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.
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.
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.
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.
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.