Talking Proud --- Military

The O-1 "Bird Dog," the toughest dog in the fight, "our little flivver"

March 26, 2006

The Bird Dog in the Vietnam-Laos Wars

23rd TASS, USAF: Shrouded in the secrecy of operating over Laos from a base in Thailand, confronted with a tough and challenging air interdiction support role, environmental obstacles galore, and threatening guns, the Air Force's only Thailand-based TASS.

If you are looking for something exciting to study, dig into the "goings-on" at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base (NKP RTAFB), known to most of its inhabitants as "Naked Fanny." NKP was the northern-most air base the US used in Thailand. As you can see, it was a hop-skip-and-jump to all of Laos and to North Vietnam, and, most notably, to virtually the entire length of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It was also an easy flight to Cambodia. Right in the mix of the "goings on" at NKP was the 23rd TASS. We are going to spend some time discussing this squadron and some of the challenges it faced as a squadron, in its Bird Dog configuration.

An aerial view of the clearing and grubbing work at NKP taken from an Air Force C-123 while looking out the rear door., December 1962. Text and photo provided by Ltjg George Fowler, USN, Assistant Alpha Company Commander, MCB-3 Nakhon Phanom Nov 1962 - Dec 1963. Presented by aircommandoman.

It's always risky to say when the "first" Americans arrived here, but we'll go with 1962 when some 325 Navy Seebees' Mobile Construction Battalion Three (MCB-3) arrived to build runways and get some buildings up, all under the cover of America's membership of the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization, SEATO. As was done in Burma in WWII, the Seabees dug this base out of a jungle.

A second plane lands carrying dignitaries for the NKP Opening Ceremony (June 1963). Presented by aircommandoman.

An USAF C-123 was the first plane to land on the airfield in mid June 1963, even though the warm-up pad, taxiway, parking area and marshaling areas were not finished. Following that, USAF C-130s began to arrive bringing in equipment, aircraft and crews. The base was turned over to 13 Thai Security Forces on December 24, 1963 and the Seabees left.

NKP flightline, 1965, three HH-43s parked on Pierced Steel Planking (PSP) ramp. Photo presented by the "Unofficial" US Air Force HH-43 "Pedro" web site.

Six months later, in June 1964, two (increased later to three) HH-43 "Huskie" rescue helicopters from the 33rd ARS in Okinawa were assigned to NKP. These Huskies were the first USAF search and rescue (SAR) aircraft put into the Vietnam-Laos Wars specifically tasked to do SAR. They were known as the "Pedros." We have done an in-depth report on the Pedros, "Our Pedros, rotors of wood, men of steel," and commend it to your attention.

The Pedros were sent to NKP because the US was about to get into the Vietnam-Laos Wars big-time. Right off, they had to support USAF and USN Yankee Team reconnaissance flights over Laos which began in May 1964. The USAF flew out of bases in Thailand while the Navy crossed over from the South China Sea. These were flown to support Royal Laotian Air Force (RLAF) armed attacks against enemy forces in Laos, namely on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They were joined by Thai and Air America pilots flying Laotian T-28s. More significantly, Yankee Team flights were designed to get a handle on how much logistics was moving on the trail from North Vietnam to South Vietnam, through Laos.

Following the shootdown of two Navy Yankee Team aircraft in June 1964, US aircraft were authorized retaliatory strikes. F-100s started attacking out of Danang AB, RVN. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution became law in August 1964 and F-105s, already located "secretly" at Korat AB, Thailand, began striking as well. By the end of 1964, US air interdiction attacks against the Ho Chi Minh Trail from Danang AB, RVN and air bases in Thailand were going hot and heavy.

The US and Thailand would not admit the US was flying combat sorties over Laos and North Vietnam from Thailand until 1966, and even after that neither government wanted to admit the extent of flight operations from those bases.

NKP Flightline, circa 1969. Photo credit: Fred Nowak

There was a lot of secrecy and "no comment" involved in all this. The build up of fascinating, mostly propeller driven, WWII and Korean War vintage aircraft at NKP was rapid and their applications demanding.

