My first combat mission in the F-4E Phantom took place in late summer of 1972. It was a few months before the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing “The Gunfighters” deactivated at Takhli Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand, and my squadron moved a few hundred miles up the road to Udorn Royal Thai Air Base. This was my third combat tour, but my first tour in a fighter. I am not a war lover, but it was worth the long wait, a tour that most pilots can only dream about. Every mission was different, whether day or night, in clear or marginal weather; a different county—North Vietnam, Laos or South Vietnam—a different type mission, and a different type of ordnance.
I had paid my dues for this tour by staying in Strategic Air Command (SAC) during the mid-60s, instead of going with the airlines. It was an important personal gamble that paid off after the SAC tours in bombers and tankers and two combat tours in other aircraft, including one as an airborne battle staff officer in a EC-130. I finally got into a Phantom, the world’s greatest fighter aircraft and the aircraft that I flew in some of the best combat missions of the entire war in Southeast Asia.
The “frag,” or fragmentary order of the war plan, the legal instrument that authorized the use of deadly force and those to be killed, called for a low risk, almost introductory supply road cut mission. The target was located on a road in a low threat area of southern Laos. My Phantom (68-326) was loaded with twelve 500-pound Mark 82 “slicks” fused for road cuts. What a magnificent warhorse that aircraft still is. I believe that the F4-E and later model Phantoms with new engines and new electronics would still be one of the best all-around air weapons systems ever made by man. And to this day I have never met or known of a fighter pilot who has done all the things the Phantom is capable of doing. And I suspect that even today our pilots are never asked to reach that goal.
The Wing policy was that the squadron operations officer (OPS) had to fly back seat with all the new pilots on their first combat mission. And as his luck would have it, my first mission was diverted by “Hillsboro Orbit” (the airborne EC-130 command post) just after we crossed the Mekong river into Laos. We turned port to the northeast, toward Mugia Pass, and crossed the mountains into Vietnam. Our new mission was a close air support for a hot troops-in-contact (TIC) mission in the city of Hue near the demilitarized zone (DMZ), where our troops were engaged in heavy street fighting. This was to have been a first mission milk run, a routine road cut in southern Laos to prove to the squadron OPS officer that I could hit the ground with my bombs and find my way home. But this mission became something much more vital.
It was his luck of the draw to be with me, the new guy on a TIC for his first combat mission, flying the back seat with a pilot who had never seen combat, had never “seen the elephant.” We met only a week ago and now we were circling the center of Hue with a part of his future riding on where my bombs fell.
There are no really worthwhile personal rewards for killing an unseen enemy in this kind of a war. The very best that can be said is that it is a job that has to be done; hopefully it will be done professionally, with the appropriate level of human detachment. But it was fair in a way. Ho Chi Minh started the shooting, the killing. If you shot at them, they could—and did—shoot back. On the other hand, there is a terrible price to pay for killing the innocent, especially the good guys, with friendly fire.
There is an everlasting mental baggage if you kill your own troops with your friendly fire. Would it be my bombs that would kill the friendlies in the middle of Hue? If it happened, it would be clearly be my fault and my bombs because there was little a back-seater could do but hold on and hope. Killing the innocent and the friendlies would have affected him and me the rest of our lives. We shared a once-in-a-lifetime that day, a bond, an experience that only deadly combat can fuse. I think back now as I write that for some reason there were no thoughts on my part at that time about killing the innocent or our own troops with my bombs. I found the truths about war over time, later in the missions ahead of me, but not then. That was not on my mind for a second—my only concern was to find the target and do my best to hit it.
We both listened carefully to the excited and concerned voices of the Marines and their forward air controllers pinned down on the ground in the city as they tried to talk me to the right building. The target was a small building in the middle of a city of small buildings. We both knew that the target was impossible to identify from the air by the descriptions given from ground level—most of the buildings had the same colors and the same roofs and they all looked alike. I don’t remember one word from the back seat as we circled and looked. Most of the fine details of the mission are long forgotten. I do remember how hard and seriously I looked for that one building they wanted me to hit.
I circled a few times, trying as hard as I could to understand their descriptions of the target—to identify that one building. Hitting the wrong building would mean killing the innocent, or worse, killing those Marines who were fighting for the innocent. I knew that asking them to smoke their positions would give their location away, but I had to do it. It was a matter-of-fact request that they understood and immediately responded to. Their white signal smoke filtered up from the alleys and streets near their general positions. But now at least I could select the best run-in heading to reduce the danger of long or short bombs. Their “smoke” drifted up from the streets and rooftops forming an irregular semicircle that helped me make the final and fateful decision. It also helped me judge the wind.
