of Hurricane Lead"
11 August 1966
L. Penn, USAF (Ret.)
13 April 2006
and Edited with Permission - All Rights Reserved
was thinking last night how important it is that we remember that
war is not, primarily, fun, funny, or
But after we remember
the really important aspects of war, it's appropriate to also remember
the lighter sides. I thought of my very good friend, Rags, who told
many funny stories about his 600 days in "Recalcitrant Camp" in
Korea: he told about being court martialled and spent time in solitary
for stealing the Peoples' Chicken; he told a filthy story about a prisoner
moon-blind with dysentery; about Bruce Shaw being punished for a demonstration
done by the prisoners in his honor. I learned a couple of months ago
that he was the first black pilot to shoot down a MiG in Korea. You
know about the Recalcitrant camps - the men were sent there to die,
and most of them did. How can a man cling to life and country in such
circumstances? How can a man tell funny stories about Recalcitrant
few days before we left for Ubon we were talking and Rags said he
needed only one bullet for his .38.
I reminded him
that he'd had a
lot of good times in the years since then, but he maintained that it
hadn't been worth it, and he'd not do it again. He almost made it.
I suppose I'll never forget the night Bob Frasier woke me up, "Rags
got it." He had already shipped his stuff to Davis Monthan. Rags
had funny stories.
Movie, “Saving Private Ryan,” illustrated something
I believe about men in combat. After awhile they become so emotionally
tired, see and cause so much death, that they get to where they just
don’t care about who gets killed, or why. Indeed, they loose
rational concern for their own safety. [[The most disturbing scene
in that bloody movie was to see a man shoot a prisoner. Fortunately,
I feel that, in my combat experience, I maintained respect for other
human beings and for the laws of war.]] [[Although
I sympathy with Lt. Calley, because he was in ‘way over his head while more intelligent
and better educated men avoided their obligations, I’m certain
that I would have done better.]] An alternative, or additional, explanation
for recklessness in combat is that men come to feel invincible. That’s
the way I felt. If I was fatigued, I didn’t realize it.
Of four men of that mission, the other three didn't live six more
497th and 433rd squadrons at Ubon Air Base, Thailand were assigned
to fly nights. We were in the 497TFS
(Tactical Fighter Squadron) of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing. One
squadron from sundown to midnight, then the other. 433rd commander,
Colonel Crouch, held a pilots' meeting every Wednesday and he had just
instituted a briefing by an outside "expert" on some subject
or another. First briefer, Captain Chick Waxman, TDY from Fighter Weapons
School, finished his briefing, suited up, got hit, parachuted into
a treetop. Rescue guys had told us to stay in a tree until daylight
and they’d pick us up directly from the tree. Not Chick; he climbed
down, fell off a cliff in the dark, broke his neck and died. Next briefer
also had a bad night following his presentation - I think he arrived
Hanoi Hilton via circuitous routing. My presentation was not enthusiastically
embraced by the fighter pilots and the lecture series ended.
pitch was, "You can't get shot down at night." I was
very proud of my thesis which involved all sorts of hocus-pocus about
the rods and cones in the eye, AAA aiming techniques & tracers,
AAA radar gun laying computers, and other stuff which I didn't understand
either, but it sounded very sophisticated to me. Anyway, Crouch thought
his guys hadn’t been aggressive enough and that this should help.
You gotta get in close, and concentrate, to do good work, especially
at night. [[When I returned to Ubon a couple of days later no one asked
about my theory.]]
how small a full moon looks at zenith, and how large it looks near
the horizon? One illustration
of my theory was
to light afterburners
at night. Because they lacked depth perception, visual gunners from
maybe four miles away would open up. So, why couldn’t the gunners
approximate our separation, but I could? To them, I was just
a light in the night sky, but I saw them against terrain background.
