Monday, September 7, 2009

Milk Run - Turning Sour

It's 135 miles from Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base to Tchepone Laos, as the crow flies. You can see from the map at the right, the Ho Chi Minh trail came out of North Viet Nam, into Laos and paralleled the South Viet Nam border all the way down to Cambodia and beyond."It linked North and South Vietnam via the Laotian panhandle, and it was an indispensable source of supplies for communist forces operating below the 17thparallel in the 1960s and early 1970s. Air interdiction and special operations forces slowed but never stopped the flow of matériel. President Lyndon Johnson, primarily for political considerations, would not approve air strikes around Hanoi and Haiphong, which might have been more successful in the overall effort to disrupt enemy activities.
Initially opened to support Viet Cong guerrillas in South Vietnam, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was nothing more than a skein of rustic traces through the wilderness in the late 1950s. Dedicated men, women, boys, and girls trudged down its paths bent bandy-legged beneath heavy loads, all but ignored by senior officials in Washington and Saigon because the invoices were unimpressive: a little rice, pitted handguns captured from the French, homemade weapons pieced together like so many Rube Goldberg inventions. The tempo, however, gradually picked up and the consignments increasingly included items such as radios, pharmaceuticals, plastic explosives, recoilless rifles, and repair parts. Ammunition requirements multiplied exponentially after U.S. combat forces hit North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars head on in 1965." (from Autumn/Winter 1997–98 / JFQ)

On 16 November 1965, Willie Wells and his flight of four phantoms took about thirty minutes to get to Tchepone. Flight lead contacted the FAC (Forward Air Controller) and began to get final instructions for the mission we had briefed.

It always seems simple enough. The idea is to cut the highway or destroy the bridge serving the highway. The enemy was clever. The "bridges" were built so that they were about two feet under the surface of the water and the road usually divided into a web of roads leading up to the river, and there was another web on the other side.

You really never knew where the bridge was.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Milk Run, Intelligence and the Art of Leaving Town

OK, so maybe it wasn't REALLY Robert MacNamara who walked into the alert shack that afternoon. But it was an honest to goodness minion of his and he had some news about something or other that needed bombing really soon. "Since you guys aren't doing anything to earn a living just sitting around here playing cribbage, take four Phantoms, eight fighter jocks and about 52,000 pounds of bombs over here to this small town in Laos and blow up the bamboo bridge that leads into town." Well, something like that.

The name of the place was Tchepone Laos, (on most maps now, Sepone) about seventy-five miles west of the South China Sea, fifteen miles from the South Vietnamese border and the same distance from the cease fire line of 1954. Oh, did I mention? It was a major intersection of the Ho Chi Mihn Trail. This seemed easy enough we all thought, after all, it was daylight! We were going to be able to see where we were going by looking outside the airplane! It was a typical SE Asia early winter day - scattered clouds probably working their way up to a thunderstorm or two, no strong winds and unlimited visibility. A Phantom Phlyer's dream mission: flight of four, air to ground bombing, possible targets of opportunity after the initial passes, no reported triple A, only a hundred fifty miles from "home", quick and easy, back for dinner.

After the intelligence guy got through with his briefing, my flight leader "Willy" told us what he expected from us and we walked briskly out to the waiting airplanes. As we strapped in, we ran the cockpit check lists. It was designed so that each man had his own things to check and there was little need initially, for cross-checks. Once things were powered up, you’d put on your helmet and begin a brief crosscheck with the guy in back and then wait for start-up time. Firing up the engines was straight forward and then you’d switch to internal power and you’d be ready to go. It was easy to see the other guys, and the flight leader would say “Raven flight, check in.” We answer simply... “two, three, four.” The leader called the tower “Ubon, taxi Ravens.” The tower responded “taxi runway 27 right, wind two seven zero at eight knots, altimeter setting 29.89.” You’d go out to the ramp area and then to the taxiways and see the other guys and fall in line according to your position. It wasn't far to the end of the runway and there was the arming area. The pins on the bombs and rockets and other neat stuff would be removed and the armament would be further checked by ordinance people and made ready to go. I guess I should have mentioned before that initially the pilot just checks to be sure that the bombs, etc. are the ones called for on the mission and that they are in fact, safe to taxi with. He doesn’t pull pins on the weapons in the ramp area, that is the very last thing that is done before takeoff. The ordinance guys show all of the pins to the pilots double checking everything as being ready to go and then the leader will get a head shake from the guys indicating “ready”. He calls the tower, “Ubon, Raven ready for takeoff”. “Taxi into position and hold”. The four Phantoms taxi onto the runway and take their predetermined position, two by two. “Raven flight, winds two eight zero at ten knots, cleared for takeoff.” Willie points his right index finger up in the air and with a circular motion gives the signal to “wind up” the engines. You run each engine up separately (the engines on the F4’s were so powerful that the brakes wouldn’t hold if they were both powered up simultaneously) and check them out one last time. You nod to the leader and he powers up to about 85 percent on both engines, releases his brakes and I begin to count "one thousand one, one thousand two" and at five seconds or so, I release the brakes, apply 100% power, then into full afterburner. It doesn't take long to get to flying speed, airborne, and clean up the jet. As number two in the flight of four, I look for my leader, now turning North. I join him in the turn.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Milk Run, Finally We Get To Fly In The Daytime!