I finally selected the one building that I thought housed the heavy machine gun and mortar position that had them pinned down. I described the building and a small rice paddy nearby and they said I had the right target. Then I was faced with the next challenge: to hit that building. Why did I decide on the steepest dive angle, and why did I select all twelve bombs to release on one pass, using the tightest bomb release interval possible on the weapons select panel? Was it an unconscious hedge? If I missed the target, there would be nothing left of the innocent or the friendlies to bury or to ship home in body bags. I do not know what made me make a small last second maneuver, “jinking” the bombsight pipper rapidly toward the small rice paddy about one hundred feet at the 4 o’clock position from the building. Some of it was a correction for a wind shear that was making the pipper drift.
It seems strange that I can still remember the shimmer off the brown water in that rice paddy as I dragged the pipper toward it. It seems now after some thought that it was all an almost subconscious act. The thought occurred to me after that mission, and many others, that I was not really trained or prepared properly for what I was doing on that day. Who would be held responsible besides me for killing with friendly fire? I clearly remember holding the dive run longer than necessary. I also remember holding down on the red round pickle button long after all the bombs were gone, until my right thumb hurt so bad, the pain told me to release. I remember the rapid succession of little thumps while in the steep dive. The thumps caused by the bomb release ejector racks firing almost instantaneously, releasing all twelve bombs.
It was bombs away in a tight pattern, like a swarm of black hornets heading at a steep angle downward toward the middle of the city. I recall the wonderful feeling of release and the sensation of man-and-aircraft-as-one, after the jink, into a graceful pull off the bomb run into a beautiful arching cloverleaf maneuver. A maneuver in full afterburner that had me for a moment looking straight up into a cool blue sky with small, bright, puffy white clouds. The Phantom and I were indeed one at that moment in time, one of my unforgettable moments: a feeling pilots know of and can fully enjoy.
Then back to business, a hard G pull back to inverted flight to look over my left shoulder so I could see where the bombs hit. I paid no attention to the rapid loss of airspeed as I pulled up into an almost vertical recovery maneuver over the city. I had never seen that many bombs go off before. But it was too late; all I could see was a huge, growing cloud of dirty brown and black smoke, dust, dirt, parts, and pieces rapidly tumbling and flying in all directions, billowing up from where all twelve bombs hit.
It is an everlasting image, three tons of bombs slamming into the city at over 500 knots. Bombs fused to go off deep in the ground exploded together, throwing tons of dirt—and thousands and thousands of pieces of debris—into the sky, then raining down everywhere. What was once a building and the enemy was all part of a giant, ugly, brown billowing cloud. Many of the pieces were already hitting the nearby rice paddy, making splashes like hail from a great Midwest thunderstorm. The debris rained down on the city and splashed down in that pond of shiny brown water that was just a moment ago in the middle of my gun sight. I recovered from the inverted position without a thought or concern about the nose high altitude and low airspeed. We circled and there was a long uncomfortable silence on the radio.
It was as if all of us, those on the ground and in the air, all held our breath at the same time—an eerie silence. The giant dirt cloud finally settled and the verdict came in with a rebirth of the radios. The forward air controllers and radio operators talked to each other and to me with excited voices. All in a glorious confirmation, each voice confirming to me and to each other that they were still there, still alive. As faith and luck and maybe some skill would have it, all twelve bombs, the first I ever dropped in combat, were right on target.
Only now does it occur to me that maybe a part of the excitement I heard in their voices was a relief. We all survived, and they would not be sent home in body bags or with missing body parts. My OPS officer and I would not have to live with the nightmares of killing the friendly. In retrospect I think it was fate, somehow confidence, good luck, and a big relief. That long ago mission eventually faded into all the others. Some of the others were just as exciting, but none as rewarding. Mostly there was the haunting reminder, during the early missions, that I really was not trained or prepared for what I was doing and there would be no time or person to train me in the middle of combat.
There is no substitute for being the best, and the cheerleader stuff we were exposed to was just that—cheerleader stuff—which is OK for football but no substitute for substance and performance. Some of our pilots are the best. And many more can be the best, but only if demanded to be by our leadership. And that is where the fault lays, dear Brutus. For all of us to be the best we can be, our leaders must lead by example.
This story is dedicated to all those who wanted to be the best, but of whom it was never required.