USN Air War Vietnam 1964-73 Part IV

On 26 October, the navy lost two A-4Es and an F-8E Crusader to North Vietnamese SAM batteries. The first aircraft was lost during another raid on Phuc Yen. Commander Verlyne Wayne Daniels, a Korean War veteran, having flown Skyraiders with VA-155 in 1953, had returned to his old squadron in 1967 as executive officer of VA-155 operating from the Coral Sea. On 26 October, he was leading the second division of Skyhawks towards the target area at about 9,000 feet when a barrage of SAMs was fired at the aircraft. Daniels started evasive manoeuvres but his aircraft received a direct hit from an SA-2 that hit the rear fuselage. The aircraft was engulfed in flames and went out of control when the hydraulics failed. Commander Daniels ejected about fifteen miles north-west of Thai Nguyen and was soon captured. A little later in the morning, the Oriskany launched an A-4E strike on a thermal power plant at Hanoi. Again, the target was well protected by SAM batteries and two aircraft were shot down. Lieutenant Commander Sidney McCain of VA-163, who was flying his twenty-third mission, was in the leading division of the raid, but as he started his dive on the target, his aircraft was hit by an SA-2, which blew most of the starboard wing off. Unable to control the remnants of his aircraft, McCain ejected over Hanoi itself and landed in Truc Bach Lake, a small lake in the city. During the high-speed ejection, he broke both arms and his right leg and was barely able to save himself from drowning. Lieutenant Commander McCain was captured and spent the next five years as a prisoner until released on 14 March 1973. About an hour after McCain had been shot down, another raid of twenty-five aircraft from Oriskany attacked the thermal power plant at Hanoi. A flight of four F-8Es of VF-162 was assigned to flak suppression but one of the aircraft had to return to the carrier with a malfunction. As the three remaining aircraft approached the target, the flight received SAM warnings and the Crusaders took immediate evasive action. Two SAMs were fired and Lieutenant (jg) Charles Donald Rice’s aircraft was hit by a missile at 15,000 feet as the F-8 was inverted during a split-S manoeuvre. The aircraft’s port wing was blown off and Rice ejected to land 3 miles north-west of Hanoi. He was quickly captured and imprisoned in the Hanoi Hilton.

On 19 November, two more VF-151 F-4Bs were lost. Switchbox flight from VF-151 was providing TARCAP coverage in the vicinity of Haiphong during strikes by aircraft from the Intrepid on airfields and bridges near the city. The two Phantoms were stalking a flight of MiGs when they were themselves engaged by other MiGs just south of Haiphong. The MiGs were from Gia Lam but were operating undetected from a forward airfield at Kien An. Lieutenant Commander Claude D. Clower’s aircraft was hit by an air-to-air missile and its starboard wing was blown off. Clower ejected and was captured but Lieutenant (jg) Walter O. Estes may have been injured, as he was not seen to escape. Moments later, Lieutenant (jg) James F. Teague’s aircraft was also hit and damaged. The NFO, Lieutenant (jg) Theodore G. Stier, thought that the aircraft was hit by cannon fire from a MiG, but it is also possible that the aircraft was damaged by debris from Clower’s aircraft, which had just exploded close by. Stier, a veteran of 155 missions, ejected but his pilot was not seen to escape from the aircraft.

On the night of 30 October 1967, a lone A-6 Intruder jet aircraft was launched from a 7th Fleet carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin. Its target was in Hanoi – the most heavily defended city in the world and perhaps in the history of air warfare. For this single-plane strike, the pilot, Lieutenant Commander Charles Hunter, and the bombardier-navigator, Lieutenant Lyle Bull, were awarded the Navy Cross for ‘extraordinary heroism’ and performance ‘above and beyond the call of duty’. This is their story.

The previous afternoon was like many others. The two had coffee in the stateroom Bull shared with another bombardier-navigator from their unit, VA-196. Bull had just finished the planning for a routine night hop in which they would be going after trucks in North Vietnam. Finding and hitting moving targets in complete darkness was no trick for the crew or the highly sophisticated electronic black boxes in the A-6 Intruder. ‘Piece of cake,’ they called it. They discussed the mission thoroughly, but Bull did the actual planning. The pilot looked over his navigator’s work very carefully, but, as was usually the case, made no changes.

The final weather briefing was scheduled for 1800. There was time to relax – it was only 1630. Until a phone call from the squadron duty officer changed their plans. ‘Better get down to IOIC, Lyle,’ said the duty officer. ‘You’re going to Hanoi tonight.’

