EP-3B Orion Arrives
VQ-1’s air assets and technical capabilities were significantly upgraded in the spring of 1969 with the arrival of two EP-3B Orion “Bat Rack” aircraft.
PR-31 arrived 17 March 69 and PR-32 arrived on June 21. After their initial checkout at Atsugi, Japan, both aircraft deployed to Det Bravo. Back end equipment in the EP-3B was similar to that of the EC-121M (Willy). The real advantage of the EP-3B was its cruising altitude, nearly twice that of the venerable Willy. This resulted in a significant improvement in signal quality. From the squadron standpoint, the EP-3s were more reliable and required less maintenance. The EA-3B Skywarrior back end equipment was upgraded in August 1969. This upgrade was nicknamed SEAWING, a name sometimes applied to EA-3B missions in general.
Damage to NSG Spaces Due to Major Brush Fire
Major damage occurred to the NSG spaces on Sunday, April 27, 1969. Unlike other significant explosions, this one was not caused by a rocket attack, but by a brush fire. According to one account, some Vietnamese were burning trash outside the fence surrounding Ammo Supply Point One (ASP-1) when the fire got out of control, and caught the dry grass on fire inside the fence of ASP-1. Initial attempts by assigned Marines to put out the fire were unsuccessful, and the Marines soon abandoned the cause when a pallet of white phosphorus illumination rounds caught on fire. Things went downhill from there and soon spectacular explosions and shock waves raked the area again. The fire spread to the Air Force bomb dump and bulk fuel area. Soon debris from exploding 1,000 pound bombs filled the air. The explosions lasted into the night, presenting an eerie effect, with fire and mushroom-like clouds from detonating high explosive rounds.
The fire burned for almost two days. Our personnel were safely evacuated, but the operational spaces were destroyed by debris from the explosions. As a temporary measure, the detachment worked from an equipment van, with a desk and one recorder to check tapes and a second desk for the evaluator to write post mission reports. Communications support was provided by Air Force Security Squadron (AFSS), the Air Force counterpart to the Naval Security Group. AFSS had a ground-based operation on the opposite (east) side of the runway. New spaces were quickly erected. In fact, after losing a high stakes poker game, of which our new building was part of the pot, the Seabees built a new operations space of approximately 1300 square feet, with room for comms, operations and admin. Security fencing, generators, and defensive positions completed the package. The new building went up in one day, using some 35 Seabees and a few available Spooks. This compound was home to the detachment for the remainder of its existence.
Another milestone occurred when LCDR Donald C. McKenne assumed command of the detachment on June 1, 1969, becoming the first permanently assigned OIC. In addition to the new OIC, the detachment was allotted a small cadre of permanently assigned enlisted personnel. All of the CT branches (except T) were represented. Earlier in 1969, on 15 March, Naval Facility (NAVFAC) Da Nang was established at Camp Tien Sha, combining NCSP Detachments Alfa, Bravo and Delta, with Commander William H. Barber as its first commanding officer.87 Commander George L. Jackson relieved Commander Barber in August of 1969. The old Det Bravo was renamed Fleet Support Detachment (FLTSUPDET or FSD), and the OIC of FSD also served as the Executive Officer (XO) of NAVFAC.
Crash of PR-26
On March 16, 1970, tragedy struck just before noon when PR-26 crashed on landing at Da Nang, with the loss of 23 VQ-1 air crewmen. The plane was repositioning from Tainan in Taiwan to Da Nang, and thus there were no Spooks on board. Witnesses and survivors (there were eight) stated the plane was trying to land with only three engines working. The crew self-aborted their approach, and while trying to come around for a second approach, the wing tip clipped the edge of an F-4 revetment. At that point the aircraft crashed and broke into pieces, with the tail section (and the survivors) relatively intact. VQ-1’s LT Richard Haver, who was watching the approach, went to the Spook shack and used the OPSCOMM circuit to contact Kamiseya, who patched him directly to the VQ-1 spaces in Building 181, Atsugi. After the initial report, further status reports were passed to VQ-1 home base in Atsugi by the CTO operator on duty, using the same circuit. The detachment was also involved, in a small way, with the investigation afterwards when CTIC Harvey “Rusty” Buckley was tasked to transcribe the tape containing the final minutes of voice traffic between Da Nang Tower and the ill-fated PR-26.
VQ-1 Supports POW Rescue Ops
LCDR Kent B. Pelot assumed command of the detachment June 1, 1970, relieving LCDR McKenne. Later that summer, on August 15, CDR Jackson was relieved as CO of NAVFAC Da Nang by CDR Joseph C. Lewis, Jr. CDR Lewis was the last CO of NAVFAC, which was decommissioned on May 1, 1971. The FLTSUPDET was re-subordinated to NCSP, retaining the FSD title. Later in 1970 on November 20, VQ-1 was tasked to support the Son Tay prisoner of- war rescue operation. The Navy’s role in this operation was to provide a diversion while a specially selected U.S. Army Special Forces team, with USAF support, attempted to rescue POWs held at Son Tay. The operation was partially successful, the camp was destroyed and there were no U.S. casualties; however, the prisoners had been moved some days before the raid, so none were there to be rescued.
