Christmas ’72 Stories: (3) Snako’s Two Night LB II Hat Trick

One of the motivators for Remembered Sky is that the writing about USS Midway and her airwing/squadrons is piecemeal. Some histories and stories barely mention Midway and some have completely left her out, particularly related to Linebacker II. This despite the fact that Midway/Airwing Five set the record for most number of days “on the line” in the Vietnam war and were one of only four carriers in the whole war to be awarded the unit equivallent of a Navy Cross – the Presidential Unit Citation.

Kelly Note:  Interestingly, history hasn’t recorded MIDWAY’s participation in the Linebacker II.  Some official Navy web sites don’t include MIDWAY as a participant in the December ’72 bombing.  I for one can verify that ‘we were there’, we lead-off the attacks, and most of the crews in VA-115 flew two or three missions during the first two nights of the campaign.

Chapter 41:  Linebacker II (The gloves finally come off.)

Throughout ‘72 the US Air Force and Navy conducted restricted aerial bombing and mining operations in North Vietnam.  I say restricted because many of the targets appeared to be of marginal value.  Only occasionally were these targets within the two major cities, Haiphong and Hanoi. 

Throughout the summer and most of the fall we primarily focused on restricting the transportation of supplies into South Vietnam or neutralizing anti-aircraft defenses.  I think the other thing we accomplished was to make the people of the North realize there was still a war going on, and we had given the POWs some hope.

In VA-115 we were all exhausted by the tempo of operations, the periodic loss or at least damage to CAG5 aircraft, and the lack of their being a foreseeable end to the war effort.  You felt like you were at the Craps Table and just had to keep rolling Field numbers.  And you knew each time you went in at night, there was some likelihood that the NVA gunners could ‘get lucky’.

In the November timeframe the air campaign was further restricted to the portion of North Vietnam below the 20th parallel (20 degrees North Latitude), RP I through IV.  The peace talks inParishad broken down, and the war continued to drag on taking its daily toll of US and Vietnamese lives.  We were marking time.

In early December the results of a decision made by President Nixon to resume the bombing of urban targets reached the ‘pointy end of the spear’ aboard MIDWAY.  This would later prove to be the first true, ‘take the gloves off’ effort of the war in my opinion. 

For the next two weeks the Air Force dropped leaflets telling the Vietnamese that we would be returning to bomb the urban areas.  During this period our photo recce birds returned with photos showing long lines of civilian traffic moving out of the cities and military vehicles loaded with anti-aircraft defense munitions streaming into both Haiphong and Hanoi.

Finally, after eight years of disjoint and unfocused efforts which had torn our own country apart and resulted in the downing of hundreds of Air Force and Navy aircraft, the war was going to be brought home to the strongholds of North Vietnam.  With the U.S. as an uncommitted enemy and without a representative form of government, it had been too easy for the North Vietnamese generals and charismatic figures like Ho Chi Minh to ignore the destruction in the southern part of their country and in the country side.  Only when the war was on their door steps, loud and clear, was any progress going to be made to bring this madness to a halt. 

The crews in VA-115 certainly welcomed this decision.  I’m sure it was the same for the A-6 squadrons on the other two ships that supported the Line Backer II.  There was no ‘pulling punches’, this was the mission we had trained for, and it was a mission we could do well.  The only way to perform this mission on the first nights of the campaign and have any chance of surviving was ‘in the weeds’, and I think the A-6 flight crews to a man were ready to place their bets.

On December 17th MIDWAY had been scheduled to leave the line and head for Singapore for a planned R&R.  Our wives were already in route to meet us there for the Christmas Holiday.  Rather than sailing south we got the word that at 20:00 six A-rab A-6s would launch from MIDWAY and lay a new set of mines in the Port of Haiphong.

