Talking Proud Archives --- Military

LS-85, Airmen left out on the limb, a leadership failure

September 10, 2017

By Ed Marek, editor

TSQ-81 Operations - Commando Club

As was the case for the TACAN installation, the installation and survey teams were not "sheep-dipped," but simply wore civilian clothes and were not to acknowledge publicly to say they were USAF.

The operations people were another story. The operators were from the USAF's 1st CEVG at Barksdale AFB in Shreveport, Louisiana. But their unit of origin was hidden under a process known as "sheep dipping." Sheep-dipping was a process to hide the fact that US military forces were operating in Laos.

Operation of the TSQ-81 mission at LS-85 required bringing in USAF radar technicians and operators, but they could not be USAF. They were Lockheed workers under contract to CIA. The USAF discharged these people, and Lockheed hired them. Once done with their assignment, the USAF would bring them back with no loss of time or benefits. If they were lost during the mission, the USAF promised to provide their families with all Air Force benefits.

This team also could not be issued weapons. The equipment was to be rigged with explosives should it have to be destroyed. More on that later.

LS85TSQ81

This is a look at the completed TSQ-81 site on top of the mountain. It was next to the TACAN (not shown in photo). Both were situated on the western rim of a steep ridge above a helicopter landing zone (LZ), but 200-300 yards away, at an elevation about 200 ft. below that of the facility.

As I said, the TSQ-81 operators had resigned from the USAF. However, they were assigned on paper to the 1043rd Radar Evaluation Squadron at Bolling AFB, Washington, DC. That was their cover back home since in Laos they were Lockheed employees. If you look up the ones who were killed in the NVA attack, you will see that they are listed as belonging to the 1043rd.

The 1st CEVG operators initially deployed to Udorn RTAFB from Barksdale AFB. They wore their uniforms and carried their military identifications while at Udorn, which surprised me. I say that because they were in fact not in the USAF any more, but were Lockheed employees. Correll pointed out that wearing the uniform was a cover when they were at a major USAF operating base. They switched into their civilian cover when they deployed to LS-85 for their rotation.

BlantonClarence
Lt. Colonel Clarence William "Bill" Blanton, shown here, led the sheep-dipped USAF team. He was the 1st CEVG's Director of Operations, and was selected to command the TSQ-81 operators at LS-85.

His cover in the US was commander, Det. 1, 1043rd Radar Evaluation Squadron, Bolling AFB, Washington. However, in Laos Blanton's cover was the manager of the Lockheed field service group, and the operators comprised the Lockheed service group.
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I need to pause and sort out a few points.

I'll note here I have seen reports, including one from CIA, that said the operators were "all Air Force CIRCUIT RIDER teams from the 1st Mobile Communications Group (MOB) in Udorn." That is not correct. The 1st MOB did install the TACAN at LS-85, and reported they operated it until Page Communications people got there. However, the 1st MOB did not provide TSQ-81 operators. The 1st CEVG, an USAF SAC unit, operated the TSQ-81 system at LS-85. The 1st CEVG had developed and worked with the MSQ-77 version of the TSQ-81 for some time.

A second issue. The
1st MOB said it installed the TACAN, and left some people behind to operate it until Page Communications people got there. I believe the Page Communications engineers, Inc. is the company about which the 1st MOB talked. It has since been sold to other companies. My problem is I have found no other records on Page Communications. I am certain Page people were not on the mountain when the NVA overran it in March 1968. I have no records showing Page people were evacuated or KIA. I have concluded technicians from the 1st CEVG brought in to operate the TSQ-81 also operated the TACAN. It is possible Page never showed up, or the 1st CEVG people simply relieved the 1st MOB people who stayed behind to operate the TACAN.

  • Finally, It has been hard to determine how many operators were used for the TSQ-81:
  • A CIA report of February 28, 1968, said, "At any one time there are 15 Americans stationed at the site: 12 to service TSQ-81 and two to serve the TACAN, and one to oversee the operation."
  • Another source said LS-85 had two 12 hour rotating shifts, five men each. That source did not say what was used for the TACAN, but other sources have said two.
  • Yet another source, W. Howard Plunkett, writing "Radar bombing during rolling thunder--Part II: Combat Lancer and Commando Club," said, "In mid-October (1967) a team of forty-eight men, Air Force technicians working under cover as employees of Lockheed Aircraft Service Company, arrived at Udorn, Thailand. Crews of nine men at a time shuttled in shifts to LS-85 to operate and maintain the TSQ-81radar station installed at LS-85. Other technicians supported the Channel 97 TACAN equipment."

