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Full Throttle

Full Throttle

by Philip D. Chinnery, Jan L. Shannon (Other), Barbara Crossette (Other)

Airmen in Vietnam weren't above the hell of war-but they went beyond the call of duty.

It was America's longest, most withering war, as hellish in the air as it was on the ground. But little has been told of the airmen who fought, who died, who lived and dared to remember...until now. Three dozen airmen tell their secret stories of the air war in Vietnam the only


Airmen in Vietnam weren't above the hell of war-but they went beyond the call of duty.

It was America's longest, most withering war, as hellish in the air as it was on the ground. But little has been told of the airmen who fought, who died, who lived and dared to remember...until now. Three dozen airmen tell their secret stories of the air war in Vietnam the only way it ought to be told: in their own words. In this brutally accurate picture of brave men fighting a tragic war-a portrait that touches upon every branch of the armed forces-aviation journalist Philip D. Chinnery finally honors the heroes who have been nearly forgotten.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Compelling." —Chattanooga Times

"An uncommonly vivid picture of what it's like to wage a modern air war...engrossing!" —Kirkus Reviews

"Fascinating reading...gripping...These experiences deserve to be better known." —Inside Books

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
5th ed
Product dimensions:
4.26(w) x 6.78(h) x 0.88(d)

Read an Excerpt

Full Throttle

Previously Tilted Life on the Line

By Philip D. Chinnery

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 1988 Philip D. Chinnery
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-312-92010-4



In 1961 the Viet Cong began to intensify their guerrilla war against the regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem, and it became obvious that the United States had substantially to increase its military aid to South Vietnam. It was also obvious, however, that the United States Armed Forces had little or no knowledge or expertise in the art of counter-insurgency warfare, and this applied particularly to the Air Force.

President Kennedy ordered that new units be formed to deal with this type of conflict, and in April 1961 the Air Force established the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron (CCTS) at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. The unit was codenamed "Jungle Jim" and was tasked with learning and developing counter-insurgency tactics, using aircraft more suitable to the conditions prevailing in countries like Vietnam.

In November 1961, with the situation in South Vietnam worsening daily, Detachment 2A of the 4400th CCTS, designated "Farm Gate," left Eglin for Vietnam. It took with it four SC-47 Skytrain cargo aircraft, eight T-28 trainers and four Douglas B-26 bombers. The bombers were listed as RB-26 reconnaissance aircraft, to stay in line with the Geneva Agreement which forbade the introduction of bombers into Vietnam. The T-28s and B-26s were, however, modified for the ground attack role, and all wore South Vietnamese Air Force markings.

It has proven impossible to track down any of the members of the "Farm Gate" Detachment, but an advertisement in The Retired Officer magazine caught the eye of retired Major James O. Henry, who was attached to the unit in a unique position which allowed him to view the war and the workings of the first Air Force unit in Vietnam.

My experience with the Farm Gate T-28s came as a requirement by the 13th Air Force Headquarters at Clark Air Base in the Philippines for a tactical analysis of the T-28 and B-26 in Vietnam. They wanted two jocks from the field to do it, so I volunteered from a nuke alert pad in Korea, where I was stationed with the 531st TFS, the same squadron I went to Bien Hoa with in 1965. I proceeded to Clark to work for the Director of Special Operations, 13th Air Force, and my compatriot, who worked on the B-26 project, arrived from the 5th Air Force in Japan.

The reason for the analysis was, I suppose, inter-service rivalry. The Army were claiming they were not receiving the close air support they desired and therefore were embarking on a programme of funding to provide their own close air support. The Air Force viewed this as an encroachment upon a portion of its long standing mission; also, if the Army were successful, it would more than likely divert some Air Force funds for its enactment.

