“We went down the next day or two,” says Cooper, whose F-105 squadron was based in Japan. The pilots flew into the Royal Thai Air Force Base at Korat, Thailand. “Wasn’t much there when we got there,” he says. “Camp Friendship was the U.S. Army’s. Thais had a little flying school on the other side of the field.” Cooper chuckles, remembering those early days. “We come in, a fighter squadron and all its munitions. C-130s coming in every 15 minutes dropping something out.”
Those were uncertain times. No one knew if U.S. involvement in Vietnam would trigger Chinese or Soviet intervention. “We were doing all sorts of lines [nuclear missions] on all sorts of maps for all sorts of targets,” says Cooper.
Korat soon became a comfortable little Air Force city. For a time, the -105s—the nukes in the bomb bays replaced with fuel tanks—provided muscle for the CIA’s campaign against Pathet Lao insurgents. Until 1966, the Thai and U.S. governments denied that the aircraft were operating out of Thailand, but it was an open secret. Thunderchiefs were hard to miss.
The aircraft acquired the usual derisive nicknames. Where Republic’s P-47 had been the Jug, the F-105 became the Thud. The origin is unclear. Some said “Thud” echoed the sound of an F-105 crashing in the jungle. Some attributed it to Chief Thunderthud on the “Howdy Doody Show.” As with many such sobriquets, Thud quickly became a term of endearment. The -105 might be a bear to maintain, but the pilots loved its power, speed, and resilience. Thuds came home with large bites taken out of them by missiles and flak. The pilots prided themselves on doing the work of a five-man bomber crew at or beyond the speed of sound, 100 feet above the jungle, flak and missiles and MiGs everywhere.
Cooper’s squadron was in Thailand about 30 days before rotating back to Japan, where the pilots resumed their nuclear watches. When they returned to Thailand in the spring of 1965, it was to a second field at Takhli.
“Takhli in October ’65 was not much more than when the Japanese left,” recalls Dick Guild (rhymes with “wild”). The base had been built by the Japanese during World War II. “When I first got there we had a mess hall, officers’ club where you could make sandwiches,” says Guild. “We slept in hootches, eight beds to a side. Common washroom, the sinks filled with crickets. No air conditioning. Mosquito netting. Movies in the mess hall.” He grins. “It reminded me of Terry and the Pirates.”
He prefers the rough Takhli to the comfortable, Americanized base it became, with swimming pools, a new officers’ club, and individual air-conditioned apartments for the pilots. “Living alone and flying combat is really a bad idea,” he says.
By February 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson had approved Operation Rolling Thunder, a bombing campaign by the Air Force and the U.S. Navy intended to crack the North Vietnamese spirit. Because the two services did not play well together, planners divided North Vietnam into six route packages, or PAKs, later splitting the sixth into VI-A and VI-B. PAKs I, V, and VI-A belonged to the Air Force, and II, III, IV, and VI-B were the Navy’s. Da Nang-based Marines would share PAK I with the Air Force.
All seven areas were bad, but VI-A was the worst. Bristling with anti-aircraft defenses, it contained the main rail and road routes to China, which intersected at Hanoi. Pilots called Hanoi “downtown,” where, as the 1964 Petula Clark hit put it, “everything’s waiting for you.”
Superposed upon the PAKs were complicated rules of engagement, which put such targets as power plants and airfields out of bounds. Nothing in a 30-mile circle around Hanoi or a 10-mile circle around Haiphong could be hit. The ships pouring supplies onto the Haiphong quays were also off limits. And heaven help the hapless jock who strayed into a 20- to 30-mile buffer zone along the Chinese border.
Pilots could defend themselves from attacking MiG fighters, but could not hit them on the ground. Surface-to-air-missile sites were fair game if they were active; while under construction, they were safe. Targets were selected in Washington, often over a White House lunch, when the president and secretary of defense, sometimes aided by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, mulled over the military’s proposed target list, picked some out, and had them relayed back down the line to Saigon and, eventually, to Korat and Takhli. Once something became a target, it remained one. If it wasn’t wrecked on the first raid, it would be attacked again and again until it was. Most Sundays the Thuds went downtown.
Rolling Thunder escalated so gradually that the North Vietnamese were able to harden their defenses and hide critical supplies. Their web of anti-aircraft guns and Soviet surface-to-air-missile sites was soon the most sophisticated air defense system in the world.
The word among Thud pilots was that by their 66th mission they would have been shot down twice and picked up once. Put another way, they had about a 60 percent chance of completing the 100 missions north they were required to fly. (Their frequent sorties into Laos didn’t count.) For pilots on permanent assignments, 100 flights took about six months to accrue. For those rotating in from Japan, the requirement could take a couple of years.