I spent my 25th year with an eclectic bunch of guys at Ubon RTAB, a couple of hundred miles northeast of Bangkok. It was in a fighter squadron known as Satan’s Angel, and there were around sixty aircrew in the Angels. It was the year that LBJ decided his excursion into the dominos of Southeast Asia was not going to give him a bookend legacy with the Great Society. We went from the full throttle waging of war against North Vietnam to the measured escalation of he and Robert Strange McNamara, as they used the half million American troops in the area as a game theory exercise.
We (I) didn’t know that at the time, but we were sort of like the rheostat on an air conditioning system: twist it one way and see what happens, twist it the other way and see what changes. We were just there to fly the missions, come back, and do it again. Different than the troops in country, but as I think back, they were on the same plan—read Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn. Go out and take a hill, occupy it for a while, then go back to a fire base to see what reaction was created. Both rheostats.
My squadron was probably typical of those in the war. A few had combat experience, including Korea and in a few cases WWII. Some had experience in operational fighter units, being stationed in the US, Asia, and Europe. Most were on their first tour in a tactical fighter unit. Some had experience in Air Defense Command—they were fighter pilots, but much like greyhounds and schnauzers are dogs, they were different. A significant number came from the training command, ATC, where they accrued considerable flying time but in the challenging job of training new guys to become jet pilots—important, challenging, and different.
A few came to the Angels from time in the “heavies”—bombers and transports. Some of them became fighter pilots and stayed in the community, most dipped their foot in the pool, got the time on their records, and then went back to their SAC and MAC communities, able to say been there, done that. Many were young pilots and navigators in the back seats of the Phantom—GIBs we were called. Some, several, had done their apprenticeship on a previous tour or in a squadron back in the US and came in as very young front seaters. Most did well; a few did not find it to their liking and either went home to ATC or the airlines. Either was OK. Later in the war some pilots came to the front seat directly out of pilot training, but they were few in my day.
Personalities were as diverse as you could imagine: bold and reckless in some cases, thoughtful and deliberate in others. The leadership of the squadron shaped behavior. Our boss was a Korean war ace, Thunderbird lead, and an out-front guy we followed readily and with confidence. He wore his shooter’s glasses, often had a cigar (lit or not), and his aura surrounded the squadron persona while he was there. Even after he left, his successors—not with the same panache—kept the squadron with that attitude. We were proud, sure of ourselves, and damn good.
Which brings us to a guy named Hal. As I recall, Hal was either a senior major or very new Lt Colonel. In any case, not the right rank to be in senior leadership in the Angels, but enough to have status and responsibilities. Hal’s background was in Air Defense Command, but most recently he’d had an exchange tour with the Marines, in the F-4 RAG (Replacement Air Group) responsible for training Marines on their initial assignment to the Phantom. I remember him speaking of challenges and noting that being the IP in the back seat when a new guy was making his first carrier approach and landing, and having no stick, rudder, or throttles to correct a bad pass, gave new meaning about being able to talk yourself out of a lousy situation. I got it.
When you saw Hal, you saw someone comfortable with himself and making others comfortable with his confidence. Most likely Hal would have his Kelly-green Satan’s Angel hat on, one that spent lots of time stuffed in a flight suit pocket, wrinkled and sweat-stained, and a cigarette, unfiltered, lit or not, hanging out of his mouth. A Marlboro man look before it was in the magazines. Hal was one of the Angel’s night fighters. Our ops officer called us his “sewer doers” because we spent our time in the nasty weather down around the karst—e.g., the sewer. Our squadron mostly did day strikes in North Vietnam when it was in LBJ’s mood or Laos the other times. The sewer doers were several crews that flew the early nights, between 2000 and 0100 while our sister squadron, the Night Owls, did all their work in the dark.
Flying night combat is an acquired taste. The upside is you see virtually every time a gun or SAM engages, and know they are working on you or not. That is an upside, since during the day the tracers and flashes on the ground are not so obvious. The downside is there is no lift at night. Just kidding, it is usually cooler, so there is more lift, a little bit. The real downside is at night mountains and karst hide in the dark and behind the Asian clouds and thunderstorms. The horizon is not reliable due to man’s senses—sometimes your inner ears will lie like dogs, telling you you’re level when in fact you are not. Stars look like fires on ground—sometimes—sometimes the clouds and lightning hide the stars. Keeping up and down straight is job one.
