10 December 2012

Ashcan 01

On this day in 1971 the Wild Weasel squadron at Korat lost one of their aircraft to North Vietnamese SA-2 missiles.  One man survived.  One did not.  His remains have never been recovered.

I had arrived at Korat only a little over two months before Ashcan 01 was shot down near Mu Gia Pass.  I had completed my theater orientation and had pretty well gotten used to the routine of supporting B-52 strikes against the Ho Chi Minh Trail and trolling for radar signals up and down The Trail.  It was a time of relative quiet in the war in Southeast Asia (it never was just about Vietnam).  Things were about to change, however.

The war I came to know was almost exclusively in the part of Laos known as Steel Tiger.  It was the part of the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail that fed war materiel to the North Vietnamese divisions prowling around southern Laos and South Vietnam.  The 42nd TEWS, to which I was assigned, flew the EB-66E and EB-66C.  Mainly, we provided jamming against the SA-2 SAMs and radar directed anti-aircraft guns the North Vietnamese used to protect their Ho Chi Minh Trail supply line.  Some of those radar directed guns could reach above the altitudes the EB-66s flew at.  Tchépone, also known as Muang Xépôn, was a kind of materiel depot in the middle of nowhere and it was one of those heavily defended spot on The Trail.

The passes leading from North Vietnam into Laos were just as important as any way point in Laos.  Mu Gia, Ban Karai, and Ban Raving passes all were major roadways along the route into South Vietnam and southern Laos.  The passes were defended not just by anti-aircraft guns; SAMs also covered those critical passes.  There were other passes that led from North Vietnam into Laos, Nape and Barthelemy passes, but they were conduits that the North Vietnamese used to conduct another aspect of their war in northern Laos.

As the winter of 1971 approached the North Vietnamese began asserting themselves around the passes.  A few EB-66s supporting strikes around the passes were fired on by SAMs.  There was sufficient warning of missile launches and all aircraft evaded the SAMs by performing "SAM breaks" down and away from the direction of the attacking missile site.  At the same time, the Wild Weasel crews engaged the SAMs because they had to transmit in order to guide their missiles; that made them vulnerable to counter-attack by the missiles the Wild Weasels carried. We flew as a coordinated support package with the F-105G Wild Weasels, also based at Korat.  Our job was to jam SAM and gun radars; the Wild Weasels were there to provide some muscle to the package.  They were armed with one AGM-78 Standard ARM (Anti-Radiation Missile) and two AGM-45 Shrikes.  The Standard ARM was a more sophisticated version of the Shrike.  We were supposed to remain outside the 20 nautical mile "kill ring" that the SA-2s were deemed to have.  The Wild Weasels, however, could and did fly right down the throats of any SAM crews they had to defend against.

What follows is an account of events by Wild Weasel pilot extraordinaire, JD Cutter.  I had known JD when he was a copilot on a KC-135 six or so years earlier.  Somewhere along the line since those early days, he had slipped loose from SAC via a program called Palace Cobra and had gotten a fighter slot.  Our paths crossed again when I got to Korat.  JD had already been there for several months:
 I think Marty Noel was my wingman and we stirred up a hornets' nest at Mu Gia Pass.  After the first BUF (B-52) drop at Ban Raving we made a pass north through Route Pack I and exited NVN north of Mu Gia Pass.  There were nibbles of Fan Song (missile fire control radar) but they didn't stay on the air long.  Eventually I wound up with, as best I can recall, three Fan Songs tracking me sequentially.  They went off the air (stopped transmitting) just as I was about to fire a Shrike.

