by Dave ‘Snako’ Kelly
This is a memoir of my personal experiences in Naval (carrier) Aviation and my short but intense involvement in the Air War over Vietnam. Admittedly my perspective is somewhat limited. My tours were at the end of the war with North Vietnam, and I was near the bottom of the Navy’s chain-of-command. I was, however, at the ‘pointy end of the spear’ as part of a medium attack squadron during two deployments of the aircraft carrier, USS MIDWAY from 1971 to 1973.
(The second cruise) When the war abruptly heated up in early ’72, we were hustled back to the Tonkin Gulf a month ahead of schedule. And that was the start of an 11-month odyssey, where we were extended and extended and… extended returning home in March of 1973, after we had brought the war in the North to an end.
This second cruise was the ‘real thing’. We took the fight back to the North Vietnamese for the first time in four years. Eventually our tactical air power was given the opportunity to end the war. The general lack of knowledge in our country of this period of history is what motivated me to write this memoir.
The incidents described herein are all based on my memory supported by my Flight Log Book. They reflect the greatest accuracy I could muster based on Ensign – Lieutenant Junior Grade – Lieutenant Dave Kelly’s 5 years of active duty as a carrier pilot which included 18 months at sea, more than 200 combat missions, and just under 400 carrier landings.
On January 14, 1973 Attack Squadron VA- 115’s war in North Vietnam ended. This was two weeks after the short but intensive Linebacker ll Christmas bombing campaign. Despite what has been said, this Christmas campaign was the only time in this long and contentious war that a serious effort was made to strategically apply our tactical air power. After nearly ten years of ‘screwing around’ in the rural parts of North & South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, they finally let us take the war to the two key cities in the North. And after this short but intense 11-day campaign, the North Vietnamese agreed to return to the bargaining table in Paris.
We were in the Cubi Point Officers Club in Subic Bay, Philippines, when the first POWs arrived at Clark Air Force Base on the 14th of February – freed less than 2 months after the eleven days of (the Christmas bombing campaign) Linebacker ll. While watching the POWs return gave us some sort of closure, we all mourned the 30 flight crew members MIDWAY had lost during the cruise. I think we all realized that the war could have ended at any time had the US been committed enough to launch an effort like Linebacker ll.
History doesn’t record our victory and the release of the POWs as the honorable end of the war. The ‘defeat’ the world remembers is what is played on television showing the 1975 debacle with throngs of South Vietnamese desperately storming the gates of the American Embassy and an overloaded helicopter struggling to get airborne from its roof. And since that end was more or /less a disaster, the whole period of history has been written-off as an American failure.
For the next 30 years I tried to forget about the war and bury all the bad memories. But history has recorded the events in 1975 as the end of the war. The closure we experienced in February of 1973, when our war in the North ended, is not what history remembers.
I started writing this memoir to document my personal and somewhat limited view of this period of history. I wanted to tell the story that despite all the mistakes, the failures of the civilian and military leadership, and a lack of support by the American people, when we were finally given the chance, the citizen soldiers and their career counterparts were able to quickly and successfully bring an end to this war. In order to do this, however, I had to exhume all the mixed emotions and unpleasant memories which I had buried for many years. I started out with the idea of just telling the story of my six years in the Navy, but then I realized I needed to document this period of history, because history has it wrong: the US ‘defeat’ in Vietnam was ‘Not on My Watch’.