When we put ourselves under a surgeon’s knife, we usually also put ourselves into the trust of someone who knows his craft and can work under pressure, particular when things start to go really bad. For instance, as a patient, it would be reassuring to know that the doctor about to work on me had also been a carrier-based light-attack naval aviator with the Silver Star and the Purple Heart, and that he was the young A-4 pilot in a famous series of photos taken during a mission to the heart of North Vietnam in 1967, right in the middle of the aerial campaign known as Rolling Thunder.
On April 25, 1967, Lt. (j.g.) Al Crebo, of VA- 212, flying from the carrier Bon Homme Richard (CVA-31), took part in a raid on an ammunition depot near Haiphong, the port city for the capital of Hanoi. As Crebo approached the target, climbing to 8,000 feet to begin his delivery dive, an SA-2 exploded nearby. He recalls:
“I was assigned to the afternoon strike. There was considerable consternation in the air group because the morning strike group had sustained significant battle damage, including the loss of an A-4C from VA-76. Our good friend Charlie Stackhouse was shot down [by a MiG-17], and we didn’t know if he had survived the ejection. Fortunately, as we found out later, he was alive but had been taken prisoner.
“Our target for the last strike of the day was the Kien An ammunition depot near the Cat Bi airfield on the southern edge of Haiphong. I had an uneasy feeling about this strike for a number of reasons. The question of strike tactics was the subject of a great deal of discussion at that early stage of the cruise. Some people thought we should coast in low at about 3,500 feet, and then climb to 7,000 feet over the target for the attack. We would stay out of the SAM envelope for as long as we could. The problem with this approach was that aircraft, heavily loaded with ordnance, would be over the target at low speed. We discarded these tactics in favor of a high coast-in, about 14,000 feet, with a gradual acceleration and decreasing altitude to arrive in the target area at high speed.
“We never made repeated runs over the same target. ‘High, steep, fast, and once’ proved much more effective. It was early in the cruise, however, and we had not reached that level of sophistication.
“Another concern was there were two strike groups ahead of us in the general area. There wouldn’t be any element of surprise. Also, the second strike group would be on its way out, while we were on our way in.”
Crebo’s group consisted of six A-4Es from VA-212, a four-plane division and a section of two. A sister squadron, VA-76, contributed four A-4Cs as flak suppressors. Two more VA-212 Scooters went along as Iron Hand aircraft carrying Shrikes. Four F-8Es from VF-211 also furnished flak suppression, while four F-8Cs from VF-24 flew TARCAP, guarding against MiG interceptors. VA-215 Skyraiders were tasked with SARCAP duties to protect downed pilots. There were KA-3 tankers and RF-8s along as well. It was a big strike.
Although Lt. (j.g.) Crebo was a junior pilot and was assigned the number-six slot, he had considerable A-4 time, having made a previous Mediterranean cruise with VA-64 aboard the newly commissioned USS America (CVA-66).
Coasting in, the strikers began to receive a SAM warning from the Air Force EC-121 orbiting off shore. The code word “Hallmark,” meaning SAMs, flooded the airways. Inside their cockpits, the A-4 pilots also heard the warble of their ALQ-51s— devices that detected the fire-control radar of the SAM launch battery. Flak was also beginning to appear. Gray and black puffs of 37mm and 85mm AAA dotted the sky. It was going to be a rough delivery. Crebo continues: “The ALQ-51 was going crazy with high warble and the red SAM light. The Shrike birds and TARCAP had detached and climbed to 20,000 feet. The attack plan was to roll in to the east and then be on course for the runout back to the Gulf of Tonkin.
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