I was priviledged to have as mentor, drinking instructor and flight C.O. a man who had flown in the Korean war. He taught us how to use a black grease pencil to mark on the inside of the canopy to use as a sight and other neat tricks. I think of him most every day and thank him for teaching me so much and being a friend and great leader (in his own cantankerous way).

I can see the guys sitting around, playing cribbage or something, waiting for someone to come in the room and announce that our skills in close air support were needed. Everybody was more or less similar in appearance, having partially prepared ourselves for the fastest exit and take-off possible.
So, you put your G-suit on first, then your survival vest, which had little pockets all over it containing stuff for use if the worst thing happened. There was a first aid kit and I also chose to have one hundred rounds of 357 ammo and some tracer bullets. A shoulder holster with its contents more or less duct taped in was in the next layer. I had purchased a Smith and Wesson 357 magnum with a six inch barrel (my personal weapon). They issued us a puny little thirty eight snub nosed thing of a revolver, but it seemed to me that I could fight my way out better with the magnum. This of course, was just a pipe dream and simply used to bolster my own confidence! Then there was the harness. It was a bunch of straps which went all around your chest, up through your crotch on either side and was all sewn on to a garment that could be said to resemble a vest, of sorts. We would typically get ready to fly by putting on a harness which connected to the rocket ejection seat in the plane. This was good, because everything remained in the plane and you didn’t have to lug it around like you did with the older fighters. This all hooked up to the ejection seat, as I mentioned. It wasn’t really as complicated or weighty as it may sound. It was comfortable, more or less and once you got everything fitted OK, which took some time initially, it was a good outfit and I felt that everything could be used for survival, if you were unlucky enough to be shot down and escape immediate capture.
The aircraft were assigned (in either flights of four or two) and they were all parked on the ramp that was just outside the squadron ops building. We either would walk or get a lift to the plane. Typically all of the planes would be fairly close together or even next to each other, so you could use hand signals for things if you needed to.

A guy from intelligence came in about two that afternoon.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Milk Run, The Briefing

After we had been in Thailand for a couple of months, learning as we flew about strategic targeting, night refueling, long trips to North Viet-Nam and bombing things in valleys under the light of flares, we looked forward to what was called "alert".

Standing alert was almost a treat some days. The term comes from the fact that you weren't scheduled for any particular target or time. You stood by, on "alert", for someone to call in a need for close air support, or a quick response to a new threat discovered by "intelligence". It was a good way to spend an afternoon. Here's why. First of all you got to fly in the daytime! Secondly, the missions were quick, no airborne refueling, in most cases, the whole thing over in an hour or so. The hard part was often being so close to the friendlies - there was real concern over collateral damage.

Our leaders and their aircrews were very well trained, experienced, standardized and knew each other well enough to minimize the briefing required. It often was something like, "takeoff at 1545, this is the target, everything's standard, any questions?" It worked really well, considering the complexity of getting four bomb-laden Phantoms and their eight crew members into the planes, out to the runway, armed and off to fight in as few as twenty minutes or less. In the Deuce (Convair's F102), we made into the air in three or four minutes from a dead sleep, but that was an interceptor's mission, somewhat simpler.

Anyway, sitting on standby alert was a special treat. I can remember an afternoon in November of 1965 when I was on alert.