Our Pedros, rotors of wood, men of steel
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February 1, 2005
The first bit of history that needs to be highlighted is the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
Three days later, on August 7, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. It became Public Law 88-408 on August 10.
In this remarkable resolution, Congress charged that the North Vietnamese had deliberately and repeatedly attacked US naval vessels operating lawfully in international waters. Congress further charged that this was part of systematic campaign of aggression being waged by North Vietnam against its neighbors. As a consequence, Congress gave the president sweeping powers to “take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.” The resolution was to expire when the president had determined that “the peace and security of the area is reasonably assured."
If you read the Declarations of War against Germany and Japan, you would find this resolutions just as damning. Why it was a resolution instead of a declaration of war is worth further research.
If you remember anything about the history we are about to present, remember that this resolution legitimizing American warfare in Vietnam was passed on August 7, 1964. Once again --- August 1964.
This resolution might have legitimized the American war in Southeast Asia in the minds of the American public, the American government, and the American military, but none of those entities were prepared for this war. We'll focus on the Air Force (USAF), and specifically search and rescue (SAR), but the lack of preparedness crossed all the services and many of the mission areas of each in one way or another.
Following WWII, the United States, and most certainly the USAF, a new military service, prepared to fight a nuclear war against the Soviet Union that might involve a massive nuclear exchange.
It was widely expected that such an exchange could, likely would, result in the destruction of the US and the Soviet Union, perhaps the world. Therefore, many other military priorities played second fiddle to the requirements driven by this nuclear strategy.
You will recall the nuclear triad: long range, strategic nuclear bombers, the B-52 "Stratofortress;" land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), mainly the "Minuteman;" and Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM), mainly the "Polaris."
Three B-52 Stratofortress strategic bombers launch off alert, able to conduct nuclear strike operations against the Soviet Union. Photo courtesy of fas.org
Minuteman III ICBM launch, photo courtesy of Strategic Weapons of the US Military III
Polaris A3 SLBM launch, photo courtesy of fas.org
In 1946, a strategic analyst named Bernard Brodie wrote:
“Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them.”
By the early 1950s, effective strategic bombing, and later effective nuclear missiles, were considered the dominant form of warfare. However, it is arguable whether our leaders adequately thought through the kind of impact nuclear deterrence would have on international affairs. Mr. Brodie was not quite right: our military would want to avert a massive nuclear exchange, but it would have to prepare to fight and win insurgency-styled wars that would emerge from the nuclear stand-off and the battle between democratic and communist ideologies. Regrettably, there was little attention paid to the latter.
The Soviet Union was communist, and the Soviets held most of eastern Europe. Mao took over China in 1949, demonstrating that communism was spreading. Then the North Koreans, and later the Chinese, invaded South Korea, and the US entered the Korean War. We were not prepared for this. Initially American forces were driven to the southern tip of the Korean peninsula, nearly into the sea, and there was a chance that that peninsula could become completely communist. The American military regrouped and through inventive war-fighting and overwhelming courage, American and allied forces drove the enemy back and the politicians settled for a stalemate.
In 1954, France was forced by the Vietnamese to free Indochina, Laos was declared independent, and Vietnam was split at the 17th parallel. North Vietnam become communist, and there was a fear that communism's foothold in Southeast Asia would spread throughout the region --- the "Domino Effect." The Warsaw Pact, a military pact, formed in 1955 between the Soviet Union and its communist-led eastern European satellites and now a land war in Europe seemed probable, one that could evolve into a full nuclear exchange. Fidel Castro took over in Cuba in 1959 and communism entered the western hemisphere. And the confrontation between the US and Soviets extended into Africa and central America.
In sum, during the 1950s, a host of events evolved that would demand a military capable of fighting at less than the mutual assured destruction threshold.
