Sample Chapter from Hamfist Over Hanoi

We were scheduled for another Pack 6 mission to one of the Vu Chua railroad bridges. As we sat in the briefing room, a groan went up from the 100 or so pilots when we saw the intel photo of the bridge.

“Your target today is the Vu Chua South railroad bridge,” the Intel Officer intoned.

We had been on this miniscule bridge perhaps a dozen times already. We called it the “nitnoy bridge”. Nitnoy was the Thai word for small. Interestingly, no one would own up to how he had learned the translation of the word, but we all picked up the term pretty quickly.

Every time we attacked the bridge, we knocked it down. And the gomers managed to rebuild it in a day or so. One of the pilots in another squadron, in frustration, wrote to his congressman, complaining that we were attacking small, insignificant bridges, like the Vu Chua bridge, “seven meters wide by 40 meters long, wood and steel construction”. It just didn’t make sense.

The letter to the congressman worked. Within a few days, the Rules of Engagement changed. “Effective immediately,” the notice read, “no bridges shorter than 50 meters will be targeted during Operation Linebacker.” We all reveled in the knowledge that the system worked. We would no longer be risking our lives to knock down an easily-repaired target.

And now, we once again saw the Vu Chua railroad bridge as our primary target.

“Your target today,” declared the Intel Officer, “is the Vu Chua South railroad bridge, ten meters by seventy meters, wood and steel construction.”

It was the same fucking bridge! The Seventh Air Force planners had simply designated the approaches to the bridge as part of the overall length, and fudged the width. The bridge hadn’t gotten any longer, they just called it longer to keep it on the target list.

We were all in a sour mood as we returned from Wing Headquarters to our squadron briefing room. To make matters worse, one of the eight crewmembers in our flight, Maple Flight, was Major Waller. He was going to be Maple two.

Major Waller had arrived at Ubon the day Linebacker started, May 10th. He was a highly experienced F-4 pilot. In fact, he had been flying the F-4 almost since its introduction into the Air Force inventory. He had over 3000 hours of F-4 time, all of it in Europe and the States. That was an incredible amount of experience. There were probably less than a dozen pilots in the Air Force with that much F-4 time. We all had really high hopes for him.

Unfortunately, he let us down. Although Major Waller was an incredibly experienced pilot, he was either very unlucky or had a fear of combat. Here we were, two months into Operation Linebacker, and he had not yet been to Hanoi.

He had been scheduled dozens of times, but something always seemed to happen to his aircraft that prevented him from making it to the target. There were at least ten times he ground aborted and didn’t take off with the strike formation, and an equal number of times he air aborted. Every one of those times, one of our other squadron pilots had to fill in for him.

Major Waller quickly earned the nickname King. He thought it was an homage to his high fighter time. In actuality, it was a short form for “hangar king”, the masculine form of “hangar queen”, a term for an airplane that never flies due to excesive maintenance issues.

On this mission, Lieutenant Colonel Wiley, our Squadron Commander and flight lead, gave a very short preflight briefing. Instead of the normal 45-minute mission briefing, Lieutenant Colonel Wiley kept it short.

“You all have the line-up cards, with takeoff times, tail numbers and frequencies. You already know the target. We will check in on Ground Control frequency at the scheduled time and taxi together to the arming area. Now Major Waller and I will go out and preflight his airplane. Any questions?”

We were all shocked. And elated. Finally King was going to go into combat!

My backseater and I went out to the airplane at the usual time, did a thorough preflight, and  carefully checked our bombs, two Mark 84-Ls. The Mark 84 was a 2000-pound bomb, and the suffix L designated it as a laser-guided munition. As long as we had a laser to light up the target, these babies were going to hit it.

We cranked up at the appointed time, and I listened up on Ground frequency.

“Maple flight, check.”

“Two.”

“Three.”

“Four.” I was in the number four positon.

