In the 1990s there was a plethora of published material on D-Day and the Second World War writ large. For example, Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers was published in 1992. The service members who served during that conflict were in their 70s and sought to tell their stories. Comparatively speaking, the veterans of the Vietnam War were in their 40s at the time; however, time marches on. In 2019, we are where we were in the 1990s, but this time it is the veterans of the Vietnam War who are now in the 70s, and a fresh new wave of scholarship and memoirs are being published on that most confusing of conflicts.
Into the mix comes, Gaillard R. Peck, Jr.’s Sherman Lead: Flying the F-4D Phantom II in Vietnam. Peck admitted early on that his mission here is not to rehash politics or make sweeping judgments, ‘It is not my intent to go into details as to how the war was fought. Nor will I delve into policy.’ This book is simply, and excellently presented. It provides one pilot’s perspective, through his own window on the world about his time flying during the Vietnam War. Peck’s work joins other recent accounts including David R. Honodel’s The Phantom Vietnam War (2018) and Terry L. Thorsen’s Phantom in the Sky (2019), as well as Dan Pederson’s TOP GUN: An American Story (2019).
Readers might recognise Peck’s name as he was also one of the commanders of the famed MiG-flying Red Eagles squadron and author of America’s Secret MiG Squadron: The Red Eagles of Project CONSTANT PEG (2012) that was also published by Osprey. Peck now turns his attention to his time as a young pilot flying and fighting in the F-4 Phantom II in 1968-1969. ‘Evil’ as he has been known to generations of fighter-pilots at Nellis Air Force Base has decided to add prolific writer to an already fantastic resume. Peck is something of a legend in the US Air Force’s Fighter community, as he has been a staple at the F-15 and F-22 Weapon’s School for decades.
Sherman Lead is ostensibly about flying the F-4 in combat, but this work is much richer than just that. Peck included the social side of life for American aircrews flying out of Thailand, something missing in other works. Peck also deftly included aspects of flying left out of so many books. This included the process and importance of mid-air refuelling, a nice tip of the hat to the tanker community.
The book generally follows his training progression, from learning to not only flying fighters but also how to employ them. Peck also deftly demonstrated how the training at an air-to-ground gunnery range was accomplished as well as the physics and geometry of putting bombs on a target. By using both the training environment as well as his experiences employing munitions in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the reader gets the sense that there is a genuine difference between precision-guided munitions and the precision-employment of munitions. Peck adroitly described all of these without being overly technical; thus the book can be enjoyed by the professional and the enthusiast alike.
Of course, the real effort of the book is to be found in his operations flying out of Ubon Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand and his missions over North Vietnam as part of Operation ROLLING THUNDER or over Laos as part of Operation STEEL TIGER. Perhaps the most significant contribution Peck has made to our understanding of the Vietnam War is that this is a dual ‘biography’ in that it is a memoir of himself, but it is also the biography of the F-4 Phantom II. This book is as much about how the war changed man as it is about how the war changed the machine.
Sherman Lead is destined to join the other classic memoirs on air power in Vietnam, including Jack Broughton’s Thud Ridge (1969) and Rick Newman and Don Shepperd’s Bury Us Upside Down (2006). Historians of air power and the history of the US Air Force will especially enjoy this book, but it will also find a wider audience in those seeking to understand individual and unique perspectives on America’s participation in the war in Vietnam.
Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. His recently published Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.
Header Image: An image of an F-4 Phantom II being refuelled during Operation ROLLING THUNDER. Aerial refuelling permitted tactical aircraft to operate in the northern part of North Vietnam, something noted in Peck’s memoir. (Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force)
Editorial Note: During 2019, From Balloons to Drones is running a series of articles looking at various aspects of the air war over Vietnam from the French-Indochina War through to the end of the Vietnam War. In this article, Dr Robert Kodosky discusses the differing attitudes towards armed helicopters between the US Army and US Marine Corps as they entered the Vietnam War. If you would like to contribute to the series, then please email our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney, at email@example.com or via our contact page here. The official call for papers is here.
In Vietnam, the US Army utilised helicopters according to its thinking about conventional warfare during the previous decade. Without the ‘helicopter in Vietnam,’ US Army officials concluded that America and its allies in Vietnam ‘would not have been able to outmanoeuvre the enemy nor exercise their superior firepower.’ While accurate, this observation adhered to the assumption that these tactics aligned to an effective counterinsurgency strategy. As one wartime study commissioned by the Department of Defense contended, ‘the crude use of overwhelming firepower seems more appropriate to total war.’
The US Army appropriated helicopters to fight the war it wanted in Vietnam, one of attrition. In comparison, Marines employed rotary craft to fight the war they got. The US Marine Corps (USMC) weaponised helicopters to align with counterinsurgency goals and remained cautious about the firepower they delivered. In July 1967, for example, the commander of Fleet Marine Forces, Pacific, General Charles Krulak noted that armed helicopters carried out two-thirds of all USMC UH-1E flights in Vietnam during the previous year. He found this unacceptable. More arms, Krulak observed, denied the USMC ‘the eyes which are so urgently needed over the jungle environment.’ He suggested that the USMC had erred in putting ‘too many rocket pods’ on UH-1Es and had ‘unconsciously encouraged their misuse.’
This example, set by the USMC in Vietnam, remains vital today. Despite ‘deliberate application of COIN [counterinsurgency] practices in Iraq and Afghanistan,’ some aviators have remained ‘focused on killing insurgents.’ One AH-64 Apache battalion commander deployed to Iraq cited ‘winning hearts and minds’ as ‘ground-guy stuff.’
As such, this article explores foundational thinking surrounding the decision to weaponise helicopters in both the US Army and the USMC. Each initially conceptualised weaponising helicopters to wage a conventional war, whether as weapons platforms to combat tanks or to facilitate amphibious landings. This resulted in experimentation in ways to arm helicopters to deliver indiscriminate firepower. While the US Army remained on this path, the USMC deviated from it, based on their observations of the French effort to quell insurgents in Algeria and their own early experience in Vietnam. The USMC then decided to weaponise helicopters in Vietnam because they perceived them better able to deliver discriminate firepower than fixed-wing craft.
Blitzkrieg from Above
Contemporary observers largely concurred that the Vietnam War provided the ‘crucible for the helicopter.’ Military officials reaffirmed this view afterwards, citing helicopters as counterinsurgency tools essential for ‘mobility, rapid deployment of troops and logistics support.’ The US Army declared that helicopters ‘represented the most revolutionary change in warfare since the blitzkrieg.’
This view found widespread acceptance. According to US Army General William C. Westmoreland, commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam between 1964 and 1968, America ‘achieved the ability to use the helicopter and employ the tactics of air mobility.’ This reflected the US Army’s view that its efforts during the Korean War suffered from doctrinal and technological limitations that prohibited employing rotorcraft to gain the initiative by enabling mobility. In Korea, this resulted in a deadlock. Westmoreland observed that the Vietnam War readied America’s use of helicopters to ‘take off.’ This ‘is not the end,’ he advised, it ‘is only the beginning.’
This proved prescient. In 2004, the US Army alone deployed more than 500 helicopters to Afghanistan and Iraq. In counterinsurgency missions especially, the helicopter played ‘a key role.’ It continues to do so. There exists an ‘intensive use of rotary wing aircraft,’ rendering the helicopter as ‘omnipresent across a large spectrum of defense missions.’
There exists good cause, however, to explore the centrality of helicopters critically in the execution of counterinsurgency operations. A recent study concerned with American involvement in Vietnam, Soviet engagement in Afghanistan and French participation in Algeria argues that helicopters proved ‘indecisive or bad at enabling legitimacy, population control, and isolation, key tenets of successful COIN.’
This view is reflected by commentary offered by a counterinsurgency veteran to the Armed Forces Journal. It cited the proclivity of AH-64 Apache and OH-58D operators for flying low to the ground. While this proved ‘occasionally fruitful in detecting enemy activity,’ it observed that helicopters ‘can only scatter a farmer’s sheep so many times before he sees coalition forces as an annoyance rather than an ally.’
Such criticism is not new. Sir Robert Thompson, who directed the British Advisory Mission to the Republic of Vietnam between 1961-1965, became an outspoken critic of America’s strategy in Vietnam. Thompson was a widely respected expert on counterinsurgency based on his experience in Malaya. Thompson labelled attrition, using the number of Vietnamese communists killed as a metric of success, as an ‘error.’ The ‘main contributing factor to this,’ he contended, ‘was the helicopter.’
The Army Way – Cavalry Without Horses
The development of the US Army’s thinking about the use of helicopters as air cavalry capable of aerial assault originated during the Korean War. In July 1952, the US Army’s 6th Transportation Company (Helicopter) received the H-19 Chickasaw. Capable of faster and farther travel than the H-13, the Chickasaw constituted the US Army’s first true cargo and transport helicopter. While used to assist medical evacuation and resupply efforts, the H-19 executed the US Army’s first air assault combat missions, shaping Army thinking about helicopters after the war.
In 1955, Redstone Rocket likened helicopter performance favourably in Korea to fixed-wing operations during the Second World War. It framed the helicopter’s potential within conventional missions such as ‘smoke laying’ and ‘armor column control.’ It observed that helicopters took with them ‘two American military traditions: To get there ‘fustest with the mostest’ and to ‘hit ‘em where they ain’t.’”
James M. Gavin, a veteran of the Second World War and later a Lieutenant-General in the US Army of the 1950s, introduced his concept of airborne armoured cavalry in ‘The Future of Armor,’ an article that appeared in the US Army’s Infantry Journal in 1948. He argued that ‘striking at high speed by air’ and ‘entering ground combat’ enabled ‘mobility and the retention of the initiative.’ Armoured cavalry offered this potential, Gavin contended, rendering it uniquely able to ‘play the decisive role in future airborne combat.’
Gavin expanded on his idea over the next 15 years, including in an article for Harper’s Magazine, published in 1954. In ‘Cavalry, and I Don’t Mean Horses,’ Gavin suggested that the US 8th Army in Korea suffered from a lack of airmobile cavalry. He pressed for the return of a ‘mobility differential,’ one that could make a difference for American commanders in Korean-style conflicts and any war waged directly against the Soviet Union.
Mobility comprised more than speed, Gavin clarified, it included the capability to deliver superior firepower. The Second World War informed Gavin’s thinking and influenced the US Army’s development of its air assault concept. During the Second World War, in addition to its functions of target acquisition and artillery fire observation, organic US Army aviation ‘provided highly responsive capabilities.’
Gavin served in President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration as Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations (G-3) and was a critic of the President’s ‘New Look’ national security policy that prioritised massive nuclear retaliation. Gavin advocated the need for force readiness, ‘based on his concepts of mobility, firepower and control derived from his experience in World War II.’ He cited helicopters as able to ‘provide the mobility advantage that U.S. forces needed.’ These fulfilled the traditional cavalry missions of ‘reconnaissance, screening and exploitation.’