We exited to the north of Mu Gia for a Cherry or Peach tanker and passed words to Cricket or Hillsboro (Airborne Battlefield Command Control Center, aka, ABCCC) about the nibbles of Fan Song.  After getting a top off from a tanker, we came back to the DMZ and trolled northbound to see if we could get any activity before the BUF drop at Mu Gia.  Nothing.  All was quiet.  The BUFs were dropping in 'Alpha' box (Mu Gia Pass) so our run was in-trail from the west, eastbound,  over the mountains.  I was in the lead, Marty was maybe 5 miles behind me, and the BUFs were offset about 5 miles to the south on a parallel track.  Just past their time on target (TOT) the first Fan Song came up with a SAM in the air almost immediately.  The BUFs went ballistic and went into a SAM break down and to the right (south).  Somewhere in the melee I fired two Shrikes and dodged two SAMs.  There was a low overcast and I saw the SAMs come through the clouds tracking me.  My SAM break was more of a high 'G' turn because of the short range to the site rather than a classic SAM break that let me avoid the SAMs.  I remember the SAMs going by which let me get my head back outside quickly...good thing.

Somewhere in the melee Marty jettisoned everything.  We were now headed west and RTBd (Returned To Base).

As we walked into Ft Apache (wing headquarters at Korat), we met the two crews of Ashcan flight (Ashcan 01:  Maj Bob Belli/Lt Col Scott McIntire and Ashcan 02:  Capt Jimmie Boyd/EWO unknown) who were heading out to their jets.  We stood there in front of the latrine and told them what happened, frequency, PRF, location, and as much other information as we knew.  Their tactics supporting the BUF strike consisted of flying through Mu Gia pass from the north (Belli) and from the south (Boyd).  Belli got zapped by SAMs right off...end of story, except for the SAR (rescue effort).  Belli was extracted the next morning.  Scotty was killed.  Belli had a broken arm and leg, along with numerous other injuries. He reported the SAM had rendered him unconscious, and when he regained consciousness he was in the surface based clouds, and punched out immediately. His chute reportedly never did fully deploy but finished deploying from the bag as he was going through the top of the jungle canopy. He was lying on the ground, badly injured, partly in his parachute harness; the harness had burst open as he fell through the trees. When the PJs got to him he needed assistance to get to and get on the penetrator.
That morning I happened to be working one of the first shifts in my additional duty at what was known as the Frag Shop.  The wing command post, which was just a door and a wall away, rang our hotline to inform us that Ashcan 01 had been shot down and SAR was under way.  Things evolved quickly with reports from the SAR effort around Mu Gia Pass.  Ashcan 02 reported "Winchester" (all ordinance expended) and was going to RTB.  The two EB-66s on station were reporting multiple SAM launches at the rescue force.  They needed additional air refueling support to remain on station so we in the Frag Shop worked out a tanker rotation and passed it along to Blue Chip (7th Air Force Command Center at Ton Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam).  One of the EB-66s landed at NKP (Nakhon Phanom Air Base, Thailand) to refuel and return to the SAR.  The weather wasn't good that day and low clouds and high winds were hampering the rescue effort.  Finally, it was reported that one of the OV-10 Pave Nail FACs had gotten a position on Belli.  Belli was the only downed crewmember they had radio contact with.  Belli reported that he was pretty badly injured and partly out of his parachute harness.  He could not move and would need a PJ to get him out his predicament.  Belli reported hearing noises of what he assumed to be North Vietnamese soldiers.  Finally, late in the afternoon, it was decided to continue the SAR at first light the next morning.  The SAR forces "put the survivor to bed" and "sanitized" the immediate area around him with area denial munitions.

I was back in the Frag Shop the next morning.  Word came in that Belli had been rescued and that McIntire had been spotted hanging in his parachute harness in a tall tree.  The word we had was from the flight surgeon who was on the JollyGreen that pulled Belli out.  After the PJs got Belli into the chopper, they spotted Scotty close by hanging limp in a tree.  The flight surgeon, looking at McIntire through binoculars, said, "In my professional opinion that man is dead."  The Jolly Green left in really bad weather conditions.  Later in the day, two of the Jolly Greens from NKP did a low pass over our runway at Korat and landed.  From what I was told, Belli was on board.  He would eventually be tranferred from Korat to a better equipped hospital.

