It was 49 years ago today, but I remember it like yesterday, February 7,1968. I was a 27 year-old fighter pilot on a mission over North Vietnam. I was part of a small unit that flew two-seat F-100 jet fighter aircraft as Forward Air Controllers (FACs) over the North. Our mission was to search for heavily-camouflaged targets, Surface to Air Missile (SAM) sites, truck parks, ammunition and POL storage, convoys, etc. When we found a target, we called in bomb-laden fighters and marked the targets by firing smoke rockets. It was a dangerous mission requiring us to fly at low level constantly exposed to anti-aircraft fire and in the SAM vulnerability envelopes. Our losses were high, 28% of the pilots shot down, some twice, several POWs and KIAs, some still missing.
On this day we took off from Phu Cat Airbase before dawn, headed north and when contacting the controlling agency, were asked to fly over the Lang Vei Special Forces Camp west of Khe Sanh. Lang Vei was supposed to provide security on the western approach to Khe Sanh in northern South Vietnam. Khe Sanh was under siege by two-three division-sized forces of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) belying the fact that "there is light at the end of the tunnel." This was a little more than a week after the launch of the TET Offensive across Vietnam and every major city was under attack as well as most U.S. bases and outposts. The country was burning. Radio contact had been lost with Lang Vei.
After checking to assure no B-52 strikes were scheduled, we descended to very low level and reported, "It looks like a tornado has struck. The perimeter is breached everywhere, nothing moving, many dead bodies, and TANKS IN THE WIRE!" No one believed us when we gave our intelligence report on the radio and after landing. "There ain't no NVA tanks in South Vietnam," was the reaction - so, we showed our handheld 35mm Nikon photos - "Oh" was the reply - I am still reminded of how good were the NVA at camouflage - we were really good at locating camouflaged targets, but two-three division-sized targets and nothing stirred, no dust, no movement, no nothing, "all quiet on the western front." Khe Sanh was an amazing battle, one of many in the tragedy that was Vietnam.
As I look back from my retired vantage after almost 40 years in uniform, some things become obvious: in war what seems like a good idea at the time almost never is. Time after time, our nation seems to wander into conflicts which when viewed from a historical standpoint appear simply stupid, or at the very least, avoidable.
The courage of our young men, and now women, to do dangerous things is never in short supply. What we seem to lack is leadership that absorbs lessons learned from mistakes made. Despite being the most powerful nation on earth with the world's most capable military, I look at our track record in wars during my lifetime: We won one (WWII), lost one (Vietnam), and tied four (Korea, where we still are 67 years later; Desert Storm; Afghanistan and Iraq - being gracious to call the last three ties). That kind of record gets an NFL coach fired.
When I travel to Washington D.C. and visit the Vietnam Wall with the names of 58,000+ young Americans including many classmates, squadron mates and friends, including my best friend, I can do little more than shake my head. I can only hope the whispers of my friends reach the Hill at night.
There are things worth fighting for, but we must understand what they are before we do. We owe it to our nation and our children.
Don Shepperd TCFR, Tucson
The above story is contained on page 215 in my book, "Bury us Upside Down - The Misty Pilots and the Secret Battle for the Ho Chi Minh Trail" - the book was bought by Random House who saw fit to submit it for consideration for a Pulitzer (considered, not nominated). The book was on the Air Force Chief of Staff's recommended reading list for several years and has become a Vietnam air war classic. It is available on Amazon.com and here is a short podcast I put together on the book from my Tucson home: