Blind Bat, Yellowbirds, Willy the Whale, the "Night Intruders" on Uncle Ho's trail
December 15, 2004
The December 2004 edition of Military Officer magazine summoned all former Blind Bats to Biloxi, Mississippi from April 28-30, 2005, for a "Batfest" reunion. "Blind Bats"? Who? Well, that's what we wanted to know.
The journey to learn about the Blind Bats is a journey back through history to the beginnings of the Vietnam War, to a time when secretive, covert US military operations were going on with a greater assortment of odd-ball aircraft and daring crews than you can shake a stick at.
21st Troop Carrier Squadron (TCS) C-130A Blind Bat "Flarebird," 1965
Blind Bat is the callsign for C-130A Hercules flareships that lit up the skies of the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos and southern North Vietnam. During the early years, the Blind Bat flew with two B-57 bombers, callsign either Yellowbird or Redbird, and a Marine Corps Douglas F3D Skynight fighter aircraft reconfigured for an electronic countermeasures (ECM) mission, redesignated the F3D-2Q, and redesignated again the EF-10B, "Willy the Whale."
The scenario was basically this.
The foursome of "Night Intruders" (shown in the Keith Ferris art piece at the opening) flew into North Vietnam and Laos searching for enemy supply convoys on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Blind Bat did most of the spotting, dropped flares to light up that entire portion of the trail where she found targets, Willy the Whale jammed any fire control radar that might pose a threat to the flights, and the Yellowbirds-Redbirds dove in to destroy the targets.
A view of northern Laos. Left center, you see a village huddled on the flank of a ridge. This kind of geography surrounds a broad plain, known as the Plain de Jars. This particular shot is close to the Chinese border. Photo credit: W. E. Garrett, from an article by Peter T. White, "Report on Laos," August 1961 edition National Geographic.
At the time, and for many years thereafter, this was a very secretive American operation. Initially, CIA operatives were giving the orders, sending the Night Intruders up to northern Laos to interdict the supplies as they crossed into Laos. Politically, this was "verboten," for a wide variety of legal and practical reasons, not the least of which was that American aircraft were coming perilously close to China.
Starting in 1965, these missions began flying more to the south, away from China, into North Vietnam and the eastern stretches of Laos, known as the Panhandle.
It's important, especially for our younger readers, to understand the history of this war's origins. Simply reading the summary presented at the end of this story,”Origins of the American war in Vietnam", will at the least help you put the Blind Bat mission into context.
The following are highlights from that history that impacted the Blind Bat operation directly.
Air power. First, from Eisenhower through Kennedy, air power dominated the US commitment. With Eisenhower, we had just emerged from a major ground war on the Korean peninsula, and there was little stomach for another. Ground forces were used in the early days of the Vietnam War, but only to assist the South Vietnamese in taking the fight to the enemy. It was not until Johnson that ground forces came to dominate the commitment, supported by an already major commitment of air power.
Secrecy. Second, Kennedy was very public about his moral commitment to freedom in Vietnam, but held everything very close to the chest about his resource commitment. Kennedy's war in Vietnam was a secret war, run without Congressional approval and without any detailed knowledge of the American people, at a time when most Americans worried deeply about the spread of communism and all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union. A lot of the secrecy continued into the Johnson administration, until the ground force commitment had grown so much that dead and wounded soldiers began to stream home.
Map of Ho Chi Minh Trail courtesy of National Geographic magazine
Ho Chi Minh Trail. Here is the target. Third, the Ho Chi Minh Trail to move supplies into South Vietnam through Laos became the logistics lifeline for the North Vietnamese and Vietcong enemies operating in South Vietnam. US policy was to make this logistics flow the number one target, in part because it was felt air power could stop the flow, in part because the flow had to be stopped for South Vietnamese ground forces to prevail. Communist forces had been using what was then known as the Truong Son Route since at least 1959 to infiltrate men and materiel through Laos into South Vietnam. Not only was it a lifeline, it served as a basing area and a sanctuary in Laos for staging operations into South Vietnam. While the trail was America's number one target early in the war, it was the highest national priority for the North Vietnamese throughout the war. They made an enormous, incalculable investment in it, most especially in terms of human resources.
Night operations. Fourth, the architects of this supply line understood they had the cover of a dense, seemingly impenetrable jungle. There were only two sections of the trail that were easily visible from the sky. The enemy knew that a thick jungle canopy would not be good enough. They needed the additional cover of night.
Da Nang Air Base, Republic of Vietnam, provided by David Branks, presented courtesy of Danang-Atsugi.
It is with this background that in late 1964 a detachment of C-130A aircraft from the 21st Troop Carrier Squadron (TCS) equipped with aluminum flare launchers and wooden bins for flares left home base at Naha, Okinawa and arrived at Da Nang Air Base (AB), South Vietnam, affectionately known to the troops who lived there as "Rocket City." The base was close to North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh trail.