In IOIC, Lieutenant junior grade Pete Barrick, the squadron air intelligence officer, was ready for them. Charts were spread out on a long table. While Barrick left to get the target folder, Hunter and Bull glanced at the air defence charts of the Hanoi area, noting fresh red markings which indicated new surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites. In addition, hundreds of black dots showed anti-aircraft gun positions, and in the vicinity of their target – the Hanoi railroad ferry slip – it was almost solid. Hunter said one approach looked as bad as another. This was to be a single-plane strike. The success of the mission depended entirely upon one A-6 and its crew. Barrick, Hunter and Bull studied the target carefully. The photography of the area was good. Exact measurements were made to provide precise inputs for the computers in the aircraft. The Hanoi air defences were evaluated. Hunter’s initial impression was right: there was no ‘best’ way to get in or out. It was going to be rough because Hanoi was loaded. Leaving IOIC, the two of them went up to the forward wardroom for a quick dinner. The meal was served cafeteria style. There was a short waiting line made up mostly of their squadron mates. ‘Stand back, you guys, here come Charlie and Lyle. They go first. This may be their last meal,’ said one of the young officers. The two aviators laughed self-consciously and moved to the head of the line. There was more joking, but pervading it all was the uncomfortable feeling that perhaps the well-intended humour was getting too close to the truth.

The whole squadron knew Hanoi for what it was – a closely knit web of anti-aircraft guns and SAM sites. There were at least 560 known anti-aircraft guns of various calibres in the area Hunter and Bull were to fly over. Thirty MiG aircraft were based within a few seconds’ flying time from their target. They knew full well that the flight would be opposed by fifteen ‘hot’ SAM sites – sites that had been firing with devastating accuracy in previous days. During intelligence briefings, they were told that the North Vietnamese were transferring additional defence firepower to protect their capital city. Hunter and Bull did not discuss the fact that they might not make it back. After all, six other crews from their squadron had gone through the heart of Hanoi three nights before. They took missiles and flak, but they all came home without a scratch. But that strike was different. It was one of the first strikes to hit in the area of the railroad ferry slip and it obviously took the North Vietnamese defenders by surprise. The planes shot through with ten-minute separations, but each successive aircraft encountered steadily increasing defensive fire. Six SAMs were fired at the last plane.

Commander Robert Blackwood, the squadron’s executive officer, returned from the raid convinced that the luxury of surprise would not be available to any more multi-plane strikes going into Hanoi, but a single plane might make it. He discussed the alternatives available with the task force commander, as well as the odds of success and survival. They both knew that shore-based as well as carrier-based aircraft had taken a terrible ‘hosing down’ in the Hanoi area. The admiral was convinced that there was no single best way of accomplishing this mission, but he also believed in making frequent variations in tactics. If they were to achieve surprise, the strike would have to go in low and at night. Could the A-6 do it? Hunter and Bull would be the first to know.

The launch, when it came, was much the same as the many that had preceded it. The catapult hurled the 27-ton aircraft down the deck with the always impressive acceleration force that, in a space of 230 feet, propelled the aircraft to an air speed of 150 knots. The A-6 was airborne from its home, the attack carrier Constellation. The lone Intruder swept over the beach at the coast-in point they called the ‘armpit’, an inlet north of Thanh Hoa and south of Nam Dinh. The planned approach to the target used the rocky hills to the south-west of Hanoi in order to take advantage of the radar ‘masking’ which they provided. Absolute minimum altitude would be the only way the A-6 would be able to stay below the lethal envelope of a radar-guided SAM. The jet, moving at 350 knots, was now at an altitude of 500 feet.

As the jet flew to within 18 miles of the target, a signal flashed in the cockpit, indicating that a SAM radar was locked on the A-6. Immediately, Hunter snapped, ‘Take me down.’ With precision accuracy, Bull guided the pilot by search radar down to 300 feet, with the jagged hills rising on either side. At the lower altitude, their instruments indicated they had lost the SAM lock-on. In the radarscope, Bull could see only the ridges of the hills on both sides above them and the reflection of the valley floor below. Four miles straight ahead was the Initial Point (IP), a small island in the Red River. The IP would be the final navigational aid en route to the target. From this spot, distance and bearing had been precisely measured to the railroad ferry slip. Both the pilot and navigator had to work as one if the mission was to be a success.