Gavin’s notions about air mobility became those of the US Army. General Hamilton Howze, appointed by Gavin as the first Director of Army Aviation in 1955, instituted them. In this capacity, Howze ‘saw to it that every imaginable weapon was strapped onto a US-1 (Huey).’ Also a veteran of the Second World War, Howze envisioned the utility of air mobility within conventional thinking about linear warfare against a mechanised adversary.
By the winter of 1961, with ‘the Army’s aviation resources suddenly in high demand’ due to America’s increasing commitment in Vietnam, Secretary of Defense for the President John F. Kennedy’s administration, Robert S. McNamara, grew ‘sharply critical of the Army’s conservative approach’ to improve air mobility.
Kennedy had shifted national defence from the massive retaliation endorsed by Eisenhower’s New Look. He called for ‘Flexible Response.’ This aimed to counter Soviet aggression using proxies throughout the world. It emphasised a rebuilt conventional force with the capacity to deploy quickly. McNamara pressed the military for ‘maximum mobility.’ He tasked the US Army with figuring out how to achieve this, within ‘an atmosphere divorced from traditional viewpoints and past policies.’ Howze, McNamara suggested, stood capable of creating such a climate.
The Howze Board
The US Army’s Tactical Mobility Requirements Board convened under Howze’s direction in May 1962. Its membership included 200 officers and 41 enlisted personnel from the Army, along with 53 civilians. The US Air Force (USAF) observed the Board’s work, carried out from May until the end of July. Testing utilised 125 helicopters and 25 fixed-wing aircraft to log over 11,000 hours of flight time. Conditions simulated a variety of scenarios, from Lieutenant-General Walton Walker’s withdrawal to Pusan in 1950 to counter-guerrilla exercises.
It all constituted ‘tactical experimentation’ with considerable attention provided to wargaming against the Soviet Union and an emphasis on the potential to deliver ‘heavy firepower.’ One ‘suggestive scenario’ featured in the Board’s final report, for example, simulated a Soviet incursion in Iran through the Zagros mountains.
Howze briefed the Pentagon in 1957 about the potential of air mobility to defend against a Soviet attack. Only the terrain shifted between then and 1962 as the earlier simulation situated the campaign in Bavaria. The interest in maximising the firepower of helicopters remained unabated.
As Director of Army Aviation, Howze worked ‘to prove that the helicopter’ constituted a ‘superior weapons platform.’ In 1958 the US Army successfully tested an H-34 loaded with 40 2.75- and 2.5-inch rockets, nine machine guns and two 20mm cannon.
For McNamara, the Howze Board staged a full field demonstration which featured four gunship helicopters attacking fortifications with machine guns and 2.75-inch rockets. It all climaxed with 30 Hueys ‘flying low, from behind the grandstands, at 110 miles per hour.’ Loaded with infantry, the helicopters landed in the smoke where soldiers dismounted and attacked. It all took two minutes.
The Howze Board sought out information about Southeast Asia by dispatching a team to visit Military Advisory Assistance Groups in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Marine Task Force 116 Headquarters at Udorn, Thailand. Since the middle of 1962, a UH-1 Tactical Transport Helicopter Company armed with machine guns and 2.75-inch rockets operated in Vietnam to escort CH-21 helicopters. Nevertheless, the visiting Board members reported back that there existed resistance to arming helicopters from the USAF.
This only intensified with the Board’s recommendation for US Army air mobility, to include weaponised helicopters. A USAF Board headed by Lieutenant-General Gabriel Disosway issued a four-volume rebuttal to the Howze findings. It criticised weaponising helicopters, utilising an OV-1 Mohawk as a close-support aircraft and argued that USAF fighter-bombers provided better support.
This resulted in the decision to further test the airmobile concept by activating the 11th Air Assault Division (Test) at Fort Benning in 1963. Eighteen months of tests and exercises brought approval from all members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff except USAF General John McConnell who maintained his services’ opposition. For the USAF, the fundamental issue remained ‘centralised versus decentralised aircraft management and command.
Ultimately, the USAF won the battle, but it lost the war. The US Army relinquished the 24-armed Mohawks recommended by Howze. It activated the 1st Cavalry Division, however, in July 1965. By the 3 October 1965, the entire division reached its base area at An Khe in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Its orders to seek out and destroy a North Vietnamese force building up in the area culminated in the Battle of Ia Drang in November.
The US Marine Corps Mantra – Tolerance, Sympathy and Kindness,
The USMC had long expressed interest in the idea of weaponising helicopters. As far back as 1949 they ‘envisioned that the supporting tactics’ of helicopters ‘might include the use of covering artillery fire’ to ‘neutralize anti-aircraft weapons’ and tanks. The limited lift capability and the instability of helicopters at the time rendered it unworkable. The idea remained, however, and the war in Vietnam reinvigorated it.
Lieutenant Colonel Victor J. Croizat served as the first USMC advisor to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). An authority on French military matters, Croizat visited Algeria where the French faced an insurgency. Accompanied by Major David Riley, Croizat reported their observations to Washington in July 1957.
The French employed helicopters judiciously, in support of ground elements, only until these became ‘capable of self-support with organic weapons.’ While obsolete helicopters ‘hampered’ French efforts, Croizat recommended that the USMC remain ‘abreast of the French experiences.’ As the USMC did that, the Division of Aviation cited that ‘the basic problem [still remaining] is that of determining whether or not Marine Corps Helicopters should be armed.’
There existed a few reasons for opposing armed helicopters in the USMC. These included the inadequacy of rotary-wing aircraft to serve as weapons platforms and the perceived inferiority of helicopter pilots. The most substantial objection, however, stemmed from fears of helicopters replacing fixed-wing to protect helicopter transports.
This necessitated a ‘major change of concept’ while threatening the identity of the USMC. According to Major General Norman J. Anderson, planners foresaw that ‘sacrificing fixed wing capabilities to helicopters’ risked the USMC losing its primary distinction from the US Army; ‘its combination of ground and air combat power.’
By April 1962, a USMC medium helicopter squadron had deployed to Vietnam. Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 362 (HMM-362) constituted the second element of task unit SHUFLY which occupied an old Japanese landing strip near Soc Trang, 85 miles south of Saigon. It operated in support of ARVN forces throughout southern Vietnam.
Unlike US Army helicopters already operating in other parts of South Vietnam, the USMC HUS-ls remained unarmed. USMC commanders reasoned that weapons mounted in the cargo hatch mitigated against efficient loading and unloading in landing zones. Moreover, armed aircraft presented hostile appearance to Vietnamese civilians. They acknowledged this as counterproductive to counterinsurgency by providing fodder for insurgent propaganda.
The USMC began devising counterinsurgency-specific roles for helicopters. For example, they soon observed that during large engagements, small numbers of insurgents peeled away to escape into covered areas. The USMC instituted ‘Eagle Flights’ aimed to thwart such escapes in which four helicopters loaded with ARVN troops circled over contested areas and timed landing to cut off any attempted escapes.
The USMC quickly deduced the ‘unique links’ between the ‘political and military aspects of the struggle in Vietnam.’ By August 1962, the US marines at Soc Trang began arming their helicopters by mounting M-60 machine guns inside the cargo hatch. While this constituted a radical change, one that realised fears of surrendering fixed-wing capabilities to rotary craft, the USMC adopted it as a defensive tactic, one compliant with the counterinsurgency they sought to execute. The M-60s served as protection for landing and only fired at clearly identified enemies. The USMC refrained from their use in the Mekong Delta’s heavily populated areas.
The US marines who served at Soc Trang became the most vocal advocates of weaponising helicopters. Their argument, however, derived from their conviction, gained from experience. That argument was that counterinsurgency success hinged on a discriminate application of firepower. The early operational experience gained by the US marines that served at Soc Tran convinced them that helicopters could operate with restraint better than fixed-wing aircraft. They sought to explain that in the densely populated areas where helicopter assaults transpired, the application of firepower required ‘almost surgical precision.’
While 500-pound bombs delivered by fixed-wing aircraft ‘might indeed suppress fire,’ this would ‘hardly win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the frightened or uncommitted residents.’ According to Colonel Noah C. New, the USMC ‘learned early’ the incompatibility of helicopters and jets in Vietnam. Because there ‘were so few Marines involved, at Soc Trang’ however, making a ‘convincing argument’ to others that the war in Southeast Asia required ‘new approaches’ proved difficult.
General Wallace M. Greene, Commandant of the USMC between 1964 and 1967, grasped the problem. In May 1965, six-armed Marine UH-1Es arrived at Da Nang. Greene explained this to the press, attributing the development to the ‘peculiar circumstances’ that the USMC confronted. He rationalised it as a counterinsurgency imperative, noting that ‘tactical fixed wing aircraft have not been available because of political considerations.’ The armed helicopter, Greene insisted, represented an appropriate tool for the USMC ‘in the environment of political-military artificialities which exist in the Republic of Vietnam.’
The decision by the USMC to weaponise helicopters exhibited recognition of the Vietnam War’s nature. It derived from the early experience at Soc Trang but also profited from the USMC’s experience in waging America’s ‘small wars’ in the early twentieth century. This is evident through the efforts initiated by USMC General Lew Walt. He commanded Marine Amphibious Force III that operated in I Corps, the tactical zone that included South Vietnam’s five northernmost provinces.
Walt, a veteran of both the Second World War and the Korean War, identified the conflict in Vietnam as something different. It resembled the kinds of engagements he heard about as a young officer ‘from men who fought Sandino in Nicaragua or Charlemagne in Haiti.’ Walt understood the USMC mission in Vietnam as framed by ‘sympathy, understanding, regard for the people.’ This echoed advice from the Small Wars Manual of 1940 that noted that ‘tolerance, sympathy and kindness should be the keynote of our relationship with the mass of the population.’ That insight informed the decision made by the Marines to weaponise helicopters in Vietnam.
In contrast to the US Army, the USMC sought to apply firepower discriminately. They also recognised the value of helicopters to provide reconnaissance, a critical task of counterinsurgency as ‘the enemy relies on stealth instead of mass.’ According to Major General William Gayler, commander of the US Army’s Aviation Center of Excellence, ‘the most critical gap for the Army is a light armed reconnaissance helicopter.’ One with the ability ‘to fight for information about terrain and enemy, that enables ground force commanders, that gives decision space, manoeuvre room and reaction time.’ Superior eyesight is sometimes more important than superior firepower. In Vietnam, the USMC understood this well. As military officials contemplate the use of helicopters in contemporary counterinsurgencies, ones where ‘hearts and minds’ remain as vital to secure as they did in Vietnam, the history of thinking within both the USMC and the US Army about weaponising helicopters for use in Vietnam offers valuable lessons.