Da Nang crew, February 1965: Standing, Ralph Krech and Harry Ehlert. Kneeling, Bill Eck and a crewman from the 35th TCS. Note some wore flight suits, others wore fatigues. Photo courtesy of Ralph E. Krach, Sr., Master Sergeant, USAF (Ret.), Blind Bat crewman
The C-130s came to Vietnam on a secretive mission. They were to support air interdiction missions against the truck resupply efforts from North Vietnam into South Vietnam, through Laos, against the now famous Ho Chi Minh Trail. Their mission was to spot truck convoy targets at night, alert attack aircraft, and dispense flares to illuminate the target area so the attack aircraft could find and strike their targets. Officially, the C-130s were assigned to the 6315th Operations Group in Naha and were designated as troop carriers. At that time, the 6315th was made up of the 21st Troop Carrier Squadron (TCS), 35th TCS, 817th TCS at Naha and the 815th TCS at Tachikawa AB Japan.
The 21st TCS is a particularly interesting outfit, a study unto its own. Its crews, along with aircraft and crews from the other squadrons, flew the flareships out of Da Nang.
The 21st TCS represented the kind of secretive military employments that were a hallmark of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
In 1958, the USAF decided to establish a C-130A squadron at Naha Base, Okinawa to support classified missions for the CIA. The 21st TCS moved from Tachikawa, Japan to Naha for that purpose. From 1959-1960, and from 1961-1962, CIA Air America crews flew 21st TCS C-130As to Tibet to airdrop supplies to Tibetan guerrillas. The aircraft were flown from Naha to Takhli Royal Thai Air Base (RTAFB), then stripped of all markings, flew across Burma to Tibet, returned to Takhli where the markings were put back on, and then returned to Naha.
Then, in August 1960, four C-130As were transferred to a special detachment within the 21st TCS, which in 1961 came to be known as "E-Flight," to fly special supply missions to Laos, Tibet and over China, the latter missions air dropping agents into China. These aircraft were later transferred to Takhli RTAFB where Air America crews flew supplies to Laos and ferried Thai Army troops into Laos to fight against the Pathet Lao, thought to be communist guerrillas.
So the 21st TCS was mightily involved in secret operations throughout Southeast Asia. Let's return to our Blind Bat mission.
As is often the case for American military forces when they are called to war, there was a lot of jury-rigging to get these aircraft prepared. The aluminum flare launchers were actually aluminum trays manufactured in the sheet metal shop back at Naha, Okinawa. Wooden bins were also home-made and strapped to an empty air drop pallet. The bins initially held magnesium flares, like the Mark VI (MK VI) flare left over from WWII.
C-130A Blind Bat aircraft, with aluminum trays installed, 1965. Photo courtesy of Ralph E. Krach, Sr., Master Sergeant, USAF (Ret.), Blind Bat crewman.
The flare launch device was held between the clamshell cargo door in the rear of the Blind Bat C-130. USAF Photo, courtesy of Ralph E. Krach, Sr., Master Sergeant, USAF (Ret.), Blind Bat crewman
Here you see a Blind Bat crew setting the fuses on their MK VI flares. The likelihood is that this crew unloaded the flares, each of which weighed about 27 lbs., from an ammunition truck, carried them into their C-130, placed them in these home-made wooden bins. The crew is now setting the fuses and later, this crew will fly the 8-10 hour mission, with a pre-brief before, and a post-mission brief after. Since theirs was a night mission, they then get to go to bed in often 90-100 degree weather and try to get some sleep. You had to be in good physical shape to do all this. Fatigue was a problem with which the crews had to contend. Photo courtesy of Ralph E. Krach, Sr., Master Sergeant, USAF (Ret.), Blind Bat crewman
Let's try to describe how the crews matched themselves with this jury-rigged equipment to get the job done.
This is a Blind Bat crewman, John Tweedie, following a mission over Laos in 1965. You can see he is sitting on the flare dispenser. Our guess is that all those white "strips" by his feet are the lanyards that activated the flares as they left the aircraft
Loaders would remove the flares from the wooden bins and put them in the aluminum tray. A crewmember known as the "kicker" would place his feet over four flares, two under one foot, two under the other. The pilot might then order: "Two at four seconds on my call for twelve flares."
The first kicker would reach down and put his hands on the first two flares under his left foot. At the command "execute," he would push out the first flares with his hands, count 1001 and 1002, then push out the two flares from under his right foot. Then the next kicker would go through a similar sequence until 12 flares were dropped about two seconds apart in a string. Each flare was attached to a 24 inch lanyard. On the way out, the lanyard would jerk away from the flare and the fuse would start to burn internally. Based on how the fuses were set, the ignition charge would pop, a chute would deploy, and the magnesium flare would start to burn as it fell gently to the ground. As each kicker pushed out his flares, a loader would put new flares in each slot under his feet. God help them all if the pilot went into a tactical turn to avoid artillery while all this was going on.
