The Intruder also carried an Airborne Moving Target Indicator, a unique doppler radar that gathered returns from moving ground objects. And ground-based acoustic and seismic sensors, air-dropped along supply trails, provided another method for A-6 crews, with the help of ground controllers, to find targets moving on such routes as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. "Sometimes at night," says Byrum, "enemy anti-aircraft fire used colored tracer rounds fired aimlessly into the night sky when aircraft were detected flying in the area, to warn all vehicles on the road that we were there." Intruders generally dropped Rockeye cluster bombs first, which pierced vehicles' gas tanks or weapons caches and set off secondary fires. These provided visual aim points for a second pass, in which crews would drop Mk 82s. In the absence of secondary fires, they would head off for preassigned secondary targets.
The Intruder absorbed lots of punches. On one daylight mission, North Vietnamese 23-mm anti-aircraft fire damaged an A-6 in Byrum's squadron. The crew diverted to Da Nang. Byrum flew close to look them over and escort them to the airfield.
"It was hard to believe that the aircraft was still flying," he says. The A-6 had taken a direct hit to the leading edge of the right wing near its root. The pilot, in the left side of the cockpit, couldn't see the damage. His bombardier/navigator could, though, and had apparently decided to say little about it, probably hoping to delay an ejection over enemy territory. "The hole in the wing was about the diameter of a 50-gallon drum," says Byrum. "You could see the landing gear up inside the now-visible wheel well." Miraculously, no fuel or hydraulic fluid sprayed out, so Byrum and his navigator refrained from reporting the damage to the pilot. No sense in unnerving him.
Byrum followed the stricken Intruder to touchdown. By the time he taxied up, the pilot of the damaged A-6 had shut down and climbed out. Coming around to the starboard side of his airplane, he was stunned by what he saw. "His first reaction was to knock the bombardier/navigator to the ground. Obviously, he wasn't happy," Byrum recalls. "We didn't bother to open our cockpit. Although we couldn't hear what he was yelling, he was just as upset with us. I don't know what he would have done differently. He surely did not want to eject."
"They didn't call it the 'Grumman Iron Works' for nothing," says Ruggiero. "Look at the Wildcat and the Hellcat. We built planes that would take the fight to the enemy and bring back safely the youngsters [who] flew them."
Back on the ship, 'round-the-clock, all-weather ops made one day meld into the next for A-6 crews. They often flew two missions per day—one attack and one as refuelers for the rest of a carrier's air wing. There was little free time. "If they weren't flying their combat mission," says Reardon, "they were planning it or debriefing it—and that took several hours in itself."
The crews did have moments of relaxation. "Movies were very popular," says Reardon, "if they were not very new—and not always G-rated." When the films began to grow old, the crew ran them backward for kicks, making up their own dialogue—"like kids used to do with old Japanese monster movies," she says. Carr recalls wearing out the 1971 shark documentary Blue Water, White Death. "We sat and watched it I don't know how many times. By the end of that cruise we'd seen every damned shark in the world."
For some squadrons, says Reardon, the transit from the States involved a little below-the-radar, late-night drinking to dull the anxiety of what lay ahead. Once active air ops began, though, they refrained. "They saved the craziness for their times between [periods when the carrier was on combat station], when they went ashore in the Philippines," Reardon says, "or some exotic location such as Singapore or Hong Kong." Carr doesn't recall any drinking on the transit. "Doesn't mean it didn't happen," he says. "I just didn't see it. We did operations planning. We had targets, and we had to plan 'em. And we flew." He does remember a stop in Hawaii. "We pulled into Pearl [Harbor] and raised holy hell for a couple days." And when they got orders to come off the line for the last time and head home, he remembers that, magically, beer and spirits appeared.
The navy retired the A-6 on February 28, 1997, after 693 had rolled off Grumman's assembly line. By then it had inspired a shoulder-to-shoulder camaraderie. The Intruder Association, which Owens chairs, carries that torch, gathering pilots and bombardier/navigators to share stories and rekindle friendships.