Excerpt from Volume 2, Chapter 8
Thanh Hoa Bridge by Larry “Woody” Woodall, USN
Date of Hire by Western Airlines 1/15/1968
So there I was in my Navy F-4B Phantom, on my back, rolling in on a flak site at the Thanh Hoa Bridge in North Vietnam on September 21, 1966. But first, how did I get there?
My first memory of having an interest in aviation occurred when I was 4 or 5 years old in about 1946, playing with my dog in the backyard of our home in New London, Texas. I had heard a noise from above, looked up and saw a shiny object crossing the sky. I ran into the house, told my Mom, and she said it was an airplane. I’ve never stopped looking up when I see or hear an airplane flying by. That was the beginning of my life’s journey to where I am today, about 70 years later.
During my school years at London I continued reading and learning as much as I could about flying, even writing to Eddie Rickenbacker, President of Eastern Airlines, when I was in the 8th grade. I asked him how to become an airline pilot and interestingly he responded by recommending the military first for training. I saved my money working in high school and soloed a Piper J-3 my senior year in 1960.
A couple of interesting facts about my home town school in New London. The school exploded from a gas leak that was ignited on March 18, 1937 and killed 294 students and teachers. My Dad helped clear the wreckage and look for survivors. Another student and my friend, Earl Aman, graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1961. He was involved in the famous “Pardo Push” in his F-4, after being hit and damaged on a strike in North Vietnam. (You can read about that amazing incident on the internet.)
TO THE NAVY
The U.S. Navy recruiter visited Kilgore Jr. College in my second year. I had heard about the NAVCAD (Naval Aviation Cadet) program so I decided to apply and I was accepted. I could never have imagined what I would experience and how much I would grow up during the next 6-7 years. I was off to Pensacola in May 1962 for flight training. It was a pretty tough learning experience for a country boy, and the competition was rather intense to get into the jet pipeline, but I managed to complete the training flying the F-11 Tiger, a supersonic jet aircraft that was flown by the Blue Angels from 1957 to 1969.I pinned on my Navy Wings of Gold in Kingsville, Texas, on December 23, 1963.
The Navy was short of instructors so quite a few of us were “plowed back” to the training command at Pensacola. I selected the T-28 at Whiting Field in Milton, Florida, and spent 1964 instructing basics, acrobatics, and primary instruments. It was probably one of the best things that could have happened to me as I learned more than I ever expected by instructing.
The Gulf of Tonkin incident in early August changed everything and all of the instructors were anxious to get to a fleet squadron. In December 1964 I received orders for F-4 training in VF-121 at Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego, California. It was exactly what the Navy had promised me and just what I had wanted. Upon completion of the training in June 1965 my orders were to the “Pukingdogs” of VF-143. They were scheduled to deploy for combat in Vietnam on the USS Ranger.
During flight operations off Hawaii on the transit to Vietnam onboard the Ranger, I got too low on a very dark night approach for landing and hit the very aft end of the ship (called the ramp) with my main landing gear.The aircraft sustained some very serious damage. I was able to keep the bird airborne but the landing gear would not retract all the way and the tailhook had separated from the aircraft, plus a few other problems. Unable to air refuel or land back aboard, I diverted to NAS Barbers Point and landed with only 5 minutes of fuel left onboard. I later found out that the mirror landing system was faulty and the carrier deck was pitching. It was not an excuse for what I had done but it was a shocking lesson on how easily you can get killed in carrier aviation.
I continued to fly off the boat even as we reached Dixie Station in the South China Sea, but someone had to answer for the damaged F-4 and guess who was selected?? The CO decided to send me back to Miramar for night re-qualification with VF-121, and it was there that the experts determined that my 5’7” height could have contributed to the problem. I had already realized this because after landing on the ship it was always necessary for me to lower the seat to taxi out of the arresting gear and to use the brakes. The solution was a ¾” foam pad snapped to my torso harness to move me forward for better control and visibility. It worked! From that moment on I had one of the top grades coming aboard the ship, both day and night. Looking back, the ramp strike and subsequent events probably saved my life.