As a result, I spent about four months with the Farm Gate detachment at Bien Hoa Air Base, researching their data and compiling it into a 47-page report on the T-28B. I also flew on some supply and training missions with the Farm Gate C-47s. They supplied outlying ARVN troops and Montagnard (Mountainyard) tribes. Much of their cargo at that time was Second World War automatic weapons such as 9mm Schmeissers, Swedish Ks and 45-caliber American Thompsons. I went on a couple of humorous training flights. One was taking a new group of VNAF recruits up on a familiarization flight. I think it was the first time most of them had been on an airplane. We had just gotten airborne when one of them got sick, started throwing up and caused a chain reaction, all of them puking rice and fish all over the aircraft. On another flight, an American Army Captain was taking a group of ARVN Rangers on a low-level night jump. They were to jump from 800 feet and the Captain, a bit concerned about the jump altitude, came up to the C-47 pilots and myself, prior to boarding the plane, and just said "Would you please be on your altitude, I would hate to have to run 100 yards before my chute gets open."

The T-28s had been modified with a more powerful engine, self-sealing fuel tanks, armor plating around the seats and fuel sump tank and with the addition of underwing ordnance-carrying stations. The stations were capable of carrying 50-caliber machine gun pods, napalm, general-purpose and fragmentation bombs, rocket launchers and parachute flares. They were rugged aircraft, requiring a minimum of maintenance and capable of operating from relatively unsophisticated airfields. The T-28 and B-26 missions were varied and included close air support, interdiction, visual reconnaissance, armed reconnaissance and armed escort and cover for ground operations. In the ground attack role, each aircraft had different advantages over the other: the B-26 could carry more ordnance, but the T28 was more maneuverable and presented a smaller target to the enemy on the ground.

Almost without exception, the T-28's targets were either small boats (sampans), wood structures or personnel. Due to the hit-and-run, highly mobile tactics of the Viet Cong, these targets were seldom found in large concentrations. Viet Cong troop concentrations were rarely more than one or two attack companies and the structures no more than ten to fifteen small huts; these were ideal-size targets for a flight of two T-28s. Occasionally, four or more aircraft would be used against a small enemy supply or ammunition concentration, with the size and nature of the target determining the number of aircraft required.

The T-28 pilots discovered by experience that two 500-pound napalm tanks are extremely effective against wood structures and hidden or dug-in troops, while 120-pound fragmentation bomb clusters are very good against scattered troops. The rockets with their high degree of accuracy are better utilized against spot targets such as sampans, while the 50-caliber machine guns combined with the T-28's maneuverability are better employed against highly mobile ground targets.

The techniques used to deliver the ordnance were basic air to ground tactics, modified slightly to adapt to the COIN environment of high jungle and obscured target areas. When employed against ground targets the T-28s would always attack in flights of two, three or four aircraft. This provided a continuous delivery of ordnance and hopefully forced the enemy to keep their heads down, thus improving pilot survivability. Normally, when an attack was begun, the heaviest ordnance (bombs and napalm) was expended first. This was to give the enemy a heavy shock and disrupt his defence, and to lighten the aircraft and allow greater maneuverability. The follow-up attacks would be made with the flight in trail formation, with each succeeding aircraft coming on target as the previous aircraft broke off. Each attack would be made from a different angle to avoid a pattern that would enable the enemy to anticipate the next attack, and the angles and airspeeds would also be varied, according to the ordnance delivered.

Napalm would be delivered in a 20- to 30-degree dive angle with the run beginning at around 2,000 feet and leveling off before the drop was made at 300 to 400 feet, with the aircraft staying low until clear of the target area. A rocket-firing dive would begin with a 30-degree angle of attack, with the rockets being fired at around 1,200 feet and the aircraft pulling out at 500 feet.

