On Yankee Station: The Naval Air War over Vietnam (Bluejacket Books Series)


Combining vivid personal narrative with historical and operational analyses, this book takes a candid look at U.S. naval airpower in the Vietnam War. Coauthors John Nichols, a fighter pilot in the war, and Barrett Tillman, an award-winning aviation historian, make full use of their extensive knowledge of the subject to detail the ways in which airpower was employed in the years prior to the fall of Saigon. Confronting the conventional belief that airpower failed in Vietnam, they show that when applied correctly,...
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On Yankee Station: The Naval Air War over Vietnam

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Combining vivid personal narrative with historical and operational analyses, this book takes a candid look at U.S. naval airpower in the Vietnam War. Coauthors John Nichols, a fighter pilot in the war, and Barrett Tillman, an award-winning aviation historian, make full use of their extensive knowledge of the subject to detail the ways in which airpower was employed in the years prior to the fall of Saigon. Confronting the conventional belief that airpower failed in Vietnam, they show that when applied correctly, airpower was effective, but because it was often misunderstood and misapplied, the end results were catastrophic. Their book offers a compelling view of what it was like to fly from Yankee Station between 1964 and 1973 and important lessons for future conflicts. At the same time, it adds important facts to the permanent war record. Following an analysis of the state of carrier aviation in 1964 and a definition of the rules of engagement, it describes the tactics used in strike warfare, the airborne and surface threats, electronic countermeasures, and search and rescue. It also examines the influence of political decisions on the conduct of the war and the changing nature of the Communist opposition. Appendixes provide useful statistical data on carrier deployments, combat sorties, and aircraft losses.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781557504951
  • Publisher: Naval Institute Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2001
  • Series: Bluejacket Books Series
  • Pages: 179
  • Product dimensions: 5.96 (w) x 9.04 (h) x 0.54 (d)

Meet the Author

Before his death, John B. Nichols was a retired commander in the U.S. Navy who flew 264 combat missions off carriers in the Tonkin Gulf between 1966 and 1973. A resident of Melborne, Florida, he is also the coauthor, with Tillman, of the novel Warriors.

Barrett Tillman has written books on the Dauntless dive bomber, the Hellcat, Corsair, Crusader, Avenger, and Wildcat, all available from the Naval Institute. He lives in Arizona.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


The Secretary of the Navy has decided that the science of aerial navigation has reached that point where aircraft must form a large part of our naval force.
—Navy Department news release
10 January 1914

By the time of the Tonkin Gulf Incident in August 1964, the U.S. Navy had many decades of aviation experience. The carriers Ticonderoga (CVA-14) and Constellation (CVA-64) that launched the retaliatory strikes against North Vietnamese PT-boat bases were directly descended from the USS Langley (CV-1), converted from a collier in 1922. The supersonic jets launched by the Ticonderoga and the Constellation were a far cry from the flying machines that the first generation of tailhook aviators nursed into the air from the Langley's improvised flight deck.

    A half-century of institutional experience had brought U.S. Naval Aviation to a position of leadership in that esoteric martial art. Combat operations in World War II and Korea, combined with a growing number of experienced naval airmen able to articulate, consolidate, and pass on their knowledge, proved beyond doubt that in the latter part of the twentieth century seapower was impossible without airpower.

    By 1964, although at least nine nations operated fixed-wing aircraft carriers, the United States possessed more flattops than the rest of the world's navies combined. With sixteen strike carriers and ten antisubmarine carriers, theU.S. Navy was able to deploy one or more flattops almost anywhere in the world.

    Not all these carriers, of course, were available at any one time. A new generation of ships emerged with the commissioning of the Forrestal (CV-59) in 1955, but the U.S. Navy still relied heavily upon the World War II generation: the numerous Essex-class ships and three postwar Midways. The Essexes were long-lived and versatile. Originally designed for a standard displacement of 27,100 tons, with axial decks operating World War II aircraft, they were extensively modified during the 1950s. In the SCB-27C, that is, "27-Charlie" configuration, they were modernized with angled flight decks, steam catapults, and numerous structural modifications. Capable of operating most jet aircraft in the fleet, the Essex ships were employed as either strike or antisubmarine platforms.

