The Nails

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

As a combat pilot I had a kindred feeling toward anyone who had the courage to fly straight into the guns of the enemy and deliver his ordnance on target. There are all types of combat pilots from the fighter and bomber jockeys to the cargo transport drivers who often had the toughest, most dangerous jobs. At NKP we had a special breed of aviator who challenged the enemy in a completely different manner than their fighter, bomber or cargo pilot brethren...these intrepid airmen were known as Forward Air Controllers or FACs, for short. They were organized into a unit designated the 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron (TASS) and nicknamed the “Nails.” The Nails flew the twin-engine turboprop powered OV-10 Bronco which was specifically designed for the mission of directing fighter-bomber aircraft to their targets and aiding ground forces in any manner possible. Perhaps I became unduly prejudiced because I was one, but to be called a Nail FAC was a matter of great pride to all members of the 23rd TASS.
The job of the forward Air Controller in Vietnam was often underrated. It was a natural that the fighter pilot should get the glory – just as a running back in football. But as the running back cannot often make touchdowns without blockers, neither could the fighter pilots place their bombs on target without the eyes and other assistance rendered by the FAC. In the chain of command and control of military forces from the president down, the FAC was the last, but not least important link in the chain. The responsibilities placed on the shoulders of the FACs were awesome indeed. They were given the job of ferreting out the enemy often in close contact with friendly forces. The FAC had to ensure always that enemy positions could be hit without endangering the lives of friendlies. But this is getting ahead of the story. What does it take to be a Forward Air Controller? First and foremost it takes a person with a lot of courage who will not choke when the pressures get heavy. The FAC has to be a master navigator and map-reader. He has to know his exact position relative to the ground at all times. He has to have the instincts of a fox terrier, to be able to read the enemy’s movements and spy on his activities under expert camouflage. The FAC has to be a diplomat and good judge of human nature. One of his basic duties is to communicate with fighter pilots. By various methods he has to literally talk the pilot into hitting a target sometimes invisible from the air. The FAC’s own safety and the safety of the fighter crews often rests with his ability to smell danger; this often in the form of hidden anti-aircraft gun emplacements or friendly troops wandering into places they should not have been. The nature of the FAC’s job is that he is an extremely busy man at times. In addition to locating enemy positions and guiding fighters in to hit the positions he has to fly his own aircraft. The FAC’s OV-10 is equipped with five radios each having a separate function. Most of the time four of the five radios are in use. On one radio he talks to the ground commander to assess the situation. On another he can expect calls from higher headquarters concerning changes in mission or changes in the rules of engagement. He talks to one flight of fighters on one radio channel and another flight on a different channel. He has to keep part of his hearing system attuned to emergency calls, calls for help or special warnings of danger. While in the air he has to have the ability to encode and decode secret messages using an awkward manual method. Busy as this all sounds it is but a partial list of what keeps the FAC busy.
The Nail FACs were centrally based at NKP, however squadron aircraft were deployed in the theater of operations as needed. Nail FACs flying out of NKP had an area of responsibility covering central and northern Laos including the infamous Plains des Jarres region which proved to be a graveyard for many of our aircraft. Ten aircraft were usually located at DaNang Air Base in the I Corps section of South Vietnam. A semi-permanent detachment was located at Ubon Air Base in Thailand for use in southern Laos and Cambodia.
The job of the FAC was similar in some respects and unique in others at each of the three locations. Work with troops in contact with the enemy was common to all three but the nature of command and control was different. In Vietnam communications with ground forces was made easy because of the presence of American advisors. In Laos and Cambodia English speaking nationals manned the ground radios. Depending on the fluency of the individual ground controller understanding the spoken word could be very difficult at times. When a FAC was not working with troops in contact with the enemy he had the responsibility of looking for targets of opportunity. This involved searching the main supply routes for hidden tanks, trucks or caches of supplies. As previously indicated, the North Vietnamese were masters of the art of camouflage, and they were aided by the often thick jungle growth. The enemy also dug holes in the sides of vertical limestone cliffs (called karst) that lined much of the road system in Laos and North Vietnam. As the Vietnamese War wore on, the network of roads, trails and paths leading into South Vietnam and Laos increased a thousand fold. When a road was blocked, the enemy built a by-pass around the blockage. Bomb damage was quickly repaired by the addition of crushed rock that was created by the bomb blasts. What a paradox! Heavy monsoon rains were supposed to cause flooding and washouts but the weather did more to halt air attacks than to stop the trucks and tanks. Under cover of weather, the enemy was able to move large numbers of heavy Russian tanks from the port of Haiphong into all parts of Laos and South Vietnam. These tanks never seemed to lack for petrol, which was carried south by any feasible means including long sections of pipeline. A high numbers of air strikes were committed to striking these often visible pipelines but I suspect the NVA left a number of empty pipes open for the purpose of wasting our bombs.
