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Untold Story

UNTOLD STORY section — vnafmamn.com

By Hoi B. Tran (Former VNAF Major, author of A Vietnamese Fighter Pilot In An American War).

     This story is based on information derived from my memory, a participant in this historic flight. However, my intent is not to discuss the details of this first Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) interdiction mission in North Vietnam after the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Rather, it is brought up as a premise to discuss the question concerning the limited participation, and the subsequent total exclusion of the VNAF from the air war over North Vietnam.

Some of you may recall, after the withdrawal of French Air Force from Vietnam, the rudimentary VNAF began receiving its training directly from the U.S. Air Force - Air Training Command late in 1955. By 1959, it became a small air force capable of providing various air ground support for its friendly ground forces in South Vietnam. When the war intensified in 1961, the U.S. approved to equip the VNAF with a Second Fighter Squadron in addition to the existing First Fighter Squadron left by the French. The Second Fighter Squadron was equipped with propeller aircraft T-28s (B and C model) converted into fighter aircraft.

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The First Fighter Squadron's old F8F Bearcats were phased out and replaced with the Sky Raider A-1Hs surplus from WWII. The two VNAF fighter squadrons proved to be capable and efficient in providing day and night close air support, interdiction, air cover and various other missions for all four military regions throughout the RVN. In November 1963, because of complex political friction between the U.S. and the RVN, President Ngo Dinh Diem of the RVN and his brother were killed in a CIA assisted military coup. The military junta, with support of the U.S., took over the government of the RVN. Learning from the brutal end of President Ngo Dinh Diem, the Vietnamese generals were reluctant to disagree with U.S. policy in the handling of the war against the NVC. To put it bluntly, the RVN had little or no autonomy to dictate or prosecute the war unilaterally. Unfortunately, as a poor, under-developed nation having to depend upon another nation for military and economic help, the RVN actually had no alternative! When Vice President Johnson took over the White House following President Kennedy's assassination in Dallas, TX on November 22, 1963, the sovereignty of the RVN was eroding even further.

As the tempo of the war in the RVN increased with unending help from the NVC, President Johnson and his advisers felt the necessity to chastise Hanoi by bringing the war to the North. But President Johnson was wary and very cautious to attack North Vietnam for fear of drawing the Soviet Union and Red China into the conflict. However, at the direction of the President early in 1964, a plan to destroy 94 most important targets in North Vietnam was drawn up and approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1). The Paul Doumer Bridge near Hanoi and the Ham Rong (Dragon's Jaw) Bridge, located approximately three miles north of Thanh Hoa, were on the list. While President Johnson was hesitant to launch the air attack in North Vietnam, the Gulf of Tonkin incident presented the President a legitimate reason for retaliatory air strikes (2). Three days after our reprisal air strikes, U.S. Congress approved the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, (3) giving President Johnson the authority "to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression." This Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was the prelude to the escalation of the war, both on the ground and in the air. President Johnson continued to maintain firm control of the air campaign against the NVC. Target selection, forces, munitions used, and even timing of the strikes was decided in Washington (4). The initial series of Rolling Thunder air strikes were both political and psychological in nature.

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As a result from the Gulf of Tonkin incident, in early February 1965, for the first time, the RVN received permission from the U.S. allowing the VNAF to conduct air strike missions on targets north of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) (5). Some of you may be wondering: Why? It was a war among the Vietnamese, the RVN in the South against the NVC. Why did the VNAF need permission to strike its enemy's targets and who would be in the position to give the RVN permission? The answer is, believe it or not, the government of the RVN must have the "green light" from the U.S. (6) to launch any offensive air, naval or ground operation above the 17th parallel.

This was the very first time the VNAF was allowed to partake in a strike mission inside communist territory. It was a joint operation with the U.S. Air Force following the U.S. Navy air raid "Flaming Dart I" launched on February 7, 1965 in retaliation of a mortar attack at a U.S. facility near Pleiku on February 6, 1965 killing nine American soldiers. The target assigned to the VNAF was a NVC military facility at Chap Le approximately 20 miles north of the DMZ. U.S. Air Force Super Sabre F-100s would provide flak suppression. It is worthy to mention that all VNAF fighter pilots were joyously excited receiving this great news. Many pilots felt we should have done this from the time the NVC started to infiltrate their troops and equipment into the South to wage war against the RVN. So everyone wanted a piece of this extremely rare action in North Vietnam, an area normally off limits to VNAF. To partake in this riposte, VNAF was to provide 24 A-1H-Sky Raiders (six flights of four) all armed with 500 pound general-purpose bombs. The 83rd Special Air Group (SAG) based at Tan Son Nhut Air Base assigned four aircraft for the mission. Two other VNAF Fighter Squadrons, the 514th from Bien Hoa Air Base, III Corps and the 516th based at Da Nang Air Base in I Corps provided the remaining 20 aircraft. Brig. Gen. Nguyen Cao Ky also volunteered to participate in this first strike mission. Actually, as VNAF Commander, he was not expected to fly combat missions in enemy territory but he wanted to share the perils with his subordinates to demonstrate esprit de corps. All participating VNAF units assembled at Da Nang Air Base, home of the 516th Fighter Squadron on February 6, 1965 waiting for orders.

