Jerry de la Cruz- Vietnam (from USAFA War Stories)
In December 1967 I was assigned to Bien Hoa AB, South Vietnam, and to report to the 510th TFS, The Buzzards of Bien Hoa. I was fortunate in being able to hone my F-100 flying skills at Myrtle Beach before being sent into combat. I had known that I would eventually be sent to Vietnam, and I felt confident and ready for the fray.
I had been in country once before on a quick TDY to Phan Rang AB when I ferried an F-100 to the Wing there. While there, I had a few combat missions in the back seat just for the experience. The most exciting part of that trip for me was landing and taking off on the temporary runway made up of steel plates over uneven ground. The plates weren’t joined together so water collected under the plates when it rained would shoot up as geysers between gaps in the plates when the F-100s were taking off or on their landing rolls. Also, the plates were coated with some sort of substance to provide better traction. This coating worked fine when it was dry. Unfortunately, after a rain, the coating produced a slippery surface nearly akin to ice.
After arriving in Bien Hoa, my new squadron mates eagerly welcomed me into the squadron, and I was soon provided with my hootch (living quarters) in the squadrons living area. Another friendly face was Leon Goodson. Goody wasn’t in the 510th but was flying for one of our sister squadrons, the 90th TFS. I was also greeted that night with a fire fight on the base perimeter followed shortly thereafter by the tremendous explosions of a rocket attack. I assumed my reputation had preceded me, but I learned that these nightly occurrences happened regularly and were not arranged on my behalf.
I soon learned the quickest route to the nearest shelters. Also, I learned to tell the difference between the sound of an AK-47 and the M-16. The AK-47s went bam, bam bam, bam. The M-16s went berrrp and that was it. We had army artillery units on the base also, so they added to the cacophony. I was told a boom-swish noise was an outgoing round and okay, but that a swish-boom noise was not okay and to run like hell. I never heard anything but booms, however.
The Viet Cong were deadly in their rocket attacks, and we were unfortunate to have suffered many casualties. The rockets were not accurate, but they were launched in such numbers that over time we suffered direct hits on our tower, our chapel, and various other buildings. In one terrible night, the VC put a rocket into the entrance of one of the bunkers killing 24 personnel.
Our enlisted personnel had a difficult time of it. The Air Force built regular air base style two-story barracks as if we were back in the States. When the sirens went off warning us of incoming rockets, guys were breaking their legs running down the stairs trying to get to the shelters. Purple Hearts were not awarded for these injuries. Our First Sergeants hair turned white, and then he started losing his hair during his tour.
Bien Hoa was an exciting place to be in 1968. It had one runway and handled 100,000 take-offs and landings each month. There were fighters of all descriptions, troop carriers, Forward Air Controllers (FACs), helicopters, commercial airliners, and cargo birds. We had the Air Force, Army, Vietnamese Air Force and civilians operating at the same time. Our control tower personnel handled all this with professionalism and aplomb. They controlled all of these aircraft operating at different speeds and patterns, and contended with airfield damage and numerous emergency landings, sometimes while under attack. To watch these controllers at work was an amazing experience. I stood in awe of their capabilities.
I soon became well acquainted with our squadron bar room. All of the pilots carved their name in the bar during their tour. One of the names I spotted was Mike Hyde. I knew Mike was killed in Vietnam, but didn’t know the circumstances, or the fact that he was a Buzzard. I recently learned from George Elsea, who was in Vietnam when Mike died, that Mike was killed performing a napalm pass on 8 December 1966.
[Webmaster note: This paragraph has been changed from its original version based upon newer, more reliable information regarding Mike’s death.]
My checkout went very quickly, and I was soon flying missions and standing alert. Our missions were almost entirely in the Three- and Four-Corps areas, the most southern part of Vietnam. Our missions included Close Air Support where we had troops in contact with the enemy or knew of enemy locations, Interdiction where we bombed enemy supplies and supply lines, and Escort Duty for both Army convoys and Ranch Hand missions (which I will describe later).
The majority of our missions were pre-planned. The 7th Air Force Tactical Air Control Center in Saigon would allocate fighters to the different Direct Air Support Centers, (DASCs), located throughout the country in accordance to the requests of the various Army units. The fighter wings were issued fragmentary orders (frags) a day ahead which told the wings which aircraft were to go where, with what ordinance and at what time. With few exceptions, we would fly in two-ship formations. After a pre-planned take-off, our flights would contact the DASC and then be handed over to a Combat Reporting Center, CRC, who in turn would give us directions to rendezvous with a FAC. After making positive visual contact with the FAC, the FAC would brief us on exactly what and where the target was and any other information that would be useful to us. He would then mark the target with a white phosperous rocket and give us directions on where to deliver our ordinance relative to his mark. We would proceed with the attack, get a bomb damage assessment report from the FAC telling us the results of our strike when we finished, and head home. Returning to base we would look each other over to see if we had suffered any battle damage. On some of our flights, it seemed that all we did was put some holes in the ground. Others resulted in huge secondary explosions and towering clouds of smoke when we hit supply areas. When we supported Army units on the ground we got estimates on how many casualties we inflicted on the enemy. I dispatched many enemy combatants to the hereafter during my tour. We had a target-rich environment in Three and Four Corps.
