We could also hear and feel the mining aircraft, Navy A-6s (featured image), and A-7s, as they screamed in at very low level right over the top of us. The men on the ship’s bridge had a front row seat as the Navy planes roared in on their targets, pitching up to loft-launch their mines into the entrance of the harbor just after they passed over us.
After weapons release, flight physics required them to continue their climbs into loops as they reversed course to head back out to sea and safety. They each dived back to very low altitude and, showing off to their Navy shipmates there on the bridge of our cruiser, they rolled inverted, as they flew over the top of us again. Even in SupRad, we could very clearly hear the planes as they came in and went out less than a minute later right over us. It was quite a “sound show” and very exhilarating to all of us there in our windowless spaces high up in the superstructure of that high-rise cruiser. (It was called that because it was one of the three tallest cruisers ever built anywhere. I forget how many levels (stories to landlubbers) it was, but I think it was 11 and our spaces were on level 8. But we all knew we had a job to do, to monitor the North Vietnam reaction and sure enough, as the sound of the A-6s and A-7 died away my guys, CTI3 Bob Morrison and CTI SN Lenny Moreau picked up two MiG-21s taking off from Phuc Yen, about 72 miles to the north west of us.
I quickly relayed that information directly to the Commanding Officer, CAPT (later RADM) Thomas McNamara, in CIC via sound powered phone, giving him the range, bearing and course of the two MiGs which were below the ship’s radar horizon. CHICAGO was in a hard starboard turn at that moment, avoiding the shore fire directed at us. However, the Captain instantly recognized that if he continued the turn his forward missile system, with its two ready Talos missiles would be blocked by the superstructure for what could be a very crucial minute, so he ordered an immediate reverse turn, going from hard a starboard to hard a port. As the ship swung back to the left, we could hear the missile fire control radars, which were just in front of us on the top of the first, lower part of the superstructure, rotating to search and lock-on the oncoming MiGs. Suddenly there was a thunderous explosion from the front of the ship. We thought the North Vietnamese shore batteries had gotten lucky and had hit us. Our intercept spaces were in the front and near the top of the “high rise” part of the superstructure. An explosion at the front of the ship was not good news at all, but then we heard the outbound doppler of a missile launch, followed very quickly by a second such explosion indicating we had shot two missiles. We were actually firing over our left shoulder as the launchers with their live missiles came to bear on the MiGs from behind the superstructure. The fire control radars had already locked on the MiGs as they were not blocked by the superstructure and the missiles launched the second they cleared the blocking superstructure. Their fiery blast burned the paint off our spaces as they streaked away from CHICAGO for Phuc Yen and the on-coming pair of MiG-21s.
Well less than a minute later the first Talos missile made intercept with the first MiG 48 miles down range. My team detected the reaction of the pilot of what we think was probably the 2nd MiG. It was just a single scream. The first pilot may never have known what hit him. He certainly did not transmit anything. Telemetry from the first missile showed an explicit kill at almost 50 miles. The second missile arrived on the scene a few seconds later, and its telemetry reported seeing nothing but “A large cloud of aluminum confetti with no significant speed,” as one of the missile techs later put it. Our indications were that the two MiGs were still climbing in formation and we guessed that the first missile, with its huge near 500 lbs. warhead, hit the lead MiG, carrying a full load of fuel and missiles, and it exploded in a huge fireball and debris field, instantly destroying its wingman, who, also fully loaded with fuel, exploded, too. It still rankles a bit that they gave us credit for only one MiG. We do know that both of the MiG pilots were never heard again, and we heard no rescue operation for a downed pilot get underway on the other side, so we are sure both were destroyed.
All of us in SupRad were overjoyed. I maybe more than anyone else. Well less that one hour on watch and in charge for the first time in my professional career and I have been an active, crucial part in a MiG kill. It was a genuine team effort. It was a first “kill” for all of us, but our celebration was going to have to wait as the day was just beginning. We were still very close to the harbor, and anything could happen.
