TREES, HOTPAD, SAMS
And Dick Moller
Wings of Gold!
Bars of Brass!
Take my crotch-keys,
shove em’ up your ass!
Bye, bye, Vietnam!
Young, silver bar, Dick Moller was an exceptional pilot. During his Death Angel tour in Vietnam, Dick volunteered to fly my wing on some hair raising flights. Dick would put his ordnance on target with deadly accuracy, day or night. Destruction of the target was essential. I hated returning to a target. Dick knew a 12 o’clock hit was a miss and he liked my steep dive angles. I liked his fearless competitive spirit.
The first combat sortie I flew with Dick was in support of grunts northeast of Khe Sanh. The FAC reported an NVA unit in an area of thick jungle about 300 by 300 meters. The NVA were surrounded by Grunts who didn’t relish a hand to hand, tree to tree engagement. We carried the much requested load of two 2,000LB bombs with 3 ft. daisy cutter fuses along with 400 rounds of 20 MM per Crusader. The Marines were within 200 meters which required our utmost accuracy. I briefed on the radio, "Dash two, we’ll split this target into four equal sections. I have the left two segments and you take the right two." We rolled in from 10,000 ft in a 60 degree dive. Pickle was at 6,500 feet and we were out of the run by 2000 feet. The daisy-cutter fuse detonated the bomb three feet above the ground and destroyed every tree in the first segment. Dash Two leveled all trees in his segment. Our next two runs completely cleared the rest of the 200 foot high jungle area. Each run brought shouts of glee from the FAC. The entire target area was reduced to toothpicks and axe handles. The accolades from the grunts and the FAC were nice, but the mission was just another routine ordnance delivery worth one point toward the twenty points required for an Air Medal.
The most exciting mission I had with Dick was a Hot Pad scramble against a Sam site just North of the DMZ. Dick and I had the afternoon Hot Pad. The F8Es were armed with 16 Zuni rockets and 400 rounds of 20mm per aircraft. The afternoon had dragged until sunset. Then the bell sounded. We were given a mission number, the target description, target location, and the controlling agency. Upon hearing the word SAM, I thought. "Hit a SAM site with rockets and bullets in the dark! Wow!" We raced to the birds we had pre-flight inspected upon assuming the Hot Pad.
Swift Caulkins and Russeth had us started and taxiing within two minutes. Four minutes after the launch order we were airborne. We checked in, "Condole, Wagecut twelve, two Crusaders, mission number twelve , airborne Da Nang zero eight."
We flew North at maximum speed to conserve valuable daylight. We needed visibility at the DMZ. A SAM target had not been anticipated, so I briefed Dick how we would handle a SAM launch. "Dash two, if the ALQ emits a high PRF after passing Phu Bai, we will split-S to the deck." The ALQ was growling softly, sort of like a cat being stroked. "If you spot flame or smoke from a rocket launch, call ‘SAM’ and we’ll go for the deck."
Approaching Phu Bai, we contacted the FAC. He responded in a high-pitched voice, "I watched a SAM launch from the DMZ. The launch position is 360 degrees at six miles. It came from the northeast side of the wide bend in the Ben Hai River, northwest of Con Thien. I will control your strike from my present position." We arrived overhead the FAC. He provided more directions to the SAM site by pulling the Birddog’s nose up and launching a WP racket in the direction we were to fly. We spotted the large bend in the river and 200 meters to the Northeast we saw two cleared areas built up like a SAM launching site.
I told Dash two, "We’ll run a left hand pattern at 9000 ft. with a 70 degree dive from west to east. Use upper guns during the run. Ripple the wing rockets first, one pod each run." After completing a 180 degree turn we were west of the target heading south. I called, "One in hot." I rolled the crusader over hard 90 degrees to the left until inverted and pulled the nose down through the target. I then rolled the F-8 back upright and began tracking the Sam site. Tracer fire commenced floating upwards towards me. Abruptly, the rounds would accelerate and zip past the aircraft in fiery streaks. I triggered the guns and called, "Dash Two, I’m taking heavy fire! Use your guns from the start of your run! Pull out left and roll in further around the circle on each run." At 6000 feet I pickled the left wing rocket pod. The four Zunis flamed bright white as they "Whooshed" toward the SAM site. I pulled off target and made a climbing left turn. Two called, "In hot!’ I watched dash two taking fire on his dive. I saw his Zunis impact the center of the target. I said, "Perfect hit, two! One in hot!" I rolled in again as two pulled off. While fish-tailing the rudders and porpoising the aircraft nose I hosed down the target area with 20 mike mike. Thumbing the rocket pickle, the right wing pod emptied "whoosh" and I called off target. Tracer volleys were burning past Dash two on his pattern to the roll in point. Darkness had set in, but the residual fires from the first runs gave us a mark. We continued making passes, firing the fuselage Zunis two at a time. Each bright "Whoosh!" of the fired rockets caused us moments of blindness. When the upper guns were empty, we switched to "Lower" and continued to strafe. We were receiving heavy tracer fire from many locations around the target. I felt like we were in a flak trap. Steady flames were rising from the target.
After the sixth run, we pulled off to the south and sped past the Covey FAC still anchored six clicks south. He said, "I gave you one hundred percent target coverage but can’t pass on more BDA until after daylight."
"Roger" I responded, "That’s a 121!" In Condole code, number 121 meant, 'You must have me confused with someone who gives a sh*t.'
Dick and I were fortunate. The anti-aircraft fire was the worst I had experienced. Maybe the NVA gunners were rookies. I was grateful for having Dick as my wingman on the SAM scramble. Some pilots could have found a downing gripe and I would have been alone. Thank you Dick Moller for being a brave, dedicated and extremely dependable pilot.
Back to Back We Face the Past
Donald Cathcart LtCol USMC Ret.