We also flew what were called immediate air strikes. For these missions we stood on alert. Our wing kept two flights of two aircraft on thirty-minute alert to be used for those dire situations when the Army needed immediate support for a troops-in-contact situation; or some target popped up, and there was an immediate opportunity to do some damage. These missions were generally more exciting than our pre-planned sorties.
I found standing alert in F-100s much different from my experience in the Deuce.
In the air defense role, our interceptors were cocked at the end of the runway and we were drilled into being able to start and take-off in the shortest amount of time possible. We were on a five-minute alert status, but in reality we regularly were airborne within two minutes. All of our strap-in, start, taxi and take-off procedures were so well drilled into us that we could do these actions automatically and in our sleep. Many times, while on alert in the Deuce, I would find myself waking up while climbing out at night after an active scramble. That was always uncomfortable.
Our F-100 alert birds were cocked and ready to start, but our alert hanger was in the middle of the base. When the klaxon sounded, there wasn’t a mad rush to the aircraft but a slow, leisurely donning of our G-suits and a saunter out the aircraft before starting. Of course we had to stop at the arming shack before taking the runway to charge our guns and pull the safety pins from our ordinance. While all of our pre-planned missions were flown during the day, many of our alert sorties came at night. With the slower pace of getting airborne, I was more awake before take-offs. This was somewhat offset by the thrill of knowing that we would be dropping ordinance at night under the light of flares.
On Christmas day, 1967, we were standing down for a Christmas truce. I was on alert duty, but we weren’t expecting any action. Towards evening, The Viet Cong decided that the truce was over and attacked several of our ground positions, and we were scrambled. After rendezvousing with the FAC, we were told that our target was a gun emplacement. The FAC couldnt locate the gun exactly but had a general idea where it was and put out a smoke rocket. It was getting dark when my lead made his first pass on the suspected location. As he dropped his ordinance on the smoke and was pulling out, the VC gunner opened up with his weapon. He obviously had no idea where the F-100 was as he spun his weapon in a 360 angle firing the whole time. The reason I knew this is because he lit up like a Ferris Wheel at night by firing his weapon in a bicycle-wheel pattern. The spokes were exactly centered on the guns position. I don’t know if he was firing tracers or if I was just seeing exhausting gases from his weapon. Regardless, it was a striking sight. Having pinpointed his location, my pass put him out of commission.
The rocket attacks did not abate during the new year, and we were constantly busy flying our alert and fragged sorties. As the end of the month approached, we were told that Vietnam would celebrate its traditional New Year, Tet, with its customary truce. Our attitude was yeah, sure, and we expected to have similar results as our Christmas experience.
We did stand down. But as the day passed on we were getting reports of heavy enemy activity in the area. We were in our quarters and rushed to the flight line on our motorcycles (we all had Hondas) expecting to suit up and launch. I found it strange to see South Vietnamese Army troops crouching in the ditches along the road on the way to our squadron operations building. We arrived at the building and were immediately told to get back to our quarters, get our flack jackets, steel helmets and M-16s (all of these items were issued to pilots when they reported to the Wing) and proceed to the adjacent Army unit who had a large personnel-defensive reveted area. We were being infiltrated by a large enemy force, and they were closing in on the base and the squadron operations area. We raced back to our hooches and understood why the Vietnamese troops were in the ditches. I wish that they had told us before we rushed over.
The ground fire was intense and all around us. As evening fell flares were constantly being fired off over head. I didn’t care for the situation at all. I came over to Vietnam to fly. I didn’t expect to be engaging the enemy in hand-to-hand combat or even at close quarters. Nonetheless, I had my weapon, and I was prepared to fire on anyone that came close to our defensive position. Happily, the action wasn’t near us.
The firing and explosions were intense and continued on throughout the night, but it slowed as dawn approached. At daylight we were told we could get out of the defensive revetment as Bien Hoa had been secured, thanks to the efforts of both our Air Force Air Police and Army attack helicopters. We were soon to hear an amazing tale.
