VO-67 No Tailhook but a Great Naval Aviation Tale
This is a previously-hidden true-story about the Navy VP (Patrol Aviation) community. A Navy P2V squadron, VO-67, recently received a PUC (Presidential Unit Citation), 40 years after their heroic deeds. Read on . . .
OBSERVATION SQUADRON SIXTY-SEVEN (VO-67) by Larry W. Gire
At the height of the Vietnam War, a secret Navy 12-plane squadron arrived at the Nakhon Phanom Air Commando base in Thailand. The squadron aircraft were old, retired from service, P2V-5F anti-submarine patrol planes that had been considerably modified into armed, jungle green, gun ships. Of course, every would-be comic that saw them at Nakhon Phanom asked, what’s the Navy going to do, hunt for subs in the Mekong River?
The North Vietnamese were moving massive amounts of munitions by truck and troops down the Ho Chi Minh Trail undetected in mid-1966. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara was opposed to attacking North Vietnam military targets and infrastructure and to stopping the movement of war materials into North Vietnam by mining their harbors as advocated by the military. In the fall of 1966, he ordered the military to submit a proposed plan for an anti-infiltration system designed to stop or greatly reduce the flow of men and war material from North Vietnam into South Vietnam.
The quickest solution available was to modify and employ the Navy's sonobuoy (a listening device used to detect submarines underwater). Implanting sonobuoys in the jungle canopy could detect the movement of NVA trucks and troops. The converted sonobuoys, dubbed 'Acoubuoys', were camouflaged jungle green and parachuted into the jungle, where they snagged in the top jungle canopy, and hung unseen high off the ground. Sensitive microphones that replaced the hydrophones could pick up the sound of truck and troop movement below.
The Navy had a number of older anti-submarine aircraft in its inventory with sonobuoy racks installed and capable of delivering the modified listening devices. The Navy determined that available P2V-5Fs would be the quickest and the best delivery platform to modify for implanting the modified sonobuoys along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
By this stage of the war the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had heavily fortified the trail with highly mobile ZPU-23mm, 37mm, and some radar controlled 57mm guns. Survivability of the slow, lumbering P2V-5F in this environment was questionable. But the need was urgent; our troops in South Vietnam were taking heavy casualties. The Defense Department decided to deploy the P2V-5Fs to provide an interim capability until Air Force F-4 jets could be modified to take over the task.
The initial overhaul was done in three phases at the Martin Aircraft Company in Baltimore, MD. This overhaul and replacement of electronics included installing new self-sealing bladder fuel tanks (capable of holding 2800 gallons of fuel and sustaining small arms and shrapnel hits), and painting the aircraft a flat, jungle green. After this modification, the aircraft were re-designated as an OP-2E.
Modifications to the aircraft continued well into the deployment and operational phase of the squadron. Much of the modification work was done by the VO-67 squadron maintenance organization. The APS-20E submarine search radar, with its large radar dome, and the MAD gear and boom (used to magnetically detect submerged submarines) were removed. Wingtip tanks were removed and extensive armor plating was added, primarily in the bombardier's nose station, cockpit, flight deck, and the aft gunner's stations to protect the crews. Two under wing SUU-11 six-barreled mini guns were installed. A 'Chaff' dispenser was added aft where the MAD boom had protruded. LORAN C, a new version of the Long Range Aide to Navigation, replaced the old LORAN system used by the Navy at that time, and was used to drop sensors during the monsoon season. Internal mounts for M-60 machine guns were installed at both hatches in the after station of the OP-2E aircraft. These hand-held 7.62mm guns fired 550 rounds.
To facilitate egress for the crew forward of the wing beam to bail out, the deck hatch to the nose gear tunnel was enlarged. Threat-detection electronics and terrain-clearance radar were added. Bomb bay racks were fabricated to carry additional Acoubuoys. A Norden bomb sight was installed in the Plexiglas nose of the OP-2E. This was the result of the added mission of implanting the Air-delivered Seismic Detection Sensor (ADSID) that presented a problem that the old P2V aircraft was not equipped to handle. The addition of the J-34s to the P2V-5Fs had reduced the under-wing launch stubs from 16 to 8 stations. VO-67 overcame this shortage of stations by using MER weapon racks that could hold three ADSIDS on each of these eight stations. However, the real problem was the lack of an accurate delivery system for the ADSIDs. Navy patrol plane pilots dropped sonobuoys and torpedoes at low altitude by sight or timing and needed an accurate means of dropping the ADSID from 2500 feet or higher.