At night you fly blacked out crossing the fence, and must remember the afterburner gives you thrust when you need it most but also points a fiery finger at where you are. Dark airplanes are hard to keep track of. You talk between jets to let the other fight member know where you are and where going—succinctly. You listen acutely for the same reason. A missed call can have dire circumstances. “Ah, lead turn your beacon off” is important; on the other hand the AAA headed your way because of the DS error pretty much has the same message.
Having said all this, the Angel’s night shift always had cockpits filled. One, it was quiet in the squadron with all the day queep finished. Two, it was cooler—even in Thailand. And three, the team worked well, flew the missions, came back (most nights), debriefed, hit the club as it was winding down as the next day shift went into crew rest. You could have a Ubon Officers Club chili-cheese omelet, bacon, and hash browns in relative quiet, retire to the bar for a few drinks and a game or two of chance, be in bed by 0300, and sleep in till around noon. Ok, you missed an occasional movie or USO show, but Bob Hope and Raquel Welch never made Ubon. Not complaining—the guys in-country deserved their attention much more than we did.
There were characters aplenty on the night shift. Norm was a born prankster and a good pilot. The night gave him time to plot some fantastic capers—the kidnapped Owl being one. Joe smoked a pipe and looked like he was about to teach a philosophy class, but not so. Fighter pilot first class. JJ and Fast Eddy were always up to something—and exceptional at their jobs in the cockpit. Cary was a mustached Northman from Minnesota, ya, you bet ya. Hoss was a bow-legged cowboy from Wyoming. Evil was Evil. And there was Hal.
Hal was not flashy but always ready for a mission and did extra target study to make us more efficient and able to seek out some “opportunities” that the frag from Saigon often missed. I could never prove this, but I always felt Hal had some connections through his Marine time and he used those to get us information and opportunities sort of off the books.
I remember one time where he had done some study of Navy ops and with some informal support got information on an area in a part of the Navy package in North Vietnam not getting serviced due to the range of the A-4s and positioning of the carriers on Yankee station. One night we did our study of the frag and where our flight was planned to strike. In the crew brief Hal gave us some new information, new coordinates and had extra photos and 1:50,000 maps to study and take to the cockpit.
We took off, checked in with Alleycat, the night Airborne Command, Control, and Communication (ABCCC) on station in Laos, and headed for Hal’s alternate. Details another time, but when we popped the first flares, it was like pulling the rug on a bunch of cockroaches. Lots of very surprised NVA, lots of stuff stacked on the road, and lots of trucks, lights off, ready to start down the Ho Chi Minh Trail for a few easy miles before being engaged by fighter bombers. We bombed, explosions and fires everywhere, intense ground fire—chaos.
Leaving the area, we alerted Alleycat of where we’d been and what we’d done. We got an interesting response to a strike not near where the plan had us going, but there was no admonition we were in trouble. Alleycat poured more strikes there as the night went on and continued pounding this marshaling area the better part of the next day. I sort of expected some repercussions for our little excursion onto Navy land, but as I thought I began to believe this was one of those things the senior leadership in Saigon, and maybe even further east, was aware of and found an opportunity to send a message. Either way, Hal led us to a good night’s work and the chili cheese was good that early morning.
I liked flying in Hal’s flights and had a great respect for him. Sadly, our paths never crossed again. It was least 30 years later when I got news Hal had passed away, back in his hometown in Indiana. A mutual friend living in the area sent me Hal’s obit. It was headed with a photo of Hal in his blues, shooter glasses on, slightly grizzled but smiling—in character. My mind went back to 1969 and I ran a mental video of some of those days. Then I read the obit. My throat tightened up.
Back home after retirement, Hal took on a mission. He was involved in veterans’ groups and in local government organizations looking after the vet. Beyond that, he was the color guard for every veteran’s service in the local area, and assured he or someone else was there to present a flag and thank family members for their loved ones’ service. Hal was retired, but like the guy I remember, he was quiet and there to make sure the right things were being done. I regret not keeping at least some contact with Hal, but I was not surprised by what I’d heard.
Here’s Memorial Day nickel to a faithful warrior, one of Satan’s Angels and our nation’s best.
- Flying the night shift: a Memorial Day remembrance - May 30, 2022
- Tales from the doc side - March 4, 2022
- One in a million: a chance aerial encounter in Laos - January 21, 2022