We cheered for less than a minute and then went right back to our duties very quickly. MiGs and torpedo boats were still very much a threat, but that was not what caught the team’s immediate attention. One of the operators picked up a radio transmission from what turned out to be a Russian merchant ship, and I was the only Russian linguist onboard. My chief, CTICS Spry, handed me the earphones and said this appears to be a military transmission in the clear in a language none of the team knew. It might be Russian. Maybe I could help?
I put on the earphones and quickly realized it was a conversation between two Russian merchant ship captains discussing what their instructions were from their home office back in Moscow. They had SECRET contingence instructions and had just been ordered by Moscow to implement them. The captains were discussing what each had been ordered to do and what their plans were to carry out their orders. This was on the radio channel what is known the maritime world over as Channel 16, Harbor Common! Talk about a classic breach of security!
When the transmission was over, I quickly went back and listened to the beginning of the tape, making notes and translating for the chief as I did so. When I finished re-listening to the entire conversation, my immediate reaction was “Wow! The President would like to know right now what I now know!” and told the Chief so. I forget which one of us said “CRITIC” first, but I know that was my immediate thought. The Chief pointed out it was my call, but he would back me up, either way, CRITIC or SPOT REPORT, but it sure looked like a CRITIC to him. “Me, too!” was my response.
For those of you not part of the signals intelligence (SIGINT) community, a CRITIC is a FLASH OVERRIDE message addressed directly to the President via the White House Situation Room. It is reserved for the absolutely most urgent messages with information for the immediate attention of the President himself. It has to be derived from SIGINT, most generally specifically communications intelligence (COMINT). That morning there off Vietnam I could remember my instructor back in class at Fort Meade telling me about six months earlier that “If you are willing to personally wake the President from his first sleep in 48 hours to tell him what you have just learned, send a CRITIC immediately. Even if you are embarked on a warship, don’t wait to get the commanding officer’s permission. Send it immediately.” This was exactly the situation I was now in. The CO was literally 9 decks below me and had no real say in my judgment that I needed to tell the White House something. As the SIGNALS intelligence reporting authority this was my responsibility and my responsibility alone as the SIGINT authority on scene. Indeed, it had been stressed in school a CRITIC was the sole responsibility of the SIGINT community authority embarked. That was me and had been for something like all of two hours. “In for a penny, in for a pound. This information clearly meets CRITIC criteria.” was my immediate next thought. So off went the CRITIC. Yes, I did sweat blood for the next couple of hours. I did seek out the CO and tell him I had sent a CRITIC based on my personal analysis of some information we had intercepted. He was not terribly pleased I had sent a message to the President without asking his permission, but I had just helped him shoot down his first MiG, so he was in a good mood. However, I must stress the point that I had used my address as a signals intelligence unit, not as a crew member of the Chicago.
The cherry on the top of this sundae was the “Personal For” to me from the White House that arrived a couple of hours later. The message was from Henry Kissinger, the National Security Advisor for President Nixon at that time. It read “LT Thomas, Thank you. We needed that information!” /s/ Henry K.” And he had info’d the entire IC and Navy chains of command.
My team saw it before I did. None of them had ever seen a “Personal for” message from the White House and their congratulations still ring in my ear. I served another 18 years as a NavSecGru officer and had occasion to send two other very high priority messages to the White House. Once while flying a reconnaissance mission with VQ-1 over the Sea of Japan when my team detected what might be one of our submarines in tactical trouble. The other was the day Richard Nixon resigned the presidency when my submarine observed some very unusual behavior on behalf of Soviet forces that my captain and I thought the White House needed to know about immediately, but 9 May 1972 was my only true CRITIC. I have met very few officers that have released critics over the years, but I never meet anyone who sent one generated on his own collection, translation, and analysis. It was one Hell of a start to my career as a NavSecGru direct support officer.