Friday, November 11, 2005

In Their Own Words #10: Eleven Stories For Veterans Day

Mike Gilroy served as a USAF EWO on B-52s, F-105s, F-4s and F-111s. He served two combat tours in Vietnam and flew a total of 119 combat missions, for which he received the Air Force Cross, the Silver Star, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Purple Heart and eleven Air Medals. He later served at the Pentagon and, following his retirement, at Litton Applied Technology. He has served as the mayor of Gilroy, CA.

I was a "Wild Weasel" Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO), flying a two-seat F-105F with my pilot, Glenn Davis. We had taken off from our base at Takhli, Thailand, about an hour before.

The other pilots jokingly referred to Glenn and me as Mutt and Jeff. Glenn was built like a fireplug, around 5'6" tall and weighed around 175 lbs. I, on the other hand, I'm 6'5" tall and weighed the same 175.

Glenn was one of the smartest people I have ever met, especially as relates to the F-105. Our F-105F had been modified with an array of specialized electronic equipment allowing us to find and destroy radars, especially those associated with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). It is a difficult, dangerous, but extremely important mission. We were in Vietnam to protect the Strike Force, the F-105Ds whose job it was to bomb the targets in North Vietnam. Our purpose was to protect them from the Soviet-designed SAMs. In the few months we had been here, Takhli's Strike Force losses from SAMs had dropped significantly. Wild Weasel losses initially were very high, some to SAMs, but mostly to the anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) protecting the SAM sites. Our losses seemed to be settling down as our experience level increased.

Glenn and I had paired up as a crew about a month ago. Glenn's Electronic Warfare Officer returned to the states because of family problems, and my pilot severely damaged his back in a bailout after an unsuccessful duel with a SAM site. So far, we had flown around twenty missions together and really made a good team. We had quickly developed that special rapport typical of the very best Weasel crews. It starts with mutual respect for each other's unique skills in an airplane and develops into strong friendship. Glenn and I were both low key people. We did our job and didn't talk a lot about it. The strike pilots were comfortable flying with us. We had a reputation for not losing wingmen, and more importantly, when we flew SAM coverage for the strike force, no one got shot down by SAMs. To paraphrase the verse from Proverbs: "Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we shall fear no evil, for we are the meanest sons of bitches in the valley."

Our call sign that today was "Avenger," which had a good sound to it. It felt like it was going to be a good mission. The primary target was a military barracks area just west of Hanoi. However, the weather in the target area was forecast to be poor, and the strike had been canceled. The secondary target was in the northwest section of North Vietnam. That area might have been tough when the French were beaten at Dien Bien Phu, but as air missions went, it was a piece of cake. All of the missions into North Vietnam counted toward the 100 missions needed to go home. This one was going to be an "Easy Counter." Weasels were allowed a little more flexibility in doing their mission than the strike force. That didn't mean we were restriction free; everyone from the president down to our wing commander had put some limits on our fighting ability, limits that made no sense at all. We could drop our bombs on a road or bridge, but not on a power plant or fuel or oil storage area, unless specifically tasked to do so. Military airfields were off limits. You could attack and destroy an individual SAM site, but not the storage area near Haiphong Harbor, where hundreds of SAMs were stored out in the open in canisters.

Unless tasked against a specific target, you could not fly within 30 mi. of Hanoi or 15 mi. of Haiphong. If you flew past an airfield and saw an enemy aircraft taking off to intercept you, you could not fire upon him until his landing gear was in the wheel well. Whoever created these restrictions had probably never put his life on the line in battle. Those who enforced them were cowards.

As Weasels, we were allowed to go where we wanted in order to hunt down the SAM sites, except for flight into the restricted areas around Hanoi or Haiphong. Our plan this day was to accompany the strike force to the area of Dien Bien Phu, make a quick sweep of the area to ensure the North Vietnamese (NVN) hadn't moved any new defenses into the area, and then head east, over the flatlands south and west of Hanoi. That's where the heavy SAM defenses were. We'd see if we could stir up a little action. Our wingman was a captain from one of the other squadrons on the base. He had been at Takhli for approximately four months and, although he had flown Weasel missions before, he had never flown with Glenn and me. He was obviously looking forward to an easy mission, one where no one was going to shoot at him. When he heard our plan he wasted no time letting us know that he thought it lunacy. "You're going out on the flats, when you don't have to? You guys are out of your minds!" was followed by, "Don't you have to go where the rest of the strike force goes?"

