Vietnam Stories: Retired Air Force colonel recalls first taste of combat

Vietnam Stories: Retired Air Force colonel recalls first taste of combat

In early November 1968, I arrived at the 366 Tac Fighter Wing — call sign "GunFighters" — at Danang Air Base, Danang, South Vietnam. After 15 years active Air Force duty, I was about to experience my first actual combat.

My aircraft was the supersonic F-4 Phantom, the top-of-the-line Air Force fighter of the Vietnam era. Two powerful jet engines, top speed 1,500 mph, carried two pilots, multiple ordnance — bombs, missiles, napalm, 20 mm rapid-fire cannons. It was capable of surviving significant combat damage and could bring you home on one engine.

About the city of Danang, circa 1968: Not a happy city. The estimated population was 400,000 (plus or minus), a large portion of which were displaced refugees. There was significant infrastructure damage from previous unsuccessful Viet Cong attempts to take the city. Exceptionally poor living conditions, unreliable or nonexistent public utilities. For a war zone, U.S. military life on base was relatively safe and comfortable. Occasional mortar attacks, typically at night, were usually not intensive or accurate.

I flew my first combat mission over North Vietnam in early November, a soft "milk run" low-danger sortie designed to indoctrinate new pilots without scaring them. It worked well with me. I saw neither a MiG nor a missile. My target: bulldozers repairing a bombed-out road. By happenstance, this would be my one and only mission over North Vietnam. In mid-November 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson, in an unsuccessful effort to entice negotiations, halted all combat missions over the North.

As a result of Johnson's moratorium, many of my subsequent missions were against troops and supplies moving down the Ho Chi Min Trail. The "Trail" was an extensive network of dirt roads and jungle trails located in Laos — west of North Vietnam — used by the Vietnamese to supply their forces in the South. My other combat missions were over South Vietnam, either supporting ground operations or sometimes providing close air support for troops engaged with the enemy. The absence of any MiG or missile experiences on my combat resume severely inhibited my ability to generate respectable war stories when I returned home.

Speaking of war stories, one of my missions comes to mind. A supposedly routine attack on a target on the northern stretch of the Ho Chi Min Trail. I lost an engine pulling off the target on my last bomb run. The Phantom still flies on one engine, but not nearly as well. There was not enough power to climb up to and engage in the air refueling necessary to make it back to Danang ... and over enemy territory is not the best place to bail out. The only viable option on one engine was to try to make it to a U.S. air base at Ubon in neighboring Thailand.

I had maybe enough fuel to make it, maybe not. If not, I could at least bail out over friendly territory. Fortunately — to make a long and somewhat tense story short — the fuel lasted long enough, but only just. I flamed out while taxiing in. I then enjoyed two weeks of rest and recuperation at Ubon while the engine was being repaired. There was a great officer's club for unwinding combat tension.

Another memory of Danang: Sometimes, routine mission takeoffs — especially at night and in weather — could be highly stressful. A typical example: I'm on the runway at Danang in takeoff position. It's four o'clock in the morning, pitch dark, dense fog, ceiling and visibility nonexistent. The airplane is at max takeoff weight, wall-to-wall bomb load, extra fuel tanks. I'm awaiting takeoff clearance. Finally — "this is Danang Tower. GunFighter One, you're cleared for takeoff. Have a nice flight." Throttles to 100 percent power. Afterburners ignite with two resounding booms. Release brakes. Hang on! Stay in the middle of the runway. Approaching takeoff speed. Forward visibility approaching zero. Switch from visual to flight instruments. Break ground and into the fog. Keep it climbing. Keep it climbing! Finally — deep breath — made it off. Remaining climb out, routine.

I returned to the U.S. in September 1969 to a country sharply divided over Vietnam. My new assignment was to Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, a very military-oriented city — with five major military installations. As a result of that environment, I was spared the humiliation suffered by many returning veterans. I was happy to be home, alive and well.

William R. Mitchell is a retired colonel in the U.S. Air Force. He graduated from Wake Forest in 1952 and joined the Air Force following graduation. He retired from the Air Force in 1975 (at Chanute). He was a real-estate broker in Champaign from 1975 until retirement in 2013. He and his wife, Patricia, live in Champaign.