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Vietnam War: Air Power

The following is a guest post by Andrew Huber, Liaison Specialist for the Veterans History Project (VHP).

Operation Rolling Thunder, a sustained bombing campaign conducted by the United States and the Republic of Vietnam during the Vietnam War, ended in November 1968. Beginning in 1965, the operation involved over 300,000 sorties conducted by the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. By November 1968, American pilots had dropped 864,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam and caused $370 million in damages, though the operation was ultimately determined to be a strategic failure.

Rolling Thunder was far from the only major aerial operation of the Vietnam War. Thousands of United States military personnel participated in and contributed to aerial operations, including Operation Bolo, Linebacker I and II, Ranch Hand, Arc Light and others. Many of those personnel—pilots, navigators and support crew—have shared their stories with the Veterans History Project.

Miguel Encinas in front of an F-105 Thunderchief in Vietnam. Miguel Encinas Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/34287.

Miguel Encinias in front of an F-105 Thunderchief in Vietnam. Miguel Encinias collection, Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/34287.

The very first American troops in Vietnam were not combatants; they were advisors to the South Vietnamese military. One of these advisors was Miguel Encinias, a pilot who had flown combat missions in WWII and Korea. During the course of his duties, Encinias was approached by a South Vietnamese official who asked him to take him for a flight in a light aircraft. Encinias shared during his VHP interview,

He asked me to fly down swamps and the delta at ground level. He was sitting in the back with a shotgun shooting at Viet Cong.

Encinias said the next time he saw that man, it was in a photograph in Life Magazine. That man was none other than General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, and the photograph of him executing a North Vietnamese prisoner became one of the most iconic and controversial images of the Vietnam War.

The view from Lewis Chesley’s cockpit. Paul Lew Chesley collection, Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/27118.

The view from Lewis Chesley’s cockpit. Paul Lew Chesley collection, Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/27118.

During Operation Rolling Thunder, North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile batteries (SAMs) were a serious threat to United States and South Vietnamese pilots. To combat this, the U.S. Air Force created the “Wild Weasels,” groups of pilots who would purposefully allow the SAM sites to spot them so that they could then deploy radar seeking missiles to destroy the missile sites. Wild Weasels had one of the most dangerous, if not the most dangerous, jobs in all of Vietnam. In the words of Vietnam veteran Lewis “Cool Bear” Chesley,

The Air Force realized at the early days the Weasels had a hundred percent attrition, and asking people to volunteer for a suicide mission was not well welcomed. I went, recognizing at that point nobody had ever finished a tour. Without exception, you’d been shot down as a Weasel.

In his VHP interview, Chesley also speaks about being ambushed by 8 MiG fighters and how he managed to escape.

Herbert Metoyer in the cockpit of his helicopter. Herbert R. Metoyer, Jr. collection, Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/58363.

Herbert Metoyer in the cockpit of his helicopter. Herbert R. Metoyer, Jr. collection, Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/58363.

Not all pilots flew fixed-wing aircraft. The Vietnam War was the first time helicopters had been used to transport large numbers of ground troops to combat zones. The Bell UH-1 “Huey” series of helicopters were ubiquitous in the war, and were used for numerous roles in addition to troop transport, including medevac and offensive strikes. Herbert Metoyer overcame racial prejudice in the Army to earn his pilot’s wings and flew a Huey gunship in Vietnam and Thailand. In his VHP interview, he also speaks about a tense mission to pick up a cargo load from the jungle while under heavy fire.

A photograph of two of Fred Gosnell’s enlisted men resupplying an aircraft. Fred Gosnell, Jr. collection, Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/51998.

A photograph of two of Fred Gosnell’s enlisted men resupplying an aircraft. Fred Gosnell, Jr. collection, Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/51998.

Of course none of these pilots could fly at all without a dedicated ground crew to repair, refuel and reload their aircraft. For every one pilot in Vietnam, there were dozens of support staff, from mechanics to weather specialists. As a Chief Master Sergeant in the Air Force, Fred Gosnell oversaw the enlisted operations of his airbase in Bien Hoa, Vietnam. He ensured that all the aircraft got the supplies and maintenance they needed, and was the voice of his enlisted men when speaking to command staff. Fred Gosnell donated to VHP a large collection of photos from his time in Vietnam, which provides a fascinating look at life in the 510th TAC Fighter Squadron.

