VQ-1 Supports Operation ROLLING THUNDER
In early 1965 VQ-1 commenced a series of missions in the Gulf of Tonkin, aimed at locating enemy radars using BRIGAND.
On February 7, 1965, strikes were launched in retaliation for some Viet Cong guerilla bombings in South Vietnam. The air war over North Vietnam commenced in earnest in March 1965. Nicknamed ROLLING THUNDER, it became one of the longest bombing campaigns ever conducted by US forces. MiG 17 defensive patrols continued but stayed north of the 20th parallel. For the most part, US aircraft lost were shot down by AAA.
As previously mentioned, EC-121M missions supporting these operations were staged from various airfields in Asia. Missions were flown in and out of Da Nang, but weren’t supported by a permanent detachment. EA-3B missions were flown from one of several carriers, or in the case of the EC-121M, from NAS Cubi Point in the Philippines. Spooks for these missions came from San Miguel, and flew without any formal TAD orders. Since the missions were flown from Cubi Point, the spooks (enlisted only, no officers flew on these missions) merely rode a van (or some other ground transportation) to the airfield, a ride of a little over an hour from San Miguel. That was just the start of a long, arduous day. Missions were ten to twelve hours in duration, but only two hours or so were spent on station. The remainder was transit time…nearly four hours each way.
1965 – VQ-1 First Deployed EC-121M to Da Nang Full Time
In April of 1965, MiG 17s were first noted in offensive posture, and on July 25, an USAF RB-66C aircraft intercepted FAN SONG B from North Vietnam, signaling the operational introduction of the SA-2 GUIDELINE missile system. These significant developments, coupled with the expanding air war, made it clear more on-track time was necessary. On September 3, 1965, VQ-1 first deployed an EC-121M “Willy Victor” (PR- 21, BuNo 135749) to Da Nang full time. This marked the establishment of a permanent VQ-1 detachment at Da Nang. Spooks assigned to these missions were ordered directly to “Senior Naval Aviator, COMFAIRECONRON ONE Detachment, Danang, Republic of Vietnam.” The official establishment of a collocated NSG detachment was still a few years away.
First Special Evaluator (SPECEVAL)?
Missions over the Gulf of Tonkin (Da Nang to Da Nang) commenced September 5, 1965. A small contingent of NSG personnel was assigned TAD, all from NCSP. Ops tempo was heavy from the very start. During the first month 32 Willy missions were flown, despite five days lost for an engine change. Phil Szpiech, one of the first Petty Officers in Charge, recalls flying nearly 200 hours per month during late 1965. Initially there were no Chiefs, and the Petty Officer in Charge (POIC) duties fell to three CTI1s – Damon L.“Sal” Godfrey, Don Boggs, and Phil Szpiech. NSG officer evaluators started flying about this time; one of the very first was LT(jg) David R. Patterson.
The Double Shuttle
Daily EC-121M coverage was supplemented with the EA-3B. At first the EA-3B missions continued from NAS Cubi, flying what was known as a double shuttle. The whale would launch from Cubi, fly a mission and land on a carrier, refuel and launch on a second mission. This mission would recover at Da Nang, refuel and return to Cubi. Prior to establishment of the Det at Da Nang, the Whales had flown from Cubi and various carriers. The Whales soon joined the Willies at Da Nang, a much shorter day for their crews.
World Famous International Spook Mess
In the beginning, conditions at Da Nang were austere. Initially some 20 personnel lived in an eight man tent and later were moved to temporary Air Force barracks on the southeast side of the runway. Of note, the ordered personnel were authorized “to have in your possession one side arm and any other weapon which your Officer-in-Charge may direct.” Not a great place for liberty, although at that point there were few restrictions. Spooks, being what they were, took all this in stride and immediately set about to improve their situation. Sergeant Chester V. Harris, a Marine assigned to the Spook contingent, demonstrated extra talent as a “procurement specialist,” and the spook tent soon had an attached screen porch, complete with a small refrigerator and a supply of steaks. This modest effort was the forerunner of the World Famous International Spook Mess of later years.
CDR Thomas F. Hahn, the head of the NSG Department at NCSP, spent almost two months at Da Nang (from November to December 1965), observing operations while flying on BIG LOOK missions. He recalled one day while sitting on a rubber fuel bladder, a stray shot punctured the bladder near where he was sitting. Luckily the only thing damaged was the bladder. Although he flew as an observer, and had studied Chinese at Yale, he lacked technical, “hands-on” cryptologic skills, and flew as a trainee. Since he wasn’t a primary crew member, he sat on the floor next to the spook positions, much to the surprise of the VQ-1 aircraft commander.
SECNAV Recognize VQ-1 (NUC)
The Secretary of the Navy recognized VQ-1’s service by awarding them the Navy Unit Commendation (NUC) for the period 22 May 1964 to 30 November 1965.
