
[In addition to the massive barrage of AAA, a total of 220 SAMs were fired, and six B-52s along with a Navy A-6 were shot down on that night!]
Listen to the action some nights later, and fortunately a bit less fateful on this Linebacker II B-52 audio/video.
It includes the background aural warning tones of many radar guided AAA and SAM launches
along with the loud "beepers" indicating downed aircrews on the night of Dec. 26,
The tension is palpable even without the spectacular visual pyrotechnics of multiple SAM launches
and massive AAA being fired at them!
Impressive to me are the business-like transmissions of
these courageous and professional crews
while under intense enemy fire, and their losses. BZ
Almost The End
I ended that cruise with 197 combat missions. I was bugging our scheduling officer for extra flights so I could get an even 200 combat missions before the war ended, when fortunately, common sense took hold.
I decided to accept my normal rotation for combat missions, regardless of whatever my total final number at war's end would be.
This was just as well, considering the tragic fate of former Blue Angel lead and highly respected officer, Harley Hall who was shot down on the official last day of the war, and listed as missing in action. Much closer to home, and more personal, was the loss of the two great A-6 guys that lived in the stateroom next to us on the USS Midway, Lt.'s. Alan Clark and Mike McCormick.
[Mike and Al were recently honored on April 2010, by having their names affixed to the Midway Museum's A-6 aircraft.
One of the speakers was Al's son Tad, who was only 2 months old when his father was KIA, having never met him. Tad was more recently a member of the AF Thunderbirds flight demonstration team, is now a Lt. Col., and flies F-16 for the US Air Force.
Clark AFB - POW Operation Homecoming
One of my very best memories of the Vietnam War was to be present at Clark AFB, PI on February 12, 1973. There I was to witness the first flights from Hanoi of our newly released POW's.
While the USS Midway was in port in Subic Bay, I had come the 50+ miles or so, to Clark AFB to umpire a teachers vs. nurses softball game as a favor for a friend. (Tough duty, not!) However, the unexpected and tremendous "event" of the day obviously cancelled the softball game. Everyone went to the flight line to witness history. My friend and I both knew a number of returning, former POW's, (Including two friends from my own squadron, one from our sister squadron, one photo-recon pilot, and others; all shot down, wounded and captured on this same cruise, as noted earlier above.) and we were very disappointed we could not personally meet any of them. They were tightly sequestered for debriefing, and allowed no "outside" contact.
A short 2 minute, Returning POW Video
It would be many weeks later - back stateside - before we could personally say, "welcome back, and thank you for your sacrifice." But to be there, on that historic day at Clark, watching them step off the C-141's to freedom, is one of my fondest memories. [And I couldn't also help but think: There but for the Grace of God could I also have been.]
None of us who were there would ever be the same. Quite a number of our crews had been shot down or involved in accidents, but were safely recovered. Sadly, we did leave some behind: 11 died, 7 listed as Missing in Action (MIA), and 6 POW's. Our POW's returned; the others did not.
But they remain in my thoughts, prayers, and memories.
"At Fiddler’s Green, where seamen true
When here they’ve done their duty
The bowl of grog shall still renew
And pledge to love and beauty."
For having the most days on line in combat in the history of the Vietnam War, we were awarded the somewhat rare, Presidential Unit Citation for a Navy carrier and its air-wing. It was nice gesture, but it hardly compensated.
Finally, after being gone for 11 months, we flew back to NAS Miramar on March 2, 1973. Much had changed. Thankfully for most of us, we could move on to the rest of our gratefully extended lives.
("...But we in it shall be remembered;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; ...")
Shakespeare's King Henry V speech, Battle of Agincourt 1415.
The Speech in Video
"Taps" (mp3) ..... for the fallen heroes.
[Before moving on, don't forget to check some of the related Links on the top-left of this page. Thank you.]
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