The crew in the back had to be in pretty darn good shape, not only to handle the rigors of holding and kicking the flares during the mission, but it also had to unload them (about 27 lbs each) from the ammunition trucks, set the fuses, load them onto the plane, and then night load them into the racks for kick out.
Blind Bat C-130A target detection system: the windows and the eyes of the pilots. Remember, these fellows flew at night, not during the day as you see in this photo of a C-130 cockpit window.
The target detection system initially consisted of the crew's eyeballs and, after a few weeks of operational experience, a set of binoculars. Only later would some night vision equipment come their way.
As one would expect, there were no operating procedures. We read one account by Sam McGowan, then a loadmaster, and now a well-published source of information for the Blind Bats, that said the crew arrived at Da Nang in the morning, spent the day drawing up flight plans, and flew into North Vietnam that evening. And oh yes, the aircraft arrived at Da Nang spanking shiny silver, and within hours of arrival had been painted over black.
There is precious little information to describe the flare missions during their operations out of Da Nang. Perhaps this is due to the cloak of secrecy that covered its operations. To this day, some crewmembers don't want to reveal anything about their missions at all.
What we do know, however, is that 1965 saw the tempo of US operations in Vietnam increase dramatically, and we expect that the C-130 flare dropping business was buzzing. Attacks against US forces increased, and so did the number of US troops sent to the region.
The USAF implemented its “Rolling Thunder” campaign of systematic bombing of North Vietnam.
Rolling Thunder Route Packages, presented by USAF Vietnam History Gallery
The nickname "Rolling Thunder" was assigned to all air strikes, armed reconnaissance, and photo reconnaissance against selected targets and lines of communication (LOC) in North Vietnam. North Vietnam was divided into route packages, numbered as shown on the map above, and aircraft were allocated to each package and did their jobs. Rolling Thunder was a graduated campaign which politicians had hoped would scare the North Vietnamese to the peace table. The strategic targets of Hanoi and Haiphong harbor, shown in the map by the two circles, were off-limits, viewed by many as a major Washington blunder in this war.
Barrel Roll and Steel Tiger areas of operation in Laos, presented in a paper by Colonel Perry L. Lamy, USAF, entitled, "Barrel Roll, 1968-73: An air campaign in support of national policy," for the Air War College, May 10, 1995
In addition, the US began Operation “Steel Tiger” over the panhandle of Laos to locate and destroy enemy forces and materiel being moved southward at night into South Vietnam. Infiltration along the Ho Chi Minh trail had increased substantially. Bridges, road and rail junctions, truck parks and supply depots were all major targets. All of these events placed great emphasis on the employment of flare-dropping operations.
C-130 flareship operations out of Da Nang generally consisted of a four-ship formation. A single C-130 would lead, a pair of B-57s, known as Yellow Birds or Red Birds, would tag along, and a Marine EF-10 “Willy the Whale” electronic countermeasures (ECM) aircraft would accompany the group. Every single night from 1965 through the end of 1966, this kind of formation would head out of Da Nang into North Vietnam, as far as to Hanoi on occasion.
We could not find a photo of a C-130 Blind Bat flare drop. This is a time-lapse AC-47 "Spooky" gunship, which is flying a circular route and firing downward, creating a cone-like effect. To the left you see flares dropped by the gunship, which gives you a sense for the concept and the illumination they can produce. Photo credit: Spec 5 Thomas M. Zangla, 525th Military Intelligence Group, at the MACV Team Compound, Pleiku Vietnam, May 1969, presented by Ruud's Classic Airlines.
Another time-lapse photo. What you see here are flares and traces over an Army camp at Phan Thiet in 1968. We believe the traces are from a Cobra helicopter gunship providing base defense. But again, this is the kind of thing the Blind Bats and colleagues would see all the time, except often those traces were coming up at them. Presented by "Mike."
The C-130 would search for truck convoys and illuminate the target area, the EF-10 would jam enemy radars, and the B-57s would attack the targets, often as a dive bomber to increase accuracy. We have been told that on occasion, especially in the early stages of operations, two C-130s would have to go in because the WWII vintage MK VI flares being employed did not have a long enough burn time. The first C-130 would drop 12 flares at 4 second intervals, then the second would follow the same pattern. The end result was that combined, they could light up the trail very well in the area in which they were operating.
We should pause here and introduce you to the B-57 and EF-10.
First, let's discuss the Martin B-57 Canberra.
B-57 at Phan Rang AB, South Vietnam
The B-57 is a jet aircraft designed to be a medium bomber, able to operate at speeds of 570 mph, altitudes up to 49,000 feet, with a range of 2,000 miles. She had a crew of two, pilot and bombadier/navigator/electronic warfare officer. She was designed off the English Electric Canberra which was first flown in 1949. She was licensed to build in the US, the first aircraft of foreign design chosen for US production since 1918. Some 406 were built, the first Canberra to wear American colors flew in 1951, and the first aircraft made in the US flew for the USAF in 1953. Production ended in 1959.