(In the late 1960s the Naval Safety Center conducted a test of the stress of combat Navy pilots. They took a number of physiological measures of pilot stress—heart rate, respiration, and so on. The results found that their stress levels went high in combat but went off the scale coming back aboard at night. I can absolutely concur with those results and it doesn’t really matter if you are in a combat situation or not. The feelings never go away. Vertigo was also a huge concern. You had to stay laser focused on flying and staying out of the water as the last 600 feet was the most critical and was in the pitch dark with few visual cues.)
After requal in the F-4, instead of going back to VF-143 I was ordered to VF-154, the Black Knights, who were transitioning from F-8s to the F-4 and needed pilots who were qualified in the F-4. We were scheduled to deploy to Vietnam on the USS Coral Sea and we finally arrived at Yankee Station on September 13, 1966. Yankee Station was the area where the task force launched strikes into North Vietnam.
SEPTEMBER 21, 1966
Now the story returns to the Alpha Strike (a large air attack by an aircraft carrier air wing) on the Thanh Hoa Bridge on September 21, 1966.
I had flown a couple of Rolling Thunder strikes in the first week at Yankee Station. One strike in particular was on a 37mm flak site at a POL (petroleum, oil, lubricants) facility in Ninh Binh along the Red River just to the south of Hanoi. It was one of my first missions and I was able to score a direct hit with my bombs on the flak site.
As was tradition in most of the squadrons, the junior pilot (me) was assigned to fly wing on the most senior, the CO, Commander Roger Boh. Since he was soon to return to the States for a new assignment, he requested to fly some of the more high priority missions. He was the leader of all aircraft involved in theAlpha Strike on September 21, and it was my good fortune to fly his wing. Cdr. Boh was a great leader and a good pilot who had served in combat in Korea. He briefed me on some very important techniques on how to fly the airplane and hopefully not get hit.
The Alpha Strike force consisted of 24 aircraft from all squadrons aboard the Coral Sea. There were 8 F-4s for flak suppression and combat MiG patrol (MIGCAP), and 16 A-4s to actually target the bridge. In addition there were a couple of A-1 Spads to provide Rescap (short for “rescue combat air patrol”, which would fly cover in the event a pilot was down and awaiting a rescue helicopter), an A-3 and an A-4 tanker for refueling, and an E-2 electronics aircraft to monitor radar signals for SAM and MiG launches. The tankers would remain safely near the carrier while the E-2 flew just off the coast.
The strike briefing was conducted by the weatherman and the intelligence officer. The weather was forecast to be good and we got to look at photos of our individual target, other surrounding flak sites, and were briefed on the call signs for SAM and MiG warnings from the E-2. We were also briefed on the location of the safest area for ejection and procedures for rescue. The photos were taken a few hours before the strike by either a photo RF-8 Crusader or an A-5 Vigilante.
The strike force was a sizeable group of aircraft that would be operating over a rather small area in a very compressed time frame. Avoiding a midair collision was foremost in our minds and it was stressed that we needed to keep our heads up and out of the cockpit. My weapons load was 12 Mk 82 500 pound bombs with “daisy cutter” fuses.The daisy cutter fuses would cause the bombs to explode above ground and take out the flak site gunners or at least cause them to keep their heads down while the A-4s attacked the bridge. In addition, my F-4 carried 2 Sparrow and 2 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles for protection against MiGs if they appeared.
Since the F-4 did not have an active radar warning system installed for SAMs, some industry technical representative from the “puzzle palace” in Washington D.C. had come up with a portable unit, not unlike the early auto radar warning receivers, that would interface with our intercom and give us an aural warning when we were being tracked by radar and if there was a subsequent “lock-on.” There was only one problem—where to put the antenna? The solution was to duct-tape it to my RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) Lt. Denny Yost’s helmet.It always cracked me up to look back in the mirror in the cockpit and see the antenna duct-taped on his helmet. We weren’t sure it was really working and it made a lot of extra noise through our headsets, so we finally just turned it off. SAM avoidance really required seeing the missile visually to have any chance at all.
