And now for something completely different…
Board games have become unfashionable in a console-computer-tablet-mobile gaming world, but there are some things that a sprawling map on a table can show you which history books and retina displays cannot. This is a reposted account of a short solitaire game that I played some years ago. The theme may have some appeal to readers here.
432nd TRW, Udorn RTAFB – August 1967
“This route sucks,” says Captain Hodges, our flight lead.
Looking at the map, it’s hard to disagree. We will be entering North Vietnamese airspace at Entry Point A, almost directly on top of the MiG base at Yen Bai (the superspies assured us that the MiGs wouldn’t be flying today), then stupidly following the northwest railroad line for a good seventy-plus miles all the way into downtown Hanoi, with our final turn point literally within sight of the Paul Doumer bridge.
As if going into Route Pack 6 wasn’t bad enough, we will be doing it alone, unarmed, and unafraid. Well, at least two out of those three. This is a reconnaissance package, and unlike the big strikes we’ve been running over the last few weeks, we won’t have any MiGCAP escorts, Wild Weasels, or even standoff jammers. In fact, the only American combat aircraft airborne over North Vietnam at the time of our sortie will be us, a sorry pair of Phantoms running bare naked along a predictable flight path leading into the best-defended airspace in the world. At medium altitude (which is necessary for the reconnaissance cameras to function properly) we are almost guaranteed to be tracked from start to finish, and we can’t even make any radical maneuvers (stupid cameras).
We launch at 08:55, after picking up the weather brief — some patchy haze on the deck, but nothing to really worry about. Our callsign for the day is Tampa, two RF-4Cs that have been completely stripped clean of ordnance for speed. Hodges and his WSO Callison are in the lead, while I am flying #2. My backseater is a new guy named Deeks, who’s never been downtown before and thinks the whole idea is just absolutely fantastic.
We tank just short of the Laotian border and cross into the Red River Valley at medium altitude, zorching along at a brisk pace. Callison calls a spike from the early warning radar almost immediately, and I think briefly about what we must look like to the enemy radar operators. Then the whole sky erupts in black and red.
10:00 local (turn 1)
“Tampa, heavy flak, three o’clock. From the airfield.”
“That’s not heavy, Two, it can’t touch us,” growls Hodges. “Stay tucked in and look for the railhead.” I’m not so sure. The medium battery at Yen Bai shoots at us continuously for nearly a full minute, beating shockwaves into the clouds. But we come through okay, and about two or three miles north of the runway I can see the railhead that marks our photo entry point. From here on out we will be on rails, following the train all the way downtown.
“What airfield? Are they really shooting at us?”
“Zip it, Deeks. And get the photo package running.”
10:01 local (turn 2)
We run out from the Yen Bai AAA umbrella at a ground speed of about 600 miles/hour, leaving the flak behind and snapping 35 frames/second of high-resolution film. At our turn point Hodges calls for a 30-degree turn to the left — the most radical maneuver we can make without disturbing the cameras — and we find ourselves pointed toward Phu Tho.
“SAM warning, twelve o’clock!”
“Search mode, no acquire. Might be a dummy. Tampa, hold course, keep it coming.”
We know that there is a surface-to-air missile battalion — or at least what looks like one — emplaced next to the railroad line north of Phu Tho. In fact, in order to get the photos, we will be overflying it. We just hope that with our new noise jamming suite we can avoid being acquired long enough to evade any shots.
“Negative dummy, SAM at twelve o’clock is active. That should be Site Kilo. Range twenty.”
“What SAM? Are they shooting at us?”
“Deeks shut up.”
10:02 local (turn 3)
“Heads up, light flak.” It was the Phu Tho garrison, putting up a halfhearted barrage for the passersby. Clearly they didn’t think that they were the targets for today.
“Kilo still in search mode. Range 10 miles.”
“Hey guys shouldn’t we turn or something? We’re headed up the nose of that SAM site.”
The radar warning receiver stops twittering and starts to warble. Callison: “Site Kilo has got us, partial acquisition. Range 10 miles. Tampa, check jammers on.”
10:03 local (turn 4)
More flak. At medium height, it’s unlikely that the light antiaircraft guns will hit us. But it’s unnerving nonetheless.
“I see it, smoke trail, twelve o’clock!” We turn into a shallow defensive maneuver, enough to test the missile — which is launching on a partial acquisition and has a low chance of guiding anyway — but not enough to spoil the photo run. “No-threat, no-threat, it’s a miss!”
“I think I see the site,” says Deeks in a voice of wonder. We have covered the distance in thirty seconds and are directly overhead the SA-2 battalion that launched on us.
“New SAM site active, eleven o’clock. That should be Site Sierra, range 15. Now in search.”
“Site Kilo just went to full acquisition,” says Deeks excitedly. “He’s got us. Think he’ll shoot again?”
“Site Sierra has partial acquisition,” warns Callison. “Get ready for another launch.”
“Tampa flight, into burner now!”
10:04 local (turn 5)
A clean RF-4C at medium altitude in stage 5 afterburner can move at 15 miles per minute, which comes to 900 miles per hour, or roughly Mach 1.8. This is all well and good, except when you’re pointed toward the thing that’s trying to kill you, in which case it doesn’t make you feel all that much better. But we have to follow our route to get the pictures, and Hodges is trying to minimize our exposure by getting in and out of firing radius as quickly as possible.
“SAM launch!” Another turn, gingerly executed, and the SA-2 fails to guide on us again. At about the same moment, the air is battered by light AAA, fired out of Viet Tri and Vinh Yen. We streak in and out of their range in less than twenty seconds, and in ten more are nearly on top of Site Sierra. In another minute we will be outside the range of that site’s missiles as well.
