Going in or coming out, if someone got hit—and someone almost always did—the Thuds usually kept moving. “In 1966, when a guy got shot down, if he wasn’t picked up in the first 90 minutes, he wasn’t coming out,” says Rasimus.
“In PAK VI, if someone went down across the Red River, we’d continue on, but the wingman would stay with a crippled bird,” says Guild. “If someone went down on the way out, we would continue egress, try to get to him later. You don’t want to pinpoint the downed guy.”
Brazelton had almost finished his 100-mission tour when he got smoked. It was August 7, 1966, north of Hanoi. “I was dropping CBUs on a 120-mm anti-aircraft site,” he says. “A 57-mm must have hit me right in the belly. I rode it for a minute or so, told them I was ejecting. They couldn’t do anything, just too many guns. I didn’t ask them to.” (Brazelton spent the next six and a half years as a POW.)
Coming off the target, the F-105s stayed together and headed for the tankers. They took enough fuel to get back to base, where, some four hours after their takeoff, the afternoon shift was preparing the next charge against the Russian guns.
The 388th tactical Fighter Wing settled into Korat, the 355th into Takhli. As pilots and aircraft were lost at the rate of five or six a week, replacement air crews and aircraft flew in, the Yokota units to Takhli, Kadena units to Korat. Thud pilots from Europe also arrived.
There were rivalries. In his memoir, Thud Ridge, Colonel Jack Broughton, then vice wing commander at Takhli, refers to Korat as the “Avis wing.” Over at Korat, the word was that Takhli had some people interested in becoming heroes. Some accounts make both wings sound like Texas Aggies about to play the Longhorns. There are tales of the “pressure bar” at Takhli, where pilots recited stuffy Pentagon nonsense about their incompatibility with “normal management techniques,” yelled a few obscenities, sang some unprintable songs, and shattered their bottles on the floor.
The late Gene I. “G.I.” Basel, in his 1982 memoir, Pak Six, describes impromptu wakes at Takhli for lost comrades. Pilots from the day’s raid would run a gauntlet of hurled beer bottles, trying to reach the far wall, called Thud Ridge, unscathed.
Both bases adopted Australian bush hats and kept their missions tallied on the rims. Pilots tend to be superstitious. That bush hat couldn’t be left on the bed or on the dresser. Crickets in the wash room were not to be smushed. At Korat, a mustache rendered the pilot bulletproof; shaving it off was tantamount to suicide.
“We drank more than we needed to, but I always tried to get six or eight hours sleep before a mission,” says Cooper. “A hundred missions in six months: That’s 16 or so sorties a month. Every 16 days you’d get four days off. I tried to make Bangkok the center of my universe.”
Guild’s main memory of Takhli is “being tired all the time.”
Behind the wild-bunch reputation, the Thud crews were a pretty serious lot. “I tried not to think big thoughts in those days,” says Cooper, “but I really wondered whether I’d see my kids again.” He also worried about the prisoners of war. “A bunch of good buds up in that hell. I thought about that a lot.” According to former POW Mike McGrath, now historian of a POW organization, of 207 fighters and fighter-bombers downed over North Vietnam, 99 were Thuds.
The Thud experience was not for everyone. “We had people, when it came to the point where they had to fly, they’d quit,” says Rasimus. “One kid got shot down on his first mission, got picked up, came in when he got back, and handed in his wings.”
There was good reason to fear the daily gallop into North Vietnam. “The losses were appalling,” wrote Rasimus in his 2003 memoir, When Thunder Rolled. “The class of nine that had been six weeks ahead of mine at Nellis lost four. The first short-course class of ‘universally assignable’ pilots lost 15 out of 16, all either killed or captured…. For every five pilots that started the tour, three would not complete it.”