Dr Robert J. Kodosky chairs the history department at West Chester University and advises the Student Veteran Group. He is the author of Psychological Operations American Style (2007), numerous articles about the Vietnam War and the forthcoming Tuskegee in Philadelphia: Rising to the Challenge (2020).
Header Image: An AH-1G Cobra gunship helicopter of the 334th Helicopter Company, 145th Aviation Battalion over Vietnam in 1969. (Source: Wikimedia)
 Lieutenant General John H. Hay, Jr., Vietnam Studies: Tactical and Materiel Innovations (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1974), p. 6.
 Raymond D. Gastil, Toward the Development of More Acceptable Limits for Counterinsurgency (New York: Hudson Institute, 1967), pp. IV-15.
 Lieutenant Colonel William R. Fails, Marines and Helicopters, 1962-1973 (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, US Marine Corps, 1978), p. 111.
 On the use of USMC aviation in the small wars between the First and Second World War, see: Wray Johnson, Biplanes at War: US Marine Corps Aviation in the Small Wars Era, 1915-1934 (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2019).
Editorial Note: During 2019, From Balloons to Drones is running a series of articles looking at various aspects of the air war over Vietnam from the French-Indochina War through to the end of the Vietnam War. In this article, Dr Mike Hankins discusses the use of signals intelligence via Project Teaball that helped to improve the air-to-air combat ratios of the United States Air Force during the Vietnam War. If you would like to contribute to the series, then please email our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney, at firstname.lastname@example.org or via our contact page here. The official call for papers is here.
Air-to-air combat in the Vietnam War has long been a sore subject for some observers. Sources vary, but U.S. forces overall killed approximately 200 MiGs while losing about 90 planes to them, for a ratio of about 2.2:1. Robert Wilcox, in his history of the Top Gun program, calls this ‘embarrassingly low.’ Looking just at 1968, the picture is even bleaker. The US Navy was disappointed with its 3:1 ratio and the US Air Force (USAF) traded McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms for MiGs at nearly a 1:1 rate. During the bombing halt between 1968 and 1972, both services sought to upgrade their technology and training, including the creation of the US Navy Fighter Weapons School, also known as ‘Top Gun.’ In 1972 when the LINEBACKER bombing campaign began, the US Navy’s air-to-air record jumped to 6:1. The USAF struggled in the early months of LINEBACKER, earning a negative kill ratio for the first time in the war and perhaps in its existence.
The US Navy is often praised for their changes to training procedures (even though Top Gun initially had little support from US Navy leaders) while the USAF is often criticised for over-reliance on technological solutions. However, the most significant improvement in air-to-air combat for the USAF was the result of a technological system: Project Teaball – a Ground Controlled Intercept (GCI) system that allowed analysts on the ground to track enemy planes in real-time and communicate that information to pilots in the air.
‘Teaball’ was just as critical to the USAF’s air combat success during the LINEBACKER campaigns as Top Gun was for the US Navy. It demonstrated that the USAF was open to change and adapted its technological culture to meet new challenges. This is not to take away from the undeniable success of the Top Gun program, nor to diminish the importance the USAF’s effective RED FLAG program that began shortly afterwards. In the last throes of the Vietnam War, both technology and training worked in tandem.
Web of Confusion
North Vietnamese pilots had long relied on GCI to direct their movements – ground controllers used their extensive radar coverage of the area to track aircraft and give detailed second-by-second instructions to MiG pilots. American forces were different. They tended to rely more on the initiative and skill of individual pilots, but they also had far less radar coverage of the areas they flew over in North Vietnam. Complicating, this was the fact that US radar stations were not well integrated, creating a confusing web of systems competing for pilots’ attention.
The USAF operated a ground radar covering the southeast at Da Nang. Another radar further north at Dong Ha known as ‘Waterboy’ covered the lowest reaches of North Vietnam, although few air-to-air engagements occurred there. For further coverage, USAF flew a Lockheed EC-121 known as ‘College Eye,’ which was excellent over water but was less accurate over land. Other radar stations existed in Thailand, including ‘Brigham,’ at Udorn, and ‘Invert,’ at Nakon Phanom. These stations contributed ground control and navigational assistance, although their short-range provided almost no coverage of North Vietnam itself.
The US Navy used a system called ‘Red Crown,’ a ship-based radar located in the Gulf of Tonkin, to provide early warning of approaching MiGs. There was some limited cooperation between ‘Red Crown’ and ‘College Eye’ during Operation ROLLING THUNDER. The bottom line for all these radar systems was that none of them was effective for strikes further North than the 19th parallel, where air combat was more likely, and some of these systems, such as ‘Red Crown,’ could not effectively track planes below 10,000 feet, where MiGs often flew.
However, radar was only one way to gain situational awareness of enemy MiGs. Communications surveillance, or signals intelligence (SIGINT), could track enemy movements and plans. In 1967, the USAF brought in new EC-121s known as ‘Rivet Top; to do just that: Intercept North Vietnamese communications and pass on vital information to American pilots. ‘Rivet Top’ was a success. In its limited time of employment, American forces claimed 20 MiG kills, 13 of which received direct contributions from ‘Rivet Top.’ However, the ROLLING THUNDER campaign ended before they could make a more significant contribution. At the beginning of the LINEBACKER Campaign, the US Navy’s ‘Red Crown’ ship returned, and the USAF instituted a system known as ‘Disco,’ essentially a slightly upgraded version of ‘College Eye.’ Under ‘Disco,’ multiple EC-121s provided a larger area of radar coverage and continued the SIGINT role provided by the ‘Rivet Top’ equipment, although the system suffered many of the same problems that plagued the ‘College Eye’ system, such as a limited range, limited crew and equipment capacity, and the need to stay in slow, controlled orbits.
Both sides found that GCI was key to air-to-air victory. General John Vogt, Director of the Joint Staff and later commander of the Seventh Air Force, argued that MiG successes were attributable entirely to how their radar systems connected to their command and control practices. USAF Ace fighter pilot Richard ‘Steve’ Ritchie went so far as to state that flying a protective escort without GCI warning of incoming MiGs was ‘useless,’ and that employment of US GCI ‘was one of the primary reasons that we were able to engage MiGs and effect kills.’ Yet the limited range, communications problems, and frequent technical failures limited US GCI efforts.
Green Door Syndrome
An equally serious bureaucratic problem aggravated these technological difficulties. Unknown to most fighter pilots, the National Security Agency (NSA) frequently intercepted North Vietnamese communications – including information about MiG flights. Some NSA analysts, such as Delmar Lang, had previously advocated combining these intercepts with GCI to provide a more accurate picture of enemy locations and movements. Lang had developed such a system in the Korean War, contributing to the success of North American F-86 Sabre pilots. Lang had offered to create a similar program in Vietnam, but both NSA and USAF leaders, particularly Major General George Keegan, Director of Air Force Intelligence, repeatedly turned him down. Interception of North Vietnamese transmissions was classified, and American pilots did not have proper security clearance. This policy was not unfounded. Using these intercepts could undoubtedly aid American pilots but using them too frequently risked alerting the North Vietnamese that the US was intercepting their signals.
This was a dilemma for American planners who needed to balance using the data with keeping its existence secret. However, USAF leaders such as Keegan simply refused to pass on any information to American pilots in combat. This created a sense of ill will between pilots and intelligence agents. As former USAF intelligence officer, Gilles Van Nederveen noted, ‘US pilots, already frustrated by the small amount of data provided to them, felt betrayed when they learned that some losses over Vietnam could have been prevented if intelligence data had been shared with them.’ This animosity grew so prevalent that it received a name: ‘green door syndrome,’ so labelled because, in many combat wing bases in the theatre, classified information was kept in vaults usually behind a green door.
LINEBACKER and Project Teaball
When bombing (and air-to-air combat) resumed in earnest with the LINEBACKER campaign in May 1972, the US, particularly the USAF, received what Colonel Russ Everts, an F-4 Pilot, generously called ‘an old fashioned butt kicking, pure and simple.’ After some initial successes that May, in June and July, USAF F-4 Phantoms claimed 8 MiGs, with the US Navy shooting down only 3. While the US Navy only lost one F-4, USAF lost 13. The US Navy could still claim their previous 3:1 ratio; the USAF had sunk to its lowest ratio during the war, 0.6:1. For the first time in the war, the kill ratios favoured the North Vietnamese.
These reversals rippled through USAF quickly, prompting investigations into the quality of fighter pilots. General William Momyer, then commander of Tactical Air Command (TAC), who had previously resisted any alterations to training procedures, changed his mind and recommended the creation of an ‘Aggressor’ squadron to simulate MiGs in air combat training (building on a program at Nellis run by Major Roger Wells). Although Chief of Staff of the Air Force General John Ryan approved the Aggressor concept at that time, the program did not begin until after the war was over and thus it had no effect on air combat in Vietnam.
However, one element the USAF could fix in time to make a difference was their GCI system. The summer’s heavy losses, increasing concern from Vogt about the shortcomings of American GCI, and pressure from eager NSA analysts and USAF pilots all overrode earlier concerns with sharing classified intelligence and pushed the issue higher up the chain of command. Ryan directly contacted the head of the NSA, Admiral Noel Gayler – himself a former US Navy aviator – and requested the creation of an improved early warning system to alert pilots to approaching MiGs. With Ryan and Gayler’s approval, General Vogt worked with Delmar Lang and Lieutenant Colonel William Kirk to establish Project Teaball at Nakhom Phanom Air Force Base in Thailand in August 1972.
‘Teaball’ took the classified NSA intercepts and combined them with other US radar sources. These included the radio calls sent from North Vietnamese pilots to their ground controllers and vice versa, revealing precise locations and vectors for their MiGs. This information was fed into a computer known as ‘Iron Horse’ that took data from these sources and quickly synthesised it into a composite display showing a near real-time picture of the location of all friendly and enemy aircraft over North Vietnam. ‘Teaball’ operators then sent this information directly to pilots via Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) radio signals relayed through a Boeing KC-135 aircraft code-named ‘Luzon.’
There was still tension between some pilots and the intelligence community. Kirk worked to build trust between the two groups and overcome ‘green door syndrome’ by personally visiting every single wing in the theatre to brief them on ‘Teaball’s’ capabilities, the accuracy of its data, and the methods he used to contact pilots directly. Finally, US pilots could have situational awareness of the aerial battlefield and early warning of MiG threats. However, ‘Teaball’s’ implementation differed from the authoritarian North Vietnamese GCI system and simply provided information to pilots. The American ground controllers often suggested courses of action, but individual pilots handled threats at their discretion.
