My most memorable missions occurred around Christmas of 1972, when I was a 23-year-old Forward Air Controller (FAC) flying the OV-10 Broncos of the 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron (TASS) in the 56th Special Operations Wing. From our Forward Operating Location at Ubon RTAB, we flew alongside the Rustic FACs supporting Khmer forces in Cambodia, and, operating from Danang, Vietnam, we flew alongside the Covey FACs of the 20th TASS supporting US forces. FACs of the 23rd TASS were called Nails as squadron pilots used a two-digit Nail callsign when flying.
Two days before Christmas, we received word that three of our former comrades had been shot down near Saravane in southern Laos. They were Raven FACs serving as part of covert CIA operations in Laos flying Cessna O-1 Bird Dogs and North American T-28 Trojans.
Laotian liaisons flew in the Ravens’ back seats, serving as translators to help coordinate close air support for CIA-led ground forces (Lao, Thai, and Meo, or Hmong). When operating against the communist-backed Pathet Lao, they flew in Raven Boxes. Nail-FACs avoided Raven Boxes as we lacked both intelligence support as well as the Laotian liaisons necessary to work with the indigenous ground commanders.
The three Ravens were Jack Shaw (Raven 42), Lew Hatch (Raven 44), and Hal Mischler (Raven 40). Jack had recently left the Nails and was getting his Raven check-out with Lew, who was in the back seat of their O-1. Hal was nearing the end of his tour of duty, having already packed for his return to the States. A Laotian liaison was in the backseat of Hal’s O-1.
Hal’s O-1 was shot down first. Jack and Lew were first on-scene to lead a Search and Rescue effort for Raven-44. However, Jack and Hal were also shot down and crash-landed their O-1 on an abandoned airstrip, where they were quickly picked up by an Air America Huey. Unfortunately, Hal and his back-seater did not survive their shoot-down; the same Huey picked up their bodies.
The next day, Christmas Eve, I launched at mid-morning headed to the Plain of Jars in northern Laos. Located about 50 miles west of the North Vietnamese border, the Plaine de Jarres got its French name from the large stone jars left by a long-lost civilization. Characterized by narrow river valleys and limestone and sandstone hills ranging from 3,000 to 3,600 feet, the PDJ was strategically significant in controlling northern Laos, making it a constant point of contention between the Royal Lao and Pathet Lao forces.
Crossing into Laos, I completed my “fence in” (getting prepared for what lay ahead, i.e., combat!) and checked in with Cricket, the Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center (ABCCC pronounced “A-B-Triple-C”). ABCCCs were EC-130s carrying a pod in the cargo bay stuffed with radios, and a battle staff to oversee operations. They kept track of aircraft in the area, although without any radar contact everyone had to keep a mental picture of others in the area. They also assigned FACs to investigate suspicious activity reported through intelligence or spotted by another aircraft. Finally, they would approve strikes on targets we identified, and apportion fighters with which to strike them.
Cricket immediately directed me to contact Raven 20, Chuck Hines, who was the on-scene commander for another SAR effort. Slam 4, an Air Force A-7 piloted by Chuck Reiss, had collided with Raven 21, an O-1 piloted by Skip Jackson. Skip had been controlling the four A-7s of Slam flight against North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops. Slam 4 was “rolling in” (i.e., a diving turn to point the aircraft’s nose at a target) to drop some bombs when his wing clipped one of Skip’s. Both aircraft went out of control and Chuck immediately ejected from his crippled A-7, but Skip was not so lucky. Like many Ravens, he eschewed wearing a parachute, choosing instead to sit on a flak vest to protect from small-arms fire.
Slam 1 told us Skip’s O-1 went into a flat spin until it struck the Earth and burst into flames. Shortly after he had arrived, Chuck Hines made a low pass and stated he could see Skip’s body in the burning wreckage, so our attention turned to rescuing the A-7 pilot. We knew Slam 4’s general location as his parachute was in plain sight on the ground, but not for long. The NVA gathered it up as they too searched for him. He was most likely not far from the chute, but was definitely evading, which made us hesitant to drop ordnance on the enemy without knowing his exact location.
Raven 20 directed me to cut off “movers” (NVA trucks) that might be bringing more troops to search for or carry off the A-7 pilot. Meanwhile, he continued trying to contact Skip on his survival radio. I turned northward and, less than five miles up the road, I encountered a truck racing toward where Raven 20 was working. I knew something was up as NVA trucks only traversed the PDJ under cover of the weather or darkness; FACs were trained to spot movement and would then direct fighter aircraft to drop their bombs on any movers.