The restrictions on ordnance delivery specified that all in-country strikes be made under the direction of a VNAF Forward Air Controller, who usually flew a Cessna O-1 Bird Dog and would approve and mark the target with smoke for the attacking T-28s. The system at this early stage had many failings, as these extracts from two 3 January 1963 pilot mission reports illustrate:

"Mission 044. Victor flight of T-28s arrived in the area and rendezvoused with FAC Skylark. Victor heard calls from ground, both American and Vietnamese speaking English, requesting the T-28 give support to them as they were under heavy ground fire from the enemy. Skylark did not acknowledge. Victor asked Skylark if he was getting these calls and asked if they could strike in support of the ground troops. Skylark indicated he heard the calls, and then continued to circle the area without going to the aid of the troops. The ground troops laid out ground panels and put out smoke and again asked the T-28 flight for assistance.

"After about twenty minutes Skylark went to the ground troops, looked the area over and finally dropped smoke and directed Victor to make two passes, with rockets and guns. After making these two passes Skylark ordered Victor to climb to 2,500 feet and remain for air cover. Victor informed Skylark they still had frags, but Skylark repeated his instructions to orbit. Victor orbited the area until relieved by Arrow Blue. Victor was disturbed that the ground troops continued to ask for strike but were ignored by Skylark, and when strike was finally authorized all ordnance was not expended before Victor again had to climb out.

"Mission 045. FAC Delta Papa and Skylark. Friendly troops were taking refuge in a village while under attack from VC force. Papa marked VC position with white smoke but did not ask for air strike. Artillery fire was used instead. Friendly village was between the VC force and the friendly artillery, making it necessary for the artillery to fire over the friendly village. Artillery was adjusted but this fell short of the VC and directly into the friendly position. Approximately fifteen rounds hit the village, destroying approximately one dozen structures. One round barely missed one of the helicopters on the ground that had been shot down the day before.

"When X-Ray (the cover T-28s) departed the area, friendly choppers were removing the friendly dead and wounded from the village. X-Ray 2 heard two helicopter pilots talking over the radio. One asked the other if the mutiny was confirmed and the other answered in the affirmative. No other conversation was heard on this subject. X-Ray felt that an air strike would have been more appropriate against the VC concentration, especially in light of the fact that the artillery had to fire over the friendly position. X-Ray was relieved by Arrow Violet and returned to Bien Hoa without expending ordnance."

The air support organization clearly had a way to go to become an efficient and effective contributor to the war effort. Change was coming, however, and the summer of 1963 saw the "Farm Gate" detachment reinforced and then replaced by the 1st Air Commando Squadron. As time went by, dozens more squadrons arrived, and in 1965 James Henry returned to Vietnam again to spend a year flying the F-100 Super Sabre out of Bien Hoa. He returned home in one piece and can now look back objectively on the war and the reasons why it was not won.

I think there are several causes of failure.

1. The field commanders were not allowed to run the battle. When targets are directed from Washington off aerial photos and bomb run headings are prescribed so as to avoid orphanages and other humane obstructions in preference to the avoidance of SAM sites, it is, without question, an invitation to failure. On many of our missions in the south, one aircraft in the flight carried an elaborate camera pod mounted on the centerline, with fore-and-aft-aimed 16mm color motion cameras, activated with the gun trigger and bomb/rocket button. This film was sent to Washington so the bureaucrats could attempt to keep up with what was going on.

2. The refusal by Washington to allow the cut-off, by interdiction, of the supply of NVA troops and equipment coming down from the North. This should have been done prior to it becoming a flood in the 1968–70 time frame, by leveling Haiphong first and Hanoi second.

3. The media coverage that turned American opinion against US involvement. The majority of the civilian populace will not relate to burned bodies. I would not quarrel with media coverage, but to neutralize public opinion we needed equal coverage to come from the enemy side of the line to show equal atrocities of war, if it would have been possible.

4. The war dragged on so long, experience of personnel became a factor. When I left Vietnam, I returned to Luke AFB, Arizona, and was instructing in a squadron training replacement pilots for SEA. I was distressed by the caliber of the replacements we were working with — pilots who had little or no fighter experience, and older pilots, some with three or four years to retirement and most who had no desire to go to SEA.

If failure to win had to be attributed to one person, my vote would go to Robert McNamara and his insatiable desire for numbers, statistics and control. His commitment against delegating authority in any form was quite evident.



