This is the Fourth 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.
It was nothing to have forty, or more, aircraft under one’s positive control at the same times all doing different tasks and missions. Their lives were depending upon me. The sweep of the radar circled the screen every five seconds. With each sweep and their high speeds the position of these airmen changed. Mountains, flight altitudes, distances from our site, and weather greatly affected the radar picture. Whether the aircraft had an operable transponder, or not, to mark their position; would limit one’s ability to provide reliable radar control. I was an average weapons controller and was learning a lot each day. I was really struck in my gut when my radar technician (SSgt Charlie L.) said to me over a beer, “Lieutenant you’d be a very good controller if there wasn’t something else on your mind.” My heart fell into my boots and I realized that what Charlie said to me was true. I was thinking about a beautiful schoolteacher from North Carolina. I was letting my mind drift to her. This was irresponsible of me. These men were risking their lives, just like my father had done over Nazi Germany. They deserved better from me and they would get it.
From that day on, I became a great controller. My mind was focused on those forty plus pilots and the sweep of that radar on my scope. Suddenly, I wanted more and more aircraft to control. I wanted to be the very best. Well, I wasn’t the best, but I certainly became one of the very best in the USAF.
This performance would be repeated almost daily throughout 1966 and 1967. The first chilling event that greatly affected me was actually on a nightshift in September, or October 1966. A flight of two A1E “Spads” was hitting marshaled forces and equipment in Route Package I, which was from the DMZ and a short distance north and well into North Vietnam. The Spad was a great plane. It carried lots of weapons, could take heavy battle damage, and could linger for a long time on target. It was originally a Korean War vintage prop fighter plane that was used by the Navy and had been mothballed until Vietnam and our secret war in Laos. Well, suddenly emergency frequency (243.0 affectionately called “Guard channel”) bellowed through the radar darkroom. These two planes had just rolled in on their heavily defended target when the lead aircraft took devastating battle damage, lost all control of his aircraft, and could not pull out of his dive to his target. His wingman, diving with him, flipped the switch to come up on Guard. The wingman attempted to calm his flight leader and kept telling him to eject, eject. The flight leader had lost it completely and just kept blaming his wingman and swearing profusely at him. The wingman pleaded with him to bailout. The lead pilot just continued to barrage the wingman with profanity, until the radio fell silent. The leader had flown straight into the ground. My heart literally felt like it had bounced back and forth from my throat to my socks. I had watched the little radar blips disappear from my scope previously when an aircraft was down. But this was a shock another big wake-up moment. This was all too real and I was not expecting it because I was not the controller of this flight. This event opened my eyes to death and fear. I did not like what I saw.
The contrast to this event was sometime in early 1967. Navy aircraft were striking targets within the central region of North Vietnam. I believe that they were striking Vinh and I have forgotten the type of aircraft they were flying. One was shot down and the pilot ejected over the hostile territory. This triggered the emergency system. The moment he left his aircraft his personal locator beacon started to beep. He landed in some jungle and he began to talk on his personal locator, also a hand held radio, to USAF and Navy fighter pilots who had begun to fly CAP (combat air patrol) and provide suppression fire on the enemy. All of this was relayed via a radio relay C-130 aircraft to our darkroom on Monkey Mountain three hundred miles south of our downed airman. We scrambled the Jolly Green rescue helicopters and pararescuemen (PJ’s) like my handsome Tech Sergeant who had flown up country with me. I was confident that they would pluck our wounded warrior out of this inhospitable jungle before the NVA could get their hands on him. We directed the rescue helicopters to him and they were dropping the “penetrator” to our man. Calmly, this aviator said, “I refuse to take the penetrator, I will not risk your lives. They have me surrounded; I will not risk your lives. Get out of here.” Once again, my heart was taking a rapid bounce from throat to socks, but this time I was the weapons controller in the seat. He was a POW now. Who was he? Whose daddy was he? Was he married? When would he ever be released? Would he ever be released? Did I do enough, what else could I have done, why him and not me??? Then I thought of the demise of the Spad flight leader a few months earlier. It was a stark contrast in human character and response.