In the Pacific, B-57s were stationed with the 3rd Bombardment Group (3BG) at Yokota AB, Japan. The B-57 was a nuclear capable aircraft, and deployed out of Japan to sit nuclear alerts in Korea (targeted at the Soviet Union) starting in 1958, because the Japanese would not allow such flights to stage from her bases. By 1959, the 3BG was the only active-duty USAF outfit equipped with the B-57.
The Air Force decided to deactivate the 3BG in April 1964, moving instead to supersonic aircraft. But, as is frequently the case, the Air Force had to change plans on the quick because of the massive air power buildup ordered by President Johnson, who was clearly anticipating going to war with North Vietnam even before, perhaps far before, the Gulf of Tonkin attacks occurred
Actually, the B-57 ended up as a good choice. It was a long range aircraft, had good loiter capabilities, could carry a large payload, and could operate as a dive bomber, increasing her accuracy.
In this particular case, the B-57 was directed to its target by USAF 1Lt. David McCracken, an O-1G "Bird Dog" forward air controller (FAC) from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania against an enemy fortification 13 kms northeast of Cu Chi, about 45 miles northwest of Saigon, in support of 25th Division infantrymen some time in 1967. Cu Chi was well known for its maze of enemy tunnels that stretched from here all the way to Cambodia. As an aside, the 25th Infantry Division, known as "Tropic Lightning," set up its base camp right in the middle of all this
McCracken sighted the target and called for the B-57s. As the aircraft approached the area, Bird Dog fired a smoke rocket to mark the target. The B-57 did a dive bombing run, dropped his load, and pulled up. This photo shows the bombs hitting their target.
The pilot was responsible for the 250 knot dive run and bomb release. The back seat navigator provided a second pair of eyes, spotter, observer, navigator and radio operator.
Of course, all this occurred during daytime. The Blind Bat operation occurred at night, but played a similar role. Indeed, many referred to the Blind Bats as FACs. The difference was the Blind Bats had to find the target at night and illuminate them for the dive run, while the EF-10 jammed enemy weapons systems.
Like the C-130 Blind Bat, the B-57's initial operation in Vietnam was cloaked in secrecy. The US supplied a few B-57Bs to the South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF), a violation of the Geneva Accords that prohibited introduction of jet aircraft into the region. We'll show you three photos:
B-57B Night Intruder in VNAF colors. These bombers were under the operational control of the USAF's 8th and 13th Bomber Squadrons, but were piloted by all-VNAF crews. This picture was taken at Da Nang in October 1965. After several accidents the B-57B was withdrawn from VNAF service. Photo credit: R. Mikesh, presented by VNAF.net
B-57B s/n 52-1532 in three-tone SEA camouflage scheme. Quite a few B-57Bs were assigned to the VNAF, but never more than four at any one time. Photo credit P. Q. Khiem, presented by VNAF.net
Closer view of the VNAF markings.
The US trained South Vietnamese aircrews secretly at Clark AB in the Philippines in 1964, and then moved to Tan Son Nhut AB in Saigon, South Vietnam. The US formally announced that the aircraft had been given to the South Vietnamese in 1965. The VNAF flew the aircraft or sat in the second seat, but with an American in the other seat. The VNAF did get aircraft with their own markings which they alone could fly, but they were under USAF operational control.
Two squadrons of the 3BG, the 8th and the 13th, left Yokota for Clark on April 10, 1964. They were attached to the 405th Fighter Wing, headquartered there. This is interesting for several reasons. First, the 3BG was scheduled for deactivation in April 1964, but instead two squadrons deployed to Clark in April. The 13th then deployed to Ton Son Nhut and by June 1964, two months prior to the Gulf of Tonkin, the 13th had already flown 119 combat support sorties. We believe these were combat reconnaissance. (Note bene: We have seen conflicting reports on when the B-57s arrived in Vietnam. We have reported the dates that we believed to be from the most credible sources) Second, Clark AB during 1964 itself
officially entered the Vietnam War, with KC-135 refueling aircraft launching from there to gas up fighter aircraft striking targets in Laos.
Colonel Chuck Yeager preflighting his B-57 prior to taking off from Bien Hoa Air Base, South Vietnam, September 1966. Photo courtesy of Clarence E. "Bud" Anderson's Website.
Third, the commander of the 405th was none other than Colonel Chuck Yeager, who, as a captain, was the first man to break the sound barrier in the Bell X-1A. With the 405th Wing, Yeager commanded five squadrons and detachments scattered across Southeast Asia: two tactical bomber squadrons flying B-57s out of Clark and Phan Rang Air Base in South Vietnam; a squadron of F-100 fighter-bombers based in Taiwan; a pair of F-102 air defense squadrons flying out of Da Nang South Vietnam; and detached units flying a variety of aircraft, including F-4s out of places like Da Nang and Udorn and Bangkok, Thailand. Yeager made an effort to visit and fly with each of these units once every 10-12 days.
