Excerpt from Volume 2, Chapter 4
SAM (Surface to Air Missile) , by Ron Mantei, USAF
Date of Hire by Western Airlines 4/25/1972
In early summer 1964, right after Air Force pilot training, I was assigned to the 68th TFS (Tactical Fighter Squadron). After a three month check-out in the back seat of the F-4C, I arrived at George AFB to find there were no airplanes and very few crews. The next nine months were spent picking up new F-4Cs from the McDonnell factory in St. Louis and filling all those squares that were needed for the squadron to become combat ready. My training included three weeks at Fort Benning, Georgia, to become jump qualified and another week at Hurlburt Field, Florida, to become a Forward Air Controller. Thankfully, I never had to use those skills.
In the late spring of 1965 the squadron passed its ORI (Operational Readiness Inspection). In the 60s a combat-ready TFS didn’t stay around home much, so we were all waiting to find out where we were headed. It didn’t take long to find out when in early summer we learned that we would be going to Korat AFB, Thailand, to, as the Air Force stated for public consumption, “protect the borders” of our SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) ally. At the time it was not known that US aircraft based in Thailand were participating in Rolling Thunder missions over North Vietnam, so our TDY (temporary duty) rotation had to seem as benign as possible. We all knew that we were going to be more involved than guarding the border, but we were not sure to what degree.
In mid-August we ferried the squadron across the Pacific, and after three days we arrived at Korat. Any confusion over our role was quickly cleared up upon our arrival. Parked on the ramp right next to us was the 67th TFS flying F-105s, under the command of Lt. Col. Robinson Risner who, along with several of his squadron mates, would become a POW (prisoner of war) in the next month.
After a few days of theater orientation we began flying Rolling Thunder missions, the name given to the first bombing strikes over the North.We became involved in all phases of combat operations. On major strikes we were used as MIGCAP and MiG screen to protect the bombers from MiGs, we flew road reconnaissance and interdiction missions, and flew an occasional weather recon just prior to major strikes.
On September 30, 1965, I was part of a major strike in the Nam Dinh area which was on the main transportation route from Haiphong to the southern part of North Vietnam. Our target was a weapons storage facility and we were to be accompanied by a flight of four F-105s that was tasked to provide flak suppression (locate and destroy AAA—anti-aircraft artillery sites). We took off and headed for the refueling tanker which was headed north and would drop us off very close to the western border of North Vietnam. We got to the tanker just as the F-105s finished refueling, so they moved eastbound several miles and set up an orbit to wait for us to get our gas.
The weather had been forecast to be scattered to broken clouds but it turned out to be broken to overcast with the tops at 10,000 feet. Just as we finished refueling and started to head toward the target area, I saw an explosion at our altitude in the direction of the F-105s. We were at 18,000 feet and apparently the F-105s had set their orbit so that at least part of it was within range of a SAM site.A missile had come up through the overcast and struck the flight lead, leaving the remaining F-105s in disarray.We were having trouble finding a way through the cloud cover to the target area, and as it turned out the weather was so bad that we had very poor delivery options and had to drop our ordnance ineffectively.
The pilot of the F-105 that was shot down was the commander of the 334th TFS based at Takhli AFB in Thailand, and his was only the fourth aircraft to be lost to a SAM. It was sobering to realize that in 1965 we had no capabilities for detection and deterrence against these missiles except to visually acquire them and perform an evasive maneuver, a last minute high G turn to try to make them miss.
In November it had been determined that the majority of the arms and materiel moving down the panhandle of North Vietnam would be hidden in the jungle or in camouflaged truck parks during the day and then travel by night. The role of the 68th TFS changed to day and night recon and interdiction missions in Route Packs 1 and2, basically the area from Vinh south to the DMZ. (North Vietnam was divided into 6 route packages,Pack 1 being furthest south and Pack 6 furthest north. Pack 6 included Hanoi and Haiphong, the most heavily defended areas). The squadron was moved to Ubon so that we could fly without tanker support, and we continued to fly these missions until our TDY was complete and the 68th TFS returned to George AFB in the middle of December 1965.
RETURN TO UBON
During the month of January 1966 the existing aircraft commanders qualified as instructors and the 68th TFS became an RTU (Replacement Training Unit). The first class consisted of all the back seaters who were upgrading to aircraft commander, matched with new pilot training graduates in the back seat. Dan Lagomarsino (a future Western pilot) and I were crewed together. There were about 28 crews in training with half of the aircraft commanders in training being captains and the other half 1st lieutenants like me.Training lasted from February through the middle of June when we were all given our assignments. All of the new captain aircraft commanders were sent to F-4 squadrons in South Vietnam while the rest of us were sent back to Ubon.
Ubon had become the home of the 8th TFW (Tactical Fighter Wing) which was comprised of three squadrons. The 555th (Triple Nickel) flew during the day, the 433rdflew half day, half night missions, and the 497th (Night Owls) flew all night missions. Since all of us that were returning had night experience, we were mostly assigned to the 497th with a few going to the 433rd.
