Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

Memories of Vietnam

by Bill Sakahara

I only had one tour in Vietnam, unlike many others in the fighter business, who had two and even three tours. And in the whole scheme of things, my tour wasn't an extraordinary one. I went, did my duty and came home in one piece. But being a young lieutenant when I arrived, I was excited, a bit apprehensive, confident I could do my job, but deathly afraid of screwing up. I didn’t want to admit it at the time, but I really was clueless when I started. But the experiences were something else.

I arrived in Cam Ranh Bay, RVN in October 1967 and soon got into the flow of things. I never kept a diary of my missions so my recollections are purely from memory, and with age, those flights are beginning to blur and blend together. Putting them down on paper helped jog some memories. Cam Ranh didn’t get tasked for many missions up “north”, and when it did, we were restricted to RP l and RP ll. What we did do was a lot of interdiction on Uncle Ho's trail in the “Secret War” in Laos and in-country close air support. At times, it seemed like we were just making toothpicks and chopsticks out of bamboo, and I often wondered what we were really accomplishing, especially during a period when we were down to dropping 250 pounders, singly!! What ordnance shortage?? But what was I to say; I was just a lowly lieutenant, --- “Two!”

Names and the Unusual Remain Imprinted on my Brain

Details of most missions are now long forgotten, but I doubt I will ever forget the names and places of some of the more memorable garden spots of Southeast Asia I saw and flew over on multiple occasions. Unless you’ve been there, places like Attapeu and Saravan, Tchepone, Mu Gia Pass, Ban Karai Pass, Fingers Lake and Bat Lake will mean nothing to you. However, they are imprinted on my mind, mostly because of the more spectacular fireworks I recall seeing there on occasion and the extra adrenaline those sights always generated. But the close air support missions with “troops in contact” are still the most vivid to me. They were the ones in which I felt I had done some good. Missions to places like Dak To, Khe Sanh, and Duc Lap were really gratifying. When the friendlies are being overrun, and you’re told by the FAC to strafe the friendly trenches, you know what’s going down. Or on multiple strafing passes, he tells you to strafe "5 meter left of your last pass" and he repeats it on your subsequent passes, you know he's checking to see how good you really are, and he's bringing you in closer and closer to the friendlies on each pass. That's when you know you have to earn your keep, ignore the ground-fire, and you press it. I remember the sights and sounds of those missions well.

I remember some other missions too, not because of the how brilliant I was, but because they were most unusual. One night, I was number two in a two ship flight tasked to route recce near Bat Lake in RP I. As lead dropped his first set of flares, he and I both saw the shadow of a chopper. After contacting the controlling ABCCC, and confirming that we were the only friendlies in the area, we got cleared to “go get it.” The only ordnance we had were flares and Mk 82, 500 pounders, so we made do with what we had. After a few more flare drops, by pure luck, we found him again. But dropping 500 pounders trying to knock him down with concussion blasts was like trying to hit a mosquito with a wet noodle. Obviously we weren't very effective, but I'll bet that guy had a great story when he got home.

During the 1967 Christmas season, I seem to recall an allied unilateral truce with only recce missions operating. For sure, all missions north were cancelled for us. Toward the end of that down time, one evening I was in the bar and my flight commander tapped me on the shoulder and instructed me to go to bed because we were briefing in a few hours. I asked, "What happened to the truce?" "Go to bed!", was his reply. We were one of the first pre-dawn flight that early morning and I’d never seen so many trucks WITH HEADLIGHTS ON coming down route 1A. It was like Interstate 5 out of LA on Friday night during rush hour! Talk about target rich environment!

Holy S--t, That was Close! Missions

There are a few other missions I remember because they are the ones in which you mutter to yourself on the way home, "Holy s—t! That was really close!!” One of those was the time I fired my first full pod of 2.75 rockets at night. That night I learned that as soon as the rockets fire, (1) there are a whole lot of clips, fins, and debris that scatter in your face that you normally don't see during the day, (2) that as soon as you see those, you are next completely blinded by all the burning rocket propellant, and (3) if your target is a AAA site, you shouldn't get into a pissing contest with it. It got really bumpy and turbulent on the pull out. Hey, I just dropped what they loaded on the bird and say, --“Two!”. My lead later informed me as soon as he saw my rockets fire, three AAA sites opened up on me and their tracers and my rockets met head on. He said he didn't see how we didn't get hit, which we didn't. It was really quiet in our cockpit as we climbed out exiting the area until my pitter muttered, "holy s--t, that was really close."

It was during a time when all missions north were restricted to RP l and RP ll and all USAF, USN, and USMC aircrews trying to get their "counters" were crammed into what seemed like a 10 NM by 20 NM block, and I had another one of those memorable moments. The mission was near Dong Hoi. During a dive bomb attack, just about the time I was ready to pickle off my bombs, a Marine F-4 pulled up from his dive bomb pass right up from under my nose. I saw the top of the pilot's helmet really close up before I yanked back on the stick to abort the pass. We were both apparently after the same target. A mid-air over Don Hoi would have ruined both our day. It was another one of those, “holy s—t, that was close!” missions.

