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My First “Real” Combat Mission

by Gary Watts (McCall ’64) |

“The Endless Cruise” actually began on April 5, 1972. We – the ship, USS Midway, and the air wing, CAG 5 – were scheduled to begin our training in preparation for our upcoming WESTPAC cruise, which was scheduled for June.

I flew aboard that afternoon in my VF-161, call sign “Rock River,” F-4B Phantom II, expecting to get some refresher night carrier landings later that evening. Night carrier landings, especially in high performance, high wing-loaded fighters like the F-4, are probably the most challenging and dangerous undertaking in all phases of aviation; it has been documented that a pilot’s heart rate is higher during a night carrier approach than during actual combat.

After landing and debriefing with the landing signal officer, my back-seater Lt. Jerry Hull and I headed down to the dirty-shirt wardroom, affectionately known as “gator chow,” for a couple of sliders and hopefully an auto-dog ice cream cone or two.

Jerry and I were attempting to choke down a couple of greasy Midway burgers when the ship’s captain came up on the ship’s PA system. He announced that there was absolutely no truth to the rumor that was spreading through the ship like wildfire, that due to the recent escalation in fighting in Vietnam we were leaving on cruise two months early and were on our way to the Western Pacific. No truth whatsoever.

Jerry and I looked at each other, then broke out laughing; how could a rumor like that get started? And why would the captain of the ship feel the need to deny the rumor?

Oh, well.

We made our way up to the Ready Room to hang out for a while, hoping to watch air ops on the closed-circuit TV or a movie, if one was available. There were, however, no air operations going on; all aircraft scheduled to come aboard were already aboard, and there was no movie either, because we were scheduled to night qual as soon as it got dark outside.

We were all too pumped up to catch a nap. Besides, since we weren’t planning on spending the night aboard and we hadn’t yet begun to move our stuff aboard, our staterooms were in pretty bad shape and almost bare.

As we were sitting around the Ready Room telling lies and generally trying not to think about the upcoming and dreaded night carrier landings, the ship’s captain came up on the PA again:

“This is the captain speaking. I have an update on the rumor I mentioned to you earlier.”

A hush came over the Ready Room, and we all stared in rapt attention at the speaker mounted on the bulkhead.

“We have,” the captain continued, “been ordered to begin our cruise early. In fact, we are sailing straight for NAS Alameda right now, as I speak. We will sail for WESTPAC on Monday morning, three days from now.”

I could almost feel the air being sucked out of the Ready Room.

My head was spinning with all the things I needed to do in the next three days.

“Well,” someone said, “no night ops tonight.”


The next three days were a whirlwind of activity getting ready to go on cruise: cruise boxes had to be packed up and taken to the squadron hangar area for transport to NAS Alameda; wills had to be drawn up and notarized; allotments had to be arranged; and most importantly, but most difficult of all, we all had to say farewell to loved ones.

Our remaining squadron aircraft were flown from NAS Miramar to NAS Alameda Sunday morning to be craned aboard the Midway. All remaining squadron personnel were flown from Miramar to Alameda Sunday evening.

Upon arrival we – the officers of Fighter Squadron 161, also known as the “Rocks” – carried our personal stuff aboard Midway (our cruise boxes had been loaded into the hangar bay and would be distributed during the TRANSPAC), then prepared for our last night in CONUS.

We mustered in the Ready Room and organized a fighter sweep on Jack London Square in Oakland. It would be a long time before any of us would see the inside of a bar and we wanted to take advantage of it. It would be a very long time before we’d see the inside of a bar on American soil.

The next morning, Monday, I went up on the flight deck, with somewhat of a hangover, and watched as we sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge. We were on our way.

The crossing would take about three weeks as the ship would be cruising at a fuel-efficient speed of 20 knots, rather than full speed ahead. The plan was to bypass Hawaii and head straight for NAS Cubi Point in the Philippines.