The 497th, to which I was assigned, had two basic missions.The first and most common was the night two ship road recon flight in Route Packs 1 and 2. Based on current intelligence we looked for truck traffic and hard targets such as known truck parks, storage areas, and the bridges that were constantly being bombed and repaired.
The second mission was a night four ship to Route Pack 6 which operated mainly on the northern outskirts of Hanoi up to the Chinese border. We would depart Ubon, crossing Laos and southern North Vietnam to meet up with a tanker over the Gulf of Tonkin. Air refueling had become a routine event but this was a different animal. Night refueling, usually with some weather (clouds and turbulence), and a heavy airplane loaded with ordnance and external fuel tanks,was challenging. Many a night I found that as the airplane got heavier, when I was getting the last 1000 to 1500 pounds of gas, I would start to slide off the boom,even at full power. At that point I would have to slip one engine into minimum afterburner while simultaneously reducing thrust on the other engine to maintain proper position, then adding a bit of rudder to keep the track in line with the tanker.All this while I swear the tanker was doing a slow barrel roll.
After refueling we would drop down to about 1000 feet, cross the coast north of Haiphong and fly the 70 miles in radar trail with 3 mile separation to our IP (Initial Point). There we would split up into two 2 ships, with each flight having its own target assignment. Targets were based on current intelligence and any remainders from the day’s strikes.They usually consisted of road segments leading to hard targets such as road and railroad bridges, marshalling yards, and known truck parks. This was a target rich environment and we were authorized to strike targets of opportunity, but if we didn’t see something right away we would go right to the main target. It didn’t promote longevity to be poking one’s nose about at 3000 feet looking for a handful of trucks.A few well-placed rounds of 85mm/100mm anti-aircraft fire going off around the canopy at night were a great convincer. We would egress the same way. We flew out over the Gulf of Tonkin and got just enough fuel from the tankers to make it back to Ubon.
The pipeline of pilots to SE Asia had been turned on, but at this time of rapid build-up the demand exceeded the supply. The 497th was somewhat undermanned and the rank structure was well below a normal Air Force squadron.Our squadron commander was a major, the operations officer was a captain, and our four flight commanders consisted of two captains and two 1st lieutenants. The second time that I was scheduled for a mission in Route Pack 6, the four aircraft were manned with eight 1stlieutenants. Since I was the only one who had been there before, I was made flight lead. Opportunities abound in time of war.
The one thing that had changed dramatically from the year before was the number of SAM sites. There were about 30 sites in 1965and a year later there were an estimated 200. The North Vietnamese pushed hard to get SAMs into the panhandle to protect their supply routes, and we were just as determined not to let it happen. Not all of the sites were manned at the same time and when the missile units felt their site had been discovered, they would place the missiles in large vans and move to another site or hide them in the jungle until the threat was gone.
Early in September 1966 I was scheduled as flight lead on a routine night road recon flight on Highway 1south of Vinh. At the evening wing intelligence briefing it was noted that there was a two mile spur that led to a SAM site along a section of the road.A flight of F-105s had struck the site earlier that day and they wanted us to take another look at it. When we got to the spur junction, I had flares and two pods of CBUs (cluster bomb units), so I lit up the SAM site with my flares and could tell that it had been unmanned at the time of the strike. I did a 180 degree turn and laid my CBUs on a 100 yard offset along the spur road in what appeared to be nothing but jungle. I did another 180 degree turn to see if anything had been hit. As I came abeam of the drop area there was a huge explosion 300 to 400 feet in diameter with white hot chunks of material being thrown another 100 to 150 feet out into the jungle.
When we got back to Ubon I debriefed with the Intel folks and they determined that I had unwittingly found and destroyed a SAM solid rocket propellant storage facility. Whatever it was, it was a big one.
NEW WING COMMANDER
About the same time in early September, we were told that we would be getting a new Wing Commander. Most of us didn’t see how that would have any impact on our lives, so we filed it in the “nice to know” category and went about our business. Several days later I returned from a flight about 4 a.m. and went to the always open, never closed, O club stag bar to have a few beers before we had breakfast.
I’ve read another account of what happened next and it varies slightly from my recall. After breakfast several of us were getting ready to head back to the hooch to get some rest for that night’s mission when the front door of the O club opened and in walked the new Wing Commander, Col. Robin Olds. There were two 1stlieutenant back-seaters standing there who began commenting on how the Col. obviously was not a combat pilot with a knife pocket and an F-101 patch on his flight suit. They grabbed Col. Olds, wrestled him to the floor, and ripped off the knife holder and the patch. I also remember one of the lieutenants grabbing a water fire extinguisher off the wall and giving the Col. a few squirts for good measure.