The Norden bomb sight had been used extensively in WW-II and had been installed in the Navy's PB4Y-2 aircraft. VO-67 requested Norden bomb sights and after demonstrating their accuracy at Eglin AFB, Pentagon officials agreed that the Norden bomb sight was what was needed and had the Rock Island Arsenal overhaul twelve bomb sights (for this they had to locate and recall retired WW-II Norden bomb sight technicians).
An Air Force Norden bomb sight instructor, Lt Col Conrad Brown, was found and sent to Alameda to help train the bombardiers. Lt Col Brown located a battered copy of a WW-II training film on the Norden bomb sight at the Smithsonian Institute. He had it shipped PRIORITY ONE to VO-67 and used it to train the Squadron bombardiers. Lt Col Brown deployed with the squadron to continue training the VO-67 third pilots who developed into qualified bombardiers.
The first flight of three OP-2Es departed Alameda on 6 November 1967 for Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base (NKP) in Thailand led by CAPT Wallace 'Wally' Sharp. The last flight of three OP-2Es arrived at Nakhon Phanom on 15 November 1967. Much credit for the smooth deployment must be given to the Air Force Military Air Transport service for the professional job they did in moving the rest of the squadron.
Eighteen C-141s arrived at Alameda right on schedule. Because of the runway landing-weight limitations at Nakhon Phanom, each C-141 was limited to 45,000 pounds of cargo. One after another they were efficiently loaded and departed with loads ranging from large electronic vans to administrative files. In all, they airlifted 629,021 pounds of VO-67 personnel and cargo to NKP.
The personnel compliment of VO-67 when they arrived at NKP was 1 Captain, 8 Commanders, 3 Commander Selectees, 5 Lieutenant Commanders, 40 junior officers, 23 Chief Petty Officers, 220 rated enlisted personnel, and 14 Airmen. They also had 5 civilian representatives attached to the squadron; 1 from Lockheed, 1 from Hazeltine, 1 from Martin Marietta, and 2 from Sandia Lab.
On arrival at Nakhon Phanom, the VO-67 pilots immediately began flying combat missions with the Air Force FACs (Forward Air Controllers) in the small Cessna O-2A (Nail) aircraft to familiarize themselves with the Ho Chi Minh Trail and enemy gun emplacements. The Air Force FAC pilots helped the newly arrived Navy pilots tremendously. The FAC pilots became a valuable intelligence asset to the VO-67. CAPT Sharp initiated a close working relationship shortly after VO-67's arrival at NKP by inviting the FAC pilots to a party with the VO-67 pilots at the NKP Officer's club. The FACs flew every day and night and kept track, for their own survival and that of the strike aircraft they marked the targets for, of where the North Vietnamese moved their antiaircraft guns. The FACs that had flown the night before provided the latest NVA triple-A firing positions for the following day's VO-67 combat missions.
Close friendships developed among the Air Force FAC and Navy pilots; two of them were highly instrumental in the later rescue of seven VO-67 crew members after their plane was hit by AAA fire and they bailed out over hostile territory. The Air Force O-2A FAC, A-1E, and Navy VO-67 pilots at Nakhon Phanom quickly bonded into a mutual respect support group. Each VO-67 crew was responsible for planning their own assigned missions. They studied the NVA triple-A gun positions and terrain to determine the safest flight path and altitude profile in and out of the target area. Some missions were as simple as diving from 12,000 feet on the sensor implant heading, leveling off at drop altitude, slowing to drop airspeed, laying the sensor string, and climbing back to 12,000 feet and heading home. Drop altitude for the Acoubuoys was always 500 feet. The ADSIDS were dropped from 2,500 feet and later 5,000 feet.
Missions in heavy areas of enemy AAA concentrations required the crews to use terrain masking wherever possible. The high karst outcroppings in some target areas were ideal for this tactic. Some called for jinking dives to sensor implant altitude and numerous heading changes to the target to avoid the anti-aircraft gun emplacements. Acoubuoy drops in heavily defended areas were made by running into the area at tree top level, popping up to 500 feet, laying the sensors, dropping back to the deck and flying the safest route out.