Fourth, Yeager liked that B-57. Flying primarily close air support and interdiction missions in a B-57, he added 127 flights and 414 hours to his combat record.
A B-57 flying over Phan Rang Air Base, South Vietnam. Yeager flew most of his combat missions in one of these light bombers. Photo courtesy of Clarence E. "Bud" Anderson's Website.
Following the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the 13th, and its sister unit, the 8th Bomb Squadron, alternated to a number of bases in South Vietnam from their home base at Clark, first to Bien Hoa, then to Da Nang and Phan Rang AB. In November 1964, an enemy mortar attack destroyed five B-57s on the deck at Bien Hoa AB, near Saigon, and damaged 15 others. In May 1965, a B-57B exploded on the ground at Bien Hoa, setting off a whole chain of secondary explosions. The resulting conflagration destroyed ten B-57s, eleven VNAF A-1H Skyraiders, and a US Navy F-8 Crusader and caused numerous casualties. As a result, they moved to Phan Rang and Da Nang.
We believe the USAF B-57 flew its first official attack sortie in February 1965. The B-57 began striking North Vietnamese territory in early March, 1965, part of the Rolling Thunder interdiction campaign against the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In April, 1965, they began night interdiction strikes against the trail along with the C-130 flareships and Marine EF-10B ECM aircraft.
Two B-57s over Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Operation Aussies Home.
The B-57 was fitted with four external pylons underneath each wing to carry bombs or rockets. In addition, it had a 17-foot long rotating bomb door, which rotated 180 degrees, with bombs attached to the inward side of the door. We believe the aircraft could carry a total bomb load of 8000 lbs.
We have seen reports that a normal load would be six 750 lb bombs, four in the bombay and two on the wings. We do not know what, if anything, was in the bombay. She could carry 5,000 lbs in the bombay, so four-750s on the wings would add up to 8,000 lbs. This photo shows four on the wings.
For the missions against the trail, we have seen one reference to what came to be known as the "funny bomb," which was the M-35 or M-36 incendiary bomb clusters that combined the effects of napalm, incendiaries, and cluster bombs. The 900-pound M-36 had 182 thermate bomblets that exploded on contact with the ground. A single bomblet could set a truck on fire. Once the bomb struck, there would be a small flash of fire in the air that signaled the ignition of the bomb, then an aerial fire that opened, grew and descended toward the darkened jungle, and then flames spreading over an area larger than a football field by the time the fire reached the ground. Then scores of thermate bomblets exploded . Those who could witness the effects of the "funny bomb" said it was "awe inspiring."
B-57Bs flew more than 31,000 operational sorties in Vietnam and Laos between February 1965 and October 1969. We believe 58 aircraft were lost.
Let's shift gears now to the EF-10B, "Willy the Whale," a Marine Corps aircraft.
Here again, we have an aircraft designed in the 1940s. It was named the Douglas F3D Skynight and its purpose was to be a turbojet powered, all weather night fighter. It saw extensive service in the Korean War, where it made the first recorded jet vs. jet night kill.
The Marines then converted a number of Skynights into electronic counter-measures (ECM) and Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) collection aircraft, calling it the F3D-2Q. In 1962 it was redesignated the EF-10B. It employed a Westinghouse AN/APQ-35 radar in the nose, a good-sized radar, which gave the nose a swollen appearance. Given its swollen nose and tubby looking fuselage, it earned the nickname "The Whale," and later "Willy the Whale." It was a two seat aircraft, with a pilot and ECM/ELINT operator.
Air Force veterans will be embarrassed to learn that by the time President Johnson ordered a major buildup of air power in Vietnam, the USAF had no useful ECM capability. As a result, the Marine EF-10B was deployed to Da Nang AB to escort USAF and Navy flights, locate enemy radars for subsequent attack by other aircraft, or jam those radars to render them ineffective against incoming US aircraft.
The Marine Composite Reconnaissance Squadron 1 (Fixed Wing), VMCJ-1, arrived in Vietnam in July 1965 and flew extensively for the next two years.
Everyone involved with the Ho Chi Minh Trail had a very tough job. The North Vietnamese transportation system was very man-intensive, and primitive.
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.
During 1965 and 1966, American air operations against the trail were a top priority. We'll show you three photos, two of a location called "Foxtrot," which was not frequently attacked (a decision was made to attack only certain sections of the trail where planners thought they could get the best bounce for the ounce), and the third of "Alpha," which as you will see was persistently attacked.
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.
