The Unluckiest Truck Driver in Laos

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

Flying night missions over the Ho Chi Mihn Trail could be tedious but seldom boring. Our mission was to prevent the North Vietnamese from transporting men and materiel into South Vietnam by finding and attacking truck traffic and hopefully destroying these targets. The “trail” in 1968 was actually a well developed, two lane, all-weather road that ran from North Vietnam down through Laos and into South Vietnam and Cambodia.
Trucks traveled down the road with shielded headlights that appeared as faint triangles of light through the starlight scope but in most cases, were invisible to the naked eye. The starlight scope was originally designed to be mounted on an M-16 rifle. The scope amplified light about 20,000 times and magnified the image size four times. My job was riding in the right seat of a Cessna O-2A with a starlight scope looking for trucks.
On a night in late 1968 I spotted a convoy of four trucks moving south. We called our control center, reported the “movers” and requested strike aircraft. Soon a flight of F-4s reported in. We briefed them on the target, possible antiaircraft guns in the area, and best heading if they were hit and might have to bailout. Since the trucks were nearing a major intersection in the road we decided to delay the attack until we could determine which way the trucks would go. Looking through the starlight scope I could clearly see a small shack at the road intersection and a guy with a flashlight directing traffic.
Three of the trucks went to the left and the other truck went right. Naturally we decided to go after the three trucks going down the left branch of the road. Since the trucks were traveling through an open area with no trees along the side of the road for them to hide in, we told the F-4s orbiting above us that we would fly over the trucks and drop a flare. In the mean time we put them in a racetrack orbit much like a traffic pattern so that they would roll in on the target just as the flair illuminated. The attack would be from “New York to Florida” and the strike aircraft were directed to call coming off the target rather than when they rolled in. We knew that the gunners on the ground were listening to our transmissions and we wanted to give them the least useful information possible. We hoped the bad guys didn’t know much about U.S. geography. We also told the aircraft that the FAC would be holding to the east. The F-4 flight leader briefed his troops and told us they were in their pattern to the west and on their north bound leg ready to roll in. We dropped our flare and turned east. As soon as the flare was dropped the F-4s were “cleared in hot”. The flare popped and the night turned to day. The road and the trucks were clearly visible to the naked eye.
I must admit that I don’t recall much about the ensuing attack because it was so like many others. What I do remember very clearly was the aftermath. We flew over the attack site to collect the required bomb damage assessment (BDA) that was relayed to the strike aircraft. At this point we began looking for more trucks and I saw a bright fire burning off to the right. It was strange since napalm usually burns down in a short time. We understood the origin of the fire because on one of the runs, an F-4 had reported “hung ordinance” which meant that the napalm canister did not come off the aircraft at the desired time but did release somewhere during the pull out when the aircraft pulled a few Gs. The can of napalm went sailing off somewhere. We flew over to the fire to investigate and were amazed to see the fourth truck burning furiously.
Imagine the scene: the truck that was sent to the right probably stopped to watch the fireworks as we attacked the convoy. The truck driver probably felt lucky to be out of the line of fire. Out of nowhere comes an errant can of napalm. The unluckiest truck driver in Laos – at least on that day!