According to my exalted theory, the gunners eyes couldn’t provide
accurate depth perception at night by which they could utilize the
adjustments dictated by tracers. For the Soviet 37mm gun every bullet
is a brilliant red tracer. Six guns in a battery [[two
bullets per second per gun?, I forget]] adds up to a lot
of light! The sight of those bright red tracers was a thing of great
beauty. The closer they
came, the more exciting, but they always missed.
are prettier at night because they’re so bright. If
a pilot is down low, really in the weeds (pretty dicey at night), and
37’s are coming really close to the canopy, they seem to go straight,
initially, and well in front. Then, as they pass by the canopy, they
appear to curve sharply to the rear. Beautiful! Winston Churchill (perhaps
quoting an earlier soldier) noted during his experience in Cuba, 1898, “There
is nothing so exhilarating as being shot at without effect.”
were two railroad and highway routes from Hanoi to China. They formed
a V shape from Hanoi - one
to the Northwest
and one to the Northeast.
The mission concept was that we would run a couple of fighters up north
of Hanoi as a show of force. Additionally, of course, it was a target-rich
environment. Our very presence in the system would slow the truck traffic
because they wouldn’t drive with their headlights on. But, for
some reason, it wasn’t working out well. We lost one of the two
airplanes about four nights in a row. A.J. Meyers/John Borling, two
of the finest officers I ever knew, got nailed and spent seven years
in jail. Our wing commander convinced General Momeyer that this idea
tactic was that two airplanes would ingress at about a thousand feet
or so, 420 knots, wing man seven
minute) in trail.
Looking at hills on radar from about level creates shadows behind so
maps can be interpreted. Even on a fairly dark night, rivers, railroads
and breaks in trees are easy to sort out visually. We used radar and
visual to avoid fatal contact with the terrain and inertial navigation
to find turn points. At such a low altitude, with just a few hills
around, the SA-2 missile could not track us accurately enough to shoot,
and visual gunners could not see well enough to be a threat. Lead fighter
carried two pods of eight million-candle-power parachute flares and
four 500 pound bombs. Wingman carried all bombs. Flares had an ignition
delay of about 20 seconds and burned for four minutes. Over a suspected
target, lead drops two flares. Simultaneously, wingman pulls up, offsets,
and rolls in, sort of pointed at the target when the flares ignite.
Lead is in a 360-degree turn and drops about a minute after wingman.
Wingman comes around for a second pass after lead. This gives us a
look at eight suspected targets under flare light. If it’s a
good target, we could make three bombing passes.
Hurricane Lead - The Story:
11, 1966, I refueled over the gulf and headed north of Haiphong to
the north side of what we called “Phantom
Ridge”, a ridge of low mountains
running from 30 or so miles northeast of Hanoi, Northeast to northwest of Haiphong.
Thud Ridge is a bit longer and has somewhat larger mountains and runs Northwest
from Hanoi. The terrain North of either was harder and population was thinnner.
We felt that there was a better chance of rescue north of either. On rare occasion,
the Navy could get a helicopter into the Phantom Ridge area, and the Air Force,
on rare occasion, could get a helicopter in the Thud Ridge area. A factor in
both cases was the chance to evade capture long enough for a rescue operation
to get there. These areas were slightly less-heavily defended than areas closer
to Hanoi, Thai Nyugen, and areas immediately south. Phantom Ridge also shielded
us from radar’s around
Hanoi and Haiphong. Follow the ridge west to the northeast railroad
and highway. Piece
of cake. Follow the railroad/highway southwest, climb up to four
or five thousand feet and turn gently back and forth (60 degrees
to look down for trucks or trains.
altitude put us in easy view of all sorts of radar’s, but
with the turns, there was no defensive reaction. Surface-to-Air missiles
can be seen from miles away at night. We had no radar warning gear
at that time, but we didn’t need it. Defensive measure for SAM’s
was to turn to place the missile at 60 or 70 degrees off the nose and
start a gentle pushover (maybe -2G’s). The tracking missile also
noses down. When the missile, at very high speed, gets close, pull
up about 4 or 6 G’s, and the missile can’t make the turn. [[That
tactic hadn’t been invented in time for Bobby Kan. I dunno
about Ed Montgomery - I guess it worked purty well, but not quite perfectly.]] Another thing we figured out was to never fly over an overcast because
you’ll not see a missile until too late - it’ll be close
and also be doing Mach 3 or more!
