With the conflict in South East Asia in full swing by 1965 there was probably no such thing as a ‘routine sortie’; although there were factors common to most, each mission had its own demands and attendant risks and was flown in very different circumstances. Those over South Vietnam and Laos were relatively simple, albeit never risk-free, but penetrating North Vietnam, particularly into well-defended areas, was quite another thing. Pilots assigned to these missions were seen to be ‘taking their turn in the barrel’ and they were faced with varying and very personal degrees of trepidation.
Take one trip flown by Major Marv Reed of the 45th TRS with Captain Chuck Lustig, attached from the 15th TRS, as his wingman. A pair of RF-101s was tasked on 28 July 1965 to seek out a suspected SA-2 site some 15 miles south-west of Hanoi, a similar site near the capital having been responsible for damaging four F-4s on the 25 July in one of the first major SAM actions of the war. On that day Marv had been airborne nearby with his number two, Major Ralph Kral, orbiting in cloud waiting to carry out BDA on a target nearby, so they heard the whole saga reported on the radio as it developed.
It was because the F-4s were at medium level, in a height band ideal for the SAMs, that the Voodoos were now ordered to go in low to avoid that threat and obtain close-up photos of the new missiles. However, in doing so they would be exposed to rings of AAA expected to be defending the site; the same guns which had downed three F-105s in the area on 27 July. As usual the Voodoo pilots were placed in a dilemma.
At Tan Son Nhut, the temporary home of the 45th TRS on Able Mable duty, Marv, Chuck and Ralph Kral (who would man the spare aircraft) began some rapid planning to meet a noon TOT. They would air refuel from a KC-135 on the Thailand/Laos border and proceed over the mountains of Laos, into the PDJ and up to the border with North Vietnam, then turn north-east to descend and cross the Red River near Yen Bai at low level. The pair was then to reverse south to recross the Red River and climb to 500 ft to take the photographs required in the target area of Son Tay. Egress would be south over the mountains again in the climb to refuel from the waiting tanker. The weather in the target area was forecast to be unusually good, with scattered cloud and a little haze.
The three pilots walked to their aircraft in good time but during the lengthy start-up Marv found that he could neither transmit nor receive on his ARC-34 radio, and Ralph Kral had to take the lead in the spare aircraft. Some pilots would have left it at that, happy to live to fly another day, but not Marv Reed. He demanded another aircraft and with all speed started up, secured a priority clearance through heavy traffic and took off in front of a long line of civilian and military aircraft, speeding north to catch up the pair ahead. This he did while the planned refuelling was taking place, after which he took the lead and invited Kral to return to base. As every leader knows, this is hardly the best way to start a difficult mission, and who could know what lay in store ahead?
The descent to low level also went according to plan, after which they jettisoned their external tanks and increased speed to 540 kts to cross the Red River at tree-top height with Chuck flying in tactical formation off Marv’s starboard wing. That was when they were greeted by a veritable fury of flak. They could hear the booms and feel the blast from the 37-mm and 57-mm AAA, together with the infamous Russian-built ZSU-23/4, and see the gunners’ faces as they fired at them from point blank range. This was no place to hang around but high time to select afterburner to get all the speed possible from the now ‘clean’ Voodoos. This mission was going to be no picnic. In hindsight, Marv believes that they only survived by flying below the guns’ lowest depression.
The higher than planned speed rendered the pre-planned time marks redundant and for a few moments Marv experienced every low level pilot’s nightmare, he became uncertain of his position (a recce pilot is never ‘lost’). They seemed to be heading directly for downtown Hanoi, where the notorious ‘Hanoi Hilton’ welcomed American pilots. When Marv admitted to Chuck that he was uneasy, his wingman came immediately to the rescue in an excellent example of just one of the virtues of flying pairs of aircraft; he knew where they were and took the lead.
The two Voodoos were now approaching the target with cameras operating to record the surrounding defences, Marv’s nose-facing oblique camera later revealing concrete bunkers (legacies of the French occupation) and gun defences which were clearly firing at them. No doubt the gunners were also warning those ahead to be ready for them. With this early warning system in place the Voodoos might remain hidden from the radars at ultra low level, but they could not hope to achieve much needed surprise and from then on they were given a very warm welcome.
Having found their position on the map as they approached their IP on the Red River, Marv Reed resumed the lead and they climbed to the more vulnerable height of 500 ft necessary for the photo task. They were now running a continuous gauntlet of automatic weapons which lined several kilometres of the southern bank; in Marv’s own words “all the guns were shrouded in smoke as they fired at us, a most pernicious display of xenophobia towards a couple of unarmed Yankee pilots”. How they were able to fly through this intense barrage from IP to target, unscathed, seems something of a miracle. Indeed, Marv said afterwards that: “this was probably the most fortuitously successful event we could experience in a lifetime”.
As they approached the target, ‘with bent throttles’, Marv passed over a 100-mm gunsite, clearly shown in photos from his pan camera which were published in the February 1966 edition of ‘Newsweek’. From his position, offset by a quarter of a mile in line abreast, Chuck spotted another 100-mm site, unusual in its layout, but then both pilots saw ‘something white’ off to the left and there, fleetingly, were the missiles they sought. As the Voodoos continued south and began their climb over the mountains to rendezvous with the KC-135, Marv remembers:
“a euphoric adrenaline rush of exhilaration, coupled with an awesome feeling of relief and accomplishment. There is no greater feeling in this world than having been unsuccessfully shot at.”
They had the courage and determination to get it right, but perhaps they were also a little lucky.
Back at Tan Son Nhut, after a mission lasting 4 hours 10 minutes, the photo lab men lost no time getting the films to the light tables ready for analysis by the PIs and no lesser man than General Rockly Triantafellu, Director of Intelligence, 2nd Air Division. The results were excellent; the two pilots having covered the target area and captured the ‘missiles’ on their pan cameras. There were six SA-2s, set in a typical circular cluster with radar control at the centre, but they were fakes to decoy aircraft into an area bristling with guns of every description, a veritable flak trap from which Marv and Chuck had escaped.