Tank Tops and Tracers

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

Around the year 1970, someone had the bright idea that the South Vietnamese Army should invade Laos and cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail supply route into South Vietnam. The entire mission, Lam Son 719, was top, top, top secret. Nothing was supposed to be known about it until the deployment day. Rumors abounded, however, and when asked for volunteers to support this idiocy, several of us young, gung-ho warriors suspected that, just maybe, someone actually did want to fight the war to win it. Silly us.
When asked by our squadron commander to stand forth and be counted, a whole bunch of us stood up virtually simultaneously in the small assembly hall we were gathered in and declared ourselves as willing cannon fodder. Nobody ever said we were smart.
Anyway, in Feb, 1971, we deployed a portion of our FAC unit (23rd TASS) to Quang Tri Army Base, South Vietnam. We flew OV-10s and O-2s out of there in support of South Vietnam Army (ARVN) units during their “invasion”. Since there was “no American military” out in Laos, we had to fly with ARVN observers in our back seats to interpret between the ARVN on the ground and us, so we could direct American tactical aircraft onto the targets they gave us.
I have to admit that the impression the ARVN observers gave me did nothing to dispel the impression the ARVN Officer Corps itself had imprinted on me in my Vietnam sojourn up to that point. They reminded me of little bantam roosters, strutting around with false pride and able to accomplish nothing without a bigger rooster around to take care of them. After I swatted one up aside his head for failing to do his duty during a troops-in-contact situation in which he refused to talk to his army buds, as they were in the process of being overrun, and saying repeatedly to me, “I very sick, I very tired! We go home now!”, the Detachment Commander told me he was sending me back to NKP because the whole bunch of observers had refused, en mass, to fly with me.
The Air Force commanding General of Lam Son, I believe his name was Brown (but after 30 years, my excellent memory – just very short – fails me), stayed that order and told him to fly me on the perimeter of the Lam Son operations and let me hit every AAA gun I could find.
The perimeter of operations was huge when the mission started, much to the pride and glee of the ARVN. They declared they had routed the NVA and caused them to flee back north. We all knew the North Viets were just pulling back like they always did and regrouping for a counter offensive. By the end of a few weeks the perimeter was shrinking even faster than it had expanded during the initial “invasion”. The ARVN were reduced to holding small containment areas that they refused to leave except to charge to the rear towards South Vietnam.
I was out one day, flying in my “briar patch”, when I heard a call on UHF guard channel asking for any FAC in a certain area to come help. The caller said he had 10 tanks on a road heading east towards some friendlies. I was just a few miles from there; so, I told him I was on my way. The flight visibility in the whole area was down to 1 or 2 miles in the haze, dust and smoke of war, so I knew that my day’s work was about to get up close and personal. It turned out the caller was an Army observer in something like an O-1 Bird Dog aircraft who did not want to take on the tanks himself. Smart boy.
When I arrived overhead, I saw the tanks tearing down the road and identified them as the new Russian T-54’s, the biggest and baddest tanks of that day. Each one had a 12.7 mm machine gun on its turret. I passed over them to the east and saw something that was truly amazing. There on the trail about a mile ahead of the tanks was a whole gaggle of vehicles and people running east towards the border of South Vietnam, which was only a few miles away. I saw multiple trucks and other vehicles left in the middle of the road where they had apparently run out of gas. I learned later that there were a total of about 1,300 ARVN soldiers involved in what I could only describe as, not a retreat, but a full-scale rout.
Knowing what would happen if the tanks caught up with the fleeing army, I called Hillsboro (the ABCCC) for ordinance when I passed over head, and told them to send me only low drag ordinance. I told them that I would not accept high drag, low altitude delivery stuff, as this would put the fighters in too much danger over 10 tanks all with 12.7 mm firing. Hillsboro was having trouble finding fighters and the tanks were getting dangerously close to the friendlies.
I had to delay the tanks until the air arrived, so....I had no choice but to roll in on the lead tank in the column. Every 12.7 mm was firing at me at that time, and I had to take a hurry-up shot with a Willie Pete. Much to my great surprise, that rocket went to the tank like it was guided and hit it in the tread on its right side. The tank slewed around and stopped in the middle of the road. The other nine tanks pulled up behind that one and stopped, unable to pass because of the high banks on both sides of the road. I got out of the way to wait and watch.
Just then a flight of South Viet A-37’s checked in. I briefed them on the target (big mistake telling them it was tanks) and gave them a vector to me after taking an ADF cut on their UHF radio. They were due east of me over South Vietnam. After a while and no fighters in sight, I got another cut and they were northeast of me. I gave them another vector and waited. No fighters. Another cut put them southeast of me. They were running north and south up and down the Vietnam border with no intention of coming out over Laos to play. Wonder why they lost the war!?