Geneva, Switzerland, April, 1954: Members of the Soviet and Chinese delegations relax during East-West talks on the situation in Indochina. Behind the "USSR" card is Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov; to his right is his deputy (and future Soviet President) Andrei Gromyko. At bottom left (in the dark suit) is Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai (then spelled Chou En-Lai). The Geneva conference was held at a time when the French were a week away from defeat in Vietnam; another meeting in July resulted in the division of Vietnam into northern and southern portions. Photo courtesy of Stars & Stripes
Unfortunately, US strategy could not stay pace with these unfolding events. That's problematic because the strategy drives the configuration of the military, and adjusting configurations does not occur overnight, but takes many years because of the weapons systems development lead times required.
For purposes of our discussion, the US government followed two major tracks in Southeast Asia, both framed by the Geneva Conference of 1954. That conference was the means by which North and South Vietnam were divided at the 17th parallel. It was also the means by which Vietnam's neighbor, Laos, was declared an independent state, an event which met American approval. So, the US decided it had to contain communism to North Vietnam, and not let it spread to the more prosperous South or to Laos. So the Americans were in a containment mode.
The map of Southeast Asia following the Geneva Conventions of 1954, presented by CIA
The US, during the Eisenhower administration, provided limited help in the form of air support to the French during the French Indochina War against the Viet Minh Communists, which ended in 1954. But Eisenhower would not introduce ground forces or launch a major air assault to save the French. As a result, the French lost their colonies there. In Laos, the US started providing economic and military aid. The French fully left Vietnam in 1956, the Domino Effect was formed a bastion of American thinking about the region, so the US stepped in and sent a Military Assistance Advisor Group (MAAG) to assume responsibility for training the South Vietnamese.
In 1950, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had begun its own airline, called Civil Air Transport (CAT), in the main to help Tibet and the Chinese who had evacuated the mainland to Taiwan as Mao took over. To those on outside, it appeared to be a corporate commercial airline. In reality, it was used mainly for covert operations.
Air America Bell 205s at Long Tieng, Laos, which was a good-sized air base in the Plaines des Jars (PDJ) of central Laos, used mainly by the friendly Hmong warriors under the command of Laotian General Vang Pao. Photo courtesy of Air America Association.
In 1957, as part of the American desire to provide economic and military aid, CAT acquired a permanent presence in Laos. Laos began to destabilize badly as the communist-oriented Pathet Lao reignited a civil war and allied with a similar movement in Vietnam called the Viet Minh, later called the Viet Cong. US support to the Laotian government increased. CAT's name changed to Air America in 1959 as a means to expand American efforts in Laos. Air America began flying all sorts of air missions in Laos, from providing supplies to delivering Laotian ground forces to target areas to bombing and strafing enemy forces on the ground. A US Special Forces Group was introduced into Laos in 1959. Helicopters rapidly became central to helping the Laotians. US military and non-military people were on the ground and in the air in Laos, covertly immersed in the war there.
It's useful to understand the level of USAF involvement in some small measure. The US Air Attaché in Vientiane, Laos, started using its VC-47A to fly reconnaissance in December 1960. An SC-47 reconnaissance aircraft was shot down over the PDJ on March 23, 1961. The entire crew was USAF, the pilot was 1st Lt. Ralph McGee, reportedly TDY from Osan AB, Korea. Of eight aboard, seven were reported killed, one was captured, an Army major.
On October 13, 1962, National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) No. 104 documented that the president, on October 11, 1961, had directed that a USAF “Jungle Jim” squadron be sent to Vietnam for the initial purpose of training Vietnamese forces in their war against North Vietnamese Communist aggression.
The handwriting must have been on the wall, because five months earlier, in April 1961, the USAF organized an air commando operation known as the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron (CCTS) at Hurlburt Field, Florida, and nicknamed it “Jungle Jim.” At the time, Hurlburt was a small appendage to Eglin Air Force Base (AFB), nicely tucked outside that base, a good place to train these commandos quietly. The 4400th was commanded by Colonel Benjamin H. King, said to be a fighter pilot's fighter pilot.