The strikes were assigned by seniority, and the best Shylock and I could do was the ‘hot spare,’ the seventh aircraft.  We sat on the deck with a full load of mines, engines turning, and the plans for all six of the mining missions on our kneeboards just waiting for a chance to launch.  If any plane had gone down for maintenance, we would fly its mission.  We didn’t get the chance

Mission #1: Haiphong Thermal Power Plant: 

On the following day,  December 18th, at 20:00 the Christmas bombing campaign of 1972, was officially kicked off, and MIDWAY was the ‘lead-off’ hitter.  Six A-6s from MIDWAY were launched toward targets in and around Haiphong.  This was repeated at 20:20 and 20:40 by six A-6 aircraft from squadrons on the ENTERPRISE (VA-196) and the RANGER (VA-145), the other two carriers operating from the North Yankee Station.  This same pattern of 18 aircraft was repeated at 12:00 midnight and at 4:00 AM.

Simultaneously, at 20:00 on the 18th Air Force B-52s entered the country from the West heading toward targets in Hanoi.  In descriptions of the Air Force bombing in Linebacker II I read after the war, their strikes were conducted similar to the bomber missions of WWII.  These were high altitude (20,000 feet) formations of several aircraft flying into the city on a predefined route.   With no element of surprise the BUFFs relied on their onboard ECM to foil the enemy’s firing solutions. 

The Navy didn’t operate that way.  The flight crews were given an unprecedented opportunity to plan and fly these missions as we saw fit.  The flight crews were committed to the prosecution of high-valued industrial and air defense targets, and we expected stiff opposition from a very well supplied enemy.  This was unlike all our previous missions, where both the targets and the ordnance load were assigned by CAG5’s Strike Ops.  For these sorties the A-6 flight crews were given the targets and asked to do their own weaponeering.  Rather than being restricted to a predefined weapons load, we were asked, “What do you wanted to carry, and how many would you like?” 

Six targets we were assigned to the six aircraft from each ship for each launch.  They included two major industrial sites in downtown Haiphong, two major industrial sites outside the city, and two SAM sites.  This same pattern was repeated for the next two launches in the evening’s cycle. 

For the first night and first strike of Linebacker II Shylock and I were assigned to hit the Thermal Power Plant in downtown Haiphong.  We requested Mk-82 snakeyes.  We knew we wanted to be doing this from a low altitude lay-down delivery, and the snakeye fins would give us sufficient separation from the fragments of our bombs.  Snakeyes were the best weapon for this target, and the old A-6 was capable of carrying 20 of these on its wing stations.

The Navy had always allowed us to determine the ingress and egress for our missions, and there was no exception for Linebacker II.  Since all six planes were going to be operating in and around the city over a 20 minute period, the strikes had to be carefully choreographed to take maximum advantage of the element of surprise, minimize the possibility of mid-airs, and avoid flying through someone else’s detonations or the air defense retaliation. These sets of six strikes every 20 minutes were planned and carried out in a meticulous and professional manner by the A-6 crews on each of the three ships. 

The Haiphong Thermal Power Plant was just west of the ‘donkey dick’[1] in the center of the city.  Skipper Barrish was also assigned that target, and he had decided to run it south to north.  His plan was to break hard to port at release for 180 degrees and head out the same way he had headed in but several miles to the west.  Shylock and I decided to run it from the east to west.  This allowed us to come in very low over the rice paddies and bay to the east and slightly north of the city.  We would then only need to turn 90 degrees to get headed south and out of harm’s way. 

Two of the other four planes in our strike were going after SAM sites around the city, and the other two were assigned to industrial sites or infrastructure sites outside of the city.  The two missions downtown were the focus of MIDWAY’s first launch, and the other crews gave our planning priority for routing.

The anxiety level was rather high at the Air Intelligence Briefing.  Everyone knew there was going to be a lot of shit in the air.  We had a pair of fighters that would be covering us off shore, some A-7 Ironhand birds ready to throw Shrike missiles at any SAM sites trying to come up, and the Whale (A-3) was set up to give us radar jamming from his racetrack pattern over water south and east of the city. 

The launch was normal and we went to the predefined holding positions off the coast.  All our watches were synchronized.  The city was shrouded under a broken sky (greater than 6/10s clouds) at about 1500 feet, but above that it was clear as a bell. 