Once it became clear to the US that it was not going to scare the NVA and VC away by massive shows of airpower, the main strategy turned to a focus on air interdiction of the trail, attempting to cut off the flow of supplies to enemy forces in the South. As we indicated when discussing the 20th TASS Covey FACs out of Danang AB, RVN, which was also flying the trail, targets were hard and dangerous to find. In our discussion of the 23rd TASS, we wish to pursue the challenges of flying the trail as a Bird Dog FAC in more detail.

Broadly speaking, air interdiction in the Vietnam War meant attacking the Ho Chi Minh trail.

It is important to understand what "air interdiction" means in military terms. This is how the Department of Defense (DoD) defines it:

"Air interdiction-air operations are conducted to destroy, neutralize, or delay the enemy's military potential before it can be brought to bear effectively against friendly forces, at such distance from friendly forces that detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of friendly forces is not required."

During the Vietnam War, doctrine often defined the Air Force’s role as being support of ground forces. Here, a flight of F-4C Phantoms under radar control of an EB-66 electronic warfare airplane bomb North Vietnamese targets. USAF photo. Presented by Air Force Magazine.

Many Air Force leaders argued for a long time that they should be taking out strategic targets in the heart of North Vietnam, including its major industries, shipping and transportation networks, electricity and communications networks, and economic centers in order to destroy its capacity to fight war and destroy its will to fight. For most of the war the suits in Washington would not approve that, fearing a Chinese intervention. President Nixon finally launched a massive air assault against Hanoi and Haiphong, amongst other targets in North Vietnam, and people argue to this day that just a bit more of that would have brought the enemy to its knees.

Woulda-shoulda-coulda. Then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara never really saw the Vietnam War as a US war against North Vietnam, but rather as an insurgency in the South and an American effort to stop North Vietnam's infiltration and aggression in the South. So stopping that infiltration was a major aspect of his policy. McNamara would later give up even on this strategy, asserting it was not working. Yet, he would not allow General Westmoreland to take three ground force divisions into Laos and block the road while the USAF and Navy bombed it.

As a result, the Air Force spent most of its energy and resources on air interdiction; i.e., prohibit the movement of men and materiel from North Vietnam to South Vietnam.

The Bird Dog FAC and the 23rd TASS were a centerpiece of this air interdiction strategy. We have mentioned this history because it is important to understand that all the TASS pilots, nearly all USAF and USN pilots, most Army and Marine pilots had college degrees and they understood what was needed to bring this enemy down. The high school graduates fighting on the ground understood it. But the suits would not listen. All that and all the other obstacles they confronted notwithstanding, they all fought with enormous courage and bravado.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail stretched hundreds of miles through Laos and Cambodia before terminating in South Vietnam. Mountain passes allowed access to that beleaguered country. Staff map by Zaur Eylanbekov, presented by Air Force Magazine.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail was not a single trail, but instead a vast and well concealed (environmentally) network of trails, and much of it was covered with heavy foliage. Most of the enemy’s logistics movements were along these many trails, and finding lucrative targets and getting them struck was a very high priority and difficult business. Here are a few looks at the trail.

A look at the Ho Chi Minh Trail from road level, with camouflaged convoy truck approaching. We believe the man standing there is a road repair worker. This photo is drawn from the cover of the book, The Ho Chi Minh Trail, by Hoang Khoi

This area of the trail was known as "Foxtrot." The photo was taken in January 1966. The road comes down from the top (north) on the west side of the river. Shortly beyond the bottom of the picture, the road meets up with Route 9 and heads east through Tchepone. Photo presented by Jimmie Butler.

A closer look at "Foxtrot." Photo also taken in January 1966. Photo presented by Jimmie Butler.

The North Vietnamese flowed their men and materiel into Laos through the four major pass from North Vietnam into eastern Laos, the Mu Gia, Ban Karai, and Ban Raving passes and the Khe Sanh Valley. These logistics lines would then flow south through the mountains that divided Laos and the two Vietnams and into South Vietnam from Laos through any one of a number of passes.

The trail was easy to reach from NKP, which is why it was selected for the 23rd TASS. Located in Thailand, NKP offered greater security than the bases in Vietnam.
Gene Hamner, who thought he was going to be assigned to the 23rd but was assigned to the covert Raven FAC operating out of Laos, commented on NKP's location this way:

"High on the list of the most hazardous assignments was an assignment to the 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron NKP. You virtually had no choice from this base but to direct your craft either east to the heavily defended Ho Chi Minh Trail (HCMT) or north to the beginning of the HCMT and a place up there called the 'PDJ' (which stands for 'Plaines des Jars'). All those places were defended with who-knows-how-many antiaircraft (AAA) guns."

