Chapter Eighteen: The Vietnam War

The next day after discussing the war in Vietnam with Clara, Grandpa Gordon made a call on his old friend and commander Brigadier General Frank Miller. Miller looked up when Grandpa Gordon was introduced by his assistant lieutenant James Mosby. After they exchanged salutes, Gen. Miller stood up and walked over to him and they shook hands.

“How’s the family doing and don’t you have a son now as well?”, the General asked showing genuine interest.

“Thank you for asking sir”, Grandpa Gordon replied. ” Yes, I now have a two-year old son and everyone is doing very well.” The General proceeded to sit down and indicated for Grandpa Gordon to take a seat.

The General asked further, “So, what’s on your mind as if I didn’t already know? By the way, aren’t you getting a little old to be running off to war?”

Grandpa Gordon replied, “I can’t explain it, and my wife didn’t entirely understand it either, but it is something I feel compelled to do. Besides I still have some fuel left in the old tank.”

General Miller said kindly, “I know you do, Son. I have been following your work in the gunnery school, and I want you to know that you’re doing an exemplary job as the CO there. The school is regarded by many to be the best aviation school not only in the US military but in the world as well, and I wholeheartedly agree with that analysis. I have also heard of your exploits in the air as well. You routinely shame our younger pilots in dog fights and in maneuvers. My concern is, aren’t you pushing it a little? Nobody can beat the clock.”

“I appreciate your concern and candor, sir. Once I complete this one more tour of duty, I will hang up my combat flying wings and maybe just try flying small single engine planes like the new Cessna 150 that I have been hearing about”, Grandpa Gordon reassured.

General Miller continued, “I know your heart is set on going, so I won’t stand in your way. I will authorize your temporary transfer to the 7th Air Force. I only want you to volunteer for one 12-month tour of duty at a time. I hear that this war is not going to be pretty. I fear that it will be our first loss because as happened in the Korean War, the politicians are running the show. And as you and I both know that is never a good thing. I also fear that this war is going to be a career ender for a lot of commanding officers. I hope these are just the idle musings of an old man who has seen too much death and bloodshed. One more thing before you go, I know this is a silly question, who do you have lined up to take over for you while you are overseas?”

Grandpa Gordon replied, “Lt. Colonel Peter James, sir. He is my senior instructor and will make a perfect replacement for me. I have been grooming him for some time now, and he will carry on where I have left off.”

General Miller exclaimed, “Excellent, I wouldn’t expect anything less from you Colonel Anderson. Good luck and God speed.” The General shook Grandpa Gordon’s hand one more time.

“By the way, there will be a new wing, the 474th Tactical Fighter Wing coming to Nellis soon and there are rumors already floating around about it. So keep this in mind when you are overseas fighting in another damn war”, General Miller finally added.

I am sure that my readers know a thing or two about the Vietnam War, but for those who are less in the know, I will briefly discuss how we got started in it. I will not spend as much time discussing this war as I did the Korean War mainly because Grandpa Gordon would only do one tour of duty before he became disenchanted with the war and besides, his services were called upon back at Nellis.

He did, however, score two unofficial kills during his brief stint in Da Nang. While there were three MiG-17s shot down that eventful day, the actual facts are still somewhat clouded even now. So I will present an entirely plausible alternate history of the event that will include my fictional hero. Plausible because while he was there for his twelve month tour, he was the most experienced fighter pilot with the most kills. He subsequently was heads and tails above the rest of the pilots stationed overseas. Most of the early pilots stationed there had never even been in a dog fight, while Grandpa Gordon had been in hundreds of dogfights both real and practice against some of the best pilots in the world at the Nellis AFB. So even though he was getting a little old to be flying fighter jets, he was still at the top of his game and would be more than capable of holding his own against the best pilots from any airforce in the world. So now that I have re-established his flying creds, let’s get back to the origins of the war.

“The struggle for control of Vietnam, which had been a French colony since 1887, lasted for three decades. Both the United States and the Soviet Union regarded the conflict not as a civil war between North and South Vietnam but as a significant engagement of the Cold War in a strategic region. U.S. leaders endorsed the domino theory, which held that if South Vietnam fell to the Communists, other nations in the region, such as Laos and Cambodia, would also fall. The fight between the United States and South Vietnam on one hand and North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front, strongly backed by the Soviet Union and mainland China. After North Vietnamese torpedo boats alledgedly attacked the U.S.S. Maddox and U.S.S. Turner Joy in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 5, 1964, President Johnson ordered the retaliatory bombing of military targets in North Vietnam. The Vietnam War was a long, costly, and divisive conflict that pitted the communist government of North Vietnam against South Vietnam and its principal ally, the United States. The conflict was intensified by the ongoing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. More than 3 million people, including over 58,000 Americans, were killed in the Vietnam War, and more than half of the dead were Vietnamese civilians. Opposition to the war in the United States bitterly divided Americans, even after President Richard Nixon ordered the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 1973. Communist forces ended the war by seizing control of South Vietnam in 1975, and the country was unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam the following year.”

