Jet Pilots Face Heavy Red Fire In Napalm Runs
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The following dispatch by Charles Black, Enquirer military writer, was filed from Bien Hoa April 8 and was the first report of an existing shortage of bombs for air strikes against the Viet Cong. Monday, the bomb shortage was confirmed by the Defense Dept.)
By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer
BIEN HOA - A shortage of 500-pound bombs is causing F100 pilots flying from this huge base to use tactics which have allowed a heavily supplied Viet Cong to double their small-arms hits on the big jets during the past 30 days.
The hits are coming from .30 caliber-type automatic rifles which intelligence sources believe are being used by the Viet Cong with greater accuracy and with greater ammunition expenditures than ever before.
They believe the ammunition, which came down supply routes from North Viet Nam during the 38-day bombing halt, reached the hard-core Viet Cong battalions in the Mekong Delta in time for them to start delivering a hail of fire at aircraft during late February.
The increase in ammunition stock for the Communists coincided with a sudden shortage of 500-pound bombs for the F100s, forcing the big jet to rely once more on napalm attacks.
As of April 7, in fact, the planes began flying exclusively with napalm loads because the 500-pounders had been expended the previous day, and a hand-to-mouth ordinance supply has not been more than two days ahead of delivery demands since November.
Pilots do not downgrade napalm, believing it is the most feared weapon in their arsenal. The problem caused by the 500-pound bomb shortage is one of tactics. (The 750-pounders are practically nonexistent here since the B52 strikes began consuming them, and the available stocks get only as far as Guam now.)
A napalm run has to be made in a straight pass at low level. A 500-pound bomb can be delivered from a steep dive and the pilot can pull out quickly The pilots mix up the runs so the Viet Cong gunners cannot predict when the easier target given by the napalm run will come and get set for it.
They can’t mix their tactics now, and the amount of bullets hitting F100s because of the lack of variation and the constant low-level attacks forced on them have gone up accordingly - double in March the number that was recorded in February for planes based here, in fact.
Nobody here is sure why the 500-pound bomb shortage came about. Some officers say the manufacturers haven’t been able to catch up with the demand, and some think Cam Ranh Bay may alleviate the problem when the huge port is available. However, they all put their finger on the bomb shortage as a major factor in the number of increased bullet holes in their aircraft.
I saw Maj. Tommy Thompson of the 3rd Tactical Wing’s command operations center after he had flown a mission south of Saigon to support a Marine operation along the river. He offered chilling evidence of what the pilots had been talking about.
A small-caliber bullet had hit the plexiglass canopy of his F100 as he rolled to the left to make a napalm run, sending a spray of splinters into the cockpit and smashing through the opposite side of the canopy, missing his head by inches.
“That thing hit and all of those splinters flew,” he said. “My sunglasses must have saved my eyes, I guess. I said ‘I’m hit - I’m hit.’ Then I saw I was still flying and I said ‘Well, I think I’m hit.’ It was a very awkward time to take a hit in the canopy, too, rolling into the run.”
The major was jubilant, and he had gone ahead and dropped his napalm and made his strafing run, with the shattered canopy cutting his vision to almost nothing, but it was close as an F100 pilot could get to a bullet and not be hit. A crowd of pilots kept eddying around his plane, looking at the bullet hole and then looking at the major with a certain awe.
That kind of thing has been happening twice as often as before. The severity of the damage from all hits, in fact, has increased as the bullets hit more vital spots on the aircraft. Maintenance hours have gone up to keep the planes repaired.
Pilots and others say the Viet Cong units in the Mekong Delta are shooting more ammunition at them, including tracers not noted before the booming lull, and are more effective.
“There have been reports of specially trained units - units trained to use automatic rifles for antiaircraft fire, coming from North Viet Nam,” one pilot told me.
He said it is very possible that some of these units are down in the delta now, protecting areas important to the Viet Cong, and that it is possible that the Viet Cong there have been getting new training.
“They also are shooting a lot of ammunition - something they haven’t done before - and a lot of it is tracer, which they didn’t use very much before,” the pilot said. “They got a lot of ammunition down from North Viet Nam when we quit bombing up there and they are making us pay the price now.”
It would seem implausible that the primitive Viet Cong supply line had come up with some kind of logistical edge over the massive U.S. structure, but in an odd way it has apparently happened.
Our flyers don’t have the weapons mix needed to keep the Viet Cong honest during their strafing and napalm runs, and the Viet Cong have come up with a lot of the kind of ammunition they need to make it hard on the pilots.
Nobody at Bien Hoa had any guess on how soon it would be before the situation would change.
© Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
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