A Night Over the Trail: A Navigator’s Story

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

I started out my rated career as a navigator, radar operator and bombardier on a B-52 crew. My ticket out of SAC after almost ten years was an assignment to the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) for a graduate engineering degree and assignment to the Ballistic Systems Division of the Air Force Systems Command.
One Friday morning early in 1968, I got a call from Personnel that they had orders for me. There weren’t many rated officers in the Ballistic Systems Division but those of us who were knew it was just a matter of time before we got orders to SEA.
The Personnel Office told me my orders were classified and all they could tell me was that I was to report to Clark AFB to attend jungle Survival (snake) School. It wasn’t until I finished Snake School that I learned I was going to 23rd TASS at NKP, Thailand. Nobody seemed to know what a TASS was. It wasn’t until I got to NKP that I learned that a TASS was a Tactical Air Support Squadron, that I would be flying mostly at night in the right seat of an O-2A airplane and that the mission was interdicting enemy traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I also got my first look at a O-2.
During my orientation ride over the trail I learned about jinking and became an immediate believer when we got hosed by an over achieving gunner who didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to shoot at FACs unless they were putting in strikes. As soon as I started to fly night missions I realized how much there was to learn, especially about staying oriented on the trail, and learning the landmarks I needed to know to communicate with strike aircraft.
A typical mission might go something like this: a ride in the “bread” truck to the TUOC (Tactical Units Operations Center) for an intelligence briefing and then to Personnel Equipment to pick up helmet, parachute, survival vest, .38 special revolver, and the starlight scope; check out the scope and off to the flight line to help preflight the airplane. After takeoff, climb out, check in with Cricket (ABCCC) and proceed to the trail. If we weren’t given any specific job such as putting in a strike on a suspected truck park, we would start down the road doing a series of right 360 degree turns so I could use the starlight scope to look for trucks. The window on the right side of the aircraft had been removed so I could stick the scope out the open window. A piece of shroud line was tied to the scope and to me so I wouldn’t lose it overboard.
The “trail” in 1968 was a well-developed two lane all-weather highway down which the North Vietnamese moved ammunition and other supplies in large trucks going from the North to their troops fighting in the south. The trail was heavily defended with small arms, 12.5 mm ZPU rapidfire guns in quad mounts, 23 mm and 37 mm Antiaircraft artillery and some 85 mm radar controlled guns. The gunners generally did not shoot at us unless we were actually attacking trucks. They knew that giving away their position could be hazardous to their well-being. The ideal situation was to have a pair of either Douglas B-26Ks or A-1E Sky Raiders from NKP with us. They could carry a lot of ordinance and stay with us for the 3-4 hours we were over the trail. During an attack one of the attack aircraft would attack the trucks while the other would “hold high” for anti-aircraft fire suppression. If a gun(s) came up we would try to mark them with a 2.75” rocket and clear the high aircraft in to attack the guns. The ground fire could get fairly thick on nights when there were truck convoys on the road.
On some nights if there was no traffic, we might go “trolling” for guns. If we had either the B-26s or A-1s with us, we would fly up and down a road gunning the engine, shooting rockets at suspected gun positions or doing anything else we could think of to irritate the gunners so that they would shoot at us and thereby reveal their location. At that point our friends would roll in and make every effort to send them to their eternal reward.
The excitement really began when we spotted a target. If we were fortunate enough we had A-1s or B-26s with us and we could begin the attack immediately. If not, we would request assets from ABCCC.
The plan of attack varied with a number of factors such as: the presence or absence of places for the trucks to hide under the tree canopy, the number of trucks, the number and type of attack aircraft available to us (slow-movers vs. fast- movers) and the type of ordinance they carried. Lighting a target area with a flare often didn’t work on many sections of the road because the trucks could disappear under the tree canopy as soon as the flare illuminated. In this case we might drop a “log” near the road. The log was (believe it or not) a piece of lumber about six inches square in cross-section that was saturated with a pyrotechnic substance and a fuse. Once burning, it could be seen as a bright point of light from the air and not visible from the road. The bright light could then be used as a reference point from which to direct the attack. If we caught the trucks in a relatively open area we would usually use a flare to illuminate the target. The trick was to position the attacking aircraft so that they were rolling in on the target when the flare lit so the trucks would not have time to hide under the tree canopy. My favorite technique was to set up a “traffic pattern”. As the attacking aircraft started his “base” leg we would fly over the target a release a flare. If the timing was right, he rolled in on “final” just as the flare illuminated the target. At this point things could get pretty exciting: clearing in aircraft, dodging ground fire and keeping track of the target. With a lot of luck we might actually destroy the target. It was all fairly primitive. I often thought that all this seemed like a World War One-type operation.
Some of our best results were totally unexpected. One night there were no trucks to be seen when a flight of aircraft (as I remember, they were F-4s) reported to us with a load of time delay CBUs they had to expend. I questioned this since this was expensive ordinance and there were no “movers” on the road. The flight leader insisted so we marked a portion of the road and the ordinance was dropped. They left and we proceeded down the road looking for trucks. We soon reached the end of our sector and started back up the road. There on the road was a truck burning furiously—the unfortunate driver must have driven over a CBU just as it exploded. In another case, we had trucks and a flight of F-4s was sent to us. Their ordinance was unfinned napalm. (The only thing you could be sure of with unfinned napalm was that it would hit the ground).
The flight leader rolled in on the trucks after we dropped a flare. Coming off the target he announced that he had hung ordinance that had not released until he was pulling a few Gs coming off the target. The napalm filled drop tank went sailing off into the jungle and landed a long way from the road. Almost immediately we saw a large explosion followed by many secondary fires. The fires burned brightly for many hours. The intelligence folks back at the base said that we had probably hit one of the biggest North Vietnamese Army (NVA) munitions dump in that part of Laos, by mistake!
Occasionally we would have a spectacular night. One night we caught a convoy of trucks fording the river. We had two A-1Es with us. They hit the lead truck and then the last truck in the convoy. With the convoy trapped in the open, we were able to destroy all the trucks. It was a very dark night and the sight of tracers from ground fire arching up towards us and burning napalm floating down the river lent a surrealistic, almost beautiful, atmosphere to the scene.
On 1 April 1969 I flew my last mission. As we taxied in I knew what was in store—a good hosing down with water and a bottle of champagne to share with whomever showed up on the flight line to help celebrate. It was about 0500 when we landed and chilly. Some guys were there with the fire hose. So we took our parachutes and survival vests off and left them in the airplane. The crew chief asked us to get away from the airplane since he didn’t want to get his airplane all wet. I had flown 134 missions and I was glad to be going home. In a way, it was hard to leave because of all the friends I was leaving behind.