The Thanh Hoa Bridge, also known as the Dragon’s Jaw, was about 15 miles inland and 60-70 miles south of Hanoi on the Song Ma River, and it was one of the most heavily defended targets in North Vietnam. The rail line and roadway on the bridge were on the major supply route to the south. One good thing was this: if you got hit it wasn’t that far to the water, where you could eject and hopefully get picked up. The Spads would hold off the enemy until the chopper arrived, even if you were on land.
Over the course of the war the bridge was attacked over 800 times in about 7 years, with the loss of a dozen or more aircraft. It was a constant learning experience of how to get in and back out after hitting the target. We had learned that going in too low would expose you to being hit by ground fire, and going in too high made the SAM threat greater. With that in mind, Cdr. Boh briefed the F-4s to join up with one section at 13,000 feet and the other at 14,000 feet. The A-4s would join up at 11 -12,000 feet after refueling, and head for the beach.
The fuel load was reduced for the F-4 to carry our very heavy ordnance load, and I was right at the maximum catapult weight of about 50,000 pounds for launch. The Coral Sea had to increase its speed to get enough wind across the deck, so we manned our aircraft and prepared for launch with the Skipper first off. I watched him launch and saw that it was going to be an interesting cat shot, and was it ever!! Leaving the flight deck you are 52 feet over the water so there is not much altitude to play around with. “Could have used a little more wind across the deck” is a gross understatement.
We went roaring off the catapult shot in full afterburner, which was about 36,000 pounds of thrust, and immediately started sinking toward the water. About the time I finally got my eyes uncaged, we started climbing.We climbed up and joined on the tanker for fuel. Since the F-4s would be the first in and last out over the target we needed to “top off” since we had launched with such a light fuel load.Trying to join up with the refueling basket at such a weight was really challenging. Our speed was too fast to put out the flaps so I was “tapping burner” just to try to get the probe inserted.
My refueling complete, I rejoined with the Skipper and we circled until the rest of the aircraft had completed their refueling. Then the rest of the strike force joined up and we headed for the beach. As I looked out at all the aircraft in the formation, heading toward something that we had all trained for, it was a sight I shall never forget. Just prior to the beach the F-4s detached and accelerated ahead.
As we flew in over the beach I was doing what the Skipper had briefed and I began jinking all over, back and forth, up and down, but always keeping him in sight. The flak was unbelievable! It was like a solid cloud layer but it was black and exploding. Then the Skipper called our flak site target in sight, Denny pointed it out to me, and we started our run-in. We were at about 10,000 feet and just prior to the roll-in we started receiving SAM warning calls. I told Denny to keep a look out for the SAMs while I would try to keep the Skipper and the target in sight.
I pulled up to roll over and set up my 45 degree dive, but went up through the flak layer and lost sight of both the Skipper and the target. There was nothing left to do but continue the run-in and see what happened. Back down through the flak and I picked up the Skipper pulling off the target at 5000 feet. I immediately sighted the flak site, probably due to the flashes of the 6 guns going off at somebody (Possibly me? Huh?) I adjusted my dive by looking through the bomb sight. When Denny called the altitude I pickled the bombs off and you could feel the ripple throughout the airplane. The A-4s were just starting their runs and the radio was going berserk with all the SAM calls, guys trying to evade the missiles and losing their wingmen, and some near misses.
When I pulled off Denny watched for the bomb explosions while I kept the Skipper in sight to rejoin. Denny said, “We nailed it!” I was still trying to avoid all the flak and could see the contrails of the SAMs. I joined up in a loose formation at about 3000 feet, 10 miles northwest of the bridge. It was time for our next job which was to protect the rest of the strike force from MiGs until the last aircraft called “feet wet,” meaning they were safe, over the water, and headed back to the ship.
