A noteworthy public commemoration of the Vietnam War occurred over the weekend of July 11th and 12th, 2015 in Connecticut. The “Vietnam 50th Celebration” marked the half century since the beginning of the ground war in that country. The event took place at the Connecticut Air National Guard base in East Granby and the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks.
The weekend was sponsored by the Central Connecticut State University Veterans History Project’s Vietnam War Commemoration Committee, in partnership with the Connecticut National Guard, the Connecticut Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and New England Air Museum. According to the sponsors, “this event was designed to educate a new generation about the Vietnam War and the part it played in the lives of our friends, relatives and neighbors whose stories are the building blocks of American History”.
Exhibits of equipment and vehicles were arrayed in tents, and many veteran-related organizations were present to spread the word about their goals and services. A series of speakers presented their recollections about the war, some had written books about their experiences and autograph sessions followed their discussions. Although the anniversary of the ground war’s escalation was marked, the most visible part of the weekend seemed to be centered around aviation.
Retired Air Force General William Begert spoke about flying forward air control (FAC) missions aboard Cessna O-2 Skymasters from Da Nang Air Base. While not directly involved with the 1972 epic rescue of Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton from the well-known Bat 21 rescue, he flew many simultaneous missions in the area during the effort, and knew many of the participants who contributed. He called the Army helicopter pilots “fearless”, but noted that all branches of service lost members during the weeks-long rescue missions that began from Bat 21‘s shootdown.
General Begert’s Air Force career spanned over 7,000 flying hours in 15 types of aircraft; almost 900 hours were flown in combat. He singled out his O-2 FAC experiences from his long career and said that he “loved that airplane and mission”. As an O-2 pilot, many times you flew alone, monitoring three different radio channels at the same time (with ground-based controllers, airborne command post directors, and tactical fighters on separate ones), looking outside for targets, and marking them with rocket fire. To paraphrase the General, familiarity with flying the aircraft while multi-tasking made it feel like the plane flew itself.
Seven years earlier, a small, secretive group of aviators and aircraft began a mission using the “Blind Bat” call sign. Four Blind Bat veteran loadmasters spoke about their experiences in their unarmed Lockheed C-130A transports that were modified to carry and drop scores of 27 pound aerial flares that were used to illuminate targets at night. The four men were 18 to 20 years old when they were chosen for their hazardous duty, during 1966 and 1967.
Aircraft were sent out after dark to look for truck activity on the darkened roads of North Vietnam and Laos, many times on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. There was no night vision equipment in the beginning… only the human “Mark I” eyeball and occasionally a pair of binoculars were used. The cockpit crew was in communication with an airborne command post and airborne attack aircraft to prosecute identified targets. In 1965 and 1966, a pair of Air Force B-57 Canberra bombers and a Marine Corps EF-10 “Whale” were commonly tasked to work with the Blind Bat. Other missions involved Air Force Air Commando A-26K Invaders, Navy/Marine A-4 Skyhawks, A-1E Skyraiders, and F-4 Phantoms operated by multiple service branches.
The team of Blind Bat loadmasters in the rear would open the cargo door, load a locally-manufactured flare dispenser that held up to 14 flares, and kick them out when notified by the cockpit crew. A two foot length of fabric was attached, and this lanyard armed the flare as it left the aircraft. An internal timer set the flare off as it descended under parachute. The team of loadmasters manually reloaded their dispenser from pallets of flares back in the middle of the aircraft.
What made this a very difficult and harrowing operation was that the C-130 was unarmed, flying low over jungles and mountains at night, weaving and junking to avoid anti-aircraft fire during their eight to ten hour missions. While the loadmasters wore a parachute, they seldom were strapped in to the aircraft. Two of the Blind Bat aircraft were shot down in 1968 and 1969, with the loss of both crews. Trying to sleep during the heat of the day at their base (Da Nang AB and later Ubon RTAFB) in soaring temperatures without air conditioning wore the young men out. Crew members said that carrying and handling those 27 pound flares during 1 1/2G to 2G maneuvers really built up their arm muscles too!
On static display was the American Flight Museum’s replica AC-47D “Spooky” gunship, marked as the aircraft where Airman 1st Class John Levitow earned his Congressional Medal of Honor. During a flight in 1969, an aerial flare (similar to that carried by the Blind Bat crew) became armed in his aircraft when it received battle damage. If the flare began to fully burn, the resultant magnesium fire would doom the aircraft and crew. John picked up the flare and threw it overboard, being burned in the process. The AC-47D aircraft and its crew flew all the way from Topeka, Kansas for this commemoration.