BIG LOOK had two missions during this operation. One was to initiate jamming when necessary. This was done by passing a code word warning on a special jammer control frequency, for example: “Jammers, Jammers, ALPHA – Deep Sea 31.” If called for, the actual jamming was to be done by a carrier based EKA-3B. The second mission was our normal role of SIGINT support. The operations order (OPORD) called for:
“[SIGINT] support will be provided by an EP-3 Big Look aircraft from H minus 2
hours 55 mins to H plus 1 Hr 30 min. One EC-121 will be available as back up at Da
Nang. One airborne EA-3B positioned overhead the CVA force at H minus 1 hr will
provide relay as required and airborne back up for the EP-3 in case of airborne
However, none of this information was passed to the Spooks until after the planes were airborne to reflect the especially sensitive nature of the raid. On the ground the Spooks were only told there was a special mission, and the crews were picked up around nine P.M. (2100H) to be taken to the briefing room next to the spaces, where they waited for about two hours before finally launching both the EP-3 and the EA-3B called for in the OPORD. Once airborne they were given more detail, but detected only minimal NVAF reaction, however, the Vietnamese did track the large number of Navy aircraft coming in from the Gulf of Tonkin.
This operation was the largest Navy strike mounted during the Vietnam War, and strangely enough, no live ordinance was carried by the strike aircraft. Flares were dropped to simulate bombs, and chaff was used to simulate mining Hai Phong harbor. The EP-3 was selected for this mission because it was felt to be more reliable.
The day following this operation, Hal Gamble arrived in Da Nang in the middle of a rocket attack. As the new arrival headed toward a bunker, Hal asked someone, “Is this the way it is every day here?” It wasn’t quite that bad, but Da Nang certainly deserved the nickname of “Rocket City.” No one is sure just how many rocket attacks occurred during the course of the war, but virtually everyone who served there remembers at least one.
By LCDR Robert E. Morrison, USN (ret.)
26 April 2018 at 14:26
Thanks to Bob Morrison, LCDR Ret., for his work on this project. This will leave a lasting legacy for both VQ-1 and NCSP Det Bravo.
26 April 2018 at 22:43
Excellent narrative and history by Bob
29 April 2018 at 00:00
Interesting to learn that the Navy support to the Son Tay raid was the largest Navy strike of the war. I had always thought the largest strike was the 3 carrier Alpha strike followed immediately by a major USAF strike the morning of 10 May 1972, followed by at least one more Alpha strike followed by another large USAF strike. There may have been a 3rd wave, but I am not sure of that. I do recall the US total number of aircraft as being 335, with over half being Navy. There were 41 MiG sorties flown in opposition. That was the largest number of Mig sorties of the war. It was an exciting day. It started with CTi3(?) Bob Morrison (the author of this very interesting series) and his partner, CTISN Renee Leap (?) embarked in USS Chicago (CG-11), detecting 2 MiG-21s preparing to take off from an airfield northeast of Hanoi. The first 4 Navy planes (F4s on MiG CAP) were just going feet dry and the embarked NSG Det passed the information to the Air Intercept Controller who vectored 2 of the F-4s to intercept. The F-4s arrived over the airfield as the MiGs were in their take-off roll and promptly shot one of the MiGs down. The other escaped by super flying right on the deck, thru the branches of tall trees.
Those MiGs were never held on radar. All of the locational information was from SIGINT. The NSG Det also provided locational info for the first 4 USAF F4s leading the Air Force strike into North Vietnam a short time later which resulted in 2 MiG-21s being downed, but unfortunately, 2 MiG-19s arrived on the flank of that engagement undetected by any sensor, active or passive, and promptly shot down one of the F4s. As I said, it was the start of a very busy day. I think we shot down 8 MiGs that day, but they got 2 of us.
29 April 2018 at 11:06
Other I-brancher was CTISN Leonard “Lennie” Moreau. Not sure if it was bigger than the Son Tay raid (to be honest, I didn’t compare numbers, I may have to go back and do that), but Guy is right — that day and a few on either side were pretty busy, not only for the CTs but for the RDs who controlled our aircraft. Our senior Air Intercept Controller on the Chicago was RDCS Larry Nowell, who successfully controlled 12 engagements and was awarded the DSM (one of the few enlisted to receive that award). Don’t think he ever realized how much early warning and identification information we provided (he wasn’t cleared). Between Da Nang and the USS Chicago it was an exciting way to start a career in Direct Support.
LikeLiked by 1 person
29 April 2018 at 17:22
Bob is right on all counts. It was Lenny Moreau. My bad. He was also right about the days on either side 10 May.
On the morning of 8 May we mined Haiphong harbor and Lenny and Bob detected 2 MiG-21s lifting off from Phuc Yen,
just within the range of Chicago’s TALOS missile system and headed straight at us. We the range and bearing to the Captain via sound powered phone and the Captain ordered an immediate hard turn to port to unmask our forward missile battery. A very short time later the NSG spaces were hit by the exhaust blast from 2 TALOS missiles enroute to intercept the MiGs. We believe the first missile downed both MiGs, but we only got credit for 1 and the role SIGINT had played was never mentioned.
There were multiple other intercepts that month in which SIGINT played the crucial role. May 1972 was an exciting month for the USS Chicago and its Spooks, and Bob Morrison was one of the stars. (of which there were many.)