After launch and climb-out Shylock and I went into a holding pattern at 20,000 feet and 20 miles off the coast.  The radio was alive with the Air Force transmitting on Guard and the Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) aircraft, call-sign ‘Teaball’, making his monotonous transmissions about “SAMs in the vicinity of Crab” (Hanoi).  

We could see a lot of AAA activity in the area north and west of us, and we expected we were seeing the B-52s going to work in Hanoi.  Then I saw a huge fireball followed by flaming pieces raining down.  I realized, we had just seen a BUFF with its crew of eight, hit and blown to pieces.  This was the first of three B-52s to be lost on the first night of the Christmas campaign. 

The only electronic activity we were picking up was occasional search radar sweeps and some height finder.  They knew we were there, and they probably had a good idea of what we were going to do.  My anxiety level was nearly at a maximum, but I was ready to go.  At the pre-defined time the Skipper made his transmission, and we began the dance. 

As A-rab 2 we started our descent on an outbound leg flying east and away from the city.  This was our ‘clever’ plan to make the defense sites think we were going after a different target area and to establish a few minutes of separation between the Skipper’s run and our run.  When we were below 500 feet, we hit our turn point about 20 miles east of the city.  After the turn I settled the plane down below 200 feet as we charged inbound to the target in the dark and under the clouds.  We were still only getting occasional skin paints, but at that low of an altitude over water, we didn’t expect they had any idea of exactly where we were. 

At about 10-12 miles from our release Shylock stepped us into Attack Mode.  Suddenly the sky in front of us lit up with explosions and AAA.  We could see tracers all over the city making the clouds light up as if they were on fire.  We figured it was the Skipper and his BN LTJG Karcewski making the first run downtown. 

The near overcast at 1500 feet amplified the explosions of their bombs and combined with all the AAA, it made the sky above the city glow.  This didn’t look like a very pleasant place to fly, but at this point we were fully committed and trying to squeeze every last bit of speed out of the Intruder during our dash toward the city.

At 4 miles and less than 30 seconds to go, we started to get AAA tones on the APR-25.  I tried to get a little lower, but we were only at 200 feet.  There wasn’t anywhere to hide at this point.  The city was once again dark.  Shylock had his head in the scope, and he was busy finding his aimpoints and locating the target. 

At about a mile to go he gave me the word to climb to the release altitude of 1500 feet which gave us the time-of-fall we needed to fuse the bombs for this semi-soft target.  Through a break in the clouds I had enough starlight to see the rough shape of the city.  It was completely still.  No one was firing and our headsets were quiet.  It was eerie. 

That only lasted for a few seconds, and then the world around us erupted.  There were tracers of every color going in every direction.  There were explosions going off and lighting up the cloud deck slightly above us, and the APR-25 was on fire with strobes and blasting our ears with tones.  There was too much to take in, and there was no way of processing the information anyway.  Shylock let the system release the weapons, but at the release point he yelled at me to pickle, so we were sure the bombs would leave the plane. 

I rolled the plane hard to port and pulled the nose toward the ground, and put on a lot of Gs.  After 90 degrees of turn on instruments I rolled wings level, continued to descend, and proceeded south west for a few seconds and then wrapped it up again to port in order to get the nose pointed toward the water.  All we had to do now was get the hell out of Dodge as quickly as possible. 

We hit feet wet, but stayed low and fast for another 10 miles.  At that point we made a transmission that “A-rab 2 is feet wet”, and I started slowly climbing to altitude.  Similar calls were being made by A-rab 3, 4, 5, and 6.

The rest of the mission was per usual.  We marshaled and shot a normal penetration to landing.  By this time the Moon had risen, and it was bright and clear over the water in the Gulf.  After landing we went to Strike Ops to debrief. 

We walked into Strike Ops and all the ‘heavies’ (senior officers of CAG5) were present.   The Skipper was in his debrief, but a couple of the fighter jocks, who had been our BARCAP were standing on the side of the room.  One of them reached over and touched my shoulder.  I turned to see what he was doing, and he whispered, “I can’t believe you flew through that.  Above the clouds it looked like the whole city was firing.”