During the summer of 1972, the enemy moved south as an army of ants. Long columns of men on foot and bicycle could be seen moving south openly during daylight hours. I marveled at the nerve of the little bastards. They knew the OV-10 by itself could not do them much harm. As soon as fighters appeared, they scattered and disappeared. It was at this time that a new element appeared to threaten the life of the FAC and any other low flying low-speed aircraft. It was the introduction of the Strela, a hand held heat- seeking missile which could reach to heights of 10,000 feet. The Strela, also designated the SAM-7 proved to be a deadly weapon, which forced a major change in the tactics of all the slow moving aircraft of the 56th Special Operations Wing. More of this later.
As the fighter ace is a special breed of fighter pilot, so also was the Nail crewman a special breed of Forward Air Controller. The essence of being a Nail FAC was to strive for perfection in the performance of many complex duties. A young major was chosen to command the Nail squadron at NKP. The TASS itself with all its personnel and equipment was as large as some wings in the USAF, thus it was more than just an honor to command. Major Max Brestel, who was the commander on my arrival, was a former F-105 pilot who had flown a combat tour prior to his coming to NKP. Many of the combat missions he flew in the F-105 were over the red-hot area of Hanoi in North Vietnam. Max was a steely- eyed individual, a natural leader who instilled his men with fierce pride of unit and an intense motivation to be the world’s most professional pilots. Max Brestel was the Lord and his subordinates were the disciples. Max spoke the gospel of forward air controlship as it was learned the hard way – by bitter experience in combat. Max, much to his credit let me know that as wing commander I was to receive no special favors or be allowed to take any short cuts while I was undergoing combat qualification in his squadron. Max, as I, knew that an inexperienced fighter jockey could be placed under the protective wing of his flight leader but the Forward Air Controller did not have that luxury. Once combat qualified he was out on his own and was expected to make no mistakes. Thus Max had a great desire to ensure that every FAC in his unit, including his own boss, knew exactly what was required.
Although the OV-10 was equipped with tandem cockpits and dual controls FACs normally flew the airplane solo. There were exceptions such as flying with an instructor pilot for local qualification, the use of French speaking observers in Cambodia, and Marine artillery spotters for offshore bombardment from Navy gun vessels. Other than this, FACs liked to fly alone even though at times help in navigation or switching radio channels would have been welcome. FACing was considered a serious business and flying alone allowed the sort of concentration necessary to do a good job. They detested giving “joy rides” to anyone they felt did not belong in the combat area. And the FAC seldom liked to fly with another for apparent reasons of jealousy. A good FAC did not desire to share credit for the outstanding job he knew he was bound to perform in the course of a mission.
The nature of the war in Vietnam was such that all our military moves were conducted cautiously and nervously. The war was unique in that the enemy constantly shifted troops in and around people that were supposed to be friendly to the United States, that is the civilian population of South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The officials of our government therefore went to great lengths to insure that these friendly people were not destroyed inadvertently or otherwise by military forces of our side. Firm command and control extended down from the president, through several intermediary commands, to the soldier who actually fired the bullet or the pilot who dropped the bomb. In the Air Force, at least, the last man in the chain who could ensure that the bomb or bullet was pointed in the right direction was the Forward Air Controller. The fine points of command and control that dealt directly with combat operations in the field were laid down in writing and were called logically enough, ‘rules of engagement’. Rules of engage- ment were just that: specific guidelines on when, where and how the enemy could be fought. The rules were both comprehensive and complex. Because violations of the rules were considered a serious breach of military discipline, it behooved our fighting forces to know them thoroughly. Forward Air Controllers were required to be intimately familiar with the rules, and the constant changes of the rules. As the political mood shifted in Washington, so did the rules change, and on an almost daily basis. What was a free-fire zone yesterday could become a no-fire zone today. The length and width of restricted areas were under a constant state of fluctuation which the FAC had to know in order to guide and control planes in the air and troops on the ground. The rules contained guidelines as to what type of targets that could be hit but also outlined procedures as to time of day and types of ordnances, which could be used. Sad to say now that our leaders spend considerably more time worrying about preventing errors and miscalculations that might incite unfavorable world opinion than in developing tactics that would help speed victory. I recall now that victory was a word seldom heard or spoken by people engaged in the Vietnam War.
