FACs and Fighters vs. the REMFs

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

From May 1969 to March 1970, I was a navigator/weapon systems operator – one of the first of that breed to fly in the back seat of the F-4 – assigned to the 497th TFS “Night Owl” squadron of the 8th TFW “Wolfpack” flying out of Ubon AB Thailand. As the only night-dedicated fighter squadron in the Air Force, the Night Owls flew a variety of missions, to include night-time fast- FAC, strike (often FACed by Nails), self-directed armed reconnaissance along the routes in Steel Tiger, and one of my favorites, flying CAP over the AC-130 gunships. One evening in late 1969 in the bar at Ubon, I found myself sitting next to a visiting Nail FAC (I believe it was Nail 10 out of NKP), and we naturally began to exchange technical notes. However, as the chicken-dance progressed, we focused less on watch-size and there-I-was, and more on our mutual problems and opportunities. The Nail described how, as dusk stole softly across the countryside, Charlie would pull his truck out of the woods and begin to move, joining another truck or two, and eventually becoming part of the southbound rush hour stream on the Ho Chi Minh Expressway. I responded as to how disappointing it was, taking off on the “Dusk Patrol,” the first of the squadron’s night missions, only to find the assigned FAC had himself just gotten to the area and didn’t know where the movers (trucks) might be. Unfortunately at this hour, most of the daytime ordnance-carrying fast movers were either at the O’club bar or heading that way, the Nails were fragged by 7AF to be replaced in the hours of darkness, and Hillsboro had yet to hand off to Moonbeam (the Airborne Command, Control and Communications Aircraft), or had just handed off. The result was a severe scarcity of FACs and strike flights, and the trucks were getting away.
I arranged for my pilot (OWL-1A, Lt Col Bob Cass, the 497th’s squadron commander) to become part of the ensuing conversation and we all agreed that maybe something could be done. What we did was arrange to be scheduled for the “Dusk Patrol”, took off 15 minutes early (the maximum deviation from the fragged wheels-up time that was allowed under the operational effectiveness measurement rules of the moment), climbing for the tanker with full afterburners. Upon drinking from the surprised tanker, we headed off toward Nail 10’s pre-agreed upon anchor point and shortly after crossing the Mekong, called Moonbeam, the night time ABCCC. Moonbeam, of course, was nowhere to be found and a confused Hillsboro answered. Not knowing what to do with us, Hillsboro approved our “heading into the area” to await Moonbeam. The Nail, who was already working the area and had been picking up movers on the ground, used our conversation with Hillsboro as his cue to report what he had been tracking and then asked for some air. As we had guessed would happen, Hillsboro had nothing else available so they immediately passed us off to the Nail FAC.
When Hillsboro swallowed the hook, we clicked our radio over to the assigned frequency and checked in with the Nail, in most cases telling him that we were already overhead and had him in sight. The Nail FAC would mark the target with smoke in the last of the daylight and pass us the distance and direction from his smoke. We didn’t even have to circle before being cleared in hot. We flew this mission for almost two weeks, in what was a very lucrative sundown rendezvous and real partnership with the Nail. I cannot find my logbook, but I seem to recall killing on average 3-5 trucks each night depending on the weather and ordnance (usually MK-82 500 pounders and CBU’s). I remember, in particular,
one night on the road coming out of Ban Karai that the Nail put us in on a clump of trees where he had seen a truck drive under and stop. We put a Mk-82 in the trees and I thought the world had exploded. The Nail went down to look and from what he could see, it appeared that our little 6 X 6 truck had joined at least one, may two POL trucks and a third truck loaded with ammo. It was one of the best nights we ever had.
Then, about two weeks later, somebody up the chain in Saigon noticed that the Night Owls had a noticeable cumulative deviation from scheduled takeoff times, and directed the squadron to pay closer attention to the frag orders. Our appeal fell on deaf ears...it seemed keeping to a schedule and not confusing the mission planners, that is day shooters with day FACs and Hillsboro; night shooters with night FACs and Moonbeam, was more important than fighting the war. End of Sheldon’s story.