On 11 January 1968, the VO-67 Executive Officer (XO), CDR Dell Olson, was on an Acoubuoy drop mission over the Ho Chi Minh Trail; at 9:57 AM radio contact with his aircraft was lost (the FAC working the mission had also lost visual contact with the OP-2E). Two other OP-2Es were working the trail that morning. They tried to reestablish radio contact with Crew 2. One OP-2E went under the overcast and spent three hours searching the area. There were some karst outcropping in the area but it was mostly dense jungle. The base of the overcast was above the highest terrain in the area so they were able to search the whole area. The jungle was so dense in most places that a plane crashing into it would not leave a discernible entry point and the crash could not be seen from the air. No trace of the Crew 2 aircraft was found by the searching VO-67 aircraft.
On 23 January an Air Force A-1 located a suspected crash site. On 25 January an O-2 from Nakhon Phanom photographed the site. Photo interpretation determined that the wreckage was that of BUNO 131436, Crew 2's aircraft. It was located on the north side of a cliff, 150 feet below the 4,583-foot ridgeline. Due to the hostile environment in the crash site area, it was decided not to insert an Investigation and Recovery team.
On February 17, 1968, CDR Glenn Hayden and his Crew 5 were dropping Acoubuoys over the trail in Laos. He had two F-4 escorts out of DaNang and an O-2A FAC spotter. After coming off his first target run, CDR Hayden reported that they had been hit by small arms fire in the starboard wing but were continuing on with their second assigned target run. During the second run, the fighter escort radioed to the OP-2E that its starboard engine was on fire; CDR Hayden acknowledged and reported that he was aborting the mission and returning to base.
The F-4s climbed through the overcast with the intention of joining the OP-2E on top and escorting him back to base. The last radio transmission they heard from the OP-2E was, 'We're beat up pretty bad .....' The F-4s dropped back down below the overcast and found the burning wreckage of the OP-2E; no parachutes were seen nor were emergency beepers were heard.
Ten days later, VO-67 suffered its third combat loss on 27 February. CDR Paul Milius's OP-2E was shot down while implanting sensors in Laos. The aircraft was flying at 5,000 feet above the jungle tops.
There weren't any 57mm radar controlled guns reported to be in the area of his drop, but if it wasn't that, it had to be the best 37mm gun crew in the world. No flack was spotted before the aircraft was hit, so it almost had to be a direct hit on the first salvo. The aircraft was hit in the radar well area where the old APS -20E radar had been removed. One crewman, PO2 John F. Hartzheim, was killed instantly. The hydraulic and electrical systems were severely damaged and the aircraft immediately filled with acrid smoke and fumes. CDR Milius ordered his crew to bail out. He remained at the controls of the stricken aircraft until the remaining seven crewmen had successfully bailed out.
One O2 FAC pilot, Major Sam Weaver, flew alongside MR-7 as the crew bailed out and kept a plot where each crewman had landed. Another FAC pilot, Major Phil Maywald also came to assist in the rescue. The 'Sandy', A- 1H aircraft, that provided fire protection for downed airmen, and the rescue helicopters, better known as the 'Jolly Greens' and 'Buffs', were soon on the scene. Sandys were from the 602nd Fighter Commando Squadron and helicopters from the 37th Air Rescue Squadron at Nakhon Phanom participated in the rescue along with other Air Rescue Recovery Squadrons from DaNang and Udorn. The FACs vectored the helos to each of the downed crewmen. Since they were in a very hostile area, the helos wasted no time in picking up the crew and getting out of there.
CDR Milius was seen to bail out, but never located and listed as MIA. He was promoted to the Rank of Captain on 1 July 1972. On 26 April 1978, he was officially pronounced 'presumed killed in action' and posthumously awarded the Navy Cross. On 23 November 1996, the Aegis Guided Missile Destroyer Milius (DDG 69) was commissioned in his honor at the Ingalls Shipbuilding, Pascagoula, Mississippi.
On 29 February 1968, two days after MR-7 was shot down, the last one of the 12 fully modified OP-2Es arrived at NKP. With the three losses, VO-67 was now a nine-plane squadron. MR-11 was repainted to MR-7 and the rescued members of Crew 7 continued to fly as a crew.
The North Vietnamese Tet offensive of 1968 was an all-out effort to take the U. S. Marine Base at Khe Shan. On 22 January 1968 VO-67 commenced implanting extensive Acoubuoy sensor fields around the combat base and its approaches to assist in lifting the siege of the Marine stronghold.
