Forty-seven years ago this morning I sat alone, bleary-eyed, slouched despondently in a reeking, salt-ringed flight suit on the homebuilt sundeck/roof of Dusty’s Pub on the beach of the South China Sea. A missing man formation of F-100 Super Sabres flew low overhead. They bombed the floodgates in my eyes.
A few hours earlier, just after midnight, I had led the memorialized missing man, my friend and wingman, Robert “Vince” Willett, to his death in a gunfight on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. A lifetime later, sorrow is still an inadequate word.
I’ve written and spoken about that night in multiple venues, and prayed for Vince’s traumatized family, including a twice-widowed wife (both fighter pilots) and two stepsons. I’ve even fictionalized that combat sortie in a novel entitled, Son of Thunder, (second edition, in paperback and ebook). Sometimes truth can best be communicated in fiction format. It serves as a shield for a fragile ego, allowing the writer to bare his soul under the guise of a tall tale. And, not least, he can put what’s on his heart into the mind and mouth of the protagonist and communicate things he’d never have the nerve to say otherwise. Now I’ve discovered that with codgerhood comes the courage to speak your mind—I have so little left to lose and maybe even something to gain for His kingdom, if God is willing. So, on this sad 47th anniversary, I’ve ditched the shield on the novel’s version of that fateful night, admitting it is indeed my scarred soul laid bare. It conveys the cry of a broken and contrite heart better than anything I’ve been able to write, fiction or non-fiction, on a subject so personal and tragic. And further I confess that the protagonist’s (John) dialogue and interior monologues in this abridged excerpt represent my thoughts and feelings that night. Some of the flying scenes in SOT actually happened, with varying degrees of embellishment. This is one of them, with less literary license than most. The fictional “Vic” is based on Vince, and from the first long-hand draft 27 years ago, when my sentences finally became coherent on the subject, I have striven to honor him. The book is dedicated to him. The unvarnished truth is a brave American patriot stood up in the midst of national turmoil and said, “Here am I. Send me,” and made the ultimate sacrifice. Greater love hath no man …
Vince Willett and crew chief, Robert Smith
Tuy Hoa Air Base, Republic of Vietnam, April, 1969. On Vic’s first night mission to Steel Tiger as a married man, John laid out his philosophy of night air combat against the big guns. It was the same old philosophy, but delivered with more fervor.
“Vic, I want you to know that if we get shot at tonight, and we probably will, I’m going to shoot back, whether it’s 50 caliber or 57 millimeter. You know the Rules of Engagement leave the decision up to the flight leader. Our primary mission is to stop the trucks, but if everyone goes home when the shooting starts, whose going to stop the trucks? Somebody has to care. I think the politicians who got us into this are no longer trying to win this war, but I am. Duty and honor still mean something to me, even if the leaders of my country have abandoned theirs.”
“You’re absolutely right, sir,” Vic replied with a smile. John knew Vic used that “sir” business only when he thought John’s intensity was getting out of hand. John chose to ignore the signal.
“This is serious stuff, Vic. That’s not confetti they’re throwing up out there, and I’m going to fly right down the gun barrels if that’s what it takes to destroy them. You can watch me or you can follow me. It’s your choice and I won’t hold it against you either way and I am very serious. Copy?”
“Copy. I’ll fly your wing anywhere, brother.” This time Vic was serious….
The mission scheduled on the frag order from Seventh Air Force that night was the usual—truck patrol. Their call sign was Dusty Seven One Flight. The rendezvous with the FAC—in a C-130 with a Starlight Scope—was over Saravane after an outbound aerial refueling over Pleiku. Northbound at twelve thousand feet, 50 miles south of the rendezvous, they switched to the C‑130’s radio frequency.
“Blind Bat One, this is Dusty Seven One. We’re a flight of two Fox‑100s carrying six seven-hundred-fifty pound bombs, two CBU‑24’s, sixteen hundred rounds of twenty mike mike.”
“Roger, Dusty Seven One Flight, this is Blind Bat One. Copy your munitions. We’ve got a truck convoy moving south below us. The Scope is showing about a dozen trucks. In thirty seconds we’ll be dropping two white phosphorous logs.” He gave Dusty Flight the target weather and terrain information. It was a road on a steep mountainside. Blind Bat concluded with what was becoming the standard warning, “We’ve had heavy ground fire the last few nights.”