No matter their roles, it is undeniable that air power played a huge role in the Vietnam War. In addition to the stories highlighted here, the Veterans History Project has hundreds of collections featuring Vietnam veterans in aviation roles. We encourage you to search our archives at www.loc.gov/vets to find out more about these veterans, and to submit your own story if you served in Vietnam or during any other war or conflict in the United States military.

Connect with VHP on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/vetshistoryproject.

 

8 Comments

  1. Karen Husted
    November 16, 2016 at 10:51 am

    Thanks for some filler on the most hideous undertaking of that era of the United States’ imperialist ambitions masquerading as bringing Democracy to the heathens.

  2. Karen Husted
    November 16, 2016 at 10:59 am

    Yes…. ”The very first American troops in Vietnam were not combatants; they were advisors to the South Vietnamese military. One of these advisors was Miguel Encinias, a pilot who had flown combat missions in WWII and Korea. During the course of his duties, Encinias was approached by a South Vietnamese official who asked him to take him for a flight in a light aircraft. Encinias shared during his VHP interview,

    He asked me to fly down swamps and the delta at ground level. He was sitting in the back with a shotgun shooting at Viet Cong.

    Encinias said the next time he saw that man, it was in a photograph in Life Magazine. That man was none other than General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, and the photograph of him executing a North Vietnamese prisoner became one of the most iconic and controversial images of the Vietnam War.”

    is advising. A monster picking off peasants from a low flying aircraft is advisory. And war is peace, and not a crime.
    Gee whiz, were you constrained in your story?

  3. Lisa Taylor
    November 16, 2016 at 12:11 pm

    Thank you for your comments. The Library of Congress does not verify the accuracy of the accounts described by participants in the Veterans History Project. Individual stories are voluntarily submitted to the Veterans History Project and are placed in the Library’s permanent collections as received. These histories are the personal recollections and perspectives of participating individuals and are not intended as a substitute for an official record of the federal government or of military service.

  4. James McNeill
    November 16, 2016 at 4:01 pm

    Top photograph, the aircraft in the background is not an F-4 Phantom, it’s an F-105 Thunderchief.

  5. Andrew Huber
    November 17, 2016 at 8:19 am

    James,

    You are absolutely correct, that is an F-105 in the photo. Thank you for pointing that out.

  6. Jon Holmes
    November 23, 2016 at 1:19 pm

    Actually, the first “American” casualties were CIA pilots James McGovern and Walter Buford, shot down while parachuting howitzer shells into Dien Bien Phu on the day before the French surrender. The “first American troops” were with the OSS during World War II or serving with the French Foreign Legion. Or you could count from June 1861, when the paddle steamer sloop USS Saginaw under John Schenck bombarded Qui Nohn in the middle of the French invasion of Vietnam.

  7. Jeremy Taylor
    July 23, 2017 at 4:01 pm

    Operation Rolling Thunder was a March 1965 to 1 November 1968 air war that rates a full chapter in American history… the Aviators who carried the war to the heartland of a heartless enemy 50 years ago played vital roles in supporting the incredibly ill-advised policies of the Johnson Administration… the courageous service of the Rolling Thunder warriors–Air Force, Navy and Marine — especially the several hundreds of those who spent as many as 8 years undergoing brutal torture at the hands of Cat, Bug, Pig Eye, et.al., in Hanoi Hilton–should never be forgotten. Hundreds of others are still missing… The Nation’s library must do better in recording the “Vietnam air war” called Operation Rolling Thunder than is the current case… for some of what you are missing try this website: http://www.rememberrollingthunder.com

  8. Andrew Huber
    July 24, 2017 at 10:05 am

    Jeremy,

    Thank you for your heartfelt comment. We would absolutely love to have more Rolling thunder vets share their stories with us so that we can have a more complete history of the air war in Vietnam.

    Would you consider allowing us here at the Veterans History Project to write a guest post on your website asking for more Rolling thunder vets to share their stories with us so that we can have a greater knowledge base and fill in some of the gaps you mentioned?

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