Christmas ’72 Stories: (5) What did we know? When did we know it?

Bob ‘Hippo’ Hipps (334 Tactical Fighter Squadron): The night of Dec 17, 1972 our F-4E squadron (the 334TFS had deployed from Seymour Johnson, AFB, NC — which is the only Air Force base named after a Naval Aviator) stood down and we were all in the club asking, “WTFO?” Then, one of our maintenance officers came in and told us we were getting wall-to-wall ALE-38 chaff dispensers loaded on our jets. Since laying chaff corridors in RP-VI had been our primary mission in the previous Linebacker fun and games, this was our first clue that the following day was not going to be just another day at the office. The general consensus at the time among our aircrews was, “Oh shit, here we go again.” The next morning we attended a mass briefing by the 4TFW wing king. Kind of resembled one of those briefings you see in the old WWII “12 O’Clock High” movie. Shortly into the briefing, he said, “And there will be no SAR for the first three days of the operation.” You could have heard a pin drop…..

Bill ‘Bear’ Pickavance (VA-93 USS Midway): As I recall, on the 18th  we were on a stand-down day going between noon to midnight and midnight to noon. I was in CVIC with Fast Eddie Contreras (VA-93 AI) behind the curtains updating my nuc target folder. Without “knocking” in walked Skipper Terrell who said he and I were flying that night and that was all he could say. He said he would brief me on the mission later. Well off we went as Iron Hand into Indian country and like most of you we saw a shit load of SAMs, fired a bunch of Shrikes and sadly watched several BUFFs go down!

The two quotes highlight a significant difference between flying the Air Force war out of multiple bases in Thailand and the Navy execution from the carriers.

There was no big wing brief on USS Midway, none of us really knew anything other than we were extended on the line and not headed for Singapore. Flight deck operations by a/c maintenance and ordies and ship’s company was no indicator – it looked the same as it always does – busy, controlled, lots of moving parts – peace time, war time, 1972, 2012, a dangerous place always.

For those in Thailand like Hippo and Raz, not only did they get the “Twelve O’Clock High” brief, but looking at the massive flight line effort with lots of planes and people, it would have been obvious to folks that a “game was a foot.” The next post will provide excerpts from Raz’s Palace Cobra Chapter 10 Christmas Cards to Jane and Ho, but let me do an introduction here:

Raz notes early in the chapter:

I was scheduled to be the F-4 supervisor of flying, a shift from six in the morning to six in the evening, carrying an FM hand-held “brick” and roaming the flight line in a pickup truck, on call to assist in launches and recoveries of my aircraft type. The SOF was a jack-of-all-trades, expected to handle anything that came up during the day, from weapons loading to weather watch to in-flight emergency assistance. I showed up on the morning of December 18, 1972, to pick up the radio and start the duty day.

 Lt. Col. George Bowling, operations officer of the Weasels, met me at the door of the command post. He was grinning from ear to ear. “Raz, you’re not going to believe this. C’mon in to intel and I’ll show you something.” He led me into the quiet area of the intelligence section and pulled a small notebook out of his flight suit pocket. “Take a look at this. We’re standing down today. Everything has been canceled and we’re starting a max effort tomorrow. Here’s what’s going to happen tonight.” He didn’t say the specific words, almost as though he was apprehensive that the command post might be bugged and speaking them would divulge the awesome secret. He flipped the notebook open and displayed a list of call signs under the bold, all-caps heading “B-52s— THREE SHIP CELLS.” I counted the call signs and multiplied by three. There were going to be 150 BUFFs tonight, all targeted within Route Pack VI. 2 It could mean as many as fifteen thousand bombs all in the Hanoi area in one night. This might be the beginning of the end.

“Holy shit! They’re going to send ‘them’ into Pack VI? They’re gonna get eaten alive. How are they going to do that?”

I was conflicted between exaltation that we might finally be getting serious about ending the war and the fact that we might, in a moment of incredible naiveté, be sending a lot of vulnerable airplanes into an environment that maybe the SAC folks didn’t clearly understand. We had been told for years that SAC had electronic warfare magic that made them survivable even in the most intense defenses of the Soviet Union. The alibi for not using them was that they would compromise this magic if they used it to win the war in Vietnam. That had always seemed like a load of crap to justify years of avoiding the dirty part of the war, as they flew meaningless sorties dropping thousands of bombs on jungle that didn’t shoot back. They were certainly going to see someone shooting back tonight.

While us Navy guys – at least the junior guys – didn’t really officially know much.  We’d watching the Buffs go in on radar down in the empty Flag Ops spaces and stood Alert Five SARs which was in itself uncommon given the number of carriers on the line and with the whole gagle flying 24 hours a day – either the midnight-noon, noon-midnight, or daytime schedule – plus just  seeing thee faces of the A-6 guys after their night missions to Haiphong.

As we headed into Singapore we were briefed to say absolutely nothing to anyone about anything. This proved important since we were to have the Bob Hope Show onboard.  The world press most likely had more knowledge than we did and the Hope Show brought along reporters and indeed they asked questions. As VA-56 decided to wear our nice blue custom tailored shit-hot flight suits that day… we were obvious easy discernible “pilot targets.”

But the issue of what the various organizations knew, understood or surmised is really a buried lead. Ed Rasimus gets right at the heart of the matter as he starts his story as a F-4 “Hunter” as part of the Hunter/Killer side of the Integrated Air Defense Wild Weasle ops for Linebacker II.  See the next post.

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