I got to the Vietnam War near the end of the summer of ’67. I don’t know that it dawned on me right away that there would be some possibility of leave to go back home and see my family until my combat tour was complete.
Youthful ignorance is a wonderful thing. It routinely attempts the impossible. I put in for Christmas leave. And just like that, my flight commander approved it.
After the first 30 or 40 missions getting shot at and watching others get hit, the prospect of seeing my family again became much more meaningful. And Christmas was coming like a freight train. My thoughts of home, Mom and Dad, my wife and three daughters, became ever more poignant as the holiday got closer. Then we got fragged on the Doumer Bridge.
Approaching mid-December, the destruction dealt by the Thuds (F-105) and Phantoms (F-4) back in August had been repaired. And Seventh Air Force in Saigon told us we had to go back and do the job over again. Crap. Why now? Couldn’t it wait a few more days? I could be high over the western Pacific in a C-141, eastbound to the fireside of comfort, safety and love we all dreamed about, especially at this time of year. Home for the holidays! I was at full quiver.
But it began to look like I was going to have to earn my combat aviator pay the hard way before I could escape for Christmas. We planned and honed our knowledge of Nguyen’s defenses to the keenest edge. Paul Doumer had built the silly bridge right beside Ho Chi Minh’s front porch. This was downtown—total, unmitigated terror. It was all there—guns, MiGs and missiles, and kids with rocks, and little old antique grandmothers with shovels to smack you up side the head if you punched out and made it to the ground still alive. I was all too aware of the distinct possibility of a long, maybe permanent, postponement of that cherished Christmas leave.
The weather gods refused to cooperate, and the agony became prolonged. We would get up at 2am, finalize the planning, and brief the Alpha Strike mission only to get scrubbed for weather on the way out to the ramp. Once we launched as an afternoon Alpha Strike and got cancelled for weather on the tankers out over the Gulf of Tonkin. Another day we went through the entire routine – briefed, launched, refueled and got within sight of landfall only to be turned back by the weather reconnaissance flight for a low cloud deck over the target.
My nerves, and everybody else’s, were getting frazzled. I was not the only one planning to go home at Christmas. About a week before Christmas, we finally went all the way. It was an afternoon Alpha Strike. I kept thinking, “We’ll get cancelled again. The weather will be bad. My jet will spring a leak or something and I won’t go. But what if I do? And what if I don’t come back? What about my kids? What will happen to them?”
I remember sitting on the edge of the bed the night before I left to go off to war in the first place. I wasn’t afraid to go. It was my duty and I’m a good soldier. But I was so afraid for my little girls. A whole year away from them, and just what if I were killed or taken prisoner? Who would take care of them? Who would help their mother see that they arrived at womanhood ready? I collapsed into sobbing. I guess it isn’t manly to cry, but there’s a chink in the macho of fathers. I don’t care what they do for a living.
My position in the strike package was right behind Green Sixteen, the last guy in the wave of sixteen Thuds. The game plan was for the Thuds to wipe out the bridge with three-thousand pounders, followed by eight F-4s to seed the river with Mark 36s.
A Mark 36 looks like a 500-pound, high drag bomb. It is actually a mine. They are magnetically fused to explode when they sense metal. We figured the Thuds could drop the bridge with three-granders to cut off land traffic, and we would lay those wicked little seeds on the river bottom to make life interesting for anybody who tried to boat anything across.
I’m here to tell you, you haven’t lived until you have gone down the slide simultaneously with two dozen fighter bombers, all near transonic, all pointed at the same half acre of real estate, every pilot looking nowhere but straight through the pipper and at the altimeter.
The intelligence just behind the eyes of the man is now at this moment riveted on one single, horribly piercing purpose: kill that bridge. And we did.
As we rolled into the dive, my last glance outside the cockpit left burned into my brain forever a sky full of great, sharp-nosed darts, separated by dark explosions. All of them aimed straight down. We had been cautioned in training that the big iron fins on a Mark 36 would fail if you released them at a speed in excess of 550 knots. The aircraft bucked and shook as the bombs charged loose of the shackles and streaked for the river below.
Then, in the instant before the g-forces on pull-out shoved my skull into my shoulder blades, and buried my rear end deep in the seat, I saw the Mach meter slide past one-point-one. In a hard left turn to defeat the enemy gunners below, I strained my eyeballs back over my shoulder to see the bombs simply hanging there, all fins completely intact.
The reheat is cooking and we are pointed southeastward toward the water. We’ll make it. Christmas will come. And I will be there.