The rest of the month and on into June was very active. There are four other engagement from that month that I still clearly member. One was when we figured out exactly which two Navy F-4s had a MiG climbing up from directly below to shoot them down and got a specific warning to them in time for them to roll out of danger.
They were able to turn the tables on the MiG and because the F-4s had a significant height and speed advantage, roll over on the MiG to see it “Standing on its tailpipe “almost out of energy” (meaning it was not flying very fast) and shoot them down within a few seconds.” As the engagement report read. From the time of our warning to the role reversal from hunted to hunter to shooter was well less than a minute, maybe less than 30 seconds. It was very cool to see teamwork in action.
Yet another time we detected two MiG-17s preparing for takeoff from a specific field where we had F-4s nearby. I believe they were Air Force this time. The F-4s shot both down but they claimed they never saw the MiGs we were vectoring them against because we could not possibly have seen the two MiGs they had shot down because they were just a few feet off the ground! Our radar could not possibly have seen them…and it had not. My team and I had by that time, established such a close working relationship with the AICs that they were willing to believe what we told them such that we could pull something like this off. We could not explain all this to the AF jet jocks, so we just smiled and went on our way. It does still rankle a bit that our AIC and the CHICAGO did not get credit for those shoot downs. We also ran into the Navy crew at the Cube Club in Subic Bay that shot down the very first MiG on 10 May. They too told me that they had missed the first two MiGs we sent them after and “we could not have known the next two were taking off as they were well below radar detection range.” This was true. They were not detected by radar! But in those days I could not explain how we had done it, so I just kept my mouth shut. At least in the Navy case, CHICAGO got credit for assisting in the MiG kill.
In the May 10 engagement, we detected what we took to be a pair of MiG-21s taking off from Kep, and we vectored a pair F-4 off the USS Midway to intercept them which the Phantom did and after a significant dogfight ended up shooting both down. I subsequently saw a news report congratulating the F-4 crew for their kills and learned that the radar intercept operator (RIO), who had visually acquired the MiGs which allowed the pilot to position his plane for the first kill was my roommate at OCS. Small world, but the story has yet another twist. At our 50th class reunion I learned that we had misidentified the aircraft. We had said they were MiG-21s because that was the only plane that used an afterburner and was normally operated from that base. However, the F-4 crew saw that they were MiG-19s, which were not known to have ever operated from that base. The MiG-19 was an excellent fighter, but it was difficult to maintain and the only facility equipped to maintain it was Yen Bai, well off to the north west.
That brings me to the highpoint of mid-May. RDC Larry Nowell, the lead Air Intercept Controller on Chicago, became the first AIC to register five successful intercepts, thus becoming an ACE. He was flown to an aircraft carrier and told he was being nominated for the Distinguished Service Medal and would be promoted to senior chief. When he returned to CHICAGO that evening, he came straight to SupRad with the news and said “I owe you guys at least half of this medal. I could not have done it without you.” My team and I felt very proud… and we all agreed with him…it took a team, and we were very clearly part of it. However, Chief Nowell (AKA “Ace”) was an acknowledged master of his craft and was the quarterback, “calling the plays.” He became a legend in the Navy. We have stayed in the shadows (until now!)
Another engagement I also distinctly remember as having a few odd twists. My team and I had discussed what we would do if we ever detected a MiG low on fuel as a “just in case,” as contingency planning. I had brought it up at a training session because I remembered hearing discussions among naval aviators about pilots having to bail out due to running out of fuel in a dogfight. Sure enough about a week later my best op reported that a MiG-17 had stayed engaged in a dogfight too long and reported being in a low fuel state and was requesting to make an emergency landing at an airfield other than his own, and my guy was able to figure out where he was headed. In checking with the AIC, I learned that we had ready F-4s within range of that airfield and I suggested we try to cut the MiG off. The AIC was game, even though he had no radar contact on the MiG. Sure enough, the airfield detected the oncoming Phantoms and diverted the MiG-17 to another field. We quickly asked the AIC to divert his F-4s to the other airfield at which point the North Vietnamese controllers, seeing our Phantoms change course, vectored the MiG to yet another airfield. As the MiG approached the third airfield, he reported his engine had quit, and he was going down. The controller replied. “Understand. Keep calm. Check well. Bailout.” We had scored a kill without firing a shot! We were jubilant, and I reported the kill to the Captain. He was delighted, too and congratulated us.
There was a downside to this. The USAF airborne SIGINT aircraft had reported the same callsign active later that same day and our kill was disallowed. I still maintain the pilot had bailed out very near a base, the North Vietnamese were very short of experienced pilots by then, and he was asked to (or told to) go back up as soon as he could. We did destroy the MiG but did not kill the pilot, which was OK by me. Unfortunately, the Captain was less than pleased. “You intel types are always second-guessing each other, that is why I do not like the lot of you.” Those words sting to this day. One day you are a hero, the next a goat. Years later he told me he does not remember saying that and he has great appreciation for the contributions of Intelligence to the operational forces, which makes me glad, but my memory is very clear, those words were engraved in my heart that day and they still sting. To give the Captain his just due, we were all very near exhaustion by that point what with the unparalleled pace of air combat ongoing in his area of responsibility and I am sure he, with the stress of command, was more so than most of us.
