Hel­borne 513

TREETOP A-4 SKY­HAWK DRAMA AT HUE

Flight Journal - - CONTENTS - By Eric Ham­mel

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Ma­rine Air was as over­worked and ef­fec­tive dur­ing the great Tet Of­fen­sive of 1968 as it had been at any other time in its proud his­tory. With­out it, even greater num­bers of Ma­rine in­fantry­men would have died. But it was an endless source of frus­tra­tion to all con­cerned that weather con­di­tions over Hue pre­vented all forms of air sup­port for all but the first few and last few days of the month-long strug­gle by three Ma­rine bat­tal­ions to eject two re­in­forced North Viet­namese Army (NVA) reg­i­ments from the city. For all of three weeks, while Marines on the ground in Hue strug­gled for­ward with­out any air sup­port what­so­ever, Ma­rine air­men waited for the sky to clear. By the time that hap­pened, the bat­tle in­side the Ci­tadel of Hue was nearly over. But the hard­bit­ten NVA units fac­ing the bat­tle-worn rem­nant of Ma­jor Robert Thompson’s 1/5 were so desperate and so tightly com­pacted—fight­ing lit­er­ally with their backs to the Ci­tadel’s 75-me­ter-thick wall—that the Ma­rine ground as­sault was in dan­ger of bog­ging down. At that crit­i­cal mo­ment, the weather over Hue cleared—but only barely.

Ci­tadel In­bound

At 1400, Fe­bru­ary 22, 1968, Majors Ray Latall and John Van Es were on strip alert, sit­ting in the cock­pits of their VMA-211 A-4 Sky­hawk light at­tack bombers at the Chu Lai Ma­rine Corps Air Base, when they were warned that they might be launched to Hue to take ad­van­tage of clear­ing weather over the city. Each jet was armed with eight 300-pound Snak­eye high-drag high-ex­plo­sive bombs, two 500-pound na­palm bombs, and a full load of 20mm can­non rounds. As the Ma­rine Air Group 12 in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer, Ma­jor Latall knew that it had been at least days and prob­a­bly weeks since Ma­rine jets had been in ac­tion over Hue. The weather at Chu Lai was clear, but a re­port on Hue in­di­cated that the cloud cover was still pretty low.

The two-plane flight, call sign Hel­borne 513, was or­dered to launch at 1430. Af­ter check­ing with the Direct Air Sup­port Con­trol cen­ter at the Hue-Phu Bai air­field, Hel­borne 513 was in­structed to or­bit at 20,000 feet twenty miles east of Hue. When the A-4s ar­rived on sta­tion, the tops of the clouds were only 1,500 feet be­neath their alti­tude.

To a Ma­rine ri­fle­man fight­ing his way to­ward the Ci­tadel’s eastern cor­ner, the prepa­ra­tions by the two A-4 pi­lots would have seemed

in­or­di­nately re­laxed and un­hur­ried. While cir­cling, Latall and Van Es checked and set their gun­sights and arm­ing switches for what they had been told would be a low-level bomb­ing run. Then, as they awaited clear­ance into the tar­get area, they con­tin­ued to or­bit and lis­ten to the strike chan­nel to mon­i­tor a mis­sion that was in progress; an Army O-1 spot­ter plane was di­rect­ing two other Ma­rine A-4s against a tar­get be­side the Ci­tadel. The ex­changes be­tween the Ma­rine aerial ob­server aboard the O-1 and the A-4 pi­lots re­vealed that the ragged cloud cover be­gan only 1,000 feet above the ground, and that even that mar­gin was rapidly de­te­ri­o­rat­ing. Latall and Van Es also learned that the other flight— the third Ma­rine jet strike of the af­ter­noon—had re­ceived fire dur­ing its run on the tar­get.