NKP flight line of O-1 Bird Dogs, 1966-1967. Presented by aircommandoman

The 23rd TASS had an inconspicuous beginning, inconspicuous to the public, that is. Six pilots , five O-1F aircraft, and 13 support troops arrived at NKP on January 17, 1966. The unit flew its first combat mission the next day. These pilots were experienced FACs from Vietnam. Within a couple weeks, the FACs and their attack aircraft partners had virtually shut down vehicular movement by day.

Their leader was Capt. Ben Witterman, a FAC pilot previously based at Da Nang AB, RVN. Five more aircraft and six more pilots arrived on February 8. Twelve more pilots and ten more aircraft arrived during early April. Lt. Col. Robert L. "Louie" Johnston, who had played a lead role in planning the selection of NKP as the 23rd's base and in setting up the 23rd, also arrived then and took command. Interestingly, he was a B-52 pilot, used to flying up there in the stratosphere.

Capt. Ben Witterman, commander, advanced party, Operation Cricket, inspecting his Bird Dog, we assume, at NKP. From "The Origin of the 23rd TASS," by Benn Witterman, circa June 30, 1966, presented by the FAC Association.

To the casual observer, the squadron seemed be set up at Udorn RTAFB to the west, a base which had already been flying combat over Laos and NVN. The NKP aspect was to be secret. The squadron originally formed as Det 3, 505th Tactical Air Control Group, then became the 23rd TASS and was assigned in April 1967 to the 56th Air Commando Wing at NKP. By August 1968, the wing was renamed the 56th Special Operations Wing (SOW).

In the "gee whiz" category, the squadron patch with Disney star Jiminy Cricket its centerpiece, was designed on behalf of the squadron by Walt Disney's people. Ward Kimball, one of Disney's famed "nine old men" animators, created the Jiminy Cricket character. The Thais considered the cricket to be good luck. As a result, some called the 23rd FACs the "Crickets," even though they used the callsign Gombey and then Nail. The Nails would eventually take hold as the 23rd's identifier in chatter.

Environmental conditions were challenging across the board in Southeast Asia. This what we want to highlight in our discussion of the 23rd TASS.

As mentioned earlier, the Ho Chi Minh trail was a network of trails, often concealed by a very dense, multi-canopy jungle. There were sections in the open, and there were sections that once were heavy foliage and were bombed and strafed into the open.

A long line of porters carry supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail for the North Vietnamese. Photo credit: Trong Thanh, AP. Presented by Air Force Magazine, November 2005 edition, from the article, "The Ho Chi Minh Trail," by John T. Correll.

Another long line of porters carry supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail for the North Vietnamese. Photo credit: George Conklin. Presented by Thailand Dog

Eventually the trail comprised about 12,000 miles of roads and paths. At the beginning of the war, what maps were available were not very good. Ben Witterman of the 23rd TASS has said:

"Maps of the area and depiction of the road network were incomplete in that some of the mountainous areas were uncharted and much of the route structure was inaccurately depicted. In some cases the roads were not known to be in existence. Aerial photo-mapping of these roads was not possible since much of the network ran under jungle canopy. It was up to the Crickets (23rd TASS) to scour the area, locate the roads and chart them.

"This mapping was an exceptionally difficult task because the jungle canopy afforded only occasional glimpses of the roads. Also, the jungle terrain was like an ocean as there were few distinct landmarks to serve as reference points. In this respect, the enemy assisted nature by ingeniously tying the tops of trees together over the road or constructing bamboo trelliswork and then helping vegetation grow over it.

"In spite of the difficulties, the route network was accurately charted."

Remember, our pilots were not map-makers or geographers. They were just smart, stubborn and inventive guys who flew over areas day after day after day and assembled very accurate charts.

