Thirty-eight years ago, I stood on the tarmac of DaNang Air Base, the northern-most fighter base in South Vietnam. DaNang had the unenviable reputation of absorbing frequent rocket attacks, hence the nick-name “rocket city.”
My base of assignment was in South Korea, but the North Vietnamese changed that when they began their Easter 1972 offensive by attacking the South with more than 200 thousand troops. Since the American ground presence had been drastically reduced since 1969 and the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) was quickly overwhelmed, the only way to stop the onslaught was with airpower. My squadron, the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) “Panthers,” was the first (of what turned out to be many) to deploy to augment the fighter units already operating from South Vietnam and Thailand.
Initially I was assigned to the 421st TFS “Black Widows” to help replace their combat losses. I quickly learned that the “widows” were appropriately named – their losses resulted in frequent funerals. They were poorly led – the squadron commander was a glory-seeker. I vowed to get out of that unit as quickly as I could. Three weeks after I arrived, the Panthers were reunited as an integral unit. I had survived my short stint with the Black Widows.
As opposed to the home-based units, my squadron was very well led. For one thing, we had far more experience – eight of our pilots were graduates of the Air Force Fighter Weapons School, the graduate school for fighter pilots. Our commander Lyle “Sky King” Beckers was one of those graduates and very professional. Our operations officer Bill Mickelson was extremely good with people. Together, they made a good team.
The fellow I flew most often with was North Carolina State graduate Charlie Cox. Charlie was my flight commander, had 2,000 hours in the Phantom, and a previous war tour. Charlie was a very demanding pilot who pushed me quite hard. I would follow him into a fiery furnace.
I turned 24 shortly after arriving at DaNang. With my 65 hours of Phantom experience, I was pretty typical of the young lieutenants in my squadron. We had to grow up fast.
Our squadron was assigned to the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing “Gunfighters” and we lived in Gunfighter Village. It was pretty crowded – my room was built for two, but I had three other roommates, two of whom were subsequently shot down (but fortunately rescued). The food was rotten. Our dining options were limited and none of them were good. I got food poisoning more than once.
I said that DaNang was often called rocket city. There was a North Vietnamese artillery battalion within a dozen miles of the base and they would launch an attack at least weekly and always at night. A minor attack would be five 122mm Kutyusha rockets and a heavy attack would be 15, all in the span of five minutes. The Kutyusha was an unguided rocket with a five inch warhead – if it ever hit anything, it would cause significant damage. I only recall one ever hitting Gunfighter Village, exploding just outside the building next to mine. It hurt a couple of fellows pretty bad.
I spent 11 weeks at DaNang before our squadron was sent to another base in Thailand. In that time, DaNang lost 13 Phantoms and many other aircraft as well. We flew a lot – in May, I flew 41 missions. In some cases, we were attacking targets within 15 miles of the base; the enemy was that close. All of my missions were flown against targets in either South or North Vietnam; I never flew a single mission into either Cambodia or Laos.
In mid-June, the 35th packed its bags and headed for Korat Air Base in Thailand. It was a huge change. Korat was a paradise – the food was much better; we didn’t have to worry about getting rocketed at night; our living conditions were improved; and the nearby city of the same name was a mecca of exotic sights and sounds. The missions were quite long (some as long as 5+ hours which is a long time to be strapped into an ejection seat) and frequently hazardous, but coming home made it worthwhile.
I spent four more months flying combat until mid-October when the Panthers returned to our home base of Kunsan, South Korea. By that time I had flown 121 combat missions, 43 of which were over North Vietnam. We had helped to blunt the Easter attack and bring the enemy to the negotiating table. A few months later, an armistice was signed and our POWs began to return home. It was a hard job well done.