Redefin­ing Low-Level Close Air Sup­port

A brief dis­cus­sion was ini­ti­ated by Hue-Phu Bai about the need to di­vert Hel­borne 513 to an­other tar­get. It ap­peared that the min­i­mum ceil­ing and vis­i­bil­ity stan­dards for an “emer­gency” mis­sion—a 1,000-foot ceil­ing with three-mile vis­i­bil­ity—had been breached. Nev­er­the­less, Latall and Van Es dis­cussed the mat­ter on their squadron fre­quency and de­cided that they would hit Hue if they could get some­one to guide them

onto a tar­get right away, be­fore the weather de­te­ri­o­rated fur­ther. Latall ra­dioed Hue-Phu Bai with the of­fer and sug­gested they make the mis­sion “manda­tory” in or­der to skirt the ex­ist­ing weather min­i­mums. At 1500, Hue-Phu Bai warned Latall that Hel­borne 513 was about to be as­signed a close-sup­port mis­sion that was “manda­tory” in prece­dence—an un­heard-of level.

With their weather re­stric­tions ef­fec­tively lifted, the A-4 pi­lots joined up, ex­tended their speed brakes, and be­gan their de­scent over the South China Sea on in­stru­ments, with­out a clear idea as to where they were go­ing to belly through the clouds. While the jets were de­scend­ing, Bench­mark 16, the O-1, came up on the fre­quency to tell his con­troller that he was in a “low-fuel state” and would have no choice but to de­part the area im­me­di­ately or face a forced land­ing in Hue. The de­scend­ing A-4s were turned over quickly to Bench­mark 15, an­other O-1 flown by an Army pilot and manned by a Ma­rine aerial ob­server, Cap­tain Bob Laramy.

The A-4s com­pleted their let­down over the wa­ter and found the bot­tom of the over­cast at a mere 400 feet. They com­menced a turn to port and slowed as much as they could as they turned back to­ward Hue. They were ac­tu­ally over the city be­fore ei­ther jet pilot saw Bench­mark 15 for the first time. The dark green Army O-1 was barely vis­i­ble and, to A-4 pi­lots fly­ing at 350 knots, it ap­peared to be stand­ing still one mile ahead and to the right. Cap­tain Laramy ra­dioed that he could see the A-4s just an in­stant af­ter Ma­jor Latall first saw the O-1.

As Laramy was de­scrib­ing the tar­get, Latall pulled back off Van Es’s wing but not as far back as he would have liked. The A-4s were painted light gray, just about the same color as the clouds they were skip­ping through. If Latall let Van Es get too far ahead, he would have lost sight of him.

Latall was im­pressed with the tar­get de­scrip­tion. Bench­mark 15 sounded like a good, sharp con­troller, an im­por­tant bonus in the dark, closed-in sky over Hue. Bob Laramy was that.

He had been over Hue every day since Jan­uary 31, mostly to no avail be­cause of the weather.

At the con­clu­sion of his tar­get de­scrip­tion, Laramy said that he would mark the tar­get with green smoke, a vi­tal aid in that weather. As Ray Latall learned later, the Army O-1 was fit­ted out as a mede­vac bird, so it had none of the smoke rockets the spot­ter planes usu­ally car­ried. It hap­pened to be the only O-1 avail­able at Hue-Phu Bai when Bench­mark 16 had run low on fuel. To de­liver a green-smoke grenade, Laramy had to ask the pilot to fly low and slow over the tar­get, an ex­tremely haz­ardous en­ter­prise. It was then that Laramy learned that the pilot was mak­ing his com­bat de­but; this was his first mis­sion over Viet­nam. The pilot was game for the ef­fort, but his in­ex­pe­ri­ence se­verely com­pli­cated a re­ally tricky sit­u­a­tion.

The jets’ fi­nal ap­proach to the tar­get was scary. Fly­ing too low and too slow with very heavy ord­nance loads, both A-4 pi­lots were acutely aware of the many high radio tow­ers that dot­ted the Hue land­scape. They could see none of them clearly and had no real sense of their po­si­tion rel­a­tive to their flight paths. A broad col­umn of oily smoke from a U.S. Navy land­ing craft that was burn­ing in the river, tow­er­ing dust clouds from heavy ar­tillery det­o­na­tions, and rain all im­peded vis­i­bil­ity and com­peted for at­ten­tion. There were even re­ports that heli­copters were in the air nearby.