Despite the most unfavorable climate, political and environmental, that could face a professional fighting man, the Forward Air Controllers of the 56th Special Operations Wing did their utmost to keep heavy pressure on the enemy. As any man who spent time in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War will attest, it would have been very easy to adopt a ho hum don’t give a damn attitude that characterized American public opinion about the whole affair. To their credit our FACs and all the fighting men at NKP for that matter did not cop out. Although most of the FACs were the contemporaries of the college protest crowd, I cannot recall a single individual who did not have a deep and abiding hatred for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. The enemy was committed to kill us and we were committed to kill them. Not that we did not respect these little brown bastards. Ho Chi’s men were devoted to a single purpose – the conquest of Southeast Asia. A lesser enemy would have concentrated on just winning the war in South Vietnam. But the NVA also pressed hard in Laos and Cambodia. With their limited human resources, I do not understand how they did it. I often heard combat veterans express regret that the South Vietnamese seemingly did not have the same will to win as the North Vietnamese. In retrospect the fault for this apparent lack of purpose is difficult to rationalize. Perhaps the simplest answer is that the South Vietnamese did not have the leadership of a man as Ho Chi Minh. But then Ho Chi was an idealist and his ideas would not have suited the South Vietnamese. Politics notwithstanding this story is about the life of the FAC and I do not wish to stray too far afield. In the field of Aviation these are specialists just as in the field of medicine. Prior to the Vietnam War there was no real specialty known as Forward Air Controlling although air support of troops in contact was undertaken in WWII and Korea. The full development of the command and control concept plus Army-Air Force Ground Operations made FACing the specialty it was in Vietnam. I like to think of the FAC as a pilot in the literal sense of the word, analogous to the harbor boat pilot and the big river steamboat pilots, of Mark Twain’s day. In other words, the FAC is a guide, for that is what he does in practice. He guides other aviators better than they guide themselves. As a steamboat pilot knows every bend and sandbar in the river so the FAC knows the topography of his area of responsibility. By intense concentration the FAC learns to develop his sense of sight. He learns how to focus his eyes but most important he learns how to read camouflage, how to spot supply caches and vehicles parked beneath the jungle canopy. He guides the fighter-bomber pilot to the target, very often a target that can only be discerned by the FAC. So in the combat situation, the fighter-bomber pilot acts on faith. He places his bombs where the FAC tells him – or so both the FAC and the fighter pilot hope. His failure not to put the bombs on target could be at one extreme, merely a source of embarrassment, or at the other extreme of serious trouble, if for instance friendly troops were killed by a misplaced bomb blast. The accidental placement of ordnance by friendlies onto friendlies is known in military parlance as a “short round.” Short rounds have always been of serious consequence in all wars usually requiring an investigation by higher headquarters so as to determine blame. The possibility of a bomb dropped on friendlies was always, of course, greater when ground troops were in close contact with the enemy and needed air support to survive. This was often the case when one side or the other decided to make a concentrated ground push.
In the aftermath of the crushing offensive launched by the NVA in the spring of 1972, the heaviest ground fighting of the war took place in the I Corps of the Northern most region of South Vietnam. The NVA crossed the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) en mass and quickly overran our main military outpost of Dong Ha and moved rapidly south at Quang Tri and Hue Phu Bai, two of the main provincial cities of South Vietnam. Before resistance could be stiffened the NVA conquered Quang Tri and moved within a few kilometers north of Hue Phu Bai. A horde of South Vietnamese refugees from both cities streamed south toward DaNang.
In perhaps the Army of the Republic of Vietnam’s (ARVN) finest hour the North Vietnamese were stopped and a counter offensive initiated that threw the enemy back into the city of Quang Tri. Although by the summer of 1972, American troops were no longer fighting in Vietnam as organized United States units, we still had a relatively large contingent of advisors attached to ARVN units. With the aid of these advisors equipped with VHF FM portable radios the US Air Force was able to provide intensive close air support to the ARVN ground troops. If close air support had not been provided the NVA would have quickly destroyed the ARVN forces and gained complete control of the northern South Vietnam provinces. With the fall of I Corps the South Vietnamese government could not have existed very long.
The battle for possession of the city of Quang Tri was a bitter one indeed. Both the North and South Vietnamese governments placed great symbolic value on control of this ancient and historic capital city. Although the citadel of the Hue Phu Bai city was publicized to a greater degree, the citadel of Quang Tri was no less an historic monument. It was for possession of this citadel that the most intense and bitter fighting was waged by the forces of both sides. The citadel walls had been largely destroyed by the long- range guns of the NVA in their original advance through the city. All that remained were the high, three feet thick concrete walls that made up the outside perimeter of the citadel. Seen from the air, the citadel formed a perfect square roughly one half kilometer in length per side. A one hundred foot wide water-filled moat surrounded the outside walls of the citadel. We were to discover that the NVA had converted the citadel into a steel reinforced concrete fort and would hold on to this rubble-strewn bastion with a fierce determination that underscored the value placed on it by their leaders.
