Excerpt from Volume 2, Chapter 24
The Spirit of Semper Fidelis by Dennis Dolan, USMC
Date of Hire by Western Airlines 9/7/1976
It has long been the philosophy of the Marine Corps that every Marine is a rifleman first. Thus, all Marines are trained in basic rifle squad combat and every Marine, no matter what his normal work specialty might be, frequently requalifies with a rifle in order to maintain proficiency as a rifleman. This is true for Marine officers as well as for Marine enlisted men. Many times, over many conflicts, Marines serving in supporting roles, such as staff positions, motor pool positions, aviation positions or other support functions have been pressed into service as riflemen as and when the need arose.
What this philosophy boils down to is that the Marine rifleman is the essence of the Marine Corps. In other words, Marines on the ground acting as riflemen are the reason that the Marine Corps exists. Any other positions Marines may assume in battle (staff, motor pool, aviation, etc.) are merely supporting arms and are there for the benefit of the Marines on the ground actively engaged in fighting with the enemy.
All Marines understand and embrace this philosophy, so when front line Marines are in trouble and need assistance it is understood that all other Marines are there to assist, whatever their support function might be. Aviation is considered by the Marine Corps to be a supporting arm, and as previously stated,is there first and foremost for the benefit of Marines on the ground engaged in battle. This relationship between Marines in combat performing these respective roles could not be more evident than in the following story.
I deployed to Vietnam on my first combat tour in September of 1969. I was assigned to Marine Fighter/Attack Squadron 122 (VMFA-122) flying the F-4B Phantom II aircraft. Our squadron was assigned to Marine Air Group 13 (MAG-13), which was in turn assigned to the First Marine Aircraft Wing (1st MAW). We were based at Chu Lai Air Base, which is on the east coast of South Vietnam and is about 50 miles south of DaNang. During this tour I flew a total of 234 combat missions. The following story recounts the most gratifying mission I ever flew, either during this combat tour or during my second combat tour which took place aboard the USS America in 1972-1973.
At various times during normal operations at Chu Lai the Marine fighter/attack squadrons in MAG-13 had airplanes on alert status, or on a “hot pad”, so that they could respond on very short notice to troops in contact with the enemy who were in need of close air support. The alert status we stood consisted of two crews and two airplanes on 5 minute alert, and two crews and two airplanes on 15 minute alert. This alert system was kept up 24/7 and we alternated this duty on a pre-determined schedule with the other two F-4 squadrons in MAG-13 based at Chu Lai.The 5 minute alert aircraft were loaded with fuel and ordnance, had been pre-flighted by the 5 minute alert crews and were hooked up to the starting apparatus and ready to be fired up and launched.
I was on 5 minute alert one morning in late February of 1970 along with my RIO and roommate, Jim Haskell, when we got scrambled for a mission involving “troops in contact”. This meant that infantry on the ground were actively engaged with an enemy force and were in immediate need of close air support. I emphasize the phrase “close air support” because the ordnance loads our hot pad airplanes were configured with were designed to accommodate situations where the ground troops would be in close proximity to the ordnance that would be dropped. Obviously, accuracy and timely delivery of the ordnance was paramount in these situations to ensure there were no friendly casualties. The common rule of thumb for such missions was that we would drop no closer than one foot per pound of bomb load. For example, under normal circumstances if you were dropping 500lb. bombs you should not be directed to drop these weapons closer than 500 feet to the friendlies you were supporting.Again, this rule of thumb applied “under normal circumstances”. Sometimes circumstances in the heat of battle are anything but normal, and such was the case on this mission.
It was about 0700 when we received the scramble directive. We immediately ran to our aircraft, jumped into the cockpit, quickly strapped in and began cranking the engines. After engine start and the removal of the safety pins from all of the ordnance we were carrying we told the tower we were a hot pad launch and requested clearance for takeoff upon reaching the runway. We were given immediate clearance, and since I was the flight leader on this mission I took the runway on the roll and began my takeoff. My wingman followed me at the standard 30 second interval, and after he reported airborne I looked at my watch and determined we had completed the scramble in 4 minutes and 40 seconds. This was about normal, and after a few times doing this drill everyone was, almost without exception (sometimes there were “issues” that caused a slight delay), able to get airborne in 5 minutes or less, giving real credibility to the 5 minute hot pad.
