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A loaded C-47 is poised to take off from a base in Vietnam, 1967. (USAF)

Plausible Denial

A daring mission to fly combat in Vietnam came with a catch—no one else could know.

"Sometimes it worked very well," says King. "Other times it didn't work worth a damn." When it didn't work, the fire arrows became merely another part of the confusion. Gorski recalled one such occurrence, while on a night mission in support of a besieged South Vietnamese fort shrouded in fog. "We could circle above this dude and pick up the fire arrow, but as soon as you tried to get some sort of angle on it, you lost it. Of course, the flareship was dropping flares and they would go down in the fog and that would really play havoc with your sight," he said in 1973. "But we would try everything we could because we had a limited resource, and we did things that maybe now we would say were a little bit harebrained or foolish."

For all their ingenuity, however, the Americans could not escape one cumbersome requirement: To keep up the appearances of a training role, they were required to fly all combat missions with a Vietnamese "trainee" on board. In contrast to the skills of the longtime Vietnamese pilots, whom King characterizes as "some of the best qualified I flew with," new classes of VNAF fliers had not been properly certified.

"Actually, they never were allowed anywhere near the controls of the aircraft," says Bill Brown. When possible, the crews restrained the new aviators with safety straps to prevent them from reaching the controls. Otherwise disaster lurked. Secord and his Vietnamese copilot barely escaped crashing when the terrified backseater repeatedly grabbed the controls of Secord's T-28.

Gorski reported having trouble with a young pilot who could not seem to control the aircraft: "Every time I'd give him the darn airplane, he'd just go completely bananas all over the sky," he told Air Force interviewers in 1973. A subsequent debriefing of the pilot by Gorski revealed unsettling information. "I asked him how much time he had," Gorski said. "He said he had about 500 hours'. I said, 'How much solo time do you have?' He said, 'I've got one hour solo time.' "

Often the backseaters weren't pilots at all. "We'd carry anybody that was available," B-26 pilot Roy Dalton recalled in a formerly classified 1973 Air Force interview. "We'd go over to the Vietnamese base commander and he would give us the guy who was sitting around either typing or sweeping the floors--and he would fly with us."

The Americans were further hampered by the requirement that all strikes be made at the direction of an airborne Vietnamese forward air controller, theoretically so that he could "authenticate the target," Gorski says. The FAC was essential to the mission: "Once we showed up on the scene, if the FAC wasn't there, we didn't strike."

Sometimes, the FAC's target selection mystified the Americans. "We were totally at the mercy and the direction of the [Vietnamese lieutenant] that came along and said, 'Hit this target!' " Dalton recalled. "We had no intelligence of our own, no hard intelligence, on who we are hitting."

Aside from these concerns, the commandos had problems communicating with the FAC. At times the radio did not work, or there was language difficulty. T-28 pilot Edwin "Jerry" Shank described the system in a letter home: "One of our complaints [to a representative Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara sent to Vietnam] was that we can't understand the air controller, so he suggested that we learn Vietnamese. We said we didn't have that much time, so he suggested we stay here for two years. A brilliant man. He's lucky to be alive. Some of the guys honestly had to be held back from beating this idiot up."

By this time, the escalating hostilities in Vietnam were attracting worldwide attention. The U.S. government had long been denying that U.S. troops were engaged in combat in Vietnam--at a news conference held in January 1962, President Kennedy issued a flat denial when asked the question--but reports in the U.S. press made clear that American trainers and advisors were firing and being fired upon. In March 1962, the New York Times reported that U.S. pilots were "engaged in combat missions with South Vietnamese pilots in training them to fight Communist guerrillas."

Farmgate became increasingly subject to public scrutiny. "Reporters were snooping around, and they would watch the airplanes take off," says Farmgate medic Hap Lutz. "They discerned that the Vietnamese on board weren't pilots." Ironically, journalists were confused by markings on the aircraft. The Vietnamese air force insignia so closely resembled that of the U.S. Air Force--only a subtle variation in color distinguished the two--that the reporters described the Bien Hoa aircraft as having American markings, thus inadvertently revealing the truth about which nation actually owned them.

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