Memorial Day 2016 comes at a time where our great Nation is roiled in extraordinary controversy. With respect to us Veterans and our Alma Mater, the DVA now finds itself armed with all manner of new legislation from Congress to root out dishonesty and waste-yet cannot fire the authors of the waiting scandals, let alone the hierarchy of miscreants running this insane asylum. VA Secretary Robert “Call me Bob” McDonald, in spite of his continuous acknowledgement of the VA’s shortcomings, is no closer to reining in this runaway agency than Ric Shinseki ever was on his best day. Quo vadis, Bob?
Being the lead off news item on the six o’clock CBS news once a week cannot be conducive to good health. Proctor and Gamble carries a wide variety of panaceas but even their best, Pepto-Bismol™, has its inherent limitations. Secretary Bob should be well-acquainted with that one by now.
But let us return to the fond memories of those we grieve and to those we hold in high esteem and owe so much. I don’t know how many of you have yet had an opportunity to hear the sound of the thousands of motorcycles in unison heard every Memorial Day in Washington DC. We were back visiting my family in 2000 and decided to take the train into town to do the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and a Smithsonian or two. We could hear the roar of Artie Muller’s crew approaching for miles in the distance. Sixteen years later, I cannot even imagine how it might have increased in volume. The chill it sent down my spine cannot be described. To be a Veteran that day was a combination of pride with a cherry on top.
ROLLING THUNDER’S ROOTS
BEFORE THE VIETNAM WAR
The roots of Rolling Thunder bring back vast memories of 1963. My father had recently gotten his first star and decided he needed to go to parachute school over at Fort Bragg. As the new Vice Commander of the “suitcase” 19th Air Force under Mo Preston at Seymour Johnson AFB in North Carolina, he figured it was a valuable asset. At 44 years old, that was biting off a big chunk of macho. He did it. Shortly afterwards, the Army and Air Force held Operation Blue Chip 4. It was a demonstration of the new “joint” concept of embedding forward air controllers on the ground with tactical air communications in the 81st Airborne component. Everyone had to be jump qualified. Forward Air Guides, as they were known, were not unheard of before this. The Army was always just a little leery of the Air Force’s accuracy when a FAC called in an air strike to support ground forces. The Air Force blamed it on the Army puke’s coordinates. This begat a turf war over who was qualified to do it. The Army rightly settled on an Air Force puke on-site being the fall guy because if he fried friendlies in a nape strike, the Army was blameless. This worked in a fluid, moving airborne assault but was unwieldy when applied to Vietnam later. The solution was simply better maps and more attentive pilots. Yeah, right.
Blue Chip 4 was my first experience seeing the new M-60 in action. In addition, one C-130 after another disgorged endless jeeps, troops, tanks, 6 bys, 105 howitzers and anything else you can imagine with multiple parachutes. Then the rolling thunder began. Brand new F-105s from the 4th Fighter Wing which my father had recently commanded at Seymour came in low at full military thrust. Low meaning 100 feet. I’d never seen any fighters outside the USAF Thunderbirds fly this low. Approximately a quarter mile away right in front of the bleachers we were sitting in, they cut loose strafing fixed targets with their six-barrel 20mm GE Gatling gun cannon. This, to me was Rolling Thunder. It approximated a man with a loudspeaker clearing his throat to expectorate in a howling F5 tornado. Impossible as it may seem, the Gatling gun was even louder than the Pratt and Whitney J-75. Pretty cool beans to an 11-year old Air Force brat. Blue Chip 4 was also the first time I saw Army troops with the new green berets. They were quite obviously proud of their achievement and full of esprit de corps. Vietnam was a distant future event still in the nascent stages.
Dad arrived in Saigon as Vice Commander of 7th AF under Spike Momyer in June ’66. Operation Rolling Thunder was in full swing having commenced in March of 1965. The biggest problem was having to run every little bridge or SAM site past the White House for permission. Many targets were spontaneous and time-sensitive. Routing the request to the White House often resulted in approval about five hours too late to matter. We discovered this shortcoming up in Laos when begging for permission to drop napalm in 1970. We had to get approval from the Air Attache in Vientiane -who, in turn, had to ask the US Ambassador personally. This unwieldy Rules of Engagement (ROE) resulted in even more lost opportunities and perhaps General Vang Pao’s ultimate defeat.
THE FOXTROT ONE OH FIVE
The introduction of the F-105 as the natural successor to the F-100 was a fool’s errand. For many years, General Sweeney had driven the purchase of Air Force fighters. Fighters had always been under the command of Strategic Air Command (bombers). Sweeney’s idea of the perfect fighter was a cross between a Maserati and a Buick Riviera. He wanted the impossible-a fighter with a good gun/rocket platform for air superiority juxtaposed with a quasi-bomber capability. In the event of nuclear war, he could outfit a gazillion fighters with tactical nukes and air refueling and turn them loose like Kamikaze-MIRV’d ICBMs. Seasoned fighter pilots knew that didn’t pencil out because the Soviets kept building air superiority fighter aircraft.