The Best Show We’ve Had
‘Teaball’ was only active from August 1972 until the end of LINEBACKER operations in October. In that time, USAF F-4’s shot down 21 MiGs with only six losses. Of those kills, 13 were a direct result of vectoring from ‘Teaball.’ Of those losses, five of the six occurred when ‘Teaball’ was down due to technical failure, demonstrating just how critical the system was to the USAF effort. When examining only MiGCAP flights, USAF F-4s claimed 18 kills with five losses, a nearly 6:1 ratio. During that same timespan, the US Navy got two kills but lost two Phantoms. General Vogt extolled the program’s success:
This is the most effective show we’ve had during the entire war with the battle against the MiGs […] This proved one thing – if you can show the American fighter pilot where [the enemy] is in sufficient time, he’ll shoot him down.
Vogt went on to say:
Same airplane, same environment, same situation, same tactics; largely [the] difference [was] Teaball. It was one of the most impressive developments we’ve had out here.
Pilots praised ‘Teaball’ as well. One mission report stated: ‘A good GCI capability made the difference, and will in the future.’ Another echoed: ‘Computerized real-time intelligence will get more kills than all the fighter sweeps we can put together.’
No matter how well-trained a pilot is, if they do not realise they’re under attack, they cannot use their training. ‘Teaball’ gave them that warning, preventing further losses. ‘Teaball’ also provided more accurate visual recording of encounters than the memory of pilots could provide, enabling both a better study of enemy tactics and a useful training tool. It was also invaluable for search and rescue efforts, as ‘Teaball’ data could pinpoint the location of downed aircrews, enabling rescue craft to arrive quickly.
However, the program, literally operating out of the back of a van, was not without problems. The ‘Iron Horse’ computer was powerful for its time, but processing the data of all the SIGINT and radar inputs took an average of two minutes – an eternity in a dogfight. For this reason, ‘Teaball’s’ role was limited to providing early warning only. Once combat began, most pilots relied on more timely information from ‘Disco’ or ‘Red Crown’ if in range. Also, the UHF radio relays in F-4 cockpits were old and broke down frequently.
Increased American success forced the North Vietnamese Air Force to scale back its operations, flying fewer missions and attempting to counter ‘Teaball’s’ tracking ability by turning off their IFF (Identify-Friend-or-Foe) signals. However, that separated North Vietnamese pilots from their GCI, their chief advantage to this point. They could run with radio silence, but that risked making them vulnerable to their surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). ‘Teaball’ operators could spot them as soon as they tried to alert their missile sites. The more common technique the North Vietnamese used to get around ‘Teaball’ was deception. Ground controllers sent messages pretending to be pilots, essentially creating ‘ghost MiGs.’ However, ‘Teaball’s’ operators could easily distinguish between these fake calls and authentic ones due to differences in the signal itself.
When LINEBACKER ended, so did most air-to-air combat, but ‘Teaball’ stood ready when LINEBACKER II commenced on 18 December 1972. Lieutenant General Horace Wade, Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, was impressed enough with ‘Teaball’ to move it into a permanent facility at Nakom Phenom. However, MiGs barely flew during the operation – only 26 were even sighted. USAF Phantoms took down four, the US Navy got one more, and B-52 gunners shot down two. USAF lost two Phantoms to MiGs. North Vietnamese sources claim that MiGs shot down two B-52s as well, but this is unconfirmed by the U.S. This 3.5:1 is above average for the war, if not as impressive as when ‘Teaball’ was most active in LINEBACKER. However, the sample size for LINEBACKER II is incredibly small, and the operation was unique. In any case, although SAMs wreaked havoc on the B-52 fleet, MiGs did not pose a significant threat. By 28 December 1972, North Vietnam had exhausted its SAM supply and was incapable of defending itself from the B-52 raids. When Hanoi expressed its desire to renew serious negotiations, President Nixon halted all bombing north of the 20th parallel. With the signing of final settlements on 23 January 1973, air-to-air combat in the Vietnam War ended.
The typical, perhaps romanticised narrative of air combat in Vietnam is that the US Navy used the ‘correct’ approach when creating the Top Gun program and that the USAF deserves criticism for its failure to produce a similar program and its adherence to technological chimeras. However, this story ignores that the US Navy also used technological improvements, including upgrades to their missiles and the jamming of enemy communications. It fails to note that the US Navy engaged fewer MiGs during the LINEBACKER period, with little contact with the more advanced MiG-21 Fishbed, so perhaps a direct comparison of each service’s kill counts is misleading.
Furthermore, this narrative fails to recognise that the USAF saw a more significant improvement in its effectiveness than did the US Navy in the same period owing to the systems-based, technological approach of Project Teaball. Top Gun worked, but ‘Teaball’ worked better. The role performed by ‘Teaball’ laid the foundation for the later role of Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) that has become an essential element of American air power strategy. In the final phase of the Vietnam War, the USAF demonstrated that technological solutions could be effective.
Dr Michael Hankins is the Curator of US Air Force History at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He is a former Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018 with his dissertation, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled ‘The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War.’ He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.
Header Image: A U.S. Air Force Lockheed EC-121K ‘Rivet Top’ of the 552nd Airborne Early Warning & Control Wing, based at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, in 1967-68. (Source: Wikimedia)
 This article is adapted from Michael Hankins, ‘The Teaball Solution: The Evolution of Air Combat Technology in Vietnam, 1968-1972,’ Air Power History, 63:3 (2016), pp. 7-24.
 John Correll, The Air Force in the Vietnam War, The Air Force Association (Arlington, VA: Aerospace Education Foundation, 2004), p. 17. See also Robert Futrell, et al., Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1965-1973 (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center, Air University, 1976); Chris Hobson, Vietnam Air Losses: United States Air Force Navy and Marine Corps Fixed-Wing Aircraft Losses in Southeast Asia 1961-1973 (England: Midland, 2001); and the Red Baron Reports, Volumes I, II, and III, Institute for Defense Analyses Systems Evaluation Division.
 Roger K. Wilcox, Scream of Eagles: The Dramatic Account of the US Navy’s Top Gun Fighter Pilots: How they Took Back the Skies over Vietnam (New York, NY: Pocket Books, 1992), p. xii.
 Red Baron II Vol. I, C-1–E-2, USAF Fighter Weapons Center, 1973; and Red Baron III, Vol. I, C-1–D-6, USAF Fighter Weapons Center, 1974.
 Wilcox, Scream of Eagles, 214-215; See for example Steven A. Fino, ‘Breaking the Trance: The Perils of Technological Exuberance in the US Air Force Entering Vietnam,’ Journal of Military History, 77:2 (2013), pp. 625-55.
 United States Air Force Oral History Program, Interview #K239.0512-630, Captain Richard S. Ritchie, 11 Oct 72 and 30 Oct 72, 1, pp. 74-5.
 William Momyer, Air Power in Three Wars (Washington D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1978), pp. 150-5.
 Marshall Michel, Clashes: Air Combat Over North Vietnam, 1965-1972 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), p. 114.
 Futrell, Aces, p. 14; Momyer, Air Power, p. 155; Michel, Clashes, p. 226.
 M. F. Porter, ‘Linebacker: Overview of the First 120 Days,’ Project CHECO Report, 27 Sept 1973, p. 48.
 Thomas R. Johnson, American Cryptology During the Cold War, 1945-1989, Book II: Centralization Wins, 1960-1972 (Fort Meade, MD: Center for Cryptologic History, National Security Agency, 1995), p. 580.
 Michel, Clashes, p. 115; See also Walter J. Boyne, ‘The Teaball Tactic,’ Air Force Magazine (July 2008), p. 68; and Gilles Van Nederveen, ‘Wizardry for Air Campaigns: Signals Intelligence Support to the Cockpit’ (Research paper for the College of Aerospace Doctrine, Research, and Education, Airpower Research Institute, Maxwell: 2001), pp. 2-3.
 Michel, ‘The Revolt,’ 146-52. See also, Brian D. Laslie, The Air Force Way of War: US Tactics and Training after Vietnam (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2015).
 Johnson, American Cryptology; Boyne, ‘The Teaball Tactic,’ p. 69; Nederveen, ‘Wizardry,’ p. 25. See also Calvin R. Johnson, ‘Linebacker Operations: September – December 1972,’ Project CHECO Report, 31 December 1978, p. 50.
 Author redacted, ‘TEABALL: Some Personal Observations of SIGINT at War,’ Cryptologic Quarterly, 9 (Winter 1991), p. 92.
 Quoted in Boyne, ‘The Teaball Tactic,’ pp. 69-70. See also Nederveen, ‘Wizardry,’ p. 25-6.
 Johnson, American Cryptology, p. 580. See also Johnson, ‘Linebacker Operations,’ p. 52.
 William Sayers, ‘The Red Baron Reports: What They Really Said,’ Air Power History, 52:3 (2005), p. 12, 39. See also Johnson, ‘Linebacker Operations,’ p. 52.
 Red Baron III, C-1–D-6. Roger Boniface, MiGs Over North Vietnam:The Vietnam People’s Air Force in Combat (Mechanicsburg, VA: Stackpole Books, 2010), p. 141, 145. See also, István Toperczer, Mig-21 Units of the Vietnam War and MiG-17 and MiG-19 Units of the Vietnam War, both from Osprey Press. Toperczer and Boniface each claimed to have examined North Vietnamese records, but make no mention or citation of specific documents, and their work has not been peer reviewed. Naturally their claims for NVAF victories are significantly higher that official US records. While their claims may have merit, this article has chosen to rely on official US records where possible, admitting that these are also not perfect.
 Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (New York: The Free Press, 1989), pp. 188-9, 198-200.
Editorial Note: During 2019, From Balloons to Drones is running a series of articles looking at various aspects of the air war over Vietnam from the French-Indochina War through to the end of the Vietnam War. In this article, Hayley Michael Hasik discusses the cultural legacy of American helicopters during the Vietnam War. If you would like to contribute to the series then please email our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney, at email@example.com or via our contact page here. The official call for papers is here.
The scene opens with a squadron of helicopters sweeping across the landscape flying in formation over the open rice paddies of Vietnam. The whap-whap-whap of the Huey rotors quickly fades into the background becoming part of the soundtrack of the scene. Gunfire echoes in the background as the helicopters move into the landing zone encountering anti-aircraft fire from nearby North Vietnamese forces. The enemy remains hidden by the dense ground cover; their position betrayed only by the muzzle flashes of their weapons. The Huey slicks touch down, and soldiers quickly disembark and scatter before the Hueys take off just as quickly as they landed. Troops fan out across the open paddies, slogging through high water on alert looking for any sign of the enemy. The whole process seems to happen in slow motion, taking several minutes, but takes mere seconds; the longer these helicopters are on the ground, the more susceptible they are to enemy fire. Or so the narrator declared.