    The Forrestal and subsequent designs were significant advances over the Essex ships. They displaced twice the Essex-class original tonnage, carried 70 percent more ship's fuel, three times the aviation fuel and two and one-half times the ordnance. More stable in heavy seas, they could operate aircraft 95 percent of the time in the roughest seas. They enjoyed better safety records than the Essex class.

    An Essex or Forrestal carrier usually embarked about seventy aircraft in the strike role. Around 1964, Essex and Fortestal ships carried different types of fighters. The F-4 Phantom, for example, flew exclusively from the larger ships, and when the A-6 Intruder bomber joined the fleet, it, too, was found only in big-deck air wings.

    Regardless of ship type—Essex-, Midway-, or Forrestal-class—the air wing composition was similar: two fighter squadrons; two or three attack squadrons; and early-warning, photoreconnaissance, and helicopter detachments. Typically, the 27-Charlie ships flew two F-8 outfits; an A-1 and two A-4 squadrons; and RF-8s, E-1s, and KA-3 tankers. In large-deck air wings, one or both fighter squadrons had F-4s while the photoreconnaissance and the heavy attack roles were filled by A-5 Vigilantes.

    Fleet air defense was the realm of the Phantom. Its interceptor configuration, with two-man crew and radar-guided missiles, was excellent for the role, day or night. But the F-4 was never intended as an air superiority fighter. Neither design nor training leaned in that direction and, as events proved, the Phantom players had to come from a long way behind to catch up with the MiGs in the Southeast Asia league.

    In the Vought Crusader, the navy possessed one of the finest day fighters ever built. The F-8 community, ignoring high accident rates, perfected the doctrine and techniques of air combat maneuvering (ACM) that would make "the last gunfighter" almost invincible in combat. The F-8, though, was limited as a nightfighter, despite the variants built for that role. The small radar dish in models prior to the F-8E prevented adequate search, and ground clutter badly denigrated the low-level capability. Additionally, F-8s were not armed with radar missiles and consequently had to engage at visual distances with heat-seeking Sidewinders.

    Carrier air wings were supposedly day- and night-qualified, although as noted, little nocturnal strike capability existed in the 1950s to mid-1960s. Propeller-driven Skyraiders and Skyhawk jets could bomb under flares on moonless nights, but such operations were dangerous against contemporary air defense networks. Not until the production of the next-generation carrier bomber, Grumman's superb A-6, did the fleet possess a true all-weather strike capability.

    Three aircraft that served the fleet's attack squadrons were Douglas-built. The World War II-designed A-1 (née AD) Skyraider was a wonderful airplane—rugged, long-lived, and versatile. In addition to its strike role, it flew in electronic countermeasures (ECM) and airborne early-warning (AEW) variants as well. Though piston-powered and relatively slow, it possessed exceptional loiter time—a characteristic that endeared it to search-and-rescue operators. But by 1964 the age of the prop was nearing an end, and in 1968 the venerable "Spad" disappeared from the Tonkin Gulf.

    Carrying the bulk of ordnance was the sporty A-4 Skyhawk. Designed by master wingsmith Ed Heinemann (as were the A-1 and A-3), this single-seater jet exemplifed the designer's philosophy: simplicity, ruggedness, and ease of maintenance. The latter became extremely important as air operations intensified in 1965. Day after day, the A-4 squadrons reported 85 to 100 percent availability. If one airplane kept us in the air over North Vietnam, it was the A-4.

    The big, underrated A-3 Skywarrior represented a quantum leap in size and capability of carrier aircraft when it appeared in 1956. The original design specification was for 100,000 pounds but Heinemann's Douglas team brought it in at 58,000. Intended as a nuclear bomber, the "Whale" eventually did almost everything else. It served as an ECM platform, but primarily it functioned as an aerial gas station. As one flying admiral said, "Tanker fuel is the most expensive there is. But when you need it, you need it bad!"

