The Grade School Teacher and the Edsel Genius
Richard Baughn began piloting F-105s over North Vietnam in March of 1965 as part of Operation Rolling Thunder. He flew out of Thailand from both Korat and Takhli. During the early days of the operation, he recalled, the North Vietnamese defenses were restricted to automatic weapons and AA, but in a short time American pilots spotted missile sites and heavy gun positions under construction. They sought permission to go after those sites, but the requests were never approved by higher headquarters. This struck the pilots as an ominous oddity. In fact, they all agreed, “it made no damned sense at all to let the North Vietnamese improve their defenses while we were forced to wait and watch knowing full well we would soon be facing them. But that is exactly what happened. The North Vietnamese soon developed a fully integrated radar-controlled gun and missile system, which soon included MIG aircraft,” Baughn recalls.
Once the Air Force began losing more aircraft, higher headquarters declared the missiles sights a high priority target and directed the pilots to knock them out. “Of course,” Baughn says, “this was before we were provided with the essential electronic radar detection and warning systems and adequate weapons to do the job properly. We had to depend on our Mark VII eyeballs for warning and protection. As a result, American losses were unnecessarily high and our results disappointing. It was the most asinine thing I had ever witnessed,” Baughn recalls, “and a criminal waste of American lives.” It didn't take Baughn long to realize the military was not calling the shots in Vietnam. “The decisions were coming from the White House and the civilians in the Department of Defense.
Before the Air Force was turned loose on the defensive systems of the North Vietnamese and before Baughn took command of the 44th Tactical Fighter Squadron in June 1965, he was assigned to the Headquarters, PACAF Standardization and Evaluation Group, which was responsible for monitoring all the flying units in PACAF and members of the Group flew with every unit, including those flying over North Vietnam. It was during this period after flying a number of combat missions with F-105 squadrons at Takhli and Korat that Baughn suggested to USAF headquarters in Saigon that the Air Force obtain radar-jamming pods (QRC-160), which had been tested and developed as part of the F-105 program. The jammers would have helped to protect the planes and pilots from the radar-controlled defenses. Baughn was familiar with the jammer, since he had been Tactical Air Command's and then later the Pacific Air Commands’s operations project officer for the F-105 program during the testing, procurement phase and unit conversions.
But his suggestion was turned down by some staff officer in Saigon, who stated the jamming pods “would be requested when they were needed,” Baughn was told. As it turned out, not until eighteen months later did the Air Force finally get the jammers to the F-105 units in Thailand. During this period many good fighter pilots were needlessly shot down.
Eventually, in the summer of 1966, the F-105 units started receiving the radar, homing and warning (RHAW) equipment for their aircraft, which warned the pilots when the radars were looking at them, told them what kind of radar it was and the general direction of the radar sight in relation to the aircraft. It also provided a warning when the sites were tracking and ready to fire or launch missiles. Without this equipment, pilots never knew the location of the missiles sites or when the missiles would be launched. Some pilots were shot down by missiles without any warning. Consequently, the fighters were forced to fly low, where automatic weapons and small arms shot many aircraft down.
“Without the warning gear you tried to avoid the missiles by flying low, which was deadly, because most people in North Vietnam had guns,” Baughn remembered. “And once we were forced down and they saw our direction of flight, they would start firing where we were about to pass and we had to fly through it. With so many small arms and the high rates of fire of the automatic weapons, they literally set up a wall of lead. Even at very high speeds it was difficult to miss us. If we tried to go above the effective range of these weapons, a guided missile might fly up our tailpipe. And something like that could ruin your whole day. RHAW was a good and relatively simple device and had it been provided sooner many pilots would not have been killed or shot down only to spend years in the hell of a North Vietnamese prison camp.”
In June of 1966 the U.S. Air Force activated a new squadron, the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron and all of the officers, men, aircraft and equipment in the 44th were assigned to the 13th TFS and sent permanently to Thailand. “None of us were happy about the change. We had flown combat over NVN as the 44th and had tremendous squadron spirit”
As the commander of the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron, Baughn was also assigned all of the F-100 and F-105 Wild Weasel units located at Korat. The Wild Weasel fighters had two seats and carried a highly trained Electronics Warfare Officer in the back seat to operate the radar warning equipment. In the early summer of 1966, the F-100 WW were operating at night, protecting the B-52 striking targets near the DMZ while the F-105 Weasels protected the F-105 fighters in North Vietnam.
