Chapter 6

Operation Linebacker

More than a month had now passed since the beginning of the massive communist push into South Vietnam and Laos. Since the middle of March 1972, we had lost six A-1s to enemy action and had others severely damaged. The good news was, that no A-1 pilots had been lost during my tour to this point.

On 1 November 1968, then President Johnson order a halt to all bombing of North Vietnam. This bombing halt lasted four years and allowed the North Vietnamese sanctuary inside their own borders. Additionally, infiltration rates of men and equipment into South Vietnam and neighboring Laos reached new heights during the bombing hiatus.

With the Easter invasion, the situation had changed. The burden of the ground fighting was resting on the shoulders of the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam), and the only support able to be given by the US was in the form of air power. On 6 April 1972, President Nixon ordered limited bombing of North Vietnam up to 80 nm north of the DMZ, which included the panhandle of North Vietnam, but excluded the major population center of Hanoi and the port city of Haiphong.

Now, in early May, the stakes were raised. Operation Linebacker was initiated with the mining of Haiphong harbor on 9 May, and resumption of full-scale bombing of North Vietnam on the following day, 10 May 1972. The book, One Day in a Long War by Jeffrey Ethell and Alfred Price recounts this day of the air war in North Vietnam.

On 10 May alone, the US flew 414 sorties to attack, or support attacks on, targets in North Vietnam: 120 by the Air Force and 294 from carriers. With this many aircraft in action on nearly a daily basis, there were sure to be losses. This meant that the Sandys and Jolly Greens were once again going to be in action in North Vietnam to attempt the rescue of as many downed crews as possible.





 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 12 May 73 4.0

216.7 A-1J 142058

My first journal entry for 12 May 1972

SAR for Icebag 01B 50 nm [actually 25 nm!] west of Hanoi... Sandy 02 with [Captain Don] Tango Mike {Morse] leading... Icebag 01B was hidden and had lots of bad guys around him... TM was having difficulty locating him, so he gave me the lead and I found him... He [Icebag 01B] called ground fire on several passes and I did end up with some AK-47 holes in my airplane... I had an intermittent sump light [while working the survivor]... Marked his position with an M-47... Had to RTB for low fuel... Maybe could have gotten him out if we had a chopper ready... Scotty and someone else saw two MiG-19s in the area in the afternoon... We had a Nail FAC with us on the first go. DFC

The Icebag 01B SAR is among those presented on the Skyraider Association website. There, you will be able to hear a 26 minute portion of the actual SAR as it happened 26 years ago. In addition there is a writeup of the SAR and a map showing the survivor's location. In addition there was email communication between Don Morse, Bill Talley (Icebag 01A) and me.

Operation Linebacker was on its second day (11 May 72) when Icebag 01 was downed by a MiG while providing SAM suppression (Iron Hand) for the strike force going to targets in the Hanoi area. There was no SAR effort on that first day.

Tango Mike and I were on the morning Sandy schedule the next day, 12 May 1972. I do not recall that we were scrambled for this mission, but we may have been. Flying time to the SAR location was about an hour and 15 minutes as it was more than 200 nm to the SAR location.

The long distance from home made coordination between the Jolly Greens and Sandys very important. We would have only about two hours in the survivor's area and everything would have to go without a hitch.

That, of course, only happens in Hollywood and in fictionalized accounts. What really happened is that we were continually harassed by ground fire from enemy troops on the ground who were as intent on capturing the survivor as we were in trying to rescue him. We were close to making an attempt when we were ordered to withdraw to the west because of MiG activity. In addition, just prior to our withdrawal, we found out that the Jolly Greens were refueling with King and were not in a position to come in to the area anyway. Don had radio and UHF/ADF problems which also added to the general confusion.

I also had an annoying "oil sump warning light" that kept illuminating while I was working the survivor with Sandy 01. Illumination of the oil sump warning light is a "land as soon as possible" emergency, but of course that was out of the question. So I watched my instruments for a while, and when the light went back out, I was good to go. Except it came back on again, and again. Oh well, I can say now that it was a false indication, but back then, I had no such knowledge.

As we were departing the area due to the MiG calls, I put down a safe "willy pete" (white phosphorus) bomb (M-47A4) to mark the survivor's general location. It would wisp out smoke for a couple hours and could serve as a reference for other Sandys trying to relocate the survivor.