I recall vividly the ten days in August 1972 I spent at DaNang Air Base, flying forward air control missions in support of the ARVN at Quang Tri. By August 15, the ARVN had gained control of the south and east walls of the citadel. The NVA retained control of the central structures and the west and north walls. Although the NVA did not have their own close air support they were provided with backup artillery fire that was almost as good. This gunfire was in the form of Russian made long range 130 mm field rifles that were located through out the foothills ten to twenty kilometers west and northwest of Quang Tri. These field guns could propel an eighty- pound high explosive shell a distance up to thirty kilometers. Situated as they were on the high ground overlooking Quang Tri, the NVA directed and adjusted their fire with deadly accuracy. Our US Army advisors reported that the NVA were capable of delivering 2,000 rounds per hour with the 130 mm guns. In the face of this withering fire the ARVN could do nothing more than dig in and hope for relief from the air. Unfortunately, we had no weapon comparable to the 130 mm to counteract the threat. Our only recourse was to hunt the enemy guns from the air and attempt to destroy them with bombs. In this exchange, the enemy seemed to hold all the advantages. First, their gun emplacements were expertly camouflaged. They were hidden in caves, under trees and other foliage. Closer in to Quang Tri where the vegetation had been completely obliterated, the guns were hidden in and among the debris of war – hundred of trucks, tanks and other vehicles of every description.
The FACs attempted to look for the muzzle flash of the guns but in daylight it was almost impossible to see. Compounding the problem was the high altitude the OV-10s were forced to fly because of the heavy threat of the heat-seeking surface to air missiles. Eight power binoculars were used by the FACs to compensate for the increased altitudes. Visual Reconnaissance would have been impossible without the glasses, but they were no substitute for searching at lower altitudes. Thus, the war against the 130 mm guns went very poorly indeed.
The constant cry of our ground force advisors was to quiet the fire of the 130 mm guns. I could not blame them. Sitting in an aircraft at 8,000 feet above the battlefield was infinitely better than being pinned down in a bunker under the incessant harassment of enemy artillery fire. Nevertheless, the grit of our advisor force was fantastic. They simply refused to give up. I am sure it was their fierce determination and urging that kept the ARVN ground commanders advancing instead of retreating. Our advisors were at the very forefront of the battleline advising the FACs just where to place the bombs dropped by the fighter-bombers.
As Forward Air Controllers we were in contact with the ground advisors at all times. The advisors kept us appraised of friendly and enemy troop positions. Since many times the width of a football field was all the separation between friend and foe there obviously could be no miscalculation on the part of either the advisor, FAC or the pilot who dropped the ordnance.
I remember vividly one afternoon I spent as a Forward Air Controller directing strikes against the north and west walls of the Quang Tri citadel. ARVN forces held the east and south walls and parts of the middle ground. As I made my takeoff in the OV-10 from the long runway at DaNang Air Base I turned northeast and started my climb along the coastline of South Vietnam. I was struck once again by the beauty of the panorama that swept my eyes on all sides. The dark blue waters of the South China Sea surfed idly against the white sands of a half mile wide beach – separating the beach and high green mountains of the interior was a strip of flat land that was dotted with the squares of thousands of rice paddies. The airfield of DaNang lay as a giant blot spoiling the natural beauty of the landscape.
Today, I would not have long to ponder the tropical wonder of Vietnam. Instead I had to concentrate on the mission ahead. Along with several other FACs, I had the heavy responsibility of directing air strikes against the enemy at Quang Tri. The thought of these responsibilities and associated dangers churned in my stomach. Although as a wing commander I was used to responsibility, conducting air strikes was different. Commanding the base at NKP I had the assistance of all my subordinates to make sure everything functioned properly. At 8,000 feet in my OV-10 aircraft I was alone, directly responsible for my own actions. Lives depended on my judgment. My respect for the young FACs in the Nail squadron who did not have one tenth of my flying experience grew a thousand fold.