One of the more pleasant discoveries made by the author during his research was that a good number of former Vietnam pilots are either writing their autobiographies or intend to. One person who has begun the task is William E. McGee, who flew Hueys and fixed-wing aircraft in Vietnam during the early days of 1963–64. A heavy work load has postponed further work on his autobiography, but Bill has kindly sent one of his stories for inclusion in this book because, as he says, "It is more important that the story be told than who tells the story."

Log book entry: 3 January 1964. Nobody likes to work on Saturday even in Vietnam, but there we were at 0500 hours in the mess hall, forcing down scrambled powdered eggs and slightly soggy toast. Our briefing had been short and simple: be at the soccer field at Tam Ky at 0600 hours to take an ARVN Province Chief and his American adviser to inspect their line units. CWO Kirkham and I ate early chow in the empty mess hall along with the two gunship pilots. We seldom flew single-ship missions and this was no exception.

Kirk looked through the screens into the pre-dawn darkness and sighed, "This is a helluva way to spend a Saturday morning!" Someone else said, "Well, it still counts toward your thirty years." We laughed.

I estimated thirty minutes' flying time from Quang Ngai to our pick-up point and fifteen minutes for the aircraft pre-flight inspection, which left us enough time for another cup of coffee. We refilled our mugs and returned to the table. I reached for the bottle of chloroquine tablets. The freshly brewed coffee was hot and helped wash down the quinine taste. The chloroquine was supposed to prevent malaria, but about half the unit was only pretending to take the tablets in the hope of contracting malaria and being shipped home early.

I checked my watch and slugged down the rest of my coffee: "Time to go." One of the other pilots came out with the old John Wayne cliché, "Saddle up and move 'em out," as we grabbed our helmet bags and slung on the bulky flak vests. As we walked out the screen door of the mess hall, also known as "Chez Louis," Kirk called out, "My compliments to the chef." The sleepy GI who had served the meal flipped us a bird once our backs were turned. "Smart-ass officers," he mumbled under his breath and returned to his thoroughly worn, six-month-old Playboy magazine.

The four of us walked silently in the damp darkness across the PSP apron to the Hueys. Our pre-flights were slowed because we had to use flashlights. About halfway through the inspection, the rain started. It came pelting down in sheets across the runway, chasing us inside the Huey. We dove inside, slamming the door behind us. The crew chief and gunner were halfway between the maintenance shack and the other side of our Huey when the rain hit. They were both drenched by the time they tumbled into the chopper. "Beautiful day, isn't it?" grinned Sergeant Malone, our crew chief.

The gunner, Corporal Young, was a new guy from the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii. "Does this mean they'll cancel the mission?" he asked hopefully.

"No way, Jose," said Kirkham. "This is the rainy season. We'll be in and out of this stuff all day long. Lots of fun."

"I completed the Daily Inspection just before you got here," offered Sergeant Malone. "If you'll take my word for it, this bird is ready to fly."

"I'll take your word because you're flying with us, Sergeant," was my reply. "If this Huey falls out of the sky, it's your ass as well as ours." I would have taken his word anyway. Malone was the best crew chief in the 117th, a real quality individual.

The control tower was closed, so we taxied out to the runway and made a slow, hovering, 360degree turn to clear ourselves for take off.

Kirk said, "Looks OK to me. Hell, anyone with any sense is still asleep in the sack, not out flying at this time of day." He was right too.

I glanced over my shoulder and got "thumbs up" signals from Malone and Corporal Young. The gunship called in ready to go too. I pulled pitch, holding forward pressure on the cyclic stick, pointing us down the runway. The two Hueys gathered speed and climbed out together heading north. We reached a safe altitude and followed the coastline flying in a loose formation.

Kirkham broke the silence. "My, but it sure is a beautiful morning now that the rain has stopped.


Excerpted from Full Throttle by Philip D. Chinnery. Copyright © 1988 Philip D. Chinnery. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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