During the battle damage check back on the way home, TM spotted what he thought were holes in my aircraft, and sure enough, there were a few AK-47 sized holes in the right wing.

The flight home seemed to take forever, but I knew it would be tougher yet for the survivor. He had reported enemy activity near his area, and in that location, I knew he was in trouble.

 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 12 May 74 4.7

221.4 A-1H 135257

My second journal entry for 12 May 1972

Went back up [to Icebag 01B's location] with TM, but to no avail... The weather had closed in by the time we got there... We still talked with the survivor [Icebag 01B] and put in some BLU-52 with LORAN F-4s... Icebag 01B said he could not hear them hit, so they must not have been too close... RTB at night... Kind of spooky 'till we got out of North Vietnam... No strike

Don Morse (Tango Mike) and I got a quick turn around and headed back up to the SAR location later in the day. I changed aircraft due to the battle damage I had suffered on the first sortie. The weather had closed in around the location which did not allow us to work the area.

A flight of LORAN equipped F-4 Phantom IIs loaded with BLU-52 were used in an attempt to reduce enemy movement in the area. BLU-52 was a 'riot control', CS based powder that would temporarily incapacitate anyone that came into contact with it, including the survivor. Typically, the victim would experience burning eyes, draining sinuses, and nausea. Since its effects were only temporary, this was a risk we were all willing to take, the survivor included. The CS powder was delivered in a 500 lb napalm tank.

After Icebag 01B reported that he did not hear the BLU-52 canisters impact, one could only assume they were not too close to the survivor, and therefore, of little benefit. But at least we tried.

The flight home was again one which took far too long. Night fell as we began our long flight back to NKP, and we were both a bit apprehensive. Since we were in enemy territory, neither of us turned on our position lights or rotating beacons, so we got altitude separation and flew the same airspeed and heading in order to stay together, and to arrive back in friendly territory in more or less the same piece of sky.

Once back on the other side of "the fence," we both turned on our lights and effected a rejoin. In all, we spent 8.7 hours in the air during the Icebag 01B SAR.

I feel that this mission was a turning point for me as a Sandy. Despite our best efforts, we had come home empty handed, and the survivor was still in enemy territory. I knew that there were circumstances outside our control that prevented us from effecting the pickup, but I also knew that we could have been more aggressive. The longer a survivor remained on the ground, the harder it became to pick him up. We had experienced that axiom first hand.







 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 14 May 75 3.1

224.5 A-1H 139738

My journal entry for 14 May 1972

Sandy 04 ... November orbit (Fish's Mouth)... No strike

After a day off, it was back on the afternoon Sandy schedule. We had a period of ground alert which commenced once the morning Sandys launched and then we took off in mid-afternoon for a period of airborne alert. We went to a new orbit point designed to get us up north, closer to the action should any of the Linebacker linebacker aircraft go down in North Vietnam.

The November orbit point was near what was known as the Fish's Mouth. This is where the border between Laos and North Vietnam protrudes west into Laos east of the PDJ forming what looks on a map like the gaping mouth of a fish. Of course from the air it looks simply like mountainous jungle. The highest peaks in this area were around 9,000 feet so we were basically on the edge as far as performance (or lack of it) went.

This is a map of the Fish's Mouth area. Just inside the warning box is Ban Ban. The road running out of the Fish's Mouth through Ban Ban Valley was one of the communists main infiltration and resupply routes into northern Laos. Ban Ban Valley was the scene of many an airstrike by A-1 Skyraiders throughout the war.







 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 17 May 76 0.3

224.8 A-1H 134472

My first journal entry for 17 May 1972

{Hobo 42 as wingman with Capt Buck Buchanan} Air abort for Buck in 215

A very short mission. Buck had a problem in his Skyraider which required that we go back to get another aircraft for him.

 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 17 May 77 3.7

228.5 A-1H 134472

My second journal entry for 17 May 1972

{Hobo 42 as wingman with Capt Buck Buchanan} BR orbit in marginal weather... No Raven FACs working, so Buck got hold of Nokaten 101.... He was working at L 197 which is [was] NNW of LS 20... Went beneath the clouds and between the ridges and saw him in the distance in a hole just big enough to work in... SH strike... We each made about 15 passes and the FAC was really happy that we helped him... BDA: 5 bunkers destroyed, 2 DK-82 destroyed, 15 122mm rockets destroyed, 5 probable KBA. DFC


Buck grabbed another Spad and we launched off again and headed up to the Barrel. After an orbit to sort things out, it became apparent that there was not much action up there due to the weather. Our first clue should have been that the Ravens were not airborne due to the DS weather.