On February 8, 1965, we received the "frag order" to proceed. Capt. Tuong V. Nguyen was assigned the leader of the entire group (7). After final briefing covering all details of the mission, the VNAF strike force took off headed north at low level. Weather was perfect as forecasted. Capt. Tuong V. Nguyen was flying an A-1E with Gen. Ky in the right seat as co-pilot. Two SAG pilots and I flew as his wingmen. The rest of the group was split into five flights of four and each flight was under the supervision of its respective leader. The low level navigation to the target went uneventful and we met the T.O.T. (8) a few seconds off. During the climb to six thousand feet and when over the target rolling in for dive bombing, we encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire from small arms to 20mm and what appeared to be Soviet made M1939-37mm cannon pops. Other than necessary instructions over the radio from the leader and acknowledgement from wingmen, discipline over radio transmission was quite remarkable. Overall, the VNAF executed the assigned mission successfully with no casualties. I remember eight or nine aircraft were damaged as a result of enemy ground fires, one completely lost hydraulic power and one had the elevator jammed. All pilots brought their bullet-riddled planes back to Da Nang. One had to bail out over the water east of Da Nang due to jammed elevator and the other made an emergency landing at Da Nang. After this first mission, the VNAF was authorized to conduct armed reconnaissance, interdiction missions on targets in North Vietnam designated by the U.S. but restricted to only south of 19th parallel. However, this authorization was short lived and once again the VNAF fighter forces were prohibited to fly north and were restricted to conduct strike missions only in the South. At the time, VNAF fighter pilots were curious and perplexed but could not dig up any rationality of the decision. Until several years post war, with numerous reports, researches and books written about the air war over North Vietnam, I became convinced and could comfortably accept the hypothesis with which the U.S. excluded the VNAF from the air campaign in the sky over North Vietnam.

The most obvious reason was because our air raids in North Vietnam prompted the Soviets to help the NVC protect their vital transportation systems and facilities. In addition to the conventional 20 mm, 37mm and 57 mm anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), the Soviets also equipped its ally with radar controlled 85mm and 100mm anti-aircraft guns and surface to air missiles (SAM). During 1965, North Vietnam increased their AAA guns from 1000 to 2000 pieces and about 400 anti-aircraft sites by year's end. The Soviets' SAMs were first detected by our U-2 reconnaissance on April 5, 1965 and by the end of 1965 we had pinpointed 56 SAM sites. In addition, the Soviets also expanded defense radar systems and equipped the NVC Air Force with 50 to 60 Mig-15's and Mig-17s fighters to reinforce their air defense networks. By early 1966, these Mig fighters did pose a serious threat to our strike forces. It was because of this formidable air defense over the sky of North Vietnam, the U.S. must exclusively handle the air campaign against the NVC. The US weapon experts must investigate, discover, perfect or develop new weapons to penetrate the deadly air defense in an attempt to destroy heavily defended enemy targets. New weapons such as: Electro-Optical Guided Bomb (EOGB), Laser Guided Bomb (LGB), Electronic Counter Measure (ECM), Wild Weasel were never before used by the U.S. Air Force in the war in Vietnam. With the introduction of a whole array of newly developed or perfected weaponry by the U.S. Air Force in the Northern sky of Vietnam, the VNAF apparently was not yet trained nor was it prepared to experiment the newly developed, sophisticated weapons.

Aside from the above, there must be another contributory reason factored in the equation. It may not be too presumptuous to theorize that President Johnson would have never wanted to see the hawkish, overzealous Vietnamese generals using the VNAF against the North. That would have put us in a more complicated mess in Southeast Asia. Understandably, the best solution would be to keep the VNAF in the South.

(1) Air War Vietnam by Arno Press, Inc 1978
(2) On August 4, 1965, U.S. Navy hit four North Vietnamese coastal torpedo bases and an oil storage facility. "The U.S. Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1961-1973." Chapter IV.
(3) Joint Resolution of Congress H.J. RES 1145, August 7, 1964. House 414-0. Senate 88-2. (4) President Lyndon B. Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara picked the targets, the times and amount of aircraft and weapons to be used. MilitaryHistoryOnline.com. "The Role of Air Power in the Vietnam War."
(5) DMZ Demilitarized Zone at 17th parallel dividing Vietnam.
(6) Air War Vietnam by Arno Press, Inc 1978.
(7) A U.S. Air Force article in 1984, "The Air War Against North Vietnam," reported that the 28 VNAF A-1Hs were commanded by Lt. Col. Andrew Chapman of the 3rd Tactical Group, 2nd Air Division. This was grossly erroneous and untrue. This could create misunderstanding that the VNAF was incompetent.
(8) Time On Target

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