With his eyes fixed on the radarscope, Bull placed the crossed hairs on the IP in his radar screen. At the proper instant, Hunter was ready to turn on the final inbound leg to the target. And again the warning flashed that another SAM radar had locked on the A-6. Hunter eased the craft down to less than 200 feet and he moved the stick to the left as the A-6 passed just short of the island in the Red River. The target was now 10 miles ahead. The SAM warning signal did not break off with the drop in altitude. As the Intruder flew at near treetop level, Hunter and Bull could see a missile lift off from its pad. The SAM was locked on and guiding perfectly toward the cockpit of the Intruder. Hunter waited until the last second and then he yanked back on the stick, pulling the aircraft into a steep climb. With the nose of the A-6 pointed almost straight up, the SAM exploded underneath it. The laden bomber shook violently, but continued into a modified barrel roll, topping out at 2,500 feet. At the peak of the high-G roll, the A-6 was on its back. Bull raised his head and could see the ground beneath him lit up by flak. The Intruder rolled out close to the target heading. Bull fixed his attention on the radarscope, noting that the radar cursors had stayed on the target through the roll. ‘I’m stepping the system into attack,’ he told Hunter.

Something caught his eye and he looked up. ‘I have two missiles at two o’clock, Charlie,’ Bull announced. ‘And I have three missiles at ten o’clock,’ was Hunter’s cool reply. Evasion was virtually impossible with five missiles guiding in on the A-6 from two different directions. Hunter quickly manoeuvred the plane, dropping the A-6 to 50 feet. The terrain, illuminated by flak, appeared to be level with the wing-tips. Bull could clearly see trucks and people on the road below. They were now only seconds from the target. The five missiles guided perfectly in azimuth but could not reach down to the A-6. Bull sensed that the missiles exploded above the canopy, but he didn’t look up. His attention was momentarily fixed on the ground where multiple rows of anti-aircraft guns were firing at the aircraft. He watched the muzzle blasts as the jet shot past each row. They were like mileage markers along the road to the ferry slip. Then came the searchlights, scanning the sky as if celebrating the opening of a giant new supermarket. Some illuminated the Intruder momentarily, but could not stay with the speeding aircraft. Now they were on the target. On signal, Hunter eased back on the stick and the bomber moved up to 200 feet. The next three and a half seconds would be critical to the accuracy of the bomb drop. Hunter must hold the wings level and the course steady, so that Bull and the computers could do the job they had come so far to accomplish. The weapons, eighteen 500-lb bombs, fell toward the ferry slip. Feeling the loss of nearly 10,000 lb of dead weight, Hunter pulled the A-6 into a hard right turn. The aircraft was turned into an outbound, south-east heading and Hunter, giving the Communist gunners a run for their money, began manoeuvring the A-6 up and down, back and forth. Again, the SAM warning was given – four more missiles were locked on the Intruder. They followed but could not track the Intruder through its evasive manoeuvres and they exploded above and behind.

They passed over another flak site without incident and then they were safely on their way back to the Constellation. For the first time, Charlie Hunter and Lyle Bull had time to realise what they had been through. Only a limited number of military airmen have challenged the main battery of guns in the Hanoi area of North Vietnam. Fewer yet can claim membership in the elite group who have successfully flown unescorted, at night, over North Vietnam’s capital city. For those of the latter group, certainly, any subsequent new experience promised to be anticlimactic.

Early in 1968, President Johnson forbade all strikes further than the 19th Parallel, and on 1 November, he ordered a halt to all bombing of North Vietnam. The next incoming President, Richard F. Nixon, confirmed this policy in January 1969, and the ban on bombing of the North remained in force until May 1972, when the North Vietnamese offensive prompted Nixon to authorise a resumption. Linebacker I, as it was called, began with raids against road and rail systems to prevent supplies reaching the Communists operating in South Vietnam. On 8 May, A-6 Intruders sowed minefields in Haiphong, Hon Gai and Cam Pha in the North and in five ports in the South. At this time, the North Vietnamese had one of the best air defence systems in the world, with excellent radar integration of SA-2 SAMs, MiGs and AAA. Losses, though, were kept to within acceptable limits.