This is Interdiction Point Alpha in central Laos. Experts tell us that there is a fresh bomb crater on the road just below the center of the picture. However, trucks already had driven over the fresh dirt between the two segments of the road now covered by the debris. This illustrates that closing the road with general-purpose bombs was almost impossible unless the road had to pass between tight confines forced by karst, steep mountains, and rivers. After 10-20 trucks had packed down the earth alongside the crater, a new segment of the Trail had been created, and it was as if the crater had been a near miss instead of a direct hit. In addition, thousands of laborers supported the Trail and would come out almost immediately to move aside downed trees or fill in minor craters. Photo and interpretation presented by Jimmie Butler.
It is clear from reading accounts of prisoners and defectors that the US attacks against the trail made life very miserable for those charged with moving those supplies and repairing the trail. That said, this transportation system was a top priority for the North Vietnamese as well, so as time went by, they devoted more and more firepower to defending it, they developed increasingly more sophisticated techniques and tactics, either to hide, or to repair, or to counter incoming attacks, and they kept feeding the trail with more and more supplies and more and more people.
Sam McGowan speculates that the North Vietnamese understood the role being played by the flareships in their early days.
Results of sapper attack against Blind Bat C-130s at Da Nang AB, June 30, 1965. Aircraft 55039 (tail seen far to the right) and 55042 (fuselage section far to the left) totally destroyed, 560475 in the middle repaired and flown back to the US. It flew in the USAF Reserves for years, ending its career as a Battle Damage Repair Trainer. Photo credit: Ralph E. Krach, Sr., Master Sergeant, USAF (Ret.), Blind Bat crewman, presented by Vietnam Security Police Association
He notes that on July 1, 1965, an enemy mortar and sapper attack against Da Nang AB appeared to have been aimed at the three C-130 flareships parked on the ramp. Two aircraft were destroyed and a third was damaged. These were the first C-130 aircraft ever lost to enemy action.
C-130A flareships at Ubon, Spring 1966. You can identify the "A" Model by the pylon gas tanks on the wing tips. Photo credit: Sam McGowan
This was the home of the famed 8th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW), the “Wolf Pack," mostly F-4 Phantoms, but the base also hosted a number of tenant units well-suited to combat operations against the trail. It was a safer place to be than in Vietnam. Ubon was also strategically located for purposes of attacking the Ho Chi Minh Trail, close to the Laotian border (40 miles away), and still close to the trail. Memories vary, but the crews operated 6-8 Blind Bat C-130A aircraft flying four missions every night from Ubon.
When the flareships moved to Ubon, they formally took on the callsigns Blind Bat and Lamplighter. Blind Bat missions operated against the trail in Laos while Lamplighter missions continued into North Vietnam. C-130 operations in North Vietnam became increasingly more difficult as North Vietnamese air defenses improved and in 1967 Lamplighter had to stop going into the North.
Another change occurred with the move to Ubon. Now the Blind Bats started going out on their own. The Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center (ABCCC), also a C-130, was on station, one over southern and another over northern Laos 24-7. The ABCCC would allot a certain amount of strike sorties to the Blind Bats using whatever aircraft were suited to the task and available.
By 1966, the trail's defense had increased substantially, and certain strategic sections were heavily defended, first by non-radar controlled guns, like the 37 mm, then by radar-controlled guns, including the 57 mm and even the 85.
Mu Gia Pass
This daylight picture shows some of 130 trucks photographed on February 9, 1967 just north of the border with Laos in the Mu Gia Pass on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Note this is a daylight photo and there are 130 trucks in the wide open. Why? Because President Johnson declared a truce during this period, and the North Vietnamese took advantage of these truces to move as much equipment down the trail as they could, in violation of the truce. Photo presented by Jimmie Butler.
McGowan tells us that enemy flak was the biggest threat, most especially in and around the Mu Gia Pass along the North Vietnam-Laotian border, and the city of Tchepone in Laos. As a general rule, the pilots and navigator worked to stay clear of these guns, but this was an inexact science. Blind Bat crews saw their share of shooting and pilots did a lot of rockin' and rollin' to avoid the flak. If you recall the flare kicking sequence, you can understand how the kickers and the loaders could be bounced around the rear of the aircraft when they were trying to kick flares and the pilot was trying to avoid flak.
The Mu Gia Pass provided the main routing for the roads that made up the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It has been described as the "most dominant, geographic feature of the panhandle region." North of it, Route 15 meandered and wound its way through the upper level of the Annamite Mountains. Near the border, it dropped into a narrow canyon leading to a lower valley on the Laotian side. The pass itself presented the North Vietnamese with the threat of getting their convoys all boxed in if anything went wrong for them. It was a classic choke point. That is one reason it was so heavily defended.
Not only did the Blind Bat crews have to find targets that had the cover of heavy foliage and darkness, the attack aircraft available to them faced all kinds of restrictions on what they could attack. For example, Blind Bat might spot a convoy, illuminate the area, but by the time the attack aircraft got there the trucks had ducked into a village, sometimes fake villages, and villages were off-limits to air attack. In addition, attack aircraft could strike targets on the trail only if the target was no more than 100 yards from the trail.
