Continuing excerpts from Not on My Watch, by Dave ‘Snako’ Kelly
The following are some of my more memorable Alpha Strikes of the 1972-73 cruise.
Remembered Sky Note: On 22 July 1972, Schoolboy launched a major 30 plus plane Alpha Strike to the Ca Chau buried petroleum facility just across the Red River from Hanoi. CDR Neil Harvey, Commanding Officer of the VA-56 Champs was the strike leader. Myself and Smokey Tolbert were his wingmen. Given the buried and hidden nature of the target, each pilot was given an aim point so as to cover the whole of the suspected area. Post flight Smokey told me that as third plane down, he observed my bombs as second attacker to be the ones that started the initial explosions. As it turns out, Snako and I were both on this strike. Continuing from Not On My Watch is his story of his first A-6 division lead. Our memories coincide pretty closely but as in all combat, each participant sees/recalls things differently. What is certain was the effect. As can be seen in the picture and as noted by Dave below, this strike created a huge cloud, visible even from Midway’s location at sea, giving the hard working flight deck crew a view of what there efforts were supporting in the war.
My 1st Division (Alpha) Lead: As the cruise progressed the ship started flying more Alpha Strikes well into the North Vietnam heartland. To support these missions we needed to put up at least four A-6s on the strike and typically a pair of tankers, one to refuel the BARCAP and at least one to refuel the MIGCAP and the F-4s bombers. Despite the fact that we had a total of 20 aircraft assigned to the squadron, we typically only had about 12 aircraft in a fly-able condition most of the time. This put a lot of pressure on squadron maintenance personnel. If one of the next two launches on the schedule was another Alpha, then planes had to be turned around to fly in a couple of hours.
Leading a division of aircraft (4 planes) flying formation on another division is a lot more difficult than maintaining your position as a section leader (2 planes) within a four plane division or just leading a 4-plane flight. As a Division Leader everything you do is amplified to your three wingmen. When you drop a wing, they must rotate in space around your centerline. This translates to 10s of feet of motion perpendicular to their flight path. (This isn’t difficult but remember you couldn’t be fixated on just flying formation. A wingie needed to keep one eye look for an incoming SAM.)
As an Element Lead in an Alpha Strike, you must positioning your four planes relative to the Alpha Lead’s four planes which are a 1000-1500 feet at 1:30 or 10:30, or 1500-2000 feet at 12:00 depending on whether you are the right, left, or trailing division, respectively.
Since we were now two line periods into the cruise and Skipper Hoagy and Curley had left the squadron, we need a few more Division Leaders to support the Alpha Strikes. Oscy, Slick, and I had all been Section Leaders since the 1st cruise and must have demonstrated some level of competence leading a Division. Hence, LCDR Craig deep selected us for this new qualification. (I used the term ‘deep selected’, because LCDR Craig bypassed several of the more senior officers with less experience for the Division Lead position.)
I got my qual flight as a Division Lead in an Alpha Strike to a target site about 10 miles south of Hanoi. (22 July, 1972) This site was called Ca Chau, and it was described as ‘buried POL’. The strike was going to be led by CAG. (Editor note: CDR Neil Harvey, CO of VA-56 turned out to be the strike leader. Myself and Smokey Tolbert were his wingmen.)
This was going to be a large strike by MIDWAY standards with the lead formation consisting of three divisions, in a fingertip formation followed by a second formation of four divisions. The whole strike tallied about 25 or 26 aircraft. And with his background in fighters, CAG would be leading the strike as a 4-plane division of F-4s. The A-6s were in the lead formation on CAG’s right wing.
The CAG was infamous with the A-6s on MIDWAY for his briefings of ‘a sub-500 knot ingress at 20,000 feet, followed by a push-over to achieve 500 knots as we went feet dry’. Despite what he briefed, somehow his strikes always ending up at 525 to 535 knots which was beyond what an A-6 could do with 16 MK-82s (500 pound bombs) and a centerline drop tank, our standard Alpha Strike configuration. CAG always seemed to be chiding the A-6s for being ‘sucked’ (out of the formation in a trailing position), as he ran away from us.