The scene above is not taken from a Hollywood blockbuster, but rather archived footage used in the Bell Helicopter-sponsored 2005 documentary entitled Huey in a Helicopter War, produced as part of the series, Heart of Darkness: Vietnam War Chronicles. This was not the first instance where Bell, responsible for the development and manufacture of the iconic UH-1 Huey helicopter, helped shape the public image of the Huey in the Vietnam War. Bell was just one of many corporations involved in helping to construct the symbolism of helicopters both during and well after the war. Corporations like Bell, Sikorsky, Hughes Helicopter, and AVCO Lycoming Division participated in and directed the creation of the helicopter mythology and iconography during the Vietnam War. Corporate advertisements and sponsorships in Army Aviation magazine reveal an intimate connection between the legacy of helicopters and these corporations.
As Army Aviation developed into a distinct entity within the U.S. Army in the 1950s and early 1960s, a separate culture also began to develop. Part of this culture included periodicals like Army Aviation, whose readership included ‘civilians, military in every grade from NCO to general officer, and a handful of loyal industry supporters’ with connections to companies such as the helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky and the AVCO Lycoming Division, which produced Lycoming engine used to power many of these helicopters. The Department of Air Training Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma published the first edition in 1952 as a newsletter, The Army Aviator. This newsletter kept readers apprised of events in army aviation. Examples include the construction of airfields, updates and changes to flight safety, various aspects of training, and plans and projects slated for the future of army aviation. There were no images, and certainly no sponsorships, within these yellowed pages. In 1953, the Artillery School became the Army Aviation School at Fort Sill before moving to Camp Rucker, Alabama (now Fort Rucker) in late 1954. Coinciding with this restructuring and increasing professionalisation of Army Aviation, in May 1954, The Army Aviator became the Army Aviation Magazine:
[a]n unofficial, all-component monthly publication financially & editorially supported by voluntary subscriber/correspondents […] No implication must be made that ‘Army Aviation’ is an authorized Army publication.’
In 1957, the Army Aviation Association of America (Quad-A) was founded as a ‘not-for-profit organization dedicated to representing the broad interests of Army Aviation.’ The Quad-A took over publication of the magazine, providing ‘an essential public forum for the current and future leaders’ in the field of army aviation. This professionalisation coincided with the introduction of corporate sponsors and advertising and contributed further to the developing culture of army aviation.
Corporate Sponsorship and Advertisements
Focusing specifically on the corporate sponsorships and accompanying advertisements published in Army Aviation during the early years of the Vietnam War helps to uncover how the iconography of helicopters developed during the war. Much credit for the imagery of helicopters is given to the media during the war and popular culture after the war. These corporate sponsorships also illustrate how the military-industrial complex was both an economic and cultural phenomenon. The imagery, rhetoric, and symbolism used in the magazine are similar to the images and rhetoric later used in films, on book covers, and recounted in histories of the war. The sponsorships fit into three broad categories. First, advertisements relied on old technology to reinforce the newness and progress of the new technology. Second, the language used in these ads worked alongside the imagery to highlight the toughness and durability of these fragile aircraft. Finally, corporations co-opted actual events in Vietnam, specifically the Battles of Ap Bac and Ia Drang, to portray helicopters as the future of warfare. Focusing on the early years of the war allows one to understand better how helicopters were introduced to the Army and how they were contemporarily incorporated into the narrative of the Vietnam War. How did machines that were fragile, difficult to fly, and, as Jim Willbanks once noted in lecture, could be punctured with an icepick, eventually become the sight and sound of the Vietnam War.
The efforts to draw specific connections between helicopters (the new technology) and tanks or other Second World War machines/weapons (the old technology) is a recurring theme in corporate efforts to promote helicopters as the epitome of technological progress. The most striking visual representations of this phenomenon are the Sikorsky Aircraft advertisements from February 1963 and December 1965. Sikorsky blatantly placed this technology side-by-side to illustrate how this new technology had subsumed old technology, making it hard to ignore the portrayal of helicopters as a sign of military progress. The 1963 advertisement showed a Skycrane effortlessly lifting a tank over a tree line. The symbolism of this photograph is palpable. The new technology (helicopter) reduces the old technology (tank) to cargo. The new technology (helicopter) makes the old technology (tank) obsolete. Not only can this helicopter transport the tank, but, in many instances, the helicopter can go where the tank cannot, rendering the tank incapable of the same role it played in the Second World War and even Korea. The description that accompanied the advertisement explained how these helicopters were in their final testing phase, meaning they had not yet been used in Vietnam, but that did not stop the corporations from marketing them.
This symbolism continued at the end of 1965 with a two-page advertisement highlighting the workhorse capabilities of the Skycrane, which was described as capable of carrying ‘over 10 tons of almost anything […] or 67 combat-equipped troops.’ Not only was the Skycrane capable of carrying a tank, as demonstrated nearly three years earlier, but the advertisement showed the Skycrane hovering over a bulldozer, truck, 105-millimetre howitzer, a small aeroplane, and a detachable van capable of holding 67 combat-equipped troops. This new technology subsumed the old technology of the tank and replaced multiple other forms of technology, like the truck and jeep, or made these machines and weapons accessible where they might not have been due to an inability to handle the rugged terrain or dense jungles of Vietnam.
These comparisons between the Second World War and the Vietnam War provided vivid visual images that people could relate to and put the helicopter into terms of America’s most recent large-scale military victory. General John Tolson asserted that the ‘versatility and uniqueness’ of helicopters made them the ‘keystone to airmobility,’ and, ‘The simple fact is that no other machine could have possibly accomplished the job of the helicopter.’ In reality, compared to tanks and other armoured vehicles, helicopters of the Vietnam era were vulnerable, easily breakable, and just not that tough. Helicopters were portrayed as more powerful than the technology that helped the US win the Second World War, so they must be powerful enough to win in Vietnam. Or so these ads suggested.
The use of targeted language provided a corporate answer to understanding why helicopters were such a prominent symbol of the Vietnam War. Not only were the advertisements visually promoting the concept of military progress but the phrasing and word choice throughout these sponsorships throughout the Vietnam War reinforced these visual images. AVCO Lycoming Division described the Huey as ‘one of the world’s toughest, most durable helicopters’ and the Lycoming engine that made it fly was ‘the world’s toughest, most durable helicopter engine.’ Not only were these helicopters tough and durable, but the missions they carried out were described as ‘demanding’ and ‘rough.’ They were, as Hughes Helicopter pointed out, a ‘tough machine for a tough war.’ ‘Helicopters with demanding missions are powered by General Electric,’ was General Electric’s motto. AVCO portrayed the Huey as the ultimate hero. ‘Out here, when things get rough they call in Huey,’ is nothing short of a Superman reference made by AVCO. Hueys were called in for everything from reinforcements and fire power to evacuations and rescues; they were showcased as being capable of any mission. On top of that, one advertisement alluded to helicopter engines, and by association helicopters, as bulletproof. The chosen descriptors worked alongside well-chosen photographs to reinforce certain conceptions of the helicopter. As Alasdair Spark noted in his social history of helicopters, ‘the helicopter became the American touchstone, symbolizing a transcendent American power incarnate in metal.’ Society began to see the helicopter as a tough and rugged and exceptional piece of technology.
General Electric, AVCO, and Hughes Helicopter all used this type of terminology to emphasise the toughness and ruggedness of these fragile, or at the very least complicated, machines. Veteran pilots like Warrant Officer James Scott recounted the real-life difficulties of flying helicopters stating, ‘Helicopters are not meant to fly […] They’re an anomaly – they fly, but they’re not supposed to.’ Philip Chinnery echoed this sentiment stating:
It is said that flying a helicopter requires great faith and that becoming an old helicopter pilot requires constant suspicion. When one considers how a helicopter flies through the air, we can understand how helicopter pilots grow old before their time […] To fly a helicopter, the pilot requires both hands and both feet and most of his fingers too.
That fragility and extreme diligence and skill needed to operate these machines were not evident in these advertisements. Indeed, further research is required to understand why toughness, rather than speed, manoeuvrability, or versatility was the characteristic most heavily used throughout these advertisements.
Helicopters, Advertisements and the Future of Warfare
Finally, these advertisements co-opted events in Vietnam to further develop perceptions of helicopters as the future of warfare. Both Ap Bac and Ia Drang were the focus of these sponsorships. Generally, these advertisements appeared a few months after the event. In March 1963, a Bell Helicopter ad declared, ‘Combat Proven.’ The ad goes on to say, ‘throughout the engagement, the five Iroquois provided steady fire support.’ The image is hard to make out, but it is clearly a Huey flying over what appears to be some dense jungle. The Battle of Ap Bac in January 1963 is generally viewed as the first significant test of US helicopters in combat. American helicopters supported and inserted roughly 1,500 Army of the Republic of Vietnam troops. However, Bell spun the events of Ap Bac. Fourteen of the 15 American helicopters used in the battle were damaged, and five were destroyed. Ap Bac was far from the successful inauguration the Army had hoped for. The helicopters might have been combat tested, but it is hard to call them combat proven.
The second event that corporations appropriated was the Battle of Ia Drang. In the January 1966 issue of Army Aviation, there are references to Ia Drang on the cover and the advertisements inside. This cover had a set of images featuring the Chinook helicopter. The first image was a Chinook in flight against a plain white backdrop and immediately below it was a second image of two Chinooks on the ground being loaded with troops for transport. The headline reads: ‘This is a horse. (It must be a horse. The First Cavalry rides it.)’ Before even opening the issue, AVCO presented the reader with powerful imagery referencing the 1st Cavalry Division, which had been recently battle-tested in the Battle of Ia Drang. Although Ia Drang proved more successful than Ap Bac, it was still a great test for helicopters, which suffered heavy damage. Commander of the 1st Cavalry Division General John Tolson noted that throughout the 35-day campaign, 59 American helicopters were hit by enemy fire, three while on the ground. The North Vietnamese shot down four helicopters, of which the U.S. Army recovered three. Despite these losses, helicopters proved their worth by providing over 5,000 tons of cargo to troops in the field, transporting whole infantry battalions and artillery batteries, and transporting 2,700 refugees. Bell and Lycoming were quick to capitalise on this ‘success.’ Whether or not these corporations were trying to sell actual helicopters or an idea the helicopter symbolised is something deserving further exploration.
It is worth noting the profit motive of corporations like Bell. A document found at the Texas Tech Archives entitled, ‘Bell Helicopter Highlights’ offers a timeline of Bell helicopter contracts, key production developments, and record achievements published by Bell Helicopter Textron. The U.S. military contracts with Bell from 1961 through 1973 total over one trillion dollars. This total is just the contracts listed within this single document and warrants further inquiry to verify exact numbers. Nevertheless, these preliminary figures allude to the stake that corporations like Bell had in both the technological development and public perception of army aviation during the Vietnam War.
