Nearly 40 years ago, the Air Force headquarters in Saigon formed a top-secret unit called Commando Sabre — radio call sign "Misty"— that flew risky, often terrifying missions over North Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh Trail in two-man F-100 jet fighters, scouring the terrain for targets. The Misty pilots had no laser targeting pods or smart bombs or night vision goggles, yet they developed many of the tactics the Air Force still uses today over Iraq, Afghanistan, and other hot spots. For their contribution to aerial warfare, the Mistys paid a price — of 157 pilots who served in the unit, 34 were shot down, some twice. Many were saved in spectacular rescues. Four were captured and imprisoned in Hanoi. Seven were lost and listed as missing, then ultimately declared kia: killed in action. This is the story of one.
During his first few missions over North Vietnam, Brian Williams experienced more fear, excitement, and frustration than he had during dozens of bombing runs in the South. When Misty pilots flew into the sights of North Vietnamese antiaircraft artillery — scarce in the South — the supersonic shock waves from the shells would beat against the fuselage like a demon hammering madly at the metal. There was the constant frustration of bad weather, the best camouflage the North Vietnamese could wish for. And the drivers of the trucks and construction vehicles down on the trail were remarkably brazen. Often they would race right along even as bombs came flying down upon them.
By mid-March 1968, B. Willy, as he was known, was one of the more seasoned Mistys. On March 18, he was scheduled to fly with Howard K. Williams, a pilot new to the unit who would be on his first mission in the front seat of the two-man f-100f, piloting the jet. B. Willy would be in the back seat, scouting for targets. Howie, as they called him—no relation to the other Williams — was a welcome addition. He had earned the Top Gun award in fighter training —first in the class — and had been recruited to Misty by his buddy Dick Rutan, one of the most aggressive and skilled of the Misty pilots. Howie had an upbeat, infectious personality, often attracting a crowd to his hooch when he'd take out his guitar and start strumming "Puff (the Magic Dragon)" or other favorites. Howie desperately missed his wife, Monalee, and his 6-year-old son, Howard Jr., back home in Columbus, Ohio. But he felt dutybound to do his share in Vietnam, and besides, he adored flying. "I have a mistress," he had written to Monalee in one letter. "It's called an F-100!
The two Williams boys flew for about an hour over the trail before they found an opening in the overcast. Then, near the jagged Ban Karai mountain pass — a key choke point on the trail — a glimpse of the ground beckoned. "Look on the left," Brian said. "There's something that looks like a bulldozer."
"I got it," Howie replied. "I'm gonna come around." Howie had just started to roll the jet into a circle when it felt as though a sledgehammer slammed into the bottom of the plane. Suddenly, they were in deep trouble. Brian looked in the mirror and saw big flames trailing from the left side of the jet. He quickly made a Mayday call, then jettisoned the spare fuel tanks. Howie, meanwhile, turned the plane toward the highest, most remote area he could see, so they'd be easier to spot and rescue if they had to bail out.
Within seconds, the flames had spread to within 5 feet of the cockpit. Both pilots prepared to eject, pulling down their helmet visors to protect their eyes. Brian could feel the heat on his back. "We better get out now!" he shouted. "Ready?"
"I'll be right behind you!" Howie answered.
Then there was noise, sky, and a rush of cold air. Brian looked toward where he guessed the plane was headed and saw smoke rising up out of the jungle. He also looked for another parachute. He didn't see one.
Brian hit the treetops hard less than a minute after ejecting. He tumbled upside down. His pistol holster snagged on a branch, and he ended up suspended in the tree like a diver, head first. But he was OK. It took about 10 minutes to cut his way out of the tree with a knife, heart pounding. The moment he hit the ground, Brian clawed at the survival radio in his vest and quickly contacted an F-4 pilot. The pilot had heard the emergency beeper that had automatically activated once they ejected. One of the rescue teams, always on alert, was on its way. But instead of waiting patiently, Brian picked up his survival kit and ran--in case anybody on the ground had seen where he came down.
Every movement seemed to create a crashing noise. Then Brian discovered he had left his radio on a stump, back where he had first landed. He had another one but realized he was on the verge of panicking. I've been here only a few minutes, he told himself, and already I've made a goddamn mistake.
He calmed down, and moved more deliberately. As far as Brian could tell, no enemy forces were on his tail. He tried to make voice contact with Howie over the radio. There was no response.
