January 5, 1969
Cam Ranh Air Base, South Vietnam
Major Niles “Willie” Nelson fidgeted as he sat waiting in the mission briefing room. He looked up at the clock on the wall and once again checked his watch. He should’ve expected the General ten minutes ago. The “Air Force standard” was for everyone to be in position at least five minutes before any meeting or formation. And now it was fast approaching the scheduled briefing time.
Nelson looked at the other two occupants in the room, two Lieutenants who collectively comprised the crew of Sharkbait 42. They looked at him expectantly and the clock ticked. Major Nelson gave another wistful glance at the clock before clearing his throat.
“Okay, guys, it looks like the General will be late. I guess we should get the briefing started. I’ll brief General Cashill on anything he misses.”
Before Nelson could continue, the briefing room door flung open and a flushed Brigadier John “Crash” Cashill stood in the doorway.The three officers in the briefing room snapped to attention.
“At ease, gentlemen.” Brigadier Cashill said as he straightened up and regained composure.
“Sorry, Willie. I was on track to get here on time, but just as I was leaving my hootch, General Byers at Seventh Air Force called.”
“No problem, General. Actually,” Nelson looked at the clock on the wall and removed his watch, “you’re right on time for the time hack.”
They removed their watches and held their timepieces in front of them.
“Coming up on 0900. Ready, ready, Hack!”
The Lieutenants clicked their winding stems in unison.
“General, would you like to conduct the briefing, or would you prefer I do it?” Major Nelson asked, tightly clutching the briefing notes he’d prepared.
“Willie, you’ve put good effort into the mission planning, and you’re the IP in my pit. Why don’t you lead on?”
“Yes, sir!But first, let’s make some introductions.” Nelson said, trying not to get ahead of himself. He gestured toward the smaller of the two Lieutenants. “This is Skeeter Skilling, he’s the Aircraft Commander.”
Then he motioned toward the taller Lieutenant, “ And this is Genius Ginsberg.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Skeeter, Genius.”
The Lieutenants each greeted the General with quiet reverence.
Major Nelson always got a kick out of how uncomfortable Lieutenants always were in the presence of a General Officer. It was because they were in awe of Generals. Just imagine how impressed they’d be if they encountered the General later, perhaps years later, and he still remembered their names, Nelson mused. But most Generals were like that.
Major Nelson proceeded to brief aircraft details, formation specifics, and the general target area, which was a section of Laos known as Steel Tiger.
“Okay, gentlemen,” Nelson said, “check in on the Ground frequency in twenty minutes.”
Then the two crews disbanded to complete the rest of their preflight duties: they had to pick up their helmets and parachute harnesses at the Life Support section, they had to check out their .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolvers from the Armory, and then they had to regroup at the revetments to perform preflight inspections on their F-4C aircraft.
The General turned to Major Nelson as they walked across the flight line to their aircraft, an F-4C Phantom II.
“Hey Willie, I thought you were supposed to be on R&R.”
Major Nelson was impressed. The General didn’t miss a thing.
“Yes, sir, I was supposed to leave for Hawaii last night but I was the only IP available.”
“Don’t tell me they held you over just to fly with me!”
“Not a problem, sir. Connie and the kids won’t get in to Honolulu until tonight anyway. About the time we land. If I’m on tonight’s freedom bird, I’ll be able to meet them for breakfast at the Fort DeRussey Club.”
“Well, if you miss breakfast, I’ll get you another day of R&R so you can try the brunch buffet.”
“Thank you, sir.”
General Cashill would be in the front seat on this mission, so Major Nelson checked the munitions. He left the walk-around inspection of the aircraft to the General. The aircraft was loaded:it would be carrying twelve “slicks”, which were Mark-82 bombs that weighed 500-pounds; and six CBU-24 Cluster Bomb Units, each a 750-pound canister that containing thousands of baseball-sized bomblets ready to disperse when automatically triggered by an altitude-sensing radar altimeter. This was a weapons mix that would work for just about any target they were likely to attack in Steel Tiger, the area of Laos that was the home of the Ho Chi Minh trail.
They boarded the aircraft, strapped in, and started the engines Nelson and Cashill completed the radio check-in for the Sharkbait 41 Flight, and taxied to the quick-check and arming area. Then they both closed their canopies.
“Okay, Willie,” the General said over hot mike interphone, “let’s make some donuts.”
“Okay, sir,” Nelson responded, pushing his head firmly against his headrest to look left, “on the port side I see the control tower. Donut around the tower cab. Also port side I see the runway access guard shack. Donut around the guard shack.”