I am able to address only who was there the day the site was attacked. I'm getting ahead of myself but I want to address this here, even though I will talk about it more later.

There were 19 Americans at the site when the site was attacked. There was one USAF combat controller there to direct local air attacks if required and two CIA paramilitary officers who pretty much stayed in their building downhill near the helipad, controlling Hmong fighters. We know 16 of the 19 were operators, all 1st CEVG people, led by Lt. Colonel Clarence F. "Bill" Blanton. There were two shifts of operators. Blanton led one, and Captain Stanley Sliz led the other. Both Blanton and Sliz were there when the site was attacked. I do not know why both shift leaders were there, but they were. That leaves 14 enlisted technician operators at the site when it was attacked. Normally it took two to operate the TACAN. That leaves 12 to operate the TSQ-81. That number jives with the CIA report referenced above.
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I apologize for getting off point, but I needed to square this away.

The system at LS-85 was called "Commando Club." Commando Club TSQ-81 radar system operators working with the radios used the callsign "Wager Control." The relay aircraft used the callsign "Wager." The fighters with whom Wager had contact used their designated callsigns.
Wikiwand described the operation this way:

"With the bomber near a designated 'Initial Point' LS-85 would begin a radar track and the Bomb Directing Central's analog computer would calculate a computer track and solve the 'bomb problem' for the aircraft's flight path. The central then automatically transmitted guidance commands to the aircraft (lead aircraft for multi-ship formations) to adjust the bomb run toward an eventual release point for the actual bomb(s). The central at LS-85 automatically effected release of the ordnance from the aircraft to eliminate the variable crewmember delay during the greater vulnerability of the generally steady bomb run."

Note that these instructions had to go through the "Combat Lightning" relay aircraft, callsign "Wager," in order to disguise LS-85's involvement.

I saw someplace on the internet, I can't recall, that the F-105 pilots flying into NVN called LS-85 "North Station" or "Eagle Station."
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TSQ-81 Calibration Flights: 355th TFW commander smelled "Bad Stink"

The operations team members got to LS-85 in about mid-October 1967. Once the system was turned on, 7th AF in Saigon tasked the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) at Takhli RTAFB, Thailand to fly two weeks radar-guided bombing missions over NVN to help calibrate the radar.

W.H. Plunkett reported on these test missions:

GiraudoJohn
Col. John C. Giraudo, the 355th wing commander, shown here as a brigadier, led the trial missions. The tests began over Laos and progressed to a final mission to bomb the Yen Bai railroad yards northwest of Hanoi. After completing the tests, Col. Giraudo objected to the missions as being too hazardous to his F-105 pilots. He said they couldn't employ the successful ECM jamming pod defenses that the wing had developed. In a personal meeting with General Momyer, Col. Giraudo requested the 355th TFW be exempt from further Commando Club missions. General Momyer approved Giraudo's request and assigned the first large-scale missions to the 388th TFW at Korat RTAFB."

Frankly, I found Colonel Giraudo's request bewildering. I was surprised that a fighter wing commander could request his wing be excused from a mission.

I managed to hunt down an interview of General Giraudo done by Lt. Colonel Charles M. Heltsley, USAF, an Air War College student. It is part of the Air Force Oral History Program. The interview was done in January 1985 at Treasure Island, Florida. I wish to thank the Air Force Historical Research Agency for making a transcript of the interview available to me.

Before going into the interview I need to introduce you to "ECM (Electronic Countermeasures)pod formation." As I understand it, the ECM pod-formation was borne out of a shortage of ECM pods. Initially two pods were carried per F-105. Under this ECM pod formation concept, each F-105 would carry only one pod. This meant that the F-105s had to fly together in large formations in level flight. The aircraft had to have correct 1,500 ft. spacing and positioning between aircraft to maximize the jamming effect. The ECM pods emitted a wide-angled cone-shaped ECM pattern oriented downward so long as the flight was straight and level. Once they inverted over for the attack run, their ECM pod pointed straight up, rendering it ineffective against ground threats. However, the F-105s still at level flight behind each one rolling over to attack would continue to jam. That left the last guy down the pipe uncovered by jamming since there was no F-105 behind him. Tied up in all this, apparently there was an ECM problem with the TSQ-81.

I should also say the Commando Club required the aircraft remain straight and level throughout, and that they maintain a closer separation than the 1,500 ft. mentioned by Giraudo.