This type of questioning didn't sit too well with either Glenn or me and shows that even among F-105 pilots there was an occasional candyass. We felt his questioning was almost a slur on our manhood: "Doesn't he know we're bulletproof?" He didn't win any points by questioning our plan, but once he had spoken he seemed to have sense enough to keep his mouth shut.

A pilot from Kadena was in the briefing room. The F-105 Wing at Kadena, Okinawa, sent their pilots to our base to augment the F-105 forces that were flying up north every day. They usually came for six weeks twice a year, and could complete their 100 missions during their three year tour of duty at Kadena. This fellow had arrived the previous week. He seemed to be a really nice guy. Several of us had had a few drinks with him in the Stag Bar a few nights before. When it came time to eat, he asked if there was any place downtown that served decent food. We didn't need much prodding, and soon were headed for the Main Gate, the One-Baht Bus, and the Takhli Villa, the best restaurant in the town of Takhli. Dinner at the Takhli Villa was great as usual. Fine French onion soup, Thai fried rice, a slipper lobster and a bottle of good red wine all for around $4. After a great dinner and a few war stories, most headed back to the base. Another fellow and I commandeered two pedicabs, coerced the drivers into taking the back seat and letting us pedal, and raced to one of our favorite bars and bath houses for a few more drinks, a hot bath and a massage. War is a bitch.

On this day's morning briefing, I chatted with the Kadena pilot for a few minutes. He said that he was glad that this mission was going to be an easy one. We joked around a little, and looked forward to another good dinner downtown. It was six o'clock in the morning when we finally headed out to our airplanes. Everyone was pretty relaxed. Unlike the primary targets where the defenses were always heavy, always waiting for us, and which always got three or four aircraft and crews, I expected that everyone would get back from this one. However, arrival at our airplane showed that we don't have a full ordnance load. Normally the weasels carried two AGM-45 Shrike anti-radiation missiles and either CBU-24s (cluster-bomb units) or two pods of 2.75-in. folding-fin aerial rockets (FFARs). We had the two Shrikes but neither CBUs nor rockets. The F-105s parked nearby were similarly armed. This was just another one of the many things about this air war that wasn't right; you risked your life going against the toughest defenses in the world with only a partial weapon load to deliver on the target. We'd all read in Stars and Stripes that Secretary of Defense MacNamara had been denying that there is a bomb shortage. That man and our president had a major lack of credibility with the aircrews. It's a good thing we were not going to our primary target that day.

"Sarge, did they download some of our ordnance, when the target was changed, or is this all we were going to get?" I asked the crew chief.

"That's all they were going to give you, Sir," he answered.

He was embarrassed, as if somehow he should have unilaterally been able to get a full ordnance load for his airplane. I really appreciated his attitude, but that didn't help increase the ordnance load. Damn, this sure was one screwed-up way to fight a war!

At any rate, the walk around inspection showed the airplane to be in good shape. Thank God for that. Easy missions like this one didn't occur very often and were no time to have a maintenance abort. Completion of one hundred missions into North Vietnam, easy or hard, was the price of a ticket home. Someone at the stag bar had recently passed the cheery news that at the current loss rate, everyone would be shot down three times before they finished their 100 missions. I only had two times to go. We didn't dwell on statistics or on the poor odds of living long enough to complete a combat tour. We were here doing the best job we could. Most of us thought that we were bullet-proof anyway, and enjoyed pitting our skills against those of the NVN, their Russian made weapons, and their Russian "advisors." All that aside, it was nice to get an easy mission every once in awhile.

We climbed aboard, cranked up the engine, checked out our systems, and taxied out to the arming area. Everything was looking good. With this "piece of cake" mission ahead of us, we might just return to enjoy the rest of it. It was a beautiful day at Takhli Royal Thai AFB, I was flying with someone I respected and trusted, we'd gotten a good airplane, a full load of gas, some missiles and a cannon, and were going to go kill some SAM sites. Life doesn't get any better than that! Our wingman still seemed a little pissed off since he made an obscene gesture to the Catholic Chaplain who is walking by blessing the aircraft and crews. The Chaplain smiled and shook his head. He was a pretty nice guy, but the severe loss rate for pilots seemed to be bothering him. The past couple of weeks he had really been putting away the booze at the Stag bar as if he were taking the losses personally. Most of the aircrews shied away from him. We didn't get maudlin about the losses and didn't feel comfortable with those that did. The support people at Takhli really cared.

We were next in line for takeoff. "Do you want to make the takeoff, Mike?" Glenn asked.