With grease pencils, the General and the Major drew small circles on the insides of their canopies. They then identified two donuts on the right side of the canopy for additional marks. Later, during the flight, when either pilot needed to direct the eyes of the other pilot to a target, they could use these marks as points of reference.
Armed and ready for take-off, Sharkbait 41 Flight waited in turn for clearance.
“One last thing, General, where do you want the CSV?” Nelson asked referring to the Command Selector Valve, a handle above the instrument panel on the left side of the rear cockpit that controlled individual or sequenced ejection. If it was left in the vertical position, it was “Closed” and the pilots could eject individually. If it was in the horizontal “Open” position, a sequenced ejection could be initiated by the back seat pilot. Of course, it would only be necessary if the front-seat pilot became incapacitated for some reason. Still, a certain amount of trust was required in order for the front-seater to feel comfortable with the CSV “Open.”
“I trust you, Willie. Put it to Open.”
“Got it, sir.” Major Nelson said, and turned the CSV 90 degrees to the right.
Sharkbait 41 Flight received clearance. Sharkbait 41 and 42 lined up on the runway as a two-ship flight to make individual takeoffs spaced fifteen seconds apart. Sharkbait 42 smoothly joined up in “fingertip” formation and with three feet between aircraft wingtips, they proceeded to the west, toward Laos. They cycled through the requisite frequencies, and finally contacted Hillsboro, the Airborne Command and Control Center.
“Hillsboro,” the General transmitted, “Sharkbait 41, flight of two fox fours, mark-82’s and CBU-24s. Thirty minutes playtime.”
“Roger, Sharkbait, Covey 272 has a target for you, vicinity of Delta 33.”
General Cashill looked at his area orientation map, located the target area identifier, Delta 33, and quickly calculated the time to reach the target area.
“Roger, Hillsboro. Sharkbait 41 ETA to target 10 minutes.”
“Roger, Sharkbait, strike frequency Echo.” Hillsboro responded.
“Copy. Good day, Hillsboro. Sharkbait 41 Flight go frequency Echo.”
There was a short delay while the UHF radios channelized.
“Hello, Covey 272,” the General greeted the FAC,” Sharkbait 41, flight of two fox fours approaching the rendezvous point. Mark-82s and CBU-24s. Angels twenty-two. Twenty minutes playtime.”
Covey 272 was the FAC – Forward Air Controller – who would be conducting the airstrike. He was flying an O-2A, a small propeller-driven twin-engine airplane. Earlier, while he was flying low and slow, he found a truck park along the Ho Chi Minh trail. It was now up to him to a pinpoint the target for fighters and to direct the airstrike.
“Roger, Sharkbait. Look due south, at angels seven. I’m giving you a wing flash now.”
Angels seven was the FAC’s altitude, 7000 feet, which put him about 2500 feet above the target elevation. Covey 272 raised the nose of his O-2A and did a quick aileron roll to help Sharkbait get a visual on him. Painted gray and white, the O-2A wasn’t hard to spot against the backdrop of the green Laotian jungle.
“We have you in sight, Covey.”
“Roger. The target area is off my left wing. I’m in for the mark.”
Covey 272 rolled his aircraft into a 120-degree bank to the left and pulled his nose through toward the target area, which was a brown ribbon of road that formed the Ho Chi Minh trail. As his gunsight tracked to the target, he fired a white phosphorous “willie pete” rocket. He then pulled up sharply to the right, and quickly banked to the left to see the result of his rocket pass. The rocket hit directly on the road, and the white smoke from the willie pete was billowing straight up, indicating no significant wind.
“Sharkbait has your mark in sight.”
“Okay, Sharkbait, the target is a truck park on both sides of the road, alongside my mark. Target elevation 4480, wind calm. I want you to run in with mark-82s from north to south, with a break to the west. Lead, put your bombs in the trees next to my mark. Either side of the road. Two, I want you to take the other side of the road. I’ll be holding off to the east.”
Covey 272 headed off to the east and set up a figure-8 orbit that allowed him to keep the target, and the fighters, in sight throughout the strike. He watched the fighters circling overhead and timed his pattern to be heading north just as Sharkbait lead started his delivery. When Sharkbait lead rolled in the FAC started a left turn to keep the airstrike in sight.
Sharkbait 41 Flight had been in a left-hand orbit around the target, and Lead was approaching the roll-in point to commence a bomb delivery from the north.
The General selected a single-bomb delivery from each of the MERs – Multiple Ejector Racks – on the underside of his wings, and selected the Master Arm Switch to ARM.“Okay, Willie, I’m set up for a 45-degree dive, release at 8500 MSL, mils setting 183.”