About this time “Red Crown,” a Navy cruiser steaming out in the gulf, whose mission was to provide radar coverage for the Alpha Strike force, called MiGs airborne off Kep Airfield. We swung around and Denny had the radar looking up to see if we could spot them. The Skipper thought he had a radar contact but it was about 25-30 miles away and he wasn’t sure, so we started accelerating to close the distance. Denny still hadn’t painted anything and was having problems with the radar, but I had the Sidewinders armed just in case. We didn’t have a lot of extra fuel. It was going to be tight and hopefully the tanker would still be there with fuel if needed.
The Skipper had a positive contact but first we were required to do a visual check to be sure it wasn’t a friendly aircraft. At this time the last A-4 called “feet wet” and the MiGs, apparently realizing that they were late, too far away and also being tracked, reversed course and headed back to Kep. We broke off and headed back to the water at “warp drive.” We must have really stirred-up a hornet’s nest because they started hammering away at us again with AAA but luckily no SAMs were fired.
A few of the A-4s were calling out with damage but nothing serious. Some of them had to join up with the tanker for fuel but we were able to get back aboard without refueling. In fact, my trap upon landing was an OK 3 wire which means the best grade for a carrier approach/landing (I can say that after 50 years anyway.) As I shut down the engines and started unstrapping, Denny was already standing on the wing, shaking his head and pointing to something I couldn’t see from the cockpit. The plane captain was helping me get out and was saying something I couldn’t hear with all the aircraft noise.
Once I was out Denny showed me what he was pointing at. It was a clean shot right through the left wing about the size of a baseball that wasn’t visible from the cockpit. It had missed everything inside the wing. Unbelievable!! After previously hitting the ramp on the USS Ranger and surviving, maybe there was some truth to what my Mom had told me years before. After doing some really stupid things while growing up, she had said, “You must have been born under a lucky star.”
On that 5 month cruise VF-154 alone lost 5 airplanes, with 4 of the 10 crew members rescued.Of the other 6, 3 were either dead or MIA and 3 were in the Hanoi Hilton where they would remain for another 7 years. Two of the POWs from our squadron were Nels Tanner (who just recently passed away) and his RIO, Ross Terry. Nels is a legend in his refusal to cooperate with the NVA torturers and he received some of the most brutal torture.
You quickly learn in combat that the only person that is going to help you survive is old number one. As an example, not only did we have the ROE restrictions we had to comply with, but in October 1966 someone came up with the brilliant idea of sending the F-4s out on night recce (reconnaissance) missions. The weather was lousy all month with low clouds and rain showers. The ordnance load would be 250 pound bombs (that’s like using a cherry bomb) loaded on one side of the airplane and flares on the other. The procedure would be to fly around at low level in the dark with basically no terrain mapping radar, drop a flare on a road if you could see it, and then whip back around and bomb whatever was there, if anything. It was like diving in a dark hole with a bright light and no other references. Although the A-4s and the A-1s had trained on night attacks like this, we hadn’t. In three nights we lost 2 airplanes and 4 men before these missions were cancelled. One who is still listed as MIA is Don Parsons, who was another “nugget” and my best friend. (A nugget is a first tour pilot or RIO).
I returned to Miramar in February 1967 and decided to continue what Captain Eddie Rickenbacker had written in that letter years before. I was hired by Western Airlines in January 1968 and retired from Delta in 2002 flying the MD-11 out of the Portland pilot base.
One of the most heart-warming things I’ve done in the years since Vietnam was a ride on my Harley in 2008 with a group of veterans. The ride was named “Run For The Wall,” and it went all the way from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. on Memorial Day for the appropriately named “Rolling Thunder” event. The crowds that met us and the thanks we received from everyone we met along the way were incredible.
I continue to ride the Harley, hike the Grand Canyon (every year for the last 11 years), fly my Cessna 180 to Idaho and play in the clouds with my RV-4, a light home built airplane. I’ve logged more than 30,000 hours in the air, still love it and will continue to fly as long as the Good Lord allows. I’ve been blessed and very lucky with a wonderful wife of 50 years and two sons of whom I am extremely proud.