During the evening the VC had successfully infiltrated the base and controlled the runway and had entered the revetments where our birds were parked. An outpost manned by the Air Police was in the direct route of the infiltration and slowed many of the enemy with unbelievably heroic action. The outpost was an old structure built by the French along a natural approach to Bien Hoa. They kept firing on the infiltrators causing a huge number of casualties until they were nearly out of ammunition. Knowing of their plight, some brave Air Police in a jeep with guns blazing drove to the outpost directly through the throng of enemy surrounding the outpost to deliver more ammunition. It was a tremendous feat of bravery. Daybreak revealed the carnage on the enemy that these brave warriors accomplished.
From captured VC we learned that they were equipped with satchel charges and were instructed to throw the satchels into the intake of the F-100. They were briefed on what the F-100 looked like with its gaping intake maw in the exact front of the aircraft.
After successfully getting into the revetments, these guys came upon the F-102s which were in the first row of revetments. They became confused because there was only a pointy front end and no opening in the front of the aircraft in which to throw their charges. They retreated in confusion as the Army was mounting a counter-attack. The VC didn’t get a chance to return. We were lucky in that they were in a position to do a lot of damage but were unable to do so due to their stupidity.
By mid-morning we were back in business. We sustained little damage, and the enemy had suffered great losses. Crews were collecting bodies all over the place. A crew chief chalked up a capture when a VC who was hiding in a drainage pipe came out and surrendered to the passing unarmed airman. I don’t know whether he got any award.
We were rushing to get back into the game. There was a lot of action going on both in the country side and in the cities. The Army was screaming for air support. Our aircraft were inspected for any damage and prepared for missions. I had already been scheduled for runway control officer duty. This meant that I had to go out to the shack at the approach end of the runway to monitor our Wing’s take-offs and landings. It was a necessary duty that was rotated among the pilots, and it was my turn to go. I suddenly realized that the shack was in an area that was earlier under the control of the VC. The building was a two-story affair with the radios and other equipment on the second level. I was wondering if the building had been cleared of VC. I didn’t want to look like a wimp and ask for an escort but decided that I would go out there with my flack jacket, helmet, and M-16 at the ready. I drove out to the site and cocked my weapon. My heart was pounding as I climbed the stairs as I didn’t know what to expect. I leaped on to the second floor like John Wayne ready to fire at any thing that moved. Nothing was out of the ordinary. What a relief.
For the next several weeks we were constantly in the air, mostly on immediate sorties. I was flying three missions a day off the alert pad during this extremely hectic period. Most of the missions were in support of Army units in contact with the enemy. These missions were the most challenging and the most rewarding. On these missions we had to have exact knowledge of the location of the friendlies and the enemy. Our approaches had to be carefully planned. Ideally we would never make a pass or a pull out over our own troops. The nature of fire fights, however, did not always allow us to avoid this situation. Nobody wanted to endanger our own troops with a misplaced round. I never worried about a short round, but I always feared having a bomb hang up for an instant, thereby having it go long over the intended target. That was the challenge. The reward was saving our own in threatening situations.
The closest I ever had to place ordinance next to friendly troops was on a sortie where we had already delivered our weapons and were returning to base. We still had our 20MM cannon available. We were directed by the Control and Reporting Center to immediately rendezvous with another FAC to provide support to a downed Army helicopter. We were lucky enough to be in the area and quickly were on scene. The FAC briefed us on the situation. The helicopter was in large cleared area lying on its side. The crew was about 50 meters away in a ditch along side a road, really no more than a cart path, but easily defined from the air. The enemy was on the other side of the road in another ditch firing at the downed crew. I could see exactly the positions of the friendlies and the enemy, but this was too close for comfort. The Circular Error Probable (the area in which half of the rounds would fall even if delivered under exact parameters) of our guns was larger than the area occupied by both sides. Even off-setting my aiming point by a goodly distance could put our troops in danger. My wingman was fairly new in theater, so I told him not to make any passes. I elected to forgo our regular parameters for attack, 30 degree dive angle and firing at 1500 ft., and instead do a modified attack similar to a napalm delivery, i.e., straight and level at 50 ft. I would do a slight dive at the end and try to fire at about 500 ft, aiming slightly off the target away from the friendlies. I did not want a stray round to land on the other side of the road. If nothing else I would scare the daylights out of them. I came roaring in, nearly spearing the bad guys with my pitot tube and gave a short burst of my guns. Of course I didn’t hit anything firing at a nearly level position, but my tactic worked. As I was pulling off, the FAC excitedly radioed that the VC were running for their lives back to a tree line a couple of hundred meters back. I didn’t cause any casualties, but the VC were routed. I asked if we could spray the tree line, but we were called off. As I was circling overhead getting ready to make a pass, Army attack helicopters arrived on scene to take care of things. That was an exciting mission.