Major Nelson checked the weapons delivery chart on his clipboard for a 500-knot, 45-degree dive with a release of 4000 feet AGL. “Roger.”
“Sharkbait Lead is in.”
The General smoothly rolled into a 135-degree bank to the left, rolling out with the target straight ahead. He quickly shifted his glance from the target to his aircraft instruments to confirm his dive angle, then back to the target, as he watched the “pipper” in his gunsight track up to the target. From his thousands of hours flying fighters, he could sense that he would have his parameters, 500 knots and altitude 8500 feet, just as his pipper reached the target. Since there was no wind, he wouldn’t require the use of an offset aimpoint. It was going to be a good delivery.
Major Nelson began counting down his altitude on hot mike. “Twelve-five, eleven-five, ten-five, nine-five, ready, ready, pickle!”
The General had met his parameters perfectly, and pressed the “pickle button” on his stick grip at the precise instant the pipper was on the target. Then he initiated a 4-G pull to the right. As soon as the delivery was complete, Major Nelson scanned the skies to clear for other traffic and look for threats.
“Ground fire from right three o’clock!”
The aircraft shuddered as it was hit with explosive shells from a four-barrel 23 millimeter gun emplacement, better known as the deadly ZSU 23-4.
Covey 272 had seen the ground fire. “Number two, hold high and dry. I want to put you in on that gun. Do you have the location, or do you want me to mark?
Sharkbait 41 made a quick transmission, “Sharkbait Lead’s been hit!”
“Sharkbait Lead,” Covey 272 called, “head south. I repeat, head south. Number two, hold high and dry.”
Sharkbait 42 acknowledged, “Roger”.
Sharkbait 41 banked to the left and headed toward the south as the cockpit filled with smoke.
“Sharkbait Lead,” Covey 272 yelled, “you’re on fire!”
The General was on hot mike. “Willie, I’m losing it. I’ve got a double PC failure now, my controls are frozen, and I can’t see anything because of the smoke. Bail out, bail out!”
Major Nelson tightened his abdominal muscles, performing the “M-1 grunt” maneuver to try to minimize injury to his back, and reached down to the lower ejection handle between his legs. As he pulled the handle to start the ejection sequence, he had a brief, fleeting thought about his wife, his kids, and R&R.
“Shit,” he thought, “I’m probably going to miss my R&R flight.”
He imagined Connie and the kids sitting at the breakfast table at the Officers Club the next morning. The twins would be incessant in their questions.
“Where’s daddy?” they would ask. They had a habit of pestering their mother until they were satisfied with the answer.
“They get their stubbornness from you,” she would always tell Nelson. Johnny and Jamie would keep whining until their mother adopted the tone of a drill sergeant voice, and say, “I’m going to tell your father on you!” Then they would both fall silent.
Major Nelson made a mental note to get an Autovon call to Fort DeRussey just as soon as he got picked up by a rescue chopper and taken to the nearest base, probably Ubon. General Cashill would arrange that. Maybe even give him another day of R&R.
The General made one last call on the radio, “Sharkbait Lead bailing out,” as the sequenced ejection commenced.
The rear canopy separated and the rush of air made a deafening roar. The leg restraint lines attached to his upper calf muscles and his ankles forcefully pulled his legs from the rudder pedals to the front of his ejection seat, preventing legs from flailing during a high-speed ejection. For Major Nelson, everything seemed to happen in slow motion. In what seemed a glacial pace, but was in actuality almost instantaneous, the rear ejection seat rose up the rails as the initiators automatically fired. Major Nelson felt the Martin-Baker rocket motor pressing him into his seat with bone-jarring force.
One and four-tenths seconds after Major Nelson vacated the aircraft; the front canopy separated and the front ejection seat rocketed up the rails. After the ejection seats were clear of the aircraft, two and one-half seconds after initiation, seat separation occurred as the “butt-snappers” pushed the pilots away, and the pilots were free of ejection seats, leg restraint lines and lap belts. Four seconds later, Sharkbait 41 Alpha, the General, was descending under a fully-inflated parachute.
Meanwhile, Sharkbait 41 Bravo, Major Niles Nelson, was frantically whipping at his parachute risers to untangle the unopened, tangled parachute canopy, the “streamer”, as he plummeted to his death in the jungle below.
Back at the Cam Ranh Bay parachute packing facility, a technician scratched his head as he examined a small plastic doll placed on the desk of the NCOIC. For the life of him, he couldn’t figure out what it was doing there or how it had gotten there.