"The Falls" choke point on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Laos. This photo was taken by a forward air controller (FAC) named Jim Roper. Roper says this about this photo: "Choke points or IDPs (Interdiction Points) were heavily defended. The Falls had at least a dozen 23-mm and half a dozen 37-mm guns. They were most active at night during the dry season (Nov-April). They would let a maneuvering FAC make a daytime pass overhead at 3500' (and take this photo) because they believed their camouflage to be good, and it was, and they knew they'd be attacked if they missed. Presented by Thomas Pilsch.
The Blind Bats also had to work with different kinds of attacking aircraft, fast movers and slow movers, all of which required different tactics and procedures.
USAF F4 Phantom attack aircraft rolling in on his target. USAF photo presented by Thomas Pilsch
Word on the street is the F4 Phantom, at the time employing dumb bombs, was ineffective against convoy targets, some say grossly ineffective. The F4 employing cluster bombs was more effective; it was like shooting a highly powered shotgun over a large area. These were especially effective at silencing gun emplacements that threatened the Blind Bat and other missions operating in the area. It turns out, and it is an argument for another day, that the "jet fighter leadership" of the USAF did everything it could to advocate the F4 for the mission against the trail, but everywhere you go you find that the A-26 Nimrod was the aircraft of choice among those who flew up there and risked life and limb to find and destroy traffic on the trail.
A-26 of the 56th Air Commando Wing swoops low over the fields east of Nakhon Phanom RTAFB, circa 1966. Photo presented by Jimmie Butler.
The Blind Bats much preferred the A-26 Nimrod flying out of nearby Nakhon Phanom RTAFB, Navy-Marine A-4s, and A-1Es. The A-26 was designed for night attacks, it carried a heavy load, often consisting of bombs, napalm, rockets, .50 caliber guns and flares. Many of them were flown by Korean War vets experienced in the aircraft from that war. It had a good loiter time, could wait for targets to be pin-pointed, and then could make some 12 passes over a target to do it in for sure.
We have covered a lot of ground and a lot of history. Nearly in each paragraph there is something worth following up and learning about in more detail.
By war's end, two Blind Bat C-130s, both from the 41st Tactical Airlift Squadron (TAS), were shot down over Laos, one on May 22, 1968 and one on November 24, 1969.
The grey line from Khe Sanh was to Savannakhet is Route 9. Blind Bat 01 was lost in May 1968, near Muong Nong, south of Route 9. The November 1969 mission was lost somewhere near the red dot above Route 9. The site notations are from an unrelated mineral exploration. Disregard. Map courtesy of Physics and Advanced Technology website.
The May 1968 mission, Blind Bat 01, departed Ubon on an operational mission. Radio contact was lost while the aircraft was orbiting in its mission over Savannakhet Province, Laos near the city of Muong Nong. There was no indication of trouble at that time. When the aircraft did not return to friendly control, the crew was declared Missing In Action from the time of estimated fuel exhaustion. There was no further word of the aircraft or its crew. The crew included Lt Col. William H. Mason, Capt. Thomas B. Mitchell, Capt. William T. McPhail, SSgt. Calvin C. Glover, Senior Airman Gary Pate, and Airmen First Class Melvin D. Rash, John Q. Adam and Thomas E. Knebel. Maj. Jerry L. Chambers, 23rd TASS, a forward air controller at Nakhon Phanom RTAFB, flew aboard this mission as an observer and was also lost. There has been some intrigue involving whether this crew, or part of it, might have been taken prisoner. Remains have never been returned. This crew remains unaccounted for. We have set up a special section here for Blind Bat 01.
The November 1969 mission departed Ubon Airfield, Thailand on an operational mission over Laos. While orbiting at about 9,000 feet near Ban Bac, Savannakhet Province, Laos, the C130 was observed to be struck by several rounds of 37mm anti-aircraft fire, burst into flames, crashed to the ground about 15 miles west of Ban Talan, and exploded on impact. All the crew was declared Missing in Action (MIA). The crew included: Maj. Michael D. Balamonti, Capt. Earl C. Brown, Capt. Richard O. Ganley, 1Lt. Peter R. Matthes and Sgts. Donald L. Wright, Larry I. Grewell, Charles R. Fellenz and Rexford J. DeWispelaere. The crew's remains were repatriated in November 1993 and the positive identification of all eight crewmen was announced in October 1995. That said, there is considerable debate as to whether the remains truly represented those of the entire crew. From reading various reports, one is compelled to believe this entire crew has not been accounted for.
AC-130 Spectre gunship, presented by Global Security
When the AC-130 gunship arrived in 1968, then our forces had a most effective truck killer. It began to replace the Blind Bats, the latter of which were in many respects the forerunner of the AC-130. Equipment developed for the AC-130 was largely based on lessons learned from the Blind Bats, and the AC-130s, when they arrived, had a Blind Bat "encyclopedia" of knowledge and experience from which its crews could benefit as they went against the trail. The Blind Bat mission was terminated in 1969-70.
