MCARA Sea Stories
SAY NAY - HAWKS AWAY!
As most now know the air war over North Vietnam marked the first time U.S. tactical aircraft were exposed to an integrated air defense environment centered around surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) provided by the Russians. Understandably, when VMCJ-1 deployed its EF-10B Electronic Warfare aircraft to Danang AB on the Northeast coast of then South Vietnam in the Spring of 1965 it followed that they would soon be tasked to help fend off the NVN SAMs. But what VMCJ-1 and the other squadrons based at Danang didn’t bargain for was they would have to deal with a friendly SAM threat when departing and returning to their home airfield. Say what??
It seems that when the decision was made to build up Danang to support expanded combat operations our erstwhile intelligence types decided that the NVN air force had a few Russian designed light bombers that posed a threat, not to mention that Danang was in range of Chinese aircraft based on Hainan Island across the Gulf of Tonkin. But not to worry, the Marine Corps would take care of this potential distraction by deploying the 1st LAAM battalion to Danang equipped with sophisticated HAWK surface-to-air missiles. So it was that a HAWK battery with a pair of missile launchers and associated target acquisition radar and control van were actually emplaced on the airfield. This “friendly” SAM site was located about 200 yards behind the VMCJ-1 flight line which was located on the northern end of the new parallel runway under construction in 1965.
As all the aviators based at Danang soon learned the protection afforded by the HAWKs came with a price; namely having to routinely modify their approaches into Danang to stay within daily published air corridors that were deemed “safe” from HAWK intercepts… if one were to believe them! Fact is keeping up with the changing HAWK corridors was more than a nuisance to aircrews returning from combat missions often with low fuel states in pee-poor weather. All of us had heard about the air defender vow to “shootum down and sortum out on the ground”!!
Now bear in mind that the air operations environment at Danang even with a single runway in 1965-66 ranked it among the busiest airports in the world and later with the dual runway peaked at about 55,000 takeoffs and landings a day! Clearly it was a “target rich” environment if one were to look at it from the bad guys perspective.
With that background let us jump along to a rare clear sunny day in December 1965 when I was outside our line shack talking to a couple of our maintainers and my pilot after returning from a mission up north. Suddenly, we heard a boom from behind us and then saw a missile seemingly just over our heads flying out over the bay in front of us that normally has at least a couple of aircraft on approach. Then it blows up and thankfully still no friendly or enemy aircraft or pieces thereof were in sight. Needless to say that was followed by a few “what the XXXX over” comments as we tried to process what had happened. Not 2 minutes later another boom and a second HAWK missile flies out over the bay and like the first explodes. About that time we had to catch our shuttle back to the MAG-11 compound about a mile away to do our post mission report and when we arrived everyone was talking about the HAWK launch, but no one had an answer as to why. In fact it was never officially explained. But, not to worry we lieutenants soon came up with a plausible theory that has stood the test of time I think. After all this is my story and I am sticking to it!
We believe that Ex-Pfc Wintergreen or maybe Lcpl Smuckatello was sent over to the clean up the control van and in the process of wiping dust off the gauges and switches managed to throw a launch switch that was supposed to be guarded. Off goes the missile and the duty sergeant controller manages to keep from crapping in his pants and dutifully hits the detonate button. Just about a minute later the battery officer comes running in yelling what the bleep is going on. So the guilty one replies “sir, I was just wiping dust off this switch here which is not supposed to do anything and … and yes oh yes… boom goes another missile downrange!! Remember Murphy was an optimist!!
No official word was ever put out to explain the incident, and we scanned the Stars and Stripes for several days after and found no mention of it, obviously a cover-up! However, within a couple of days the offending HAWK launcher was moved from the airfield into the hills and as best I recall the daily HAWK corridors were dismissed with. My take is that there was an immediate pow-wow between the USAF and Marine air commanders at Danang and for the first and likely last time in the history of the Vietnam War a consensus was reached between the two parties that something drastic had to be done in the best interests of all winged warriors! I am sure the USAF pointed out it had a squadron of F-102 interceptors at Danang which had no real combat role other than serving as targets for Viet Cong attackers and were insulted by the deployment of the HAWKs to begin with. I gather at that point even the senior leadership grasped what the snuffy’s already knew… it was VC zapper squads and mortars that were the real threat as evidenced by a couple of damaging attacks that had taken out several aircraft and created hate and discontent all around the base. (Please note that this was a year or so before the inception of attacks by volleys of 100 or so 122 and 140 MM rockets that turned Danang into “Rocket City” wounding many and doing untold damage to aircraft and buildings. The crowning moment of these attacks were hitting the bomb dump which nearly leveled the place in 1969.)
As an epilogue… credit should be given to the HAWKsters as unlike most of us they can truly claim their mission was a clear success as there was no enemy aircraft attacks against Danang on their watch. However, right out of Catch 22 the base did suffer damage from bombs dropped by a USAF F-4D Phantom in early 1973 supposely due to the aircrew inadvertently dialing their home base coordinates into their LORAN C bombing computer. Shades of Capt. Yousarrian!!!