Beep! Beep! Beep! The audio warning blared in my helmet. I looked at the ALQ- 156, or whatever it was called, and saw a red ‘Launch” button flashing and a long needle pointing to the source of the launch signal.
For the past 30 to 45 days, I had flown this mission north from the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) 70 or 80 miles along the shores of North Vietnam to the North Cape. The route took us through the surface-to-air zone of Dang Ha. It was an everyday occurrence for our warning system to signal a low-power missile alarm.
The warning system I remember as an ALQ-156 consisted of a round screen about three inches in diameter on top of a series of buttons that would light up when a SAM (surface-to-air-missile) signal was detected. The SAM-Lo light routinely came on indicating we were being tracked on the SAM radar, but still on low power.
The first couple of times I got that signal, I was gone. Without hesitation, I rolled inverted and dove for the ocean.
I felt safer at 300 knots 200 feet above the ocean heading south.
This happened a couple times before I began visualizing a Vietnamese radar operator telling his buddies, “Hold my beer and watch this!” as he turned on the power and laughed as I ran for home.
The next time I got a Sam-Lo warning, I didn’t react. The days of making me the brunt of their joke were over. That was my thinking. Fifteen seconds later the Sam-HI warning sounded. The audible beeps were louder. Louder and faster, creating a sense of urgency.
“What the hell,” I said out loud. “We’re out of here.” I rolled inverted and pulled the nose straight down toward the ocean.
Thomas, the other pilot flying this mission, said his experiences were similar. We compared notes each day. Thomas and I kept pressing our luck by delaying our departure. Sitting in the officers’ club, Thomas stretched his lanky frame across two chairs, tilted his cap back and scratching his head, said, “Will they actually fire a surface-to-air missile at a surveillance aircraft? Maybe they’re just having fun at our expense.”
“How do we know they know we’re unarmed and just conducting surveillance,” I replied.
“They have to know. We never fire on them, said Thomas.
“I think they are just messing with us, and if I’m right, they’re winning.”
“I know,” said Thomas. “And, it’s pissing me off.”
The next morning we were told to attend an intelligence briefing where we would learn about a newly devised procedure for evading a SAM. I had heard the word oxymoron used more than once pertaining to military intelligence, so I attended but not without a degree of skepticism.
The briefer introduced himself as an expert on Russian ordinance. “God spare me from the experts,” I thought. He went on to explain the North Vietnamese were being supplied SA-2 SAMs by the Russians and those particular missiles had a definite weakness that “we” could exploit. The briefer including himself in the planned exploitation of the second-grade, fallible weapons caused me to look over at Thomas who, rolling his eyes, was failing to mask his disdain. I was distracted trying to think of how the briefer might be involved in the process of exploiting the faulty SA-2. My cynicism ran amuck. We haven’t yet heard his plan.
With a prideful smile the briefer explained that while the SA-2 flew at 3.5 Mach (three and a half times the speed of sound), their minimum distance is five miles due partially to their 4 G load or four times the force of gravity limit. The briefer’s smile grew larger as if he expected applause.
“Don’t you see?” he said. “Once an SA-2’s gyros exceed 4 Gs, it will self-destruct.” It was clear he thought he was passing on vital, life-saving information. Military intelligence, if you will.
The smile on his face belied the fact that he was confused why these pilots weren’t getting it.
“So, all we have to do is get the SAM to exceed 4 Gs and we can watch it explode?” asked Thomas.
“Exactly!” the briefer said. Happy someone was finally getting it.
“How do you suggest we do that?” I asked.
“You make it turn back on itself,” said the briefer. “You know,” he continued, “a SAMs trajectory takes it high and then down on its target. Once it launches, it will ascend to as high as 50,000 feet before aiming down and locking on its target. If you fly toward the launch site and climb, the SAM will have to reverse course in such a tight radius, we believe it will exceed its maximum load factor of 4Gs and self-detonate.”
“Uh huh,” said Thomas. “And, how do we know that will really work?”
“Our intelligence assures us SA-2s are the only missiles being supplied by the Russians.”
“Further,” the briefer said, “Our analysts tell us the SA-2 was designed with this self-destruct feature to prevent it from turning back and targeting its launch site.”
Thomas and I gathered after the briefing. He said, “Thank God our military intelligence saves the day again.”
“Well, it’s based on the best they know so far.”
“I know,” said Thomas, “and I’m sure they’ll issue an update if one of us gets blown out of the sky testing their theory.”
“Yeah, I’m going to have to think this over.”
One bit of information Thomas and I found encouraging was the news there was, or soon would be, a shortage of SAMs. President Nixon had ordered the mining of the Haiphong Harbor, the port of entry for Russian supplies. Our optimism opined that fewer missiles meant we were less likely to be targeted. After all, we were only surveillance.
I was scheduled for R&R (Rest and Relaxation), so I headed to the states to see my family.
Back in the states the Vietnam War dominated the nightly news. The protest duJour on the college campus’ was President Nixon’s mining of the Haiphong Harbor. No one was in favor. Well, almost no one.
After two weeks, I was back in Vietnam and assigned once again to flying the mission from Tiger Island, just off shore of the DMZ, to the North Cape and back to Tiger Island.
A lot had happened while I was gone. The most significant was the loss of my favorite flying partner on photo missions. John (1Lt. Bernard Johnson) and I had flown more than a 100 two-ship missions into Cambodia and Laos. I think every flight I made my first three months had John on my wing or me on his. While I was stateside, John was transferred to a sister unit down south.
The report stated the pilot (John) was hit in the head by small-arms fire. Due to the aircraft’s low altitude, the TO (technical observer), unable to eject was fatally injured.
This event, more than any other, pierced my cloak of invincibility.
Just prior to learning of John’s fate while still protected by my cloak, I pressed my luck just beyond the SAM operator’s tolerance. He pushed the button and launched a SAM at me.
I didn’t receive the usual warning sequence. The system flashed to LAUNCH without advancing from SAM-Lo and SAM-Hi. This startled me. Without warning, the flashing bright red lights and screaming alarm created a visceral urgency in me.
I could hear the intelligence briefer saying “we” could exploit the missile’s weakness by turning toward the SAM launch site. Now, I was faced with the decision of believing in the intelligence or doing what had worked so far. I thought about it, but not for long.
Nah, I don’t think so. I’m out of here!
I rolled the airplane upside down and raced for the ocean. I’m pretty sure my T.O. was pleased with my decision, although he didn’t say.
Aimed straight down running from what I believed was a missile on my ass, I didn’t pull out until just a few feet above the ocean’s surface. We became one with the birds and small fishing vessels to hide in what is called ground clutter in radar speak. I’m not sure how but we made it back to base unscathed.
I have since wondered, if the SAM had actually become airborne? Could it have been launched at another target in my area?
I really don’t know. I really don’t care.
Two months later I was offered the opportunity to return to the States where I could put those experiences behind me.
All’s well that end’s well. Except John is on the wall.
1 Lt. Bernard L. Johnson II, Date of Casualty: February 21, 1972, Panel/Line: 2W, 109
I miss you Buddy!