AderholtHarry
The interview covers a host of Giraudo's experiences in the Air Force, including his experience with Commando Club. Giraudo at this point of the interview was the commander of the 355th TFW at Takhli. In 1967 there was a bombing halt so he had some time off. Colonel Harry C. "Heinie" Aderholt, USAF, shown here, the commander of the newly activated 56th Air Commando Wing (ACW) at NKP RTAFB, Thailand. Giraudo then decided to accept an invitation from Aderholt to get together. He picked up Giraudo in an OV-10 "Bronco" and flew to Luang Prabang. They visited with Major General Lindley, the 7/13th AF commander and then, still with Aderholt, they boarded a Pilatus Porter STOL aircraft and flew to a location, I suspect Long Tieng, and met with General Vang Pao.

The next day he, Aderholt and Vang Pao boarded a helicopter and flew to what was LS-85. I don't think Giraudo knew that; he referred to the site as "K-28." A SAC colonel met them there. The 1st CEVG was in the midst of installing the TSQ-81. Vang Pao explained he "had extensively mined and booby-trapped the sides of the karst and it would be impossible for the enemy to recapture the site. That was after Vang Pao told Giraudo the NVA had taken the karst and he reclaimed it with a "detachment of troops (who) had made their way hand over hand p the vertical karst to the top and killed the NVA, claiming the site."

The SAC colonel gave Giraudo a tour of the TSQ-81 facility, showed him "the large plotting table with distance rings emanating from his site and precise heading lines radiating out from due west to southeast. At the time, Giraudo assumed SAC would be operating the site to support its B-52s.

A few days later, Giraudo was summoned back to Takhli where he was to meet some important people. He met them in his conference room at Takhli. The men in the room to meet him were from SAC. Their purpose was to brief him on a "new program General Ryan, CINCPACAF, was introducing, as covertly as possible, into the Rolling Thunder campaign. Called 'Combat Skyspot,' it was the MSQ operation which I had incidentally bumped into during my visit 'u country.' " Giraudo then began to wonder how "incidental" that trip was.

The SAC team told Giraudo they wanted "about one flight every other day to be used y the MSQ people to calibrate their equipment, initially unarmed, but soon combat loaded. All test flights, about 12 total, were to be in northern Laos, all bomb drops into Laos. Between flights, Vang Pao's troops would survey the target areas to assess impact patterns, etc." Giraudo said he ask several pointed questions, but the team claimed it knew nothing about any intention of using this system into NVN. Giraudo to the interviewer, "I didn't like the smell of this at all. So I directed the DO (Director for Operations, 355th TFW) that only I wold lead the calibration missions, fling them on days I was not on combat missions."

Giraudo briefed his flight that it would maintain ECM pod formation. Then he said, "Bat stink #1 came on our first flight. The MSQ controller requested that the leader turn on his IFF (Identification Friend or Foe equipment). I told him that it was not my policy to do so. He replied it was the only way he could track and vector me to the bomb release point. I acceded, for training purposes and because we were over Laos." His flight was then vectored to a dozen simulated release points and then released to return to Takhli.

The flights flew unarmed for the first three missions, then were directed to carry full 500 lb. bomb loads. Giraudo said "after the first actual bomb drop mission, during which all four aircraft released their bombs simultaneously, on command from the controller, while in straight and level flight, I received a call, bad stink #2, from the Skyspot liaison team at Seventh (7th AF) that our bomb impacts were too far apart, would I please close the flight in on the next mission. No, I told him, we only fly pod formation over hostile territory."

The liaison officer pleaded with him stressing they were over Laos and not the NVN, so Giraudo acquiesced and agreed. On the next mission Giraudo was called again by Seventh, "Bad stink #3," and was told the impact points were too spread out. The liaison asked if he could close the formation. Again Giraudo objected, but agreed for "calibration purposes."

BloodGordon
At the time, Major General Gordon "Gordy" Blood was the Deputy for Operations at 7th AF in Saigon. Then came a bombshell for Giraudo, after he had flown the eighth or ninth armed calibration mission. His next frag order was to take out "eight F-105s, four closed aircraft per flight, second flight tucked in close behind the first. This time we had a target, yen Bail, on the northwest rail line and MSR Main Supply Route)."

