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.)