As I flew northeast toward Qang Tri I thought of the battle situation. Just yesterday I had spent the afternoon flying reconnaissance over the area west of Quang Tri looking for targets of opportunity, especially 130 mm field guns. From my position I could easily observe air strikes being made against the walls of the citadel. Today it was my turn to direct the strikes. Yesterday I had been disgusted by my inability to locate the 130 mm guns pouring fire into our positions around Quang Tri. I hoped things would be a lot different today. I leveled out about 8,000 feet and midway between DaNang and Quang Tri I changed my radio channel to the frequency of DASC Alpha. DASC is the abbreviation for Direct Air Support Center. The DASC is a group of Air Force personnel attached to the ground forces who have the responsibility of coordinating close air support requirements between the Army and Air Force. Basically, the DASC is a communications center with radio links to the ground commanders, FACs air bases and headquarters in Saigon. The DASC is a mobile unit and moves with the ebb and flow of ground elements. It was time to give the DASC a call and let them know of my whereabouts.
“DASC Alpha, this is Nail 17, over.”
“Go ahead, Nail 17.”
“DASC Alpha, Nail 17. My mission number is 1098. I have one soul on board and five hours loiter time, over.”
“Roger, Nail 17. Your time on station is 1210. You’ll be replacing Nail 22 who’s now working on 126.3 megacycles with Springtime Charlie. Over.”
“Roger DASC Alpha, no questions. Nail 17, out.”
Springtime Charlie I know to be the call sign of the ground advisor hugging the south wall of the citadel. Poor bastard! I thought to myself, he’s been pinned down there for three days in a stretch without relief. And to think last night I heard some troops bellyaching about the lousy conditions at DaNang. Oh well, everything is relative.
I changed my radios to Nail 22’s air and ground working frequencies. Nail 22 was busier than the proverbial one armed paper hanger, receiving instructions from the ground forces on one radio, directing a flight of four fighters on another, and keeping a listening watch on another. The chatter of fighter pilots, ground advisors and the FAC filled the headset. Today we could take advantage of the exceptionally fine weather to give the NVA a heavy pounding from the air and drive them out of Quang Tri.
As I waited for Nail 22 to finish his time on station, I circled in a safe zone to the east of Quang Tri and watched the ongoing battle. The sky was clear of clouds and the visibility almost matched that of Tucson Arizona. I was grateful for the fine weather. There would be no low clouds to force the fighters and FACs down to dangerously low altitudes. As I watched, smoke and dust poured from the heart of the citadel. Nail 22 was directing fighter after fighter against the west wall. Several stacks of fighters were circling in the air fifteen to twenty thousand feet above Quang Tri waiting to be called down by the FAC. Nail 22 could not afford to waste time with any one fighter. The nature of the fuel guzzling jets did not allow much loiter time.
While circling, I monitored Springtime Charlie’s radio frequency. Our ground advisor was obviously pleased by the amount of close air support he was given this day. I checked in with Springtime Charlie and advised that I would be relieving Nail 22 in a short while.
“Roger, Nail 17. All you have to do is keep hitting that west wall until I tell you differently. Keep your fighter passes from east to west and I don’t think you’ll have any trouble with short rounds.”
Springtime Charlie, to me, was just a fearless voice on the speaking end of a radio transmitter. Would he have been surprised had he known that Nail 17 was a Full Colonel Wing Commander working his close air support today?
“Roger, Springtime Charlie. I’m going to check in with Nail 22 now.”
“Nail 17, Nail 22 here. Heard you check in with Springtime Charlie. You’ve got three flights of fighters waiting to be put in – Musket flight of four F-4s at Angels 15 (15,000 feet), Pepper flight of two A-37s at Angels 16 and Socket flight of two A-7s at Angels 17. The F-4s can’t stay long so you’ll have to work them in fast. You heard Springtime Charlie tell you to make all passes from east to west with a break to the north after pull off. Tell the fighter jocks to watch their altitude on their passes. There’s lots of small arms fire in the area and, oh yes, there’s a Quad-23 sitting across the river that opens up once in a while. Do you have any questions, Nail 17?”
“No. Thanks for the briefing, Nail 22.” I replied.
“I have you in contact over the target area, rock your wings – oh yeah, that’s you. Break off to the south; I’m coming in from the east. See you back at the homedrome.”
“Musket Lead, this is Nail 17, you read okay?”
“Roger, 17.”
“Roger, Musket. If you’ve been here a few minutes you probably know what’s going on. Advise how much play time and what ordnance.”
“Roger, 17, we have about 15 minutes left and we’re carrying 18 Mark 82s – slick.”
Fifteen minutes did not give as much time to work the F-4s, as I would have liked. The Mark 82 designation meant it was a 500 pound bomb and ‘slick’ meant it had no retarding devices and thus could be delivered at high speeds and high dive angles.
