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Chapter 5 - Limited Weapons, Assured Defeat
click on the links below for more of the story...
i. Limited Feedback - ii. Back to School - iii. 388 Tactical Fighter Wing - iv. Rolling Thunder -
v. Rules by Fools - vi. The Bridge - vii. Good Morning Vietnam!
- viii. Home Again

Good Morning Vietnam!

Good Morning Vietnam!

I’ve solicited inputs from Spence Armstrong because he knew our job so well and kept a succinct flight journal of our tour.  I did not solicit them on the following subject and had not planned to relate it, because I never could figure whether it was real or some kind of a weird game, by a somewhat strange wing commander.

“Later Bob Smith came to me saying that the Air Force was once again concerned that the Navy was getting Pack VI missions with their A-6’s when the weather was too bad for us to dive bomb.  So the bright minds in the Pentagon decided that the ground mapping radar of the F-105 made it an ideal solution to this humiliation.  Sound familiar?  This idea was transmitted down the line, through Saigon to Korat and wound up as a 34th mission to plan.  The target was the Hanoi Radio Station.  All we were told was that we were to attack it with a two-ship flight with high-drag bombs.  The aircraft were to proceed up the land route and fly eastward until their radar picked up the Red River.  Then they would descend through the clouds and fly up the river under the low cloud deck and bomb the station, which would be easy to see from that altitude because of the antennae. 

Bob asked me to come down to the command post and explained all of this to me.  It sure looked like a dumb idea to me!  First of all we weren’t that proficient in the use of the radar and not too sure that it was properly calibrated since we almost never used it.  Secondly, there were probably hazards across the river that weren’t on our maps and we couldn’t see in time at the speed we would be traveling.  Lastly, I was not aware that we had any of these high drag bombs.  Explanation:  If you dropped a regular (slick) bomb from low level flight, the bomb would fall at almost the same forward speed as the aircraft that released it.  That meant that it would explode just aft of the aircraft and the explosion would likely down it.  There was a renowned Air Force film of an F-100 blowing itself out of the air in such a situation.  The solution was to have a bomb that had four petals, which acted like speed brakes when it was released.  I had never dropped one.

Bob shortly explained that this was a very tough and dangerous mission and we couldn’t ask the other pilots to fly it, so he and I must do it.  Great!  We then spent some time doing the planning up to the point that we were ready to fly it if directed. 

Fortunately for us, cooler minds prevailed in Washington and this mission was never directed—but at the same time, it was never canceled.”

 Spence’s memory was ‘generally’ correct, even in detail for a Lt. General, retired, who is used to colonels thinking for him.  A few years back, I perused Spence’s log and it was cryptic, so I can make corrections with impunity. Wing Commander Paul Douglas pulled me aside and told me of the classified plan to knock out the Radio, just south of Hanoi, while the weather was continuing too bad for our strike sorties.  He said 7th A.F. were looking for a flight of four volunteers, recognizing some higher risks. Please overlook Sam’s number problem, it’s that way on arithmetic, with boat school grads.

What intrigued me was pulling out that constant thorn that we could never surprise our enemy with the unusual, because they knew when and where we would come to them, twice daily, or so it often seemed.  I told Col. Douglas, “ The 34th wants this flight, and I will lead it”, and that I would discuss it with only with one officer until it was certain.  That was Spence.  We would not be able to hide the fact that a flight was coming.  The enemy would know something was up and might prep some defenses. However, they would not be able to anticipate our target .... unless they had a mole in the planning loop. With selective weather, we could come in high above the cloud layers and hopefully sight and evade SAM attacks, however, penetrating the overcast and low-level attack would be the most vulnerable segments, first for SAMs then AAA.

Our aircraft radars were not effective so we would have to come down prematurely and stay right on the deck long enough to visually identify and get in a line for attack on the station.  With high-drag 500 pound bombs we could drop them from very low altitude in tight formation, because of the drag brakes on each bomb.  I figured we could go in spread, high over the clouds, then leave altitude in a steep dive to reduce exposure time, but would have to go real shallow while in the clouds before popping out in tight formation, just above the ground. The good news was the flatness of the entire Red River delta, but that was also bad news with no mountain clutter. And I presumed headquarters would agree to wait until the cloud cover was not too thick, so our blind dive would be brief and very fast, and reduce SAM danger.  The target wasn’t going anywhere and this volunteer wasn’t either without such a concession.  The outcome would be only a shut-down of their radio, until repaired, a psychological victory at best.  But if we succeeded, those damned defenders would no longer be on holiday whenever the weather was bad!  I took Spence aside and told him about this and that we already had two volunteers, thee and me!  When it was a go, we would find our two wingmen, and fly a local practice mission.  As for Spence’s observation “cooler minds” prevailing, I am still trying to explain to him that the warmer brain carries the most blood through it, because it has more neurons functioning.  The part I really got right was picking him, because if it went, I know he would not have missed it for the world.