Bench­mark 15 com­menced his mark­ing run over the tar­get—the sec­tion of the Ci­tadel’s southeast wall di­rectly in front of Ma­jor Bob Thompson’s 1/5. As the green smoke bil­lowed up, both pi­lots re­ported from their loose or­bit that they could see it—and an­other greensmoke source. Nei­ther of the jet pi­lots had any idea which was the one mark­ing their tar­get. Clearly, the NVA were mon­i­tor­ing the tac­ti­cal air fre­quency, for only they could have set off the sec­ond green-smoke grenade. No prob­lem. Cap­tain Laramy knew which was the right marker, and he talked the A-4s into their tar­get.

Go­ing for It!

Van Es made a dummy run to con­firm that he knew where the tar­get was, and Latall fol­lowed. It was worth the ex­tra risk. Nei­ther pilot knew pre­cisely how close to fel­low Marines they would be drop­ping their bombs, but they knew it would be close. There was no mar­gin for er­ror.

Cap­tain Laramy con­firmed that the A-4s were on tar­get. The NVA on the ground also con­firmed by fir­ing sev­eral .51-cal­iber ma­chine guns at the Ma­rine jets.

The Sky­hawk pi­lots had the op­tion of drop­ping

Van Es made a dummy run to con­firm that he knew where the tar­get was, and Latall fol­lowed. It was worth the ex­tra risk. Nei­ther pilot knew pre­cisely how close to fel­low Marines they would be drop­ping their bombs, but they knew it would be close. There was no mar­gin for er­ror.

ev­ery­thing they were car­ry­ing on one run, but Van Es and Latall knew they were go­ing to be the last flight of the day; the de­te­ri­o­rat­ing weather would as­sure that. Latall asked Van Es if he wanted to do it on one run or go in sev­eral times to be sure the Marines on the ground would get the full ben­e­fit of the mis­sion. Like Latall, Van Es had a clear pic­ture of the fight­ing on the ground. He agreed to Latall’s sug­ges­tion, that they drop two bombs per run, be­gin­ning with the na­palm.

They went in at 100 feet, in dead-level runs at 350 knots. Latall lost sight of Van Es dur­ing the first run, but the leader’s first drop was su­perb. As Van Es pulled off the tar­get he ra­dioed that the run had been “hot”—mean­ing that he had re­leased ord­nance and that he had taken fire. Bench­mark 15 gave Latall a slight cor­rec­tion so a broader area could be cov­ered. Latall also saw trac­ers com­ing at him, and he heard the thumk­thumk as sev­eral rounds struck his air­plane. Though con­cerned, Latall made an­other per­fect drop. Ma­jor Bob Thompson later re­ported in a letter of com­men­da­tion that the first four na­palm can­is­ters det­o­nated only fifty me­ters in front of the Ma­rine in­fantry bat­tal­ion’s front line. Thompson felt their heat.

On the next run, Van Es put a pair of 300-pound Snakeyes right on the tar­get. Latall turned in to do the same. By then, the black smoke from the na­palm and fa­mil­iar land­marks made find­ing the tar­get a snap. The over­cast was lower—200 feet—and the NVA ma­chine guns were fir­ing again. As Latall con­tin­ued to­ward the tar­get, tak­ing care that the O-1 was not in his way, he glanced down and was shocked to note that, in jet-jock terms, he was eye­ball-to-eye­ball with thou­sands of peo­ple—ob­vi­ously civil­ians flee­ing the city; they all seemed to be car­ry­ing their valu­ables on their backs. At the re­lease point, Latall again saw and felt rounds im­pact­ing

On the next run, Van Es put a pair of 300-pound Snakeyes right on the tar­get. Latall turned in to do the same. By then, the black smoke from the na­palm and fa­mil­iar land­marks made find­ing the tar­get a snap.

on his A-4. He pulled up slightly af­ter re­leas­ing his bombs so he could check the jet’s flight con­trols. Ev­ery­thing was run­ning fine, but there were holes in the fuse­lage near his feet, and cock­pit pres­sur­iza­tion was lost. Latall also de­ter­mined that his nav­i­ga­tion equip­ment had been shot out.