We finally got to our turn to debrief.  I had calmed myself down, so I could really play the steely-eyed killer with ice water in his veins role.  As nonchalantly as I could possibly muster I said something like, “Twenty 82s on the Thermal Power Plant, downtown.” 

Now in the carriers of that era, messages were sent to various parts of the ship via a vacuum system similar to the type of thing they had in department stores in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  A canister was opened, a message was rolled up and placed into it, the canister was inserted into the vacuum tube, and whisked-off to another office on the ship. 

Well I had no sooner finished my very terse and ‘steely-eyed’ comment about our mission, when one of those damn vacuum tubes landed about two feet to my right with a loud thump.  I leaped out of my skin.  I don’t know if it was apparent to the rest of the aviators in the room, but as far as I was concerned I had ‘blinked’, and everyone knew I had been absolutely terrified on our trip ‘downtown’.

That, however, wasn’t the end of that day of flying for Shylock and me.  We had been on the 20:00 go, but we were also scheduled for the 04:00 launch, the third one of the evening.  I think we both headed to our racks to see if we could get a little rest before our next round of fun.

Mission #2: Uong Bi Power Plant:

Shylock and I met in the AI spaces about 2:00 to plan our attack and weapon load for our second Linebacker II strike.  The target was another thermal power plant, which supplied power outside the city.  This one was north of the city nestled in the hills. 

The ridge line North of Haiphong went up to 3000 feet in places.  The power plant was near the foot of these mountains in canyon with the hills rise sharply on three sides.  The only way to approach this target was to run-in from the south within about a 30 degree cone.  With the high hills behind it and to the east and the west, from a low-flying aircraft the target would only be visible on radar if you ran it from the south.  And based on what our air crews had seen on earlier missions, we expected the entrance to the canyon would be well guarded. 

The weapon load we chose for the power plant was again 20 x Mk 82 retards.  The only issue with the snakeyes was that our release point would have to be closer to the plant and hence closer to those mountains.  But since we were going to have to climb up and over the mountains anyway, I planned on releasing these weapons from a little higher altitude than the ones downtown. 

Of course we couldn’t plan our target in a vacuum.  There were five other aircraft in our launch going to various other parts of the city and the surrounding areas (the same pattern of two, two, and two as the first launch).  Shylock and I decide to take ourselves out of the traffic pattern over the city. 

Our plan was to coast-in well south of the city and ingress south and west of Haiphong.  This route put us over land a little longer than we wanted, but it kept us out of the traffic jam and crossing tracks of the boys working the city.  Our plan was to come in from the south and west and turn north into the canyon entrance to the facility, come to a reasonable release altitude, and then pull up and over the mountains to safety.

We briefed in the AI spaces with the other five A-6 crews.  The support aircraft, the Whale Jammer, the Ironhand A-7s, and the BARCAP F-4s were all the same as our first mission.  All these players were more than willing to support these missions.  We manned-up, launched, and proceeded outbound to set up our holding pattern prior to the attack.

The Guard Channel was still going strong with the B-52 raids which were once again hammering Hanoi.  The weather might have gotten a little worse in the 6 hours we had been recuperating, and I don’t recall we could see any of the festivities around the capital.

On the Flight Leader’s cue Shylock and I pushed over and steeled ourselves for the long run-in and the attack.  The area to the west and northwest of Haiphong is covered with a lot of low karst ridges which stick-up nearly vertically from the surrounding rice patties.  Some of these go up several hundred feet, so you couldn’t just arbitrarily fly around at 500 feet above sea level on your pressure altimeter and assume you wouldn’t hit something. 

I set up the inbound heading and listened for Shylock to call out the radar significant features he had planned to see during ingress.  The nice thing about the canyon leading to the power plant was that it was a radar significant break in the mountain range.  Shylock locked on to the plant prior to the point at which I had to make our pull-up.