On this mission we were headed to a spot about 25 miles southwest of DaNang, where we contacted an airborne FAC (Forward Air Controller) for further direction. This FAC was an Air Force pilot flying a Cessna O-2 Skymaster, which had two engines situated in a “push-pull” fashion. The O-2 was specifically designed as a FAC airplane and was an excellent platform for controlling close air support missions. As we made contact with the FAC he began briefing us on the situation. He told us a Marine Recon Team (Recon is short for reconnaissance) had been out the previous night and were observing a company-sized North Vietnamese Army (NVA) unit when the Recon Team’s position unexpectedly became compromised. The Marines immediately began backtracking from their position and the NVA unit began pursuing them through the thick jungle underbrush. This pursuit had continued all night and the Recon Team was now in a thinly wooded area very near the bank of a large stream. Any further backtracking at this point would put these Marines in the open as they negotiated the stream, and they would become easy targets as they tried to cross to the other side. Effectively, they were now trapped with the NVA unit pushing toward them. The NVA unit contained about 100 men and the Recon Team consisted of 12 Marines. Obviously, the Marines were now seriously outgunned and had no place to go. This meant that the close air support we could give them would be imperative to their survival.
As we orbited the target area and listened to the FAC give us details of the exact location of the Marines and the NVA unit I said to myself I was thankful that the weather was nice, and fortunately it was going to be a bright, sunny and relatively clear day. The time now was about 0720, and the sun was above the horizon and continuing to rise making the visibility excellent in the target area.
The FAC then asked for our ordnance load and I told him we each had four MK-47 500lb. napalm canisters and six MK-82 500lb. general purpose bombs equipped with “snake eye” fins and instantaneous fuses. The snake eye fins opened when the bomb was released and caused the bomb to immediately slow down (or retard) its speed and trajectory, and the instantaneous fuses would allow the bomb to detonate upon impact. The purpose of the snake eye fins was to allow the airplane to deliver high explosive ordnance at an extremely low altitude, while at the same time keeping the airplane out of the bomb fragmentation pattern, thus providing real “close air support”.
On the other hand, while the napalm canisters were good close air support weapons as well, their delivery was designed more for an area target, as opposed to a point target, as they tumbled and gyrated once they were released from the aircraft. Accurate control of where they might land when they impacted the ground was not achievable when compared to a free falling bomb, which tended to keep the trajectory it had when it was released from the airplane.
The FAC copied our ordnance load and then came back and said: “We won’t be using the napalm today as the friendlies are too close. In fact, the ground commander is whispering into his Fox Mike when he talks to me because the NVA are that close.” (Fox Mike means FM radio, which was the standard PRC-25 radio carried by ground Marines in Vietnam).
I then said: “How close are they?” He said: “About 100 to 150 feet.” I said: “That is close—extremely close.” In fact, it was effectively right on top of the Marines we were here to support and much closer than we would have liked to drop our ordnance, under normal conditions. Except these weren’t normal conditions anymore. These 12 Marines were trapped and about to be overrun, so this required us to do what we could for them, and to be as precise as we could be with our deliveries, since they would effectively be right in the bomb fragmentation and concussion area.
Notwithstanding that you never want to drop ordnance nearly on top of your fellow Marines under any circumstances, what you have to consider here is the effect that a 500 pound bomb has when it explodes. The crater left by a 500 pound bomb is roughly 30 feet in diameter and about 10 to 15 feet deep, depending on the terrain upon which it impacts. The concussion from a 500 pound bomb, especially at close range, is enormous and could very well cause the troops in close proximity to the detonation to suffer nose bleeds, go into shock, sustain a brain concussion and even sustain internal organ damage, not to mention possibly being struck by a bomb fragment. These are some of the reasons why a certain minimum distance away from the friendlies was desired when dropping this type of ordnance. In this case, however, the in extremis nature of the situation did not allow for the minimum distance, so the Recon Marines knew they were in for some rough sledding just by being in very close proximity to these 500lb. bomb explosions. But such was their desperation that they knew they either had to endure these hardships or possibly be overrun by the NVA. It was pretty obvious that they were willing to put a huge amount of trust in their fellow Marines to accurately and precisely deliver the ordnance that would save their lives.