We soon settled into our “transit routine.” The first event of the day, usually beginning at about 1300, was an AOM (all officer’s meeting) where we’d start off with training: aircraft and ship recognition, aircraft systems, tactics, carrier procedures, etc. Next would usually be a lecture by the skipper, Cmdr. “Deacon” Connell, usually on some subject that, for whatever reason, he deemed appropriate – mostly JO (junior officer) indoctrination, from war stories to how to survive Olongapo.

Occasionally, after the movie, groups of JOs would get together in one of the staterooms or bunkrooms. We’d sit around on bunks and on the deck, sometimes with a little libation from someone’s “secret stash,” and discuss what was on our minds; mostly about one subject that is on the mind of every young man about to go to war. Will I be brave? Or will I be a coward? Will I be a disgrace? Or will I be a hero? Apprehension was high, but most of us decided we’d be heroes.

Will I be able to kill? Would we all return when this cruise ended?

On the morning of April 24, after three weeks in transit, the Midway was east of the Philippines and within flying distance of NAS Cubi Point.

The plan was for each squadron to fly four aircraft from the ship to Cubi. These planes would be used to fly refresher and training missions while we were in port. The planes would then be flown back aboard the carrier after it sailed for the South China Sea.

We had four days in port to get all the pilots re-carrier-qualified, get everyone to Jungle Survival School Training, and to get as much low-level, high-airspeed time, simulating combat, as possible.

When the fly-off crews were posted, I was lucky enough to be one of them.

The flight to Cubi was a four-plane, low-level, high-speed sightseeing panacea beyond anything I had ever experienced. I was in awe of the steamy jungle, waterfalls, steep canyons, and even an active volcano that we passed over, barely clearing the smoking caldera.

We announced our arrival in the Philippines with a 500-knot entry to a pitch-up break, landing on the single runway in perfect interval. We dropped off our drogue chutes at the end of the runway and pulled into our aircraft parking slots simultaneously, making sure we looked like the hottest fighter squadron on the hottest ship in the Navy.

I opened my canopy in sync with the others and was immediately assaulted with a blast in the face of steam bath-like air. As I was trying to adjust to the radical climate change, a Cubi transient line sailor clambered up the side of the aircraft and handed me an ice-cold green bottle of San Miguel beer.

“Welcome to the Philippines, sir,” he said with a huge grin.

I thanked him by downing the beer in about three swallows. Best bottle of beer in my entire life.

Midway wouldn’t arrive until the next morning, so the senior squadron guys decreed that they would give us junior guys the complete Cubi “indoctrination tour.”

We JOs were able to check the “been there, done that, got the T-shirt” block. That’s all that needs to be said about Olongapo.

We crammed about two weeks worth of flying into four days. The effort from the maintenance personnel was herculean. We bounced at night for carrier proficiency and flew low-level routes during the day.

When we sailed out of Subic Bay April 24, we were as ready for combat as possible, given the constraints of an early departure and a lengthy TRANSPAC. The only casualty was an RF-8 that returned from a low-level with about six feet of outer wing neatly sheared off, presumably from a logging cable strung across a narrow canyon. We never found out for sure.

On 30 April, we launched our first “combat” missions over South Vietnam, making the entire ship’s company and air wing personnel eligible for the $30-per-month combat pay bonus for April. We had landed right in the middle of the Battle of An Loc, but to us, this wasn’t real combat. Oh, I know the troops on the ground were in real combat, were probably thrilled that we were dropping bombs on the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong they were engaged with, but for us, there was little risk except, perhaps, from some random small-arms fire.

We wanted to be up North, where the action was, where the MiGs were. We were fighter pilots; we were trained for air combat. That was our job.

On Dixie Station we were engaged in ground support: dropping bombs on targets provided by forward air controllers or ground spotters. We were sharpening our skills around the boat, improving our bombing accuracy, giving our teamwork, communications and mutual support skills a lot of exercise.

And we were blooded; we knew that our bombs had to have killed people. We had, for better or worse, leaped that hurdle.