After the ruckus, Col. Olds jumped to his feet, looked at the assembled five or six of us and his exact words were, “I love the esprit de corps around here.”After we all started breathing normally he said, “I hope you men like to fly and fight the way you like to raise hell.” We all assured him that we did and most of us made a quick exit. I learned later that the O club manager had called the air police but they arrived after most of us were gone. Dodged another bullet!
ANOTHER SAM SITE
My last encounter with a SAM site was one of the most rewarding of my tour. I was scheduled as number two on a routine night mission to Route Pack 1 late in September 1966. About two in the afternoon I was told to report to Squadron Ops for a special mission that they wanted to launch right away. When we got there the Intel Officer told us that a flight of F-105s had found and struck a SAM site in Route Pack 1 a few hours earlier and they wanted us to go take care of anything that was left. We took off with lead carrying four MK84 750-pound bombs while my aircraft had four pods of CBUs and two MK84s.
When we approached the target area I flew directly over it at 1000 feet and could see that no missiles had been there when it was struck. As I pulled off the SAM site lead radioed, “Here they are.” Looking left, I saw a wide gently-sloped valley with a small stream and road that we were paralleling. The road was hidden in many spots by tall canopied trees that obscured anything that was parked there. As I got to one end of the road and looked down the canyon of trees, I saw a convoy of trucks, with several large SAM vans that had the unmistakable tubular construction for carrying missiles, and all the radar and support vehicles.
I turned down the road at 500 feet AGL and 500 knots, while delivering the CBUs in ripple mode to cover as much of the convoy as possible. I then pulled up into a 180 degree tear drop pattern to 15,000 feet and rolled into a 45 degree dive to drop my two 750-pound bombs. As I rolled into my dive, I could see lead through the front windscreen release his bombs in ripple mode and break left. I continued down the chute and watched his bombs walk right down the road in the middle of the convoy. As I got to release altitude I can remember saying, “Here’s two more.” The time from when we initially flew over the SAM site to when we departed the area was less than five minutes.We all knew that we had accomplished what we came to do.
The next day I went into the Intel Office to see if any battle damage reports had come in and was told that a flight of F-105s had reported five burned out SAM vans and many other support vehicles destroyed.It was good to know that Fan Song Radar and those SA-2 missiles would never be used against our guys.
Two weeks later I completed my 100 missions and returned to George AFB. There I picked up my wife and brand new baby daughter and headed to my next assignment at Spangdahlem AFB, Germany.
LONG ROAD TO WESTERN
I separated from the Air Force in July of 1969 and had a Western class date some three weeks later. A week before I was due to report I received a telegram saying that there had been a labor strike at Western, my class was canceled, and that pilots were being furloughed. I still had offers from Northwest and United, so I started class for Northwest in September. At the time of my interview at Northwest the chief pilot mentioned that new-hires were making captain in 31/2 years but he thought that might slow down some. Slow down it did. Nine months later, in May 1970, I found myself on furlough. Most of that summer I spent checking out in the F-100C and ended up flying for the Iowa Air National Guard in Des Moines. Later that summer I got a job as a project engineer for a company that manufactured industrial air pollution control equipment. Our main customers were grain elevator operators in the upper mid-west and furniture manufacturers in North Carolina.
In February of 1972 I got another telegram from Western saying that they would start hiring and if I was interested in the April class to come out for an interview. I hadn’t heard anything about Northwest recalling furloughed pilots, so I thought I would at least go for the interview at Western. My chief pilot interview was with Captain Don DeShazo who I had interviewed with almost three years earlier. He was direct and to the point by saying that the job was mine but that it wouldn’t last long. Western was going to get rid of the third pilot on the Boeing 737 and they were going to merge with American and my job would be gone. I thanked him for his encouraging words and went back to Minneapolis to make sense of it all.
I had to make a choice between two seemingly undesirable options. I could wait for a recall from Northwest or take the immediate position, knowing that it might not last. A job in the hand won out and I started class with Western in April 1972. In hindsight, Northwest carried my number for a total of seven years at which time the company and the union reached an agreement that any probationary pilot still on furlough would be dropped from the seniority list. I would never have been called back. As for Western, I never lost a day due to furlough or work stoppage. The right choice indeed!
Ron was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and seven Air Medals during his two tours at Ubon. His tours in 1965 and later in 1966 saw the beginning of the build-up in the air defense system in North Vietnam that went from a few SAM and AAA sites to the most formidable air defense system in history. Col. Robin Olds, a World War II fighter ace flying both the P-38 and P-51, said in his autobiography, Fighter Pilot, that the air defenses around Hanoi rivaled anything he saw over Germany in World War II.
Ron retired from Delta on November 9, 2000, flying as a Boeing 727 Captain at the Salt Lake City pilot base, where he had flown as a “line check airman” (check pilot) for his last three years. He has my gratitude for giving me one of the final nudges that has made Vietnam to Western Airlines, Volume 2 a reality.