This is the third installation of a promised series of articles on what veterans have endured. This series deals with life as a radar flight controller in Vietnam. Again I ask my readers to compare this one individual’s experience with those of bureaucrats who did not have their retirement benefits cut. Readers should note that the civilians that I am talking about do not feel that their retirement benefits are generous. See related article.
“All Will Suffer in This Life”
(Time in Combat Zone)
Significant images and events: Looking back, it surprises me how much I have forgotten since fifty years have passed. I can no longer even recall the names of close personal comrades. For many years, I believed that I would never erase the dates and details from my memory, but many of those experiences have disappeared. Life in this world is truly like a vapor. It is fleeting and impossible to grasp and cling to.
After being checked out and familiarized with the air war, missions, areas of operations, and passing tests concerning the numerous “rules of engagement”, I was allowed to sit down at the radarscope and control my first combat aerial operations. My first memory of conducting a strike mission into Route Package VI was probably in late August 1966. One weapons controller would be assigned from four to five flights of F-105 fighter bombers and about three, or four cells of KC-135 tanker refueling planes, which contained three KC-135 aircraft per cell. We controlled two tanker tracks over the Gulf of Tonkin. They were named the “Brown Anchor” and “Tan Anchor” racecourse shaped orbiting tracks where we would direct our F-105’s in a rendezvous with their refueling aircraft. The fighters were based in Thailand. By the time that they had climbed out of their bases in Thailand and reached the South China Sea, they needed to be refueled because so much fuel was burned just lifting that much weight in heavy bombs. The Thuds would also have to be refueled on the post-strike phase of the operation because of the distances flown and the amount of evasive action that was required to possibly fly another day without being killed, or captured. Our radar coverage extended out for a one hundred and eighty mile radius from our radar site. Our two tanker tracks started thirty nautical miles to the north of Monkey Mountain and reached a distance of over two hundred miles from our station. Route Package VI was yet another two hundred miles to the northwest of the northern most tips of our tanker tracks. As you can surmise, it was impossible to maintain positive radar coverage of the complete tanker orbits, which presented a tremendous problem for the pilots and the weapons controller in directing these fighters to their respective refueling tankers after they hit their targets in North Vietnam. The Thud pilots would call in via air-to-ground UHF radios to the radar controller four hundred miles from our radar site. No longer were these flights of F-105’s contained within their proper flights of four, or five, aircraft. Due to heavy ground fire (AAA, small arms, and SAM missiles) and Russian MIG fighter planes, the F-105’s lost their flight integrity just attempting to bomb, evade, and survive. So, these brave souls would be separated from their respective flight and they would be literally screaming to be vectored to their tanker to be refueled because they were “BINGO fuel” (Bingo meant they were out of gas). We of course had no ability to see them on radar because they were well over two hundred miles off of our radar’s ability to see them. The radio coverage was poor at those distances and altitudes. Each individual fighter pilot would cut-off the radio transmission of another pilot also proclaiming emergency fuel when they were all calling in at the same time. It was a gaggle and the UHF radios were crackling and breaking up with airmen who were a wee bit panicked to say the least. Unless one has had to listen to this aerial combat communications, it would be impossible to adequately describe, or simulate such tension and pandemonium.
I remember Hotdog lead (an F-105 returning from a strike). He was screaming to be vectored to his tanker, but he would not take my directions to his assigned tanker. Finally, he proclaimed that he would just recover at DaNang AFB because he, of course, did not have sufficient fuel to return to his base in Thailand. I pleaded with him to take my directions because he was within ten nautical miles of his tanker. Hotdog refused and continued towards DaNang only to flameout and he was compelled to eject into the South China Sea to be plucked out by US navy boats. Later on, Hotdog attempted to blame me for his plight since I was his radar controller and a great scapegoat. Fortunately for me, tapes of our air-to-ground radio communications had been recorded and my ass was protected. I now realized that this war was far more complicated and I had better wise up quickly because there could be varied enemies.
I now was in the thick of it. It was a dread, but it also was a thrill. Every day and almost every air strike we lost one to seven aircraft over the North. I would be talking to a pilot at one moment and the next he could be gone forever. This sure was a different world from the one I had left just a few weeks earlier and I was fast becoming a very different person.