    In-flight refueling was a routine evolution in naval aviation by 1964, easier in daytime than at night, of course. Such specialized skills as aerial refueling, carrier landings, over-water navigation, and precise weapons delivery marked naval aviators as perhaps the most accomplished of fliers. (Though our air force cousins never evidenced any reluctance in arguing that point!)

    The entire package—of ships, aircraft, and fliers—was aimed at serving the objectives of U.S. national interest, however defined. Specifically, the strike carrier force had two primary goals: control of the sea and projection of power ashore. Secondary missions included what navies have done since there were navies: show the flag and maintain "presence." The latter had much to do with deterrence. If you show a strong enough presence, you may not have to project power; often the implied threat is sufficient.

    The critical background of naval aviation was formed in World War II and Korea. In 1964, only eleven years had passed since the Korean Conflict. Many active aviators and most officers at squadron commander level and above had had fleet experience during that fracas, if not actual combat experience.

    Naval aviation's institutional experience from Korea had many similarities with the war brewing in the Tonkin Gulf. Both were sparked by communist aggression. Both were early cast as no-win contests owing to political decisions by the national leadership. Concern for Soviet and Communist Chinese reaction was an overriding factor in both Korea and Vietnam, with some justification in the former, but apparently with almost none in the latter. Chinese/Soviet concern was uppermost in the minds of Johnson administration officials. Nixon's actions—mining and bombing previously off-limit targets—did not result in China/USSR escalating the war.

    Neither war was a naval war, so the carrier's sole purpose in each was power projection ashore. This involved both direct air support to ground forces and strikes against enemy logistical and occasionally industrial targets. But as we shall see, the rules of engagement (ROE) attained specific levels in Korea and extremely specific levels in Vietnam, thus imposing restraints on the proper application of airpower. Not only were targets affected but tactics as well: ordnance, strike timing, even run-in headings were among the elements strictly controlled. The result reduced the military chain of command to little more than a communications channel.

    Overseeing the tactical control of Asian operations was Task Force 77, at first in the Sea of Japan and Yellow Sea flanking the Korean peninsula and later in the Tonkin Gulf off Indochina. Carriers rotated in and out of TF 77 as available or as need arose, with carrier division (CarDiv) commanders alternating as the task force commander (CTF 77). Seldom were four carriers on hand at any one time. (The command structure and division of labor will be examined later.)

    Air wing operations were also similar in Korea and Vietnam. Deckload strikes (upwards of thirty aircraft) were flown against briefed targets in addition to cyclic operations employing smaller formations. "Cyclic ops" constituted the majority of carrier sorties, as there was more requirement for these flexible missions. In Vietnam, specific targets such as railyards or major bridges were objects of Alpha strikes, while Rolling Thunder operations cycled smaller, free-lancing missions in search of specified types of targets. The shorter endurance time of unrefueled jets mandated more intense schedules in Korea and Vietnam than carrier aviators had known in World War II. A typical cycle time in 1944 was four hours from launch to recovery. Twenty years later, cyclic ops were run, as a rule, on a ninety-minute basis.

    Air operations were conducted almost entirely without threat to the carriers off Korea and Vietnam, although antisubmarine operations were maintained as a precaution in Korea. We owned the sea and mainly we owned the air. We owned the air particularly in Korea, where only five carrier-based aircraft were lost to hostile planes. In such a situation, it should have been possible to achieve almost anything within the technical limits of aircraft and ordnance, but such was not the case.

    There are two major reasons airpower did not achieve its potential in these Asian wars. First, the relative crudeness of communist logistic and communications systems allowed any damaged segments to be repaired virtually overnight. Second, the political limits placed on targeting and tactics prevented dealing with the source of supply. If we had choked off supplies and munitions at their entry into the theater, we would not have had to chase down individual trucks (or oxcarts or bicycles) on their way through the combat zone.