I have to add to this category, the mission in which I planted an F-4 in one of the Mekong River tributaries. My ordnance was CBU-12s and the mission was seeding the river shoreline with those CBUs. I was on my last pass at about a thousand feet, actually jettisoning the dispensers, when the aircraft suddenly and violently pitched up. I momentarily grayed out, but I instinctively shoved the stick forward. I regained my vision as the nose of the plane was starting to slice back down and the plane began to roll right. Stick movement now had no affect and I had no aircraft control. I felt the plane was stalled and I saw the river start to approach and get big. I yelled at my back seater, Lieutenant Robert "Woody" Bennett to eject, and I then pulled my ejection handle as the nose passed the horizon still in a right bank. I got a good chute, looked over to see that Woody had gotten out, and he had a good chute too. I saw the river coming up at me, pulled on the LPUs and hit the water. I was in the chute for just a few seconds and probably had only a couple of swings in the chute. The whole incident was witnessed by a bunch of Navy folks on swift boats attached to their mother ship, the USS Garrett County. I was soon picked up by one of them and they took really good care of me after that. The tragedy of the incident was that we never found Woody and I will always regret that. I know he got out before me since he was in the chute above me and witnesses saw his chute hit the water. I don't know why the plane reacted the way it did. I thought perhaps the CBU dispenser might have hung up and wrapped around my tail slab. But witness also said we were taking small arms fire. They also reported we were being shot at coming down in our chutes. The only thing I'm sure of is that, had I not ejected when I did, I would probably not be here to write this. I only wish Woody were here too.

Hot War to a Cold War

In the first week of February 1968, a couple of days after participating in some serious missions which turned out be the beginning of the Tet offensive, our entire squadron, the 558th TFS, was called into the large wing briefing room and informed our mission had changed to air-to-air. We were told we would be moving en mass to Korea because a US Navy vessel named the USS Pueblo got captured by the North Koreans. Three days later, we were sitting cockpit alert, fully loaded with AIM-7s and AIM-9s, at the end of the runway in Kunsan, ROK. I still had on my jungle boots, summer flight suit and my summer flight jacket. The only winter gear available was a one-size-fit-all XXL parka with hood. It was one-size-fit-all because that was the only size and item supply had . It with snowing, the wind was blowing, and I sat in my cockpit with my feet up against the front panel because they would have frozen had I left them on the cockpit floor. Every ten minutes or so, the crew chief came by with a broom to sweep the snow off the canopy to make sure we were okay. It was the coldest I have ever been in my life! We flew some CAP missions during the next few weeks off the east coast of North Korea to make it interesting, but we never saw a MiG. Eventually it became routine and it was obvious we were just a show of force. It took several months to be replaced by state-side crews, but we eventually all made it back to Cam Ranh to complete our real combat tour.

War is Hell, But Someone Had to Do It.

In a combat zone, sometimes you learn some skills you never expected. As one of the younger lieutenants assigned to our squadron, soon after my arrival in-theater, I was assigned the additional duty of Special Projects Officer, otherwise known as Gofor. (Go for this and go for that.) I was in charge of the squadron funds, and it was my duty to maintain the moral and well being of all the aircrews with ample supplies of various trinkets and souvenirs one accumulates on a combat tour and whatever else the powers-that-be decided we needed. Products included party suits, squadron patches, embroidered nametags, plaques, lighters, other mementos and all sorts of items for our squadron party hootch and occasional celebrations. I soon developed a talent for procurement, trade, negotiations and low/no cost travel. While most of my duties involved written communications with my suppliers, sometimes it required my having to travel to various locations around the Far East like Clark AB, PI, Kadena AB, Okinawa, Tachikawa AB, Japan and even Hong Kong, to speak directly with these suppliers and practice my newfound talents. Someone had to do it.

Armed only with permissive TDY orders that normally authorized absence from the unit for very short periods, including travel time, I quickly learned sitting around space A counters waiting for a ride was useless, since everyone traveled that way. Furthermore, most other travelers had real TDY and leave orders which had priority over my permissive TDY orders. One distinct advantage I had was being a USAFA graduate, not because anyone thought we were better than the average GI, which we weren't, but because by 1967 and 1968 there were a whole lot of us there flying all kinds of things. I'd go directly to base ops to see if I could recognize anyone flying something, generally in the direction I was headed. If I saw a classmate, I had it made. If it was anyone else from a different class, chances were that I could still get a ride. If you weren't particular about what you rode or how many hops it took, you could go virtually anywhere during that time. I don't recall having to wait more than a couple of hours for any ride.

The most difficult trip I recall was bringing back real baking potatoes from Clark AB for a big squadron party. First, I had to convince a number of Clark wives in their commissary that I should get the last of the current supply of potatoes for the poor, homesick, deprived pilots desperate for real baked potatoes rather than them, which I artfully did. I crammed the potatoes into a parachute bag and headed to base ops, hoping for a direct flight to Cam Ranh to avoid having to carry that bag any more than I had to. I could only get a C-130 to Tan Son Nhut AB. I was a sight dragging that bag through the passenger terminal. The only thing I could find going home was a couple of Caribous. They were home based at Cam Ranh so I knew eventually they would get there, even if it took me all day. I picked the one that had the least number of stops at various outposts and started out. Those were some interesting stops. As it turned out, after a few stops, the pilot had to change his itinerary and headed back to Tan Son Nhut. I'd lost over a half a day and was back where I started. My mind is fuzzy about the last leg of the trip, but I think I eventually ended up back in a C-130 and returned to Cam Ranh that night, but it was a real long day. I came to hate that bag that day, but I still have it. We had a few bruised potatoes, but the party was great. I can't exactly recall, but I think we traded peanut butter for the steaks from the civilian construction guys. War was hell.
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