On the way back to the tar­get, Latall passed Bench­mark 15. The O-1 was to his left, fly­ing straight and level, go­ing in the same di­rec­tion. As Latall was turn­ing down­wind to po­si­tion him­self for an­other bomb­ing run, his ear­phones rang with the warn­ing, “Bench­mark One Five! Pull up! Pull up!” Fear­ing that he was some­how on a col­li­sion course with the O-1, Latall pushed his air­plane’s nose down and dropped to only 50 feet. But the fran­tic call was re­peated. Latall knew that he was nowhere near the O-1 by then, and he was aware that Bench­mark 15 had not an­swered the first call. It even

dawned on Latall that Cap­tain Laramy had not de­scribed his last hits on the tar­get, ei­ther.

Now It’s a Res­cue Mis­sion

Latall throt­tled back as much as he dared in or­der to get a bet­ter look around. Over his left shoul­der, he saw an air­plane be­hind him, stag­ger­ing from his left rear to his right rear. It was the O-1. There was no smoke or flame, but Latall could clearly see or­ange fluid stream­ing from the O-1’s nose area. It was ob­vi­ous Bench­mark 15 was go­ing to crash or crash land. At that mo­ment, Van Es broad­cast that Hel­borne 513 was avail­able for a ResCAP—res­cue com­bat air pa­trol—ready to or­bit over the O-1 un­til a res­cue he­li­copter could get there.

By then, both A-4s had used more than their al­lot­ted fuel for the mis­sion. Any fur­ther fly­ing over Hue would en­dan­ger their re­turn to Chu Lai. Nev­er­the­less, the A-4 pi­lots de­cided to stay longer. No sooner was the de­ci­sion made than the O-1 broke out of it glide to­ward the Per­fume River. Its nose pitched up and it fell to earth.

As the O-1 fell, Latall once again came over the tar­get, but he did not feel he could drop more bombs blindly, so he turned off his mas­ter ar­ma­ment switch and just made a dummy run. If nothing else, the dummy run would put NVA heads down, thus af­ford­ing the friendly in­fantry some small respite.

Latall was com­ing off the dummy run when some­one called on the radio to re­port that a ground res­cue party was on the way to the crash scene. Hel­borne 513 was di­rected to drop the re­main­ing bombs on the tar­get and head home.

The A-4 pi­lots ig­nored those in­struc­tions and ra­dioed that they were re­main­ing over Hue. They made sev­eral more dummy runs over the tar­get and passes over the O-1, dis­cour­ag­ing both NVA move­ment against 1/5 and any ef­forts by NVA sol­diers to get to the downed spot­ter plane. Be­fore the A-4s could drop any more bombs, Hue-Phu Bai

Fran­tic calls from Chu Lai that evening re­vealed that the Army O-1 pilot had been shot and killed as Latall was mak­ing his sec­ond hot pass.

firmly or­dered them to fly home be­cause the weather was nearly solid from the ground to 20,000 feet. Latall hap­pened to catch sight of Van Es at the last minute, and he joined on the lead A-4, which was im­por­tant be­cause Latall’s nav­i­ga­tion equip­ment had been shot away dur­ing his sec­ond bomb run. They climbed out on in­stru­ments. On the way home, Latall no­ti­fied Van Es that fuel was leak­ing from a hole in Van Es’s main fuel cell.

Both A-4s made it back to Chu Lai, though both ar­rived with very lit­tle fuel. Van Es’s A-4 had been hit in the main fuel cell, port wingtip, and port land­ing-gear door. Latall’s A-4 had sus­tained hits from the aft sec­tion of the nose on back to the rud­der and el­e­va­tor.

Fran­tic calls from Chu Lai that evening re­vealed that the Army O-1 pilot had been shot and killed as Latall was mak­ing his sec­ond hot pass. Cap­tain Bob Laramy, a Ma­rine in­fantry of­fi­cer who had re­ceived rudi­men­tary flight train­ing, had tried to fly the air­plane, but the con­trols failed and the O-1 crashed. Laramy walked into an ARVN [Army of the Repub­lic of Viet­nam] po­si­tion, but he had been crit­i­cally burned in the crash and even­tu­ally was med­i­cally re­tired.

