BEACON TORCH

 

The duty NCO tapped my shoulder lightly and murmured.  "Wake up Major.  It's 3 O'clock."

 "Thanks." I whispered while rolling over and sitting up.  It was black like a cave.  My hootchmates were snoring in broken cadence.  Hondo Ondrick was six feet away on my side of our hootch that was divided by four metal lockers.  Rocky Plant and Colin Ruthven were on the other side of the lockers. Getting into my flight suit and boots quietly was not a problem because everything was laid out before hitting the rack.  Having shaved the night before, there was nothing more to do that might wake up my buddies.  I strapped on my shoulder holster and 38 Special, slid a utility cover (cap) on my head and crept out of the hootch.

Operations had scheduled me to lead a first light close air support mission.  The four plane flight of Crusaders were loaded with 8 two thousand pound GP bombs with daisy cutter fusing.  The daisy cutters were three foot steel pipe extensions of the contact fuses to provide above ground bomb detonation for maximum clearing of trees and inflicting enemy casualties.  Each aircraft would also carry eight Zuni rockets and 440 rounds of twenty millimeter cannon fire.  The flight was to provide landing zone preparation, battlefield softening and close air support for a helicopter airborne assault in an objective area adjacent to the beach near Hoi An.  It was the opening assault of Operation Beacon Torch.  

Three wingmen were waiting as I entered the 3:15 AM G-2 intelligence briefing. Two briefing officers detailed the enemy strength in the target area and the small arms, AAA and weather we could expect to encounter.  We completed the briefing about 3:30 and entered the squadron operations briefing room.  Box meals were handed out for our breakfast. We spent the next forty-five minutes picking at the food while going over the procedures for taxi, takeoff, and climb past Monkey Mountain and out over the South China Sea where we would loiter until contacted by the airborne FAC for target designation and coordination.  Ordnance patterns, arming, mil leads and release altitudes were covered along with ROE, UHF frequencies and emergency procedures. 

The Duty NCO drove us to the flight line in a weapons carrier.  At the hotpad van another 25 pounds of gear was donned which included g-suit, torso harness, emergency radios, a survival vest and a waist floatation device. It was 4:30 when we signed out our aircraft and began the pre-flight inspections.  The bombs and rockets were carefully checked with flashlights for proper arming wires and fusing.  The aircraft were started and taxi checks completed.  At 5 AM the flight members checked in.  The flight switched to Da Nang Ground Control frequency and received clearance to runway one seven for departure to the South.  Four plane captains were positioned along the route from the revetments to the refueling pits and used wands to transfer the aircraft from the line area to the taxiway.  The F-8s were taxied into the arming area just short of the active runway.  The ordnance crew pulled the safety pins, checked arming wires and charged the 20 mm cannon.  At 5:10 the Tower cleared Mofak flight for take off.  The four crusaders were lined up in echelon, the engines were advanced to maximum rated power and, with the engine instruments indicating normal, the rotating beacons were turned ON.  Rapping the throttle outboard I actuated the afterburner switch and immediately felt the powerful 10,000 Lb additional thrust of the afterburner blast my heavily loaded Crusader rapidly down the runway.  The wingmen were to roll eight seconds apart.  The landing gear were up and the wing was coming down when tail end charlie called "Mofak four airborne, go Joyride." 

After giving the flight 30 seconds to switch radio frequencies, I called "Mofak check in."

"Twooop!"  Dash 2, FLY Cunningham was up.

"Mofak three up."  Ever precise Bucky Walters was up.

"Forp!"  Bullseye Dave Borgman was up.

"Joyride, Mofak Flight, Mission 23, airborne Da Nang at one zero. 8 delta six, 32 delta 9 and 1600 delta 20. Time on station one plus 30, fuel on board 2 plus zero zero."  We had to let the Air Wing know we launched our four planes on time with the scheduled ordnance and fuel on board.

"Roger Mofak.  Contact Landshark Alpha on button green approaching the target area."  We were turning toward China Beach just south of Monkey Mountain.  I dimmed my navigation lights as dash two closed to a cruise position on my left wing.  Dash three and four soon slid into cruise on my right. Climbing to 15 thousand we commenced orbiting 15 miles east of Hoi An.  The eastern horizon was brightening rapidly.

We checked in with Landshark Alpha and were switched to the Tactical Air Controller Airborne frequency.  As planned, we were thirty minutes early and the TACA was not yet on station.  It was getting daylight and the helicopters would be arriving at sunrise, about thirty minutes away.

"Mofak flight, this is Klondike six, over."  Our airborne FAC was up tactical frequency.

"Mofak One reads you loud and clear.  We are four Crusaders with 8 Delta 6, 32 Delta 9, and 1600 Delta 20.  Orbiting Angels one five with one plus thirty fuel on board."  The TACA needed the information to coordinate the ordnance delivery.

"Roger Mofak.  We are five minutes out in a HUIE.  Estimate  we will have enough light to start the show in fifteen minutes."  Klondike Six continued. "I will be marking the targets with Willie Peter.  Call the target in sight, rolling in hot and off target.  Make your runs from north to south with left hand pattern. We will use the Delta sixes first to prepare the landing zones and soften up the enemy positions.  Any questions?"

"Roger, Klondike.  Each plane will drop the Delta Sixes in pairs."  The jettison toggle switch was used to simultaneously drop the two thousand pound bombs to reduce the asymmetric load problem with one 2000 lb. on one wing when dropping singles.