"Jungle Jim" 4400th CCTS pilot and his South Vietnamese Air Force (RVNAF) partner carry their gear to an A1E "Skyraider" on Bien Hoa Air Base's (AB) flight line in the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). They are on their way for a retaliatory strike after two US helicopters had been shot down in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam. The American pilot served as an instructor, but you can bet he was in charge. Photo courtesy of "Of Planes and Men, US Air Force wages Cold War and Hot," by Kenneth F. Weaver, photography by Emory Kirstof and Albert Moldvay, National Geographic, September 1965 edition, with supplemental information from "History of the Quiet Professionals," US Special Operations Command, Hurlburt Field, Florida, January 2003.
With NSAM 104 out in October, the 4400th was ordered in November 1961 to send a detachment (Det) to Bien Hoa AB, RVN, located outside the capital, Saigon. Col. King organized Det 2, 4400th and took it to Vietnam. The codename for his operation was “Farmgate.” The mission was to “train” the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF), but the truth is the 4400th crews flew and directed air combat missions, covertly.
When the 4400th CCTS was activated in April 1961, its table of organization (TOA) included eight A-26 strike aircraft. Here is an A-26 flying near Nakhon Phanom (NKP) Royal Thai Air Base (RTAFB), Thailand. Photo courtesy of "Whither Aviation Foreign Defense," by Lt. Colonel Wray R. Johnson, USAF, published in the Spring 1997 edition of Airpower Journal.
The T-28, such as shown here, was also used by the 4400th CCTS, called the "Nomad" in the early years, the "Trojan" later on. It was equipped to carry a variety of weapons ranging from bombs and rockets to napalm. It was used for counterinsurgency (COIN) missions throughout Southeast Asia. It was especially effective in night operations against targets not protected by radar controlled anti-aircraft batteries and as armed escorts of A-26 attack aircraft and helicopters. They also operated in hunter/killer teams with O-1 aircraft that used starlight scopes to locate enemy convoys and then call in the T-28s to attack. Photo courtesy of Norman Cricker's T-28 site.
The Farmgate operation and the 4400th CCTS form one heck-uva-story, one that ultimately led to formation of the USAF Special Operations Command. This is another subject worth research.
This is a T-28 at Udorn RTAFB, Thailand, with Royal Laotian Air Force markings, and an American sitting in the front seat. It was part of a US flight training program known as "Waterpump," These aircraft staged from bases in Thailand and Laos with American civilian and military pilots on board flying ground attack missions in Laos. There were all kinds of American-manned aircraft flying around much of Southeast Asia with and without host country national markings on at all.
By December 1962, the 15th and 45th Tactical reconnaissance Squadrons (TRS) flew RF-101s over Laos called "Able Mable" flights. Escort missions were flown by F-100s from the 510th TFS and F-102s from the 509th TFS, all out of Don Muong Airport in Bangkok. That same year, two squadrons of F-100D fighters were deployed to Takhli RTAFB, augmented by Marine UH-34D helicopters and A-4 fighters.
It turns out that the more you look, the more units you find operating over Laos during these years. The number one point we want to underscore and underline is that we are in the early 1960s and there are plenty of friendly aircraft flying around in very dangerous combat environments in Vietnam and Laos with American military and civilian contract pilots at the controls.
The next point we need to emphasize is that in the early 1960s, two separate but closely related target areas were the highest priorities for these combat flights.
The first is the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In about 1959, the North Vietnamese formed Group 559 to begin infiltrating cadres and weapons into South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Map of Ho Chi Minh Trail courtesy of National Geographic magazine
As you can see from the map, Laos was crucial to the North Vietnamese logistics strategy. This trail, especially those sectors of it in Laos, became a dominant target for attack missions from the beginning of American involvement.
The second is the Plaines des Jars (PDJ) of northern Laos. Despite agreements between the US and the Soviets, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) stepped up its Soviet-supported operations in Laos and by 1963 the country was on the verge of a major conflagration, which broke out in the PDJ.