“Pop-up threat, new SAM site, 10 o’clock! Search mode.”
“Where is it?” asks Hodges abruptly.
“Can’t tell exactly, medium signal. Probably about 20 miles away, maybe west of Phuc Yen. Still in search.” This is getting complicated. We have two SAM sites with full radar locks on us, and a third that is looking.
“Tampa, new SAM site has a partial acquire. Stand by for launch.”
10:05 local (turn 6)
Medium guns open up on us again, but I don’t think that any of us really notice because the new SAM site launches on us at that same moment. The North Vietnamese SAM crews are not shy on the trigger, willing to launch on partial radar acquisitions despite the lower chance to hit us. Another lucky miss, but as we blaze over Phuc Yen we run into a horrific barrage of both light and medium AAA, the latter from the garrison guarding the MiG base to the north.
Again, we are lucky to come through unscathed. We’re still moving along at the speed of heat, unwilling to slow down now. The outskirts of western Hanoi are just up ahead. I glance at the fuel gauge — we have only about three minutes of afterburner left.
“Site Sierra and the new site have just dropped back into search — they’ve lost us. Site Kilo still has a partial lock.” We are rapidly leaving the SAM sites we previously encountered behind.
“Is that it?” asks Deeks hopefully.
But downtown Hanoi is ringed with SAM sites, and we know that there is at least one SA-2 battalion just south of Duc Noi. The intelligence shop called it Site Foxtrot. For a moment I think that we might sail past without waking them up.
Callison: “SAM warning, two o’clock, very strong signal. Probable Site Foxtrot, range 5.”
10:06 local (turn 7)
We are in the last and most dangerous leg of the photo route, following the rail line through its terminus in west Hanoi. Hodges still has the flight moving at maximum speed to evade the heavier guns that are in the downtown area. Just as we are about to exit the gun envelope of the Phuc Yen AAA concentration, something bad happens — one moment we are zipping along and the next moment the air around us ruptures with a thunderclap and we bounce out of formation. An 85mm round has come up and exploded just behind us; miraculously neither of our F-4s is damaged — a hair-close near-miss. Quite literally the extra speed (which produces a -2 modifier to the AAA damage roll that negates the effect of the hit, just barely) has saved us.
A fast 37mm battery puts up a light barrage around us, as we thunder over the last three miles of rail line…two…one…and camera off!
“Tampa flight, in place ninety left…go!”
Coming off the end of our route, we scream around in a hard left break, a crushing pull to ninety degrees off and away from downtown Hanoi. It’s the maximum performance turn that we can make at our high speed and it costs us an extra movement point (while the guns continue to shoot at us arcing overhead). But ten seconds later it’s all worth it, as we run outside their maximum range at Mach 1.8 and the sky suddenly falls silent. We are drenched in sweat and our arms and legs pulse with adrenaline and an electric sense of immortality.
“Okay, Tampa, nice job, let’s keep it tucked in close and hit the egress point.” Hodges seems almost human now.
But we’re not done.
“SAM warning, eight o’clock!”
It’s Site Foxtrot, finally come to life, range 10 miles and opening.
10:07 local (turn 8)
I had expected to get the call to come out of burner, but once we get the search signal from the SAM site, Hodges decides to push the motors to the firewall. We know that the SAM operators will shoot immediately on a partial acquisition, and at our range and aspect Site Foxtrot will probably have us in less than a minute. That means that a missile will be in the air in the next 70 seconds or so…unless we are already out of the envelope by then. We keep the burners going and open the range at a rate of 2.5 miles every ten seconds.
Hodges reports that we’ve been partially reacquired by two of the SAM sites that we encountered coming in to the target area. Three surface-to-air missile sites are now aimed at our retreating backs, though by now we have all deduced that other SAM batteries have not had a chance to reload. It’s Site Foxtrot that’s the real threat.
“Site Foxtrot has a full acquisition! Stand by for launch!”
10:08 local (turn 9)
But the missile launch never comes. At the precise moment that SAM Site Foxtrot achieves its radar acquisition, we are at a distance of 20 miles. Its first opportunity to shoot comes immediately after our next impulse of movement, when we are 22.5 miles away — 9 hexes, or one hex beyond the maximum kinematic range of an SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missile. We have beat the SAM site by a matter of seconds. By the next SAM acquisition phase, we have further opened the range to 35 miles, which is beyond the sight of Site Foxtrot’s radar. We simply disappear from the radar scope of the only site that is still able to fire on us.
And that finishes the mission. We disengage the afterburner (having consumed all of our emergency fuel reserve), turn to the southwest, sidestep the medium AAA concentrations around the Thai Nguyen steel foundry, and exit Route Pack 6 at Egress Point C for the tanker. We recover safely at Udorn about an hour later.
The mission is a success — our wild nine-minute ride under fire gives us satisfactory photos of the rail line, which is enough to meet the intel shop’s insatiable thirst for pictures. We suffer no damage, despite flying through light and medium AAA concentrations for more than a third of the entire route.
Deeks is delighted. “When do we go back?”
TAMPA (2 x RF-4C) – AFTER-ACTION REPORT
TOTAL AAA ENCOUNTERS: 21
LIGHT AAA: 12
MEDIUM AAA: 9 (1 NEAR-MISS)
TOTAL SAMS FIRED: 3
PHOTORECONNAISSANCE: 26/29 hexes successfully photographed (90% – success)
Wargame: Downtown: The Air War Over Hanoi 1965 – 1972, designed by Lee Brimmicombe-Wood (GMT Games, 2004).