About this time the FAC asked me a question I wasn’t quite ready for and it surprised me. He said: “Can you handle this?” I was startled by the question, but considering the direness of the circumstances it was completely reasonable for him to ask this question. After all, delivering 500lb. bombs under these circumstances would permit no margin for error. After a slight pause, I said: “Sure, I can handle this.” I thought to myself, I currently had close to 200 combat missions and had delivered snake eye finned 500lb. bombs many times, and I was confident I could deliver them wherever the FAC wanted them in this situation.The FAC then asked another question which I was once again startled to hear. He said: “What about your wingman—can he handle this?” I thought for a second about the wingman. He was a relatively new guy with about 25 or so missions. However, I had flown with him before and he was a good pilot and a very conscientious Marine. I was sure he certainly knew that the stakes were very high here. I replied to the FAC: “Sure, he can handle it or else he wouldn’t be here.” He said: “OK, let’s move on.”
In retrospect, after this mission was over I thought about this sequence of events many times. This FAC was a consummate professional and he felt like those Marines’ lives were in his hands every bit as much as they were in ours as we dropped the ordnance. He was being cautious with the situation, and for very good reason. One errant delivery of a 500lb. bomb would most certainly have resulted in the death of most if not all of the 12 Marines on the ground. Over the years I have appreciated this intervention by the FAC and silently thanked him for his concern, since that concern very much served to focus my attention on the seriousness of this situation.
Continuing with his cautious approach, the FAC then said he wanted to ensure that I had a positive ID on the position of the friendlies before he would clear us to drop any ordnance. Nothing wrong with that, I thought to myself. He then said in order to positively ID the friendlies’ position I would have to fly over their position and be able to spot them by identifying a signal mirror that would be flashed by the ground commander. If I could not see the mirror, and thus positively identify their position, we would not be cleared to drop. I thought to myself, this should be interesting, trying to spot a two inch by four inch signal mirror being shined up at a random angle through somewhat heavy jungle canopy to an airplane traveling at 400+ knots. In any case, the FAC verbally explained to me where the friendlies were located by outlining a geographical position in relation to the stream that was at the Marines’ backs. I locked my eyes on the spot he described, and without looking inside the airplane or anywhere else, I steered to that particular spot, and when I got to the spot I thought he had described I rolled the airplane into a 90° bank angle and looked straight down at the ground. Much to my surprise and satisfaction, there was the blinking signal mirror, and it was as clear as day. I said to the FAC: “Friendlies in sight.” He said: “Roger, then let’s get to work.”
He said we were to drop the MK-82 snake eyes one at a time and that he would not pre-mark the target with a smoke rocket as was normally the case, but he would shoot the marking smoke rocket just as I rolled into my first bombing run. This was done to keep the NVA from being tipped off where the friendlies were exactly, and also not to let them know that they were about to get some 500lb. diplomacy handed to them! I said “Roger, I’ll call you when I’m set to roll in.” He acknowledged, and then said make the bombing runs going from North to South as we pass over the target. This direction was given for various reasons but mostly for the FAC to be able to adequately control the situation, considering the local terrain, etc.
