Tank Kill With a Willy Pete

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

I departed NKP on a normal “Barrel Roll” mission to the Plains des Jarres (PDJ) in Northern Laos. The primary targets in the PDJ were AAA guns and the trucks that traveled Route 7 from North Vietnam through the “Fishes Mouth” into the PDJ. The trip to the PDJ was a long one due to the fact that NKP was a good 45 minutes south by OV-10. NKP was situated on the West side of the Mekong River and most of the trip followed the Mekong north until the river turned west and I continued on a northerly track into the bright green mountains of northern Laos.
The PDJ is a vast flat plain that is surrounded on all sides by mountains. From the air it appeared to be very flat with very tall grass growing on most of it, with little sign of troop or military activity. I was down quite low searching for truck tracks when I encountered tracks that I first thought were from a bulldozer but there was no evidence of earth-moving activity in the area. I decided I was probably on the trail of an enemy tank. The tracks were hard to see because the grass in the area was well over ten feet tall and it sometimes obscured the tracks for some distance. I began to worry that I was following the tracks in the wrong direction. After nearly an hour of this low altitude game, the tracks came to an abrupt stop. The more I examined the area the clearer it became. The tank was there...at the end of the tracks with a camouflage tarp and the tall grass pulled over the top to make it nearly invisible. I was very happy with this find, and I began a climb to an altitude where I could call for some laser-guided ordinance.
The ABCCC (Hillsboro) dispatched two F-4s with two Pave Way MK-84’s each. They arrived on station and I briefed them on the tank and its location. The fighters were excited about the chance to kill a tank but skeptical of its identity as a tank. From their 20,000 feet altitude all they could see was grass.
Even though the Pave Nail OV-10 aircraft was very accurate when combined with fighters that had laser guided bombs it was still required by ROE to mark the target with a Willie Pete 2.75 inch smoke rocket prior to the fighters target run. The OV-10 must turn off its laser system and stow and lock the laser pod before a rocket could be fired. Then the laser system must then be reactivated, unlocked, and the target reacquired in the laser system optics. This all took time and in the meantime the smoke from the rocket is dissipating and the fighters have to keep the general area of the target in sight and wait.
This day, the weather was beautiful and clear but I had seen at the very low altitudes I had been flying that the wind was very strong on the surface. This was easily determined by the waves in the long grass. Because of the wind and the time it would take us to reacquire the target, I decided to aim the smoke rocket considerably upwind of the target. When the rocket hit it was immediately obvious to me that I had overcorrected and the rocket impacted in a large white puff of smoke about 50 meters upwind of the tank. We immediately began un-stowing the laser pod in preparation for the attack.
As I looked back toward the tank I noticed the grass was burning where the smoke rocket had landed. The fire grew rapidly with the assistance of the strong wind and soon this wall of fire was heading directly for the grass-covered tank. The fighters were still at 20,000 feet and were commenting that they could see the smoke but not the so-called tank. I said, “just be patient.”
The wall of fire raced from the front of the tank to the rear in less than five seconds and continued to the south leaving the tank completely exposed. Suddenly the fighters announced that they could see the tank (from 20,000 feet) but my backseater had not yet acquired the tank in the laser designator. We waited...
Suddenly, from the rear of the tank I saw a small puff of black smoke and I was worried they may be starting its engine...then a huge explosion inside the tank sent the gun turret spinning up into the air. This was followed by many smaller explosions inside the tank itself. This was followed by a small deep orange flame with large quantities of black smoke that continued for hours.
Up to this point I had spent my entire on-station time involved with this tank and now I had two fighters with 8,000 pounds of very expensive laser guided bombs and no target worthy of their ordinance. So...I sent them back to the tanker in hopes that someone else could use them.
In the middle of the night I was awakened at 0300 by a phone call from a 7th Air Force general officer at Clark AFB asking why I did what I did with the MK 84’s laser guided bombs and, “Did you really kill a T-54 tank with a WP rocket?”
Well...sort of.