General Curtis E. LeMay, Air Force Chief of Staff, was not happy. First line U.S. fighters had been in South East Asia in small numbers since 1960. By mid-1964, more fighters began rotating through bases in South Vietnam and Thailand, as a show of force. Reconnaissance missions, with a pair of fighters as escorts, known as armed recce, were being flown into Laos and Vietnam, but they were severely restricted in their operations. The fighters escorting the reconnaissance aircraft could attack enemy positions only if they were first fired upon. The politicians were being cautious. By January 1965, there had been several “protective reactions,” and even a few fragged (planned) missions, but nothing of any real scope. In fact, many of the pre-planned missions had failed to find their targets in the confusing jungle landscape or reported disappointing BDA (Battle Damage Assessment).
General LeMay, Air Force Chief of Staff, longtime architect and commander of the Strategic Air Command, did not take kindly to less than desirable results on his watch. Exercising his dictatorial powers, he personally selected and fragged a target in Laos. It would be Barrel Roll Mission 9, scheduled for January 12. The target was a small, reinforced wooden bridge, the Ban Ken bridge, over the Nam Mat river roughly 12 kilometers east of the town of Ban Ban, which was located on Route 7 at the eastern edge of the Plain of Jars (Plain de Jares). Route 7 was a major supply route from North Vietnam, turning west at Vinh, crossing the mountains at the Barthelemy Pass, down through the jungle to join Route 4, which was an even larger supply route to Southern Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam.
Huns and thuds
The force for this mission would be the largest to date. General LeMay directed that 16 F-105s and four F-100s from Thai bases would join four F-100s based at Da Nang to compose the strike force, and that an RF-101 Voodoo reconnaissance fighter act as a pathfinder to lead the strike force to the target.
In keeping with restrictions in Thailand, the fighters would be loaded with their ordnance, and flown to Da Nang for the mission launch. The F-105s, affectionately referred to as Thuds, were each loaded with eight 750-pound Mk-117, general purpose bombs or six 750-pound bombs, and two AGM 83 Bullpup missiles. The F-100s would be armed with AGM-83s and CBU-2 cluster bomb weapons to provide flak suppression.
Bad weather and an accident on the runway at Da Nang caused the inbound fighters to divert, and the mission was delayed one day. In a hasty rescheduling for the 13th, tanker support was laid on. However, search and rescue forces were unintentionally omitted from the frag.
At 1300 hours on January 13, 1965, the quiet of the jungle was shattered as an RF-101 reconnaissance fighter flashed over the bridge at low altitude. As the sound of the RF-101 faded, a flight of four F-105s rolled in from the west, one after the other, dropping their loads of 750-pound bombs on the bridge. The mission leader, Lt. Col. Bill Craig, CO of the 44th Squadron, was first in, putting his bombs on target, shattering the west end of the bridge. The next three loads finished off the bridge. Three more flights of four F-105s followed. The second flight dropped its bombs into what quickly became a dense rolling wall of dirt, dust, and smoke, slowly rising into the air on a near windless, and increasingly cloudy day, obscuring the bridge and the surrounding area. The next two flights led by Lt. Col. Robin Risner, CO of the 67th Squadron, held their bombs at Risner’s direction. He led them back down the road where they destroyed a smaller bridge, since there was no designated alternate target.
The two flights of F-100s, four from the 613th Sq., led by Maj. Bob Ronca, and four from the 428th Sq., led by Lt. Col. Ben Clayton, fanned across the target area, firing Bullpup missiles and dropping CBU-2 bomblets in an effort to suppress the anti-aircraft fire, which turned out to be more intense than had been anticipated. For the majority of the pilots, this was their first combat mission and the first time they had experienced anti-aircraft fire. A large number of 37mm and 57mm anti-aircraft guns were adding greatly to their experience!
To read the article from the December 2012 issue of Flight Journal, click here.
By Lt. Colonel Bob Hanson, USAF (Ret.)