Another mission that we flew was support of the C-123 Ranch Hands on their defoliating missions. The Ranch Hand squadron was stationed at Bien Hoa. Bob Fischer was one of their pilots. Their mission consisted of flying at squadron strength practically at line abreast, straight and level, as fast as they could go (unfortunately that was very slow), almost at tree top level spraying Agent Orange on suspected Viet Cong locations, hide-outs, trails and supply dumps. Our escort duties were to fly along side their route dropping white phosphorous cluster bomblets ahead of the formation of C-123s. We would drop these at a higher level than the Ranch Hands were flying and parallel to their route. The bomblets would ignite while still in the air and produce a thick white cloud as they fell. The idea was that this would provide a smoke screen for the vulnerable C-123s, at least from the side. In addition we would strafe and bomb suspected VC strong points along the route ahead of the Ranch Hands. The theory being that this would get the VC to keep their heads down as the C-123s flew over. The start and stop points had to be known ahead of time and the timing for the release of the Willy Pete and the strafing runs had to be closely coordinated. The fighters had the easy part of this mission. We were fast and maneuverable. The Ranch Hands, as described earlier, flew low, slow, and straight. They would fly their position in formation no matter how much ground fire they were taking or how many times they were actually hit during the mission. The smoke screen we provided shielded the Ranch Hands from the side, but offered no cover directly in front of or underneath them. The strafing runs probably only alerted the VC that the C-123s were coming and to cock their weapons.
In my 200 combat sorties that I flew, I received battle damage (hits) on five sorties. My wing man was hit on five other sorties. One of the C-123s belonging to the Ranch Hands was nicknamed Patches. This airplane had been hit over 300 times. Every C-123 had a goodly number of patches covering battle damage. This is what the Ranch Hand crews endured during these missions. They were some of the bravest men I knew. They never aborted a mission because of too much enemy fire. They never turned back because the mission was too hard or too dangerous. They took their licks while flying in a most vulnerable manner. They are deserving of the highest honors and I stand in admiration of them. I have the same respect for the cargo crews who delivered their loads under the most dangerous conditions and had no ability to shoot back.
Only one of the hits that I took caused any serious major damage. The rest were minor in nature. Our procedures required us to declare an emergency any time we were hit. On one of these sorties, to add insult to injury, not only did I have to declare an emergency but I was then told that I was number three in the emergency pattern.
Virtually everyone in the 510th was hit at one time or another, sometimes with tragic consequences. During the year that I was there, we lost two pilots killed in action from ground fire. Two others were forced to bail out and were rescued. We had no POWs taken. Of these four pilots, three had Academy connections. Jim Brinkman who was killed was a fine young pilot from the class of 62. Our other fatality was Rock Shane. Rock was one of our football coaches when I played freshman football in 1956.
One of the pilots who was shot down and dramatically rescued was Ron Fogleman, class of 63. Ron went down in an extremely dangerous area under the control of the VC. An Army Cobra, an attack helicopter, was in the area, and the pilot followed Ron as he descended. The copter pilot set down close to the downed airman. The Cobra has only two seats in its cockpit so there is no room for passengers. The pilot leaped out, opened a gun bay door and threw out an ammunition canister. Ron was stuffed inside and with the door hanging open and with nothing holding Ron in other than a big pucker, the Cobra quickly took off and brought Ron to safety. The future chief of staff was a lucky man that day. The Air Force was served well during his tenure, and I am very proud to say that he was once my wingman.
As December neared I was getting more and more anxious to get home. Being apart from Betty and our two small children was the most terrible experience of my life. I wanted to be with them again. I also wanted to know where we would be going next.
I got a call from our personnel center. Out of the blue, I learned that I would be going on a consecutive overseas tour to England. I was to be on exchange with the Royal Air Force flying the Electric Lighting somewhere in Scotland.
I was shocked. I knew there was an exchange program, but I never even thought about being part of it. I had no idea how these positions were filled, but I was very excited about the prospect of flying the Lightning. I was familiar with the bird. It was the hottest aircraft in the RAF. It was a Mach 2+ single-seat fighter. Faster than the F-4, but with the maneuverability of a true dog fighter. It had a unique design of two over and under engines. The aircraft carried so little fuel that even the ailerons were designed to carry a bit of fuel in them. They flew a lot of missions intercepting and escorting Soviet Bear bombers flying over the North Sea. Their sorties were sometimes only 30 minutes, but it would be a thrilling 30 minutes.
What a high. I was going home to my family at last and on to new adventures with the RAF.