Through both images and language, these magazines presented the idea of military progress by way of helicopters. All these images and the accompanying descriptive language served to create and reinforce the helicopter as a symbol of technological progress. These helicopters were the latest and greatest accomplishment from the military-industrial complex and as such were capable of not only carrying out the tasks of outdated and obsolete equipment, like the tank but should be capable of winning the war in Vietnam. There were no true obstacles these machines could not overcome. This imagery reinforced Alasdair Spark’s assertion that ‘in technology and mobility this was the ideal American way of war, and appropriately evoked the mythic American style of war.’ The problem with these advertisements was that in some cases, they used actual events to help craft their imagery. By grounding their advertisements in perceived reality, these corporate sponsors perpetuated the notion that helicopters were ubiquitous and only capable of success. These images failed to examine or display the failures of helicopters.
Chris Bishop summed it up best when he said:
The Huey became an icon of the Vietnam War. It was a star of primetime news reports, its distinctive shape and the sound of its twin-bladed rotor becoming more familiar to the world at large than any other aircraft of the time.
Although the Huey is arguably the most recognisable helicopter, it was not the only one to come of age during the Vietnam War. The iconic status of Hueys and other helicopters was not merely a post-war phenomenon and cannot be credited only to the media. From advertisements in Army Aviation to documentaries and film, helicopters became a prominent sight and sound of the Vietnam War during the war. In many ways, ‘the helicopter, like the soldier, is a veteran of Vietnam’ and it is time we understand how the helicopter developed from combat to cultural icon.
Hayley Michael Hasik is currently a third-year doctoral student at the University of Southern Mississippi working on a degree in U.S. history with an emphasis on cultural history, war and society, the Vietnam War, helicopters, and veterans’ experiences. Hayley’s current research focuses on examining the legacy of the ‘Helicopter War’ in Vietnam. Her project seeks to uncover how and why helicopters became such an integral part of Vietnam War history and memory. Hayley has extensive oral history experience and co-founded the East Texas War and Memory Project in 2012.
Header Image: U.S. Army Bell UH-1D helicopters airlift members of the 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment from the Filhol Rubber Plantation area to a new staging area, during Operation ‘Wahiawa,’ a search and destroy mission conducted by the 25th Infantry Division, northeast of Cu Chi, South Vietnam, 1966. (Source: Wikimedia)
Heart of Darkness: Vietnam War Chronicles, Huey in a Helicopter War, directed by Bill G. Buck (Entertainment One Ltd., 2005).
 James R. Bullinger (ed.), Army Aviation Association of America: 50th Anniversary, 1957-2007 (Monroe, CT: Army Aviation Publications, 2007), p. 19.
 Alasdair Spark, ‘Flight Controls: The Social History of the Helicopter as a Symbol of Vietnam’ in Jeffrey Walsh and James Aulich (eds.), Vietnam Images: War and Representation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), p. 89.
 Texas A&M University-Commerce, Archives and Special Collections, James G. Gee Library, East Texas War and Memory Project, Interview with James Scott, OH 1001.1, interviewed by Hayley Hasik, 6 May 2013.
 Philip D. Chinnery, Vietnam: The Helicopter War (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1991).
 Texas Tech University, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Dominick Cirincione Collection, Box 04, Folder 03, 4020403002, ‘Bell Helicopter Highlights,’ (ND). Figures calculated by the author; Walter Boyne, How the Helicopter Changed Modern Warfare (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 2011), pp. 90-4.
I believe that before his election in 1968, President Richard M. Nixon had a plan to end the war in Vietnam on favourable terms. He implemented it in stages, starting with the withdrawal of US troops that began in 1969, followed by the rapprochement with the Peoples Republic of China in early 1972 and culminating with the repulse of North Vietnam’s 1972 ‘Easter Offensive’ and the Linebacker bombing campaigns against the North. I served in Southeast Asia during most of 1972 and had an opportunity to witness much of the successful implementation of the President’s strategy.
During the presidential race of 1968, the notion that Nixon had a ‘secret plan’ to end the war surfaced in campaign rhetoric, although he never actually made such a claim. Early in the campaign, he told a hastily-convened group of newspaper editors that he had a two-phase ‘get out of the war’ plan, which included taking steps to ‘de-Americanize’ the Vietnam conflict, and also seek a summit meeting with Soviet leaders to gain their cooperation in ending the war. Decades later an article in the International Herald-Tribune also referenced Nixon’s ‘secret plan’ in passing, noting that it was not a term used by Nixon himself but something conjured up by a reporter on deadline, covering one of the candidate’s speeches in which he promised a quick victory in the war. The Richard Nixon Foundation and Presidential Library, on the other hand, seems to believe that the whole business about having a ‘secret plan’ to end the war was nothing more than an ‘urban myth’ with no basis. Still, the term ‘secret plan’ became lodged in the public consciousness during the 1968 presidential campaign and might have been a marginal factor in helping Richard Nixon win a very close election.
I heard about Nixon’s ‘secret plan’ sometime during that campaign, the first in which I was eligible to vote. I was then a second lieutenant in the Air Force, a supply officer stationed at Luke Air Force Base (AFB) outside Phoenix, Arizona. A recent college graduate, I was a political ‘wonk’ then and now. Since high school, I had considered myself a ‘Kennedy Democrat’ (pay any price, bear any burden) and supported the war in Vietnam – seeing it as ‘Korea redux,’ the Truman Doctrine in action. Moreover, while President Johnson’s transformative domestic policy accomplishments deserved respect, a wartime president he was not, and the Camelot holdovers from the Kennedy Administration were rapidly wearing out their welcome.
Vietnam was hardly the centrepiece of American foreign policy during the Nixon administration. The president broke new ground in several areas: pursuing strategic arms reduction with the USSR, dismantling the Bretton Woods framework while restructuring the financial underpinning of the US/European Alliance, and famously pursuing a rapprochement with the Peoples Republic of China. His domestic accomplishments were also remarkable. The British counterinsurgency expert Sir Robert Thompson, consulted by the president about Vietnam in 1969, remarked afterwards to a National Security Council (NSC) staff member that Nixon was in his opinion America’s first ‘professional president.’
However, what of the ‘secret plan?’ I believe President Nixon had a three-part solution to the Vietnam conundrum:
Vietnamization – the replacement of US ground forces with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), supplemented by increased logistic and advisory support from the US Army.
Strategic isolation of the battlefield. This gradually became more feasible after the 1969 Sino-Soviet border conflict brought about a suspension of the USSR’s use of the Chinese railways to ship military supplies to North Vietnam. That conflict followed a long, prickly relationship between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the USSR throughout the 1960s, explored by a few scholars. The USSR was North Vietnam’s primary source of military hardware and advisory support, and until 1969 about two-thirds of that military hardware was sent through China by rail, with a much smaller fraction arriving by sea at the port of Haiphong. Following President Nixon’s dramatic visit to China in February 1972, the PRC stepped up its longtime interference with Soviet resupply to North Vietnam, placing tight restrictions on overflights of Chinese territory. The resupply burden now rested primarily on Soviet cargo ships, and shortly after North Vietnam initiated the Easter Offensive in the spring of 1972, the US Navy mined the approaches to the port of Haiphong. It would take several months for the full impact of this ‘strategic isolation’ to be felt by the North Vietnamese armed forces. However, I believe it did have an impact by the time a cease-fire went into effect in November, and during the brief resumption of hostilities – the ‘Christmas bombing’ of Operation Linebacker II – at the end of the year.
The final element in his plan was the application of US air power on a scale unprecedented since World War II, generating lavish close air support for ARVN troops in the South and being directly applied against North Vietnam during the Linebacker air campaigns.
There should be no confusion about this fact. It was American air power – Air Force, Naval and Marine Corps aviation units swiftly flowing in to reinforce the existing air order of battle in Southeast Asia – that blunted the 1972 Easter Offensive, giving President Nixon (and the American people) ‘peace with honor.’
I was there to witness the decisive events of 1972. In 1969 I was fortuitously granted a vision waiver enabling me to enter pilot training the following year, and after earning my wings I trained in the AC-119K fixed-wing gunship and served a combat tour in Southeast Asia from November 1971 to November 1972 – most of what was essentially the final year of the Vietnam War, so far as America was concerned.
During 1971 and into the early months of 1972 the withdrawal of American ground forces had accelerated, and the war seemed to have dropped off the front pages of our newspapers. By the time the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) launched the Easter Offensive at the end of March, only one US Army combat brigade remained in-country, deployed in northern I Corps around Danang, defending the invaluable seaport and airfield. The battle on the ground was thus left to the ARVN, which could not hold back the NVA on its own, and close air support from the South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) was wholly inadequate.
At this point, the third element of Nixon’s plan was implemented with great resolve and determination. US air power in Southeast Asia was massively reinforced and succeeded in its twofold mission of supporting the ARVN and carefully, steadily disrupting the economic and military infrastructure of North Vietnam. In early 1972 there had been 14 USAF fighter-bomber squadrons deployed in-theatre, most of them in Thailand. Between the opening of the Easter Offensive and the end of 1972, no fewer than nine additional tactical fighter squadrons were transferred to Southeast Asia – seven from the continental United States and two from the Philippines and South Korea. In the early years of the war the Strategic Air Command had kept four B-52 squadrons based on Guam to provide ‘Arc Light’ strikes in South Vietnam. After the NVA offensive began in the spring of 1972 four more squadrons were deployed to the western Pacific, eventually including two deployed to Thailand. The number of Arc Light strikes increased dramatically, and a few B-52 strikes were undertaken over North Vietnam soon after the US resumed bombing the North. The B-52s were famously used on a large scale during the final, brief Linebacker II campaign in December 1972. For its part, the US Navy had been keeping one or two aircraft carriers on ‘Yankee Station’ in the South China Sea, and this was increased to four after the Easter Offensive began. A US Marine Corps air wing also deployed to Southeast Asia in the spring and summer of 1972, fielding six fighter-bomber squadrons based in South Vietnam and Thailand.
My own tour of duty in Southeast Asia came at the tail end of the ‘Commando Hunt’ operation against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. My fixed-wing gunship squadron was based at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Base in Thailand, with detachments at Danang and, later, at Bien Hoa in South Vietnam. Our primary mission was the interdiction of truck traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and eastern Cambodia, although we occasionally provided close air support to the ARVN in the country. In mid-tour I was abruptly sent to MACV at Tan Son Nhut Airfield in Saigon, where I spent a couple of months working in ‘Blue Chip,’ the 7th Air Force command post. I was unhappy to miss out on flying missions, thereby losing any hope of accruing enough hours to upgrade to aircraft commander before boarding the ‘Freedom Bird.’ However, coordinating and redirecting gunship sorties during my 12-hour daily shift rarely kept me fully occupied, and I took full advantage of the birds-eye view I enjoyed of the American air war in Southeast Asia. Blue Chip was housed in an enormous auditorium, fronted by a vast map appended with extensive annotation and tabular data; all plotted on plexiglass by well-trained specialists moving discretely behind the display and writing backwards with grease pencils on the ‘big board.’