So far so good. King’s airplane hadn’t broken yet. We taxied out in formation and pulled into the Arming Area, just short of the runway. A Maintenance Sergeant did a quick walkaround of each aircraft, to look for any obvious problems, such as hydraulic leaks. Then the Arming Crew pulled the pins on our bombs and we were armed.

We taxied onto the runway and took off, 15 seconds spacing. Join-up was uneventful, and we headed out to the refueling track. We hadn’t been airborne twenty minutes when King tried to air abort.

“Maple lead, this is two. Let’s go blankets.”

Blankets was the name of our squadron common frequency, UHF 234.5.

“Negative, two,” lead responded. “We’re staying on this frequency.”

“Maple lead, this is two. My abba-jabba seven has tumbled.”

The AJB-3/AJB-7 attitude reference on the F-4 was called the “abba-jabba seven”. It was an essential instrument for aircraft flight in instrument conditions. Today the weather was clear, and all of our bombs would be dropped in formation with the lead aircraft.

“Maple two, this is lead. Just put the light on the star and you’ll do fine.”

Putting the “light on the star” was short-hand for lining up the wingtip light of the lead airplane with the star painted on his fuselage, which would put the wingman in proper close formation, with three feet wingtip separation. In other words, just fly formation, Maple two, and you won’t need an attitude indicator.

The Major didn’t want to give up without a fight.

“Maple lead, I really think I should air abort.”

“Light on the star, two, and maintain radio silence.”

As luck would have it, the weather ship that was sent to the target area an hour ahead of us had bad news. The entire Hanoi area was undercast, and we would not be able to attack. The primary mission was a weather cancel, and we all ended up diverting to different targets in Laos as single ships. And Maple two got his wish – without an attitude reference he couldn’t drop his bombs, so he returned to base unexpended. Another mission he didn’t complete.

Our target was in NKP’s Area of Operations. We made our rendezvous with our FAC, Nail 56. He was in an OV-10, and was a Pave Nail, which meant he had laser illumination gear onboard.

Apparently Nail 56 had already put in quite a few airstrikes. He was totally out of willie pete rockets.

“Maple four,” he transmitted, “do you have me in sight?”

He was just to the north of me, at about 8000 feet, headed east.

“Affirmative,” I answered.

“Okay, off my left wing is a river. You’ll notice a bend in the river that looks like a set of tits. The target is in the cleavage. Just aim for the cleavage and I’ll guide the bombs the rest of the way. I want you to make your run-in from south to north, with a break to the east. You’re cleared in hot.”

I was in position to make an immediate run-in, and pulled up for a high release. To get the bombs to guide properly, they needed to be released from 20,000 feet, with a ton of smash, preferably 500 knots. That meant I needed to pull up to well above 25,000 feet.

I kept the tits in sight as I pulled up high, rolled into a 120-degree bank and pulled my nose through into a 30-degree dive. The pipper was tracking perfectly to the cleavage. I reached 500 knots right at 20,000 feet, with the pipper directly on target. I was using a ballistic mills setting, which meant that even if there was a laser failure, I would have a good bomb. It might not be perfect, but a 2000-pound bomb can do a lot of damage even if it’s not a direct hit. I pressed the pickle button, the bomb release button on the hand grip of the control stick.

“Pickle, pickle, pickle,” I transmitted. That was the signal for Nail 56 to turn on his laser.

I pulled off to the right and looked at the target to see my bomb impact. Nothing. Not a ripple in the water. Not a kick-up of dust. Nothing. What could have happened?

“Awesome bomb! Great job, Maple!” yelled the FAC.

I looked back at the target, and still didn’t see anything. Then I looked further to the north, probably two klicks or more, a full mile, and saw the bomb’s impact point. It had impacted at the cleavage of another river that looked like tits. The 20,000-foot release, the 500 knots, and the good laser illumination had dragged my bomb all the way to the correct target. A full mile away.

On that mission I learned that a lot of smash and altitude on a laser guided bomb is like money in the bank.

And I also learned that, when you’ve been away from home long enough, every bend in the river looks like tits!