GIB, Bert Finzer, was on his first mission to the far North, and
was quite excited. Newest kid in the
I took the opportunity to illustrate my theory: I would pop up to four
or five thousand feet and maintain straight and level for about a minute.
It takes awhile for the radar operators to see a target, acquire it,
and then six seconds for the Puatzo Six computer to determine the target’s
future position and bullet impact point. As soon as I saw the muzzle
flashes I'd make a little turn. Radar directed guns had time cut fuses
which would explode at the place we would have been, had it not been
for the little turn. Dropped a pair of flares but didn’t see
anything. Bert was having the time of his life!
noticed that down near the southwest end of the route there were
quite a few radar controlled guns making
noises. It didn’t occur
to me why they were there, but I didn’t bother ‘em. My
squadron commander, Jim McGuire, had been in trouble with the wing
commander before about my, “dueling with AAA.” I don’t
know how he heard about it because I never bragged or nothing like
that. [[Dizzy Dean says that if it’s true, it ain’t braggin’.]] It was very exciting and I thought a 37mm gun was a valuable target.
The CO had different ideas of economics and he thought that an F-4
was a substantially more valuable asset. Pilots were in even shorter
supply at the time. [[Anyway, turn on all
the lights, or light the afterburner to get those guys shooting, and
it’s easy to
go right down the lighted slide - especially with rockets. ]]
searched the dark highway for targets until my fuel guage told me
it was time to go home. But I’m not going home with all the ordnance
I’d carried so far up north. Ah!, there’s my excuse! I
can find only one target – the AAA guns which had made their
presence so obvious.
I had been keeping their location in the back of my mind, so I turned
right for them. I had fuel for only one pass, so I gang-loaded all
flares to drop at once. I crossed the guns at about 6,000 feet and
pickled the flares.
I was in a hard right turn, setting switches to drop my bombs, when
the flares lit. The radar guns had been sporatically firing, so everyone
knew approximately where I was. The sudden introduction of sixteen
million candlepower clarified everything for all of us.
was over Kep airfield! That’s why there were so many guns
in one place. Intelligence estimated 208 AAA guns of various descriptions.
That’s a lot of guns! They really meant to defend their two airfields,
even though President Johnson had made them off limits (at that time).
Wow!, seemed like everybody started shooting at once.
I was hit pretty hard. The airplane porpoised severely. Maybe the
artificial feel system had been shot out. The F-4 had full, irreversible,
hydraulic flight controls, not hydraulic boost. Without artificial
feel, a very slight force on the control stick would cause the hydraulic
flight controls to deflect fully. Maybe part of the stabalator had
been shot away because I had trouble holding the nose up.
thought the airplane might blow up any second, however . . . I yelled
to my GIB (Guy In Back), “don’t eject.” A calm, quiet
voice came back, “I’m not.” That reminded me to be
calm. Pilots are sometimes surprised, but a really superb “stick” can
recover within one or two seconds. I already had a plan to head to
Phantom Ridge – maybe five minutes away – if the airplane
wouldn’t blow up before then.
I quickly figured that things were more or less OK. There was no apparent
fire and the flight controls were functioning, although definitely
not normally. Whoops, fuel seemed lower than two minutes ago.
attraction of Phantom Ridge was that rescue was more likely from
there. I carried a .38 revolver
in a cowboy holster
with bullets along
the belt. I also carried a .380 automatic in my vest. I figured to
fight like Davy Crockett at the Alamo – well, at least against
a bunch of farmers. A rescue mission deep into North Viet Nam would
have been a long shot, but, who knows how long I might be able to hold
out in the hills. My friend, Rags, had convinced me that being a POW
is really bad.
got to Phantom Ridge and things were still pretty good. Obviously,
there had not yet been an explosion,
so there probably
would not be
one. No fire, and flight controls still functioned. I turned for the
Gulf, staying low enough for the hills to shield me from SAM’s.