Rescue mission. Don Shepperd and Lanny Lancaster, two other Misty pilots, had taken off earlier in the day and were gassing up on an aerial refueling tanker when they heard Brian's emergency call. "Disconnect now!" Shepperd shouted over the radio to the boom operator. Shepperd banked the F-100 directly toward the Ban Karai Pass area and pushed the throttle forward to attain maximum speed.
They got lucky. Shepperd and Lancaster flew right over Brian on their first pass into the area. "Hey! I'm right under you!" Brian shouted into his survival radio. Lancaster saw the chute immediately.
"Gotcha, buddy!" replied Lancaster. He fixed the location, then they moved off about 4 miles to study the crash site, which was still burning. They buzzed low, peering into the smoldering jungle, but there was no sign of Howie.
When the rescue choppers came into view, Shepperd and Lancaster showed them Brian's location. A couple of A-1 "Sandy" prop planes--suppression aircraft meant to pinpoint survivors and fight off the bad guys who often opened fire on the vulnerable rescue helicopters--began to buzz overhead. They were shooting at some enemy troops on the ground who might pose a problem, but opposition was light. Then a huge "Jolly Green" rescue chopper lumbered into place. Brian talked the chopper in close. A winch lowered a rescue seat into the jungle, and it was a textbook snatch--quick. The helicopter absorbed only a couple of small-arms rounds before hauling Brian to safety, less than two hours after he had ejected.
Once Brian was on board, the chopper commander said, "Let's go look for your copilot." It was an agonizing search. At some point after Brian had been hauled up, the rescue aircraft started picking up a strong parachute beeper signal that they figured could only be coming from Howie's chute, since no other aircraft were down in the area. But they were unable to make voice contact, which was the only way to determine where he was and get him out. There was some sporadic groundfire, and the chopper Brian was on took a couple more hits. The rescuers scoured the area for another hour, looking fruitlessly. Finally, with nothing more than the tantalizing beeper to guide them, the rescuers turned south and left the crash site. The incident was over. The search for Howie would continue, however - and take a number of startling turns that nobody anticipated.
Dick Rutan had never flown with his buddy Howie. But he happened to be airborne en route to the airspace over the trail, with Misty commander Don Jones, when word came over the radio that Howie and Brian had been shot down near the Laotian border. Rutan, in the back seat, listened closely to the assembled rescue effort. When it became clear they couldn't find Howie, he and Jones — using the call sign Misty 41—streaked north toward the crash site, eager to do anything necessary to help.
They got to the area just as Brian was being picked up. But Misty 41 had trouble getting into the flow of the rescue. Essentially, they were bystanders. With so much chatter over the radio, it was hard getting information about where the aircraft had hit or what direction it had been traveling. Rutan reached Brian on the chopper via a radio relay but couldn't get clear information from him - after all, he had been on the jungle floor for most of the event. Rutan's frustration boiled over as the rescuers, having gotten no word from Howie, prepared to pull out. He and Jones spun circles over the forest awhile longer, but they had no better luck raising Howie than anybody else. Finally, darkness fell, and the whole search effort drew to a close.
Back at Phu Cat, the red-clay air base in the South Vietnamese countryside that was Misty's home, there was a bittersweet gathering in the Officer's Club. Brian's return was cause for celebration - and a chance to relish in the war stories that made them all feel so alive. But some of them took Howie's disappearance hard. Brian, needless to say, was one of them. He was exuberant over his own rescue, but manacled with guilt about leaving Howie behind. Even though he was in the back seat and wasn't flying the plane, he faulted himself for allowing Howie to get into trouble. As an experienced Misty he should have known better and insisted that they fly higher, or stood off farther from such a potentially hot area. They should have scouted for guns first, and not gotten so excited about finding a rare hole in the clouds. There were plenty of things they could have done differently, and it had been his job to make sure they did.
Howard's family back in Ohio deserved the same sort of closure, Rutan felt. And since he had persuaded Howie to join Misty in the first place, he was the one obligated to give it to them.
Rutan arranged for a couple days of leave and made plans to hop a flight over to NKP, keeping his scheme to himself. Then the evening before he was planning to go, the phone rang at Misty's operations room. "Hey Rutan, it's for you!" the duty officer shouted.
"Who is it?" Rutan asked.
"I don't know," came the answer. "He wouldn't identify himself."
Rutan took the handset. "Captain Rutan here," he announced.