The ECM gear was a lot more active on this run-in than it had been on the first attack.  While I think the NVA had expected some sort of attack from the three carriers that were milling around off their coast, they probably didn’t have any idea of how intense it was going to be.  They probably also didn’t realize the major cities were both going to be under heavy bombardment all night.  This time the AAA and SAM radars were active on our APR-25 display from the get-go.  But since we were west of the city all the strobes were at our 3 o’clock position. 

We heard the other A-rabs calling their predefined marks, so they could keep track of each other’s progress.  We were far enough to the west to not be part of their action unless they really got screwed up.  There were, however, some low warbles on the APR-27, so at least one of the Fansong radars site must have been putting out some L-band.  We were pretty sure that we were inside their minimum operating range. 

At about three miles from the target I started a climb to the release altitude which was something on the order of 2000’.  Of course this made us visible all the air defense sites, so the ECM gear went up a few octaves. 

Shylock had a solid solution on the target, but between the cloud deck at 1500 feet and the fact that I was heading directly into a hillside at 3000’, there wasn’t much for me to see out my side of the cockpit.  At the release point Shylock once again gave me a verbal pickle, but before I squeezed I felt the bombs being ejected from the plane. 

At that point I was cleared to ‘escape and evade’ and to climb over the ridgeline, which I knew was right in front of us.  I rammed the throttles forward and got the nose up immediately.  I just wanted to makes sure we cleared the mountains. 

Once I knew we had reached a safe altitude, I leveled off and bent it around to starboard.  When we had passed the ridgeline there was high country for about 10 miles, here I could settle down a little and put the ridgeline between us and the city. 

We headed east like a scalded ape, but when we reached the bay at Hon Gay I pulled the plane around to the south and set up a gradual descent to feet wet and safety well east of Haiphong Harbor.

The only interesting thing on the recovery was having a plane, evidently from another carrier, cross from port to starboard in front of us during our approach.  It was a bright moonlit night over the Gulf with very little wind.  Each of the carriers was recovering planes, and with no wind the carriers were charging around at 30 knots trying to get enough wind across the deck to land their planes. 

I was doing a CCA following the controllers on MIDWAY, and they announced I would have traffic left to right at about a mile and a half at the same altitude.  There I saw another A-6 in landing configuration heading inbound to another carrier which was steaming about 90 degrees from our heading.  All I could do was to hope the carrier patterns had been choreographed as well as our attacks.

When we finally debriefed with Strike Ops and returned to the Ready Five, it was morning.  I think I was pretty cranked up and couldn’t imagine going to sleep.  There were a whole group of guys in the Ready Room discussing some of the events of the night.  I also learned that Mondo and LTJG “Arlo” Clark, his BN, had been taken by helo over to the ENTERPRISE (flagship) to ‘talk to’ the Admiral. 

Mondo had been on the second launch, the mid-night go.  He and Arlo had also gone downtown, but their target was Shipyard Number 4.  As it turned out there was a Polish freighter (a so-called ‘neutral’ ship) tied up somewhere near Shipyard Number 4.  And . . . somehow a bomb had hit the Polish freighter.  Too bad!

I think at the time I really took this as. ‘Oh well’, but evidently the Admiral was being ‘leaned on’ to determine who had done this dastardly deed.  Since each of the three ships had sent two crews downtown on that launch, it looked like there were six crews who would be getting the third degree. 

By the time Mondo got back from the debrief on the ENTERPRISE, the results of my adrenaline rush had hit me, and I was catatonic.  We never really discussed the Polish freighter incident in any detail.  Mondo claimed that he had not actively targeted the ship, but he also never denied the fact that it was his bombs that hit the SOB.  I think the Admiral was able to cover his track by talking to all six crews, so at least on Yankee Station this became ‘old news’.

At our level this change of plan to accommodate Linebacker II how long we would be involved in bombing in the campaign.  Mondo and I were concerned for our wives, who were in route to Singapore.  When we hit our racks on the morning of the 19th, the ship wasn’t preparing to head south. 