When they tried to recover the remains the next day or so, Scotty was gone.  From the report I recall reading, the entire tree that McIntire had been hanging in had been cut down.

07 December 2012

A Day That Will Live in Infamy

Like the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington Cemetery, the Memorial to the Battleship Arizona is one of those places you should visit if you can. Many years ago I saw it the first time when I was passing through Hickam AFB on my way to duty in the Western Pacific. Back then the US Navy ran the whole show. There was a pilot boat that could take a small number of visitors out to the Memorial. Even though all of us were active military the sailors who took us out stressed that this was a tomb and a solemn place. Reverence was in order.

Nowadays the shore facility is run by the National Park Service and is a quite elaborate pavilion with memorabilia from the USS Arizona, along with several displays and dioramas depicting the scenes of that day, now sixty-eight years ago. Just before you are taken out to the Memorial, now on a much larger boat than I rode out on the first time I saw it, you are shown a fifteen minute video explanation of the events that lead up to the attack on Pearl Harbor and other military bases on Oahu.  Then you are taken out to the Memorial.

While the National Park Service runs the on-shore part of the Memorial, the US Navy still owns Pearl Harbor, and it is a Navy operated boat that shuttles visitors to and from the Memorial.  They still stress that this is a tomb and a solemn place, but the reverence is not what it once was, especially among the numerous Japanese visitors to the site.  The sailors who run the boat shuttle do what they can to maintain decorum, and the tone among visitors is generally subdued and reverent.

The Memorial spans the USS Arizona at about where the bridge once was.  There are the remains of the 16" gun turrets at or just above the water line on either side of the Memorial.  Looking down into the water on just about any day, you can see globs of bunker oil from the ship still slowly oozing to the surface.  It is feared that some day, when the ship has decayed enough, whatever fuel remains inside the ship will spill into Pearl Harbor. 

At the far end of the Memorial is a shrine, literally, to the men who died on the Arizona.  Their names are carved on white marble slabs that line the far end of the chapel.  A low marble railing separates visitors from the slabs themselves, unlike the Vietnam Memorial where visitors can walk up and touch the slabs.  In the tradition of Hawaii, there are many leis left as a kind of personal offering to those who are entombed there.  If you look carefully at the names on those slabs you can get a glimpse of the scope of the tragedy some families endured that day.  Back then it was Navy custom to allow family members to serve on the same ship simultaneously, so you see a list of brothers, and sometimes, fathers and sons, who went down with the USS Arizona.

There is even a tradition, if you will, that the survivors of the Arizona's death that day can be buried with their ship mates when their days are done.  Their cremated remains are lowered into the hulk.

In recent years another ship that played a large part in the Pacific War now sits at anchor in Pearl Harbor.  It is the USS Missouri.  When you look out from the on shore pavilion it is almost as if the Mighty Mo is standing sentry over the Memorial.  The Missouri is operated as a museum by a private foundation.  Lots of retired US Navy and retired military people from other services volunteer to work there and support the visitor traffic that pass through that ship.  Access to it is from Ford Island, and that is US Navy property.  There still are sensitive things going on around there, so the Navy is sensitive about people shooting pictures of anything and everything in the area.  Still, it's hard to miss something like an attack boat that is headed out to sea.

In 2004 we took our daughter and her family with us on a winter visit to Hawaii.  We made sure that visiting the Arizona Memorial was on the list of things to do.  The two granddaughters were not yet teenagers, but they took in everything about the Memorial.  Looking at the dioramas and models, the youngest granddaughter, especially, had lots of questions.  We went through the pavilion, saw the fifteen minute video, went out to the Memorial, and returned to shore.  As we were walking off the boat youngest granddaughter told me that she didn't like those nasty Japanese.  I told her that all those events took place a long time ago and that things were different now.  Then I took her over to where we could see the Memorial and the Mighty Mo together.  I told her that in another day or so we were going to take a trip out that big gray ship out there and she was going to see where Imperial Japan surrendered, ending World War II.