At this point, we could have done either of two things, head for the house and call it a day, or dig out the special frequencies card and search for some action. Buck chose the latter and it was well worth the effort on his part.

We snaked through the tunnel formed by the low clouds and ridges and found Nokaten 101, a Lao FAC flying an O-1 Bird Dog. There was just enough room to work under the weather and in a small valley. L 197 was well off the beaten path about 15 klicks west of Muong Soui which was at the extreme western end of the PDJ.

Whether the FAC actually had the kind of damage he passed us is debatable. He probably felt obligated to give us good BDA since I'm quite sure we were the only tac air he had all day.







 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 20 May 78 4.5

233.0 A-1H 139665

My journal entry for 20 May 1972

Sandy 10 on [Capt] Ron Smith's wing... SAR for Bowleg 02 ...Worked with [Maj] Zeke Encinas and [1Lt] Lance Smith in the SAR area which was 35 nm west of Hanoi, north of Banana Valley...Tex [Brown] and his lead had found the survivors and had them nearly ready for pickup when Ron and I arrived... We suppressed some ground fire prior to the pickup and I emptied my LAU-3s on a group of hootches [fighting positions] where we were taking fire... I laid a smoke screen [with CBU-22] at the "execute" call... Bowleg 02B stopped talking just prior to execute and was captured... Zeke and Lance brought the Jolly in and Ron set up a right hand daisy chain with everyone else left... [After the pickup] we egressed south, then west... We emptied the rest of our ordnance on some additional ground fire just south of Banana Valley...We all cleaned our wings on the way home to save gas... I was lowest of the four [Sandys] on gas so I also jettisoned my SUU-11 gun pod ($18,000)... I landed at NKP with less than 100 pounds (15 gallons) of fuel remaining... DFC

Press Coverage of the Bowleg 02 SAR

Bowleg 02 SAR Map

Mission background:

The F-4D #65-0600, of the 432 TRW departed Udorn at 1102, 20 May 72, in a flight of four [Bowleg] flying MiG Cap for other F-4's on a strike mission near Hanoi. At about 1220 , shortly after reaching the target area, the flight was engaged by a MiG-21 aircraft. A MiG fired a missile at Bowleg 02, Lt Markle took evasive action, but was hit and both crewmembers ejected. Both crewmembers established communications with the SAR forces. At about 1730, shortly before Lt Markle [Bowleg 02A] was rescued, Capt Williams [Bowleg 02B] transmitted that there were people in his immediate vicinity. A short time later, Lt Markle heard a single shot from a small caliber weapon, and two seconds later heard what sounded like a flare being fired. There was no further contact with Capt Williams.

This mission was my second close to Hanoi and the tension was high. Bowleg 02 was number 2 in a flight of four F-4D Phantom IIs from the 555 TFS who were on a MiG sweep. Just 10 days earlier, First Lieutenant John Markle (Bowleg 02A) had a MiG 21 kill while flying with the "A" team of MiG hunters from the Triple Nickel at Udorn. This group included soon to be USAF aces Steve Ritchie, Chuck Debellevue, and Jeff Feinstein. On this day, Markle and his pitter (WSO), Capt Jim Williams were down and we were there to try and get them out.

I was reminded by Ron Smith that Zeke's wingman was Lance Smith, not Tex Brown (sorry guys). Smith's recollection of this SAR gives another perspective of the rescue. In addition, John Markle also provides his insight with his recollection of the events pertaining to his rescue.

Since the flight time to the SAR area was an hour and twenty minutes each way (that's two hours and forty minutes of just going and coming), we had to act quickly once in the area in order to pull off the rescue. part of the problem with this particular SAR is that just as other Sandys would get ready to attempt a rescue, they would not have a safe margin of fuel reserve and would have to leave empty handed. Ron Smith reminded me that to circumvent this problem, we launched as a four ship so that we all would arrive with the same fuel state and would hopefully be able to orchestrate a pickup.

There was a considerable amount of resistance in the SAR area as might be expected so close to the North Vietnamese capital. Virtually all Sandys were at lease fired upon and several took hits. There were also SA-2s launched in the general direction, but I suspect that the fighters covering the SAR overhead were the ones being targeted.