Northern Laos, with the Plaines de Jars roughly outlined by the red box in the central highlands. Map courtesy of National Geographic, "Laos," by Peter White, photographs by Seny Norasingh, June 1987 edition.
This is a closer look at the PDJ on a map. "LS" means "Lima Site," each of which could handle aircraft of a certain sort. LS20A, Long Tieng, in the lower left, was one of the major air strips used to supply the others, of which there were some 400 by 1972. Note how the PDJ is surrounded by mountains, many of which were militarily important strongholds. Map courtesy of "The Great Adventures of Bob and Don, Prelude, Never more until tomorrow, short stories from Laos 1961-1975," presented by aircommandos.org
This is a photo of a section of the Plaines des Jars, taken in 1987. You can see the bomb craters from air attacks in the 1960s and 70s against enemy forces operating here. Today, many of these are used as fish ponds. Photo courtesy of National Geographic, "Laos," by Peter White, photographs by Seny Norasingh, June 1987 edition.
It is only the period 1960-1963, and you can plainly see the growing importance to the US of tactical air transport and tactical air attack operations in Vietnam and Laos at levels far below the nuclear exchange threshhold. For our purposes in this report, that means you need SAR. As you'll see shortly, there wasn't any serious SAR capability in the theater during these years.
President Kennedy talked publicly about the need to spread freedom and democracy throughout the region, and prevent the spread of communism, much as President Bush is doing today. But in Kennedy's days, he was able to keep most of his military initiatives very close to the chest, to wit, “top secret, ” and covert. You've already seen that the 4400th CCTS was a covert operation. The CIA Air America operation was covert. And American special forces were introduced covertly, initially in the early 1960s to help minority groups such as the Montagnards in South Vietnam's central highlands and the Hmong in the central highlands of northern Laos. These groups needed American help to protect themselves and defeat the Viet Cong and Pathet Lao respectively. So, we now have ground forces on the ground, in both countries, and engaged in combat operations.
But the emphasis on ground operations was to let the Laotians and South Vietnamese do the lion's share of fighting, while in the air, it had been American thinking since the Eisenhower administration that the US was going to have to do something more intense from the air. That thinking grew during the Kennedy administration.
US Army Special Forces Captain Vernon Gillespie of Lawton, Oklahoma, discusses strategy with a Montgagnard Battalion Commander at Buon Bieng, RVN. Photo courtesy of "American Special Forces, how coolness and character averted a blood-bath when mountain tribesmen rose in revolt," article and photographs by Howard Sochurek, published in the January 1965 edition of National Geographic.
Put all this history together, and what you find is the environment thus described created some very tough challenges for the Air Force.
The truth is, the US in general and the USAF in particular were not prepared for any of this: not a war in Vietnam-Laos or having to rescue downed air crews, especially in a covert environment. The USAF had just finished a war for which it was not ready on the Korean peninsula. Despite the lessons of Korea, the USAF promptly returned to the nuclear priorities of strategic bombing and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and everything that went with it, which was a lot and was resource intensive. And let's not forget that the Soviets launched Sputnik I, the world's first artificial satellite. The race to space instantly became yet another issue with which the USAF would have to contend.
Many air crews were downed by hostile fire or other flight problems in Laos beginning in at least 1960 and increasing steadily through 1963 as the air attacks against the Ho Chi Minh Trail and PDJ increased. Most of the losses were “Air America,” but as we indicated before, there were plenty of US pilots flying under the Air America cover and as time went by, USAF and Naval fighters were being committed as well.
This is an Air America Caribou ( #61-2392 - c/n #50) that crashed in Laos. Location and date are unknown. Photo courtesy of the CIA Air America Caribous in Southeast Asia.
As a general rule, the SAR missions that were conducted in Laos in the early years were done by Air America, the Royal Laotian Air Force and Army, and US Army special operations forces.