The American Huey 369 Organization operated the only aircraft that flew regularly during the two-day program. One of a pair of airworthy UH-1H “Huey” helicopters was flown to Connecticut for the event, and rides in the veteran helicopter were offered. On Saturday, at least 38 flights with six passengers aboard flew over the picturesque Granby area for 15 minutes each trip. Sunday’s sorties were numerous too, with the characteristic thumping sound of the Bell helicopter resonating around the Air National Guard base. The Vietnam War has been called the “Helicopter War”, as air mobility that used helicopters like the Bell UH-1 “Huey” changed tactics with great effect.
The pair of warbird helicopters was obtained by the organization for the purpose of educating people about the Helicopter War in Vietnam. Aircraft 70-16369 (their first helicopter – hence the organization’s name “369”) was obtained from a civilian organization in Maine, and restored to military colors. This aircraft was once used as a medical evacuation helicopter in Vietnam, known as a “Dustoff” aircraft, in the early 1970s. It was marked with a red cross and according to the Geneva Convention, was not to be fired upon. One former crew member said that the red cross unfortunately made a good target for enemy gunners in Vietnam though.
The other flying Huey in the organization was the one present in Connecticut, serial number 63-08803. This “slick” helicopter carried troops and cargo, and has quite a history in Vietnam. It was once known as “Warrior 11″ while serving with the 336th Assault Helicopter Company, and is once again painted in those colors today. Warrior 11 once crash landed in a burning landing zone and broke its skids in the process. Still upright, it settled to the ground and was shut down. Some 45 minutes later, it was restarted and flown back to its base, where it landed atop of a group of sandbags.
The American Huey 369 Organization has plans to build a museum at its home base of Peru, Indiana, housing one of every model of the Bell UH-1 ever built. They’ve collected 15 helicopters of various types used during the Vietnam War, including a Hughes OH-6 LOACH . There were about 20 volunteers present with the helicopter; pilots, crew chiefs, and ground workers. Within this group, I was lucky enough to meet three former Dustoff pilots and a combat medic and listen to some of their Vietnam experiences. Learning that all three pilots had been decorated with the Purple Heart for being wounded while flying Dustoff missions was quite a humbling experience for me.
Between the New England Air Museum collection and the static aircraft that were brought in and arrayed on the Air National Guard ramp, some 26 Vietnam War-era aircraft were displayed for the public to see. There were 16 aircraft in and around the Museum’s grounds, including a well restored F-100 Super Sabre, F-105 Thunderchief, and F-4 Phantom. Helicopters included a UH-1B gunship, SH-2 Seasprite and HH-43 Husky rescue aircraft. The DHC C-7 Caribou on display made the last flight of an Army Caribou when it was delivered to the Museum after the war ended.
On the Air National Guard ramp, the AC-47D, UH-1H, and the Collings Foundation’s EA-1E Skyraider were flyable warbirds at the event, and other older active military aircraft (B-52G, CH-47F, C-5B, and C-130H) represented earlier variants of their airframes that flew during the Vietnam War. Even the most modern aircraft on the ramp – the F-15C Eagle, A-10C Thunderbolt and UH-60A Blackhawk got their beginnings as replacements for Vietnam era aircraft.
Connecticut’s Vietnam 50th Celebration displayed a wide and diverse group of aircraft between the National Guard ramp and the Museum. It was similar to an airshow, except there was no flying (save for the UH-1 giving rides). The main event wasn’t meant to be entertaining, but to be educational for a younger generation through some incredible stories that were told by veterans. Through the camaraderie of the vets, some healing of old emotional wounds took place, and there were a lot of smiles to be seen. Even though the Vietnam War is part of our recent history when compared to World War II or the Korean War, it still began half a century ago and many of those veterans are in their 60s and 70s now. Some of their important contributions to American history were publically identified and commemorated in Connecticut last month.
Special thanks to Major Jefferson Heiland, PAO of the 103rd AW, CTANG; Captain Mike Peterson, Director of Public Affairs, CT National Guard; and Eileen Hurst, CCSU Director of Veterans History Project, for their time and their direction towards many of the abovementioned participants.
All photographs by the author except where noted.