    Ironically, the correct procedure eventually was applied in North Vietnam. But by 1972, when Haiphong and other ports were closed by mining, it was far too late. Public support for the war had eroded to a point where disengagement became the preferred alternative to victory or stalemate. Thus, airpower's potential for success against North Vietnam was lost to view. The "failure" of airpower remains one of the enduring myths of the Vietnam War, and one that we shall examine in this book.

    The pilot's immediate concern centered on the risk imposed by the enemy. Although few U.S. planes were actually shot down by MiGs, the danger was always there. Far and away the greatest cause of loss to navy aircraft in both Korea and Vietnam was the airplane's oldest enemy: gunfire.

    Over Korea, the threat was similar to that in World War II: barrage fire from both small arms and major-caliber antiaircraft artillery (AAA), occasionally radar-directed. Over North Vietnam, the new surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) forced attacking aircraft to fly low, thereby exposing the planes to fire from otherwise obsolete guns.

    Korea was the first conflict in which jet aircraft operated from carriers, as witnessed by the Grumman F9F series and the McDonnell F2H. In Vietnam, carrier aircraft already in the inventory (much as the F9F and F2H from Korea) were inaugurated to combat while other types such as the A-6 and A-7 joined the fleet in time of war. More sophisticated ordnance, such as standoff weapons and antiradiation missiles, also appeared. For weapons as for warriors, the only meaningful test is trial by combat, and Korea and Vietnam provided that test.

    Despite the similarities, Korea and Vietnam differed greatly at the strategic and tactical levels. The conflict in Korea began abruptly, on 25 June 1950, when the U.S. Navy had only six fleet carriers in commission and just one in the theater. Vietnam, in contrast, was a long process of gradual escalation, and there was no shortage of ships or aircraft.

    Unlike North Korea, North Vietnam experienced no invasions by naval aviation's long-time partner, the amphibious force. For North Vietnam there was no Inchon or Wonsan.

    Threat levels were considerably higher in North Vietnam than in Korea. SAMs appeared in the 1960s, and aerial combat "Up North" was a genuine concern from 1965 to 1973. The Vietnam War, which lasted almost three times as long as the Korean Conflict, had three times the number of losses in air combat but five times the number of victories over enemy aircraft. Hence there was more aerial activity in Vietnam and greater opportunity for loss.

    Another major difference between the two conflicts was in the role of electronic warfare. ECM aircraft such as EA-1 Skyraiders (AD-4Ns in Korea) flew in both wars, with largely the same vacuum-tube technology, but dedicated jet ECM platforms such as the EA-3 and eventually the supersophisticated EA-6B participated in Vietnam.

    Since Korea tremendous strides had been made in the capabilities of radar and communications. Surface-to-air missiles relied almost entirely upon radar tracking and guidance before electro-optical systems became available, and a large proportion of North Vietnam's AAA batteries also were radar-directed. Consequently, electronic countermeasures assumed more importance than before.

    Another tactical difference was in the composition of carrier air wings. In Korea a fleet carrier usually had aboard two jet fighter squadrons and three propeller fighter-bomber squadrons. At no time did Panthers and Banshees represent more than half of a carrier air group during Korea. But at the beginning of the Vietnam War, the situation was almost the reverse. A-is still flew from most carriers, but they were already being phased out in favor of A-4s. The higher threat levels Up North, where conventional wisdom had it that "speed is life," forced the retirement of Skyraiders. From mid-1968 on, all carrier-based fighter, attack, and reconnaissance aircraft were jet-powered, However, propeller-driven aircraft still performed the early-warning and antisubmarine functions without hardship. E-1s, E-2s, and S-2s were all propeller-driven.