GIB said, “we still have our bombs.” I hadn’t
thought about them because I’d been thinking about ejection or
explosion. I reached for the jettison button when he said, “Let’s
look for a truck.” Just then I saw headlights ahead. Some guy
driving along with his lights on! I rolled in and pickled: one, two,
three. Then in the pullout I remembered the damaged flight controls
and difficulty getting the nose up. Anyway, I didn’t hit the
ground. Bert said, “We have one more bomb, let’s get that
lighthouse.” The lighthouse, northeast of Haiphong harbor, was
a bone stuck in our throats because it was off limits and always operating.
Facing imminent death or capture, this kid was still fighting the war!
this time I was thinking that rescue was a possibility just as well
as death or capture. Focused on rescue,
garbage, went feet wet, headed south and called the navy for refueling
rendevouz. Fuel was low! I’m leaking fuel – a lot!
had not thought about it at the time, but it was probably best that
I didn’t head straight for the Gulf of Tonkin. If I had, I would
have gotten to the tanker sooner and probably could have refueled.
However, the terrain southeast of Hanoi is very flat, much of it covered
with rice paddies and standing water. The minimum operating altitude
for SAM’s is quite low, perhaps to absolute ground level because
of a technique for manual target tracking and missile guidance. In
any event, I was planning for immediate ejection, and I’d rather
do that in the remote hill country rather than the outskirts of Hanoi.
figured that if I had a severe fuel leak, I might as well run it
through the engines. I stroked the afterburner
speed the rendevouz,
but then decided that wasn’t a good idea (it certainly wasn’t).
The shipboard sailors were not practiced in rendevouz techniques, and
it wasn’t going well. I spotted the tanker on my radar and took
over the rendevouz. My turn point was perfect. I kept my speed up until
the final short distance, because of the fuel leak. I pulled the throttles
to idle and slid right in behind the tanker. A rather spectacular join-up!
looked at the digital fuel gage – 0000. I looked at the boom
operator. His white helmet and face glowed in the red lights around
him. He said, “Forward four (feet).” As I advanced the
throttles from idle, one engine quit, then the other.
just a few seconds, the tanker could have locked the refueling boom
into the receptacle and towed me while
not too easy because since the boom locking mechanism isn’t strong
enough to provide a full tow the airplanes have to be in a slight dive.
Time was up.
were alternating pretty fast now. Earlier some high stakes combat.
Then only a half hour ago I
thought my time
had come. A couple
of minutes later I was planing how best not to become a POW. Exhiliration
on making it to the water. Then I’m underneath the tanker. So
finally, I’ll have to punch out. Before, this was what I was
hoping for. Now, it didn’t look like such a hot prospect. With
no thrust to my lead sled, the tanker distanced quickly ahead. So close!
I felt so lonely. What a disappointment!
isn’t so difficult a decision if it’s to be done
immediately. But now there’s a minute to think. So many things
could go wrong. It’s really dark outside. I’m far out to
sea. This airplane glides better than a brick, but it ain’t forever.
this time I remembered my parachute training with the Army at Ft.
Benning. We always had a reserve ‘chute. If the main ‘chute “cigarette
rolls,” or “Mae Wests,” or whatever malfunction,
the trooper simply jettisons it and pulls the reserve. Very important
to jettison the main before pulling the reserve. I focus: this time
I don’t have a reserve. Not the proper mind-set, of course. I
should not have been thinking of failure. I should have rationalized
that I’ve already had my share of failures tonight, but by this
time I’m expecting everything to go wrong.
Bert, let’s go.
Bert’s canopy blew. Wind noise is pretty loud. 350 miles an
hour is a lot of wind. That’s what will hit me in the face in
a few seconds. No hurry for that. Bert’s seat fired. That’s
a loud bang! I wonder if it hurts. I pulled the face curtain. The canopy
blew and the curtain came to a mechanical stop. I pulled down with
my arms, head and shoulders, bending forward. Not supposed to do that.