Jimmie Butler, who flew for the 23rd starting in 1967, has told us that the 23rd had a "Tactics Board" that "regularly looked for weaknesses in the network of roads that snaked through Laos." Their objective was to "persuade" the enemy to use roads and trails that would force them into choke points that were not protected by enemy guns. He says, for example:

"The 1967 plan (Operations Hub) called for day strikes against a chosen road segment. FACs would stay overhead throughout the day to prevent repairs. Lamplighter, the C-130 flare aircraft, would replace the O-1s at dusk. The 24-hour coverage over the damaged road would keep the road closed indefinitely."

That, in turn, forced the enemy to go where they wanted the enemy to go, and our men were waiting for them.

We'll show you two pictures to try to convey what is meant by multi-canopy jungle, both of which were taken from the ground, so you can imagine what this looked like from the air.

This is an Australian helicopter hovering as low as he could go in a "clearing" pushing out plastic bags of waters to troops below. You can see the high trees in the background, forming the top canopy. Ask most soldiers on the ground in the jungle and they will tell you it is darn near pitch black in the jungle on a bright day, to where they could barely see comrades a few feet in front of them. Presented by David Pye, former Australian Army infantry who served in Vietnam in 1971.

Here is an Australian soldier walking through the ground layer. The grass was so thick it could take a full day to chop one's way through 100 meters. The grass would be 3-4 meters high. Presented by David Pye, former Australian Army infantry who served in Vietnam in 1971.

And here's an idea of what that looks like from the air even at a fairly low altitude. Photo credit: W.E. Garrett, from, "The Hmong in Laos, no place to run," published by the January 1974 edition of National Geographic

This all meant the Nails had to get down in there to see major movement along the trail. And, they had to go very slowly, around 80 knots, or chance missing a lucrative target.

We show this photo of FAC Capt. Ralph Utterback in an O-2 aircraft, a follow-on the Bird Dog, after he marked a target with a phosphorous rocket in a generally "open" area in order to give you a sense for how low these guys flew. We also want you to get a sense for how small the Dawg was. Remember, the FAC has marked the target in this photo, and fighter and/or helicopter attack pilots are waiting above and at a distance to dive in and drop their loads on the targets marked by the FACs. If you read interchanges between the FACs and the attack pilots, you almost always see the attacking pilot acknowledge that he had the FAC in sight before he rolled in on their target. Each one would do that before he rolled in. That was an important "checklist" protocol in the attack sequence.

The night was pitch black. Jim Schueckler, with the Army's 192nd Assault Helicopter Company in Vietnam, described it this way:

Night strike over Vietnam, from "Of planes and men, US Air Force wages cold war and hot," by Kenneth F. Weaver, photographers Emory Kristoff and Albert Moldvay, National Geographic, September 1965 edition.

"Flying at night in Vietnam scared the hell out of me ... The high humidity caused a haze that totally obscured the horizon, and there were no lights on the ground in the mountainous jungle areas. Flying at night in Vietnam was instrument flight. Nobody flies on instruments when close to the ground, but our missions required us to be close to the ground."

You will recall from our aircraft walk-around that the Dawg's instruments were not very sophisticated and not well lit.

American airpower quickly forced the enemy to move his people and stuff at night, not an altogether easy chore for the enemy, by the way. But finding them at night was even more difficult. Despite not being designed for night flight, the Bird Dog would fly at night. The Bird Dog ground crews would replace the rocket phosphorous markers on the wing pylons with 2-million candlepower flares to help them see. They could also spot camp fires but they had none of the night vision equipment our people have today. It's also worth noting that the FACs used the light provided by enemy and friendly fire to identify targets.

These are the mountains that make up much of the mountainous divide between Laos and both Vietnams. Photo credit: W.E. Garrett, from, "The Hmong in Laos, no place to run," published by the January 1974 edition of National Geographic

This photo was taken during a Marine Corps HMM-161 emergency extraction of recon troops near the Laotian border. Most of what you see is Laos, and believe it or not, the mountains were full of North Vietnamese troops seeking the high ground and seeking to move into South Vietnam. Presented by

The trail confronted our pilots and the enemy with the same problem confronting the enemy on the ground: the terrain was rough, the ridges were steep, and they could be high, up to 9,000 feet. The landscape of northern Laos and the regions between Laos and Vietnam in particular are dominated by mountains. Seventy percent of Laos is mountainous.