Generally we returned to base with the SUU-11 minigun, the 300 gallon centerline fuel tank, the 150 gallon fuel tank on the right stub, and the LAU-68 reusable rocket launchers on stations 5 and 8. But for this mission, I cleaned them all off since I was so low on fuel. They didn't call them drop tanks for nothing.

We cruise climbed on the way home and I was given the lead so as to minimize fuel consumption since I was the lowest on fuel of the four of us. NKP tower cleared both the runway and the parallel taxiway in case that runway should suddenly become unavailable for use. I landed straight in on the runway and shut down in the dearm area since my gauge showed zero fuel remaining.

The difference between the amount of fuel added by ground crews after landing and the total capacity of the internal tank was 98 pounds. In a jet this would have been critical, but in a recip, I maybe could have flown around, oh maybe another 5 minutes!!

The Skyraider gave us all confidence. It could take lots of punishment and could give it out too. And of course it didn't hurt to have the Jolly Green Giants near by either. SOP was to pick up the guy who was on the ground the shortest time because the longer a person was on the ground, the harder it was to get him out. A real confidence builder to say the least.

This mission was inside Route Pack 5 and qualified those of us who flew on this mission as members of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association (the River Rats). For obvious reasons, the membership in this organization is mostly fast mover drivers.

Awards and decorations were funny (odd, not ha ha). A lot of it had to do with how aggressive the awards and decs officer was. If the missions weren't written up well, or not at all, forget it. At the time, awards and decorations were the least of our worries. Since I was part of the SAR package on a pickup of a MiG killer 35 nm from Hanoi, I guess it rated a DFC. Oh well. Each of us that flew over there knew when we did a good job, and when we were just along on the mission. Suffice it to say, I flew better missions which were totally unrewarded (with medals) and the reward was in the self-satisfaction of a job well done. (key the violins!)








 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 21 May 79 2.8

235.8 A-1J 142028

My journal entry for 21 May 1972

Sandy 06 on deployment flight to Bien Hoa with [Capt] Ron Smith [as Sandy 05]...No strike... Had to [attend to personal matters] when we arrived, so we wasted no time after landing [in getting the aircraft to the parking area.]

One day after flying a mission 220 nm north of NKP in the outskirts of Hanoi, Ron Smith and I headed south about the same distance south of NKP to Bien Hoa Air Base South Vietnam. We were on tap for six days of Sandy alert and I kind of liked he change of scenery.

These two sorties on successive days epitomized the way the year went in Southeast Asia. We covered the whole theater from Route Pack 6 in North Vietnam to MR I south of Saigon. It was a unique opportunity. The A-1 was a valuable resource, but we were down to 22 aircraft after having lost six in a short period between mid-March and early May. We were starting to feel as if we were getting spread pretty thin. For sure, we could only support one major SAR effort at a time.

It was no coincidence that Ron and I were flying together again. We got along well and both respected each other's capabilities. We made a good team.

I am sure there was a pretty good party at the Hobo Hooch at NKP the night before, but I don't remember it. We really didn't need much of an excuse to party, but the rescue of Lt John Markle from Hanoi's doorstep gave us all plenty of reason to feel jolly. And of course, the day of the week didn't matter since we ran a seven-day-a-week operation and the only way we knew the day of the week was to look at the Stars and Stripes.

I started feeling poorly somewhere over South Vietnam about an hour from landing. It was straight in full stop for me and then off to find an appropriate facility where I could relieve myself. Oh, the rigors of combat aviation.







 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 22 May 80 3.3

239.1 A-1J 142028

My journal entry for 22 May 1972

Sandy 05 [with Ron Smith as Sandy 06] on an orbit, then strike... Ron had not been to Bien Hoa before, so I led this one... Strike 270/90/102 [BNH TACAN]... TIC, 1 secondary

Our first Sandy mission from Bien Hoa during this deployment. Since most of the action during the day had been to the west, near the Cambodian border, we orbited west of Saigon so as to be able to react quickly if anyone went down. We were able to stay abreast of where the action was by simply keeping track of where the A-37 "Raps" had been working throughout the morning and early afternoon.

The terrain in this part of South Vietnam was greatly changed from what we normally flew over in Laos. Here, the land was flat as far as the eye could see. The land was generally devoid of large stands of jungle and there were canals and rice paddies everywhere.