Later that day after he received his orders, Papa Gordon went home and packed his two trusty old ruck sacks that had seen service in two previous wars. He kissed and tucked his children into bed and made tender love to his worried wife Clara. Afterwards they fell asleep in each others arms.

They next day he woke up early, kissed Clara one more time before grabbing a cup of coffee on the way out the door. He had already loaded his bags into his jeep the night before so he made little noise as he left the house. Grandpa Gordon drove to the base and by 0800 he was on a transport plane winging its way across the Pacific Ocean to the Da Nang Air Base located in South Vietnam.

Da Nang Air Base

Since Grandpa Gordon was going to basically spend the next twelve months of his life at the base, I will devote a little time describing it.

“Da Nang Air Base was the most northerly major air base in the Republic of Vietnam. The base was located in the northeast coastal area, 85 miles (137 km) south of the Demilitarized Zone where the 17th parallel separated the two Vietnams.

The base was one of the four air bases inherited from the French at the conclusion of the First Indochina War on the formation of the Air Department, Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces on 1 July 1955. At the time of its creation, however Tourane Air Base, as Da Nang AB was called at the time, was devoid of any military aircraft. The air base was established in November 1957 as Air Force Support Base 4, providing logistics support for that remote part of the country 400 miles (644 km) north of Saigon.

Situated on flat, sandy ground on the south side of the major port city of Da Nang (formerly Tourane), the area was ideal for an airfield, having unobstructed approaches to its north/south runways. Once little more than a provincial airfield, the base expanded to 2350 acres (95 1 hectares) with two 10.000 ft (3048 m) asphalt runways with concrete touchdown pads, parallel taxiways, and a heliport. It was under the control of the VNAFs 41st Wing, which was established there on January 1, 1964 as the major Vietnamese air element in I Corps.

The base became a joint operating airfield when U.S. Forces came to the aid of the South Vietnamese. As the number of VNAF units at Da Nang continued to increase, so did those of the USAF and U.S. Marine air units swelled the capacity of the base beyond its limits. Covered and open aircraft revetments were constructed on concrete and asphalt parking aprons. In addition to these permanent assigned combat units, the airfield was an on-and off-loading port for the huge C-141s, C-5s, and contract commercial flights of the Military Airlift Command, as well as a civil terminal for the various domestic airlines.

Da Nang became the world’s busiest airport in the single runway category. In the mid-1960s, 1,500 landings and takeoffs were recorded on peak days, besides having two extra traffic patterns for helicopters at the edge of the airstrip. When a parallel runway was added in 1966, Da Nang rivaled Tan Son Nhut as the world’s busiest airport. By 1968 an average month saw the number of takeoffs and landings of fixed-wing aircraft exceeding 55,000. With helicopter activities added, the figure approached 67,000. During the winter monsoon at least 4500 of these landings were normally ground-controlled approaches.

For the air war over North Vietnam, Da Nang was considered the most suitable diversionary airfield in case of emergency. Landings of this nature became commonplace for Thailand-based USAF fighter bombers, reconnaissance aircraft, strike aircraft from the Navy aircraft carriers stationed in the South China Sea, and damaged aircraft of all air units stationed throughout South Vietnam.”

While in Da Nang, Grandpa Gordon spent most of his time coordinating missions for bombing and air support with the fighter wings. He occasionally flew on a few flights when their flight wing was short due to illness or injuries. He was actually happy to get up in the air on those occasions mainly because most of his time was spent being a desk jocky. He came to suspect that part of this was due to his boss Brigadier General Miller. It was his way of looking out for his old friend. The general worried about him and did not want to see his friend shot down over some nameless rice paddy. But trying to contain Grandpa Gordon was like trying to rope a tornado, it was just wasn’t possible.

What transpired next is my alternate interpretation of an actual event. My way of thinking is that the North Vietnamese would rather document two of their planes being shot down by friendly fire than to give credit to the US air force. During the early stages of the war we were simply too busy playing nice to really enforce our will. We were just trying to contain things and keep the war from spreading like it did in the Korean War. In actuality, we never declared war on North Vietnam.

“On April 4, 1965, numerous air strikes went into North Vietnam. The setback occurred when North Vietnamese MiG-17s popped out of heavy clouds and shot down two Air Force F-105 Thunderchiefs piloted by Capt. James A. Magnusson and Maj. Frank E. Bennett.