The next day, Fe­bru­ary 23, Majors John Van Es and Ray Latall heard that they had been cred­ited by 1/5 with killing seventy-three NVA sol­diers within 150 me­ters of the Ci­tadel wall.

Also on Fe­bru­ary 23, 1/5 broke through the last NVA strong­point in its zone and reached its ob­jec­tive, the Ci­tadel’s southeast wall. The day af­ter that, or­ga­nized NVA re­sis­tance through­out the Ci­tadel of Hue col­lapsed.

Ex­cerpted from the book Fire in the Streets: The Bat­tle for Hue, Tet 1968 by Eric Ham­mel (Paci­fica, Calif.: Paci­fica Mil­i­tary His­tory, 1997).

A-4 Sky­hawks, af­fec­tion­ately known as “Scoot­ers,” were one of the work­horses of Viet­nam. Both the U.S. Navy and U.S. Ma­rine Corps de­pended on them for pin­point ord­nance de­liv­ery. Here, air­craft owned by the War­bird Her­itage Foun­da­tion and the Valiant Air Com­mand, re-cre­ate an­other day at the of­fice in Viet­nam. (Photo by Scott Slocum)

The Scooter’s small size worked well on car­rier hangar decks and made for a more dif­fi­cult tar­get. All who flew the air­craft loved it. (Photo by Paul Bowen)

The A-4 Sky­hawk has one of the tight­est fast-mover of­fices found. Pi­lots must per­form a torso twist as the canopy closes so that it does not snag on pens on the flight suit. (Photo by Ted Carl­son)

U.S. Army “Bird­dog” spot­ter planes, car­ry­ing Ma­rine in­fantry of­fi­cers serv­ing as aerial ob­servers, were able to run few airstrikes un­til the af­ter­noon of Fe­bru­ary 22. They typ­i­cally flew low and slow, the bet­ter to spot tar­gets and as­sess dam­age. One of the Army Bird­dog pi­lots was killed at the con­trols on Fe­bru­ary 22, and the Ma­rine aerial ob­server, Capt. Bob Laramy, was se­ri­ously burned. (Of­fi­cial USMC photo by Lance Cpl. D. M. Mes­sen­ger)

The Ma­rine A-4E Sky­hawk squadrons, as de­ployed at Chu Lai be­gin­ning in 1965, car­ried five weapons sta­tions ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing up to 8,500 pounds of ord­nance, in­clud­ing Zuni 5-inch un­guided rockets in a LAU-10/A pod, mul­ti­ple “iron” and clus­ter bombs, along with na­palm and the guided Martin AGM-12B Bullpup. (Photo cour­tesy of Stan Piet) Cap­tion 5

Above: A-4 with ord­nance….A Sky­hawk be­hind the blast bar­rier gets ready to take off from a car­rier steam­ing off the Viet­nam coast. (Photo by Jim Reed cour­tesy of War­ren Thompson)

Below: The L-19/O-1 Bird­dog more than earned its spurs in two ma­jor wars. (Photo by Steve Frushour)

For its time, the Scooter was ex­tremely ma­neu­ver­able and had a 720-de­gree roll rate per sec­ond. But it also had an in-flight re­fu­el­ing probe giv­ing it longer en­durance when needed for a mis­sion. (Photo by Ted Carl­son)

Above: Off the coast of Viet­nam, A-4C #306 of VA-153 “The Blue Tail

Flies” car­ry­ing two MK-83 1,000-pound bombs is sec­onds away from launch­ing off the USS Co­ral Sea (CV-43) in 1965. (Photo cour­tesy of Jack Cook)

Left: A na­palm can­is­ter det­o­nates on a sus­pected NVA po­si­tion be­tween the Ci­tadel wall and the Per­fume River. (Of­fi­cial USMC photo by Lance Cpl. D. M. Mes­sen­ger)

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