The awarding citation read in part:
“…provided direct airborne support for Naval operations in the Gulf of Tonkin and over Laos and North Vietnam. Performing often as single-plane detachments under most adverse operating conditions, elements of Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron ONE have flown unarmed Reconnaissance flights over hostile territory and adjoining waters. These collective efforts in providing current, pertinent intelligence data have materially contributed to the overall effectiveness of United States Naval operations and have been instrumental in saving countless lives in Southeast Asia….”
The citation went on to add that “all personnel attached to and serving with” VQ-1 during the indicated period were authorized to wear the NUC ribbon. This included the Spooks, all of whom were ordered to temporary duty with the squadron.
Records are sparse for the first months of 1966. A summary produced by Navy historians stated in January 1966 “EA-3Bs of TF 77 detected two possible lock-ons by MIG radars during the month. The first occurred 30 miles southeast of Haiphong and the second 40 miles southeast of
Thanh Hoa. On the second occasion the EA-3B escorts attempted to intercept the bogeys, but without success. This action, plus indications of more MiGs being shipped to North Vietnam from the Soviet Union, augured more activity of this kind in the future.[sic]”
EA-3Bs Provides SAM/MIG Alert Warnings
In February, 108 EA-3B sorties were flown but no airfield/carrier was Mentioned. In May, “five EA-3B aircraft operating from NAS Cubi Pt. and CTF 77 carriers, and 2 VQ-1 EC-121M (BIG LOOK) aircraft based at Da Nang Air Base continued to provide SAM/MIG alert warnings to PACOM strike/recce aircraft and furnished Task Force commanders with tactical EOB. 141 SAM and 38 MiG warnings were broadcast to strike/recce pilots from VQ-1 missions flown in the Gulf of Tonkin . Two EC-121M aircraft alternated flight operations and provided coverage from the normal BIG LOOK Op-Area from approximately 0630H to 1830H.” During that time, and actually throughout the life of the Det, Da Nang was one of the busiest airfields in the world.
Ensign Myron T. Johnson and Ensign Thomas F. Stevens followed LT(jg) Patterson in early 1966, serving as airborne evaluators and Officers-in-Charge (OICs). Orders issued in the summer of 1966 continued to direct TAD personnel to report to the “Senior Naval Aviator, Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron ONE, Da Nang, RVN”. Although NCSP Det Bravo was not yet established, the Naval Security Group (NSG) now had a permanent presence in Da Nang. The OIC and LCPO/POIC were not permanently assigned but instead were the senior members of the NSG contingent.
1966 – NCSP Grows to Include Kamiseya Spooks
In August of 1966 the detachment consisted of two NSG officers, ENS Airell B. Jenks and LT Charles “Talley” Malloy, and 24 enlisted flyers from NCSP, and probably additional personnel from Kamiseya, Japan. All the flyers were listed as noncrew, probably because enlisted Communications Technicians only had started to earn wings in 1965. The senior enlisted on the list of flyers was GySgt Alvie E. Smith. He was relieved in late August by Chief Petty Officer Gary Cooper. Chief Cooper, who was there TAD during August to November 1966 as the leading chief, recalls sleeping in the temporary barracks only two nights out of a 75 day TAD. The remainder of the time he slept in the operations/admin hut shared with the USAF crews from Yokota. Two flights daily seven days per week were normal while Chief Cooper was there. The two missions provided roughly 16 hours total coverage. Approximately 28-30 total personnel were assigned, including Dick Williams and Russ Krause CTI1 (Russian) linguists who were TAD from Kamiseya, Japan.
The Russian linguists were tasked to determine what, if any, direct involvement the Russians had in the training of MiG pilots and SAM operators, since both systems were supplied by the Russians. Dick Williams remembers one particular incident:
More than just Vietnams Pilots!
“Several F-4 Phantoms were in the area flying cover for the EC-121 when Navy Vietnamese linguists aboard the aircraft detected two North Vietnamese MiG-21s being vectored toward the plane by a North Vietnamese GCI controller. This information was relayed to US controllers, who directed the Phantoms to intercept the MiGs. A few minutes later, the North Vietnam Air Force (NVAF) GCI controller attempted to contact the MiG flight (in Vietnamese), using calls “Number 1” and “Number 2.” After several unsuccessful attempts, another voice, which was clearly not Vietnamese, called in Russian “Number 2” several times. “Number 2”, also clearly not Vietnamese, answered in Russian. The controller asked where “Number 1” was and “Number 2” answered that he (Number 1) had “left the aircraft” and was “under parachute”, indicating the pilot had bailed out. Since there were no follow-up communications to support an engagement, it could not be determined if “Number 1” had been attacked and shot down by the F-4’s or simply decided to abandon the aircraft rather than engage. “Number 2” was ordered to return to base. Chalk one up for the Spooks.”
In addition to Vietnamese, Chinese and Russian linguists, Korean linguists were flying as well, looking for any support the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK) might be providing in the effort against the US.
By LCDR Robert E. Morrison, USN (ret.)