Giraudo then told his interviewed, "My call to Gordy (General Gordon) wasn't cheerful. Seventh was now gong to use Sky Spot in NVN, who knew where it wouldest lead. I gave him my arguments, he asked whether I was refusing the Yen Bail arg, I said no, but I would see him and General Momyer (commander 7th AF) personally the next day after the mission. I wasn't at all pleased to have accepted this target under Sky Spot conditions. I violated our proven successful defensive tacticals. One the knowledge that Yen Bai was not yet reported to have SAMs gave me any relief. They still had plenty of AAA and aircraft had been lost in previous missions over this target."

Giraudo then summarized the mission over Yen Bai:

"We briefed as Sky Spot directed: had IFF on, close formation on bomb run, straight and level until bomb release. Just like a big B-52 formation. There was very bad weather in the target area, complete overcast with tops at around 9,000 ft. Communications between the controller and I remained terse. I took each of his constant course corrections resentfully. Our RHAW gear (radar homing and warning antennas) indicated a few radars were tracking us, soon scattered AAA appeared, none real close. We were well settled down when the controllers gave is the drop command. As pre-briefed, after bomb release, each flight broke out to pod formation, eyeballs searching because this was MiG territory, although none had been called airborne. I surmised the heavy rankest them on the ground at Phuc Yen."

As promised, he went to see General Momyer the next morning. He could see Sky Spot was going to be used in RP-6 during bad weather. He told Momyer, "Every defense measure we had implemented to survive in RP-6 was being abandoned, despite the now proven fact that the 355th loss rate was half of the 388th's (388th TFW) against the same targets. First we would be using IFF. Second we would not be flying the (ECM) pod formation; we were looking like Thunderbirds over Las Vegas. Third I was sure that although we were using our pods, the closed-in formation would work against us and make the strike aircraft easy to track. Fourth there was no way to clear 6 o'clock (see behind him) for MiGs when flying close formation. And fifth, although we had long established that we had to be at least 5,000 ft. above the cloud deck in order to spot the emerging Mach 2 SAMs, in all probability Sky Spot would violate this criteria in its zeal to finish the bomb run. With all due respect, and to protect the pilots of my wing, I officially requested that the 355th no longer be fragged on a Sky Spot mission because I knew losses would dramatically increase."

Giraudo said Momyer supported his request. Before leaving, he told Momyer he did not think any wing should have to fly a Sky Spot mission over NVN. He then flew to Korat to brief the 388th TFW commander, Colonel Burdett and his operations officer, giving them a complete rundown. They both agreed with Giraudo's assessment, and Burdett said he'd talk to General Gordon.

To complicate everything, I asked some F-105 pilots who flew over NVN about all this. One response said this:

F105RollInDiveBomb

Artist's rendering of Colonel Jack Spillers's F-105D, 357th TFS, Korat, 1968 mission over NVN. He is seen rolling into his dive bomb run on a target. Shown as an example of the roll over. I believe the artist was Lou Drendel.

"For dive bombing, lead rolls in with essentially a high "G" roll over and diving turn, and the wingmen do same at random roll-in points. The roll-in equates to a rapid change of heading and altitude making for a difficult tracking solution for the gunners. Everyone pulls up off target in random headings and changes of direction, called jinking and most planes had some capability to drop chaff on pullout.

"In essence pod coverage on roll-in would not have added much to survivability on a typical dive bombing attack. In my own experience during the Linebacker campaigns, the gunners generally resorted to barrage fire - if you were tail-end-Charlie in a strike force, the grayish bursts from 23mm at release point almost became a complete overcast and the higher darker bursts of the 37mm on roll-in and climb out were almost as bad. Think "12 o'clock High" or F-117s over Baghdad.

"A straight in level or low angle pass would be a different story. The ECM pods worked best in the aforementioned pod formation where the individual pod coverages overlapped making it very difficult to acquire a single aircraft. A single pod equipped plane is a reasonably good target because the ground radars had a home on jam capability."

I found this entire discussion edifying. It's one thing to talk in the abstract about how great everything will work. It's quite another to actually go ahead and do it. Warfare is very complicated.

The reality now was that there was only one other F-105 fighter wing that could fly Commando Club-Sky spot missions. That was Colonel Burdett's 388th TFW at Korat. The 388th then flew a total of seven Commando Club missions during November.

November 18, 1967: Mission disaster for the 388th

388th_Fighter_Wing_(US_Air_Force)_insignia_2016
A large formation of F-105s from the 388th TFW, Korat RTAFB, flew a fateful TSQ-81 Commando Club mission on November 18, 1967. The 388th now had the ball and chain, however you look at it. Its emblem translated means "Freedom or Death."