Supposed to keep back straight so it doesn’t break. [[Thirty
years later it hurts sometimes – is there a connection?]]
it does hurt. That’s a pretty hard slap on the butt. But
I don’t remember that now. I had other things on my mind. Lot
of things on my mind – things to do, and decisions to make. “Things
to do” is easy, but I have things to analyze and decisions to
I’ve lost about two seconds there. It must have been a fun ride
couple hundred feet up, but there’s short blank space.
programmed, I’m out of the airplane and into the dark night.
But I’m tumbling in a fast forward roll. Not supposed to happen.
I’m really spinning!
story almost ended here
had ejected into total darkness at about 15,000 feet. Now, I’m
spinning forward. How can that be if the stabalizing parachute is out?
It can’t! The chute didn’t deploy, or it tangled in the
seat. Either way, the sequence stops.
darkness and spinning cloud clear thinking a bit, but the conclusion
is inescapable – the seat has failed! I’m
going to spin right into the ocean with this aluminum chair strapped
to my back!
based on the information available to me and my analysis had been
correct, I was about to
make one mistake:
Rube Goldberg had
an option in case the seat sequence fails. The pilot can pull a small
handle in the seat which releases the straps and the pilot kicks the
seat away and pulls the parachute rip cord manually. I forgot that.
Well, I was in a bit of a rush because it’s not far from 10,000
feet to the water (about one minute).
so I’ve forgotten the manual parachute option, what am
I to do? I’m not giving up. I’m going to fight this all
the way to the end! The conclusion to this life is rushing to me!
unstrap proceedure is the same as I do at the end of every mission:
leg restraints, seat belt, shoulder
practice in emergency ground escape had influenced my imminent mistake.
In case of fire, the proceedure was to unstrap and clammor out over
the windshield, slide down the nose cone, and run. With the practice
I’d had, I could unstrap and be on the ground in about three
seconds. So I’m thinking, “unstrap” and get away
from this seat. If I hit the water in this seat, it’ll kill me
flies. I started at about 15,000 feet. Can’t see anything.
The spinning is disorienting. Very. Don’t know how close to the
I’ll not go easy! I’ll unstrap, jettison this seat, and
dive into the water like Tarzan. From 10,000 feet – or 2,000.
Dive into the ocean when I don’t know which way is up!
started the two-second unstrap: leg restraints, SNAP! The main chute
opened! The seat fell away. I’m hanging in the ‘chute.
My arms hang limply at my side. That was close! One more second and
I would have killed myself! I had almost jettisoned a perfectly good
parachute, still in the bag.
quiet up here. Exhale. Take a deep breath.
rest will be easy. I’ll bob
around in the water awhile, get a little rest, then the Navy will
pick me up.
has been an emotional roller-coaster. Before the mission I experienced
appropriate apprehension and intense
concentration; this increased markedly in the target area; being
vigorously shot at confirmed exactly what is going on; getting hit
transforms a serious situation to an emergency. This may be it!
- eject immediately?
- airplane may explode?
- the airplane still flies!
action: - Head for Phantom Ridge - I have two pistols, 100 bullets,
a knife, signal flares and a signal
- leaking fuel, fast!
- made it to Phantom Ridge!
- fuel leak seems slower!
- feet wet!!
over yet: - ten minutes fuel ain’t enough?
- Red Crown on radio!
- Red Anchor heads North for refueling rendesvouz!
disappointment: - Four feet short
- “just in case” last words
- don’t want to do it.
- punch out.
- chute failure
- fight to the end!
well: - chute opens!
End Roller Coaster .
The amazement at being alive has left me exhausted. I ponder that
for a half minute, then decide I’d better get busy. O.K., let’s
get started on the things to do next. Total darkness. Moon rise supposed
to be at 00:44. But it’s only a wanning crescent and the sky is
solid overcast. No stars. Take off my boots, throw away my helment,
still can’t see. Deploy life preserver. Deploy life raft and
survival kit. I’m in great shape. I’m ready!