The last couple of months of my tour I was down to 10 missions a month and strike forces were few.  I even found time to start playing a bit of squash with one of the kindest and most unassuming, yet notable men I’ve ever known.  Our recently assigned, Deputy for Operations, was none other than one of the most famous football players of his time, an All American.  He was the full back of the famous backfield duo of West Point, Colonel “Doc” Blanchard.  For a man of his size and strength, he was exceptionally quick and coordinated. For a man of his reputation he was extraordinarily common, courteous and kind.

I received the following from Monty Pharmer, recently, also without solicitation, and only then realized that I had gone so far as to complete the volunteer process on that mission that never happened, but it showed the kind of men I was privileged to serve with:

 “He was our squadron commander and was constantly trying to find out whom he could depend on to get the job done in a bad situation.  He would tell us that there was a dangerous mission coming up and he would need volunteers and asked us to indicate if we would volunteer.  Most were up to our ears in everyday stuff without taking on any additional hazards but one day in the latter part of February, he put us through the test again.  He said he was short of volunteers so Gary Durkee and I volunteered just mainly to get one more mission out of the way.  But the mission never took place.”

I hope Monty reads this and discovers just how lucky he was that particular mission never panned out, or we might all have been NVN residents. That would have been one hell of a way to sneak an extra “counter” to hurry home! Oh how I wish that Gary, a West Point graduate, could also read it, but he passed away from cancer in October 1993 after retiring from the Air Force.  Sadly, I find out at this late date that Gary and I lived concurrently in the same small town, Slidell Louisiana, without knowing that, when I was there 13 years on the Space Shuttle External Tank program.

I celebrated the 100th with Spence Armstrong and Don Hodge, when they completed their tour. I especially wanted it with those two, since we flew in together and it would be nice to go out the same. 


The only unsatisfactory part of that mission, but what makes it indelible, was that our Wing Commander, Col. Paul Douglas insisted on flying the mission, a real milk run, and celebrating with us.  I probably would have declined on principal, if I had seen the Officer Effectiveness Rating that he endorsed, written by our Deputy for Operations, covering my tour of duty.

Heroes & Sacrifices

President Lyndon Johnson came to Korat, after his announcement that he would not seek reelection.  All of us, 388th combat pilots, were directed to meet with him in our Officers Club. That was the only time the wing ever stood-down from strike missions, except for weather and occasional political hiatus.  We dutifully held our peace, therefore not always candidly answered his questions, which was the greatest show of discipline I’ve ever seen.  He seemed such a pathetic old man, at that point I almost felt sorry for him.  That may have been one time in his life that he wanted to salve his conscience, if he ever had one.  But down deep, I despise him and those other leaders associated with the political structure in its entirety that sacrificed so many to death and us all to defeat, when there was never a plan or intent for a victory.  And for all the years that deceit ruled the scene to knowingly hide the facts.

The only positive aspect of Vietnam was we realized that the American way, to support our leaders in war or national crisis, has a limit when the process proves to be adverse to the good of our nation.  We, as a majority are oftentimes silent, but get very noisy given bad leadership for too long, and that noise often begins with the radical left, which I and many others disagree greatly with, but which serve a very important and necessary function in our democracy, one that is vital.

It was real to me because during my brief tour, 54 Thuds were downed in combat, exclusive of operational losses.  Thanks to those outstandingly brave rescue folks, 12 crewmen were retrieved.  There were 23 taken prisoner, four of whom never made it home, dying in captivity.  And 11 were lost, Missing in Action, at least one of whom, our mate Bob Elliot’s remains were found in NVN a few years ago.  None of them ever returned home, a small fraction of those lost in that manner in Korea, but the hardest losses of all for loved ones.

Recognition for Maj. Detlefsen and the Thud
The Medal of Honor

Major Merlyn Detlefsen is the sole Thud pilot to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor and he honors all of the rest of us who had the privilege of serving our country in that way, especially our lost kind. 