Gary Beard, Covey 276 added: The problem still existed in 1970-71. We Coveys noticed the same movement of trucks on the trail in the twilight of dawn and dusk. We were always told that there was no air available. It was also the time when the Coveys were changing from the day FACs, usually OV-10s with rockets, to the O-2s with log-marks and flares and starlight scopes, so it was possible that we would either have no FAC, if the day FAC was short on fuel, or a FAC with improper marking ordnance for the daylight conditions.
We too set about to find a way to attack the trucks that were moving unhindered on the Trail during this ‘shift-change.’ We also did things to get around the lack of response from on high. First, we began sending out a “training mission” before the first night O-2, to be on station with plenty of loiter time and equipped with a “Number One” night ordnance load consisting of one rocket pod, flares and log-marks that would be appropriate for any lighting conditions. Second, we talked with the pilots of the 497th TFS – yes the Night Owls – and discovered that they had alert birds sitting cocked and ready at Ubon. We agreed to call them on a landline before take- off and get the mission numbers of the alert birds so we could ask for these birds to hit the targets we found.
When we found a target, we called Hillsboro and asked for strike aircraft. When we were told there were none available, we asked ABCCC to “come up green” (secure voice) and asked them about the mission numbers of the alert birds in Ubon. After a short delay, we were invariably told that the alert aircraft would arrive in 20 minutes. We were then able to attack the trucks, and because the 497th had a lot of good bombers, we did some good work.
Our discussions with the Night Owls came from the nights we spent drinking with them in their hooch following a weather divert into Ubon. The “tactics” we developed with them allowed us to accomplish our mission despite the challenges presented by higher headquarters and our command and control network.

Don Brown, Nail 32, NKP, 1967-68 responded: It was sure a 23rd TASS problem too. Luckily though we had the Air Commandos at NKP. If you were the first night bird on the trail and the timing was right, the first hour could be the best of the shift. We would often brief with a Zorro (AT-28) and a Nimrod (A-26) and then take off 10-15 minutes before them to arrive at our assigned area together. Lots o’ times we’d surprised the little buggers just as they were puttin’ the pedal to the metal.

Then Gary Beard, Covey 276 further added: I think Charlie broke the shift-change code. The enemy was tough and smart. I always wondered why the Covey FACs always had the same call sign for an entire tour. It would not take a genius to figure out which FACs were the most effective against the NVA and target them when they appeared over the combat area. We were predictable in our times over the AO and we assumed that they monitored our radio communications, otherwise why did we have the KY-28 or clear fighters in hot “from New York to Florida?” Certain FACs had consistently better strike results than others and this could have been deduced by the NVA. It certainly was within the realm of possibility that they could figure out the times each day when there was no one in the AO; in fact this is why, in my opinion, they were driving down the trail like mad at dawn and dusk.
I do think that you should include the 20th TASS in this area. The 20th was the only TASS that had both the in-country and out-country mission as a permanent fixture of their operations when I was assigned to it. During my tenure our area was expanded north to Ban Karai and we flew the same trail mission, as did the 23rd. We also had the Prairie Fire mission in the 20th. The Trail mission as flown by the 20th and 23rd was secret and hence not well known. Many facets and changes brought about by our frustration with the rules and the rulers have not been aired. Let me give you two more examples of official idiocy.
At some point in the second half of my tour, we were required to report the coordinates of every rocket we expended over the Trail. I thought it was ridiculous and expended them wherever I thought it appropriate and then reported them always at the same pair of coordinates. I never heard a word.
There were times when I had a scheduled fragged strike on a ‘suspected truck park.’ I found some live movers in daylight and requested permission from Hillsboro to use the fragged strike aircraft against my target. When I was turned down, as I always was, I went to the rendezvous to meet the fighters, flew them to my target during the briefing, destroyed the movers, and then gave the BDA to the fighters with the coordinates of the fragged target. We hurt the enemy and gave the rulers reason to frag another strike against the now lucrative truck park.