After flight ops on May 10, we were gathered in Ready Room Six, waiting to watch a movie when we got a briefing from our “spy,” (intelligence officer) Lt. (junior grade) Tom “Flipper” Terlizzi: he told us of the huge air battle over North Vietnam that day, where Lt. Randy “Duke” Cunningham and Lt. (j.g.) Willie Driscoll bagged three MiGs for a total of five, making them the first aces of the Vietnam War. A total of seven MiGs were shot down in that air battle, with the loss of one F-4; Cunningham and Driscoll were hit by a SAM but were able to make it feet wet before they were forced to punch out.

We were buoyed by the news but frustrated that we were still down south, doing the Air-to-Mud mission, while all the fighter action was up North.

On May 11, after flight ops were concluded, the ship’s captain announced over the PA that we had proven ourselves ready and were on our way to Yankee Station. The next day, May 12, we were en route and on May 13 we began Alpha Strikes on North Vietnam.

My first few days on Yankee Station were spent standing the duty one day and flying BARCAP missions; the purpose of these flights was fleet defense, protect the carrier. Normally, BARCAP duty was almost boring and not real combat, turning a lot of JP-5 into smoke and noise. Later in the cruise, however, on January 12, 1973, Rock River Lt. Vic Kovaleski and Lt. Jim Wise while on BARCAP intercepted a MiG-17 over the Gulf of Tonkin, that was presumably planning to attack one of the Navy ships, and shot it down, earning a Silver Star for each of the airmen. That turned out to be the last MiG shot down during the Vietnam War.

On May 17 it was finally my turn for a combat mission over North Vietnam; Jerry and I showed up at the 0500 briefing in the AIC, Air Intelligence Center. We had been assigned “Iron Hand Escort.”

“Iron Hand” was the code for SAM – surface-to-air missile – suppression, similar to the Air Force’s “Wild Weasel.” The A-7 would penetrate the SAM envelope, baiting the missile operator to fire at him. If the operator did fire, the Iron Hand would counter-punch with a Shrike – a real duel. As escort, we’d tag along and try to protect the A-7 Iron Hand from MiGs.

The brief covered everything pertinent to the Alpha Strike on Hai Duong: launch, air refueling, rendezvous, en route procedures, and threat analysis (location of SAM and flack sites and the MiG threat).

We met up with the VA-93, “Ravens” A-7 pilot and went over the details of the mission: the A-7 “Corsair II” would carry two “Shrike” anti-radiation missiles. The Shrike was designed to acquire and lock on to the guidance radar signal being sent to the Soviet-made surface-to-air missile. The Shrike would then follow that signal back to the guidance radar antenna at the SAM site.

Basically, we were to stay out of his way while we protected him from any MiG threat. Our instruction to him, if we did encounter any MiGs, was to hightail it to the coast as fast as possible and let us engage the threat. Pretty good plan … for him. For us, not so much … we would be without mutual support, the basic factor of air combat. But this was my first “real” combat mission and I felt bulletproof. Truth be told, I felt I could take on a squadron of MiGs; to hell with mutual support!

After launch, Jerry and I joined with a tanker overhead the ship and topped off with about 2,500 pounds of fuel. Then we found the Iron Hand A-7 we were to escort in the big merry-go-round above the ship and joined up with him.

We tagged along, for a while, behind the main strike group of about 10 F-4s, 12 A-7s and six A-6 Intruders, then turned toward our coast-in point, which was about 20 miles south of the strike group’s coast-in point.

When I saw the coastline of North Vietnam for the first time, a shiver went up my spine, my skin began to crawl, and my heart began to pound. My senses went into high gear.

The Iron Hand A-7 driver pushed his throttle forward, and I went to military power (maximum thrust without the use of afterburner) and went to a high cover position as we accelerated to about 500 knots. As we crossed the beach, I felt like Frodo Baggins entering Mordor.

