Tuesday, May 21, 2019

THE DRAGON'S JAW

Earlier this month a five-year campaign drew to a successful end.  It resonated over a period of more than half a century, dating from the spring of 1965. The result is Dragon’s Jaw: An Epic Story of Courage and tenacity in Vietnam.

My friend, colleague and unindicted co-conspirator Stephen Coonts is a former U.S. Navy attack pilot, Vietnam veteran, and immensely successful novelist.  Most of his books have earned their way onto the New York Times’best-seller list, starting with his smash 1986 debut Flight of The Intruder, later a successful movie.

Steve and I shared our first publisher, Naval Institute Press in Annapolis, and when I was asked to evaluate his original manuscript, I told the editor, “This book is so good that if you don’t publish it, I will.”  Things proceeded from there, and Steve has kindly included me in three of his anthologies including the fiction compilations Victoryand Combat

As they say, time passed.  Then one afternoon in April 2014 Steve phoned with a question: would I like to work with him on the full story of Thanh Hoa Bridge?

That was akin to asking J. Edgar Hoover if he would have liked to arrest Jimmy Hoffa.  (And if you don’t recognize either name, you’re encouraged to do some XX century googling.)  My response was not just Yes but Hell Yes!

Some background:

Thanh Hoa Bridge was the most notorious target in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War (1964-1973 or 1975, depending on one’s definition).  About 70 miles south of Hanoi, it was one of the two most important spans in North Vietnam, the other being the Long Bien Bridge crossing the Red River in Hanoi. Both were critical links supporting the North’s enduring campaign to funnel men and supplies from China and the port of Haiphong into South Vietnam, America’s erratic ally.  And both were extremely well defended.

Because of Than Hoa Bridge’s rocky anchors either side of the Song Ma, resembling giant jaws, the Vietnamese had long dubbed the area the Cầu Hàm Rồng.  And so it became famous—and infamous—as the Dragon’s Jaw, completed in 1964.

In that first conversation I told Steve that I had started a Thanh Hoa file about 25 years before, when managing editor of the Tailhook Association journal.  I’d heard various estimates of the number of U.S. aircraft shot down attacking the bridge, as high as 100+.  So, with a fading printout of American fixed-wing aircraft shot down in Southeast Asia, I was confronted with nearly 3,000 entries.   The task was somewhat simplified because President Lyndon Johnson, the frustrated Texas arm-twister, called off bombing North Vietnam in 1969 and it was not resumed until Richard Nixon ran out of patience three years later. But even then, I had to peruse about 1,700 combat losses, seeking Thanh Hoa targets.

So we had the bare-bones skeleton of our book. Steve and I easily reached an agreement—after all, one of his previous careers was the law—and away we went.  I would research the story, write a first draft, and then Steve would expand the text and sprinkle his literary pixie dust. His agent sold our proposal to Da Capo Press for manuscript delivery in the fall of 2018, working around Steve’s fiction obligations.  In that time I finished or began four projects of my own.  In a word, we were busy.

In all we consulted about 70 contributors representing the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, civilians, and Vietnamese. They included a well-connected American structural engineer who had worked in Vietnam; the Air Force colonel who led the first two Thanh Hoa missions in 1965; a future U.S. vice presidential candidate and other long-term POWs; the Navy pilot who probably flew more Dragon’s Jaw missions than anyone; the Phantom leader whose laser-guided bombs crippled the span in May 1972; and the naval aviator whose flight slew the Dragon that October.  Thanks to a couple of extraordinarily generous scholars, we obtained original material from North Vietnam, much of which had never been seen.

Early on, Steve and I realized that we had more than a gripping combat flying story.  The bridge became a microcosm of that entire “Crazy Asian War” in all its insanity, courage, pride, and grief.  It was as if the Dragon’s Jaw were an inanimate 20th century Grendel, the fearsome, lurking monster of the classic Icelandic Beowulf saga.  More than that, the overdesigned, overbuilt span represented what literature majors term a deus ex machina—a convention from ancient Greek sagas that brings players into the story. 