In all, a total of four aircraft were lost on this mission killing four of the five crew members, and the mission aborted. It would result in a near stand-down for the Commando system.

I'm going to dig into this mission in some depth for a few reasons.

  • First, we have access to some detailed explanations of what happened on this, a real-world, large scale mission of F-105Ds and Fs over NVN flying a Commando Club mission.
  • Second, it highlights for us the differences between using a system tested in the US, working well in the RVN, and only calibrated in the real world of Laos and NVN. The attack pilots would be using the system through a relay aircraft and not directly with the TSQ-81 controller. This would be a large scale F-105 bombing mission over the NVN against a well defended target near Hanoi. The enemy had no MiG or SAM threats to bombing missions over the RVN, only AAA. Furthermore, there was no relay aircraft involved in Sky Spot missions over RVN. This November 18 mission had all four: MiG, SAM, AAA threats and a relay aircraft.
  • Third, the Commando Club system and F-105s had just gone through a two week shakedown, referred to as calibration missions. The 355th TFW commander had asked to have his wing excused from these missions, and we now know why. So we have a chance to compare what Col. Giraudo expected with what happened. In a sense, this November 18, 1967 mission was the first following that shakedown.

HodgeDon ArmstrongSpence

Major Donald Hodge (left) and Major Spence Armstrong (right) reported on the November 18 mission. Armstrong's comments came from his mission notebook and later, after he retired at the rank of lieutenant general, in his unpublished memoirs. All of this is located on one of the web pages of the 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) - Thud Era. You may wish to read it for yourself. It is absorbing.

The 388th TFW flew its first Commando Club mission on November 15, 1967. Radar contact was lost and the target was not hit. The second was on November 16. So the November 18 mission was the wing's third Commando Club mission.

Hodge said the November 18 mission was disastrous. He noted that HQ 7th AF, in its initial objections to Commando Club, had predicted one year earlier that something like what I am about to describe would happen. Dodge also said the losses experienced on November 18 confirmed Col. Giraudo's fears.

The November 18, 1967 F-105 mission I am about to summarize was fragged by 7th AF as a Commando Club mission. Recall the TSQ-81 at this point in time had just finished its two weeks of calibration and was now out of this "test phase."

1280px-Phuc_Yen_Airfield_1967

The target was Phuc Yen airfield in NVN, 14 miles northwest of Hanoi. The photo shows this airfield under attack in 1967. It was a major NVN air base.

StrikeForceGraphic

Sixteen F-105Ds in four flights of four from Korat flew at 17,000 - 18,000 ft. using Commando Club radar guidance. The force also included three F-105F "Wild Weasel" suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) aircraft and another F-105D. These four aircraft preceded the main package to the target by about 1-2 minutes. Four F-4Ds from Ubon RTAFB provided MiG combat air patrols (CAP) to protect the attacking flight from MiGs. Three EC-121s with surveillance warning radars flew over the Gulf of Tonkin. One of those EC-121s provided the Commando Club relay.

The EC-121 out over the Gulf of Tonkin relayed Commando Club directions between the force commander and the radar technician at LS-85. Dodge described the relay requirement as "awkward." Nonetheless, the strike force commander, callsign "Laredo 1," used his UHF strike frequency to talk to the EC-121 relay aircraft and to "set up the strike formation for the bomb drops." The conversation apparently was lengthy. As a result, the F-105s did not receive MiG warning calls from one of the EC-121 surveillance flights flying over the Gulf.

TwoMiG21

Two MiG-21s such as shown here attacked the lead force hitting one F-105F and one F-105D, "Waco 1" and "Waco 4" respectively.

Waco 1, a F-105F flown by Major Oscar M. Dardeau with his Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) Capt. Edward "Tiny" Lenhoff, crashed and the crew died. Waco 4 was hit but the pilot, Lt. Colonel William H. Reed, nursed his crippled aircraft to Laos. The pilot ejected near LS-85. A Jolly Green HH-3 helicopter successfully rescued him.


388thTFWPodFormation

The strike force continued to the target, but had lost the advantages provided by the F-105F Wild Weasels. Major Spence reported in his flight log that when Lt. Colonel Reed was hit by a MiG, the F-105F Wild Weasel suppression aircraft left with him. That left the attack force more vulnerable to SAMs. The four strike flights approached their target, but closed formation from 1,500 ft. separation to 500 ft. so their bombs would hit in a tight cluster. This was a Commando Club requirement. You can see on the graphic that the formation dictated 1,500 ft. separation. That had something to do with the ECM pods. This graphic reflects the 388th TFW pod formation. The 355th did it a little differently, with 1,000-1,500 ft. separation.

