This year is a significant anniversary for me; it was 50 years ago that I flew my first combat mission.
In May 1973, I flew across Thailand and entered Cambodian airspace. At the time, there was a lot of pressure from the Khmer Rouge Communists in Cambodia to take over the country; it was our job to prevent that. The plan was to allow South Vietnam to achieve stability after the early 1973 cease-fire with the North.
When I arrived at Udorn, I learned that I would be flying bombing missions over Cambodia immediately. GIBs were in demand, and my sponsor told me I could expect to fly three-to-four-hour missions every day. There was a push on to get me a combat flight before the end of the month so that I could get my “hazardous duty pay” an additional $65 a month to fly combat. Not a great deal, even for those days. I had my orientation flight down to the combat zone, which my IP referred to as the “South 40,” as we flew across Thailand and briefly entered Cambodian airspace.
After orientation, each combat flight would begin like this one. First, check the flight schedule posted in each hootch the night before a mission to get the brief show time. Then the next day, catch the “bluebird” shuttle bus to the squadron. Then, I met my AC, and we briefed the wingman and his GIB about the mission ahead. Next, we went to Intel (the intelligence section) for a quick threat brief. At this point, about two hours had passed. Then we headed off to life support.
Suiting up, I made sure that I had my Geneva Convention Card, which we carried if we were shot down and taken prisoner. Then I got my survival gear and camouflaged helmet; then checked my survival radios. I removed my wedding ring and name tag from my flight suit and locked them in my locker. I did this to have no information on me if I were shot down, to help the enemy.
Next, I checked out and loaded a .38 cal revolver, which I carried it in a holster strapped to my leg, gunslinger style. Then we all boarded what we called the “bread truck,” along with other crews, to go to the aircraft parked in the revetments. Once at our assigned bird, we did the standard pre-flight walk around. This preflight was just like Luke, except that I had to check real bombs and missiles.
Our standard load was the Mark 82 500-pound dumb bomb, as shown in my 8 mm movie clip on the left. We could carry as many as 18 Mark 82s. We also had two Aim-9 Sidewinder infrared-guided missiles and two Aim-7 Sparrow radar-guided missiles.
As I checked them, I looked for any leaks under the Phantom. I had to be careful as it was easy to bang my head and get a “phantom bite.” Also hanging below were the RHAW and jammer pods. RHAW (Radar Homing and Warning) alerted us if the enemy had locked on our aircraft with SAMS (Surface to Air missiles). Although possible, it was not a significant threat to our missions in the South 40.
Once in the cockpit, I plugged in my G-suit and connected a tape recorder into our intercom that recorded our mission. Later we turned the tape over to the folks in intel if there were questions. Then it was the standard turn-on of the radar, aligning the INS and checking the RHAW. As I sat there, the crew chief helped me with the chute connections and pulled the pins on my ejection seat; now, it was hot and armed to fire. I dialed in the frequency for ground control. We got clearance and taxied out. Then we moved down to the arming area adjacent to the active runway. There the munitions crew pulled the safing pins on the bombs. Then takeoff.
The rains flooded the area around Udorn most of the year, and as we climbed out, I could see rainstorms in the distance. We headed now for our rendezvous with the tanker and the mission of the day.
I wrote home:
We bombed Cambodia–it’s a funny feeling to be using real bombs. The mission was 3 ½ hours, and we had to refuel three times, quite a change from Luke. I am drawing combat pay now. It’s been raining up a storm; we are in the S.W. monsoon season. I had to have three special flight suits made, two for work – green and light weight- and a black party suit. I picked up a cold at Jungle survival…348 days to go.
In my first month, I flew 18 combat missions.
As time passed, I became introspective.
On the early morning crew bus, I often thought about how many men had boarded the crew bus, never to return that night. I never said to anyone that I thought I might die. The mission was more important, and that was all that was important. Perhaps I was not alone in my feelings; all the troops that went into combat, no matter when or where, thought they might die. It was a thought not entertained for long.
I am forever linked to the veterans who served. When I flew combat, fifty years ago, I became part of that combat fraternity. It changed my life forever.