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Tactical Transport Mission
There were two main missions from Naha AB, Okinawa. The first was the air land/airdrop mission in support of the Army and Marine Corps in South Vietnam. The second was Forward Air Control (FAC) over Laos and North Vietnam at night with 8 and 1/2 hours of continuous light. That mission was called Blindbat/Lamplighter. There was another subsidiary mission for leaflet drops but that will not be addressed in these tales.
A very good book about Blindbat/Lamplighter has been written by a pilot who flew those missions after that mission received night observation devices (NODs) for the aircraft. All the tales about Blindbat/ Lamplighter included here are before NODs were made available to that mission. Each mission required the navigator to do two to three hours of target and defenses study before the flight. It involved using photographs, debriefings, current intelligence, activity reports, aircraft damage and loss reports and word of mouth. Each mission lasted from 8 and 1/2 to 11 and 1/2 hours and was flown at 5 thousand feet above ground level. Laos and North Vietnam were heavily defended with anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). North Vietnam, in some areas also had surface-to-air Missiles (SAMs). Because of that Blindbat/Lamplighter missions were generally limited to Route Packages 1, 2 and 4. On very rare occasions, a mission might be sent to far western Route Package 5 in the vicinity of Dien Bien Phu. The navigator was also responsible for communications monitoring during the mission on two ultra-high frequency (UHF), two very high frequency (VHF), two frequency modulation (FM), one high frequency (HF) radios and the Intercom. The navigator recommended targets to the aircraft commander (A/C) and briefed the crew on the importance, potential defenses and recent activities. The pilots shared the responsibility for either flying the airplane or giving directions to strike aircraft as FAC. The flight engineers alternated between mechanical operations responsibilities and eyes outside the aircraft. The loadmasters were responsible for setting up and launching either the log or the parachute flair as called for by the FAC. They were also responsible for eyes outside the aircraft for the rear hemisphere of the aircraft. Cabin crew was responsible for the forward hemisphere. No crew could fly FAC missions until they finished FAC School and were certified for Laos and North Vietnam. We were advised that our certification did not include South Vietnam.
The air land/ airdrop mission in South Vietnam involved the routine delivery of cargo and people; service to short fields with dirt, membrane, or pierced steel planking (PSP) runways by highly qualified crews; airdrop of equipment by standard or container delivery system (CDS) methods, Parachute Low Altitude Deployment System (PLADS), Ground Proximity Extraction System (GPES); and airdrop of personnel. The shortest runways for C-130A short field take-off and landing qualified crews were supposed to be 1100 feet. A few were found to be shorter upon inspection. Usually the C-130s were expected to land before or after a battle. There were some occasions when troops were ferried to a battle in progress. They locked and loaded aboard the aircraft and went out the rear doors right into combat. The crews then took off immediately so that the aircraft would not be mortar bait and so other aircraft could land.
This first tale involves a comrade, buddy and friend, Joseph G. Green, Lieutenant Colonel, United States Air Force (USAF) Retired, Command Pilot. I met Joe when I reported into Lockbourne Air Force Base (AFB), Ohio. We wound up living in the same building, then sharing an apartment. Joe's squadron, 41st Troop Carrier Squadron (TCS), was mobilized and moved to Naha, Okinawa. Six months later, I was ordered to Okinawa and assigned to the 21st Tactical Airlift Squadron (TAS). Squadron designations had changed from TCS to TAS. We continued our friendship through Vietnam and Thailand. Later we left Okinawa and were assigned to the C-141A aircraft at Norton AFB, California. We shared a house there and later were in each other's wedding. We remain friends to this day.
Joe and his crew went to the Blindbat/Lamplighter Mission in August of 1967. It was set-up as a three-month temporary duty (TDY) from Naha. Joe was a captain at the time. His co-pilot was First Lieutenant Robert Therrien. Bob could out talk a woman and he never ran out of chatter. He quickly obtained the personal call sign" Motormouth." We all called him "Motor" for short. Joe's navigator was Captain Fred Lauterbach. He was a quiet, efficient and effective professional. He was always business-like. He was a direct opposite to Motor. The flight engineer was Technical Sergeant McGuckin. He was a real professional engineer and he made master sergeant while we were serving in Vietnam. The names of the other engineer and the two loadmasters have slipped my memory due to the passage of time.