    The land war in Vietnam involved more coordination with our allies than did the war as fought from the sea. In Korea, British and Australian carriers had shared the duty with American flattops. In fact, during the early phase, they constituted half the carrier force offshore. But by 1964 the British Commonwealth could not have spared carriers for service in the Tonkin Gulf even if it had so desired. American carrier forces, however, were able to meet the need, even if some ships were hard-pressed with continuous deployments.

    Task Force 77 ships were a good deal less mobile off Indochina than they had been in Korean waters. This was largely due to geography, as Korea is a peninsula and Indochina borders almost wholly on the Tonkin Gulf. The U.S. carriers therefore operated in just two spots—"Yankee Station" south of Hainan for strikes against North Vietnam and "Dixie Station" off South Vietnam. From Dixie Station, strikes were also launched into Laos and Cambodia.

    By the end of the Korean War, jets were becoming more numerous and more capable, and supercarriers were about to appear. In a sense—because of the axial-deck carrier and propeller-driven Skyraiders and Corsairs—Korea was World War II again, only with jets.

    With modified Essex-class carriers becoming more available and the Forrestals entering service, naval aviation entered a decade of relative stasis interrupted by spurts of remarkable progress. By 1960 the ships and aircraft—and many of the aviators—that would be used against North Vietnam were in the fleet, building experience.

    But the peace of the 1950s was deceptive. From 1954 through 1959, Soviet or Chinese aircraft attacked U.S. Navy patrol planes at least once a year, and they shot down several. Air Force and civilian planes also were victims of harassment and attack.

    Communistic regimes also were being established close to the United States. The Cuban revolution of 1959 presaged changes in Latin America that continue to this day. Whether stronger measures earlier would have averted the problems will never be known. But the 1960-64 period brought about a considerable rethinking in naval aviation.

    Carrier aviation enjoyed success in the Mediterranean (an American lake in those days) through support of the Marine landings in Lebanon in 1958. Four years later, with President Kennedy's blockade during the Cuban missile crisis, naval aviation again felt success when eight carriers enforced the barrier against delivery of Soviet nuclear missiles to Cuba.

    In the long run, the United States probably lost more than it gained in that confrontation. Aside from unpublicized concessions to the Soviets in return for their removal of the ICBMs from Cuba, the Russians were provided a humiliating but harmless lesson in seapower. They learned the lesson and began constructing a modern deep-water navy that has now grown to global proportions.

    When the Bay of Pigs fiasco occurred eighteen months before the blockade, carrier airmen were also on hand. As if in anticipation of procedures over North Vietnam, Skyhawk pilots of Attack Squadron 34 watched the amphibious operation founder for lack of air cover. The puny Cuban air force, unopposed within visual distance of the orbiting Blue Blasters flying off Essex, met no more opposition than a steely-eyed stare. Even that was enough to dissuade one Cuban pilot from finishing off a crippled B-26, and the episode became legend in VA-34.

    Actually, Atlantic Fleet pilots were well acquainted with Cuban waters owing to the curious situation that left the naval base and air station at Guantanamo Bay in American hands. "Gitmo" was frequently the site of live-fire exercises before Castro came to power, and some missions were conducted thereafter. One of the amusing diversions in those days was to make a low-level supersonic pass along the fence that divided the base from the rest of the island. Such antics frequently elicited a nastygram from Fidel, which was well received by all hands.

    Despite the apparent peace of the Caribbean, those of us flying in AirLant knew that the Soviets and East Germans were bringing Cuban pilots up to speed in MiG-17s and, later, in MiG-21s. Inevitably, we began to tangle. One episode from the Christmas holidays of 1964 will illustrate.

    Cuban MiGs occasionally harassed U.S. patrol planes beyond the twelve-mile limit, following a pattern established by the Soviets and Chinese. Fighter Squadron 62, between deployments at NAS Key West, Florida, was maintaining a duty section of new F-8Es in rotation with other squadrons. My section leader and I were on call when the horn sounded.