Despite all its efforts, and many, many more we have not described, the US was not able to shut down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. There are many who assert the US "lost" the Vietnam War in part because of this.
"Work on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, in fact, is the subject of three chapters, one-third of Even the Women Must Fight. Due to the importance of this trail and its significance in helping to determine the outcome of the Vietnam War with the U.S., this emphasis is justified. The author engages in thick description and uses many examples of women (and men) who worked on the trail. Teenagers with shovels and AK-47s kept the trail cleared and repaired following constant bombing attacks. They worked under severe hardships and relied on local support rather than significant government and army support. According to Turner, citing Vietnamese media attention recently, they have also not received the postwar services that they deserve. Turner's examples of women she interviewed, road builders, members of the Youth Corps, and veterans of special groups (such as Troop C814), are numerous, and the testimony of most was similar. They performed war duties not to defend socialism or to win a global struggle; rather they defended their homeland as a 'place to raise future generations.' As Turner puts it, they left home to "save home."
US military forces, mainly air forces, inflicted severe damage to that resource committed by the North Vietnamese. North Vietnamese Colonel Bui Tin served on the general staff of the North Vietnamese Army and received the unconditional surrender of South Vietnam on April 30, 1975. He has commented this way:
"If (President) Johnson had granted (General) Westmoreland's requests to enter Laos and block the Ho Chi Minh trail, Hanoi could not have won the war...it was the only way to bring sufficient military power to bear on the fighting in the South. Building and maintaining the trail was a huge effort involving tens of thousands of soldiers, drivers, repair teams, medical stations, communication units .... our operations were never compromised by attacks on the trail. At times, accurate B-52 strikes would cause real damage, but we put so much in at the top of the trail that enough men and weapons to prolong the war always came out the bottom .... if all the bombing had been concentrated at one time, it would have hurt our efforts. But the bombing was expanded in slow stages under Johnson and it didn't worry us. We had plenty of time to prepare alternative routes and facilities. We always had stockpiles of rice ready to feed the people for months if a harvest was damaged."
This accounting is confirmed by captured Pathet Lao (Communist Laotian) Lieutenant Maniuvan who traveled the trail and remained in the Tchepone area throughout most of 1966. He describes the elaborate logistics system employed on the trail. He also confirms the very high priority the North Vietnamese placed on keeping the pipeline open and active. North Vietnamese planners, no matter what investment had to be made, arranged for increased infiltration, sending in more manual workers, including more women, to construct more roads, repair damaged roads, and clear new trails. This was done despite the urgent need for these workers and the equipment they brought back at home.
Lt. Maniuvan told his interrogators that people were the only required line of equipment. Interdict five columns of them, and others would be brought in. They lived under the constant barrage of air strikes, in monsoon rains, with disease, difficult terrain, and meager rations.
All that said, the motto of those workers was: "Better to die of hunger than to die of bombing."
From the American perspective, General William Westmoreland was once heard to say: "I'd like to go to Tchepone but I haven't got the tickets."
This map was extracted from a paper, "Going to Tchepone: OPLAN El Paso," by John Collins, who was one of the planners.
Tchepone, Laos was on the famous, or infamous, Route 9 from Khe Sanh, Vietnam to Savannakhet, Laos and the Mekong River border with Thailand. It sat in the heart of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. John Collins, a planner who helped put together General Westmoreland's operation plan "El Paso" to interdict the trail, said this about Tchepone:
"Tchepone, together with the huge, heavily defended NVA (North Vietnamese Army) base area nearby, was the focal point for every motorable infiltration route from Mu Gia Pass except national highway 23."
It was to be a corps-size operation to seal off the trail at Tchepone for 18 months. The plan was developed between November 1967 and March 1968. The task force, nicknamed "Task Force Bottleneck," was to lead the charge and seize, secure and block the choke points astride the trail and halt the infiltration of North Vietnamese troops, supplies and equipment through the Laotian panhandle to South Vietnam and communist sanctuaries inside Cambodia. It was to employ one US air mobile division, one US infantry division, and one Vietnamese airborne Division. Their intent was to stay there, blocking the trail, as long as was necessary.
General Westmoreland never got his plan approved in Washington, President Johnson announced he would not run again in March 1968, and slid off to oblivion, just as the plan was ready for presentation. Johnson's administration went inert, while American forces were fighting and dying in Vietnam, and at a point where Westmoreland had a plan that appeared to have some real clout.
President Nixon decided to Vietnamize the war and withdraw US forces. According to Colonel Bui Tin, the US would have likely won the war had it implemented El Paso.
Not only was Blind Bat a flareship, she played an important role operating as a Forward Air Controller (FAC). Let’s take a look at that.