Fiorelli and Shepperd were distracted during their mission up North, wondering more about what kind of inferno they’d be returning to than about what was going on beneath them on the Trail. Besides, the mission was a waste of time–bad weather as usual. When they headed back toward Phu Cat and South Vietnam, the flames seemed to engulf even more of the country than when they had come north only four hours before. In fact almost every major city they could see was on fire.
To the west they watched as long strings of bombs fell around Khe Sanh. The patterns covered acres of the surrounding hills, obviously dropped from three B-52s whose contrails they could see receding to the west towards Laos and Thailand. To the east they looked down once again on the devastation in Hue. Explosions were going off all over the town and the plume of black smoke rising from the Citadel at Hue looked even fatter.
The cockpit had been pretty quiet. “Kind of reminds you of Revelation in the Bible,” Shepperd reflected, for once without sarcasm. “Wonder if this is the Apocalypse, or Armageddon?”
Fiorelli was not feeling philosophical. “We probably ought to put some thought into where we will divert if Phu Cat is under attack,” he suggested.
“Looks like everything is under attack,” Shepperd answered. The cockpit returned to silence.
As they got closer to Phu Cat, Fiorelli called the tower for landing directions. The controller said everything was okay. The ROKs—army troops from the Republic of Korea–provided security for the area, and were notoriously brutal. It appeared their methods were working. Nor was any smoke coming from Qui Nhon, the coastal city to the east.
They landed uneventfully and taxied in. As they shut down the engine, Fiorelli raised the canopy. “Have we been under attack?” he yelled.
“Not yet,” replied the crew chief. “But we hear everywhere else has.”
An anxious calm carried the base through the day, and at the bar that evening the pilots talked about nothing but the massive, country-wide offensive. Everybody wondered whether Phu Cat would be next. Someone had called Bien Hoa, where there were three F-100 squadrons and where several of the Misty’s had come from. The VC had captured part of the runway, including the aircraft “arming area” where bombs underwent a final check before takeoff, armament safety pins were pulled, and the 20-millimeter guns were charged. More than 20 aircraft had been damaged. The pilots had been sent to bunkers while the grunts with helicopters and tanks tried to blast out the VC, so aircraft could get to the runway. One pilot had been shot in the arm while taxiing for takeoff.
“Yeah, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” snickered Fiorelli, mocking General Westmoreland’s famous utterance from the year before about the “progress” in Vietnam.
As Maj. Mick Greene listened to all the talk, he knew there was trouble brewing for Misty. Greene was the detachment’s irascible Ops Officer, a perfect foil to the easy-going command style of Don Jones. A 1956 Naval Academy graduate from the San Joaquin Valley in California, Greene was a small, muscular fireplug who had wrestled and played football in school. He had a Marine-style high-and-tight crewcut and a moustache that hid a scar and made him look somewhat sinister—like someone you wanted on your side in a bar fight. Greene had credentials to match his perpetual seriousness: A couple thousand hours in both the F-100 and the F-86, tours in France and Germany, and a masters degree in mechanical engineering, which he had put to use helping with nuclear weapons tests. Greene had first flown out of Bien Hoa himself, and moved over to Phu Cat around the time Misty was being formed.
Like many of the other pilots, however, he had been a combat virgin when he first arrived in Vietnam. On his first night in the barracks at Bien Hoa, a huge BOOM! had erupted in the darkness. “What the hell was that?” Greene squeaked. It was an Army howitzer that had fired just a few feet from his hootch. A few days later he tasted incoming fire too, as VC rockets and mortars exploded around the base, wounding eleven people. On the way to the flight line the next morning, Greene gaped at several revetments full of ashen metal—which had been F-100s the night before.
Greene got his first in-country checkout from Captain Duane Baker in a two-seat F-100F. They bombed a “suspected VC area” in the South, under FAC control. As they rolled in on the target area for the first time, Greene wondered if he really had what it took for combat. Then several weeks later, Baker was strafing a suspected VC location west of the Marine base at Chu Lai, when the wings came off his airplane during pullout from a bombing run. The plane dove straight into the ground, taking Baker with it. Because of his engeinnering background, Greene was sent to the crash site with an accident investigation team led by Col. Lee, the wing vice commander. They boarded an Army Huey chopper, along with a security detail armed with M-16 rifles. Greene didn’t even know how to load an M-16.
