End Game and Afterwards
Peace at Last
On January 27, 1973, representatives of the United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the Viet Cong signed in Paris “An Agreement Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam.”
The agreement called for the withdrawal of the last 23,700 U.S. troops and advisors left in South Vietnam by the end of March.
The ceasefire negotiated by the Paris Peace Accords took place January 31, 1973. Det operations wound down quickly after that, and the last scheduled combat support mission from Da Nang was flown February 1, 1973, a whale mission with CTISN John V. Phipps(tacair) and CTI2 Gary Nelson (SAM) as the BLS participants. The NAVFOR historical summary for the first quarter of 1973 marked the end of operations in Da Nang, under the February 16 entry, “Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron ONE, Detachment Da Nang, RVN and Naval Communications Station, Philippines, Detachment Da Nang, RVN, departed FASU Da Nang and relocated at NAS Cubi Point, Philippines.” FASU Da Nang terminated all operational support to squadron detachments and transient aircraft the following day, and was formally disestablished March 4, 1973. All remaining FASU personnel were withdrawn the following day.
The Big Look Spook presence in the Republic of Vietnam was over, but missions continued to be flown out of Cubi in support of Operation HOMECOMING, the return of the POWs from Hanoi negotiated as part of the Paris Peace Accords.
The Last Mission
The Det continued operations in support of VQ-1, flying out of Cubi and operating from aircraft carriers. The last mission actually flown out of Da Nang was May 6, 1973, and it happened more or less unplanned.
Gary Nelson was one of the spooks on the mission, and recalls it happening this way:
“I remember CDR Otto as being the senior of the two pilots for the two VQ-1 EA-3B’s that bingo’d to Da Nang along with five USS Constellation based A-7s because of the weather. After we had refueled and were ready to depart, sitting at the end of the runway, the tower refused to give us permission to take-off. CDR Otto argued with the tower controller, then making a “command decision,” he radioed the second VQ-1 EA-3B’s pilot and told them we were all leaving, with or without permission. It was the only time I ever remember two EA-3Bs rolling down the runway for takeoff simultaneously. We were closely followed by all five of the A-7s. The Det had long been closed when we landed at Da Nang on May 6. All seven planes landed because the weather was too severe to conduct any carrier landings, and it was land in Da Nang or bail out over the Gulf of Tonkin (we didn’t have enough fuel to return to Cubi Pt.). None of the crew were allowed to leave the vicinity of the airplanes during our time on the ground. We packed the chute, refueled, and got back on the plane. CDR Otto took charge of the situation and got us out. I think the problem was the lack of a diplomatic clearance to land because we weren’t supposed to have used Da Nang as our bingo field.”
Because of the distance to track, EP-3B missions from Cubi could only manage about 6 hours on station. The EA-3B missions were flown similar to the “double shuttle” concept used during the first year of the Det. The whale would launch from Cubi and proceed to station, refuel in-flight, for a total 4 hour mission. After being relieved by the second whale, they would trap aboard the carrier, refuel and relaunch for the second four hour mission (while the second EA-3B trapped and refueled). They would then be relieved by the second EA-3B, plug and return to Cubi. The second whale would be relieved by the EP-3B.
Gary Nelson also recalls his longest mission in a whale. “(It) was a 14 hour-plus mission when the second EA-3B had mechanical issues and couldn’t make its schedule that day. We flew to station, flew our mission, refueled in-air, flew the second four hour mission, refueled in-air, then completed the 3rd four hour mission before the P-3 arrived to relieve us on station. We refueled in-air again, and returned our tired sore buttocks to Cubi Pt.” This might be one of the longest EA-3B operational missions on record.
The final sustained operations were flown in the spring of 1975 as part of Operation FREQUENT WIND and in support of the Mayaguez rescue operation. With the conclusion of the latter, the U.S. involvement in Indochina came to an end.
SIGINT interest in Southeast Asia faded during the remainder of the 1970s. Concurrent with the waning interest, the pool of linguists also shrank. In 1976 there were 60 some Vietnamese linguists, most of whom were senior enlisted, many of them BLS. By the early 1980s most of these had retired or were no longer active linguists, and the available pool had shrunk to less than 30. Only a few Vietnamese linguists were available when VQ-1 was tasked to reactivate a PARPRO track off the coast of southern Vietnam, none of them former Det Bravo Spooks. Several missions were flown in November of 1982 using an EP-3 staged from Cubi, but no significant information was collected. Going north to the old track used during the war was not considered due to the risk and lack of supporting air cover.
The Defense Language Institute stopped training Vietnamese linguists in 2004.
Da Nang – A Stepping Stone to Success
One of the most interesting things about any story is the ending. For most of us, Da Nang was the beginning. We were all young, fresh out of high school or college, and didn’t think too much about the distant future. Outside of a few bad moments, Da Nang was an exciting job, one that we volunteered for. For nearly everyone, it was a stepping stone to success.
Those who chose to stay in the Navy and become “lifers” rose to the top of the enlisted and officer ranks. At least three alumni became Rear Admirals and commanded the entire Naval Security Group. Others achieved top enlisted or warrant officer status.
Those who decided the Navy was not for them were equally as successful in civilian life. Some worked for the government in other capacities; others launched successful businesses or became valued employees. Several became authors, including Wayne Care, who wrote a fictional account of a year flying in Da Nang. I’d like to think our Da Nang experience gave us some good guidelines to follow – do what you have to do to accomplish the mission, and don’t sweat the small stuff.
In early 2013, thanks to the internet, a small group of former Big Look Spooks connected and started a web site and forum. Things snowballed from this small beginning, and in October 2013, nearly 40 of our group got together for a reunion in St. Petersburg, FL. Most of us hadn’t seen each other for over 40 years, and after some reintroductions (somehow we didn’t look the same, except for Hương); it was like we had never been apart.
A second reunion, held in Sterling, Virginia in August 2015, brought together even more of our group, validating our efforts to identify and locate all who served with the Detachment. More reunions are in the works, including one in Charleston, SC in November of 2017, and there has even been some discussion about a visit to Da Nang, where we all started.
By LCDR Robert E. Morrison, USN (ret.)