There is an inference in Dodge's statement that the NVN SAM operators knew these F-105s were controlled by Commando Club. Hodge wrote:

"As a translator of North Vietnam's military history reported, '… on 18 November, the [North] Vietnamese missileers got the
target they wanted. A USAF Commando Club strike of twenty-four F-105s flew in to attack Noi Bai (Phuc Yen) airfield.' "

So a NVN history said it was a Commando Club mission. Recall Commando Club became operational on November 1. This mission was flown on November 18.

SA2s

BurdettEdwin
As I said, even without the F-105s, the strike force went in to the target. The enemy fired some 13 SA-2 missiles. They hit two F-105D aircraft. One was flown by Colonel Edward Burdett, USAF, "Garage 3," shown here, the 388th TFW commander. He was about 20 miles from Hanoi flying at about 16,000 ft. at the time. That altitude left him little time to avoid the SAM. He ejected, was captured and died as a POW, the same day he was captured according to the North Vietnamese. Another F-105D, "Vegas 1," flown by Major Leslie J. Hauer was also hit by a SAM and crashed, killing Howard.

Dodge and others have said tightening up the formation and maintaining straight and level flight to meet Commando Club requirements reduced jamming effectiveness. Russell Gimmi, in his book
Airman: The Life of Richard F.B. Gimme, said, "Once closed, the formation presented an easy target. The 7th AF Frag order did require the F-105s to "close the formation at the last minute."

The EC-121 relay aircraft informed the remaining F-105s that it had lost the strike force on its Commando Club radar and directed the F-105s to turn around so the radar could reacquire the F-105s. According to Hodge, Captain William Butler was in the mix, flying a F-105D as an element lead. He experienced an afterburner failure and egressed the area under hostile fire. He then called a timely break for the other F-105s causing the SAMs to disengage. The pilots decided they had had enough and, jettisoning their bombs, headed for home. Major Spence's rendition is a bit different so I am assuming Butler called of his flight of four, not the entire attack force.

In all, a total of four aircraft were lost killing four of the five crew members.

I should note Capt. Butler received the Silver Star for this action and decision. His citation said, in part:

"(The flight of F-105s was) using an experimental method of ordnance which required that the entire force assume a formation that left them defenseless against hostile aircraft attacks."

I interpret that to mean the citation referred to the two aircraft lost to MiG attacks. Dodge went on to say that the 388th TFW history described the mission this way:

"The first Commando Club attempt ... used the entire strike force to execute level bombing against Phuc Yen airfield. This mission was significant in that it resulted in the revision of Commando Club tactics due to the degradation of ECM pod effectiveness when the entire force closed up from the normal pod formation to decrease bomb dispersal; and resulted in the shooting down of four aircraft (two by SAM and two by MiGs) including the wing commander. After this experience, Commando Club missions were executed in single flights in high threat areas and the standard pod formation was adhered to."

ArmstrongSpence

As I indicated earlier, Major Spence Armstrong, USAF, was a major flying on this mission. He reported on the mission in his flight log. He noted it was a "Skyspot" mission. He said the two aircraft hit by MiGs were a few minutes ahead of him. He also said the weather was forecast to be bad, so that's why they used the Commando Club to bomb through the weather. He commented the result was the rest of the aircraft had no ECM protection against the SA-2 SAMs.

Armstrong also complained about the ordnance 7th AF ordered them to carry, confirming "7th Air Force in Saigon really didn't have any clue what we were facing since none of them had ever experienced the defenses in (Route) Pack 6A and kept ordering bomb loads that they ordered for clear weather targets." Furthermore, he wrote that 10-12 SAMs came up through the clouds and exploded in rapid succession among three flights at their altitude. He said:

"We were getting MiG calls from 'Castaway' (I believe an EC-121) during the 3-minute bomb run. Then about 15-30 seconds from bomb release, the radar vector said he had lost contact and was aborting the run. People started going everywhere to get out of there and avoid the SAMs, which were still bursting. I called my flight (of four) to punch off our stores and turn, which we did. Shortly thereafter, 'Garage 3' (Colonel Burdett) burst into flame and spun down into the undercast. No chute or beeper was heard. The two of us rejoined our flight over 97 (Channel 97 - LS-85) and made one pass to see if we could help Bill Reed (Waco 4), but the rescue aircraft were already headed towards him. So we refueled and headed home much worse for wear and frustration."