"Sure," I answered, not knowing if I could see well enough from the back seat (the forward visibility of the Weasel F-105F is almost zero), and as an EWO, not knowing if I could do so successfully. But, if Glenn had offered, he must've thought that I could, and I wasn't going to say no. There shouldn't be too much to it. Just go real fast and pull back on the stick. Glenn told our wingman that we would be making single ship takeoffs, and called the tower. Takeoff clearance received, I pushed the throttle to the stops and stroked it outboard to light the afterburner. With a kick in the butt and a satisfying roar, we were rolling. Glenn switched on the water injection, which adds extra thrust and we were now really moving. I was having a hell of a time keeping the aircraft centered on the runway - it seems to want to go from one side to the other, almost as if the nose wheel steering was still engaged. I cycled the nose wheel steering switch on and off and the aircraft settled down and smoothly tracked the center line of the runway. Must've been a malfunction in the switch. Glenn chose that moment to tactfully say that he probably should continue the takeoff. I really messed that up. I should have recognized and corrected that switch malfunction quicker. It was a little embarrassing, but no big deal.

We were airborne and climbing toward the rendezvous with our tanker. Our wingman was about 10 ft. off our right wing and I checked out my equipment. Everything seemed to be operating great. We would rendezvous with our tanker over Laos. It took about 35 min. to get there. I killed the time by flying the airplane. Glenn occupied himself by enjoying the scenery. He then called Red Anchor, the KC-135 that would be our tanker for the day. Red Anchor responded immediately and gave us his position. "I've got a flight of four inbound ahead of you," he said.

That would be Fosdick flight. I saw from the mission card on my knee pad that Fosdick two was the guy from Kadena, and a buddy of a friend. Glenn positioned us so that we were about a mile in trail behind the tanker and Fosdick flight, which was approaching the tanker. Just then, a bright flash! from the vicinity of Fosdick flight. The pilot of the KC-135 Tanker called over Guard Channel: "One of the fighters has just blown up!"

We then heard Fosdick lead calling on guard channel for the rescue forces. "This is Fosdick lead. Fosdick Two has just blown up on the tanker. No chute, no survivors!"

"Good Grief! What could have happened?"

"I don't know," replied Glenn. "It looks like his bombs just went off. What a hell of a way to go. What a waste!"

Consensus among the crews was that an arming wire that prevents the fuse from arming until the bomb leaves the airplane had worked its way loose - a defect associated with fuses that were not designed for high speed external carriage. Normal in-flight bomb rack vibration would allow the wire to come free and the fuse to spin down. From that time on, the bomb was armed and for detonation needed only a strong radar signal, which could be provided by a KC-135. The Rescue Command Post and Fosdick Lead continued to exchange information for a few more minutes.

Regardless, it was then our turn to move into position on the tanker, top off our fuel tanks and get on with the mission, though we all now felt a little hollow inside. We were losing enough people to the NVN defenses, made all the worse by the restrictive Rules of Engagement under which we are forced to fly. To be killed by a defect in your own bomb is really the pits.

Well, you can't dwell on those things, and must get on with the mission. Our flight of two aircraft refueled and headed north. Four other flights of four F-105s were visible off to our left and right. Glenn called to our wingman to switch to Channel 19. I tuned through the frequency bands on my Weasel equipment , and picked-up the first sign of NVN radar activity, a Soviet- made Barlock radar that would be passing to the enemy our altitude, heading, and the number of aircraft in the raid. My APR-25 vectorscope displayed the first of the precision tracking radars, a Firecan - Soviet designed, Soviet built and possibly Soviet manned - and one usually associated with one or several batteries of 57 or 85 mm anti-aircraft guns.