It was 5:45 when Klondike Six called.  "I will put out four marks.  Lead take the first most northern mark.  Two take the second mark, three the third and four take the last most southern mark.  Do you copy?"

"Affirmative Klondike."  Fish tailing my Crusader put the flight in column.  We turned toward the roll in point overhead the target at ten thousand feet.  The switches were reset for Bombs and wing rack jettison.  

"Klondike Six is in on marking run."  The HUIE made his run from north to south and fired four willie peter rockets about 200 meters apart from 6 to 12 O'clock in the target area.

"Mofak Lead has the mark.  Rolling in hot."  Heading 270 while abeam of the smoke, I rolled the Crusader over to inverted during 90 degrees of turn.  Pulling the nose on down until passing through the target mark with the radome, I then rolled the plane upright in a 60 degree dive and commenced tracking with the 100 mil ring on the sight.

  

Klondike Six called, "Cleared hot lead."  At 6,000 feet the pipper ring hit the smoke and I toggled the two 2000 lb. bombs off the wings.  5 G's were on the meter until the nose came up past the horizon at about 2000 feet altitude.  Rules of engagement set 2000 feet minimum altitude for slick bombs because of enemy small arms fire. Immediately, I banked the Crusader left and started downwind.

Mofak Two, Three and Four called "in hot" sequentially and were cleared to hit their respective targets.  The 2000 pound bombs detonated with tremendous blast and smoke.  White shock waves rapidly rippled out across the terrain with each fiery explosion.  Two hundred meters of trees and jungle were leveled at each target mark which provided a cleared area 200 meters wide and nearly one thousand meters long.

Klondike Six was happy with the LZ.  "Way to go Mofak Flight!  Now we will work on the gun emplacements and enemy troop concentrations.  Put your rockets on my smoke."  He pointed the HUIE at a mounded area east of the LZ and fired a Willie Pete.

Each Crusader fired two Zunis per run, hitting the fortified positions with rockets.  Klondike Six marked targets with his white phosphorous rockets and all our Zunis were expended  into the enemy positions.  Klondike Six sent Mofak flight 'high and dry' to orbit until the Sparrow Hawk from the USS Tripoli arrived along with the CH-46 helicopters with the assault troops.

The sun came up and the helicopters were still 15 minutes out.  At 6:40 Bucky called, "Bingo 1500 lbs. of fuel."  We were all bingo but I was not going to leave until the helicopters were in the zone and no longer taking fire.

Klondike was advised, "My birds are low fuel.  They will bingo for straight in to Da Nang at 1200 lbs.  Lead will remain until troops are off-loaded in the zone."

The helicopters were a mile out when Bucky and the two wingman left the pattern with 1200 lbs of fuel and headed direct Da Nang.  I flew out to meet the choppers and escorted them into the zone.  Klondike came up, "The Helos say they are taking fire from the tree line 500 meters east of the LZ.  Can you put your twenty mike mike on that tree line?"

"Roger, Klondike.  Mofak rolling in hot on the tree line."  The throttle was set for minimum fuel consumption.  300 knots was enough speed to do the job.

"Mofak, you are cleared hot."  Klondike was overhead the CH-46's..

With upper guns selected, the tree line abeam of the LZ was strafed from north to south.  Klondike loved it.  "Great job, Mofak!  Keep it up until the choppers are out of the zone!"

The fuel gage indicated 1000 lbs.  A turn toward Da Nang had to be made at 800 lbs. Switching the guns to lower, the high explosive, incendiary, armor piercing 20MM rounds poured into the tree line.  The 20MM twinkled when striking the ground like yellow and red flashing Christmas tree lights.  The helicopters were departing to the west as I banked for DaNang. Pushing the nose over provided one more strafing run on the tree line while heading north.  The gas gage indicated 800 lbs fifteen miles out for a straight in approach to runway 35 at Da Nang.

Klondike called, "Thanks for staying around for the choppers.  Reports from the deck indicate no casualties were incurred during the troop insertion.  Sorry the helos were late.  We appreciate the excellent job you guys did!" 

Da Nang TACAN showed a DME of 6 miles.  It was nearly 7 AM.  The fuel gage indicated 700 lbs.  "Da Nang tower.  Delta Bravo 7, five mile final approach for runway 35 right with emergency fuel state."  The landing gear handle was delayed until on short final approach for landing.

"Report gear down.  Cleared to land, Delta Bravo seven.  Call before crossing runway 35 left after roll out."

It was nice to have two runways when the worms were filling up the sack.  It was only two weeks before that a similar situation occurred after escorting a convoy from Dong Ha to Phu Bai.  Good weather had gotten me on the deck safely with 800 lbs that day.  Beacon Torch was a trifle more serious.  The What if's were more numerous.  Like, "What if another aircraft had a worse emergency?  Aircraft damage, engine failure or wounded crew member?  Could you have waved off and returned to land safely on another pass?"

The ordnance pros were waiting in the de-arming area and safed the 20MM cannons.  After parking in the refueling pits, the fuel gage needle was on 200 pounds when Plane Captain Swift Caulkins gave the shutdown signal by slicing his hand back and forth across his throat.

Three weeks later an award recommendation arrived at Marine Air Group Eleven for the Death Angel flight that supported the helicopter assault during the commencement of Operation Beacon Torch on June 18, 1967.     

Mofak

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 Donald Cathcart LtCol USMC Ret.