But in March 1963, a US Army OV-1 “Mohawk” crashed in the Central Highlands of Laos. Two HMM-162 Marine Sikorsky H-34 utility helicopters were dispatched from Danang AB in northern South Vietnam to the scene to conduct a SAR operation.
This is the type aircraft that went down in Laos in 1963, an Army OV-1 "Mohawk," Hawk 9 on the flight line, 73rd Avn Co (AS), Vung Tau, RVN 1966.
This is an HMM-162 Marine Sikorsky H-34 of the type used to respond to the downed Army OV-1. This photo was taken in 1963 with the H-34 parked at Khe Sanh, RVN. Photo courtesy of Kelly Lea and presented by USMC/Combat Helicopter Association
Both US Marine H-34 aircraft sent to search for and rescue the Army OV-1 crew crashed, and we believe all souls aboard died. We have seen after-action reports that said the Marine crews were not trained for this job in this kind of area.
Whatever the case, it's March 1963 and we had three US military aircraft down in Laos and two of them launched from an air base in South Vietnam.
SAR suddenly bubbled to the top of many priority lists. The USAF was unprepared to deal with it and the Navy would only perform such missions along the coast line and over water. So the US now has a real problem.
Major Alan Saunders, USAF, an H-43 “Huskie” helicopter driver, did a study in August 1963 that said the H-43 helicopter, heretofore used for local base firefighting and crash recovery (LBR) operations, should be modified for combat operations and be used for the SAR mission.
Kaman HH-43F "Huskie" at RAF Upper Heyford, England, Det 2, 40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Wing (ARRW), with Fire Suppression Kit (FSK) suspended under it. Photo taken in 1970. Photo courtesy of "Pedro's Posse," presented by Ken's Aviation.
For our purposes, though, General Anthis was assigned to Vietnam in 1961 as the commander 2nd Advanced Echelon (ADVON), then the commander of the 2d Air Division, which ultimately became the 7th US Air Force, the air component of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), the joint command responsible for the US war effort in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. During his days in Vietnam, General Anthis became known as “Mr. Counterinsurgency”, Mr. COIN. This is important, because he was one of those who viewed the wars in Vietnam and Laos as insurgencies and saw that our military forces needed to be reconfigured to fight such wars and handle the nuclear threat and challenges of the space race all at the same time.
General Anthis approved the H-43 SAR plan promptly.
As the study climbed the bureaucratic ladder, the Army said it could do the job with its helicopters and CIA said it could do the job in Laos with its Air America forces. The USAF said this is “my job” and accepted the thrust of the Saunders study.
As a result, in March 1964, the USAF, unilaterally we think, decided to deploy H-43s "modified" for SAR into Vietnam, and designated them HH-43s. By April 1964 the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) settled the Army question, assigned the SAR mission to the USAF, and it seemed as though the “Huskies” would be ready to go.
But there were other problems. Remember the 4400th CCTS “Jungle Jim” “Farmgate” operations in Vietnam that began in November 1961? Well, they were growing and were still supposed to be covert. Introducing USAF SAR forces would clearly acknowledge that the US was conducting offensive air operations in Vietnam, never mind what it was doing in Laos.
The USAF answer to this issue was to attempt to keep the SAR activities as covert as possible by limiting the resource ceilings and providing the cover of sending forces to the region as temporary duty (TDY) assignments. Such "temporary" forces would not be counted in the permanent force structure tables. Problem solved, the USAF remained ready to go with its HH-43 plan.
That said, timing might have been a factor that slowed his approval of the HH-43 plan. Remember, it's May 1964. Admiral Felt's tour ended in June 1964. One of his last acts was to establish a subordinate joint command to run things in Southeast Asia for the US, called MACV, General Paul D. Harkins, USA in command. The change of command and establishment of a new subordinate command in Vietnam might have taken a higher priority than the HH-43 deployment decision, making it hard for that decision to climb through the stack.