I had anticipated this, and since this was my ‘trial’ as a Division Lead, I wanted to show my element that I could ‘hack it’. With LCDR Craig on one wing, and the new skipper, CDR Barrish, on the other, I was determined to maintain my position in the formation no matter what.
The Alpha joined up over the ship at 20,000 feet. The various elements joining the strike from the inside of the rendezvous-turn, then slid into their respective positions. The F-4s in the flight wanted to be topped-off on their way in, so with everyone pretty much in position and ready for battle, CAG turned toward the coast aiming at an area just north of the hourglass which was a lightly defended area at the bottom RP VIB.
The strategy of the strike was good, the Alpha was going to proceed in bound toward Nam Dinh, a heavily defended area. Short of the city we would turn north toward Hanoi. The strategy was to confuse the defenses with this ‘faint’ at Nam Dinh, then boldly head for Hanoi, only to roll-in to the left 7 or 8 miles short of the city. Since the target was south of that city, we would be flying directly into the high threat SAM zone. Providing we didn’t stir-up anything nasty, we would be roll in to port in a classic fan on the POL giving each division a good steep dive from the roll-in, and then just continue in the turn to the southeast and ‘feet wet’.
We crossed the beach and true to form CAG accelerated to his 525 knots. I had been flying as a wingman for months observing this behavior, and watching as some of our Division Leaders had started getting sucked. Since the first leg before the starboard turn north was relatively short, I just started our element’s turn early turning way inside the strike groups radius of turn. By the time the strike group was heading north I was able to slide neatly into my slot ready for the forthcoming roll-in to port.
The ECM gear had started chattering before we had reached the turn at Nam Dinh. As we approached Hanoi more and more sites joined in the course. The greater Hanoi area was well-defended with AAA) and SAMs. Our strike group of 25+ aircraft had gotten their attention, and they were certainly going to take a shot at us, if at all possible. The APR-27 low warble indicating a SAM was eminent just as the first elements started their roll-in. By the time we reached our roll-in the warble went high meaning that someone in our part of the sky was a ‘target’.
The pressure of combat was nowhere near the pressure I felt for staying in the formation with my flight. (You didn’t worry about dying; but you never wanted to look bad.) I wasn’t too anxious at roll-in, because I had performed the ingress nearly picture-perfect, and was generally pleased with the way I had handled my this challenge.
It was then that I realized I had forgotten one rather important thing. Despite leading and flying a near perfect flight, I had failed to turn on the gunsight. So there we were going downhill very fast with Shylock calling out the passing altitudes, and I’m fumbling around on the center console trying to locate the switch for the gunsight. Passing something like 7500 feet I decided to give up on the gunsight and took a look through the gunsight at the ground rushing up at us.
As the starboard shoulder element of the Alpha, we were frequently the last division to roll-in. In this strike by the time we reached the release altitude, the bombs from the lead element were already detonating. I could see the vapor trails from the wingtips of the lead a/c, as they put on the Gs pulling off target, but the bombs from the Lead Division were already exploding on the ground.
We had fused the bombs for a medium fuse delay, so the bombs would penetrate some of the soil before they exploded. The bombs hitting the ground were sending up plumes of fire as they touched-off the buried POL. By the time I reached our pickle altitude all I could see in the gunsight was a huge fireball as the bombs from the preceding elements hit their mark. I couldn’t have miss even without the gunsight, this must have been a huge cash of fuel.
Once I got the nose above the horizon on the pull-out I started jinking, bending our flight around to an easterly heading. The ECM was still going off in our headsets, but at high speed and low altitude AAA was the only thing we had to avoid. During the egress the three of us stayed together with each of my wingman staying on his side of my aircraft.
We followed a direct route to feet-wet attempting to egress at about the same point as we had ingressed. During the flight toward the coast we could see the smoke rising nearly vertically from the target area. Our flight of A-6s joined up, reported feet wet to ‘RED CROWN’, looked each other over for any battle damage, and switched to MIDWAY Approach Control.