Most of us came tottering back to Ready 5 in the late afternoon to see what sort of fun we were going to have the evening of the 19th and the morning of the 20th.  The same pattern of 3 ships, 3 launches, and 6 planes per launch was the plan, and the target area was the same, so much for the element of surprise.  This, however, was going to be our last day on the line, so following the close of flight ops; MIDWAY was finally going to be heading to Singapore. 

We also learned that despite the heavy defense of the first night none of our aircraft had been hit.  That wasn’t, however, the case on the other carriers.  One A-6 had been bagged and at least one had been hit.  Unfortunately, no one was sure exactly where the aircraft that had been hit actually crashed. 

One of the bad things about flying in the weeds is that no one, not even the friendlies knew where you were.  The Squadron knew the planned track of the aircraft, but other than that the only other facts were the names of the crew.  I believe the pilot on the downed aircraft was CDR Nakagowa, the Executive Officer of VA-196 on ENTERPRISE.

None of us had a lot of time to ponder the significance of the history we were making.  I think there was a general sense that this effort, if sustained, would end the war, but all we could do was plan our next mission and figure out how we could stay alive through another one of these episodes. 

Mission #3:Haiphong Thermal Power Plant (redux):  

Shylock and I had been assigned to the midnight go, 12:00 AM target time.  Our target was a SAM site somewhere north and west of the city.  While a real SAM site would be a worthwhile target, the mobile sites were difficult to target.  By redeploying the SAMs on a regular basis the NVA preserved their longevity and made it much harder for us to plan our attacks to neutralize this threat.

For this target Shylock suggested that we use 20 Mk 20 Rockeyes.  A portable SAM site was a soft, area target consisting of a radar van, several missile launchers, spare missiles, and most likely a generator.  The NVA camouflaged and spread these components out so there wasn’t a distinctive pattern on the ground (something which could be easily spotted in a recce photo). 

We had never carried that many Rockeyes, but we figured we might be able to do some serious SAM-hunting with this load. The Rockeyes were white rather than olive drab like the Mk-82s,and they had a blunt nose making the bomb look a lot like a cigar tube with four stubby fins on the rear end.  The bomblets were deployed from the canister by a cutting charge that fired and spit the case of the weapon after separation from the aircraft.  The result was the release of a cloud of bomblets from each weapon.  (The deployment of the weapon would become very critical later in the evening.)

There were several fusing options with the weapon, but the shortest option assured the largest footprint.  Since we were going to deliver these from a low altitude, level attack (a lay down) Shylock decided to use the short fuse option.  With the uncertainty of the SAM’s location, this would allow the Rocks to cover as much of the target area as possible. 

The AI Briefing was more ‘business as usual’ now.  The Skipper was once again the senior officer on the flight.  By this time all the crews in the squadron had made at least one run during the Linebacker II Campaign, so we knew what to expect.  There was no reason to look at all the pins that represented the air defenses in the area, because Haiphong was just one massive pincushion at this point. 

The critical factor was getting the choreography laid out and setting up a few voice calls so everyone could follow the progress of each of the other aircraft in the flight.  Shylock and I left the briefing with the confidence that our target wasn’t going to be nearly as difficult as our first two strikes.  Of course we still had to get to the target, and that entailed overflying a lot of AAA sites.  And while they might not be able to track you on radar, they could certainly shoot straight in the air and hope you would fly through their barrage. 

Just as we were completing the pre-flight check of the plane Stan Karcewski came to our aircraft to inform us that he and the Skipper’s plane had gone down for maintenance, and they wouldn’t be launching.  This didn’t really affect us much, because the Skipper was going downtown to the Haiphong Thermal Power Plant, the target we had hit on the first strike of the campaign.  Our target was a good ten miles west of downtown. 

At this point I saw Shylock’s ‘wheels turning’.  He had been grousing about the SAM site target being a waste of a mission.  Shylock looked at me with a big ‘grin’ and suggested that we ‘take our Rocks downtown’.  We knew everyone’s flight path and the timing, so it looked like we could just fly the Skipper’s plan and make the required voice calls at the predefined times. 