During the second week of September in 1967, Joe and his crew were flying the early mission, Lamplighter, and they found a string of vehicles coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. At first, the crew saw what they thought was a tree in the middle of the road. When they circled around, they noticed that the tree had moved. Upon further inspection they saw a gun barrel extending from the branches. They deliberately went away for five to ten minutes. When they returned, they found ten vehicles on the road, but they could tell that they weren't the traditional trucks. They didn't look anything like them. Joe's crew thought they might be tanks, but they weren't sure about Soviet tank design. The crew filled out an Intelligence Report and filed it with Intelligence at Ubon, but they were told there were no Soviet tanks in Southeast Asia. Joe and Fred asked me how we can check on Soviet vehicles. I suggested that Intelligence ought to have pictures of Soviet vehicles given the status of politics in the world. Joe looked at me and said, "You are absolutely right." He and Fred went back into Intelligence and spent several hours in there. They found a picture that resembled the vehicles and they made two copies. The next night, Joe's crew flew the late mission, Blindbat. Joe and Fred figured out where the vehicles ought to be if they were tanks and went and looked for them. They found them and from the photos that they had copied, they identified those vehicles as Soviet tanks coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
When the crew landed and debriefed, they reported that they had observed 10 tanks coming down the Trail. They had positively identified them by using the photos from Ubon Intelligence. They then went home to sleep. The next day Joe stopped by Intelligence to see if there was any response to their report. He learned that Seventh Air Force (7th AF) Intelligence had said that there were no Soviet tanks in Southeast Asia. Besides, they opined, it was monsoon season in the North and no tanks could get through the muskeg. Joe argued that there was plenty of muskeg in the Soviet Union and surely, we didn't think the Soviets were so stupid that they would design tanks that they couldn't use in defense of their homeland. Joe was told that there were no Soviet tanks in Southeast Asia and to drop it.
It was Joe's crew's night off and we were getting ready to fly the early Lamplighter mission. Joe told my A/C, Lieutenant Colonel Al Holl what had transpired and asked him if we would look for the tanks and verify their findings. Fred came and told me where to look and they shared the pictures of the Soviet tanks with Lt Col Holl, our co-pilot, Capt. Mitch Michaud, and me. After crossing the Mekong and making sure it was dark enough to enter the operations area, we proceeded to the area that Joe and Fred had indicated. It took awhile but we finally found the column of tanks and verified their number and that they were tanks. We didn't have any ordinance to do anything, so we went to another area to work the rest of the night. At the end of the mission, we debriefed and reported what we had found. Our report was denied credibility. What do you do when Intelligence refuses to accept your report? You can either get frustrated or go and do something else. Our crew decided to go do something else. Joe and Fred tracked those tanks for six weeks until it was time for their crew to return to Naha at the end of October.
Our crew was at Ubon for another month. Joe asked us to check on the tanks and let him know where they went. The week before we left, we were working a target just east of Tchepone in Laos. Colonel. Holl asked me where those tanks should be. It took a few minutes to compute the distance based on average distance per day from our last sighting. I told him either just south of Tchepone if they stayed on the trail or in one of these truck parks near where we are working if they turned east toward Vietnam. Colonel Holl said, "I may see one." He took us past the truck park and Mitch and I could see part of a vehicle sticking out of the trees. We couldn't positively identify it, but it didn't look like a truck. At our debrief, we told Ubon Intelligence that we might have caught another glimpse of one of the Soviet tanks. If so, it had turned east toward Vietnam and was on the Laotian highway that ran into Route 9 in Vietnam. It was the last week in November 1967 and we returned to Naha. I told Joe what we had seen.
Joe and his crew volunteered to go back to Ubon for another three-month tour with the Blindbat/Lamplighter mission. They returned to Ubon just a few days before Tet in 1968. When the Tet Offensive of 1968 began, I thought to myself, Joe is missing the main action. Little did I know what was to happen.
In early January of 1968, an Army Special Forces Team from Lang Vei in Vietnam reported finding tank tracks in an empty tank park in eastern Laos. They were asked if they were trying to be heroes and their report was disregarded. On 24 January 1968, an Air Force FAC in South Vietnam spotted five tanks and called in an air strike. One tank was damaged, but no warning went out. On 6 February 1968, tanks overran the Lang Vei Special Forces Camp just southwest of Khe Sanh City and of Khe Sanh Marine Combat Base beginning the Siege of Khe Sanh. On 7 February 1968, The Pacific Edition of Stars and Stripes headlines screamed that the Special Forces Camp at Lang Vei had been overrun by Soviet tanks. The article reported that Military Assistance Command-Vietnam (MAC-V) Intelligence had no idea where those tanks had come from. They had believed the enemy did not have tanks in Southeast Asia.
Lang Vei was a great embarrassment for MAC-V. More than 500 of the 600 Special Forces and Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) members at Lang Vei lost their lives. Only two of the Special Forces A Team survived. The MAC-V, Commander, General William Westmoreland, could not believe that tanks could get to South Vietnam without being seen. He asked all commanders to cite any instances of reports that had included tanks. The on-site Blindbat/Lamplighter Mission Commander at Ubon reported that one of the aircrews had filed an Intelligence Report of tanks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He was ordered to come to Saigon along with the Aircraft Commander to brief Commander, MAC-V and his senior staff. Unfortunately, neither Joe Green nor I remember the name of the on-site Mission Commander. He worked during the day and took care of the administrative and operational details. The aircrews flew at night and slept during the day. He set-up a message system so that he wouldn't have to break an aircrew member's sleep cycle except for an emergency reason. We rarely saw him after the first week of TDY. But he and Captain Joe Green were sent to Saigon to brief Commander, MAC-V and his senior staff. They delivered copies of the Intelligence Report and Joe told General Westmoreland how they had tracked those tanks down the Ho Chi Minh trail. General Westmoreland asked the head of MAC-V Intelligence why he didn't have a copy of the report in his files. The man made no excuses. He said he had never seen that intelligence report and did not know why it was not in the files. General Westmoreland thanked the Blindbat/Lamplighter Mission Commander and Captain Green for their briefing and sent them back to fight the war. We can only assume that procedural changes in the handling of intelligence reports resulted from that briefing.
