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.
Whether on permanent or temporary duty, a Thud pilot knew that he was in a knife fight with his good hand tied behind him.
at first light, the morning forces at Takhli and Korat would begin assembling for breakfast, briefing, and a good deal of study, with each four-ship flight learning what fragment, or “frag,” of the total day’s work Saigon had given them. By mid-morning, the pilots were on their way to their aircraft, wearing about 80 pounds of G-suit, parachute, and survival gear. Once the fliers were strapped into their machines, they taxied to an ordnance pit, where ground crews removed the red-flagged pins from the bombs.
“On PAK VI, we’d have eight [750-pound bombs] on the wings,” says Guild, or combinations of 500-, 1,000-, 2,000-, and 3,000-pound bombs. “I liked the 3,000. They
didn’t work for bridges, but for taking out flak pits….” He smiles, his hands describing a big blast wave propagating outward. “I dropped CBUs [cluster bombs]. You could see them down there, pop pop pop pop, but the guns just kept shooting.” He wasn’t fond of napalm. “God knows where it’s going to go.”
“The F-105 flew like a heavy T-38,” says Brazelton. “Even with bombs on it, I could do an aileron roll. My favorite [configuration] was a centerline tank and a 3,000-pounder under each wing. A lot sleeker.”
The classic PAK VI mission, says Rasimus, was “always a package, 30, 40, 50 airplanes,” including a Douglas EB-66 electronic countermeasures aircraft, F-4 Phantoms to fight off MiGs, and Wild Weasels, two-seat F-105F or -G models used to counterpunch anti-aircraft defenses.
Once airborne, the four-Thud formations headed for a herd of Boeing KC-135 tankers flying 30-mile-long racetrack orbits over Thailand. “Each [formation] had their own tanker,” says Rasimus. “They’d fill everybody up. Tanker would head north, take us up over Laos, about halfway to the target. We’d quickly cycle through again and drop off with full fuel.”
“It took about half our gas to get up there,” says Brazelton. “But once refueled, we could fly a long way, a thousand miles.”
The F-105s would then head into North Vietnam, flying at 18,000 to 20,000 feet. Going into PAK VI, the pilots followed two main approaches. One took them out over the Gulf of Tonkin, where they then turned to the attack. The other took them along a mile-high branch of the Day Truong Son (Long Chain of Mountains). Paralleled on the south by the Red River, this narrow complex of karsts and dense-canopy forest points southeast toward Hanoi. Americans called it Thud Ridge, after the men who were lost there and the F-105 detritus littering its rough slopes.
“We flew down the center of Thud Ridge,” recalls Guild. “If we skimmed it to the south we would get hammered out of Phu Tho and Quan Tri. If we skimmed it to the north, we would get hammered from that valley. I think it was just too hard for them to put AAA guns or SAMs on Thud Ridge.” Later in the Rolling Thunder campaign, a heavy-lift Russian helicopter added weapons to the ridge.
“We’d go to a target line abreast,” says Cooper. “The Thud had a pretty good automatic nav system if you were bombing Vladivostok with nukes, but if you’re bombing bridges up in the mountains, you can’t even tell which valley or which slope.”