Chapter 21 Air Defense Checks In
At ten o’clock in the clinging hot darkness of Danang, trucks and jeeps began to pull up to the radar bunker of the air field. The Big One was coming. Nervous drivers stopped too quickly, eliciting curses from the tense men riding in the back. To the north gunships poured red death at the earth as Third Tracs beat off another furious attack, the night shuddering with artillery and the tearing sound of miniguns. The radar technicians scrambling from the trucks paid no attention.
“Hustle up,” growled Sgt. Manuel Pedro Gonzales de Sebastian de la Madrid de la Hijo del Gusanito de Cordoba, who ran the big search radars that could detect at a range of 200 miles the bombers that the North Vietnamese didn’t have.
The doors of the radar room opened and the men poured in, racing to the consoles with the big green screens. Tension filled the air like a fluid.
“Come on! Come on!” urged the sergeant.
“Hey, cut us some slack, sarge,” muttered the corporal who worked the altitude-finding radar.
Sgt. Manuel Pedro Gonzales de Sebastian de la Madrid de la Hijo del Gusanito de Cordoba tried. He tried hard at everything because, although he was only a sergeant, he was aware of having sprung from a family of great historical importance. In the fifteenth century, the great church of Cordoba, then a small mud-walled town, had contained the greatest collection of relics in all Spain. There were six pieces of wood from the True Cross, all of different kinds of wood, which was held to show the miraculous powers of the godhead. There were two pounds of nails from the True Cross, a molar from Saint Peter, a cup made of Spanish clay and used at the last supper, and three sandals from Luke himself.
There was some degree of controversy over the sandals. One school of thought held that St. Luke had two pairs of shoes, and one sandal had been lost. Another thought the three sandals showed that St. Luke miraculously had three legs, and that anyone who doubted this lacked faith. A religious war had ensued over this matter in which fifteen thousand people were killed.
The most important relic however was the Holy Doorknob from the inn that turned away Joseph and Mary. No other church in all Christendom had such a thing, perhaps because no one else had thought of it. One night it disappeared. The distraught priests began a frantic search of the neighborhood. A small boy suddenly pointed to a thicket and shouted, “Por alla! El Gusanito nos lo muestra!” Translated, “Over there! The little worm shows us.” Sure enough, below a caterpillar hanging from a twig, the doorknob was found.
This was held to be a sign that the small boy’s family was blessed by God, and he, in his manhood, was made a count and given the honorific title “Hijo del Gusanito de Cordoba.” He became a respected minor noble, and never stole another doorknob.
Lt. David Miller, in command of the night shift, watched and tried to conceal his worry. Normally he loved radar. In fact, he thought that probably the world would be a better place if it consisted only of green blips silently moving on circular glass screens.
He was, in fact, a consummate radar chauvinist. At night, walking to his hooch in the officers’ compound, he often thought sneeringly of human vision, operating as it did on excessively short wavelengths. He loved to think of his long vertically polarized beams, reaching far out, overcoming the forth-power law, and detecting distant objects.
Tonight he was, if not frightened, at least anxious. Like many soldiers with no experience of war, he wondered how he would behave when the crunch came. It wasn’t fair, he thought briefly, that in his first month he should be in charge of the world’s busiest airport with all hell about to break loose. He felt he ought to do something to show Leadership. He wasn’t sure what.
“Men,” he said, “I want you to stay by your posts no matter what happens. War is war, and I want the 354th Radar Support Services Group to be remembered with honor.” He thought a moment. “That’s the most goddam preposterous thing I’ve ever said.”
“Yessir,” said Sgt. Will Ferguson, tuning the auxiliary transmitter with hurrying fingers. “Don’t let it bother you, sir. All the officers say things like that. It’s to keep our morale up.”
“Does it?” asked Lt. Miller, suddenly curious. “I mean, keep your morale up?”
“Don’t need to, sir. I just stay high on nature.”
The big green finger of the search strobe began to sweep in rhythmic circles. The sergeant began his check list. “Main trans? OK. Aux One? OK. Aux Two? Hurry up, Peterson, we got twenty minutes before they hit us. Then we’re up to our ass in alligators. Autoplot? OK. Directors? Get those fuckers on-line, Jones. Do it.”
The equipment running, the 354th Radar-Support Services Group leaned tensely over their screens, waiting. They were good, but from what they had been able to learn, the night would be bad, and each wondered how he would handle it.
“Oh, shit. Contact bearing 324, range 21.2. Oh, motherfucker, here they come.”
“Got it, sir.”
“Contact, bearing 232, range 180. Contact bearing 122, range 194. Contact….” The screens were filling.
It happened every month. He didn’t know why. Many hundreds of blips, all belonging to the US military, mysteriously converged on Vietnam. And he had to track all those aircraft and then fill out paperwork. It was hell.
Far out over the South China Sea, a KC-135 tanker from Guam roared through the night en route to U Ta Pao in Thailand, unaware of the growing panic at Danang. Far below the light of the moon reflected in silver splendor from the rumpled cloud cover. In the austere passenger bay above the huge fuel bladders, General Richard “Beefeater” Thompson, commander of Andersen Field at Guam, took a swig from a bottle of bourbon, wiped his mouth, and said to several full colonels, adequately lubricated, who listened attentively, “Shit, with this juice going for fifty cents a quart, a man can’t afford to stay sober. Cheaper’n milk.”
The colonels laughed appreciatively. In an obscure seat Lieutenant Trilling smiled enough to show appreciation but not enough to call attention to himself. He had been making these flights for years now, and knew better than to enter uninvited into a field-grade conversation. His watery eyes gleamed with pleasure. He was thinking of the bundle he had made when the stock of General Dynamics had gone up twelve points on the news that it had gotten a major contract for invisible-airplane detectors. He really needed the tax break he got by flying with General Thompson.
Early in the war, Congress had come under pressure from the Pentagon to ease the financial burden on the common soldier who fought for his country in Asia. A lurid picture was painted of corporal’s wives leaving babies alone in rickety fire-trap housing that enlisted men lived in while they went to night jobs in sweat shops. Consequently a bill had been passed allowing a $1000 tax deduction for every month a man spent in combat, the thought being to compensate for income lost to a man’s family by keeping him from moonlighting.
As the bill advanced through committee, a certain amount of sculpting had taken place. A thousand dollars seemed excessive for enlisted men, so their credit was cut to $500. Since “combat” wasn’t easy to define in a murky war, being in the combat zone at any place was accepted as being in combat. Exactly what was meant by “month spent in combat” wasn’t clear, so the committee, at the Pentagon’s suggestion, had decided that any part of a month counted as a month. “Month” was interpreted to mean “calendar month.” Finally, “combat zone” was interpreted to include the air space above Vietnam, and the contiguous air space to a distance of 100 nautical miles.
Someone had then noticed that a man could get two months tax credit by flying over Vietnam at midnight on the last day of the month. This didn’t make sense, but the bored technician who wrote the accounting program had slipped up. Suddenly literally hundreds of planes began flying from every base in Asia on the 31st, grasping at any expedient that might bring them in contact with precious Vietnamese air space. Freighters in droves swept in from Japan, to land at Bangkok and refuel. The tankers discovered that, by flying empty, they could reach U Ta Pao from Guam. B-52s from Oklahoma swooped over, trailed by tankers. All training missions went east. Aircraft carriers nudged the coast so pilots could dash by.
The first time this occurred, the radar watch officer in the North Vietnamese capital had taken one look at his screens and collapsed of a heart attack. Three hundred thirty-seven planes arriving with perfect precision: He had known it wasn’t smart to provoke the Americans. Every MiG in North Viet Nam had scrambled.