Losses during our period were just a small part of the whole.  For the full year of 1966 114 went down and 109 in 1967, the two worst years for Thud crews.  Over the course of the war 352 crewmen and a few more went down, not counting operational losses due to weather and accidents. Magnify this by all of the other tactical airplanes and their crews lost, and those in support of them.  And let’s not forget the Navy was suffering losses, likewise, and the bombers and crewmen, including B-52s were later added to the mix. 

The Prisoners of War who survived were fortunate, but at a great cost in pain and suffering and impact on their personal lives.  Most sacrificial were the 23 Thud crewmen, and others like them, who suffered both POW and death, never to return to home.

Those in the 34th, during my tour, who became POWs were: Dwight Sullivan; Donald Odell and Tony Andrews, who went down on that early strike mission.  They were followed in order by: Ray Vissotzky, Carl Lasiter; Bob Elliot; Jim Metz and Roger Ingvalson.

And we had our shared leaders who flew with us on occasion; Colonels Ed Burdette, John Flynn and Jim Bean, the latter two repatriated and Ed Burdette a victim of the prison camps. 

Carl Light was shot down and rescued by a helicopter crew, only to die with his rescuers when their chopper was shot down extracting him.   

Sam Bass and Billy Givens also lost their lives in operational accidents related to combat missions. 

And Jim Metz, a super guy, quiet and unassuming, destined to be a leader, never returned from his known P.O.W. status. He was shot down only one week before we left for home.  I consider Jim, like Col. Burnett who faced that fate, to be among the 23 most unfortunate of all to endure P.O.W. status and not live to get home.

Carl Lassiter, one of the best natural pilots I have flown with, endured incarceration in Hanoi and returned with the others, with honor but without the appreciation due them, for their sacrifice, because of public attitude toward the war spilled over to those who only served with honor. 

Seymour Bass came to us without a fighter background, which placed him in a very unenviable position, like many others, without the necessary experience to perform safely in fighters, during combat operations.  Jim Marshall, a retired M/G who had flown the AC-45 gunships in SVN, spotted “Sam” in a picture of the 34th on my wall at home.  He has very fond memories of Sam in one of his own prior assignments as one of the nicest and gentlest men he ever served with, an opinion I share from my brief time with him.

Bill Thomas was a young, handsome and unassuming tiger, who just didn’t get enough excitement in 100 missions in the F-105, so he flew another 100 … all in the Thud!  He never took the easy way.  I was especially proud to receive a very nice letter of thanks from him, while I finished the last year of my career in the Pentagon.  But bad luck can find good people and Bill perished in an F-105 accident, after his combat was completed.

 I don’t know how many of us have passed on but one, a fine combat pilot and great guy was Gary Durkee, whose letter of thanks to me after I had left and retired from the Air Force was so kind and thoughtful, it’s a treasure.  Word of his passing from cancer, years after retirement, was traumatic, as with Rod Giffin.  Rod was a fine Strike Commander, one of those “old heads” who knew his way around Hanoi, and showed me the ropes.

As icing on the cake for ground attack guys, who do enough in that role alone, Lt. Carl Richter and Maj. Ken Blank each downed a Mig and Lt. Dave Waldrop, whom I enjoyed flying with and who could always be counted on in our primary role as dive-bombers, downed two MiGs in the good old fashioned way of the real Aces, with their guns!

I am honored to have served with Bill Diehl and Bill Grubb while training with them in our class at Wichita, two fine and gentle men who gave their lives in performance of their duties with the 355th Wing at Takhli.  Both displayed the courage to prevail in their accomplishment in spite of not having the flying background to make it the easy way like some of us were blessed to have.  Bill Grubb was a young B-52 copilot, in my 105 training class, who put on an acrobatics demonstration by ‘porpoise tailing’ his Thud while attached to his first refueling cone in training.  His reactions were so quick and he refused to quit and unbelievably he successfully completed the hook-up.

I want to honor my comrade from another war, Ace Jim Kasler, who spent a very long time as a POW and returned home.  Jim was a roommate and a very courageous fighter Ace from Korea, who was shot down in Feb 1966.


Were it not for the mental ravages of time and the limitations of space, this monologue for heroes could go on and on.  For all those who flew combat to the “North” an association named “The Red River Rats” was formed and continues to the present.