And we found something more.  Most of our contributors had waited half a century for someone to ask them to share their portion of the Thanh Hoa story.  It was as if Steve and I became their voices, which came spilling out of phones, tape recorders, and emails.  It wasn’t merely that Vietnam was their war—often the bridge was their enduring identity in that ill-conceived, misdirected, doomed endeavor. But at the same time they retain the fierce pride of accomplished warriors with shared skill in the profession of arms, and most of all—trust in one another.  Dragon’s Jawis their legacy, and Steve and I were privileged to record it.

We wanted the book to be about more than bombs falling and planes shot down.  We thought the context was crucial, so Steve immersed himself in the history of the war, trying to boil it down so that the contest didn’t overpower the story.  As Steve concludes, “We think we got enough of the political overview of the Vietnam War and peace efforts so that the intermittent campaign against the bridge makes some kind of sense. Believe me—it didn’t at the time.”

Monday, April 29, 2019

WHEN TO GROUND 'EM

The loss of an irreplaceable historic aircraft with its irreplaceable pilot this month has rekindled the long argument about how long such treasures should be flown.

Planes of Fame’s ultra-rare Northrop 9M flying wing crashed in a Southern California prison yard on April 22, destroying the last remaining example of four prototypes built during World War II.  It had sustained serious damage in 2006 but was fully rebuilt, returning to flight status four years later.

The fact is: airplanes will crash as long as airplanes are flown.  Pilots and passengers will lose their lives along the way. There’s no escaping that fact—it’s reliable as gravity.

The rate of attrition has slowed in recent decades, but it probably had to if the warbird community was to survive.  From the 1960s onward the Confederate Air Force (since rebranded Commemorative Air Force) drew loud, bitter criticism for a long string of accidents destroying airplanes as varied as two Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boats, a rare Douglas SBD Dauntless, an equally rare B-26 Marauder, plus P-51 Mustangs. The problem was largely solved by focusing on pilot qualifications rather than checkbook, and more rigorous maintenance.

But losses continue. Since last January the world log of warbird losses includes a Hawker Hunter jet in Hawaii; a double fatality P-51 Mustang, a nonfatal North American SNJ trainer on a California highway; a fatal Russian Yak fighter in Australia; a 1930s airliner in Switzerland with 20 dead; a multi-injury Douglas C-47 transport in Texas; a fatal De Havilland jet in Wisconsin; a nonfatal TBM Avenger in Arizona (the crew bailed out and the torpedo bomber disappeared); a dual fatality Yak crash in France; and another Yak badly damaged taxiing in New Zealand.

The question of whether irreplaceable treasures should continue flying is complex, heartfelt, and often noisy.  Absent a federal regulation prohibiting flying them, the decision naturally rests with the owners.  Anyone with the funds, time and talent can bring a worn piece of scrap iron back to fully operational status—a sight and sound to be enjoyed by thousands of enthusiasts.

There are nuances to the question of rebuilding an historic airplane, partly by definition. Sometimes vintage machines are largely or entirely reproductions (I’ll omit the “replica” argument) with an original data plate.  But for today let’s skip that concern and focus on “real” airplanes that are true restorations. 

Some purists advocate a law that would prevent issuing an airworthiness certificate to an aircraft that is the last one, two, or five (take a number) remaining.  Fine and dandy for the cause of History.

But what about the owner who may have invested hundreds of thousands of personal dollars in the project?  And let’s be honest: some rebuilds involve millions.

“Tough luck” is a damned poor excuse for a reply.

Since warbirds generally are World War II aircraft, almost any type you can name was purchased on an industrial scale: 18,000 Liberators, 12,000 Flying Fortresses, 15,000 each Mustangs and Thunderbolts, 12,000 Corsairs and Hellcats, 10,000 C-47/R4D Skytrains, etc.  But if the purchaser—the U.S. Government—scrapped that aerial fleet in wholesale lots, logically and ethically how can the same government prohibit private citizens (think about that word: citizens) from restoring, maintaining and flying the remaining examples?