One episode from my Blue-Chip interlude stands out: an Arc Light tasking in support of the besieged ARVN forces in An Loc. This was an epic defensive battle lasting more than two months, with a reinforced ARVN infantry division holding out in this provincial capital only 90 miles north of Saigon. Three NVA divisions, supported by some VC battalions, surrounded the town on three sides. The one paved road coming up from the south, QL-13, was unusable during most of the battle, as was the airfield, but aerial resupply through parachute drops managed to keep the ARVN resupplied and in the fight. Frequent Arc Light strikes supplemented lavish close air support from fighter-bombers and fixed-wing gunships. One afternoon when I arrived for my shift, I saw a map of An Loc on one side the big board, the town enveloped on three sides by a huge array of overlapping Arc Light ‘boxes,’ each a rectangle measuring 1 x 3 kilometres into which three B-52s would drop 324 500-lb bombs. There must have been at least fifteen or twenty of these boxes. The 7th Air Force Assistant Deputy Commander for Operations told the Battle Staff that this saturation bombing was intended to ‘relieve some of the pressure’ on the defenders – a bit of an understatement, I thought. It was aerial fire support on a truly staggering scale, and Arc Light strikes were important in other major battles during the Easter Offensive, such as Kontum (in II Corps) and Quang Tri (I Corps).
While all this was happening down south, the Linebacker air campaign was inflicting serious damage on military targets in North Vietnam. Technology certainly helped, as precision-guided munitions were now in the inventory. Suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD) was greatly improved by better tactics and new-generation anti-radiation missiles and associated systems. Linebacker, by and large, was strategic bombing ‘done right.’ Earl Tilford, a former Air Force intelligence officer and a thoughtful critic of air power, summarised this campaign:
Linebacker One, as it would soon be known, was the most successful aerial campaign of the Vietnam War. [. . .] It was successful because it took place under the aegis of an appropriate and viable strategy. Linebacker epitomized conventional air power used to stop a conventional invasion and, beyond that, it qualified as a “strategic” use of air power in that it compelled Hanoi’s politburo to negotiate seriously for the first time since peace talks started in 1968.
Subsequent events are remembered all too well. The Watergate affair brought the Nixon administration to a premature end, and even before that sordid crisis had run its course, congressional intransigence and our collective national fatigue had effectively precluded a reengagement with American air power that President Nixon had famously promised the president of the Republic of Vietnam if Hanoi violated the terms of the Paris Accords. That ‘peace with honor’ would not long outlive the Nixon administration was surely seen by many as inevitable. Still: whatever we remember about the Vietnam War we ought to acknowledge that President Nixon did have a plan, ‘secret’ or not. He implemented that plan, and it worked.
Author’s Disclaimer: This essay reflects a deep dive into my own memory banks, supplemented by some confirmatory Internet searches. There is no doubt in my mind that President Richard M. Nixon had a plan to bring the war in Vietnam to a satisfactory conclusion. He implemented that plan, and for a fleeting moment in time we had ‘peace with honor’ before the Watergate crisis brought everything crashing down.
Ralph M. Hitchens, Lt. Col. USAFR (Ret.) is a graduate of Southern Illinois University and the National Defense Intelligence College. While on active duty he flew combat missions in Vietnam and VIP missions in the US and Europe. He worked as a corporate pilot before joining the government as a civilian analyst with Army Intelligence, attached to NSA. He subsequently moved to the Office of Intelligence at the U.S. Department of Energy, where he managed current intelligence analysis, drafted and contributed to National Intelligence Estimates, and served as Information Technology Program Manager. Retiring in 2004, he worked as a contractor in the DOE Office of Classification and other program offices. He regularly contributes book reviews to the Journal of Military History as well as other publications.
Header Image: B-52Ds from the Strategic Air Command line up for takeoff as they prepare for strikes over Hanoi and Haiphong, North Vietnam, during OPERATION LINEBACKER. (Source: National Museum of the USAF)
 David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972) made a strong and lasting impression on me and countless others.
 I wish I could source this quotation better. I heard it in 1969 from my late father, Colonel Harold L. Hitchens, USAF. Then serving in the Air Staff Directorate of Plans, he had been told of Thompson’s remark by an acquaintance on the National Security Council. It was also quoted by Stewart Alsop in ‘Nixon and the Square Majority: Is the Fox a Lion?,’ The Atlantic (February 1972). It was also repeated in a Nixon Reelection Campaign televised ad in November 1972: ‘He is a completely professional president.’ Thompson himself certainly repeated his bon mot: ‘I think for the first time in a long time you have a professional President.’ Quoted in David Fitzgerald, ‘Sir Robert Thompson, Strategic Patience, and Nixon’s War in Vietnam,’ Journal of Strategic Studies, 37:6/7 (2014).
 For a good summary account of this festering rivalry see Christian Talley, ‘The Vietnam War as China’s Watershed,’ Vanderbilt Historical Review, (January 2016), pp. 42-8. Also, Stephen J. Morris, ‘The Soviet-Chinese-Vietnamese Triangle in the 1970s: The View from Moscow,’ Working Paper No. 25 (Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, 1999).
 The system worked, sometimes. A routine physical exam in 1969 showed that my vision had improved since college and was within the waiver limits for undergraduate pilot training (UPT). The bad news was that waivers were granted only to US Air Force Academy graduates. That was unfair, I believed, and I submitted a formal letter request through personnel channels to change the governing directive. Mirabile dictu, the directive was changed, and I was admitted to UPT as a ‘test case.’
 An incident I witnessed influenced this conclusion. On a rare daylight mission in April 1972, during the fighting near Kontum in II Corps, I saw a VNAF A-37 attack aircraft make two bomb runs against a VC heavy machine gun position, clearly visible atop a bare ridgeline; weather conditions were perfect. Both bombs missed, neither was close. The II Corps Senior Advisor, John Paul Vann (call sign Rogues Gallery) was loitering nearby in a helicopter and encouraged our AC-119K Stinger gunship to engage. The heavy machine-gun position was quickly silenced by our 20mm rounds; We suffered a .51 caliber hit in one of the tail booms. I further believe that the quality of VNAF pilots was questionable. Pilot training was a highly prestigious opportunity for young men of military age, and I suspect that merit took a back seat to family influence and political connections. My UPT class at Williams AFB, which graduated in June 1971, included one South Vietnamese pilot candidate. He was the exception that proved the rule. Despite speaking very poor English he passed through the year-long course at the same pace as the rest of us, and we were told by a senior instructor pilot that he was the very first Vietnamese officer to do so – prior VNAF trainees had taken as long as two years to complete the course.
 This included the wholesale redeployment of the 49th Tactical Fighter Wing (four F-4 squadrons) from Holloman AFB in New Mexico, across the Pacific Ocean to Thailand.
 The employment of so many B-52s in this 11-day operation undeniably generated some ‘shock and awe’ but losses were heavy, in large part due to unimaginative centralised mission planning at SAC Headquarters during the first few days – ingress routes, altitudes and formations saw little variance on the first three missions. Losses on the third day of the operation forced SAC planners to reconsider their assumptions. ‘Changes were made to operations and tactics. Gone were bomber streams seventy miles long with cells flying lockstep to those ahead of them. Gone too were 90 to 100 plane raids. World War II tactics did not work in the modern environment of SAM missiles, sophisticated ground radar, and MiG interceptors.’ See Gary Joyner, and Ashley E. Dean, ‘Operation Linebacker II: A Retrospective,’ Report of the LSU Shreveport Unit for the SAC Symposium, 2 December 2, 2017, p. 22.
 Earl H. Tilford, SETUP: What the Air Force Did in Vietnam and Why (Maxwell AFB: Air University Press, 1991), p. 248.
Editorial Note: During 2019, From Balloons to Drones will be running a series of articles looking at various aspects of the air war over Vietnam from the French-Indochina War through to the end of the Vietnam War. To kick off this series, Assistant Editor, Dr Michael Hankins, provides a brief overview of the historiography of the air war. While not conclusive, it does give an idea of the critical strands present in the historiography and highlights where there are some important omissions such as a scholarly examination of air power during the French-Indochina War. If you would like to be a part of that discussion by submitting your work to the series, please email our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney, at firstname.lastname@example.org or via our contact page here. The official call for papers is here.
Here at From Balloons to Drones, we are launching a series of articles on the air war in Vietnam. This is no easy task, as writing about the Vietnam War is akin to strolling into a minefield: There is a good chance of causing an explosion. Historian Robert Citino stated it best:
Anyone who tries to draw conclusions from the Vietnam War will almost certainly anger the legions of Americans who have already made up their minds about it.
In the U.S. especially, the debate over the war rages in both public and academic spheres regarding what happened and what it means for American society. As the war in its entirety remains controversial, the sub-field on the air wars has developed its own debates and tropes. This article is intended as a quick guide to some of that literature as well as an introduction to a few of the broader arguments and issues that loom over the entire field. If there is any single takeaway from a survey of the literature of the Vietnam War (and its air components in particular), it is that the war remains contested but relevant, and there is plenty of work for scholars left to do in deepening our understanding of the conflict.
Because there is less of a standing consensus regarding the Vietnam War than in some other conflicts, finding an entry point can be difficult. Perhaps the most middle-of-the-road overview of the entire conflict (written primarily from the American perspective) is still George C. Herring’s America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975 (1979). Originally written in 1979, it is now in its fifth edition (released in 2013) as Herring continually updated it to incorporate new scholarship. Another useful overview is Where the Domino Fell: America and Vietnam 1945-2010 (2014) by James Olson and Randy Roberts. This is the sixth edition of a book initially published in 1991 and constantly updated. The book is still mostly from the American perspective but delves a little bit deeper into some of the backgrounds to the conflict regarding French colonialism and the ideology of Ho Chi Minh, which itself is highly contested. Olson and Roberts are more pointed in their argument that the war was unwinnable for the U.S.
For a more traditional operational look, Phillip Davidson’s Vietnam at War: The History, 1946-1975 (1988) is a valuable in-depth examination of both the French and American phases of the war. For a contrasting, but still, mostly operational look at the war, the works of Gregory Daddis are perhaps the best place to start. It is fair to say that Daddis is the current leader of the field when it comes to military histories of the Vietnam War. His trilogy of books is useful and wide-ranging. No Sure Victory: Measuring U.S. Army Effectiveness and Progress in the Vietnam War (2011) examines the ways that U.S. forces measured progress and success, which led them to make many faulty assumptions. Westmoreland’s War: Reassessing American Strategy in Vietnam (2014) and Withdrawal: Reassessing America’s Final Years in Vietnam (2017) each examine the American strategic and operational approaches in the first and second half of the conflict respectively.
