By Ed Rasimus
(Excerpted from When Thunder Rolled: An F-105 Pilot over North Vietnam)
Our target for the day was a bridge at Bac Ninh on the northeast railroad. Ingress could be along the mountainous coast, and the only heavy defenses were along the railroad itself and in the flatlands where the narrow valley that harbored the rail line opened up on the delta. I was flying wing on Maj. Bill Loyd, with the new assistant operations officer, Maj. Ken Frank, flying as number three and Karl Richter as four. Our load was five Mk.-83 low-drag bombs. Rain the night before hinted that the monsoon was overhead and the only weather factor was going to be local. The target area several hundred miles north of us would be reasonably clear. As the gear and flaps of my F-105 Thunderchief were coming up on takeoff, the weak howling of an emergency beeper on Guard channel played as background to the routine radio chatter. We climbed to 18,000 ft. and went to a tactical spread formation. Loyd asked Invert (a ground-control intercept or GCI site) if they were getting a beeper, and the depressing reply confirmed it had been a bad morning already. The first strike package, primarily out of Tahkli, but with support from other bases, had five airplanes down. Before Loyd could ask about rescue efforts, Invert advised that all five were down in the flats over the Red River, and only one had a pending rescue effort ongoing. Single-seat airplanes leave you alone with your thoughts. So, I cruise, bomb-laden and on autopilot, across Laos and the panhandle to the deep blue water of the Gulf of Tonkin, arms draped on canopy rails, looking left and right, watching the scenery and thinking. The beepers come and go in the background, and each time you hear it you wonder if you should shut off Guard, or if it will go away in a minute or two. You wonder who is down and how it happened. Are they alive or dead? Inevitably, you wonder what others would think if it were your beacon. Would they be cruising comfortably in the morning sun or would they be doing something for you? What could you be doing now? Nothing. You’re too far away. You have a target to go to. There’s a tanker coming up, you’re just a wingman and you have a job to do. We switch channels and talk to Panama, a GCI site on Monkey Mountain near Danang. They point us at Brown Anchor 31, the lead tanker in a cell of four. Brown 31 is 80 mi. north of us and heading our way. We’ll pass left-shoulder to left-shoulder, if we continue, but we’ll be doing a fighter turn-on rendezvous, meaning that at around 25 mi., we’ll start a left turn to trail the tanker. I call, “Parrot Two’s got visual, left 11 at 30.” Panama verifies. “Parrot, that’s your tanker.” Loyd glances my way momentarily, then back at the spot I’ve indicated on the horizon. “Parrot’s judy,” he calls, indicating we’ll complete the rendezvous ourselves, without help from Panama. We hold steady for a count of five, then enter a smooth left turn, sliding into refueling position behind the tanker. Just before I turn my radar to standby, I watch the show of flights appear as blips across my radar scope. We’re all going to targets along the northeast railroad, with several flights heading to the Bac Ninh bridge and others hitting various choke points along the line. We get our gas and drop off the tanker at the north end of the track. The incessant howling of that emergency beeper has stopped, and I don’t know whether that means the poor guy has been captured, the battery has gone dead or he’s evading and simply turned it off to save power. I hope it’s the latter, but deep inside, I suspect the worst. No one gets picked up from Route Pack VI. As we cruise up the Gulf at 20,000 ft., I sweep the coastline, my radar painting a map of the landfall ahead and the easy-to-find pork chop-shaped island that sits on our nose. We’ll turn inbound at the south tip of the island, a prominent point that’s easy to find visually–or if the weather had been bad, using our radar. The North Vietnamese know we use the island for navigation, so they’ll undoubtedly welcome us with a barrage of 37- and 57-mm. flak. It’s always too low and always bursts behind us, but one of these days, they’re bound to get lucky. Rather than head straight for the target, we’re going to angle north, working our way along the 20-mi. buffer zone with China’s border. That will keep us clear of many SAM sites along the usual route to Kep and the railroad. We’ll attack, then turn east and outbound at Bac Ninh. We’ll spend most of the ingress at 4,000-6,000 ft. above the ground, then pop up to about 12,000 ft. for our dive-bomb pass. We descend and turn left at the coast. My Doppler’s set to the coordinates of an intersection of the railroad and buffer zone. Our flight is spread and nearly line abreast, almost a mile wide, and humping over the dark-green jungle at 540 kt. That’s 9 mi./min., an easy number for the mental math needed to judge time-to-go to the target. Once we get close, we’ll push up to 600 kt., giving us plenty of energy for the popup. On our way out, we really won’t care what our speed is; we just want to get back into formation and watch for SAMs and enemy MiGs. White puffy clouds and the dark-blue morning sky contrast with the deep emerald green of jungle hills. Gray karst formations rise from the foliage, creating a beautiful landscape below. Our airplanes ride smoothly, and for a moment, sheer exhilaration is enough to blank out the fact that this is war, we are deep in enemy territory and in a moment all hell is going to break loose. We’re going to rain death and destruction down on an enemy who is going to be trying extremely hard to stop us. Two minutes to the turn point. There it is. The railroad is in sight, in a narrow cut in the mountains barely 3 mi. wide. Now the turn down to Bac Ninh. Wait. What’s that? We’re over the tracks and below us is a rail siding. No, it’s two sidings along the main line. A small rail yard, right here at the buffer zone. And there are two trains filling the tracks. A small station house sits on the east side of the tracks. In an instant, I picture tired engineers who’ve parked their trains, knowing even better than we pilots overhead that the rules of engagement (ROEs) call this a “buffer zone.” They’re probably in the station house, talking over a cup of coffee about the night’s run into or out of Hanoi with their freight of war materials. I call, “Parrot Two has a pair of trains on the tracks right below us,” not sure what we’re going to