As I cranked the airplane around to start the bombing pattern I tried to keep my eyes on the location of the friendlies I had just identified. I only looked into the cockpit to set the ordnance delivery switches so that I could drop the snake eyes from the center bomb rack in the singles mode, and to set the gunsight to the correct mil setting for 500lb. snake eye bombs being delivered from a 10°dive angle, with a 450 knot delivery speed at 500 feet above the target. I relied on my backseater, or Radar Intercept Officer (RIO), Jim Haskell to keep track of my speed and altitude and to let me know how the set-up was proceeding. Jim was my roommate at Chu Lai and we flew most of our missions together, as this provided good team spirit and intimate knowledge of each other’s habits in the airplane. While on the downwind and getting ready to make the first turn to a base leg and be ready to line up with the target, I called the wingman and told him that because of the very close proximity of the friendlies that unless everything (airspeed, dive angle and gunsight aiming position) was right on the money at the delivery point, don’t release the bomb. We would take our time and be as precise as we could be even if we had to make several extra passes. We had plenty of fuel for this mission so time was not a factor, and if for some reason we did get low on fuel we weren’t very far from DaNang (the closest acceptable divert field) if we needed to land there.
As I rolled onto the base leg I called the FAC and said: “Ready for the run.” He said: “Roger. Smoke’s away.” He then fired a smoke rocket and once it hit the ground he said to me: “Hit the smoke—cleared in hot.” I said: “Roger, cleared hot.”
As we proceeded into the run, I felt everything was going along smoothly. I have to say that my concentration level at that point was total and I was able to blank out everything else except my focus on the dive angle, the airspeed, the gunsight pipper movement and the anticipation of the RIO’s call of “Mark”, which was verbalized when we reached the release altitude. I should also point out that in a bomb delivery pattern the RIO is constantly calling out airspeed, dive angle and altitude. This constant stream of information is very helpful and after you have worked with the same RIO for quite some time the element of teamwork is very much evident in a situation like this event. Here’s what a typical low angle, low altitude bomb run would sound like, and look like to me, in the cockpit. Keep in mind that during the run the RIO would do almost all of the talking.
First, however, a bit about the visual display that I would be seeing during a bomb run.The gunsight on the F-4B was a “fixed sight”, meaning it did not move in relationship to the aircraft platform. The gunsight display looked much like a bulls eye, with an outer circle and two segmented (not solid) inner circles that decreased in circumference but paralleled the outer circle. In the center of the sight was a solid dot, which was known as the “pipper”. The pipper was bore sighted with the centerline of the aircraft and indicated where any forward propelled projectiles (such as rockets or a 20mm gun) would be projected. However, the gunsight did not correct for wind and drift. The entire display was focused to infinity so it would always be in focus as you looked at it and through it during a bombing run. Each piece of ordnance had a specific “mil setting” on the sight so that issues of weight and drag, as well as forward velocity, could be taken into consideration as the sight was adjusted for a specific bombing run. These mil settings were first developed theoretically by mathematical models and were then verified through actual testing by an actual F-4 aircraft either shooting the gun or rockets, or dropping the various types of ordnance the F-4 carried. The mil setting guides we were given were quite accurate, considering all of the deliveries were done mechanically.
As the aircraft began to roll out of its turn onto the final delivery heading, I would then see the gunsight come to rest on the inbound tracking heading as it moved toward the target. This “first look” was very important and would determine if the aircraft was tracking properly to the designated release point for delivery of the bomb. If it was not tracking just right, a lateral correction would hurriedly be made by the rapid input and release of bank in the appropriate direction to effect a change in track. On this particular run the pipper was tracking right toward the release point upon rolling out of the initial turn. This was one of the advantages of a low altitude, low angle bomb run in that more precise control of all of the parameters (track, airspeed and dive angle) was much easier to achieve.
As I rolled the wings level, this is the commentary I received from my RIO.
RIO: “Dive angle looks good (meaning very close to or right on 10°), speed 430 and increasing, 1000 feet to go.”
(Note: I ran the basic close air support pattern at about 1500 feet above the target and I tried to keep my speed at about 430 knots just prior to roll in. Rolling in and establishing the 10° dive while situating the airplane on the proper course alignment with the target would use up about 100 to 300 feet of altitude.)