When we decided to commit to Vietnam and Operation Rolling Thunder, we employed the old (by now) F-100s as the day-to-day workhorses. It was guaranteed slaughter against a determined and skilled Mig-17 or 19 pilot. For too long we had taught fighter pilots less in in air-to-air dogfights and more on air safety. Gone was the derring-do of World War Two. The William Tell annual meets at Nellis AFB were all about hitting a ground target with a bomb or scoring a hit on a passive, air-towed drogue. No emphasis was placed on hitting an opponent in a prolonged aerial dogfight. In Korea, the ratio of aircraft downed versus aircraft lost was twelve to one. In the early days of Vietnam and Rolling Thunder, it was 1.1 to 1. The F-100 was an overweight lead sled compared to a Mig-17 flown by experienced Russian pilots.
The entry of the F-105B was a flop. It took five days to get one airborne for a mission. To say they were plagued by maintenance issues is an understatement. Republic sold us an Edsel and the Air Force kept trying to reinvent it right up to the introduction of the F-4. I watched my first one auger in right over the Capehart Housing area at Seymour Johnson AFB in April 1963. The pilot punched out sideways as the A/C began its death role over to the left. Here’s some of the Air Force fighter pilot humor on 105s. Red River Valley songbook
Rolling Thunder continued until November 1968. LBJ could never bring himself to order an all-out attack commitment. Incremental response was the game plan to avoid a full-blown war with China and/or Russia. Having tipped our hand to the enemy, it was a recipe for incremental failure. The only thing we accomplished with Operation Rolling Thunder was to insure the DRV didn’t have air superiority. Any other objectives via bombing were fleeting and temporary at best.
ROLLING THUNDER TODAY
American Veterans’ choice of Rolling Thunder today, while perhaps a mixed metaphor for what they do, is nonetheless a poignant reminder of the loss of many brave aviators- many of whom never returned or were not honestly accounted for. My father’s successor, Major General Robert F. Worley, was shot down on his last mission in an RF-4 north of Da Nang on 7/23/68. He already had his orders for #2 at PACAF and his third star. His pursuit of one more Oak Leaf cluster (#9) to his Air Medal was his undoing. His was one more casualty of the meat grinder known as Rolling Thunder and the one closest to me. I went to Hampton Roads Academy with his son Rob in 1965-67.
Memorial Day weekend is, and always will be, synonymous with a remembrance of our dead. Today’s Rolling Thunder procession is a fitting tribute to all of those who are truly unaccounted for and missing in action (MIA). We salute all of them and pray Americans keep them close to their heart. We also pray they will eventually all be accounted for- most especially in Laos. Accounting for the brave pilots of Air America should also be considered just as paramount.
VA IS LYING POW WOW WITH VASEC
We also fervently hope that the future meeting(s) reputedly arranged between VA Secretary Bob and VA IS LYING founder Ron Nesler turn out to be fruitful and yields positive results. The Veterans Administration has a lot of explaining to do as to why spending $99 million on PR trying to refurbish their image is somehow more important than hiring more doctors at the VHA…or why standing in line at a VAMC for months waiting for medical care is not uppermost in Veterans mind. How Bob views the “total experience” we receive and how the average Vet in the trenches perceives it is immaterial. The quality of the product received and how timely it is delivered is the bone of contention. Let Secretary Bob partake of the “total VA medical experience” for the remainder of his tenure as Secretary and see how it feels to eat cake. In fact, let the VAOIG inspectors be embedded the VAROs/VAMCs 24/7 on a full time basis and report back their observations firsthand. I warrant there would be fewer findings of “We were unable to substantiate Veterans were impacted by having to wait two years for an appointment”.
Remember all of your ancestors that served us in war and peace this weekend. Raise a toast to them. Most who did serve did not need the cattle prod of the draft to join. Being all you could be in Canada was always an option for those with an objection to serving. In retrospect, I fault no one for their choices. I only throw stones at those chosen to administer our benefits who go out of their way to deprive us of that which we were promised. The VA koolaid serves to its personnel is quite potent. Brainwashing has always been considered a tool of the Soviets but I see its application daily in the administration of VA justice. I have experienced it firsthand for years so it isn’t a fig newton of my imagination. No one can amass a 10,077-page c-file over twenty seven years and have complete, utter legal success unless a mistake was made. VA cannot say I am an anomaly and statistically insignificant if I continue to find others similarly situated as myself. To claim 98 percent accuracy is the worst hubris imaginable. To dishonor those who are deserving by denying them to their death should be punishable with jail time. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.
P.S. To VFW Post 4342 in Lancaster, California.
By turning down my application for membership in March of 1973, you have saved me untold thousands of dollars in membership fees. I concur with your findings back then. The Vietnam conflict was a boundary dispute-not a war. Nevertheless, you might want to explain that to the parents, wives and children of the 58,278 folks who didn’t come home. They died somewhere.
P.P.S. Thank you member Bobcat for these poignant images. While searching for Chuck Engle’s grave in Fountain Lawn Cemetery In Illinois back in 2013, I ran across a gal who was similarly mourning her recently slain son.