"Guns at 2 o'clock," I called. Glenn repeated this over the air, but the radar signal was pretty weak - probably the gun battery at Yen Bai, about 60 mi. ahead of us. The F-105s from both Takhli and Korat normally crossed the Red River in the vicinity of Yen Bai, in order to attack the targets in the Hanoi area from the North, where the more mountainous terrain offers some protection. The NVN (NVN) had moved that Firecan radar and its associated guns into position several months earlier. It was more of a nuisance than a threat. The gunners always shot but had been particularly lousy aims. The precision tracking of that particular radar, though, had passed vital information of our timing, intentions and strike force size to the rest of the NVN defenses. Thus, its presence had been a thorn in the side of the Weasels. Most of the Weasel crews had tried, at one time or another, to knock it out with Shrike missiles, with no success. We had speculated that the radar was probably very well reveted, making it particularly hard to damage with anything but a direct hit. A few days earlier, on a similar mission, Jerry Hoblit and Tom Wilson had tried something different (notice that I said "different," not "bright"). Back at Weasel School, we had practiced a technique that we called "Station Passage." The idea was, if you keep correcting your heading as you approach a radar site, so as to keep the radar signal directly off your nose, you will eventually fly a big arc that takes you over the radar. The equipment indicates the moment you fly over the site since the signal switches suddenly from off your nose to off your tail. Well, Jerry and Tom went through that drill with the Yen Bai Firecan. When they got station passage, Jerry lit the afterburner and pulled up into an Immelmann maneuver. Their idea was to fire their Shrike missile when their nose was pointed straight up. The missile should then continue on up for a bit before reversing itself and heading straight down onto the radar. Theoretically, it was a sound plan, and unlikely to miss. It was really neat to watch from a safe distance. It's always neat to sit safely by and watch your friends do dumb things. Up went the airplane. Off went the Shrike. Down came the airplane. Down came the Shrike. Up came the most intense barrage of flak any of us had ever seen. By some miracle, Jerry and Tom were able to fly out of there unscathed. To add insult to injury, the Shrike missed its target and the radar kept on transmitting. After that miss, we sort of left that Firecan alone. The guy shooting at us wasn't very accurate, and if we killed him, they would probably have replaced him with someone who could shoot better. Might as well leave well enough alone.

Back to this day's mission. We crossed the border into North Vietnam and turned almost immediately west northwest toward Son La and Dien Bien Phu. It is a short hop over there. Only about 15 min. passed until we were in the area, and looking things over. "Nothing on the scope, Glenn," I called.

"They must know that we are going to secondary targets today; there isn't much activity over towards Hanoi, either."

"Well," Glenn called back, "let's go over there and see what we can stir up."

"Avenger, is leaving the area," Glenn called to the Strike force over the radio.

With that, he pulled the nose of the plane around, pushed up the power and took up a heading of 120 degrees towards the flats south and west of Hanoi. There still wasn't much activity on the scope, just a few Firecans probably looking toward some Navy planes out over the Gulf of Tonkin. I turned up the sensitivity of my receiver and could just make out a very weak SAM radar from amidst the noise. It wasn't strong enough to generate an exact bearing, but common sense told us that it was directly ahead. Good. The SAM signal gradually grew stronger as we closed the gap with Hanoi at a rate of eight miles a minute. The signal was now growing strong enough for me to get a reasonable indication of its location. "The SAM site is at our 11 o'clock position, Glenn."

"Roger. It's probably that site just south of Hoa Binh. That's the one that hammered those guys from Korat, yesterday. Let's go pay him as visit."

Glenn then put the SAM site directly off the nose of the airplane. My job was to give heading corrections until we could launch one of our anti-radiation missiles. We also had to ensure we didn't get surprised by anything else while we are doing it.

The NVN radar network had apparently told the site that there were two aircraft coming in from the west. The radar signal increased significantly in strength, indicating it was now looking our way. I worked my IR-133 receiver, synchronizing the scan with that of the radar, and determined that we were almost directly in the middle of the SAM's azimuth beam. I moved to the elevation beam and got the same result. "He's tracking us," I told Glenn.

"I think we're close enough to put a Shrike on this guy," Glenn replied.

Seconds later the Shrike left the wing, trailing smoke as it roared towards the SAM radar. Moments later, the red "Launch" lights illuminated in our cockpits and the shrill screech in our headsets indicated that the site had launched missiles at us. "Valid launch off the nose," I told Glenn.

"Avenger flight has a valid launch. Take it down, Avenger," Glenn calmly announced.

He lowered the nose, pushed up the power and headed for the site. It was now a matter of visually acquiring the missiles and dodging them, while hoping that our Shrike found its way to the radar and put it out of commission. The Weasels had the edge in this battle - we could dodge; SAM sites can't. Of course, we had only a semi-dumb, short range missile with a 50-lb. warhead, while the enemy had a fairly sophisticated weapon system operated by a four men crew, with information fed to it from several other radars. One SAM site usually had another site providing overlapping coverage, as well as dozens of anti-aircraft guns in the vicinity. He also had six missiles which could go twice as far and twice as fast as our Shrikes and which had 300-lb. warheads. Still, we felt we had the advantage, as long as we didn't screw up by getting too high, too low, too slow, or too stupid.

The missiles came into sight. Glenn maneuvered so the missiles were coming at us from our two-o'clock position. They're easier to dodge when they are coming at you from the side. We could see two coming our way, although a third one may have been launched. Soviet launch doctrine, which the NVN used, went something like this: Shoot. Shoot. Look. Shoot. "I see the smoke from the launch site," Glenn said. "It's near the bend in the river."