As for the airspeed, if you were not careful and paying attention, rolling into about 100° to 135° of bank and pulling about 3g on the airframe to pull the airplane around about 90° onto the run-in course had the potential to bleed a lot of energy (translated as a loss of airspeed) from a relatively heavy airplane carrying a lot of ordnance. Keep in mind that the ordnance not only provided a lot of weight (in this particular case, about 5,000lbs.) but it also provided a lot of external drag, which would bleed energy rapidly as well. To counter the weight/drag effects of making a tight, 3g turn onto the target required a lot of engine power to keep the airspeed from decaying during this roll in maneuver. If the airspeed dropped off significantly during the roll in maneuver then a lot of power would be required to get the airplane back up to the delivery speed, in this case 450 knots. Having to increase the speed a lot in a relatively short run, which the 10° run turned out to be, would cause a large downward movement of the nose of the aircraft as the speed increased. While in effect we are talking about only 2° or 3° of downward movement this is a significant amount of movement in a 10 degree dive and would cause the pipper to move excessively, and inherently this usually affected the accuracy of the delivery. The optimum delivery, and almost without exception the most accurate delivery, occurred when three of the four delivery parameters (airspeed, dive angle and pipper track) were reached in a smooth and coordinated manner relatively quickly after entering into the bomb run, and well before the release point altitude.
Attaining the proper dive angle was a matter of “feel”, in that having done these deliveries enough you could roll the airplane into the exact dive angle by merely looking outside and not at the attitude indicator (a cockpit instrument which showed visually the actual angle of the nose of the airplane referenced against the horizon). As for the airspeed, keeping the energy of the airframe high enough just prior to and during the roll-in by using engine thrust, you could ensure that the airplane was close to the delivery speed (within 20 knots was my goal) just as you rolled wings level in the dive. I always went to full military power (100% power application—throttles to the full forward position) just prior to roll in to assure there would be very little airspeed decay during the roll-in maneuver. Once stabilized in the 10° dive, attaining an extra 20 knots or so of airspeed with the F-4 in a 10° dive was simple, and only required a rather slight reduction of the throttles from full power to about 90% power once the aircraft was stabilized in the dive. These techniques became habitual and made the low angle delivery a very precise and accurate event.
I monitored the pipper movement toward the smoke mark and all looked good at this point.
RIO: “Dive angle looks good, speed 450, 500 feet to go.”
RIO: Standby, standby . . .MARK!”
(Note: The term “Mark” was the signal that the aircraft had arrived at the release altitude as previously agreed. In this case that would be 500 feet above the target altitude. The target altitude above sea level would be determined from a map of the area. I usually set my radar altimeter to 500 feet as a backup for the release altitude. The radar altimeter measured height above the terrain, so it was a decent cross check for 500 feet above the target elevation, especially if you were doing this type of work at night when there were few if any outside cues. Using this backup could at least help prevent flying into the trees, or worse, into the ground.
On this run when I reached the release point everything looked just as it should have and the pipper was right on the smoke mark so I “pickled off” the first snake eye bomb. The bombs are “released” from the bomb rack by being strongly pushed away by two small impulse cartridges (one cartridge will do the job but there are two for purposes of redundancy). When the impulse cartridges fire and the bomb is pushed away you can definitely feel this sensation in the form of a thump and/or a small vibration in the airplane.
As I pulled off of the target I applied 4g’s within two seconds to the airframe, got the nose started up and then applied full power to the engines. This was a standard recovery technique for a 10° dive bombing run. I then sharply rolled into a steep bank to the left and looked back over my shoulder to see where the bomb had hit the ground and exploded. In this case it exploded as intended—right in the middle of the FAC’s smoke mark. The FAC said: “Excellent, lead. Two, hit lead’s smoke. Cleared hot.” “Two” was my wingman and that is how a flight of two was referred to by a FAC, as Lead and Two. The wingman’s bomb exploded right where it was supposed to and the FAC complemented him on his accuracy as well.
It became evident after the first couple of runs that we were all comfortable with the situation now, so we proceeded to continue with the single 500lb. snake eye deliveries for about another 20 minutes or so, at which time all 12 of the bombs (6 from each F-4) had been expended. It is noteworthy that the aim point for each successive run was shifted a bit to the west of the original aim point, which was a bit further away from the Marines, since the bulk of the NVA force was in this direction, and also because after the first couple of runs the NVA unit had begun retreating toward the west, which was the direction they had come from. Frankly, we wreaked havoc on the NVA troops that were the recipients of this cold steel assault.