Forward Air Control (FAC) School
One great thing about the military is that they insist on training you for any job that they intend to use you for with all the accumulated knowledge that they have acquired about how to safely do the job they are sending you to do. That was true about the job of being a FAC and operating in hostile airspace at night and providing up to 8 and 1/2 hours of continuous light for strike aircraft with a four-engine turbo prop powered transport aircraft. FAC School consisted of one week of intense classes, a dollar ride and a check ride. Both flights were at least 8 hours long. Completion of this course qualified the crew to perform forward air control duties in Laos and North Vietnam.
The week of FAC School was the only time during your tour as a FAC crew that you were operating during the normal duty day. After that, the routine was to sleep during the day and fly at night. There was a lot to learn to become a successful FAC for all members of the crew. The loadmasters had to learn to install the flare dispenser and to remove it. They had to learn emergency jettison procedures to get rid of the dispenser if a flare ignited prematurely and it couldn't be dislodged. That decision had to be made very quickly because a magnesium parachute flare burning inside the aircraft could bring the aircraft down. They had to learn how to safely arm both the parachute and log flares that we carried and dispensed and the correct and safe way to dispense. They also had to learn what antiaircraft fire looked like and to describe any hostile fire, accuracy and approximate distance with respect to clock position from the aircraft. All aircrew members had to learn this. The color of tracer was important to properly identifying a threat. They had to practice all that they learned until it became rote knowledge.
The engineers practiced emergency procedures until they could be done in the dark by feel. They learned how to enable or disable the exterior lights of the aircraft so that lights could be chosen and used selectively as required for the mission and for safety. For example, the C-130A had formation lights on both the top and the bottom of the wing. Normally they came on at the same time. Our engineers had to be able to select either top or bottom lights, as required, depending upon the defenses being faced and the number of strike aircraft that might have to join on the FAC aircraft. They were able to substitute secondary systems for primary if an emergency called for it. They also learned to look for and identify antiaircraft threats to the forward hemisphere of the aircraft and call the clock position.
Pilots and navigator studied together throughout the week of FAC School. There was a lot to learn. We had to learn about when and when not to use exterior lights; to avoid being outlined by cloud cover; how to check in and check out with our airborne battlefield command and control crew (ABCCC), Alleycat; how to take control of strike aircraft from the ABCCC and how to return control to them; how to establish holding patterns and altitudes for strike aircraft as we familiarized them with the target, the defenses, terrain features and safest direction to approach the target; how to use base altitudes, which were changed daily. We had to learn to use old French military maps to identify ground features and villages. Positions were given to us in georef rather than longitude and latitude. We had to learn to monitor seven radios and the intercom at one time and select the most relevant at the time. We had two UHF, two VHF, two FM, and one HF radios. All were on and tuned to specific frequencies. We had to practice reading Ops Orders, Intelligence Briefs, and Intelligence Reports. Last, but not least, we received a briefing from an EC-130 crew out of Nha Trang AB, South Vietnam on how to dodge SAMs with a C-130 aircraft. They made it quite obvious that was a last-ditch effort and good judgment would keep you from ever getting into that situation. They were very effective! We knew that we didn't want to experience that situation.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Memoires of a Trash Hauler"
Copyright © 2019 Henri L. Bailey III.
Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Tactical Transport Mission, 1,
Forward Air Control (FAC) School, 8,
ONC J-10, 12,
The Golden B-B, 19,
Nakhon Phanom (NKP) –Roy, 22,
Nakhon Phanom (NKP) – Beau, 27,
Operation Junction City, 32,
AAA at Dak To, 35,
Fill 'er Up, 39,
Tet Begins, 41,
Air Drop – Hue, 43,
Air Drop – Quang Tri, 45,
Hue Citadel, 47,
Khe Sanh – Air land, 51,
Khe Sanh – Air Drop, 55,
Ray Coley, 58,
"Ignorant Slopes", 62,
BDA – Bomb Damage Assessment, 65,
The Pelican and the Eagle, 72,
Bu Dop, 75,
Viet Minh Airways, 81,
KBA – Killed by Airstrike, 86,
Welcome Home, 91,
Big Bertha, 95,
Strategic Transport Mission, 99,
Rocket City, 101,
Familiar Enemy, 105,
Promise Keepers, 108,