I immediately rolled in on the truck and fired two of my 2.75” rockets armed with white phosphorous warheads (WP, or Willie Pete). WPs detonate with a loud boom when they strike the ground, releasing a plume of white smoke. The enemy knew that smoke signaled a FAC had spotted something and was marking it for someone else to bomb; and this driver wasn’t stupid. He was definitely lucky as my two rockets bracketed his truck without striking it.
I watched the mover slide to a halt, the driver’s door fly open, and a lone figure dive out of the cab. This driver could have won an Olympic gold medal; I don’t know how far he ran, but I do know he got there quickly! Shortly after this, Chuck called to say he was certain the NVA had captured Slam 4 as he never contacted us on his survival radio and the activity on the ground was dying down. We assumed Slam 4 was among the troops we could see moving around below us. We continued to monitor our radios for any contact with him until we both ran low on fuel and had to return to base.
The Nails’ Christmas Eve ended with many somber faces and a very quiet Nail Hole (the squadron bar), as we talked about our recent losses. Some stood outside in the warm evening with a cold drink and watched as a Laotian AC-47 dueled with several NVA guns on the east side of the Mekong. The adversaries exchanged several volleys of tracers until the gunship fired a long burst, at which time the enemy guns fell silent.
We watched the vignette across the Mekong as we waited for the next day’s schedule to be posted and learn whether or not a rumored Christmas ceasefire was going to happen. The U.S. normally stood down at Christmas as a gesture of good will, but also because nobody wanted to write a letter home telling a family their loved one was lost on Christmas Day.
Finally, someone called out, “The schedule’s up!” meaning it was posted on a bulletin board in the Nail Hole. We gathered around to see the callsigns adjacent to the next day’s takeoff times. It didn’t take long to see there was only one mission scheduled for Christmas Day: Nail 49 (that’s me) was assigned for a takeoff after sunset. There was no one scheduled for my back seat, which was normal, but a friend named George Morris, Nail 55, tapped me on the shoulder and asked if he could “sandbag” with me, which meant he would be riding in my back seat.
Lieutenants often sandbagged for a variety of reasons, mostly because were young, bulletproof, and stupid! But it allowed us to log another combat mission, see how others worked the FAC mission, and the extra set of eyes helped when it came to watching for anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), surface to air missiles (SAMs), and fighters getting close to your own airplane as they pointed the nose of their aircraft at the ground in anger. I gladly accepted George’s offer to sandbag with me. He penciled in Nail 55 next to my callsign. The schedule only listed who was flying and their takeoff time, so we had no idea where we would be going, or what we would be doing. We would find that out at our intelligence briefing.
I left the Nail Hole immediately, as I thought I might have trouble getting to sleep. I was right—my mind raced with thoughts about where we would be going and what we would be doing, especially given our recent losses. When I finally drifted off, it seemed like my alarm went off immediately, but it was mid-morning.
I encountered George at the O club, where we had a late breakfast/early lunch. Afterwards, we went to the squadron to review night procedures as well as the operating limitations for employing flares. Neither of us had flown a night sortie since our training at Hurlburt Field, Florida. Those sorties were in controlled airspace with lots of light on the ground (cars and city lights nearby), plus we had instructors in our backseat, and nobody was shooting at us!
With our planning completed, we went back to the O club for an early dinner and then went to intel for our briefing. The briefing was chilling. Our mission was to fly to Saravane, Laos, to find and destroy what was reported to be a 23 or 37mm AAA gun that had shot down our three compatriots two days earlier.
Although Saravane was in a Raven Box, we were being cleared in as the friendly troops were out of harm’s way and someone, somewhere figured an OV-10 had a better chance in a duel with this gun than would a Raven flying an O-1.
I filed our flight plan and we left for the personal equipment building to pick up our flight gear and personal weapons. We also ops checked our survival radios and grabbed extra ammo and spare radio batteries. We left behind personal items we didn’t want to have on us in case we were shot down and captured (wedding bands, letters, etc.). We also ‘sanitized’ our flight suits by removing our nametags and unit patches.
We arrived at our airplane shortly after sunset. As usual, the crew chief followed us as we conducted our pre-flight. We spent a little extra time making certain the flare pod was what we were expecting—we didn’t want any surprises. It was quickly getting dark as we strapped into our ejection seats.
Engine start was normal and our pre-taxi checks were quickly completed. On my signal, the crew chief pulled the chocks and we taxied to the arming area, where the arming crew pulled the pins to arm our flares and 2.75” rockets. With all checks completed, I called number one. Tower cleared us for takeoff and we were soon airborne.