do about it. Loyd doesn’t hesitate. “Roger, tally-ho. Coming left. We’ll roll in to the north and off right, outbound. One’ll be up in ten.” Alright! We’re going to hit something real! I’m on the inside of the turn and start to slide behind lead as he comes around. I watch his afterburner light and the plane’s nose come up. I cut the corner, behind his flight path, throw the throttle outboard and feel the nozzles open, then the push as that burner lights. The bangs of our afterburners have drawn the attention of those trainmen. Guns around the rail yard start to flash and puffs of 37-mm. begin to appear low and to my left as I hit 12,000 ft., then roll inverted to pull down on the target. The trains are under my pipper and I can see Loyd’s bombs going off. They’ve exploded near the north end of the trains, so I adjust toward the center of a string of boxcars. A huge plume of white smoke erupts as one of the engineers apparently throws full throttle to his locomotive, but he’s already trying to drag derailed wreckage down broken tracks. I mash on the pickle button and feel the jolts of bombs coming off, then pull and look for lead’s aircraft. He’s in a hard right turn, coming to one o’clock and climbing. I set my cutoff and look back to see three and four coming off the target. Loyd keeps his rejoin turn going until he’s parallel to the railroad, then reverses to head outbound. We’re back into our spread and clear of the flak in less than a minute. Outbound, a strange notion enters my head. This is fun. It’s a rush, a thrill, a challenge to do something that most people can’t even conceive and couldn’t do, even if they wanted to. Parrot flight is roaring across the countryside, headed for the coast and a weird idea enters my head. It suddenly occurs to me that what we’re doing is a lot like stealing hubcaps. When I was growing up in Chicago, guys in the neighborhood would occasionally decide that we needed to steal some hubcaps. We would talk about what style was particularly cool and make a choice–Lincoln spinners or Plymouth cones or maybe even after-market custom jobs like chrome Moons. Then we’d scout the neighborhood streets until we found a likely target. Four guys would approach the car late at night, then, one to a wheel, crouch down to pop off the cap. Invariably, one would be dropped, making a huge noise. That would alert the car owner, usually a big, burly, blue-collar kind of guy in a sleeveless undershirt with a can of beer in his hand. He’d turn on the porch light and scream, “Hey, what youse guys doing dere?” We’d take off running, and maybe he would chase us. We didn’t need the hubcaps. We merely wanted the chase, the adrenaline rush of tweaking some poor working stiff’s nose and getting chased. Now, we’re a whole lot faster–and what we’re doing is in the name of national policy–but each morning we decide what kind of “hubcaps” we’re going to steal for the day. Then we plan our strategy and sneak into a Vietnamese neighborhood, sometimes at low altitude, sometimes by a circuitous route. Then we grab the prize and run away. If we get chased a bit, that’s so much the better, as long as we don’t get caught. We wind up with a huge rush and a release that leaves us chattering and swaggering for hours afterward. Then, we sleep and the next morning we do it again. Some are convinced it’s patriotism, doing our part for the security of the free world, but henceforth, I’ll always recognize it as stealing hubcaps. At the coast, we head south to a post-strike tanker, then back across the panhandle of North Vietnam to Korat, Thailand. After landing, we’re still feeling pumped about the results of our strike and are eager to get to debriefing. Cold air conditioning in the command post does little to quell our enthusiasm–until the tech-sergeant intel debriefer raises an eyebrow during our strike report. He excuses himself and charges down the hall, returning with the chief of intel, Lt. Col. Winter. “What’d you guys do?” Winter asks. We recount our ingress plan and our luck at finding the trains. We describe our attack and each of us confirms an estimate that at least three-quarters of our bombs hit the two trains or the tracks. We’re fairly certain we didn’t get either of the engines, but we estimate at least forty boxcars were destroyed and all of the tracks cut. We point to a map where the attack took place. The white-haired intel officer shakes his head and grimly observes that it looks as though our strike was in the China-buffer zone. “It looks like you’ve busted the ROE,” he announces. “What does that mean?” Loyd inquires. “We’re authorized to maneuver in the buffer zone, aren’t we?” “Sure,” replies Winter, “but you aren’t supposed to strike targets in the zone. It’s a sanctuary to make sure we don’t inadvertently drop anything in China.” “Yeah, but isn’t it clear they’re using that ROE to protect their trains, and where we struck is definitely in North Vietnam?” Richter wants to know. “Doesn’t matter. You can’t drop in the buffer.” Winter suggests we take a look at our flight data again. “What did you use to establish the coordinates you gave us? How did you determine the location of the drop?” I volunteer that I was using Doppler coordinates for the intersection of the railroad and the buffer zone. It looked to me like we were 2 mi. north of the intersection when we hit those tracks. Ken Frank says he was trying to use Red Crown TACAN, a navigation station on a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf. The signal was intermittent that far inland and he wasn’t too sure of the radial and distance. Richter thinks his Doppler might have shown us right at the intersection. Loyd looks at each of us then turns to Winter. “I think our initial plot might have been a bit off. Let me see that map again. Sure, here we are, right near this peak and just past this little village. That’s right, here’s where the siding is. It’s about two miles south of the buffer zone. Don’t you agree?” He polls the members of the flight. We all nod enthusiastically. The senior intel officer has seen this before. He hints at a smile and says, “I thought so. Nice job, guys.” He initials the report and returns to his office. During the Vietnam War, Ed Rasimus flew more than 250 combat missions in F-105s and F-4s, receiving the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross five times, and numerous Air Medals. He worked for Northrop on the YF-23 advanced tactical fighter program, and now writes and teaches political science.