“Roger, Blind Bat,” John answered. “Dusty Flight, set ‘em up hot. Bomb single. Arm nose tail.”
“Twoop,” replied Vic.
“Okay, Dusty Flight, the two white phosphorus logs are on the ground burning,” Blind Bat called. “Let’s call the line they form north‑south and the distance between the logs one hundred meters. Put your first bomb fifty meters east of the south log. We’ll be holding off to the west between eight and ten thousand feet.”
John rolled in from the south at fourteen thousand feet, high and close to the target again for a steep dive angle.
“Dusty Seven One’s in.”
Vic answered with the click of his mike button.
The night was as black as the inside of a cow. A high overcast obliterated all stars. John could not tell where the earth ended and the heavens began. Aside from the burning white phosphorus flares on the ground, there was no reference outside the cockpit to tell up from down.
He pickled off the first bomb at his best guess of fifty meters east of the south log, and then hauled back hard on the control stick. As the attitude indicator on the instrument panel showed the nose of his aircraft coming up through the horizon, he eased off the back pressure on the control stick. He banked left, continued climbing, and looked back over his left shoulder to survey the damages. It wasn’t a bull’s-eye, but it was close enough. The shrapnel pattern from the seven-hundred-fifty-pound iron bomb penetrated the fuel tank of the lead truck and flames flared up like a freshly lit match. Within seconds the flames engulfed its load of mortar shells and the truck began to cook like a popcorn popper with the lid off. The light from the burning truck illuminated the mountainside, revealing a dozen trucks nearly bumper‑to-bumper.
Vic rolled in on the last truck he could see. “Two’s in from the north.”
“Roger,” John answered.
It was impossible for John to see Vic because they were running lights out and he pulled out of his dive above the dome of illumination formed by the burning truck, but there was no mistaking where his bomb hit.
“That was a bull’s-eye on the number ten truck, Dusty Seven Two. You Dusty guys are all right,” called Blind Bat.
Once they had bottled up the convoy, it was a midnight massacre. There was no place on the steep mountainside for the trucks to pull off and find cover, and their bombs had effectively barricaded the road fore and aft.
John’s second pass blew the third truck in line off the road. It cartwheeled down the mountainside in an avalanche of fire and explosions. Vic and John dropped a total of three bombs each in the cool, professional style of the executioner. Since they saw no ground fire, John decided to save the CBU-24 just in case somebody decided to shoot back.
“Blind Bat, Dusty Flight would like to make a few twenty mike mike passes and hold a Hammer apiece in reserve,” John announced.
“You’re cleared for the strafing runs, Dusty Flight.”
“Copy, Blind Bat. Lead is in from the north.”
Vic and John ravaged those trucks like two starving jackals working over a bloated rhino carcass. John counted eight of them burning or destroyed.
A glance at the fuel gauges told John the party was about nearly over. “We’ve got enough fuel for two more passes, Dusty Flight,” he called.
Coming off the next strafing pass it finally happened. A geyser of red, orange and yellow tracers erupted about a half mile to the east, pointed in John’s direction, and he was bracketed. The airspace on all sides of John was filled with multi-colored tracers, but before he could initiate an evasive maneuver the air was clear and dark again.
“Dusty Seven One, this is Blind Bat. You can pack it in if you want. You’ve done a night’s work here.”
John’s first attempt to respond to Blind Bat produced thumb pressure on the mike button, but no simultaneous vibration of the vocal cords. Two deep breaths later the cords came unstuck.
“If it’s all right with you, Blind Bat, we’ve got just the weapon for those guns, and enough fuel for one more pass. I think I know where that triple A was coming from.”
“Well, the ROE says it’s your call, Dusty Flight,” Blind Bat replied.
“Some of us still think this war is worth winning, Blind Bat.” It was the first insubordinate comment John had ever made over the radio in his Air Force career.
The AAA had come from somewhere in the blackness to the east of the target, but John had only a rough idea. He hoped that if he rolled in and pointed the nose in that general direction they’d shoot again, and he might be able to see the muzzle flashes.