Only fifteen seconds had elapsed since launching the Shrike. If it worked, and if we had been able to estimate our range from the site accurately enough, the radar should have gone off the air about then. I needed to look at my scope in order to see if that happened, but with missiles on the way, all eyes had to be watching for them. Glenn pulled up sharply and turned into the missile. Both missiles passed harmlessly below us and detonated in the distance. He rolled wings level to look for the probable third missile, as another site at our nine o'clock position launched at us. "Launch at nine o'clock!" I called.

"Roger," he said and turned hard to the left toward that site, temporarily forgetting about the first site.

A quick look at my scope showed the radar signal from the first site had gone off the air, indicating a probable hit from our Shrike; it was hard to tell as we were the center of attraction for several SAM and AAA sites, and the scope was cluttered with signals. "I see smoke from our Shrike at the first site," Glenn confirmed.

At least the radar was disabled. We could go in and destroy the vans and missiles as soon as we could stop dodging. "I've got two missiles in sight," called Glenn.

We descended to about 50 ft. above the ground, doing around 700 kts. This was too close to the deck to dodge missiles, but they wouldn't be able to track us at such a low altitude. Seconds later the first missile roared overhead. followed shortly thereafter by another. They were at least 500 ft. away, but looked a lot closer. "I'm going to climb a little and see if I can put a Shrike into this guy from point blank range," Glenn calmly announced.

"Go to it," I replied.

As we left the relative safety of tree-top altitude and climbed to 4,000 ft. to give the Shrike a better look at its target, two more SAM sites started tracking us strongly. "SAM sites looking at us at four and eight o'clock," I called.

"Roger," Glenn answered. "I'll just be a bit longer."

"Missile Launch!" I called. "It's the one at our four o'clock!"

"Avenger flight, missile launch," Glenn called on the radio.

He hung on a few seconds longer, and then sent the Shrike on its way. We were now diving back to the relative safety of the ground - down to where SAM radar would have trouble picking our aircraft out of the ground clutter.

"Where the hell is Avenger Two, Mike?"

"We lost him in the first SAM break," I answer.

"Avenger Two, where are you?" Glenn radioed.

"I lost you during the SAM break," Two answers. "I'm over on the Ridge."

Well that figured! Not only was the guy a candyass, he couldn't fly an airplane, either! "Well, head on home," Glenn directed him. "We've got some business here yet."

Neither of us could see the missiles from the third site and assumed that we were too low for them to track us. We were back close to our original heading, where we were first fired upon. We were going back to destroy the first site that fired on us. Glenn armed the 20mm Gattling gun-the best SAM-killing weapon ever devised. We were still about 50 ft. off the ground, but had slowed down to perhaps 600 kts. Forward visibility was not too great, as the combination of our speed and the high moisture content in the air created our own little fog bank on each side of the nose. Glenn climbed to about 4,000 ft. in order to get a better look at our target. Little red balls rose to meet us - harmless looking but quite deadly. They were tracers associated with some pretty fast shooting guns, and they were all around us. What didn't show were the multiple non-tracers amongst the visible rounds.

We could hear rounds hitting the aircraft. We seemed to be engulfed by a half square mile of anti-aircraft projectiles. Glenn maneuvered to spoil their aim. "I see the site," said Glenn. We had time, gas, and the inclination for just one pass and made good use of it. Our 20mm rounds stitched through one missile launcher, across and through the radar and control vans, and then out the other side through another missile launcher. We broke hard right. The explosions shook the airplane and orange smoke and fire belched hundreds of feet into the air. "Good shooting , Glenn!" "Thank you, sir!" he answered cheerfully. "Now let's get the hell out of here."

We descended back down to 50 ft. and stayed on the deck for another 30 mi., until we exited the heavily defended areas. Twice on the way out we again strafed gun positions which popped-up before us. Finally, we were able to climb back up to safety, take our oxygen masks away from our faces, and have a cigarette. We were both on an adrenaline high. It had been an exciting 20 min. "Did you hear that joke that Norm Frith told in the bar last night?" I asked Glenn. "No," he said, "tell me."

"Well, it goes like this: 'Do you know the definition of the world's greatest optimist? It's a Weasel who quits smoking, because he's afraid that he will die of lung cancer.'"

"Boy, we really stirred up a hornets' nest there," Glenn chuckled.

Yes, we really had. We had killed one SAM site, got a probable hit on another, shot up several anti-aircraft gun positions, dodged six missiles and thousands of anti-aircraft shells and had been the sole focus of the Hanoi defensive network. Just another routine Weasel mission and a lot of fun. Nine more just like it and we would earn an Air Medal.

July 2000


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