“Okay, Musket flight. This is your target briefing. We are in a troops in contact situation. You’ll have friendly troops no more than 300 meters from your target. If any member of your flight is not capable of dropping his bombs with- in 100 meters of the target, I recommend he not drop at all. We don’t want a short round here today, Musket. Make all passes from east to west with a breakaway to the north. Make three passes each. Drop two bombs each on the first pass, the remainder on the second pass, and make one more to clear bombs still left on the racks. Watch your altitude on your passes. Don’t press. There are a lot of automatic weapons scattered around the target area. Keep a close listening watch on guard channel. If you’re hit by ground fire, attempt to fly east back to the water for the safest bail out area. Any questions, Musket lead?”
“Negative, 17.”
“All right, Musket you saw where the previous flight put their bombs. I want them in the same exact location. I’m going to mark the target with a Willie Pete rocket (Willie Pete – phonetic for White Phosphorous which left a large cloud of white smoke when the rocket struck the ground) to make sure there is no confusion in our mind. I have all four F-4s in sight. Do you have me spotted?”
“Give me a wing rock Nail. Roger, I have you in sight.”
“All right, Musket. I’m rolling in now to mark the target. Keep me in sight.”
Marking the target was about as close as a FAC could come to playing fighter pilot. The objective was to fire a rocket about four feet long and three inches in diameter armed with a white phosphorous marker, as close as possible to the target. Upon striking the ground, the marker explodes leaving a large cloud of readily identifiable billowing white smoke. Executing the maneuver called for precision flying. The FAC rolls the aircraft into a nearly vertical dive and places his gun sight on the target. When the correct parameters of dive angle, airspeed and altitude are met, theoretically, the rocket should hit precisely on target. FACs practiced long and hard to be able to place the marking rounds exactly on target and be able to say, “Hit my smoke.” It was a matter of pride to be an expert.
I set up my armament switches and then doubled checked to make sure they were right. Nothing would be more frustrating, embarrassing and a waste of valuable time than to have a perfect pass, press the trigger and have no fire. My rocket came off its launcher rack with a characteristic whoosh sound. No need to stay in a dive to watch it hit. I immediately pulled the OV-10 up into a steep climb and rolled into a slight bank to watch the rocket hit. Good splash! The puff of rapidly expanding Willie Pete billowed just a few meters from the point I intended to hit along the west wall of the citadel.
“I got your smoke, 17.”
“Okay Musket lead. Put your bombs on the wall right next to my smoke. You’re clear to make your first pass. I have you in sight.”
“Roger, 17, I’m rolling in hot from the east.”
I watched Musket lead roll into his dive bomb run. His dive angle looked good. I spotted two bombs fall off the F-4 as he pulled up sharply to the right. The two bombs impacted within a few feet of the wall and sent up a massive cloud of smoke and dirt.
“Good hit, Musket lead. Musket 2, I want you to hit in the same place as lead. I’ve got you in sight, you’re cleared in hot.”
“Roger, 17, rolling in hot.”
From the standpoint of the FAC there were several factors that had to be considered in the target area. First and foremost was the matter of safety. It was imperative that visual contact be maintained among the fighters and the FAC. Failure to ensure this important rule was an invitation for a mid air collision. More importantly, the FAC had to keep a close watch on each aircraft during its dive bomb run for several reasons. First, the FAC must ensure that the fighter pilot made his pass in the correct direction. In the heat of the battle situation it was not difficult for inexperienced pilots to become disoriented and not follow pre-briefed instructions. Secondly, it was important to ascertain if the pilot actually dropped his bombs. Sometimes pilots pressed the bomb release button but nothing happened because of release mechanism failure or improper switch settings. Thirdly, the FAC should observe closely to warn pilots if they were being fired at from the ground or other dangerous situations. Failure to follow these guidelines resulted in tragic consequences the very following day at Quang Tri. One of our less experienced FACs had allowed his attention to be diverted at a critical moment. The number two man in a flight of four F-4s was hit by ground fire during his bombing pass. The aircraft impacted just a few meters from the west wall of the citadel. The FAC did not observe the aircraft being hit or the impact. He mistook the smoke and fire from the crash site to be the bomb impact point. He called number three and four aircraft to make their bomb passes before it was realized by both the FAC and the flight leader that number two had been shot down.
While Musket two was getting ready to roll in on his second bomb pass, Springtime Charlie was talking to me on the FM radio. “That was a good drop, Nail 17. Just keep working the bombs in that same area.”
“Will do, Springtime Charlie.”