Short answer: Idunno.

All I can say is this:

I was blessed to grow up restoring and flying historic airplanes, all of which were older than I.  In the 1970s Dad and I logged several glorious hours in what was then the world’s only flying example of a Douglas Dauntless.  (See my 2017 Naval History article called “The Plane That Won the War.”)  But we were acutely aware that the seals were thirty years old, and an in-flight failure could have cost us the aircraft.  Today I’m delighted that the bird is permanently nested in the National Museum of the Air Force in Ohio.

Warbirds are more than visual.  They are audio and sensory.  If you’ve ever heard twin Allisons packing the mail in a Lockheed airframe, or felt the throaty rumble of a Pratt & Whitney R2800 up close, you know what I mean.

And therein lies the glitch.  Would you rather see rare aircraft in the traffic pattern—call it the open range—or parked inside at a “petting zoo”?  

The answer is: it depends.  On many things, often with conflicting priorities and agendas.

But it’s a discussion we should begin in earnest.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

HOSER

That zone five afterburner you heard earlier this month was Commander Joseph Frank Satrapa, USN (Ret) departing the pattern at age 78.  And if you don’t recognize the name, well, strap in tight, turn up the oxygen to 100 percent, and select Guns…

First, you should know that almost nobody called him “Joe.”  He was “Hoser” to at least two generations of naval aviators, and the reasons will soon be obvious.

Anyway: Hoser was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy from California and graduated in 1964.  It was a point of perverse pride that he finished 926th among 927.

Not that it mattered. Hoser was uninterested in academics and Military Courtesy.  He was massively, completely, interested in flying, particularly flying fighters.

He got his wish.

The thing is: for all his contempt for conventional naval bearing, Hoser was a natural-born, charismatic, by-gawd Leader. Nobody taught him that—he carried it with him like his gravelly Yosemite Sam voice.

Upon receiving his wings of gold, Hoser got what he most wanted: F-8 Crusaders.  In the mid 1960s the ‘sader was a cult machine: the navy’s first supersonic aircraft, record-setting speedster (John Glenn flew one coast to coast in barely three hours) and fearsome dogfighter.  It was a melding of man and machine.  Hoser became an acknowledged master of fighter tactics and gunnery, and showed early talent for imparting his skill to others.

Hoser lived and breathed aerial gunnery.  He cadged extra flights whenever possible, developing an uncanny skill at shooting holes in towed banners.  On his first F-8 gunnery flight he enthusiastically “hosed” all his 20mm ammunition at the target in one pass.  A callsign was born.

In 1967 Hoser deployed to war with a detachment of the VF-111 Sundowners (of honored memory) aboard USS Intrepid.  One of his squadronmates, Tony Nargi, downed a North Vietnamese MiG on the next cruise, and the fact that Hoser never scored had absolutely nothing to do with him. It’s just that the MiGs seldom came out to play.

Hoser had the eminently bribable parachute riggers modify his torso harness to accept his personal arsenal: a Colt .357 magnum with 42 rounds of hollow-point ammo, a Smith & Wesson five-shot revolver with 20 rounds of tracer and hardball; a throwing knife; and two hand grenades.  (He traded some marines a couple of flight jackets for the latter.)  Plus an extra battery for his survival radio.  As Hoser explained, "Just because you're on the ground doesn't mean the fight's over.  You just change tactics."

Then the roof collapsed.  Hoser was one of a handful of experienced aviators pulled out of their beloved Crusaders into other aircraft to spread the knowledge. To say that Hoser went reluctantly would understate the situation—he went with the proverbial doorknob in each hand and skid marks on the deck.

