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February 17, 1966, Vol. XI, No. 18
Target — Grass Huts, or Hitting Where It Hurts
By C. Joy MacSweeny
“Our Phantom stood on the bomb deck, being loaded with two fat cylinders painted red and each marked 1000-lb firebomb — otherwise napalm, the most popular bomb in Vietnam; a mixture of low-grade jet fuel and gelignite which sticks to anything it touches and burns with such heat that all oxygen in the area is exhausted within a split second. Death is either by roasting or suffocation.”
British writer Alan Williams was recently the guest of a U.S. Navy fighter squadron on a bombing raid over the Mekong Delta, and he reported it in an article headlined “Phantom Phor Phreedom” in the London Sunday Times magazine. It was, he was warned, to be “a somewhat hairy experience.” The plane he flew in, based on the aircraft carrier Independence, was a Phantom II F4C, the fastest operational aircraft in the world, capable of more than 1600 miles per hour. The Independence, the world’s second biggest aircraft carrier, was cruising 200 miles off Saigon.
The carrier, Williams noted, is supplied every five days with up to 1000 tons of whimsically nicknamed bombs and rockets. “Willy Peters,” deadlier than napalm, the white phosphorous bomb that can burn even under water. Rockets called “Bullpup,” “Mighty Mouse,” “Sidewinder”; explosive shells for “Puff-the-Magic-Dragon,” the Vulcan gatling gun.
According to the squadron commander’s briefing, the bombers would fly in three-plane sorties, rendezvousing off the coast. Each target would be bombed by three aircraft, two with four 250-pound bombs, one with napalm, zooming in from 35,000 feet and releasing their ordnance at 300.
Williams sat behind the commander in the radar seat. He wore a pressure suit and an oxygen mask and was equipped with a survival kit that included snakebite serum, shark repellent, anti-chap lipstick, a tiny two-way radio, and two bamboo shoots for breathing under water in a rice paddy. He was strapped into his seat with safety belts across thighs, stomach, chest, and shoulders, and before the canopy was closed down the pins were removed from the ejection seat. Then take-off — from zero to 200 miles an hour in 1.8 seconds. “A lurch and a blow in my chest that knocked the wind out of me,” Williams reported.
They were over the coast in less than 10 minutes, “with the fingers of the Mekong Delta meandering out across a shining mosaic of flooded rice-paddies.”
The Forward Air Control spotter-plane, “Bird-dog,” a single engined L-19, could be seen far below.
“It was wheeling like a butterfly over a strip of silver canal between clumps of trees.”
Williams saw a puff of white smoke — Bird-dog’s marker rocket had been fired. The message came over the radio, “Crackerjack to Curly-Mantle, Glamour Girl, Lover-Boy, your target is marked right on position — over.”
The first two Phantoms swept down and dropped their loads, two bomb runs for each plane. Then the commander warned Williams to brace himself to go in. “With a terrible emptiness in my gut, we flattened out over the target…and I had a glimpse of three thatched huts burning along the edge of some water. Then I closed my eyes and could not open them again until we were several thousand feet up. Below, the trees and huts were blotted out by a cloud of nauseous black smoke.”
Williams kept his eyes open on the second run. He saw the second napalm bomb just after it burst: “a ball of brilliant flame was rolling out across more than 200 feet, swelling like a great orange cauliflower.” Another Phantom dived again, “with Puff-the-Magic-Dragon pouring an almost solid saw of exploding metal into what was left of the clump of trees and huts.” Bird-dog reported, “Target totally destroyed. No visible human activity.”
That was all. Three thatched huts demolished by three planes worth a total of 15 million dollars, “with $50,000 training behind each of three pilots.” They had flown from a carrier “that cost more than $300 million, and more than $150,000 a day to run.”
Williams, summing up the situation, wrote that the Viet Cong planned their strategy on the Viet Minh defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu. But they will not get their Dien Bien Phu. The position has changed.
“The Viet Con are fighting, not against World War II conventional weapons, but against crack battalions being airlifted in by helicopters; against continual air strikes by Phantoms, Thunderchiefs, and Supersabres; against helicopters, called ‘gun-ships,’ equipped with four men strapped to the outside with machine-guns and radar capable of picking up bullets within 100 feet, and automatically aiming rockets at whoever has fired; against Zunies, Bullpups, Sidewinders, and saturation raids by B-52 8-engined bombers.” Along hundreds of miles of rivers and highways, the land is stripped of vegetation by millions of gallons of weedkiller sprayed from aircraft.
Pointing to a group of air-to-air missiles stacked aboard the Independence, the squadron commander had told Williams, “With the price of one of those babies, you could buy yourself more than 20 brand-new Cadillacs. It’s an expensive war — but we can afford it.”
After his raid, Alan Williams received a certificate. It read, “Phor Phearless Phortitude While Phlying with the mighty Phantom to Witness Its Phantastic Phire-Power Phor Phreedom, I Hereby Declare You a Phirst-Rate Phellow of the Phantom Phraternity.”
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 17, 2009