Ken Burns - Viet Nam


Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara … [the “S” stood for “Strange” … check it out] … apparently was totally confused as to why we did not win and the North Vietnamese did not quit after six months. He had planned on the war ending quickly. To ease his confusion, he ordered a review of all capital projects. So I had to visit a special office that was set up in Bangkok. Windows were covered over and the clerk-typist was a Major. So I spent a week writing up summaries. When I returned to Korat, I found that a newly arrived person had thrown out all of the Air Force Manuals that I needed to design projects because … “you are not allowed to have a personal copy of Air Force Manuals”. He had NO IDEA of what our mission was. I assigned a junior airman to play tennis with him on a daily basis. If I ever encountered any of these people back in the States, I might have brought treason charges against them.

A couple of years ago, in a hallway conversation, some retired GS-99 bureaucrat heard I had been at Korat and told me that the reason we lost the war was that our pilots used automobile names as call signs. I was incredulous and informed him that we also used the same take off times every day - 7am and 1pm - flew the same course, and altitude and airspeed - every day and often hit the same target - every day. He blanched; lost all his color and turned white; he had NO IDEA and was proud of it. Waboa. [Often, if a plane returned from the early strike with a good engine, they would pull off the tail and lay it on the ground, pull the engine and run it over to another 105 that was bombed up but had no engine and slap it in, and good to go… ] I suspect that the NVA gunners didn’t even need to aim; our times and refueling tracks were so consistent that all they had to do was point and shoot. They even had time for breakfast and lunch.

Same seminar. Standing around in a hallway waiting for the next session. Retired four-star USMC general. Asked him if he knew anything about what a former FAC described as Notams on a bulletin board announcing the targets for the next day’s B-52 strikes. Yes, check the internet for Purple Dragon. I checked and sure enough; declassified; heavily redacted, but very readable.

Secretary McNamara sort of denied there even WAS a “Ho Chi Minh Trail” … no, really … so he ordered movies made of it. Seriously. Read SOG by John Plaster for details.


Toward the end of the book, the author discusses the proposed mining of Haiphong harbor. Well, some years ago, I shared an office with a Navy A-1 Skyraider pilot who had had the task of planning that exact operation. My friend stated flatly that if the U.S. had simply sown naval mines in Haiphong harbor, then the Vietnam War would have ended within 30 days because the Soviet/North Vietnamese supply of weapons and munitions would have run out. Freedom and Liberty would have triumphed. Instead, the U.S. continued to attack bridges made of 2x4’s using hundred plane raids. We lost hundreds of planes and pilots and thousands of ground troops because our President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, insisted on inflicting tiny pinprick attacks with no net effect on the course of the war. President Johnson does not emerge from this looking like a leader, but rather looks like someone being led around by his nose. [Eventually President Nixon applied the mining of the harbor tactic, and it worked. Although Henry Kissinger gave away the store with his dancing backwards negotiating “strategy”.] If you read “Three Sticks” by Bernard Fipps who flew A-4’s for a written assessment.

[Later on, I shared office space with an Army guy who had commanded a bunch of tanks; he caught a large group of NVA; killed all of them and captured 400 weapons. NO American casualties. He should have received some kind of award but instead got reprimanded for using too much ammunition. Excuse me?]

Read also “The Eleven Days of Christmas”.

Visit YouTube and look up “First In … Last Out”. Billy Sparks appears and there are discussions of the ridiculous rules of engagement … you could fly over a NVA fighter base while the MiG’s were taxiing out, but you couldn’t attack them. You could see them unloading hundreds of SAM’s from a ship in Haiphong harbor, but you couldn’t attack … you had to wait and take them one at a time in the air.

Dan Hampton included an aerial photo of Korat Air Base in the book. On east end, there is a new aircraft ramp under construction. That was for parking EC-121 elint airplanes … old Connies rigged out to collect data from sensors dropped on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Of course, the NVA collected the sensors and relocated them. And a lot of the Connies crashed from age. But look up “BatCat” and they have a great Web site with plenty of photos of not only their areas but also of the F-105 activity. Igloo White.


The F-105 was designed to deliver nuclear weapons in Europe. It had a bomb bay. And it had four places on the wing to carry extra fuel tanks. Very fast airplane. NOT designed to carry regular bombs or missiles or to dog fight. But it was all we had. So they modified it. They put a fuel tank in the bomb bay. And installed a “hard point” under the fuselage to carry a rack that held a bunch of bombs. They put more racks on the four hard points under the wings. But there were only four hard points.

So they decided to put an air-to air-missile … a “Sidewinder” … on one of the hard points in case they had to dog fight. But they invented a rule of engagement … you could not fight an enemy plane unless it attacked you first. No, really. [Oh, yeah, and you needed to make visual confirmation before engaging. Seriously. So you were too close to use a missile and had to use the gun.]

Then they invented the QRC-160 jammer pod to defeat enemy missile radar. That took another hard point.

And then Secretary of Defense McNamara demanded movie film of each mission to see where each bomb ended up. No, really. That took another hard point. AND we had to build a special laboratory to process the film.

Despite all the rules of engagement, our guys did manage to shoot down some enemy planes.

President Johnson said he did not want us shooting down any enemy planes. See Peter Davies’ three books on the F-105.

And we could not attack them on the ground.

One pilot explained to me that Route Package Six which included the most heavily defended targets was so difficult that when you went there in a flight of four F-105’s, one of you was guaranteed to be shot down. 25% attrition in one single mission. And you had to complete 100 missions. All four of you might be shot down, but at least one of you was not coming home.

One pilot pulled out of a dive bomb run on a “bridge” [a few 2x4’s] and as he pulled out, he saw a SAM site right in front of him. He couldn’t resist, so he switched to guns and hosed it down with 20mm. The whole site exploded with unprotected SAM’s snaking around on the ground. BUT, HOWEVER, it was NOT an approved target, so his court-martial papers were waiting for him when he returned to base. He flew another mission the next day and apparently did not survive.

Rules of engagement apparently also included the rule that you were not permitted to attack a SAM site unless it attacked you first.

Which is how the Wild Weasels came about. Trolling for and enticing those SAM sites to turn on their radars.


Read “The Raven Chronicles” by John Fuller and Helen Murphy.

It is a collection of essays and memoir accounts about the U.S. secret war in Laos.

It’s an important book about U.S. activities that did not get on television news.

Check with Amazon books for reviews and to purchase the book.

The Raven Chronicles: In Our Own Words Paperback – February 14, 2016
by John H. Fuller (Editor),‎ Helen Murphy (Editor)
4.8 out of 5 stars 50 customer reviews


And also:



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