Veteran’s Story: Vietnam photo ops

Our series on “Veterans’ Stories” honors those who served by sharing the stories of war in the air–as told by the pilots who were there. Some are short, some are long, but all offer a glimpse into the life of a pilot at war. Want to share a veteran’s story? Write an article and email us: editor@airfactsjournal.com.

In the fall of 1962, I was a year out of flight training and attached to Heavy Photographic Squadron Sixty-One (VAP-61) home based at NAS Agana, Guam. John Kennedy was President and he was determined to assist the government of South Vietnam in its fight against Viet Cong (VC) guerillas that were supported by the North Vietnam communist regime.

To this end, he had sent green beret Special Forces (SF) personnel to the country as advisors to the Army of Vietnam (ARVN) along with a large number of US Army helicopters and pilots. Air America, a CIA-owned and -operated airline was also flying a wide assortment of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft throughout South Vietnam and neighboring Laos.

The SF and CIA folks soon discovered that their maps of the country were woefully out of date and inaccurate and requested Army Map Service to instigate a cartographic mapping of South Vietnam. It turned out that the only capability in the western Pacific for high altitude mapping belonged to VAP-61 and its Douglas RA-3B Skywarrior.

Douglas RA-3B
The Douglas RA-3B.

The RA-3 crew consisted of the pilot/plane commander, co-pilot/photo navigator, and an enlisted photo tech/third crewman. Since there were no flight controls on the right side, the co-pilot’s main job was navigation, most of the radio work and operating the photo computer during actual photo missions. Naval Flight Officers specifically trained as photo navigators slowly took over this function. The third crewman, who sat behind the pilot, was a back up navigator but his main mission was the handling of the cameras in the camera bay during a mission.

My first view of South Vietnam was approaching Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport on a clear December day. The Mekong River snaked its ever-changing path to the south into the delta, the city glistened in the sun and the green hills to the west were etched against a blue sky. A beautiful country, I thought. I was struck by the assortment of fixed wing aircraft operating out of the airport. Single-engine and twin-engine propeller aircraft flown by Vietnamese, US Army pilots and the CIA’s Air America were constantly coming and going. We felt pretty special getting out of our big, twin engine jet.

I watched dual-rotor, banana-shaped CH-21 helicopters take on a load of ARVN troops. The smallish Vietnamese were loaded down with equipment packs and weapons as big as themselves. These choppers were flown by American pilots and protected by American gunners. They transported ARVN troops, supplies and equipment into the battle zones and returned empty within 30 minutes, so we had a feeling that VC activity was closer to Saigon than reported.

The US had also given the Vietnamese Air Force T-28 “fighter bombers.” They were actually Navy and Air Force trainers outfitted with hard points on the wings to attach bombs and rockets. Like all naval aviators of that era, I had flown the T-28 in flight training. One day while we were waiting to depart back to Cubi, a T-28 taxied beside us. It was loaded down with bombs and had only one pilot aboard. Before he lowered the mask on his flight helmet prior to departing, I could tell quite clearly that he was an American and he was definitely going on a combat mission. This fact was kept secret until 1964 when one lost a wing and crashed during a mission and the American pilot’s wife went public with the letters of frustration from her husband.

Our mapping flights in country covered South Vietnam. I personally never flew north of Buon Me Thuot near the Cambodian border, but others went up to Da Nang. We flew most of the cartographic mapping at an altitude of 10,000 feet. On more than one occasion we saw helicopters and T-28s close to the jungle. The T-28 would roll over, begin a dive and then we would see an explosion and the T-28 climbing back out. This was as close as I ever came to the war. Nobody was shooting at us and we were safer at 10,000 feet than we were on the ramp at Tan Son Nhut.

This became apparent when we landed in Saigon to refuel after a mapping mission. We had a couple of hours to spare and one of the pilots announced that he was going to the officers barber shop for a haircut. He was back in less than 30 minutes with no haircut. His favorite barber, Ming, was not there. A group of Viet Cong sappers had attempted to blow up some aircraft on the flight line a few nights before. In a short-pitched gun battle, they were repelled by ARVN troops and US Special Forces. The next morning several bodies were found tangled in the concertina wire. One of the dead guerillas was Ming, a barber for US military officers by day, a VC guerrilla at night. Not an uncommon occurrence in this civil war.

T-28 in Vietnam
The US gave the Vietnamese Air Force T-28 “fighter/bombers.”

In December of 1962, Tan Son Nhut was still using Vietnamese air traffic controllers. They would be replaced by Americans when the American build up became massive. On my first trip waiting to depart back to Cubi Point, the controller read us the flight clearance. I only understood every third or fourth word and asked him to read it again. Neither the pilot nor our third crewman understood him either. The pilot asked me the route of flight and I told him that we had filed direct to Cubi. He said let’s go so I told the controller that I understood the clearance and he cleared us for takeoff. We took off and proceeded to fly direct back to the Philippines. This became our routine; listening to the clearance, answering that we understood and proceeding direct to Cubi Point. I found out weeks later that we were supposed to go to a fix in the Mekong delta before turning for Cubi, but it never seemed to matter.

