December 21, 2009 9:49:00 AM
When asked if I killed anyone during the Vietnam War, I have to answer that I don''t know. I may have, and probably did, since my B-52 bomber crew dropped several thousand pounds of bombs on the Cambodia jungle, but I will never actually know.
I only flew two live bombing runs in 1973 before President Nixon''s final bombing halt prior to the negotiations that ended our involvement in the war a few months later. But the first mission captured all the terror, anticipation, wonder and angst of flying into a war.
The mission began after dark at Andersen AFB, Guam in the western Pacific Ocean. The crew bus dropped us at the hot loading zone on a far corner of field, a remote location that would provide some protection for the base if something went wrong while loading 108 500-pound bombs in the bomb bay and on wing pylons of our B-52D.
A full moon painted the bristling war bird in a ghostly light, a formidable black metal dragon that would righteously drop explosive mayhem onto America''s enemies, or so I thought at the time. I paused and slowly put down my flight bag to stare in awe. Was I really a part of this? What was I about to do?
Six hours after takeoff we approached the target area over the Parrot''s Beak region of Cambodia as one of a half dozen, three-ship, bomber formations. Each cell was named for a tree. We were Oak Flight, others were Pine, Maple, and Birch.
As the lead aircraft copilot for my cell (for some unknown reason, I got to be lead on my first mission) I had to announce the impending bomb drop on "Guard," the international radio frequency all aircraft monitor. This would allow aircraft in the vicinity to vacate the area and avoid the "rain" of our falling bombs. (As an aside, this is the same rain referenced in the Credence Clearwater Revival song "Have you ever seen the rain?").
I had been warned to switch my radio toggle from the interplane frequency to the "Guard" channel before transmitting the warning. Being a raw rookie, however, I gave the entire two-minute spiel on interplane, to the great amusement of the other copilots. "Hey, lead, want to try that on Guard!" they snickered on the interplane frequency.
Then the bomb run began in the early morning darkness over an Asian jungle. Our three-abreast, triangular shaped, formation banked steeply, ominously, on to the bomb run heading. The radar navigator, who would throw the switch to drop the bombs, informed the crew we were approaching the IP, or Initial Point, to begin the run.
Just as we passed the IP, a male Asian voice began transmitting in Cambodian on our radios. He sounded as if he were babbling in an opium den and his voice disturbed and frightened me. I feared he might be an apparition warning us off our task, a voice of doom giving a last opportunity to save ourselves, or a soon-to-be victim in the target zone making his last hopeless statement to his slayers. He continued talking, as if relating a story to a fellow opium smoker, as our formation approached the target. No matter what I did to my radio controls, I couldn''t make the voice stop.
In the near distance 33,000 feet below us, the ground glowed, eerily, from explosions from preceding bomber cells. A mist hung over the terrain that gave the area the look of a graveyard in a horror movie.
The radar navigator began the count-down, "ten...nine...eight", the apparitional voice continued his drunken soliloquy on the radio, "three...two...one...bombs away!"
The aircraft shuddered lightly as the bombs unhooked from the wings and dropped from the bomb bays of the three aircraft in our cell in a five-second release sequence that would obliterate an area equal to three football fields, and unleash a shock wave that would kill any creature within half a mile.
We waited as the radar navigator counted down to impact, about 40 seconds for the bombs to fall 33,000 feet, "three...two...one, impact!" The clouds around our aircraft reflected hundreds of small bursts of light from below. It was done.
The radar navigator announced the closing of the bomb bay doors.
We flew on in the darkness in silence as I pondered what we had done. I ponder it still.
Jay Lacklen is a retired Air Force Reserve pilot, who flew missions in Vietnam and Iraq. Presently he is simulator instructor at CAFB and is writing a book about his experiences in the Air Force.
Raymond Gross commented at 12/21/2009 5:14:00 PM:
Kinda takes me back a little. I was a B-52 crew chief back then. Did a few missions from Guam and U-tapaio, Thiland droping those tree spliters on Viet Nam. Many a tree bit the dust for sure. That was in 1968. You probably had the same routine in 73. I'll never forget the IFR near the Philipines on the way over. Some of the Pilots from Fairchild gave me a scaring by getting too close to the tanker. I can still hear the boom operator screaming, "break away" "break away" and as I sat in the IP seat looking up through the escape hatch I saw the extended boom being raised to avoid impact and if the hatch had been off I could have reached out and touched the bottom of the KC-135. Had two of those close calls.
We always went in cells of 3 in 68 but never could see any signs of impact from that altitude and after the drop we didn't want to hang around to take any pictures. The F-4 escorts were always comforting over the zones.
The tail gunner had the sweetest job of the whole war. But don't think I would have wanted it.
Raymond Gross commented at 12/26/2009 2:24:00 PM:
The following letter was printed in the Columbus Packet. The Dispatch would not print it for some unknown reason.
To answer those who ask the B-52D copilot (Jay Lacklen) if he killed anyone in Vietnam, the answer is NO. The copilot does not drop bombs or fire the tail gun. He's just a driver, that's all. I was a B-52(BUFF) crew chief back in the '60's and had to do a few missions from Guam and U-tapaio, Thailand dropping those tree splitters on Vietnam. Many a tree bit the dust for sure. That was in 1968.
The old adage, "there are no atheist in fox holes " also applied to B-52 crews on missions from Guam, the rock, to Vietnam and back. My first mission was was with a crew from Fairchild AFB and started at night too. In fact the Chaplain prayed after every pre-mission briefing. We took off toward the Capital city of Guam with all 8 J-57s roaring with 8 water injection spraying into every inlet and black smoke covered every square inch of the old bumpy sloped runway. We were number 3 in the cell and immediately after gear up the copilot left his seat for a snooze and I moved to his seat. As I watched the other two acft turn and head west I became concerned because my pilot continued going East. I didn't say anything until I had to turn 90 degrees over my right shoulder to barely see the red anti collision lights flashing on the second plane going the other direction. I actually smacked the pilot on the right arm and said, "aren't you going to turn"? He instantly turned the controls and began to bank, it took a little bit to get back in line and he had to pour the coals on to catch up. I knew then that I'd better stay alert for the next 12 hours.
I'll never forget the in flight refuelings near the Philippines on the way over. This was necessary because with a load of bombs we couldn't take off with a full fuel load . Well , my two Fairchild pilots gave me a good scaring by getting way too close to the tanker while trying to connect to the refueling boom. . I can still hear the tanker boom operator screaming, "break away", "break away" as he lay on his belly looking down at us and as I sat in the IP seat looking up through the escape hatch I saw the extended refueling boom being quickly raised to avoid smashing a hole in the top of our plane. If the hatch had been off over the copilot's head I could have reached out and touched the bottom of the KC-135A.
We always went in cells of three back in '68 too but I never could see any signs of bomb impact from that altitude and after the drop we didn't want to hang around to take any pictures. The F-4 escorts were always comforting over the zones.
I think the tail gunner had the sweetest job of the whole crew. But don't think I would have wanted to be one--too boring and lonesome back there but lots of z time for him.on the way back to the Rock. He was the only one on the crew to see the bombs impact that were dropped from his acft. cause he was seated facing aft.
1. Our View: Finding a successor for Mr. Lewis DISPATCH EDITORIALS
2. Lynn Spruill: Universal language LOCAL COLUMNS
3. Michael Gerson: For a politics of repair NATIONAL COLUMNS
5. Michael Gerson: A global conspiracy of health NATIONAL COLUMNS