The period from 10 May to 15 October produced all four American aces (three USAF and one USN) of the Vietnam War. On the 10 May strike (the second that day) two navy fliers – Lieutenant Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham, pilot of a VF-96 F-4J Phantom and Lieutenant (jg) William Driscoll, his RIO – operating from the Constellation became the first American aircrew to qualify as aces solely as a result of action in Vietnam when they downed their third, fourth and fifth MiGs before their F-4J was hit by a SAM and went down off the coast. Two MiG-17s latched onto Cunningham and Driscoll’s wingman 1,000 feet behind. Just as Cunningham turned the F-4 around, the enemy pilot made the fatal mistake of momentarily exposing his underside in a vertical climb. Cunningham fired off a Sidewinder and the MiG-17 exploded. Cunningham turned away and tried to lure another MiG into his wingman’s line of sight, but the F-4 pilot had his hands full with other MiGs and Cunningham was forced to disengage. Scanning the sky, Cunningham and Driscoll spotted another F-4 with two MiGs on its tail and another off to the right. Cunningham picked out the nearest MiG-17 and let him have it with another Sidewinder. The enemy jet exploded and the pilot ejected. This action brought four MiG-21s down onto the double MiG killers and the outnumbered Phantom crew knew it was time to head for the open sea and home. Nearing the coast, Cunningham spotted a MiG-17, and needing just one more for ace status, he decided to try to shoot it down. The two Americans tacked onto the MiG and a vicious, twisting dogfight ensued. Cunningham realised that this was no ordinary MiG pilot. (Their adversary was Colonel Toon,[1] the top-scoring NVNAF fighter pilot.) Neither side could gain the initiative and finally Toon broke off, probably low on fuel and headed for home. The Phantom crew gained their first advantage. Now above and behind him, they seized the opportunity to fire their one remaining Sidewinder at the retreating MiG. The heat-seeking missile locked on to the enemy’s tailpipe and blew the jet to pieces. Cunningham had always said a SAM would never hit him. But now, as he turned for home near Haiphong, his F-4 was hit by one of the long telegraph-pole-shaped missiles. It failed, however, to bring down the jet. Cunningham managed to fly the badly damaged Phantom back to the Constellation, where, at 10,000 feet, the two men ejected into the sea. They were picked up by a CH-46 helicopter from the Okinawa and returned safely to a hero’s welcome aboard their own carrier where the two fliers, who had scored their two previous victories on 19 January and 8 May when they destroyed a MiG-21 and a MiG-17 respectively, shared their victories with their colleagues.192 Cunningham and Driscoll – Call Sign Showtime 100 – had begun their mission as part of flak support for a strike group attacking Hai Duong railroad yard. After delivering their ordnance, they were attacked from seven o’clock by two MiG-17s firing cannon. Showtime 100’s wingman called ‘break’ and the MiGs overshot. The F-4J crew fired a Sidewinder, which hit the MiG and it burst into flames before impacting on the ground. Eight MiG-17s were then seen in an anticlockwise orbit around the target area at 10-15,000 feet and four more dived in column from the north-east. Just south of Hai Duong, Showtime 100 fired their second Sidewinder, which knocked the tail off a MiG-17 whose pilot ejected. Showtime 100 met their third victim head on. Cunningham pulled up into a vertical scissors manoeuvre with the MiG-17, which was firing its cannons. After about three minutes, the MiG pilot tried to disengage, but Cunningham manoeuvred into the enemy’s six o’clock position and fired another Sidewinder. The MiG-17 pitched over and impacted the ground with a resulting explosion and fireball. Cunningham and Driscoll attempted to exit the target area but were jumped by a fourth MiG-17 and the F-4J crew attempted to engage but broke off when another F-4J crew called four more MiG-17s at Showtime 100’s six o’clock position. Cunningham broke away and accelerated toward the Gulf of Tonkin, but at 16,000 feet, his F-4J was hit by a SA-2 fired from the vicinity of Nam Dinh. No RHAW was observed by the crew, although Cunningham spotted the SAM just before impact and Driscoll observed an orange cloud after the burst. The Phantom’s hydraulic systems progressively failed and both crew were forced to eject about five NM from the mouth of the Red River. Cunningham and Driscoll were rescued by a helicopter from the Okinawa and returned uninjured to the Constellation.

Unrestricted use of air warfare finally forced the North’s hand. During 18-26 December 1972, Linebacker II operations – all-out, intensive aerial bombardment of industry, communications, ports, supply depots and airfields in the Hanoi and Haiphong areas by the USAF, USN and USMC – were among the most effective of the war. Pilots who flew the missions claimed that the North Vietnamese had ‘nothing left to shoot at us as we flew over. It was like flying over New York City.’ When the Communists indicated their desire for a peace settlement on 30 December, the bombing above the 20th Parallel was halted, although missions below the 20th Parallel continued for the first half of January 1973. A peace agreement was signed in Paris on 23 January 1973 and all air operations ceased four days later.

Vietnam cost the Americans 58,022 dead and brought the USA worldwide condemnation for its role in South-East Asia. The USAF and USN could at least draw some solace from the fact that their final intensive campaign had persuaded Hanoi to seek an end to the war and conclude a peace treaty. Although all US ground forces were withdrawn from South Vietnam, air raids into neighbouring Cambodia and Laos continued until August 1973. Both countries then fell to the Communists and the North turned its attentions to the final take-over of South Vietnam. Inevitably, the South, now without US military support, collapsed under the full might of the Communists’ spring offensive. On 12 April 1975, the American Embassy in Saigon was evacuated and 287 staff were flown to carriers off shore. On 29 April, 900 Americans were airlifted by the navy to five carriers. Next day, Saigon was in Communist hands and the South was under the control of North Vietnam.

[1] Colonel Tomb