What these books do not address as much are the pacification programs (also known as ‘the other war’) and a perspective internal to South Vietnam. Thankfully, more historians are entering the field and producing exciting work in these areas. Jessica Chapman’s Cauldron of Resistance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and 1950s Southern Vietnam (2013) are one of the most exciting new books in the field, examining the Ngo Dinh Diem regime and the three organisations internal to South Vietnam that resisted it the most. Andrew Gawthorpe’s To Build as Well as Destroy: American Nation Building in South Vietnam (2018) is probably the best look at pacification so far, although it proves to be a promising topic that shows much room to grow.
It is important to note that a book such as Olsen’s and Robert’s (and to some degree Daddis’) are responding to an earlier strain of works that argued the opposite. This argument was that the war was winnable, but that American leaders (mostly civilian political leadership and some military leaders) fundamentally misunderstood the war and for one reason or another, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Perhaps the most widely-read work that takes that argument is Harry Summers’ On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (1982), which analyses the war through a particular interpretation of Clausewitz. Most works that take this tack posit that America could have won the war earlier by going with a more all-out, aggressive military strategy.
The Air War(s)
That more aggression could have produced victory was certainly the belief of many U.S. Air Force leaders. For example, speaking to Air Force Academy cadets in 1986, General Curtis LeMay was asked whether the U.S. could have won the war. He responded: ‘In any two-week period you care to mention.’ Many books on the air war take a similar approach, such as On Yankee Station: The Naval Air War Over Vietnam (1987) by John Nichols and Barrett Tilman. This argument is especially common among oral histories and memoirs. There are a plethora of such books, particularly by pilots eager to share their ‘There I was…’ stories and many of these works are very useful. The best is Airpower in Three Wars: World War II, Korea, Vietnam(1978) from the Commander of 7th Air Force, General William Momyer (pronounced Moe-Mye-er). Other notable entries in this category include Ed Rasimus’ Palace Cobra: A Fighter Pilot in the Vietnam Air War (2006), Robin Olds’ Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds (2010), Ken Bell’s 100 Missions North: A Fighter Pilot’s Story of the Vietnam War (1993), and Robert Wilcox’s oral history of the Top Gun program, Scream of Eagles: The Creation of Top Gun and the U.S. Air Victory in Vietnam (1990), to name a few.
However, most of the literature from historians regarding the air campaigns have argued the opposite: that a more aggressive bombing approach earlier in the war was not feasible for a variety of reasons. One of the earliest books to push for this line of thinking is Mark Clodfelter’s The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (1989). This book is, in this author’s opinion, still the most important book on the air war in Vietnam and one of the most important works in the field of air power history in general. Other works have made similar or related arguments but in more specific areas. Earl Tilford’s Crosswinds: The Air Force’s Setup in Vietnam (1993) looks at the years leading up to the war and argues that the Air Force’s structure and doctrine did not lend itself to the type of fighting in Vietnam. For an operational look at the air campaigns through this lens, the most useful works are Jacob Van Staaveren’s Gradual Failure: The Air War over North Vietnam, 1965-1966 (2002) and Wayne Thompson’s To Hanoi and Back: The United States Air Force and North Vietnam, 1966-1973 (2000) each of which focuses on a distinct time frame. The Linebacker II campaign sometimes called the ‘11-day war’ or ‘the Christmas bombing’ can be contentious. The best operational account of it so far is Marshall Michel’s The Eleven Days of Christmas: America’s Last Vietnam Battle (2001), which blames Air Force leaders rather than political leaders for the mission’s problems.
Many of the more popular memoirs deal with air-to-air aspect, although such encounters were rare, as the North Vietnamese Air Force tended to average thirty to forty operational fighters at any given time (compared to the thousands of aircraft the U.S. had in-theatre). There are some broader examinations of the air-to-air aspect. The most comprehensive is Marshall Michel’s Clashes: Air Combat over North Vietnam, 1965-1972 (1997), although Craig Hannah’s brief Striving for Air Superiority: The Tactical Air Command in Vietnam (2001) is also useful. Because the war featured an expansion of tactical air power, many works deal with a diversity of air power roles, one of the best entry points is Donald Mrozek’s Air Power and the Ground War in Vietnam: Ideas and Actions(1988). Part of the problem with the use of tactical air power in Vietnam was the confusing command structures and service rivalries. Ian Horwood’s Interservice Rivalry and Airpower in the Vietnam War (2006) is perhaps the best text examining that issue and is a useful general exploration of tactical airpower in the south.
The problems that the US military experienced in Vietnam led to a long period of change afterwards, as the various services all raced to reform themselves not to repeat the perceived mistakes of the war. However, the services disagreed (with each other and within themselves) about what precisely the mistakes were and how to solve them. The period following the war, from the late 1970s until 1991, was essentially a second ‘interwar period,’ similar in some ways to the 1920s and 1930s. The degree to which the Vietnam War was used as an impetus for change in the air power realm has been covered in many works. There are so many volumes on this subject that they would require a separate article on their own, although some useful starting places include Brian Laslie’s The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam (2015), Mike Worden’s The Rise of the Fighter Generals: The Problem of Air Force Leadership, 1945–1982 (1998), and C.R. Anderegg’s Sierra Hotel: Flying Fighters in the Decade After Vietnam(2001). You can find a historic book review of this latter title here.
Although many of the works listed here are of high quality, there are some inherent limitations to the field. Most of them are limited to studying a specific geographical area or timeframe (or both), and there are fewer works that take a comprehensive look at the entirety of the air wars. Some such works are forthcoming, but there is more room for more books that take this wider approach. Most works are written by people who have some tie to the military. Many are veterans of the war or have served in the time since. Many more are civilian employees of the military (of which this author is one as well, so take my recommendations with a grain of salt of course). Many of the books listed here are from government or military presses. None of this is to imply that they are of lesser quality or that they have any particular biases (indeed, much of the material from Air University Press can be interpreted as critical of the Air Force), but it does mean that the perspectives given are limited. Further limiting our view of the war is the paucity of books written by women and people of colour. The majority (although not all) of the books in the field are from the perspective of men, predominantly white – a limitation that is hopefully in the process of being alleviated as new and diverse scholars continue to enter the field.
There is a reason to believe that the field of Vietnam War histories is on the verge of a turning point, as the previous generation who remembers the war as a part of their lives is starting to give way to a new generation that has no personal memory of the war. New sources and new perspectives are beginning to emerge, as new and old scholars alike develop not only new answers to questions but new questions. It is an exciting time to be a historian of this era.
There is an overwhelming number of works about the air wars in Vietnam. This brief survey, focusing on significant monographs, is not meant to be comprehensive, but merely a guide to some of the more influential works and themes. There are many wonderful and useful works not mentioned here, and that is not meant as a slight against any of them. For more, any serious student of the Vietnam War must become quickly aware of the work of Dr Edward Moïse. Not only are his own works useful reading, but his website contains quite possibly the largest bibliography of works on the Vietnam War, many of which are annotated and organised into searchable categories. This is an invaluable resource.
Despite the large size of the field, there is much work left to be done. While there are many memoirs and oral histories of various aspects of the war, we still need scholarly monographs on the air wars in Laos and Cambodia, on Air America (the CIA’s air effort), on the defoliation operations, and on-air mobility both in terms of troop movements and airlift of supplies and humanitarian efforts. Many of the works mentioned do discuss air power used by the Army and Marines, but more works focusing on these aspects are needed. Perhaps the two most significant gaps in the field are a good scholarly analysis of the use of air power during the French-Indochina War and a discussion of the perspective of the North Vietnamese Air Force. Chinese involvement in terms of providing pilot training and providing some actual pilots could also be examined in more depth. Of course, there is always room for new interpretations of ideas that have been previously discussed. Several excellent books do exist on these topics, but there is room for scholars to expand our knowledge and understanding. This is just a tip of the iceberg of some of the exciting work left to be done in the field.
The Vietnam War is a conflict that will continue to be controversial as those involved on all sides continue to grapple with its legacy. We here at From Balloons to Drones hope that the upcoming series of articles from a variety of perspectives can help move that discussion forward.
Dr Michael Hankins is Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018 with his dissertation, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled “The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War.” He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.
Header Image: A USAF Douglas A-26C Invader loaned to France during the Indochina War. This aircraft was loaned to France from March 1952 to November 1955. (Source: Wikimedia)
 Robert M. Citino, Blitzkrieg to Desert Storm: The Evolution of Operational Warfare (Lawrence, KS: The University of Kansas Press, 2004), 254.
 For insightful studies of the memory of the Vietnam-American War, see Christian G. Appy, American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (New York: Viking Press, 2015); Patrick Hagopian, The Vietnam War in American Memory Veterans, Memorials, and the Politics of Healing (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012); and Gregory Daddis, ‘The Importance of the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive,’ War on the Rocks, 29 January 2018.
 Determining whether Ho Chi Minh was primarily a nationalist or a communist has been a major point of contention in the literature. Olsen and Roberts argue that he was in fact both, and that for him, those concepts cannot be separated.
 See Earl Tilford, ‘Linebacker II: The Christmas Bombing,’ The VVA Veteran, January/February 2014. This quote from LeMay is widely cited in many works.
From Balloons to Dronesis seeking submissions for a series of articles that examines the varied use of air power during the conflict in Vietnam (1945-1975). Two thousand nineteen marks 50 years since the announcement of President Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization. This marked a significant turning point in a conflict that dated back to the end of the Second World War when France returned to Indochina to reclaim her colonial possessions. Throughout this long conflict in Vietnam – both during the French Indochina War and the Vietnam War – air power played a significant role. Themes to be explored might include, but are not limited to:
Roles | Operations | Strategy, Theory and Doctrine
Strategic and Operational Effect | Technological Developments
Organisation and Policy | Culture | Ethical and Moral Issues
National, International and Transnational Experiences
We are looking for articles of c. 2,500 words, though we will accept larger pieces and we reserve the right to publish them in parts. We welcome and encourage submissions from academics, policymakers, service personnel, and relevant professionals. We plan to begin running the series in May 2019, and it will continue for as long as we receive potential contributions.
Submissions should be submitted in Word format and emailed to the address below with ‘SUBMISSION – Air War Vietnam’ in the subject line. Also, please include a 50-100-word biography with your submission. References can be used, and please be careful to explain any jargon. However, if you are not sure if your idea fits our requirements, then please email us with ‘POTENTIAL SUBMISSION – Air War Vietnam’ in the subject line to discuss.