The moon was not going to rise until late in our mission, so it seemed like we were flying into a black hole. The agrarian economy in Laos meant people worked in the day and rested at night. There was little or no electricity in the villages, but we noted a few small cooking fires. We didn’t see any movers like the one I saw the previous day on the PDJ. If they were there, they were driving with their lights off as they knew we would spot and then target them.
I set a southeasterly course using my compass and TACAN, knowing we would soon lose that signal. As we crossed into Laos, I checked in with Moonbeam (the night A-B-Triple-C in southern Laos) and completed my fence check, to include turning the master arm ON—which meant both my flare and rocket pods were hot. As always, I made certain my position lights and rotating beacon were turned off. We did that in the daytime as well, but at night it was critical to make sure they were O-F-F!
I was definitely using time, distance, and heading to navigate as Laos had no navaids, GPS only existed in someone’s imagination, we had no inertial navigation system, and we weren’t flying a Pave Nail with its LORAN. It was approximately 170 miles to Saravane; I figured we would arrive in about 1.3 hours. George and I made small talk, but not much about what lay ahead.
When I reckoned we were near Saravane, I told George, “I believe we are there; I’m going to kick out a flare.” George agreed with me, so I selected the flare pod, hit the pickle button and we felt a bump as the first flare popped out. The flare’s parachute blossomed and the flare lit, which provided the light to confirm we had indeed arrived.
Flares made night flying rather sporty as they swung back and forth, causing the shadows on the ground to shift crazily and giving us the sensation the airplane was the one doing all the moving. There was another bad effect: while illuminating the ground for us, they also highlighted us for people on the ground. The sound of our twin turboprop engines made it easy for the enemy to hear us coming and they knew what the sound of an OV-10 meant. They were obviously suspecting we were looking for them because as soon as the flare illuminated us, the gun started shooting at us. A stream of smoking red tracers arced up at us (a single tracer was normally fired with four non-tracer rounds). In our post-mission debrief, when I reported the gun and its accuracy (close, but no cigar), it occurred to me that the tracers had looked like the lights on a Christmas tree.
In my opinion, the flare could not burn out quickly enough. Meanwhile, I tried to make us unpredictable by stomping on the rudder pedals while madly stirring the control stick about the cockpit. Finally, the flare sputtered out and we were once again enveloped in darkness—thanks goodness!
I immediately contacted Moonbeam and requested that they send some fighters so we could destroy this gun. I didn’t expect any delay in getting them, as we were the only FACs over Laos at the time. I also wondered if there were any other aircraft airborne besides us, Moonbeam, and the fighters heading our way.
The fighters soon checked in on my UHF radio. It was Slam (again!), a flight of two Air Force A-7s. The flight leader advised they were carrying CBU-52, a cluster bomb designed for soft targets like personnel and trucks. It was also effective against guns as the 220 bomblets in the weapon would kill the crew and likely cause severe damage to both the gun as well as the area in which it was operating, to include their ammo supply. However, when a single can of CBU-52 was dropped, the bomblets formed a donut-shaped pattern as they exploded, which included a center hole where few/no bomblets would land. I asked the A-7s to drop two cans at a time so their respective patterns would overlap and the donut holes would be covered.
I briefed Slam flight on the target area to include its elevation, weather in the area, where they should head to make an immediate bailout (as far as possible from the gun and south over some rugged terrain), where their best bailout was (“go west, young man”—and get over Thailand), that friendlies weren’t a factor, and that I would clear them for random attacks.
Attacking aircraft preferred random attack headings as it made them less predictable to enemy gunners. We constrained the fighters on their attack headings when we had to ensure that, if they dropped a bomb short or long from the target, it wouldn’t strike any friendly positions; because they would likely not be friendly any longer. The most critical part of my briefing was to let them know our target was a very active and somewhat accurate AAA gun. Both Slams acknowledged the briefing without asking any questions.
Soon thereafter, Slam 1 let me know they were about ten miles out (A-7s had an excellent mapping system) and they had probably seen the earlier light show (my flare and the tracers fired at me). He also requested that I go “Christmas tree.” he wanted me to turn on my position lights and rotating beacon so he could spot me.
Having just been hosed down by the gun we were intending to strike, I answered, “Uh, I’m not going Christmas tree right now, but you are welcome to do so.” But he too declined. It was obvious we were both aware of what happened between Slam 4 and Raven 21 the day prior, and that was in the daylight! Slam 1 then asked how we could avoid a mid-air collision. I told him I would be directly over the gun at 8-10,000 feet MSL. At that altitude I knew they would safely pass below me as they delivered their ordnance. He said, “OK, we’re ready for your mark.” He wanted me to fire a Willie Pete to mark the gun.