The voice on the other end was stern. "I can't tell you who I am," the anonymous caller began, "but I know what you are going to do tomorrow. Don't do it! It's been taken care of. Do you understand?"
Rutan didn't understand at all. He was shocked that anybody knew about his scheme to hike up to the crash site, and thrown off balance by the caller's abruptness. He had no idea what had been "taken care of." Rutan asked who it was, wondering if one of his pilot buddies was playing a prank. The caller would say only that he was a major and couldn't identify himself. Then, with an air of impatience, he asked again: "Do you understand? It's been taken care of."
Confused, Rutan stammered, "I think so." Then before he could ask another question, the mystery major hung up.
Rutan puzzled over the bizarre call. Obviously somebody over at NKP had mentioned what he was up to, and word had gotten around. If some commander had gotten wind of the scheme, it would be no surprise at all that he didn't want some dumb-s- - - Air Force prima donna tagging along and getting himself into trouble, forcing the special ops guys to put everything on hold to bail him out. But how would he have known anything about Howie?
The best Rutan could figure was that somebody up the chain of command had gotten intelligence that Howie had been captured by the North Vietnamese, and the same people had learned of his plan to go looking for Howie's plane. They were telling him not to go to the crash site because there wasn't a body there. He would have been taking big risks to accomplish nothing, beyond checking out a wrecked F-100. This was good news, it dawned on Rutan, as he sorted through the implications. It meant his friend—whom he assumed was dead—was in fact alive. Howie would be headed to prison, but at least he might return home some day.
Rutan canceled his trip to NKP. Still, the whole episode left him feeling uneasy. If somebody in the Air Force knew Howie was a prisoner, why wouldn't they tell Misty? Or more important, Howie's family? He felt a current of relief at the prospect Howie might be alive, but he didn't mention any of it to anybody. And he started poking around in the prisoner-of-war reports that passed through the intelligence shop, seeing if there was any info that could be a reference to his friend.
There wasn't any. But paperwork over the incident was indeed piling up—in both the American and the North Vietnamese militaries. The Air Force had begun filing reports on the shootdown five minutes after it happened, documenting everything known about the crash. One message sent to the Air Force Chief of Staff's office, at the Pentagon, detailed what was known about Howie's parachute beeper, which had flickered on and off. "It is possible," the message concluded, "that natives or hostile forces activated and/or deactivated the radio."
The North Vietnamese were filing reports too. Shooting down a U.S. jet and the "Yankee Air Pirates" aboard was a huge feat, worthy of medals and other honors. It was even more significant if the shootdown produced live prisoners. Every downed jet, if it was accessible, was a magnet for the North Vietnamese, ransacked by locals looking for valuables and souvenirs and scoured by intelligence experts eager to learn everything they could about American tactics. So the North Vietnamese, always attentive to detail, kept careful records of their achievements.
The Ban Karai Pass, where Misty 21 had gone down, was in North Vietnam's Bo Trach Military District. The AAA guns there were operated by North Vietnam's 18th and 21st air-defense battalions, disciplined units well known to Air Force intelligence because they had already scored many hits against U.S. jets. The United States knew little, however, about the fate of most of the pilots who had gone down in that area.
Officers of the Bo Trach military district kept a list of American aircraft that their troops shot down. Under the heading 1968, there was one entry: On February 15, at 7:00 a.m., gunners had downed an F-4 with two pilots aboard. Now, a recordkeeper added a second entry. "1020 hours; 18 March 1968," he scrawled in Vietnamese. "Bo Trach District shot it [the plane] down at kilometer 26 and 20; 1 F100; 1 man killed; 1 alive; they took him and he was lost." To the Americans, Brian Williams had been saved. To the North Vietnamese, he had been "lost." And while the Mistys hoped against their better judgment that Howard Williams was alive somewhere, and might return someday, the North Vietnamese knew otherwise.
There were others who knew Howie was dead. Among the many secret operatives in the war—special forces, CIA irregulars operating behind enemy lines, the "Air America" characters who flew for the CIA—the most effective may have been the intelligence experts who intercepted enemy radio communications. Some flew overhead in aircraft loaded with the world's most sophisticated electronics. Others manned camouflaged listening posts nestled atop strategic—and often dangerous—high ground.