Our traps were uneventful, but by the time we had parked the aircraft and deplaned, the smoke from the target area was visible from the deck of the carrier. MIDWAY at this time was at the North Yankee Station around 60 nautical miles off the coast. The target was 60 miles inland from the coast, so from about 120 nautical we were able to share the result of the strike with our plane captains and the MIDWAY’s flight deck personnel.
These guys were contributing to the war effort, working 16-hour days for weeks on end and sleeping in four-high racks in poorly air conditioned spaces. They very seldom saw any of the effects of their labor. That day was different, we could point at the vertical column of smoke, and they could see their direct contribution to the war effort.
And . . . . . I had passed my test as a Division Flight Leader and was now qualified to actually lead an Alpha Strike.
Alpha to Hon Gay: On September 28th, the day before Shylock and I were supposed to go on leave, we had two strike missions. The second flight was an Alpha Strike late in the afternoon. Once again we found ourselves as ‘tail-end Charlie’ on a strike in the Hon Gay area east of Haiphong Harbor.
We didn’t expect this to be too difficult a mission. We approached the target from the east along the east-west shore line on the northern side of Ha Long Bay at the very top of the Tonkin Gulf. If we had tried to approach this target from the west, the whole strike group would have had to turn its back on the Haiphong defenses. From the east was the only reasonable way to prosecute this target.
There are several thousand islands in the northern part of the gulf but just south of the mainland was an area of open water. The strike group started its descent as we crossed the most northern island, accelerated, and started a gentle turn to a westerly heading. We only need a minute or so on this heading to get to the roll-in point. However, during this period we were looking into the sun which was low in the sky. The SAM warnings started at about this time and indicated we were being tracked by Fansong radar from the greater Haiphong area.
When we finally got to our roll-in point, the APR-27 was warbling its heart out indicating a SAM was now in the air. I still couldn’t see anything coming from the west, so I went into the dive.
We pulled out of the dive heading south and toward the islands off the coast, but rather than leveling at 3-4000 feet for egress, we just stayed low. Supposedly SAMs couldn’t track us very well, when we were close to the ground. And since I couldn’t see a thing, I went down below 100 feet above the water.
I had the throttles all the way forward. But still the lead aircraft was pulling out ahead of us. And on top of that the ECM tones which should have gone away, when I took it ‘down in the weeds’, just continued to pester us. At one point I looked out through the top of the cockpit just as a big orange ball of fire exploded above us. By its size and our position several miles off the coast this was probably the SAM which had touched-off the ECM gear.
I couldn’t figure out why we were slipping further behind the lead, and then I saw that on the right wing I still had bombs on the forward station of the MER. I yelled at Shylock to check the left wing, and he had bombs there, as well. For some reason our inboard stations hadn’t released? With at least three bombs on each wing, we would be way over the max trap weight, so I told Shylock to jettison them. Once they were gone, our speed picked up and by that time we were safely off shore. Once our pulse rates quieted down, the return to the ship was uneventful.
This mission, however, was the last mission we had prior to going on two weeks of leave. We landed on the ship, grabbed our luggage, and jumped on the COD for a trip into Da Nang. From there we caught a C-130 to Ton Sanut Air Base in Saigon. We spent that night at the Covey (FAC) barracks drinking free beer. Early the next morning with headaches and blood-shot eyes, we boarded a half-loaded 747 for Honolulu. In a little over 24 hours after being shot at, I was on the beach with Dianne in Hawaii. Very few people there knew (or cared) there was a real ‘shooting war’ going on in Vietnam.
It was very strange to be in a paradise like Hawaii such a short time after being scared to death. We had a great time romping on the beach, and we stayed in some beautiful places courtesy of the Warrens, Wendy’s parents. However, I remember that near the end of the two weeks of bliss, I began to get antsy about getting back to the war. It wasn’t about me wanting to be in the war, but it had something to do with the fact that my friends were there risking their lives on a daily basis, and I wasn’t doing my part. On the 12th or 13th of October I caught a MAC flight on a KC-135 tanker back to the PI, where I met the ship in Subic Bay just before it left port for Yankee Station. On the 17th I was once again flying missions into the North.