Simply taking off was a trial. The chopper was jammed with people—the more security men the better, since they were going into a hot VC area—and the pilots weren’t sure the chopper would be able to clear a fence and some power lines at the far end of the base. On their first try, the pilot taxied to the downwind corner of the base, opposite the fence, then turned around and applied full power as he tried to build enough speed and energy to get over the hurdles. Just before they got to the fence the helicopter shuddered to a halt. “We’re overweight! One person—out!” the pilot ordered. Then they turned around for another run. They offloaded two more soldiers before the chopper finally vibrated into the air, up over the power lines. As they buzzed off towards the crash site, Greene glanced into the cockpit where the two pilots were slapping each other on the back, apparently amazed that they had made it! This was not the kind of careful, by-the-book flying the engineer was used to.
The team found Baker and the cockpit section of the airplane in a shallow creek. The rest of the plane was somewhere else. Greene dug around in the wreckage to find instruments that might help explain what had happened. The flight surgeon who had come with them recovered Baker’s body and the remains of his flight suit. After about 15 minutes, an Army lieutenant who was in charge of a couple squads of soldiers flown in for extra security said the VC were approaching and they needed to get out of there. Greene said he needed a few more minutes. “Major, you can have all the time you want,” the lieutenant answered. “But the choppers are leaving now!” Greene decided to go with the lieutenant. They flew back to Chu Lai and the wreckage became VC loot.
Greene’s analysis helped identify a problem on one of the F-100’s wing spars. The Air Force devised a reinforcement that was fitted to all the Huns in the fleet. Greene’s expertise got him appointed the 37th
wing’s safety officer. He was also the Chief of Standardization and Evaluation, the officer who oversaw pilot check rides and the procedure for certifying their proficiency in the F-100 and their readiness for combat. In the spring of 1967, Greene had given Major Bud Day a check ride, to certify that Day was ready for the air refueling that would be required for the Misty missions into North Vietnam. Day hadn’t needed much tutoring, and Greene was impressed by his drive and sober determination.
Greene shook off his early jitters, and learned to sleep through the nighttime clamor like a veteran. He got with the out-and back missions in the south. He asked if he could transfer into the Misty detachment. It wasn’t approved until October of 1967, after Bud Day had been shot down, but he was excited nonetheless. Shortly afterward, Greene was riding back to his quarters in the back of a pickup truck when he jumped out, turned his ankle and ended up in a knee-high cast that was supposed to stay on for six weeks. Eager for action, and worried that the war might pass him by, Greene sawed off the cast with a survival knife and reported for duty with his flight boot laced up real tight.
Bob Craner, the “master,” checked Greene out in Misty. The two pilots had been stationed together in France and Germany as lieutenants flying the F-100. Craner introduced Greene to what “real” gunfire looked like. He took Greene north around Dong Hoi, which was laced with AAA guns of every caliber. The gunners weren’t terribly accurate, so Craner used them as training devices. He circled down gradually from 8,000 feet, keeping up a good head of steam–400 knots plus–so they could coast out to sea if they happened to get hit. Greene didn’t see any gun sites at first, but once they descended through 3,000 feet or so, the ground lit up like a carnival. Greene wasn’t quite as grizzled as he thought, and he wondered aloud whether busting trees in South Vietnam might not be such a bad deal. Craner just laughed.
By the time of Tet, Greene had spent a lot of time around his pilots. The Ops Officer knew even before they did that all the recent turmoil would affect the way they flew. The bad weather alone produced a lot of frustration. Then there was Khe Sanh, and now the Tet attacks. Greene felt sure the Mistys would start to press, partly out of desperation to accomplish something, and partly out of revenge–to punish the North Vietnamese. “Look, let’s keep our heads on straight,” Greene had already started to lecture at pre-flight briefings. “Pressing and taking risks against dumb targets isn’t going to help us win the war.”