The strike was largely unremarkable with our BDA reported as being one secondary explosion. Not exactly something to remember a mission by.







 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 23 May 81 2.8

241.9 A-1J 142028

My journal entry for 23 May 1972

Sandy 06 [with Ron Smith as Sandy 05] on an afternoon orbit and strike... Struck a village in Cambodia (320/80/102)... Hondas being used to evacuate wounded from AnLoc... Bad guys holed up in fortified fighting positions (houses)... Struck near a large tree in town along the highway, then in the outskirts of town... When we drew fire, we hit some houses starting fires... Ron hit on the other side of the street starting the gas station on fire... We avoided the pagoda... The [orange robed Buddhist] monks were in the hard site west of town and they would scramble for cover whenever we flew over... We had flechette rockets which we used in the front yard of a house...CBU-22 demo after the mission... We also made a pass at the FAC (O-2) passing on either side of him doing opposite rolls... SH... (We later found out that the town burned completely down.) BDA: 3 Hondas destroyed, 5 houses destroyed, 3 POL fires.

This mission is difficult for me to write about because of the nature of the target. The FAC had specific HQ approval to strike this target and if memory serves, we got the initials of the approving authority. Since we were acting at the direction of the FAC, at some point you have to assume that the target was valid and based on the fact that we took significant ground fire, there was no doubt in my mind that the town was enemy held.

The FAC was unfamiliar with CBU-22 so we showed how it could be used by dropping on a demonstration pass after the strike was over. If dropped at high enough altitude (approximately 1,500 feet AGL), the canisters would ignite in the air forming a smoke screen that could provide protection to a helicopter during a SAR. If dropped at lower altitude, the canisters would still burn on the ground, igniting whatever the white phosphorus came in contact with.

I carried flechette rockets for the one and only time in my entire tour on this mission. Each flechette warhead would burst open, releasing hundreds of small nail like projectiles with fins. These were extremely effective as anti-personnel weapons.








 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 24 May 82 .9

242.8 A-1J 142028

My journal entry for 24 May 1972

Sandy 06 [with Ron Smith as Sandy 05] scramble to An Loc for a VNAF A-1 SAR... No survivor, so we returned to Bien Hoa... Carried BLU-32 nape.

We scrambled before noon on a potential SAR mission for a downed VNAF A-1 near An Loc. It turned out that there was no survivor so we returned to Bien Hoa. We recocked the aircraft to return to ground alert status and did not fly again that day. We carried napalm on this mission, probably because some of our normal ordnance was not available, most likely, the M-47 bomb.







 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 25 May 83 3.1

245.9 A-1J 142028

My journal entry for 25 May 1972

Sandy 06 [with Ron Smith as Sandy 05] redeploy flight to NKP... Worked with Rustic 119 and hit a "tree park" in the tri border area... We each carried four BLU-32 unfinned napalm.

The week had come to an end and we headed back to NKP. On the way home we hooked up with a Rustic FAC (out of Ubon) and struck a target in the tri-border area. This is the area where the the Cambodian, Laotian, and South Vietnamese borders converged just east of the Boloven's Palateau. Normally, when we carried napalm, it was the finned variety. Unfinned napalm had a broader spread pattern due to its tumbling trajectory. Due to the thickness of the jungle foliage, the napalm exploded out of sight beneath the jungle canopy.

The target was more than likely passed to us as a suspected truck park, an area where the enemy marshalled its vehicles during the day, while waiting to resume their journeys under the cover of darkness. We typically referred to targets such as this as "tree parks," since all we ever saw were the trees from above.







 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 30 May 84 2.5

248.4 A-1H 137616

My journal entry for 30 May 1972

Sandy 02 [with Ron Smith as Sandy 01] Sandy orbit, then strike ... 035/60/82... Strike with Raven 40... BDA 6 KBA, 15 probable KBA, 1 small secondary [explosion].

Southern Laos Map

After a short break from out Bien Hoa trip, Ron and I went out together yet again. Maybe Ron was the only one who would fly with me!!

We headed south to Steel Tiger and hit a target northeast of the Bolovens Plateau. The weather up north must have cancelled the Linebacker missions so we were able to move south in search of better weather.

The results of the strike look pretty good, but I do not recall the specifics of the mission.