However, comma: he got the next best thing.  North American’s sleek, super-fast RA-5C Vigilante was Navy Air’s primo reconnaissance aircraft.  A “Viggie” looked like it was doing 400 knots sitting in the chocks. The other thing that Viggies shared with Crusaders was an appalling safety record: they seemed to vie with one another for the highest accident rate in carrier aviation.

Flying from USS America in 1972, Hoser became a recce force to be reckoned with. Partnered with Lt(jg) Bob Rinder, as his recon navigator, Hoser recalled, “Seems like the gomers usually shot two or three thousand feet behind us ‘cause we were going at the speed of heat. How fast is that?  Well, that’s classified…except it’s really cookin’!  I got hit five times over the beach in F-8s—one aircraft was a ‘strike’ that couldn’t be repaired.  Only got a single hit in an RA-5C down at Chul Lai.”

That October Hoser and Rinder diverted from a Hanoi recon mission to look at Thanh Hoa Bridge, the most notorious target in Southeast Asia.  After the film was developed, there was proof—the “Dragon’s Jaw” was down in the river. The A-7 Corsair IIs of Attack Squadron 82 had done the deed.

At war’s end Hoser was a dead-end lieutenant commander in a navy determined to “rightsize.”  He was on the way out when he happened to meet a well-connected Navy Reserve officer named John Lehman.  As in, future Secretary of the Navy John Lehman.  According to legend, Satrapa called one night and there was that distinctive voice in the Lehman telephone: “SecNav?  Hoser.  I wanna come back.”

And he did, in a deal that’s been compared to the NFL draft.  With a very few other essential but unpromotable talents (including legendary landing signal officer John “Bug” Roach), Hoser returned to the fold, back in fighters where he belonged.  He transitioned to F-4 Phantoms but hit his stride with the next-generation F-14 Tomcat.

Hoser’s wealth of skill and knowledge, coupled with his inspirational teaching style, produced results.  (“Never forget—you’re here to kill the enemy.”)  But it wasn’t just tactics and gunnery—Hoser was a master of deceit.  When he humiliated an adversary pilot (with film showing Hoser’s sight on the opponent’s cockpit) he was accused of cheating.  To which Hoser famously replied, “Credibility is down.  Kill ratio is up!”

While at NAS Oceana, Virginia, Hoser built a single-shot 20mm rifle originally with home-made ammunition that shot 350 yards or more.  But later his invention blew up, severing his right thumb and index finger.  Now, you cannot fly “fighterjets” without a starboard thumb because it controls buttons and switches on the stick.  Not to worry: Hoser convinced a surgeon to remove his starboard big toe and place it on Hoser’s hand.  The doc worked his wonders, and viola!  Hoser was back—as “Toeser.”

The Hoser Legend continued growing.  The stories are legion, and regardless of how outrageous, probably most are true.  Here’s a sampling:

Allegedly Hoser went fishing in California with hand grenades, aka “DuPont spinners.”  Caught in the act, reputedly Hoser shoved a grenade in the game warden’s hand, pulled the pin, and asked (non-rhetorically) “You gonna fish or what?” More accurately, he used direct-contact “bang sticks” on grouper, successfully.

Another F-8 legend, the late Commander John Nichols, recalled another Hoser shooting tale.  During a Fallon, Nevada, gunnery detachment they were billeted in BOQ rooms with adjoining head.  Pirate heard something in there pretty dang early and opened the door--and nearly gagged.  Hoser had been out bird hunting and used the sink to clean the products of his shotgun excursion.

Then there’s the story of how Hoser grabbed a five-foot water moccasin threatening a friend’s two children.

Upon retiring from the navy, Hoser sought the next best thing and found it in his native California.  Flying modified Grumman S-2 antisubmarine planes, he reveled in delivering retardant upon forest fires.  

Long before his final retirement, the living legend treated himself to his own tombstone.  “Here rests the fighter pilot Hoser.  I lived life as I wanted, simple, honest, brave
And
I never landed gear up!”

Joseph “Hoser” Satrapa—a born warrior.  His kind has been bred out of the system, never to return.