Both F-105 pilots lost their lives. Both were members of the 354th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 355th Tactical Fighter Wing, flying from Korat Air Base, Thailand, operating that day as “Zinc flight.” Magnusson, at the controls of F-105D 59-1764, apparently was killed almost immediately by cannon fire that struck his cockpit. Bennett, however, who was piloting F-105D 59-1754, should have survived. He nursed his crippled aircraft out to the Gulf of Tonkin and ejected. For a moment, he appeared to be safe on the surface of the Gulf, ready to be picked up. But somehow Bennett but tangled in his parachute and drowned before help could reach him.

It was a terrible day for U.S air power. North Vietnamese gunfire also downed an A-1H Skyraider (its bureau number appears in no records), killing Capt. Walter Draeger. Another F-105 pilot, Capt. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris, at the controls of aircraft 62-4217 of the 44th Tactical Fighter Squadron, the “Vampires,” of the 18th Tactical Fighter Wing at Korat was shot down, survived, and became one of the earliest American prisoners of war. He pioneered the “tap code” later used by prisoners to communicate from one North Vietnamese cell to another.

Because there were certain things the outside world did not know that day, the air battle was reported as a stunning defeat for the United States. Americans simply were not accustomed to coming out second best in fighter-versus-fighter combat. Press reports focused on the dramatic loss of the two F-105s to MiGs.

Many years later, when North Vietnam’s records became available, it became known that the North Vietnamese lost three MiG-17s that day. It appears that the North Vietnamese actually shot down two of their own MiGs with their own ground fire – possibly the same two MiGs that bagged the F-105s.

Neither side has ever confirmed the circumstances of the loss of the third MiG listed as a casualty in Hanoi’s records. The press did not immediately report a dogfight that day, between F-100 Super Sabre pilot Kilgus – assigned to escort the F-105s – and a MiG-17. Kilgus was certain he knew what happened, but it never became part of the record.”

What I propose is that my ficitional hero, Colonel Gordon Anderson was also flying as high support on that day. What was reported as friendly fire by the North Vietnamese was in actuality two kills by the three time ace pilot. It was covered up by North Vietnam and the US let it happen.

I stated earlier, Grand[a Gordon was the best fighter pilot in Vietnam at the beginning of the war, bar none. When he saw Kilgus, the F-100 Super Sabre Pilot get in trouble, he swooped down and just totally annihilated the two MiG-17s. They never knew what hit them. You have to remember that Grandpa Gordon spent two years flying with the Thunderbirds, and he could do things with a fighter jet that most pilots could only dream of doing. Those two MiG pilots were totally out classed that day. If it had not been for his quick thinking and actions. Kilgus would have most likely been shot down and killed as well.

When he got back to base, instead of being congratulated and having two kills painted on his plane, it was all covered up and he never received credit for the kills. There were four people that knew the truth, and two of them were dead, and the other two were sworn to secrecy. Eventually, General Miller found out about the debacle that took place and had an addendum placed on Grandpa Gordon’s record. Many years later he received a posthumous citation for the two kills making him the only fighter pilot to record kills in three consecutive wars (Note this is a fictional account with a fictional hero).

As General Miller predicted, Grandpa Gordon would only serve one tour of duty in the Vietnam War. He had every intention of signing up for a second tour of duty but the events surrounding that day really left a sour taste in his mouth. The rest of his tour went on without a hitch and when the end of his twelve-month tour rolled around on March 1966, he was ready to go home. Besides, he dearly missed his wife Clara and his two children, Christine and “Sam”. He had been calling him Samuel all this time, well maybe he should cut the little guy some slack and call him by his preferred name.

Over the last twelve months he had a lot of time to reflect on his wife’s hysterectomy and how he was treating his son. Even though he knew it was wrong, every time he had looked at or held him he still could not get those thoughts out of his head. He was dearly hoping that these months spent overseas had deadened the pain he felt. He trully wanted to feel differently and somewhere inside of him he knew that he would do so in time. He just hoped it wouldn’t be too late for him and his son.

Just hours before Grandpa Gordon was to hop on his transport plane back to Nellis, he was given the bad news. His boss, General Miller had suffered a major heart attack and was in the ICU at the Southern Nevada Memorial Hospital. There was still no VA hospital in Las Vegas at this time and it wouldn’t come into existence until 1971.

St. Rose Dominican Hospital would house Southern Nevada’s first VA presence as a satellite of the Reno VA Medical Center. In 1972, Veteran care would increase in Southern Nevada when the first Outpatient Clinic was opened in Henderson.

When he boarded the plane there was still little news about the General’s prognosis, just that his condition was critical. He was also notified that he was going to fill in temporarily for General Miller while he was convalescing. This transfer of command for the 4525th Fighter Weapons Wing was to take place as soon as he arrived back at the base later that night. He was still in shock as the news had totally caught Grandpa Gordon off guard. He couldn’t believe that his boss was really sick as he had always been the epitome of health.