Trees, SAMS, and 121
Wings of Gold! Bars of Brass!
Take my crotch-keys, shove em' up your ass!
Bye, bye, Vietnam!
Ed (Mofak) Cathcart
Young, silver bar, Dick Moller was a fearless fighter pilot. He was quick to volunteer for dangerous missions during his Death Angel tour in Vietnam. Dick was on my wing on some hair-raising flights. Dick would put his ordnance on target with deadly accuracy which impressed me because I hated returning to a target. Dick agreed that a 12 o'clock hit was a miss and he easily adapted to my steep
dive and high speed patterns.
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 200 by 300 meters. The NVA were
by the Grunts who didn't relish a hand to hand, tree to tree engagement. We carried the much requested load of two 2,000 LB bombs with 3 ft. daisy-cutter fuzes along with 8 zuni rockets and 440 rounds of 20 MM per Crusader. The Marines were hunkered down about 200 meters away which demanded our utmost accuracy. "We'll split this target into four equal sections." I briefed Dick. "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 fuze detonated the bomb three feet above the ground and destroyed the trees in the first segment. Dash Two leveled all trees to the right of my drop. Our next two runs completely cleared the rest of the 200 foot high jungle area. Dick matched me bomb for bomb! 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 a routine, one pointer, ordnance delivery.
The most exciting mission I had with Dick was a Scramble against a Sam site just North of the DMZ. Dick and I had the suppression Hot Pad. Each F-8E had 16 Zuni rockets loaded in one 4-shot pod on each wing and four 2-shot launchers on the fuselage rails along with 440 rounds of 20mm. The afternoon
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! DFC!" We raced to the birds we had pre-flighted upon assuming the Hot Pad. Caulkins and Russeth had us started and taxiing within moments. Five minutes after the launch order we were airborne to the South. We radioed while in a climbing right turn. "Condole, Wagecut twelve, two Crusaders, mission number twelve, airborne DaNang zero eight." Dick was joined up within 90 degrees even though he hated those tight turns over the PX.
We flew North at maximum speed to conserve daylight. We needed visibility at the DMZ. A SAM target had not been expected so we briefed how to 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 location is 360 degrees about six miles from my position. The Sam
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 a heading to
the SAM site by pulling the Birddog's nose up and launching a WP rocket in the direction we were to fly. We flew North until we spotted the large bend in the river. 200 meters to the Northeast we saw two
cleared areas built up like SAM launching positions.
"Dash two," I said, "We'll run a left hand pattern at 10000 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 fire! Use your guns from the start of your run! Pull out left! Wagon Wheel! Roll in further around the circle on each run." At 6500 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 take fire on his dive.
His Zunis impacted the center of the target. I said, "Perfect hit, two! One in hot!" I was in again as two pulled off. I booted the rudders and porpoised the aircraft while hosing down the target area. I fired
the right wing pod of zunis and called off . Tracers were passing Dash two in his pattern to the roll in point. Darkness had set in, but the residual fires from our hits gave us a mark. We continued making passes, firing the fuselage Zunis two at a time. The bright "Whoosh!" of the fired rockets caused a momentary blindness. When the upper guns were empty, we switched to "Lower" and continued to strafe. Heavy tracer fire came from locations all around the target. It was like a flak trap. Steady flames began rising from the target. We expended the last zunis and called pulling off south. We sped past the Covey FAC who was still anchored six clicks away. 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 shit.
Dick and I were fortunate. The AAA was the heaviest I had experienced. Maybe our high speeds and steep dive angles had confounded the gunners. I was grateful for having Dick as my wingman on the SAM scramble. Some pilots might have found a downing gripe and I would have been alone.
Dick left the Corps after returning to CONUS. He is now retired from a successful airline career. Thank you Dick Moller for being a brave, dedicated and exceptional pilot in Vietnam.
"Back to back, we face the past"