The information they gathered was some of the most valuable intelligence of the war. Since they were often able to tap into the North Vietnamese Army's own communications, they learned details of battle plans, the location of troops, the status of prisoners, and other vital information. Success was spotty and often there were just fragments of data, but electronic eavesdropping also produced some spectacular battlefield results. Many of the B-52 "Arc Light" strikes that wiped out legions of troops, for instance, were triggered by intercepts that helped pinpoint the location of enemy units. The very value of such electronic intelligence—ELINT—made it highly sensitive "compartmentalized" information, classified even higher than top secret. If word of the eavesdropping had ever filtered out to the North Vietnamese or any of the thousands in the South who sympathized with them, it could have shut down one of the Americans' most lucrative sources of information.
One of the radio transmissions that the technicians happened to intercept detailed the death of an American pilot. The shootdown of a U.S. plane and the fate of the pilots were matters of the highest interest to Hanoi. North Vietnamese commanders were likely to relay this kind of information as rapidly as possible. So shortly after the crash of Misty 21 on March 18, a field commander eager to announce the accomplishment reported it over a communications radio. The U.S. operatives gathering the intercepts merely swept up the radio transmissions, which were then sent on to translators and other experts to be analyzed. It usually took several days to determine what kind of intelligence the intercepts contained. This one had some precise information. The North Vietnamese officer provided the serial number listed on the pilot's dog tag as verification. It belonged to Howard K. Williams. The intelligence analysts couldn't tell whether the North Vietnamese had discovered Howie's body in the wreckage of the aircraft, or someplace else. But the basic fact of his death seemed to be clear.
Telling anybody outside the reclusive intelligence community, however, was out of the question. If they were to report what they knew, questions would inevitably arise about how they knew it. That could lead to speculation about U.S. eavesdropping capabilities, which might somehow get back to the North Vietnamese, who might become more circumspect about their radio communications, which might jeopardize the whole effort.
There were inevitably circumstances in which intelligence held in American hands could significantly affect the lives of U.S. citizens. Resolving mysteries about the missing was one of them. From a military perspective, there was little difference between a troop who was killed and one who was missing. Either way he was no longer available to fight. But to family members and friends back home the distinction was enormous. It meant the difference between a life spent waiting and wondering and the ability to rage, grieve, and move on. No matter: National security was at stake, and that trumped any individual's emotional and psychological needs. The news of the pilot's death would have to remain secret.
So on March 20, two days after the shootdown, the Air Force officially declared Howard K. Williams to be MIA, missing in action. Since Rutan had known him best, he became the summary courts officer, responsible for packing up Howie's stuff, paying his bills, taking care of any unfinished business. It was a grim duty, but one that many pilots had undertaken. A couple of other pilots who had done the same thing for their own lost buddies warned him that the reaction of the family, racked with grief and anger, was sure to be negative. The government, and the huge military bureaucracy, were amorphous, unsatisfying targets for their anguish. The natural instinct was to find human beings to pin the blame on. Rutan would be in the cross hairs – a name and a face they could hold responsible for their pain and loss. It added to his guilt over the fate of his friend.
Rutan put aside his usual freewheeling inclinations and did his duty by the book. He paid Howie's bar bills, which were modest. He sorted through Howie's stuff and made sure it was packed carefully and addressed properly. It was grim work, but Rutan had asked for it. This was the real war he had sought, and it was much more devastating than he had imagined. While preparing for combat, he had thought mainly about the risks to himself. Those, it turned out, he had been instinctively equipped to handle. But the sudden disappearance of a buddy, and wrapping up his life as if you were closing out a bank account–that was hard. It was gloom, guilt, anger, and sadness rolling over you in waves, one after the other, then rolling over you again. Facing AAA seemed a lot easier.
He got everything packed up and sent it off to Howie's family in Ohio. In addition to clothing, pictures, letters, and other odds and ends, he included a check for $96.35, the amount of cash that had been among Howie's stuff. And Rutan apologized for the condition of some of Howie's things. "I checked the laundry and picked up all his underwear," Rutan wrote to Howie's wife, Monalee. "They are in the shipment. They may not look very clean but that is the best that Phu Cat laundry can do." Then he offered the only meager reassurance that he could. "Monalee I think a lot of Howard and I want to do all I can to see that all is taken care of on this end," he wrote. "I am sorry but we have no news as to Howard's status." For the next 23 years, that is virtually all Monalee and her family would know about what had happened to Howie.
MISTY F-100 AIRCRAFT RESTORED & MISTY COIN COMMEMORATION