After we finished delivering all of our ordnance the FAC asked us if we were ready to copy our BDA (BDA means bomb damage assessment). We said yes, and he told us we had 50 KBA (KBA means killed by air), and another 50 probable KBA. He also said he wanted to pass on some words from the ground commander. I said: “Sure, go ahead.”
He said: “The ground commander says the Recon Team is all accounted for and about to head across the stream. He also said to tell you Sierra Hotel and Semper Fi.” I said:”Tell him Semper Fi from us as well.” In military parlance Sierra Hotel means “Shit Hot”, which in turn means you’re really good and you did a great job. Semper Fi (actually, Semper Fidelis fully spelled out), of course, is the motto of the Marine Corps and means “Always Faithful”. Exchanging ‘Semper Fi’ between Marines has a lot of emotional meaning and shows deep respect for a fellow Marine.I have to say, those words had a huge impact on me at the time considering the circumstances under which they were exchanged.
After we were released by the FAC we headed back toward Chu Lai via a slight deviation to the hung ordnance disposal area, which was about 10 miles east of Chu Lai over the South China Sea. It was not a good idea to bring napalm back to the field and land the airplane with it still hung on the bomb rack, even if you had not tried to drop it. After hauling these napalm canisters around for 45 minutes or so it might very well be that one or more of them might be armed as they sit on the bomb rack. Napalm had a carriage speed limitation of 350 KIAS, and we had definitely exceeded this speed by a large amount during this mission, as well as having pulled quite a few g’s during the bombing runs.When these limitations are exceeded when carrying napalm what can happen is the arming wire that keeps the bomb fuse from arming unless and until the bomb is physically dropped from the airplane can be physically broken, especially when the carriage speed limit is exceeded. If this happens, the white phosphorous fuse used to ignite the napalm canister when it hits the ground can become armed while the canister still sits on the airplane. If the fuse becomes armed and the canister is subsequently jolted say on landing or by some form of turbulence the white phosphorous fuse can explode, and this explosion may ignite the napalm canister as it is being carried on the bomb rack, or the fuse could also possibly explode into the airframe. This is definitely not a situation anyone should face unless they had to, either because they can’t get the napalm jettisoned before having to land or it won’t come off the rack. In any case, we both jettisoned our napalm canisters, headed back to Chu Lai and landed.
After having had time to think about this mission it had a great impact on me for several reasons. First, we had saved the lives of 12 of our fellow Marines, and gave them the opportunity to live and fight another day. I often think about these fellow Marines, and frankly I hope they were all able to survive the war, go home and raise nice families and have a good life like I have been able to do.
Second, I learned a lot about how much I could concentrate when there was a lot on the line—in this case, the lives of twelve Marines. The fact that you can get in a zone like that where nothing else matters but the task at hand was a real teaching moment for me. While I had flown other complex missions during my tour nothing was as tedious as this one when it came to having to be deadly accurate with close air support.
Finally, the philosophy of the Marine Corps was really driven home to me that day. I had been trained in a specific skill and given the tools to perfect that skill. It was a profound moment when I realized that skill was destined to be used for its primary purpose—for me to rise to the occasion and support my fellow Marine infantrymen, who are indeed the back bone of the Marine Corps. When the ground commander passed on his Semper Fi to me and my wingman, I have to say that was one of the proudest moments I have ever experienced in my life. Those wordsspoken by fellow Marines engaged in combat brought home the true meaning and spirit of Semper Fidelis to me that day, and that feeling has stuck with me ever since.
As I close this story I reflect on the many times over the storied history of the Marine Corps where Semper Fi has been exchanged between Marines, and especially between Marines in combat. This mission truly brought home the meaning and spirit of these words to me in a very personal way. So I would like to say to all those Marines who have honorably served our country over the years, and especially to those who have given, in the words of Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg address, “…the last full measure of devotion”,