This indecisiveness was not good.
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.
By 1964 supplies and troops were flowing down the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and into South Vietnam at full speed. American authorities determined this supply train had to be stopped. The thinking at the time was, stop this supply train, and the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese could not survive and fight in South Vietnam and the Pathet Lao could not fight in Laos. By extension, that meant, in the minds of many, that the South Vietnamese and Royal Laotian forces could defeat these enemies largely on their own, with minimal help from the US. This had always been the American objective, to defeat the enemy with as few American resources involved as possible. That said, the trend begun in the Eisenhower administration continued, and the Americans knew they would have to ramp up use of US air forces, from all services.
As a result, the USAF and Navy began flying armed reconnaissance over the Laotian Panhandle targeted at the Ho Chi Minh Trail. These missions were nicknamed “Yankee Team.” These missions quickly turned into attack missions.
From a military standpoint, the requirement for military SAR operations loomed larger and was growing almost exponentially, most especially in Laos. Some argued that Air America could handle it. On-scene Air Force commanders would not settle for that. They correctly argued they had to have their own.
US Navy RF-8G "Crusader" reconnaissance aircraft. Photo courtesy of GlobalSecurity.org.
Then, on June 6, 1964, the guillotine fell. Two US Navy RF-8As from the USS Kitty Hawk out in the Gulf of Tonkin were conducting low-level photo reconnaissance of the PDJ in northern Laos. One, flown by Lt. Charles Klusmann, was struck by ground fire. He ejected. Air American helicopters went to the scene but had to withdraw under heavy enemy fire, confirming military fears about leaving the mission to it.
On-scene American military commanders took matters into their own hands, shoving aside all this covert business, in essence, breaking the “rules” set by doing things “under cover.” The US commander in Vientiane, Laos scrambled T-28s but they could not find their target because of foul weather. The USAF Pacific (PACAF) then scrambled F-100 fighters from Takhli Royal Thai RTAFB. The Navy scrambled fighters off its carrier as well.
Then, surprisingly, JCS, through CINCPAC, ordered all SAR aircraft to withdraw (see "Robert McNamara and the expendable pilot," by Commander Glenn Tierney). Admiral Felt was called in, he called McNamara, confirmed that McNamara agreed with a secretary of state recommendation not to rescue the downed pilot, and Felt demanded to speak to LBJ. McNamara put him through, the president authorized a SAR, but it was too late. It turns out Klusmann had been captured three hours after bailout. A more rapid and well coordinated SAR effort might have been able to pluck him out before that capture. From a military standpoint, this was a mess, and no way to run a railroad. Clearly, this way of doing the rescue business could not stand.
It's worth noting that Klusmann was hit by hostile fire on a similar mission flown on May 21, but managed to hobble back to the Kitty Hawk. Luckily for Klusmann, he managed to out-smart his captors and escaped in late August and was picked up by a helicopter that staged from Udorn RTAFB. Finally, the day after Klusmann was shot down, Commander Doyle W. Lynn, flying a F-8 fighter escort for a RF-8 reconnaissance mission over the same area was shot down, ejected, and escaped and evaded for a day. An Air America helicopter did pick him up the next day.
Following these events, and others, CINCPAC finally approved introduction of USAF SAR forces. The plan was to initially deploy HH-43 “Huskies” to Danang near the border with North Vietnam, Bien Hoa near Saigon, and Soc Trang to the south in the Mekong River delta region. The USAF SAR deployment began in June 1964.
Remember we suggested you keep the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in mind? It was signed in August 1964. Everything we've discussed thus far occurred before that time.
We'll now move to the next section, A look at the HH-43 "Huskie" aircraft. We need to familiarize you with the aircraft before going into their deployment and the "war stories." At first sight, especially when compared to the Jolly Greens, this helicopter looks like a toy. It surely was not made for the job it was given. But by the time the crews finished with her, she was one "lean and mean fightin' machine."