About this time nine of the tanks were rolling again. I began to fire more rockets at them, this time with little effect. Then Hillsboro notified me that I had a flight of 2 F-100’s inbound. I asked about the ordinance and was told, “Snake and Nape.” (High drag, low altitude delivery 500 pound bombs and Napalm.) Right then I had a steady stream of tracers from the 12.7s flying all around me and getting closer as their aim improved. I told Hillsboro that I refused the ordinance and to get me some low drag stuff. A lengthy silence ensued and they said,
“You are ordered to employ the inbound ordinance.”
I replied, “Who orders this?”
The answer was, “General Brown.”
I said, “OK, but you tell Gen Brown that he will have to accept responsibility for what happens here. I will not.”
“Accepted” was the reply that came back
When the fighters checked in, I briefed them on the target and the threat and told them that I suggested they take their ordinance either home or to an air-refueling tanker for later employment.
The flight lead said, “Just mark the target, FAC.”
When they arrived overhead, the tanks were about 1,000 meters from the scurrying army. I marked the lead tank. The Fighter lead rolled in from the south, perpendicular to the line of tank movement, which I thought odd. His napalm canister flew over the top of the tank and burned up some jungle beyond, a clean miss.
As I was watching, #2 rolled in from south to north, same identical flight path as lead, towards the same lead tank. Something told me to call him off, but in the heat of battle, I did not. That is no excuse. His aircraft passed about 200 feet directly under me and I could see the pilot plainly in the cockpit. As he went down final, both he and I had the tracers from all nine of the remaining 12.7 mms all around us.
There was no wing flash of condensation showing an attempted pull out. No ordinance came off the aircraft and no radio transmissions were heard. He flew just over the top of the front tank and impacted the ground in a massive explosion and fireball. The 12.7s, I believe, hit him in the cockpit on his way down final. I told lead that his wingman had been shot down. After a pause, he told me in a really gruff voice to: “Mark a tank”.
I, again, marked the front tank and saw lead coming around for a pass, this time straight down the line of tanks.
I have come to realize over the years that, when you are in somewhat intense combat, your actions are more instinctive than reasoned out. Looking back three decades, I can see that two things served to guide my instincts that day.
One was the decision I had made much earlier that I was going to destroy as many AAA guns as I could during my tour of duty for no more than the simple reason that I was going to do all I could to see as many of my flying buddies get home safely as possible. As a result, I was accustomed to dealing with a great deal of ground fire.
The second was that I just simply could not sit up there and let another pilot fly down that line of tanks without doing something.
The only thing I could do to help was arm up my 7.62 mm machine guns and start strafing as many of the tank turrets as I could to try to keep the gunner’s heads down. I have no idea how effective this was, but I saw lead’s napalm come off and hit just behind the front tank and roll up over it. That tank never moved again. Pieces of black burnt toast came to my mind.
Then I marked the rearmost tank in line. As lead came around for another pass, I was strafing again on any of the trailing tanks I thought would be a threat to him. The flight visibility at this point was no more than one mile, so I had to work in close. The OV-10 has an open-to-the-air cockpit, and we were all so low that I swear I could smell the burnt napalm along with the exhaust smoke from my white phosphorus rockets. Some of the tanks were firing at me and some at lead; so, I figured I was doing a little good anyway!
His high drag 500 pound bomb hit a few feet beside the tank and it, too, never moved again.
I had visions of the crew of the tank looking like a bunch of Gecko lizards in a Warring blender!
We now had the front door and back door blocked. The tanks were in somewhat of a disarray at this point and most of them had stopped. Lead had one more bomb and we employed it on the forward most tanks. They were bunched up a little closer now, so I was able to arc some strafe up the line. I noticed that there were fewer turrets firing at this point. His last bomb was close, but only seemed to damage a tank. That was enough to persuade them to begin to run for cover in the jungle on either side of the road. Lead, finally out of ordinance, exited the area.
I expressed my sorrow as he left... and heard no reply.
The next flight of 2 more F-100’s had already rendezvoused overhead with, guess what...low drag, 30 degree dive bombs. It was then just a matter of picking out which tanks we wanted to hit before they ran off into the jungle. One we got was the first one I had hit with a rocket. I marked areas in the jungle where I could see tank tracks leaving the road and we dropped some bombs there with unknown results. Not another shot was fired at us from the 12.7s. I think they knew I could see their tracers’ origin and decided not to play any more.
When it was over we had three tanks burning or destroyed, with the rest in hiding and/or damaged. Not a single one of the fleeing ARVN had been shot at, nor had they fired a shot at a tank. I wonder which one they were most grateful for.