The news was similar the next day, and the next. The broad assault continued. One of General Giap’s bedrock assumptions was that the populace would rise up to join the Viet Cong against the Americans and the “puppet” government of President Nguyen Van Thieu. Every trained eye watched for signs that a popular revolt was brewing. But as the days passed, it became clear that wasn’t happening. The South Vietnamese, with massive U.S. support, had begun driving the enemy forces from many of the cities. Attacks in some of the provincial capitals were quickly repulsed. In Saigon the fighting was pretty much over by February 5th
, although it was a few weeks longer until the South Vietnamese regained control of Cholon, the Chinese section of the city.
In other provincial capitals, however, such as Dalat, Ban Me Thout, My Tho, Can Tho, Ben Tre and Kontum, the fighting was vicious and prolonged. And Hue was being reduced to rubble as the two forces battled block by block. Word began to get out that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces had been executing hundreds of civilians.
For the Mistys, lousy weather compounded the brutality on the ground and made them feel straightjacketed. A break appeared to be on the way though. On February 7th,
Don Shepperd and Jim Fiorelli were scheduled to fly together again. They were friends and Shepperd had decided that he liked to fly with Fio, because Fio was in love and didn’t take unnecessary chances. For the first time in a long while the weather was forecast to be CAVU–ceiling and visibility unlimited.
Just after midnight the evening before, a mortar attack awakened the two pilots—and everbody else on base. Sirens blew and illumination mortars lit the sky, to help find any enemy forces that might be approaching the perimeter. Everybody wondered if this would be the start of a big attack, similar to the one that had shaken Bien Hoa. The pilots hauled ass toward the bunkers. After the first few explosions, however, all was quiet.
Fio and Shep went back to bed, then straggled into the early briefing at 4:00 a.m, dead tired. The briefing covered the usual, with one bit of added emphasis–others were taking care of Khe Sanh and South Vietnam. The Mistys needed to stay focused on the North. They took off in the dark as Misty 11, the afterburner lighting the morning sky. Passing 15,000 ft. they could see artillery shells continuing to explode in Hue. Cricket, the ABCCC, called them with an important request. The Special Forces outpost at Lang Vei, about five miles west of Khe Sanh on the Laotian border, had been attacked overnight and the Marines at Khe Sanh had lost radio contact. Would Misty 11 fly by and take a look?
Shepperd and Fio made certain there were no B-52 strikes scheduled to take place in the area. Just after daybreak they began their letdown south and west of Khe Sanh, ever mindful of the reports of intense AAA lining the hills surrounding the Marine outpost. They could see Lang Vei clearly from 20 miles away–the weather was indeed good. As they got closer to Lang Vei, they dipped to low altitude and began to circle.
The carnage that came into focus was surreal. It looked like a tornado had hit the outpost. “We’ve got bad news for you Cricket,” reported Shepperd. “The camp looks like it’s completely destroyed–like a nuke went off. There are no signs of life and there are three destroyed tanks near the perimeter.”
“Tanks?” replied Cricket. “Tanks? Are you sure?” It was the same reaction Ed Risinger had received when he told Cricket there had been tanks north of the DMZ only two weeks before. In fact, there had been another warning of tanks. After Risinger’s report, in mid-January, another FAC reported five tanks in Laos on January 24th. An airstrike destroyed one of them. Then, early in the morning on February 7, Capt. Frank Willoughby, the camp commander at Lang Vei, made a frantic radio call to Khe Sanh. “We have tanks in our wire!” he shouted, requesting artillery, illumination and airstrikes.
Until then, none of the senior U.S. commanders really believed there were NVA tanks in the South, despite the reports from Risinger and others. And yet Willoughby could see them right before him. Ten tanks, in total, had attacked Lang Vei, helping enemy ground troops overrun the compound. Three of the tanks—those spotted by Shepperd and Fiorelli in the wire–had been destroyed, but the rest helped turn the battle into a rout. A few of the U.S. defenders had fought their way out in the middle of the night, and a handful, including Capt. Willoughby, were able to get evacuated by helicopter the next morning. But most of the 500 troops who had manned Lang Vei ended up dead or missing…(chapter continued)