During the next several months, the situation in South Vietnam deteriorated. A group of VC sappers successfully penetrated the base perimeter and blew up several aircraft at Tan Son Nhut. The ARVN Air Force staged an unsuccessful coup and bombed the presidential palace. A short time later, a coup led by ARVN generals and aided by the CIA killed President Diem and his brother. This pattern of coups with one corrupt regime replacing another, always supported by the United States, would continue throughout the conflict.

President Johnson started sending combat troops and ordered the Navy and Air Force to bomb North Vietnam. VAP-61 began deploying on aircraft carriers and to the huge air base the Americans built at Da Nang. The squadron would lose five RA-3Bs during the Vietnam war.

7 Comments

  • Looks like we were on Guam at the same time. I was stationed at Anderson in SAC as an flight line engine mechanic, first on C-54s and then on KC-97s. Later we had KC-97s with the refueling tanks and booms removed. We had a U-2 that would come in, about monthly and take one of our two hangers. I remember you guys had good food up on the hill at the NAS station. Don’t know if you know this, but Commercial flights now go into Anderson instead of the NAS.
    Was there when Kennedy was shot. I was assigned to a KC-97, cocked and with $8000.00 of “K” rations aboard. As you know, some of our co-workers were a little “sticky” handed. I had signed for all that food (?) and I did not leave the line for a couple of days.

  • Although you took all of those photos in 1962, when I arrived in Viet Nam in late 1965, we were still using 30s era French maps: no modern Army Map Service charts. We set about tasking the AF 460th Recce Wing to fly all of South Viet Nam at 1;50,000 imagery so that the combat troops had something up to date to use.

    • One of our AI officers at the time ended up on an Admiral’s staff in the late 1960’s. He told me that during one of their meetings in Saigon, photo recon maps were used in a briefing that were credited to VAP-61. Apparently the updates finally were put to some use.

  • Hafa Adai!
    Nice to read the memoirs of the wing operations on Guam. However, NAS, Tiyan is now Guam International Airport (PGUM) and is the sole facilitator of commercial flight operations (unless you count charter flights into that go into Anderson). The Airstrips such as North-West field and Harmon have since become a memory of the past and are now relics of the former bustling wing operations. However, it’s humbling to read about all of your past experiences on the island. I was recently watching an old documentary
    of how the bombs were nonchalantly transferred uncovered from Big Navy to Anderson in support of the “BUFs” sorties. I wish you folks could share more pictures of your short stay on Guam.

  • I was stationed at the other end of Guam at this time as the Diving Medical Officer at SRF. I always loved airplanes and hitched rides on anything I could manage. That led to getting to ride an R3D in the right seat flying CARQUAL practice at NAS. About the sixth ‘landing’ I learned the very narrow line between “land” and “crash” in Navy language. And may have contributed to my decision on PCS to head to SUBSCHL.

  • MR. Keoni Cruz: Thank you for the correction to the information I received regarding flights to Anderson AFB, Guam. I was stationed there in the early 1960s and as I stated earlier was present when Kennedy was shot. At that time we had only the Naval Air Station and Anderson so I’m not aware of the two other fields you mention. At Anderson we had B-47s and KC-97s standing alert. I was attached at first to the 2 to 3 KC-97s which were on TDY (temporary duty) and flown in from Castle AFB, Hill AFB or Schilling AFB. We had 6 C-54s (DC-4 or R4D) assigned which were used to transport people on R&R to Hong Kong or Japan. Later the C-54s were withdrawn and replaced with KC-97s with the refueling booms removed and the refueling tanks which were installed on the upper and lower decks removed. Some of these were from my old duty station, Dow AFB, Bangor, Maine. They were 1952 “G” models from the 341st Air Refueling Squadron (ARS). Memory fails me on the quantity, either 4 or 6. Their tail numbers were 52-621, 52-622, 52-623 and 52-624. I am now not sure exactly which of these 4 we had except for -623. We only had 2 of these and the balance came from another base. Also based at Anderson was the 54th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron which had B-50s.

  • I was stationed at Andersen AFB from Dec 65 to June 67. I was a data processing specialist (computer operator). I resided off the base in an area called Marbo, which was six three story open bay barrack built during the Korean War. The personnel who were on TDY assignments with the B52s resided on Andersen in three person air conditioned barrack. Marbo barracks had no air conditioning. We were told not to make the beds before going to work as mold/fungus would grow before we returned.
    From the third floor balcony on my barracks, a very large Russian “trawler” was visible with the naked eye. It was all antennae, not fishing gear.

    At times we had approximately 100 B52s on the base. I worked in supply section and we were very busy as they needed many parts, which generated a lot of paperwork/reports.
    At times, a U2 would come calling. It was a busy 18 month assignment.

    The USAF was very nice, after 18 months on Guam (heat and humidity) my next assignment was Offutt AFB in Nebraska. When the first blizzard/snow occurred, my body was not ready for it.

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