I heard the strike lead call “weapons hot,” on strike frequency, telling the Alpha Strike pilots to ensure their master arm switch was in the “armed” position in preparation to dropping their bombs.

I checked my switches: master arm – on, Sidewinder – left outboard selected, gunsight reticle – 35 mils (boresight).

We did some wide S-turns as Iron Hand searched for SAM signals and Jerry in my back seat scanned the sky with our radar for MiGs.

Suddenly, “SAM Launch” warble erupted in my earphones! A second later a Shrike erupted from the A-7 in a billow of white smoke and arched upwards, heading north. I heard “lead’s in” over the radio, as the strike lead announced he was rolling in on his bomb run, triggering the entire strike group to begin the attack.

I could see the city of Hai Duong to the north of us but couldn’t make out the airplanes of the strike group. Then the airspace above the city began to twinkle like a million flash bulbs going off.

God! How can any of our planes make it through that wall of flack?

“We’re dead,” I said to Jerry on the intercom as I mentally calculated our odds of surviving the cruise.

A second Shrike zoomed from the “Raven” A-7 and headed for a SAM site near Hai Duong.

The “SAM launch” warble in my headphones suddenly stopped.

I looked closely at the airspace above Hai Duong, expecting to see multiple aircraft falling in flames.

Nothing. They all made it. We might survive after all!

Suddenly, the A-7 rolled inverted and began a split-S; his plan was to reverse directions rapidly, accelerate and lose a lot of altitude, then make a dash for the coast. I rolled inverted and began to follow him. As I pulled the nose through the vertical, going straight down, I went supersonic.

Poof! The cockpit exploded in a fog so thick I couldn’t even see the instrument panel. Somewhere in the dusty, dark recesses of my near-panicked brain, a recollection of this particular scenario popped out. This is where all the blindfold cockpit checks proved their worth; I found the cockpit pressurization dump handle with my left hand and gave it a quick jerk.

Poof! The thick vapor disappeared as fast as it had formed. I pulled out of the split-S at an altitude of 1,000 feet at 1.4 IMN (indicated mach number) with the beach in sight about two miles on the nose and the A-7 nowhere in sight; a quick radio call confirmed he was already feet wet.

As we rocketed over the shoreline, I realized we had escaped the Kingdom of Doom without a scratch. A rush of adrenaline hit me like it was coming out of a fire hose. The exhilaration was unbelievable; I had no prior experience with illegal substances to compare it with, but it must have been in the same ballpark.

All that was left to complete my first “real” combat mission was to safely land aboard the carrier in spite of the severe adrenaline overdose.

The next day, May 18, in the morning, I went on a MiGCAP with my roommate and flight lead Lt. “Black Bart” Bartholomay. The mission of MiGCAP was to protect the strike group from enemy fighters but with the freedom to roam the skies in search of the MiG threat.

We coasted in just south of Haiphong and headed for Kep, a North Vietnamese airfield north of Hanoi. I dodged two SAMs in the ingress, and then multiple SAM “alerts” on our warning systems, along with lowering clouds, forced us to descend right down to the deck. We finally egressed after being notified that our Alpha Strike had been canceled due to weather and the strike group had gone south to the secondary target.

That afternoon, Bart and his radar intercept officer, Lt. “Taco” Bell, teamed up with a different wingman, Lt. Pat Arwood, and his RIO, Lt. Oran Brown, and went to the same place on the same BARCAP mission that Bart and I had that morning. At Kep they ran into two MiG-19s and each of the Rocks shot one MiG down.

We had met the enemy. We had been in combat. None of us turned out to be a coward. Some Rocks died on that cruise. One was taken prisoner. We got more MiGs - five, in fact - and went on to win the Admiral Clifton Trophy for best fighter squadron in the Navy.

The “Endless Cruise” lasted for 11 months, and we spent 205 days on the line – in combat. The ship/air wing lost more than 40 KIA/MIA/POW and was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.

It was a really long cruise.