The F-105 WW’s went in ahead of the main strike force to suppress or destroy missile sites with their radar homing missiles, rockets and aircraft cannons. They remained in the target area until the fighters had dropped their bombs and started home. The Wild Weasels were very effective and helped save many lives, but also experienced high losses themselves. Baughn flew about half of his combat missions with his Weasels and the other half with his fighters.
Starting with the arrival of the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron in June of 1966, the Air Force stepped up operations in NVN and began attacking targets in the high threat area (Hanoi and Haiphong) every day that the weather would permit. “Unfortunately, most of the targets we were permitted to strike were next to worthless,” Baughn said. By now the area around Hanoi and Haiphong were heavily defended by a fully integrated defense system with an extremely high concentration of cannons, automatic weapons, small arms, radar controlled guided missiles and MIGS.
“We were thrown against one of the strongest and most sophisticated defensive system the world had ever seen. We had Wild Weasel support, but for awhile our fighters had very few RHAW sets (one per flight in the beginning) and no jamming pods. Unfortunately, we were still limited to mostly insignificant targets. It was idiotic to attack worthless targets in this heavily defended area,” Baughn continued. “During this time we experienced one of the highest loss rates in air war against NVN, while accomplishing next to nothing. In fact, the loss rate might have been comparable to some of the worst days of the 8th and 15th Air Forces over Germany in World War II.”
There were a number of significant targets in North Vietnam, but most of them had been ordered off limits by the Whitehouse and Department of Defense. Later when they could be attacked, the day and time was specified and if the weather delayed the strike, the target could not be struck until the Whitehouse and DOD approved it again. As a result, the military continued to be left with only insignificant targets to strike in between these times. “Limiting and controlling air strikes in this manner, while suffering extremely high loss rates, made no sense whatsoever.” Baughn continued, “I was 43 years old, had fought in WWII and couldn’t believe that we were wasting such an elite and highly trained force of fighter pilots and electronic warfare officers and their multi-million dollar aircraft on worthless targets. If the American public had known the full story, they would have probably cried for someone’s head or maybe impeachment. During this period of high losses, I couldn’t help but admire the spirit and the motivation of the younger pilots who were getting their first taste of combat.”
To compound the problem, the American mission planners seldom did anything to utilize the element of surprise. The attacks were flown at about the same time each day and followed the same routes in and out. “The North Vietnamese could damn near set their watches by our attack times. Consequently, they were fully prepared and waiting to shoot us out of the sky,” Baughn recalls. “It was very clear to all of us that the grade-school teacher and the Edsel genius [Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara] had succeeded in stifling all imagination.”
“On the way in to the target, MIGS would attack first. Then the missiles drove the USAF fighters down to the lower altitudes where the small arms fire and automatic weapons could cut us to threads. When the fighters pulled up to dive bomb, the heavier anti-aircraft cannons opened fire and filled the sky with flak. Coming off the target, radar guided missiles sometimes joined in with the cannons and automatic weapons followed by more MIGs. Our F-105’s were extremely fast, but could not turn with the very maneuverable MIGs and we had to avoid a turning fight with them, which put us an extreme disadvantage.”
“I had flown P-51s over Germany in World War II, and the Germans had some very heavy concentrations of flak,” Baughn remembers, “but the AA was no heavier than some of the highly defended areas of North Vietnam. When you added the missile factor and the MIGSs to the AA equation it was damned tough.”
Baughn repeated, “We squandered some of the best, most highly trained and motivated fighter pilots and aircrews I have known during my then-twenty-two years as a fighter pilot. I finally told the pilots and Wild Weasel crews in my squadron that we would certainly do everything we were told to do, but no more than that. I told them developing a do-or-die attitude when striking a few suspected fifty-gallon oil drums, ten to fifteen miles outside Hanoi, while an airfield loaded with MIGs was a few miles away and left untouched—didn’t make a damned bit of sense. I kept repeating to my guys not to take any unnecessary chances. I said hit your target, do your job and get the hell out. Even following this advice, we still had about thirty percent of our squadron shot down in a four month period.”