After we got airborne we made some cryptic radio calls to the other A-rabs letting them know our change of plan.  The Skipper had planned his mission in similar manner as his 1st run of the night before, a south to north approach.  The run-in from the south was shorter, and it would allow us to turn hard to starboard at release and egress over the flat tidal flats to the east and south of the city.  This area was devoid of any of those pesky karst ridges that could ruin your day.  This would allow us to use the tactic that worked best for the A-6, i.e. getting into the weeds and hiding!

The new mission moved us up in the batting order, so we were scheduled to make one of the first attacks of the 12:00 AM go.  Unlike the night before, when there had been at least a semblance of surprise, the NVA was very familiar with the drill at this point.  They had already weathered the 18 planes of the first launch of that evening, and they knew exactly what to expect for the midnight attack.

We made our transmission on the radio, departed our holding pattern off the coast, and descended on a heading that looked like we would be going west and south of the city.  A dog-leg run was about the only thing we could do to try and confuse them regarding our intentions.  I pushed up the throttles to get to attack speed during the descent.  The ECM equipment was all working, and it looked like everyone in the vicinity of Haiphong was already tracking us. 

The cacophony on the APR-25 quickly turned to white noise and was just making it harder to hear the Shylock’s comments.  With its small 2” display one bright luminous bloom, it ceased to be of any use.  Furthermore, at 500+ knots and under 500 feet, there aren’t a lot of additional maneuvers we could make anyway.

When we leveled-off at around 500 feet in the descent, I executed my ‘attack maneuver’, the dog-leg turn 30 degrees to the starboard.  Shylock got his head into the scope trying to pick-up the distinctive radar signatures of the river patterns in downtown Haiphong.  Unlike the endless attacks on marginal targets in the countryside, going against these radar significant targets was what the A-6 did best. 

The weather on the second night was about the same as the first.  The clouds over the city were a little less dense, and it was clear underneath.  At about three miles out Shylock cleared me to climb to release altitude.  We needed about 1200 feet to get the Rocks off the plane and deployed.  Shylock had configured the release to be as close to a salvo (all released at one time) as we could get.  This would give us the maximum number of bomblets on the target. 

Unlike the night before, when it took the defenses a few moments to figure out what was happening, the AAA sites had already started firing all over the city well before our arrival.  I don’t think they knew when and from where we were coming, but they knew one way or the other aircraft were going to be overflying the city.  And since this strategy had worked at least once the night before, when they had downed an A-6, everyone had probably been ordered to shoot straight in the air.

When I reached the top of the pop-up, I could see tracers in all directions.  You don’t have a lot of time to dwell on what and from where they are firing, but there were definitely a lot of different colors indicating a wide array of AAA.  The firing, however, was all over the place.  I don’t think they had any idea where we actually were at this point.

Shylock gave me the manual pickle call as the system started releasing the weapons.  The release was short, but I had to maintain level flight as the weapons came off to insure the best pattern on the ground. 

Along the river off our starboard side I had noticed some tracer ‘hoses’.  Unlike the 37 and 57mm rounds where there was some finite distance between successive shells, I knew this firing was from the deadly ZSU-23mm.  The sites firing on us were probably aboard patrol boats which had been brought into the city to augment the air defenses.  These guys appeared to be turning their fire in our direction.  With each vessel spitting out 4” long projectiles at such a high rate chances are you wouldn’t be hit by just one bullet.

I then realized what had happened.  When we had popped, the sites had no idea where we were.  Then the Rockeyes started coming off the plane and firing their cutting charges for bomblet deployment.  The cutting charges produced a flash, and with twenty of these things going off, we had created a track through the sky that every damn site in the city could see.  This had pinpointed where we were and given the bad guys some idea of where we were going. 