“Dusty Seven Two, I’m not showing any radar tracking us. Are you?” John called.
“Two, negative.” If Vic was scared, nothing in his voice betrayed him. If married life had rearranged his priorities, John couldn’t tell it. With no radar tracking, those guns could only be shooting in the blind.
Sure enough, as soon as John pointed the nose toward the ground, he got a face-full of Christmas tree lights streaking by the canopy, but he no longer flinched at such distractions. He aimed at the middle of that circle of muzzle flashes, pickled away The Hammer, and began the dive recovery.
The bomblets hit the ground in a slightly oval circle. The shooting stopped. There was nothing but black ink on the ground where before there was a circle of deadly fireflies.
“Dusty Seven One, where to?” Vic called.
“Same place as mine, Two. Let’s give them a double dose.” John was sure there was nothing but bloody carnage left at that gun site.
“Roger,” Vic responded, in that perfect bored‑to‑death tone of voice, the one they all worked so hard to perfect.
John couldn’t tell if it was the same site that he had hit, or another one, but the geyser erupted out of that ink bottle again, right in the vicinity of where Vic should have been.
Again Vic’s bomb hit the bull’s-eye. The circle of bomblets perfectly super‑imposed the ring of muzzle flashes. A second after the bomb hit the ground there was an enormous mushroom shaped fireball right at the edge of the circle of death. It momentarily lit up the mountaintop like noonday.
I’ve got the best wingman in all of Southeast Asia, John thought to himself. “Bull’s-eye, Two,” he crowed.
“Fantastic shooting, Dusty Seven Two. Looks like you got their ammo supply with that one,” Blind Bat shouted.
“Dusty Seven One Flight, let’s head home…. Dusty Seven Two, this is Seven One…” John called.
“Dusty Seven One, this is Blind Bat. I’m afraid that fireball was your wing man.”
“Roger …” The fighter pilot cool was completely drained from John’s voice.
“Dusty Seven One, I know you’re bingo fuel. You’d best head home. You can be mighty proud. That’s the finest piece of work I’ve ever seen, and this is my second war. We’ll hang around as long as we can and see what we can see. We’ll make a decision on whether to launch Search-and-Rescue tonight or in the morning. Thing is, we can’t get a good look from where we are and I’m not inclined to get any closer. We’re a much fatter, slower target than you are.”
“Roger, Blind Bat. There’s no way he could have ejected successfully,” John answered.
“Good night, Dusty. We’ll forward your bombing results and notify headquarters. So sorry. We love ya.”
“Thanks, Blind Bat. Dusty Seven One out.” John’s voice trailed off.
“Dusty Seven Two, this is Blind Bat…Dusty Seven Two, this is Blind Bat. How do you read ..? Dusty Seven Two, this is Blind Bat on guard. Come in, please …” Blind Bat’s repeated calls to Vic were met with silence—deathly silence.
One’s a very lonely number three hundred miles from home at twenty thousand feet on the blackest night in all eternity. John had a vague realization of fuel gauges reading alarmingly low and of fear that he’d flame out prior to touchdown. Pretty critical stuff, but tonight it didn’t seem very important. Life didn’t seem very important to John, because life had ceased for Vic …
* * *
To this day not a trace of Vince or his F-100 has been found, despite Search and Rescue’s immediate efforts and years of searching by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. MIA torments the family so much more than KIA.
As for me, God has made Himself known to me in His Word, and my trust and consolation rest securely in His providence, which explains why, for reasons known only to Him, I survived that night and Vince did not. And when Satan tempts me to despair with taunts like, “But it was your fault, it was your decision,” I cling to the same promise God made to the Apostle Paul. When Paul thrice prayed for relief from a hard go, God answered, My grace is sufficient for you …*. It is sufficient for this unworthy sinner, too. Divine grace and my grateful heart are inseparable forever.
RIP, Vince. I hope and pray we meet again where no eye has seen, nor ear heard nor the human heart conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him, ** in the mansions of the Lord.
* 2 Corinthians 12:9 ** 1 Corinthians 2:9