A second Wild Weasel unit stationed at Tahkli in Thailand lost all ten of their aircraft in just a few months. Takhli’s WW crews seemed to be unnecessarily aggressive, which resulted in their high losses. Consequently Tahkli’s remaining WW crews came to Korat to fly with Baughn’s squadron until they could get more aircraft and crews at Tahkli.
During this time while we were experiencing some of the highest losses of the war, Baughn says, the media reported the existence of ammunition and bomb shortages, which was denied by DOD. But, Baughn recalls. “We did in fact have severe bomb and ammo shortages. So now we had to fight without electronic jamming pods, were short on RHAW equipment and didn’t have bombs that would do the job. But we were still sent into high threat areas to strike useless targets with weapons that, in some cases, would do little more than chip paint.”
Like many professional fighter pilots, Baughn initially believed he and his fellow fliers were fighting for a worthwhile cause. “But it did not take long for me to become disenchanted with this ridiculous operation. The tight amateurish control by the Whitehouse and DOD civilians resulted in more empty chairs at the squadron dinner table each night, while the agonizing letters to the families back home increased. The aircrews were well aware of the idiotic control, but they never once refused to go on a mission.”
“President Johnson and Secretary McNamara had been warned by General LeMay and Admiral Sharp that Johnson’s and McNamara’s very limited and piecemeal air attack plan against worthless North Vietnamese targets would never persuade, intimidate or produce meaningful results. But LeMay’s and Sharp’s advice was completely ignored. Johnson and McNamara were more interested in sending little signals like they used in the Washington political arena. They didn’t seem to realize they had a proven and determined adversary who was familiar with their ways,” Baughn continued. “Johnson and McNamara never came close to unleashing the full power of the Air Force and Naval Air,” Baughn said. “And I would never suggest the use of nuclear weapons. After only few weeks when their feeble air effort produced very little, the Whitehouse, DOD and other airpower detractors were quick to complain about airpower’s limitations and ineffectiveness. (These same half-baked complaints about the ineffectiveness of airpower continue today—even after airpower won the war in Kosovo, without any boots on the ground and airpower gave the ground forces a 100 hour cake walk in the first Iraq war). The priority was shifted to the ground war in SVN and the buildup of ground forces accelerated. Not until December 1972, when President Nixon turned the airmen loose, did the Vietnamese feel the full force of what the US Air Force and Navy were capable, which immediately brought the North Vietnamese to the peace table—when nothing else would.”
Baughn said, “While we were fighting our politically imposed timid air war up north, there were endless rumors and reports about graft and corruption in South Vietnam and the shakiness of their military. “The South Vietnamese government,” Baughn says, “was reported, by our buddies fighting in that area, to be a house of straw that could never stand by itself.” Baughn often thought about the time in 1962 when he was stationed at Headquarters Pacific Air Forces at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. General Emmett "Rosie" O'Donnell, who was the commanding general of PACAF, was being briefed on the situation in South Vietnam. The briefing officer was referring to a map of South Vietnam that was all red except for the areas around some of the cities. The red depicted the Viet Cong controlled areas and the white represented the side the Americans were supporting. After a while, General O'Donnell asked, "What the hell are we doing there? It appears to me that the issue has already been decided."
Concerning the combat and bombing restraints, Baughn says, “We had so many that the pilots said, ‘With one more it will be illegal to take off on a combat mission.’ We spent about as much time memorizing restraints as we did on the more important combat items. The North Vietnamese wisely took advantage of the target restrictions, such as placing defenses in some of our prohibited areas. So in addition to all of the restraints, our government provided havens for the enemy defenses from which they could safely shoot at us.”
“Most pilots knew they were placing their lives on the line for practically nothing and doing it with their hands tied behind their backs,” Baughn says. “I think it was a testimonial to the American fighter pilots and WW crews that they never once refused to go on a mission. You can probably count on one hand the number of countries in the world today where the military would accept such a flawed and asinine military policy. The U.S. can be damned proud of the discipline and the dedication of our Navy and Air Force pilots and EWOs who fought over North Vietnam.”