ReedSpenceLtGeneral
Now Lieutenant General Spence Armstrong, USAF (Ret.) wrote about the mission again in an unpublished memoir. He said, "Despite these losses we were pressing on when we received a call from Skyspot controller that he had lost radar contact and that we needed to go out and start all over again. SA-2s were still exploding and we were receiving MiG calls from the radar aircraft over the Gulf."

I highlight this because it appears that the "radar vector" losing contact he mentioned in his flight log was actually the TSQ-81 at LS-85. So LS-85's TSQ-81 lost radar contact. Also note General Armstrong said LS-85 said the F-105s needed to go out and start all over again. In his mission log, he said the radar vector, LS-85 TSQ-81, told them to abort.

Whatever the case, the mission was finished and the remaining F-105s departed the area to return to Korat. General Spence said, "I called my flight to punch off the CBU’s and break right towards the area where the MiGs were reported. The four of us got back together and headed back for our post flight refueling and a safe landing at Korat. We had lost four aircraft and Jim King was hit badly enough for him to make an emergency landing at Udorn Air base on the Northern border of Thailand."

Let's jump back again to the PACAF briefing to Admiral Sharp in September 1967 on the benefits of this system in Laos where PACAF said, "The present ECM (electronic countermeasures) and strike tactics will permit a sizable strike force to fly formation in high threat areas during daylight hours. Maximum ECM support will be employed in conjunction with the MSQ missions."

That would appear to have been an incorrect forecast. It is my understanding adjustments were made to the TSQ-81 on the ECM side of the house.

W. Howard Plunkett reported that on November 19, one day after the Phuc Yen mission, both the USAF and USN flew numerous missions over North and South Vietnam. He said:

"Aircraft losses on November 19 were even worse than the day before. Nine Air Force and Navy planes, six of them over North Vietnam, were lost to MiGs, SAMs, and AAA."

As a result, PACAF on November 22, 1967 held a conference trying to address the increasing effectiveness of NVN air defenses. At the conference, PACAF "restricted Commando Club missions from the high-threat area of Route Package 6 and to use single flights, not the large formations used in Korat's Phuc Yen raid."

Air Staff general: Thumbs down

MartinGlen
W. Howard Plunkett said on November 19, a group of Air Staff officers from the Pentagon led by Lt General Glen W. Martin, USAF, shown here, HQ USAF deputy chief of staff for plans and operations, had just finished a 10-day tour of bases in RVN and Thailand. Recall that the TSQ-81 was also installed in both those countries. They published a trip report:

"This (Commando Club) system ... has met with only very limited success. Operations have been plagued with poor weather and communications problems. From 18 Oct 67 to 16 Nov 67, forty-eight attempts have been made to hit selected primary Commando Club targets."

Plunkett said:

"(General Martin's) report indicated that 22 missions hit their primary or secondary targets, ten attempts were cancelled or diverted due to weather, and nine more were ineffective due to communication problems between strike pilots and the relay aircraft and ground controllers. Other missions had been cancelled or diverted for other reasons including heavy defenses such as those encountered in the Phuc Yen attack. The report included rough measures of bombing accuracy. 'Bomb hit reports ranged from zero to five miles. CEA (circular error average) based on 14 runs was 867 feet based on photo and FAC (forward air controller) evaluation. Confidence in this figure is not high.' The Seventh Air Force Vice Commander, Major General William C. Lindley, Jr., was tasked to solve the Commando Club communication problems, his only responsibility until the problems were resolved. Fixes included installing a third UHF transmitter at Site 85, moving the relay aircraft orbit from the Gulf of Tonkin to Laos, and relieving the relay aircraft from MiG-warning responsibility. 'Until further evaluation, all Commando Club strikes in the high-threat area have been suspended by 7th Air Force.' "

Commando Club continues

All of this notwithstanding, Commando Club missions from both Korat and Takhli were flown November 21, 1967 though March 1968. Commando Club directed some 130 sorties the first month, November. However, the TSQ-81 operators directed an estimated 75 percent of the 440 sorties flown in December to strike targets near Phou Pha Thi itself. I'll mention this again later.