I’m concerned if Bert is all right. Red Crown was the permanent radio call sign of a USN
ship on station far north in the Gulf of Tonkin, who provided threat
warning, flight following, tanker rendesvouz, and rescue. We felt secure
hearing their voice. Red Crown was on the radio,
I wonder how far away they are. Are they coming to get me? Do they
know where I am? Ah! I’ll take out my survival radio and call
them. I’ll call Bert. Again, irrational, of course Red Crown
is coming to get me. Bert? He’s five or six miles away, In whichever
direction. If he’s not O.K., there’s nothing I can do.
out my survival radio was a bad idea. Just then I hit the water,
and my radio hit me in the face, then disappeared.
I’m so happy to be in the water I feel like I could swim to
shore! Routine: survival kit and life raft are attatched by a long
nylon line. Pull ’em in, and climb aboard the life raft.
aboard the raft. Easy. Face the raft, grab with both hands, pull
it under my chest, and down. Roll
over, and I’m aboard.
Pull kit in, too. Raft is sort of small – I’m in from my
knees to my neck. I’m comfortable. Time to rest, again. Sharks? Poisionous Sea Snakes? No concern. Five second break is over.
to contact Red Crown? My radio is on the sea bottom by now. There
is a signal radio in the survival
kit, but it’s CW only – I
can’t talk on it, or recieve. There is a safety plug in the switch
attatched by a string. Pull string. Oh, but now, is the radio packed
with the switch on (and plug in), or off? Not a problem I can’t
figure out – I’ll turn the switch one way for a half minute,
then the other way.
unorthodox signaling caused some concern on deck of USS King DLG-10. “Here
he is!” Then, “He’s gone.” Did he drown? Drop
his radio? “He’s back! Get a bearing.” “Too
King was headed toward the erratic radio signal at flank speed. Wait – we
could run over him. Send the helo.
Bert must have been doing things right, because they picked him up
saw the whirleybird and fired a flare. Bright, bright orange. Beautiful.
It burned out, so I dipped it in
the water and
threw it away across
my body to the other side of the raft). Throw? Why did I throw the
flare? Why not just drop it? Well, that got me some burns from hot,
wet, ashes. Now fire a smoke flare so the chopper can judge wind. Unhook
the raft and survival kit so they don’t get tangled in the rotor
blades. The downwash blows the raft away quickly. There goes a piece
of security that I’d come to love.
I’m wenched up to the welcome arms of the crewman kneeling in
the door. Incredibly strong arms pull me in. I’m safe! Relax,
look around. Bert is back there. His red hair glows in the dark. I
made it. Exhale.
We’re quickly back to USS King. Deck is lit up. I see the white
X and circle. We approach carefully. A bit of rocking and weaving.
Helicopters do that (I guess). Close to the big X. Jockeying back and
forth, then wave-off. Hard right turn and we’re heading off into
approach. Moving around, sideways, back and forth. Is the ship moving?
Is it always like this? Wave-off,
right turn, into
the darkness. We’re gonna run out of gas and ditch. I don’t
want to go back into that water. Blood on the deck and all around -
I’m gonna bleed to death!
pass. That surely is a small spot! Touchdown! Several men come out
to meet us. Welcome! These are the most important men in the
I’m escorted to the medic’s operating room. I wasn’t
exactly expecting the Mayo Clinic, but this place is small. The bright
light with reflector dominated the scene. Chief Izquierdo gave me a
miniature (1½ oz) bottle of brandy, “Drink this, Captain,
and I’ll sew you up.” That’s it? “Don’t
you have a bullet I can bite, or something?” Good laugh. “No.
The brandy is traditional. I’ll use novacine for the stitches.” The
Chief did a great job. There’s not a visible scar on my handsome
Captain Tesh greeted me and put me in the Commodore’s stateroom
for a couple hours’ sleep.
The ship cruised silently, as the crewmen went about their normal
duties. I stood at the rail
for several minutes – amazed
at how calm the sea was. Now that I have time, I reflect on how close
I came to the end. Life has new meaning. So tenuous. Even now, as I
write, I have that same feeling in my stomach.
or four sailors approached individually, “Congratulations,
Captain! I bet ten dollars on you last night!” (The entire drama
had been broadcast on the ship’s speakers.) Later, it occurs
that there must have been an equal number who bet the other way. Clearly,
it would have been in bad taste to own up to it.