The other MiG engagement I very clearly remember did not have a happy ending. We detected a MiG-17 being vectored against a specific airborne US target, but there were many USN and USAF aircraft over North Vietnam at that moment and while we had issued a “MiGs airborne” warning we could not figure out where the MiG was and thus who his target was. We finally figured it out that it was a single A-7 on what was called an “armed reconnaissance” mission over a specific part of the Ho Chi Min trail and passed the info to the AICs who issued the call specifically to that A-7. His reply haunts me to this day. “Thanks. I was wondering where all this horizontal 20 Mike-Mike (cannon fire!) was coming from!” Classic naval aviation cool! But it was his last transmission. We searched for him for several days but never learned where exactly he had crashed and he is now listed as “Killed in Action.”
By the time it was all over, and I left the CHICAGO to return to Japan. I believe I had participated in something like 28 MiG engagements, at least 16 of which were successful. I was told by CDR Dreshler, the man who had asked me to join his direct support team at NavSecGru Activity, Philippines, that I was the first NavSecGru officer to participate in more than four shoot downs, thus making me a SIGINT ACE. The war went on for another 6 months, and it is entirely possible another NSG officer became a SIGINT ACE, but I never heard anyone claim to have done so. Indeed, I rarely spoke of it as the guys in the F-4s were the real ACEs.
I remember being off Haiphong and Vinh watching in awe as the night raids of F-4s, A-6s, A-7s, and F-105s went over the beach, and a series of glowing orange fountains erupted as the antiaircraft guns and missiles rose from the beach. You had to have “brass ones” to fly into North Vietnam and that orange wall of fire around Haiphong and up the Red River to Hanoi. My hat is off to those USN, USMC, and USAF aviators. I was proud to have served with them.
I also rarely spoke of the fact that I was apparently the first “ACE” of the Naval Security Group because there were many green eyes when I got back on shore, especially at Misawa. Some of my fellow officers were clearly jealous. “Lucky bastard! He does not deserve all this fame and good (sic) fortune!” seemed to be the attitude of some of the NavSecGru DirSup officers I had left in Japan. The fact that I had spent several years training in high tech naval combat never seemed to cross almost anyone’s mind, but then at Misawa, we had over two dozen guys who had come through the same pipeline as I had and we were all competing for promotion. Some of us, myself included, were reserve officers and were also competing to be accepted into the regular Navy during a time of cutbacks. But I had fallen into a pit of slop and come out smelling like roses. That slop pit had several pools: Let me explain.
- I was trained to be an NSG direct support officer in submarines and was redirected to aviation. (In naval intelligence service in submarine surveillance is # 1 by a mile.)
- Instead of going home to my family after several weeks of school in the US I was redirected to the WORDEN, a surface ship going into the Sea of Japan. In naval intelligence Aviation is #2, surface ships are a distant #3. Demoted twice!
- WORDEN was redirected to the Gulf of Tonkin, and I was along for the ride at that point. (Shanghied! Not even going where I was trained to go. What a bummer!)
- I chose to volunteer to be a CIC watch officer and to train to be an Officer of the Deck. (Why work a shift job when you do not even really have to work? You stupid or crazy? Or both?)
- I chose to volunteer to stay in Southeast Asia after spending almost two years training to conduct surveillance of the Soviet Union. (“Let me get this straight! You volunteered to stay away from home for 3 more months and to go back into a war zone where you had just had a man literally die in your arms from a grievous wound? (with many other seriously wounded all around you.) You really are stupid! (And maybe crazy, too!”)
What else could go wrong? My ship gets hit with friendly fire, and I get wounded? Yea, that too!
I made a series of decisions that, in hindsight, were, clearly the right ones, but it indeed was not clear at the time. I can only guess Someone really was looking out for me.
In looking back, my one real advantage over other guys was that I had spent five months as an inquisitive and eager young ENLISTED guy in CIC on HORNE, a missile cruiser off Vietnam. It was ok for a 3rd class petty officer to ask a lot of questions and make a friendly pest of himself. Had I been a junior officer I am sure I would have been much more circumspect as officers are just supposed to know a lot of this “stuff” already, even if it is all brand new to everyone except the data systems technicians and radarmen (now called operations specialists), HORNE also had the added advantage for me by having the newest and best Navy Tactical Data System (NTDS) afloat. My best friends other than the NSG “spooks” who came and went, were the data systems technicians and radarmen especially those who operated the electronic warfare systems such as the WLR-1 (they became electronic warfare technicians and in the late 1990’s I tried to get that rate combined with the CTTs) who were stationed onboard in CIC with me. Their workspaces were right next to mine. They were very proud of their systems and happily answered all of my many, many questions. I even enrolled in Computer Science 101 and Fortran, being taught by CDR (later RADM) Kleber Masterson, HORNE’s XO, the second in command. I now realize I was well prepared to jump into that “pit” of very odd circumstance and do a good job.