I knew his position was on the south wall and this must have been a good place to observe the bomb drops. From earlier conversations, I knew he was taking incoming fire from the NVA mortars and big 130 mm guns. I admired his guts. From the standpoint of danger there was no comparison between his job and mine.
Musket two pulled off his dive bomb run and I saw no tell tale flash of bomb impact.
“Musket two, check your switches, it looks as if you dropped a couple of duds.”
“Roger, Nail 17.”
Musket two, in his excitement, apparently did not correctly set his bomb drop switches, which meant the fuses of his bombs remained in the unarmed or safe position. A not uncommon occurrence with inexperienced fighter pilots. We all hated to see dud bombs dropped. That much TNT lying on the ground could well mean a future hazard to friendly troops. The bombs might be exploded by incoming mortar fire with friendlies nearby or if the enemy had time, he would dig up the bombs and make good use of the TNT for mines, grenades and booby traps of every description. The remainder of the bomb drop passes of Musket flight were uneventful. There were several good hits on the wall and several bombs were scattered not far away from the target to be dangerous, but not close enough to be effective.
I next called in Pepper flight. Pepper was a flight of two A-37 aircraft flown by Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) pilots. I was immediately concerned that there might be a communication problem but I need not have worried because it soon became obvious that veteran pilots were flying the two A-37s. The VNAF did not have the problem of pilot turnover as afflicted the USAF. Many of the VNAF had been flying combat for five years and longer. I watched Pepper lead roll in on the target. He started his dive bomb run from about my altitude. His dive took him down within range of automatic weapons and sure enough as I saw several lines of tracer ammo arcing toward Pepper lead, I shouted a warning. I saw him release his bombs at a very low altitude and score a perfect hit on the wall. In their succeeding passes, the VNAF pilots scored perfect hits each time. And each time they were met by a hail of ground fire. I asked Springtime Charlie how it looked from the ground and he indicated ground fire was extremely intense. The North Vietnamese seemed to know their antagonists were South Vietnamese.
I fully expected the A-37s to be shot down but both delivered all their ordnance unscathed. The two VNAF pilots had put on quite a show. I admired their bravery if not their good sense. While I was working with Pepper two, other flights of fighters had checked in on my radio frequency. DASC Alpha was not going to let me get bored today.
I called for Socket flight to check in. For the last thirty minutes, socket had been circling overhead listening and watching the action below. The A-7 aircraft flown by Socket was designed specifically for the close air support role. The A-7 was a subsonic aircraft, highly maneuverable, and had excellent fuel capacity and could carry a large payload. The A-7 was also equipped with the latest electronic bomb release system that was remarkably accurate. I had directed A-7 aircraft on other targets and was always impressed with the marksmanship of the pilots.
As I was about to give the pilots their target briefing, a loud voice came over my radio’s emergency channel. “Attention all aircraft! Attention all aircraft! This is DASC Alpha with a Heavy Artillery warning. Repeat, this is DASC Alpha with a Heavy Artillery warning. Be advised to remain clear of the area bounded by coordinates X-ray Easy 350432 and X-ray Easy 354643 between 2000Z and 2030Z and altitudes from the ground to 35,000 feet. Repeat...this is a Heavy Artillery warning. DASC Alpha out.”
I had heard similar warnings many times before both as a FAC and F-4 fighter pilot. I knew the so-called heavy artillery was actually going to be a high altitude bomb drop from B-52 bombers. I quickly grabbed my map to double-check the coordinates. I knew the bomb impact area was within a relatively close distance from my present position. By God, I thought, they’re going to use those B-52s against those 130 mm field gun positions. I sure hope they can do some good. I checked my watch for the drop time. It was only ten minutes away. I had been pre-briefed that there would be a B-52 bomb strike in the area today but the heavy artillery warning still came as a surprise. I advised the flights of fighters and Springtime Charlie that we would have to break off our attacks on the citadel wall until we had an all clear on the heavy artillery warning.
Damnit! I thought to myself, just when everything was going well along comes the B-52s to screw things up. About the time the B-52 strike is over the fighters will be low on fuel and I’ll have a mess on my hands. Oh well, maybe the B-52s can do some good. That’s probably what the great powers in Saigon are thinking.
The fighters and myself set up an orbit to the east of Quang Tri and waited for the B-52s to arrive. I knew there were several sets of fighters and FACs working directly in the areas where the B-52s were supposed to hit. I sure would not want to be under those B-52s when they started dropping. I remembered hearing of one FAC who actually flew through a rain of bombs falling from a group of B-52s and he was lucky enough to live through it. At the time, he thought he was only flying through a region of turbulent air. Looking down, he saw the ground erupt- ing in bomb bursts, and looking up, he saw the B-52s overhead. The turbulent air he had flown through was actually the slipstream of hundreds of bombs screaming through the air. I understand that the FAC is now a regular church goer.
