Friday, November 11, 2005

In Their Own Words #8: Eleven Stories For Veterans Day

Lt Col Allen Lamb, USAF (ret.), is currently president of The Lamb Group LLC, an international industrial safety consulting firm based in Lumberton, NC.


The first SAM kill by Wild Weasels showed that good technology and solid tactics are fine things to have, but great teamwork is what gets the job done.

I was taking off from Korat Air Base in Thailand two days after Bob Trier became the first Wild Weasel killed in action. Bob and his pilot, John Pitchford, had fallen to a SAM site while leading a strike package of F-105s against the Kep airfield, located about thirty miles northwest of Hanoi. After punching out of their stricken F-100F, Bob had apparently shot it out with North Vietnamese militia and lost, while John would spend seven years as a POW. Of course, we didn't know any of that at the time. All we knew is that the Wild Weasels were off to a bad start.

It was December 22, 1965, and we hadn't killed a single SAM, yet. At least the mission we were rolling on that morning was more to our liking. It was a so-called "Iron Hand" strike, which was code for a Wild Weasel mission, with the objective of hunting and killing a SAM site, as opposed to leading a strike against a known target. Our F-100F was loaded with LAU-3 canisters of 2.75-in. HEAT and HEAP rockets and two external fuel tanks. Jack Donnovan, my EWO, had flown back seat to Bob Schwartz, the operations officer, on the day Bob Trier was killed. Their F-100F has been leading a second strike package against the same target. Like Pitchford and Trier, they were supposed to sniff out radar threats with their Vector IV and IR-133 radar-warning receivers. Weasels also carried the WR-300 launch-warning receivers, which could detect the increased signals when a SAM was about to launch.

The most dangerous threats were the SA-2 Guideline SAM sites with their Fan Song radars. This is what the Wild Weasels were born to tackle. These missiles had come as a nasty shock to US aircrews operating over North Vietnam in 1965. On July 24 of that year, a SA-2 exploded in the middle of a strike force of F-4 Phantom IIs, knocking down one aircraft and damaging all the others in the flight. Losses to SAMs became regular occurrences. Something had to be done about it.

I had been the first pilot picked for the Wild Weasel program per request of General Benny Puttman, who was commander of the Tactical Air Warfare Center at Eglin AFB. This is where the Wild Weasels would be pulled together. Col Charlie Joseph, Tactical Air Command Coordinator, had come down to Myrtle Beach AFB where I was stationed on September 15, 1965, to have lunch and ask me to volunteer for something without telling me what the job was. I knew Col Joseph from Misawa, and I said yes. He handed me orders TDY (Temporary Duty) to Eglin with variations in itinerary authorized (these carried me all the way to Nam).

I disappeared from Myrtle Beach the next morning, and the rest is history. The original orders said the assignment would be to fly a F-100F command post (another job for the two-seater), but Joseph told me after I was on board that I would be hunting and killing SAM sites in North Vietnam. Quite hush-hush on everything. One of the first pilots broke security by talking to a nurse at the beach club at happy hour. We were being watched. He was gone the next morning and lost his career. We were all chewed out and kept isolated from then on. There were to be two birds, but later this was upgraded to four in case we lost one and one was out of commission, etc. Ultimately, there were five crews assembled for the four aircraft. In the days before the Shrike anti-radiation missile, Wild Weasels attacked enemy SAM sites with cannon and rockets and initially fin napalm, although this latter weapon was the 7th Air Force's idea, not the aircrews'. We didn't like napalm, nor bombs for that matter, because the parameters for using dropped ordnance were more restrictive than for rockets. We could get off snap-shots with rockets, something we couldn't do with fin napalm or bombs. Iron Hand strikes typically consisted of a Wild Weasel leading four F-105s heavily laden with bombs or rockets or both for pasting the SAM sites. The "Thuds" didn't carry any special electronics for ferreting out enemy radars. That was our job.

Nevertheless, we didn't just mark the target, as some have claimed. We went in first with rockets and came back around with cannon even before some of the Thuds had started on a first run. The F-100F was an excellent hunter-killer in that it was very agile. I was very fond of it, and of my ability to fly it. In those days, I had "World's Greatest Fighter Pilot" printed on my helmet - backwards so I could read it in the mirror. No apologies for youth: That was the sort of attitude we all had. I just put my attitude in writing.

Jack Donnovan's contribution to the vernacular when introduced to the Wild Weasel concept was more enduring, and became the semi-official motto of the Wild Weasel profession: YGBSM - "You gotta be shitting me." This was the natural response of an educated man, a veteran EWO on B-52s and the like, upon learning that he was to fly back seat to a self-absorbed fighter pilot while acting as flypaper for enemy SAMs. What would you say?