This is a nice view of a typical karst, a limestone pinnacle that can rise from a plain nearly a thousand feet. There is another one just to the right of this one, out of the photo, and many more in the background covered in clouds. Photo credit: W.E. Garrett, from, "The Mekong, river of terror and hope," published by the December 1968 edition of National Geographic

This is what a karst looked like to a Bird Dog FAC. Photo credit: Jim Roper. Presented by

Flat lands, where they existed, were often marked by very rugged, abruptly rising limestone cliffs, known as karsts. NKP pilots encountered these karsts minutes after takeoff as they crossed the Mekong River into Laos. In good weather, these karsts, of course, could allow the Dawg to hide.

This photo shows a 23rd TASS O-2 aircraft crash site on the side of a karst in Laos. Photo credit to Thailand Dog

The karsts presented a terrific problem, however, in foul weather or if experiencing aircraft malfunctions or distress from hostile fire. If the pilot survived a crash into a karst, extracting him was an enormous challenge for rescue helicopters. Benn Witterman, to whom we introduced you earlier, talked about the karsts this way:

"Most of the terrain in the operational area consisted of tall, jagged rock formations known as karsts and large areas of dense jungle canopy. Flying a light, single engine aircraft over this terrain for almost four hours per mission presented an ever-present hazard in itself as forced landing sites were few and far between. To add to this, a dense haze prevailed during this period, which reduced visibility to practically zero, especially instrumental in a fatal accident, which occurred when, a F-105 collided with one of the FACs during an air strike."

Pathet Lao enemy cave at the base of a karst near Vieng Xai, close to the border with North Vietnam. Photo credit: P. Whittlesey

Inside of a Pathet Lao cave near Vieng Xai, close to the border with North Vietnam. Presented by Travel Pod.

There were many caves along the route, and enemy forces, both North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao, hid weapons, foodstuffs, troops, and artillery, including anti-aircraft artillery in these caves.

A helicopter here has made its way into a friendly village in Laos to deliver food and supplies to the villagers. You can see the rough terrain combined with the very low overcast. It's also worth noting that most of northern and eastern Laos was dangerous country. In this case, the helo set down, but kept his rotors running ready for a rapid departure if the going got rough. Photo credit: W.E. Garrett, from, "The Hmong in Laos, no place to run," published by the January 1974 edition of National Geographic

Rains throughout were often torrential, and persistent. River flooding was forbidding for enemy ground movement, and the rains, and low cloud and ground fog cover were forbidding to fliers.

This is the allied airfield at Long Tieng, in the central highlands of Laos. The Raven FACs used this base frequently. The photo gives you a real good sense for the haze combined with low cloud cover and steep ridges. Photo credit: W.E. Garrett, from, "The Hmong in Laos, no place to run," published by the January 1974 edition of National Geographic

Even in good weather during the non-rainy season, low-level haze was a problem for fliers.

This is a most unusual photo of an Army 184th Reconnaissance Airplane Company (RAC) Bird Dog "in the soup" during the war. The 184th flew out of Phu Loi, RVN. Photo credited to Clint Boyd, presented by

Predicting the weather was extraordinarily difficult. A good forecast at takeoff could easily be foul weather by the time our pilots reached their target areas. Jimmie Butler tells a great story published by the Mekong Express Mail of The Thailand Laos Cambodia Brotherhood, Inc., its September 2000 edition, entitled,
"How I got to Mukdahan."

Butler was flying over near Khe Sanh when he was alerted that thunderstorms were now being forecast for NKP and they would get there shortly, as opposed to receiving a three hour advance warning. NKP was his recovery base, so he headed for the Mekong River to the west. By the time he reached the river, he was down at 300 ft., thunder-busters had built up over the entire Mekong basin, winds at NKP were gusty to more than 20 knots, and he already had some experience hydroplaning off NKP's metal runway in the rain. Controllers told him to head south to Mukdahan, he started south, he was then told thunderstorms were building there as well, he turned north, was told NKP's winds were worse than ever, so turned south again and took his chances, running low on gas. He made it along with three other Bird Dogs but it was no joy ride.

Go to Capt. Jimmy N. Coffman, USA, 183rd Recon Aircraft Company (RAC)