The special bomb bay racks to hold additional Acoubuoys in the OP-2E were used for the first time in the close-in support of Khe Shan. These Acoubuoy flights were classic mission profiles of Squadron developed tactics and what they had trained for in California and Florida. The OP-2Es came into the area skimming above the jungle tree tops or rivers, popped up to 500 feet, laid their string of sensors, dropped back down on the deck, and got the hell out of there as fast as the old, lumbering patrol planes would take them!
Estimates of the number of North Vietnamese that took part in the siege of Khe Shan vary, but most agree there were upwards of 20,000 NVA troops supported by tanks and anti-aircraft weapons. The latter accounted for eight U.S. aircraft during January and February. VO-67 flight crews that participated in implanting Acoubuoys in defense of Khe Shan were awarded the Navy Commendation Metal with Combat 'V' for missions that were, '-- of the very highest priority' and for achieving their goals, '-- despite poor weather, rugged terrain and enemy defenses which included surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft guns'.
On May 25 1968, the Chief of Naval Operations set the date for the disestablishment of VO-67 as of 1 July 1968. At that time the mission was to be taken over by the Air Force's 25th Tactical Fighter Squadron.
In June of 1968, the squadron received a message from the Navy disestablishing VO-67. As of 1 July 1968, the squadron no longer existed; personnel were ordered to return to the States for further assignment. The last squadron combat mission implanting sensors was on 25 June 1968. VO-67 lost 25% of its aircraft in combat and 20 crewmen, less than half of what the planners had expected and predicted. This was due to the outstanding airmanship of one of the finest multi-engine squadrons ever assembled.
However, a large part of the credit must be given to the Air Force FAC pilots at NKP and the training and intelligence they provided the VO-67 pilots. They taught the VO-67 pilots the Ho Chi Minh Trail and how to survive in the air spaces over it. The FAC pilots returning from night missions would mark the maps in NKP Intelligence with the location of the AAA guns they saw firing. This knowledge was an invaluable contribution to the survival of the OP-2E missions the next day.
CAPT Sharp became fast friends with Lt Col Palaster, the Commanding Officer of the O-2 FAC Squadron, as did many of the VO-67 pilots. He was so respected that when he was promoted to full Colonel while at Nakhon Phanom, the officers of VO-67 threw him a traditional Navy 'wetting down' party and made him an Honorary Naval Aviator. The FAC pilots flying the little O2 aircraft came from Air Force fighter, attack, and even SAC commands and their daring and courage was respected by all the Air Force, Navy, and Marine pilots in the Vietnam War. The Navy and VO-67 owe a deep debt of gratitude to these brave pilots and good friends.
How many American and South Vietnamese lives were saved by the courage and sacrifices of VO-67 in successfully planting sensors along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and around Khe Shan will never be known. The Air Force reported that truck kills tripled, for a like period, after the sensors were implanted and used to detect and pinpoint targets. Senior Marine officers estimated at casualties at the siege of Khe Shan would have been double that experienced if it had not been for the sensors implanted by the VO-67 Navy crews.
U. S. To Honor Members of Squadron in 'Secret War'
By Chris Vaughn, Star-Telegram Staff Writer
Not many men in the military are eager to join a brand-new unit, where they don't know people, don't know what they'll be doing and don't have a proud unit lineage.
But the Navy assured the men it would be good for their careers. So some men volunteered and a lot more were drafted to join Observation Squadron 67, so named because that was the year it was born.
After a while the men took to calling themselves "the Ghost Squadron" because they felt forgotten, participants in a secret war that neither the U.S. nor the North Vietnamese wanted to acknowledge was being waged next door to Vietnam.
Silenced for decades by their classified missions over Laos, the men finally in recent years began to speak publicly of their war, a decision that would ultimately lead to a rare historic correction by the Navy.
Forty years after the squadron's actions, VO-67 has been awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest decoration for combat valor a unit can receive. Some of the surviving 300 members of that squadron will be on hand for the ceremony in front of the U.S. Navy Memorial.
"It's special after all these years," said John Forsgren, a young sailor who served in the squadron and lives in Arlington. "But it's also bittersweet. How do you get proud of something that you did 40 years ago? There's a bit of a feeling of 'Why didn't they recognize the unit 30 years ago?'"
The Presidential Unit Citation is reserved only for the most valorous combat units, and it's worth noting that far fewer of them were awarded for the Vietnam War than Medals of Honor. A unit receiving the citation is the equivalent of every man receiving a Navy Cross.
Ensign Laura Stegherr said Navy Secretary Donald Winter received "relevant, new and verified" information about the squadron's actions in Laos that warranted the decoration.