    Two MiG-17s had made themselves obnoxious to a navy surveillance aircraft in international airspace south of Havana. The jets pulled up in front of the patrol plane, close aboard, rocking it with their turbulence. Our section scrambled and was gear-up in ninety seconds, booming south in afterburner.

    When we arrived, the MiGs had turned for home, leaving an angry and shaken navy crew behind. The Crusader leader, one of the best carrier aviators I ever knew, dropped behind the lead MiG at a mile-and-a-half while I tracked the wingman. The Cubans were blissfully unaware of us; they made no turns or evasive maneuvers.

    I heard the AIM-9D's tracking signal in my earphones. It was a good tone; the missile was working perfectly. The leader called our controller: "What do you want me to do?" A pause, then, "Stand by." I was incredulous. A perfect setup was being lost to indecision. When we reached SAM range offshore, the controller radioed, "Suggest you come port." We broke off and returned to base.

    I was disappointed, more so when we were later ushered into the office of the rear admiral commanding the district. We found him on the phone to Washington. When he hung up, he told us we had passed up a beautiful opportunity. The MiGs were blatantly in the wrong, well outside Cuban waters, and we could have fired. But the F-8 leader, who was really too nice a fellow to be a fighter pilot, had missed a chance to teach the bad guys a lesson.

    Years later, my section leader still thought we had acted properly. He didn't want two dead men on his conscience. It was three and a half years before I saw a MiG-17 again, and then it was flown by a twenty-three-year-old Vietnamese (his age noted on a biographical sheet provided by an intelligence officer) who tried to kill the photo pilot I was escorting.

    This episode was not the only U.S. encounter with MiGs. Once in a while some of our pilots got a look at MiG-21s when they flew at contrail altitudes. On these rare occasions the Crusaders maintained a three-mile lateral separation as each side looked over the opposition.

    The 21 was a sleek, attractive Mach-two fighter that appeared in 1956. For years it was overrated by our intelligence people, but the F-8 community practiced hard to counter the main threat aircraft. When practice ended and it was war Up North, we were ready.

    However, naval aviation was not entirely ready for the air-defense environment that quickly evolved in North Vietnam. This was largely because we misread the lessons of Korea and Cuba. The main reason was the surface-to-air missile. At least two American aircraft had been lost to Soviet SA-2s before Vietnam. Undoubtedly there were others, but we knew of only two: Gary Powers's U-2 over Russia and another U-2 over Cuba during the missile crisis. Because of these incidents, the analysts insisted the SAM was the primary threat. After all, if it could knock down high-flying airplanes like the U-2, what chance did we have in tactical aircraft at 20,000 to 30,000 feet? So the conventional wisdom held that air strikes would be made below the minimum effective range of Soviet missiles. This altitude was variously reported up to 3,500 feet, and we came in for a nasty surprise on that point a few years later.

    In order to put bombs on target at low level, it is necessary to slow down the ordnance so the bomber isn't hit by the blast. Most types of conventional bombs will throw fragments two thousand feet into the air, threatening the aircraft. Ordnance engineers designed the retarded bomb, with fins that deploy at the tail upon release and slow the weapon's descent, allowing the aircraft time to get away from the blast. Mark 82 Snakeyes were the most common bomb of this category.


Excerpted from ON YANKEE STATION by John B. Nichols, USN (Ret.), and Barrett Tillman. Copyright © 1987 by U.S. Naval Institute. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.
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Table of Contents

1 Background to Doctrine 1
2 Rules of Engagement 15
3 Morale: The Only War We Had 33
4 The Surface Threat: AAA and SAMs 49
5 The Airborne Threat: MiGs 67
6 ECM: The Electron War 87
7 Strike Warfare, CV Style 99
8 Pilot Down: Search and Rescue, Escape and Evasion 117
9 What If? 131
10 Recommendations 139
App. A Vietnam Air War Chronology 151
App. B Combat Sorties and Aircraft Losses 163
App. C Overall Air-to-Air Combat Results 167
App. D Vietnam Carrier Deployments 171
Notes 173
Index 177
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