Only four days in January 1968 were clear enough for visual bombing, so Commando Club was the only means to attack MiG bases and other targets. Plunkett said 12 Commando Club targets were fragged and seven were struck using Commando Club tactics. The weather was worse in February and March. Commando Club worked with F-105s and B-52s. Targets included Ban Phougnong truck park in Laos west of LS-85; on December 22, a target 20 miles east of Sam Neua, Laos; the Kim Lo Army Barracks northwest of Hanoi, a Route Pack V target; Phuc Yen airfield and the Ban Nakay truck park in Northern Laos. Later during the period Commando Club airstrikes against Laos targets included operations to interdict enemy advances on LS-85 such as the Battle of Route 602. Keep "Route 602" in mind. I'll have more on this later.

The point here is that starting in December 1967 and accelerating during February and March 1968, the TSQ-81 operators were directing flights to defend LS-85 and nearby Nam Bak. The system was deployed mainly to attack targets in NVN, but the technicians by February-March 1968 were focused on the enemy closing in on Phou Pha Thi.

F-4Ds from the 8th TFW at Ubon bombed Phuc Yen using Commando Club. They had the advantage of using their versatile weapons release computers combined with Commando Club's radar to employ a toss-bomb maneuver that struck their targets.

In his book, General Momyer voiced several problems with the TSQ-81:

"MSQ bombing had other problems. Strike aircraft were extremely vulnerable to SAMs during this type of attack. The last 60 miles into the target had to be a steady bomb run with speed and altitude held very precisely. Variations in heading, speed, or altitude would produce gross errors in bombing. With such a stabilized run, the force was easily brought under intense barrage fire from SAMs and anti-aircraft artillery. However, to keep the pressure on the enemy during bad weather, the Air Force tried this technique on 18 and 19 November 1967 in the Hanoi area.

“These missions were unsatisfactory because the MSQ was unreliable at its range limits. (He would also comment the MSQ could direct aircraft to within 30 miles of Hanoi but not directly over Hanoi). Because of these limitations of the MSQ, further attempts to bomb by MSQ in the high threat area were cancelled. However, MSQ bombing continued throughout the war as the main all-weather bombing in Laos, Cambodia, South Vietnam and the lower route packages of North Vietnam.”

Momyer further noted that alternative weapons and methods had to be employed with the F-105 and F-4 because of “MSQ deficiencies.”

Momyer made one comment I found curious. He said:

"One of (the enemy's) favorite tactics was to try to run a large convoy through Mu Gia or Ban Karai passes (from NVN into Laos) in daylight if they thought the weather would force the 7th Air Force to bomb by MSQ. MSQ coverage of the pass areas was good, but for pinpoint destruction of a convoy, individual attacks were the only way."

What makes that curious is he is inferring the enemy could tell when USAF fighters were employing the MSQ-77/TSQ-81. Major Hodge raised the same point, which I touched on earlier.

Momyer's comments are perplexing. He leaves the impression he is not a great cheerleader for the TSQ-81 at LS-85. Yet, as you shall see in later sections, he and 7th AF officers refused to evacuate the site in time for the men to get out, saying the system was mission essential and saving American lives.

A CIA report,
"The Fall of Lima Site 85," seems to contradict Momyer's rendition:

"The operations of the TSQ-81, nicknamed Commando Club, were beginning to have real effect, with 23 percent of total strikes over North Vietnam in January coming under control of Site 85's radar. Even in poor weather, the Commando Club system was able to direct bombing accurately throughout the Hanoi-Haiphong complex as well as in the immediate area of Phou Phathi for its own defense."

After Action Report Summary

An unknown author, writing
"The Battle for Lima Site 85," provided a summation of "formerly top secret after-action reports" that credited Command Club with the following:

CommandClubCredits

"Barrel Roll" was an American designation for northern Laos. The author noted that throughout this period, 427 strike missions were flown over the northern portion of North Vietnam. The facility at Lima Site 85 directed 99, slightly over 23 percent.

Again note the significant increases in TSQ-81 directed bombing of targets in Laos. As I have indicated, the operators did that to defend LS-85. Much more on that later.
__________

Introduction
Linkages: Vietnam and Laos
US tackles the linkages
Challenges to Rolling Thunder pilots
TACAN at LS-85
TSQ-81 at LS-85: Process to make it happen
TSQ-81 at LS-85: Installation
TSQ-81 operations
Situation Assessment: Houaphanh Province
NVA plans attack
NVA moves to attack positions
US threat assessments — actions taken
The NVA attack
The aftermath