Several years later I was in the Davis-Monthan AFB Officer’s Club and a bunch of us were sitting around telling war stories. The subject came up that some of the A-7 drivers had flown F-100s in Vietnam. Sure enough, there sat the flight lead of the first set of F-100s that day over Laos. He and I spent a great deal of time that night going over what happened on that mission. We spoke about little else, and it was one of the most rewarding post-war reminisces I ever spent.
Less than six months later, he was on a low altitude ingress into a tactical range in his A-7 up in Colorado, when his plane flew into the ground and he was killed. I was deeply saddened, but at the same time realized that, that was probably a fitting end for one of the bravest men I ever had the honor of knowing. He died with his flight boots on doing what he loved most.
He was one of those rare fighter pilots who actually did fly down the valley of death on many occasions without ever flinching or showing any fear.

Editors Note: It has been my observation that those who put their lives in harm’s way, with regularity, often are the most soft spoken when writing. The above story is a FAC classic. Occurrences like it have taken place in every FAC Squadron and FOL and in every AO...however comma...to take on 10 T-54s at one time, and to, with the help of some equally heroic Hun jocks, save the lives of 1,300 troops is HEROIC. The USAF agreed...below is the Citation to accompany the award of the Air Force Cross to Thunder Chicken (Chicken to his friends!)

For extraordinary heroism in military operations against an opposing armed force as a Forward Air Controller in Southeast Asia on 22 March 1971. On that date, Lt. Funderburk flew his lightly armed observation aircraft into an extremely hostile air environment to support beleaguered allied ground forces during Operation Lam Son 719. When Lt.Funderburk arrived on scene, a column of ten North Vietnamese
tanks had already begun the final assault on the friendly forces. Lt. Funderburk requested tactical strike aircraft to protect the friendly forces from being decimated by the vastly superior firepower of the enemy. Realizing the life or death situation of the allies, Lt. Funderburk, with complete disregard for his own safety, rolled in repeatedly on the advancing enemy tanks, armed only with marking rockets. He succeeded in halting the enemy tanks for a few precious minutes, and most of their fire was diverted to himself. Despite some of the most intense ground fire ever experienced, Lt.Funderburk repeatedly made marking passes for the strike aircraft until the advancing tanks were halted. The results from the strikes directed by Captain Funderburk were three tanks destroyed and at least 1300 allied lives saved. Through his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness in the face of the enemy, Captain Funderburk reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.