VO-67 wasn't really an observation squadron, though they pretended they were. Their unit patch reflected the ruse, showing an airplane sending signals to the ground. In reality, it was the opposite -- the squadron was listening to what was happening on the ground, not interfering.
"It was so secret that not many top people in the Navy knew the squadron existed or what we did," said Ed Landwehr of Fort Worth, a navigator and bombardier on Crew 4.
The idea came from Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who was unhappy with the results of the bombing campaign in North Vietnam and wanted some other way to interdict supplies into South Vietnam. His answer was "Igloo White," the code name for his plan to create an "electronic barrier" at the Demilitarized Zone.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail was largely under triple canopy jungle, hard to detect and busiest at night. Using dropped microphones and seismographic sensors would be a way for the military to gain intelligence on what was moving down the trail, when and how much. Then they could call in air strikes.
"We didn't find out what we would be doing until right before we deployed," said Herb Ganner of Hurst, a navigator and bombardier on Crew 1.
What the pilots and crews had to do sounds simple enough -- take off from an airfield in Thailand, fly a short distance into Laos and drop the camouflaged sensors along the trail. The men flew only in the day, usually every other day, and could expect to be airborne no longer than a couple of hours.
But the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the lifeblood of the war for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, was a very hostile place for air crews, particularly slow-moving, virtually defenseless ones flying at only 500 to 1,000 feet.
"The missions were short-lived, but they were adrenaline-pumped," Ganner said.
The Navy prepared for a loss rate of upward of 60 percent to 70 percent, which the men found out about while they were in Thailand.
"They tried to reassure us that the loss rate was not necessarily those killed," Ganner said, "but that it meant the airplanes would be so damaged that they would be out of commission."
It never got that bad. But within a span of six weeks in 1968, it felt like it was. Twenty men from three crews died in January and February 1968, the time of the huge Tet Offensive.
After all these years, the survivors of VO-67 still wince at the memories of Jan. 11, when the first crew did not come home.
Tony Bissell of Bedford was a petty officer on another plane that day, and he can still remember the awful silence on the radio as Crew 2 did not answer any communication. Later that night, the officers' club was packed wall to wall with men getting stupid drunk. Nine men dead in a second.
"We didn't have to buy a single drink that night," Bissell said. "The Air Force guys were very sympathetic."
Interservice rivalry seemed to take a back seat to the men's shared missions and misery. To this day, the men of VO-67 credit the Air Force forward air controllers in Thailand for saving their hides many times because of their knowledge of the trail.
Each crew had its own identity, and rarely did they ever share with each other their specific missions. The less the men knew the better.
"We knew how susceptible we were to getting shot down," Ganner said. "I used to carry a Geneva Convention card and my ID tags. I never took my wedding ring, my wallet, anything personal."
At least once the "Ghost Squadron" came out of hiding to participate in the acknowledged war. In January 1968, the Marines at Khe Shan were under siege by thousands of North Vietnamese. VO-67 was ordered on low-flying missions to drop sensors around the Marine base, so more accurate fire could be leveled. Their citation says they "contributed to saving countless lives."
As for their careers in the Navy, the men said VO-67 failed to help them at all. In fact, most of them believed it hurt their promotion chances because no one in the Navy had heard of it.
Still, the belated recognition matters to many of them, for both reasons large and small.
"I've talked about it recently with my wife of 19 years, and she will say, 'I don't believe you,'" Forsgren said, laughing. "This is vindication."
The men flew the Lockheed P-2 Neptune, a 1950s-era anti-submarine patrol airplane. The squadron's planes were heavily modified for the mission, including the addition of M-60 machine guns, an armored belly and a jungle-green paint scheme.
The squadron was based at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base, just across the Mekong River from Laos. Their primary mission was over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, but they also performed missions in South Vietnam.
Twenty men of VO-67 died in Southeast Asia in three incidents. One is still missing in action, Cmdr. Paul Milius, who earned a Navy Cross for allowing seven crewmen to bail out of their badly damaged aircraft before going down. The Navy named a destroyer for him in the 1990s.
The squadron flew combat missions for nine months and sustained a 25 percent loss rate. It was disestablished in July 1968, and the Air Force took over the mission until 1972
For more great information on VO-67, visit the VO-67 Association at their website here: http://www.vo-67.org/vo67_opening.html. Special thanks goes to the association and Larry Gire, the association's historian for the story and the opportunity to share with Tailhookers around the world. ED.