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: [email protected].
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The SF and CIA folks soon discovered that their maps of the country were woefully out of date and inaccurate and requested Army Map Service to instigate a cartographic mapping of South Vietnam.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.
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.
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.