I remembered an incident that happened to me a month before on an early morning reconnaissance mission over the Plains des Jarres in Laos. The ground was covered with a heavy fog and the air was filled with dense haze making visibility unsure. In addition my navigation equipment was behaving erratically. After flying around the area for several minutes, I had no real idea of my position in relation to any known ground marks. About this time, a heavy artillery warning sounded over the emergency channel announcing that a B-52 strike was to take place. From the map coordinates given, I knew it was to be in the northeast section of the Plains des Jarres. I knew I was somewhere over the Plains des Jarres but I was unsure of my exact position. I remember a small moment of panic wondering what I should do. I had the option of declaring an emergency and admitting to the world that I was lost and would someone please call off the B-52 strike incase I was flying within the drop zone. As much as I loved my skin, I decided to take the calculated risk and hope I was well clear. Calling off or deterring a B-52 strike would give me the type of notoriety I did not care to have. I knew that General Abrams in Saigon and Ambassador Godely in Laos personally approved these strikes and once the flights were in the air, only an act of God was sufficient excuse to abort the mission. The airborne command post knew I was flying in the Plains des Jarres area and gave me a call to ensure that I heard their strike warning questioning whether I was well clear. I swallowed hard and answered the affirmative in a weak voice. The B-52 pilots had no difficulty determining their precise location equipped as they were with advanced radar navigation systems, an on board navigator and computer bombing system that allowed flight through thick clouds at thirty thousand feet and still “see” the ground as well as human eyes.
As it turned out, I did not fly through the hail of B-52 bombs that day so Providence was with me. I never did tell anyone about the incident as wing commanders are not supposed to make bonehead mistakes.
Orbiting east of Quang Tri on a clear day, I at least knew my exact position and I was sure the B-52 crews knew theirs. Looking to the southwest I could see the contrails of the big bombers streaking through the sky at high altitude. In a few moments I saw the impact of thousands of bombs to the west of Quang Tri, and it was indeed an impressive sight. Surely nothing could survive such a singular act of devastation. And yet the enemy had survived even though subjected to hundreds of similar assaults in the previous months of the war as far back as 1966. Strategic bombing had brought Germany to her knees during World War II, but this was not strategic bombing. In World War II our targets had been factories, rail yards and ship docks but in Vietnam similar targets were left untouched. Late in 1972, all that was changed. Strategic targets in Hanoi and Haiphong were finally struck and the enemy quickly came to terms. Unfortunately, as we now know the NVA violated the peace terms and South Vietnam was to be no more after 1975.
After the B-52 strike, DASC Alpha gave the all clear. I called the fighters back over the target and we resumed pounding the west wall of the citadel. Because of the delay forced by the B-52s, one flight had to dump all their bombs on one pass. The fighters did a fairly respectable job; at least Springtime Charlie thought so. For the next two hours I continued to direct various flights of fighters into the target. All together I spent three hours over Quang Tri, three hours of intense concentration and strain, but the time passed swiftly. About four o’clock in the afternoon, or 1600 hours military time, I heard the voice of Nail 28 check in with Springtime Charlie. I knew Nail 28 was to replace me on station and I was not sorry to hear his voice nor sorry to see him arrive. After an exchange of instructions, he took his place over the target area and I departed the scene. As I headed for the coastline and picked up my heading for DaNang, I called DASC Alpha to give them a mission debriefing. What was there to say? I had directed numerous strikes against the west wall of the citadel. Had we been effective? How many NVA had been killed or wounded? I did not know! Springtime Charlie indicated that we had been successful in knocking out several bunkers filled with NVA troops. By my estimation, the NVA had to be taking a terrible beating but past experience demonstrated that these little men had the capability to dig in deeply and ride out heavy punches from the air. If the situation had been reversed and the ARVN been the subjects of heavy pounding from the air, I would not have had much faith in their ability to resist.
As I winged my way back to DaNang, I felt my usual mixed emotions about the entire Vietnamese War. Our efforts, strenuous as they were, seemed doomed to failure. The NVA had intangible factors on their side, the main one being a population dedicated to win. Lacking this will, the South Vietnamese could not hold back the tide, even with the help of the United States air arm. As a professional soldier, I knew I was doing my best, but as so many of my contemporaries, I felt the sense of utter frustration of being associated with a losing cause. This feeling has not left me to this day.