This whole thought process and my evasive strategy took no more than a blink of the eye.  We were at about 1000 feet, so there weren’t a lot of options.  I needed to get us back into the weeds, and I needed to change heading to avoid the converging fire.  I rolled the A-6 to about 120 degrees and put on a lot of Gs.  At this point we were light-loaded, so the aircraft responded well.  Out of the right side of the canopy I could see that we were overflying several gunboats along the river who were firing in different directions trying to find us with their guns. 

Once the nose was coming down I relaxed the Gs and started rolling the aircraft level.  It was murky and black ahead, so I got on the instruments.  We were still in a gradual descent, so I let the plane continue to settle on the outbound heading.  The primary instrument in my scan at this point was the radar altimeter.  I leveled off with it pegging at 100’. 

We had entered some low hanging ground fog, so there was nothing but black out the front of the cockpit.  The airspeed indicator showed us going 585, which is probably the fastest I had ever been in level flight in an A-6.  At this point the warning displays had started to relax, and I was head-in-the-cockpit on the gauges. 

The pressure altimeter was reading somewhere around ‘99,990’ feet, a negative altitude?  We were flying in the regime where the pitot-static instruments ceased to function properly.  At very high speeds the airflow around the aircraft distorts the altimeter reading.  The radar altimeter was rock-solid at 100 feet, and we weren’t hitting anything, so I just continued on the outbound leg.

In less than 2 minutes we were feet wet, and switched to MIDWAY approach.  Marshalling and the recovery were uneventful.  We got enough time in the holding pattern to let our hearts settle down prior to the night landing.  It was clear and moonlit over the gulf, the same as it had been the night before.  Although it was a night landing, we could almost see better than during some of the day landings, we had made in rainstorms.

I don’t recall that we spent a lot of time debriefing the mission.  We just reported to Strike Ops that we had taken our Rockeyes downtown, and no one made any comments about that decision.  I think Shylock and I were both still in shock from our little affair with the Rockeye cutting charges, so we just hit the rack.

The 4:00 launch and recovery went as planned.  We didn’t lose any aircraft, and we had also learned that finally MIDWAY was being relieved and would be heading to Singapore as planned. 

Post Script for the first two nights of Linebacker II – Finally Singapore: 

We had missed the first two days of our R&R period, but we had been given the chance to finally take the gloves off.  I think we all knew this is what should have been done years before. 

In Singapore the ship anchored out, and Mondo and I took one of the earliest shore boats to the dock.  There we met the girls.  Dianne and Wendy had learned when the MIDWAY would be arriving, so they were prepared. 

When they had left Hawaii, Captain McCormick, Mondo’s father, had learned that the MIDWAY was not going to be in Singapore as planned.  When the girls got to Hong Kong, Wendy had telephoned the Captain, and he told them to ‘keep going’.  Captain McCormick had checked with friends on the staff at CINPACFLT[1], and he had learned the plan for the MIDWAY. Fortunately, Dianne and Wendy were two strong women, and although Dianne was pregnant, they were committed to this visit.

Although it was cut short by a few days, the R&R in Singapore was bliss.  We did Singapore in style, mostly spent time with each other, and I could forget about the war. At the back of my mind the thought never left, that I was going to have to leaver her and go back to putting my life on the line.  The Squadron had set up an admin (A hospitality suite in one of the major hotels. From here we could get information on any change of plans for the ship or the Squadron) so there really wasn’t any reason for us to return to the ship during the period.  It was here that I also learned that I had been scheduled to stand the Squadron Duty Officer Watch aboard MIDWAY during our final day in port. This really pissed me off; not only had the in-port period and our R&R been cut short, but then I was going to miss the last day ashore. 

It was at this point that I elected disobey a direct order (the Squadron’s Plan of the Day) for the first and last time in my Navy career.  I decided to ignore the fact that I had learned I had the watch and say to hell with them.  Somehow VA-115 and the MIDWAY could get along for at least one day without Snake.  I figured I would just take the consequences, whatever they were.  And what could the Navy really do?  Send me back to Vietnam to get shot at?  Oh, but that was what they were going to do, anyway!

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