Our flight that December morning was call sign Spruce, and our F-100F was Spruce 5. The F-105s - Spruce 1-4 - took off after right after we did. Everything was standard through form-up and and refueling at tanker over Laos. We took the lead at our pre-briefed initial point, and with two Thuds on each wing, we headed for the Red River Valley, a flood plain that was home to some of the best air-defense systems in North Vietnam. The mission parameters were fairly fluid after that. We didn't have a specific objective or a series of known targets. Our job was to probe the enemy's air defenses until they warmed up to take a shot at us.

There was complete radio silence after going to the strike frequency. A little after noontime, Jack told me that the Vector IV had picked up a Fan Song radar in search mode about 100+ nautical miles out. I pushed the engine up to 98 percent and locked the throttle. This gave us 595 knots airspeed, just under max while carrying ordnance. After I started homing in, I transmitted "Tallyho." That was it. I kept the SAM at 10 to 11 o'clock so he wouldn't get the idea I was going after him. When I could, I dropped into shallow valleys to mask our approach. Every now and again, I'd pop up for Jack to get a cut. This went on for about 10 to 15 minutes.

After breaking out into the Red River Valley I followed the strobes on the Vector and turned up with the river along side. The IR 133 had receiver antennas located on either side of the fuselage in line with the cockpit for homing on target. The strobes started curling off at 12 o'clock, both to the right and left. And I knew we were right on top of him. I started climbing for altitude and Jack kept calling out SAM positions literally left and right. The right one turned out to be a second site. I was passing through 3,000 feet, nose high, and I rolled inverted while still climbing to look.

Jack started calling the first site to the right. I said it was to the left, because I could see it below. "Right!" he said. "Left!" I said. "Right!" he said. "Look outside!" I said. Jack did and saw that we were inverted, so the signals from the left and right antennas were reversed. "OK, left," he agreed.

I rolled in to line up the site but came in way too low. Later, some of the Thud drivers told me they thought I was going to mark the target with my aircraft. My rockets hit short, but as I pulled off there was a bright flash. I figured I must have hit the oxidizer van for the SA-2s' liquid-fuel motors. I called out the site, and the F-105 lead, Don Langwell, said that he had it. He went in, and Spruce 2, Van Heywood, came after him, firing rockets on the site. We all broke the cardinal rule - "one pass, haul ass" - to assure the kill. I came back around for a second pass in front of Spruce 4, Art Brattkus (the F-100s were agile birds!), and went down in beside Spruce 3, Bob Bush, who was hitting the AAA along side of the Red River (Bob Bush would be KIA on a subsequent mission). On this pass I strafed the control van, and he went off the air. Each of the Thuds came around again, expending all their 20mm ammunition. Jack was now calling out the second SAM site, but we had nothing left to hit it with. But we really blew away the site that we did hit.

We got out of there, rejoined, and refueled. There was a USO show with Bob Hope that day at Korat, and we made a fly over with the F-100 leading and two F-105s on each wing. A number of people down there knew that meant we had made a SAM kill and left the show early to celebrate.

After landing, we debriefed and went to the club. What a party. Jack drank martinis. After a while, he started holding them by the rim with his thumb and finger. And began dropping them. The more he drank the more he dropped. The club was raising Cain as they were running out of glasses, so we taped a glass in his hand. After dinner he drank creme dementhe and went around sticking out his green tongue.

All six of us in Spruce Flight received the Distinguished Flying Cross for killing the first SAM site. Jack would fly twelve more missions with me before going stateside in February 1966 to get the ball rolling on what would become the Wild Weasel School at Nellis AFB. I stayed in Southeast Asia for a total of six months and received credit for two more SAM kills. When we flew together, Jack said he would sleep through my air refuelings and would tell me to wake him up on ingress for him to go to work. The only time he looked outside was when I told him to take a look at Hanoi and the flak. Jack and I were a very strong team; we lived together and flew together, and we always knew what the other was thinking, even before he thought it. We were closer than many marriages. Jack also named his second son after me.


October 2001

2 Comments:

At 5:04 PM, Anonymous LtCol Shannon Pitchford said...

Sir,

This was a great story! I am Col John Pitchfords nephew and currently serving as the Ordnance Officer for II MEF in Camp Lejeune, NC it is always good to here the story's of the wild weasels. I have heard quite a few drinking vodka martini's with Uncle Jack. He and you are truly great American's

Semper Fi
LtCol Shannon Pitchford
USMC

 
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