I quickly pickled off another flare and, once again, the gun crew started firing at me—more Christmas lights! I imagine the sound of the A-7s approaching had caught their attention and they knew things were heating up. While the tracers were showing the A-7s where I was, they could also be followed back to the gun itself, i.e., a mark for them to hit. I assumed I didn’t need to shoot a Willie Pete for them, so I said, “There’s the gun. You’re cleared hot!” That simply meant the target is apparent and they were cleared to expend.
Slam 1 calmly replied, “Nail, we have to have a smoke on the ground in order to drop. It’s wing policy.” I couldn’t believe it! They wanted me to roll in and shoot a Willie Pete so the plume of smoke would mark the target for them. I guess the stream of tracers directed at my airplane wasn’t good enough.
I replied, “FAC’s in hot” and quickly dipped my nose enough to get it below the horizon, at that point not caring if I hit in the same zip code as the gun. I fired a single WP and, as soon it hit and the cloud of white smoke blossomed from the jungle below, I radioed, “Disregard my smoke, you’re cleared hot on the gun!”
Slam 1 replied, “Lead’s in hot from the north.” As he dove down into the light from my flare, I looked northwards, quickly spotted him, and said, “You’re cleared hot!”
The gun quickly swung to engage the attacking A-7. I watched in awe as the tracers streamed past his aircraft, and then tracked him as he pulled off to the west. Miraculously, he emerged from the fusillade of bullets unscathed.
As I watched, the bomblets from the two cans of CBU-52 which Slam1 had dropped blanketed the gun in their trademark donut-shaped pattern. The gun position was engulfed and it immediately quit shooting. I cleared Slam 2 for his attack to ensure that the gun and its operators would no longer be a threat. Slam 2 called in hot and I cleared him as well. His CBU bomblets stirred the smoke and bounced the dust created by Slam 1.
I told Slam flight they had done a good job as the gun was out of action. He acknowledged with a simple, “Roger.” He then directed Slam 2 to join up for their RTB. As usual, I passed Slam 1 the bomb damage assessment from their strikes. I reported one gun damaged, probably destroyed, and four killed by air (KBA–the gun’s crew). Slam 1 requested that I make a low pass and confirm the gun was actually destroyed rather than a probable. I allowed as how I wasn’t paid enough to do that and told him he could make that pass if he wanted to. Like my earlier offer for him to go Christmas Tree, he deferred and so I cleared them off frequency to contact Moonbeam.
Before he left my frequency, Slam 1 asked if I knew about Slam 4’s loss the previous day and if I had heard any radio calls from him. I replied I had been on-scene following that incident and neither I nor any other FAC airborne afterwards had heard anything from Slam 4. Slam 1 thanked me for being part of that SAR effort. He then wished me a Merry Christmas, and I replied in kind, although I wasn’t feeling very merry after what I had experienced over the last three days.
We picked up an RTB heading and, on our way home, George and I didn’t talk much—we were both lost in our thoughts. Crossing back into Thailand, I checked out with Moonbeam and switched to NKP’s approach control. Our landing was routine, we quickly went through de-arming and were soon shutting down in the chocks. When the crew chief asked about our mission, I answered rather tersely and, recognizing my mood, he didn’t ask any more questions.
We debriefed with intel and then headed to the Nail Hole for an adult beverage. Others asked about our mission and we again explained what happened. They were glad we were safely home, but like the crew chief, most saw that both George and I were somewhat pensive and left us alone.
I finished the war with 165 combat missions, but the missions around Christmas of 1972 will always be my most memorable ones.
On January 27, 1973, American airpower made its last appearance in South Vietnam supporting the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. A part of that effort involved a Navy F-4 (callsign Taproom 113), which was shot down just south of the DMZ. The crew tried to make it feet wet (i.e., over the South China Sea beyond reach of the enemy) but, they were forced to eject over the enemy when their aircraft went out of control.
George Morris was sandbagging with Mark Peterson (Nail 89) and they joined the SAR effort for Taproom 113. However, they were shot down by an SA-7, and they too ejected over enemy positions. None of the four were rescued because of the heavy enemy activity in the area.
In March, the F-4 backseater, Phil Kientzler, was among the POWs liberated from the infamous Hanoi Hilton. To this day, George, Mark, and the F-4 pilot (Harley Hall, former commander of the Blue Angels) remain “unaccounted for.”
The Slam 4 pilot, Chuck Reiss, was listed as MIA until he was released by the North Vietnamese in March 1973, with the other American POWs held in Hanoi. A decade later, when I was on the Tactical Air Command Staff at Langley AFB, I ran into him one day. We reminisced about our shared experience over a cold beer.