Joe Koss - Munitions

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UPDATED: 28 Dec 04

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The 58th TFS, 33rd TFW, an F-4E unit based at Eglin AFB, Florida, deployed to Udorn Royal Thai AFB in April 1972.  Personnel from the wing's munitions, field, avionics and aircraft maintenance squadrons were attached to the 58th for the duration.  Upon arrival at Udorn, the maintenance personnel were reassigned to the base PCS squadrons.  I thus belonged to the 33rd MMS, was assigned to the 58th TFS for deployment and worked for the 432nd MMS.  I worked in munitions; for the first two weeks, I worked in the Aerospace Munitions Storage Facility [which only munitions personnel are authorized to call the "bomb dump"] on the day shift.  After that, I worked weapons loading and weapons release on the night shift.  Each shift was twelve hours long, 1800 to 0600.  Sunday was my day off.

In addition to the 58th, there was another TDY F-4E unit, the 308th TFS from Homestead AFB; a TDY F-4D unit from Clark AB in the Philippines; two PCS F-4D squadrons [the 17th TFS and the 555 TFS] and a PCS RF-4C unit [the 14th TRS].  The base thus supported six squadrons of F-4s. For "base defense", the Thais had a squadron of T-28Ds, some of which were always on alert.  We also had two F-4s on five-minute alert.  These birds were configured for air-to-air.  None of the alert birds were ever scrambled.  To my knowledge, the 58th TFS was the only E squadron in SEA that did not paint shark's mouths on its aircraft.  To complete the base aircraft complement, the Thai base commander had his own Pitt's Special.  Udorn also had a contingent of aircraft that weren't there and didn't exist.  At one end of the [long] runway, there was a small flightline used by Air America, otherwise known as "CIA Airlines".  We weren't supposed to acknowledge [or photograph!] the C-123s and Helio Couriers they flew, but I managed to get a few good shots anyway.

Udorn had the primary MIGCAP assignment for SEA at that time.  We thus flew bomb missions in the morning and air defense missions in the afternoon, in support of other base's bombing missions.  As a result of this, most of the MiG kills in SEA at that time were scored by pilots flying for the 432nd.  This included then Captains Steve Ritchie and Chuck DeBellevue, the top-scoring USAF aces in SEA, both of whom flew for the 555th [Triple Nickel] TFS at the time [if I remember correctly].  Ritchie scored all five of his kills while the 58th was at Udorn.  I think DeBellevue got all six of his while at Udorn, but I'm not certain--I've slept since then.

Ritchie's first and fifth kills were scored in F-4D 66-463, which belonged to the 432nd.  Two of the intervening kills were scored on one mission in the 58th's F-4E 68-362.  This occurred because 432nd personnel controlled Ops, and they tended to assign their own people to the newer E models, and left the tired old Ds to the [TDY and therefore "junior"] E-trained aircrews.  This practice largely stopped when a D pilot missed a kill because he forgot that the E he was flying had a gun.

When we arrived, the MIGCAP configuration was four AIM-7E Sparrow missiles and four AIM-4 Falcons.  [AIM-4s still flying in 1972!!!] Within a month, we began to receive AIM-9J Sidewinders.  It took about a month to convert all of the aircraft from AIM-4s to AIM-9s.  In the interim, the 9-birds were very popular, and no one wanted to fly the 4s.  Still, during our entire tour, there were no AIM -9 combat launches [though one pilot did manage to kill some trees with an inadvertent launch], and all MiG kills were made with the AIM-7.

Our bomb missions employed a number of different configurations, depending upon the targets.  We flew a lot of 2,000-pound Mk 84 laser-guided bombs [LGB], as well as many, many, many 500-pound Mk 82s, both slick and high-drag.  The most common bomb configuration was twelve Mk 82s--three on each inboard pylon and six on centerline.  [The wing-mounted Mk 82s often had M-1 three-foot fuze extenders fitted to make the bombs go off above the ground.  This minimized cratering and maximized the blast radius.  Fuze extenders couldn't be used on the centerline because they would foul either the nose gear or the bomb in front.]  We also flew  some 750-pound M-117 and 1,000-pound Mk 83 bombs, along with napalm, CBUs and rockets.  Most of the 500- and 750-pound bombs were  "pre-loaded".  This means that the bomb racks were loaded with bombs in a separate "pre-load" facility, and then the loaded rack was placed on the aircraft.  This allowed much faster turn-around times when compared with the usual practice of loading the rack on the aircraft and then loading individual bombs on the rack.  We used the MER [Multiple Ejector Rack, which could carry six bombs] on the centerline station, and the TER [Triple Ejector Rack which could carry three bombs] on the inboard pylons.  [The outboard pylons always had fuel tanks.]  We flew "Fast FAC" missions with F-4s armed with two LAU-59 rocket launchers on one inboard pylon [seven 2.75-inch rockets with white phosphorous warheads for spotting per pod] and Rockeye anti-armor cluster munitions on the other inboard pylon.  Unlike the "slow" FACs, the Fast FACs could both mark and hit targets.  Very popular.  For search and rescue [SAR] missions, the preferred configuration was four napalm canisters on the shoulder stations of the inboard pylon TERs and four CBUs on the shoulder stations of the centerline MER.  This configuration was called "Shake and bake".
 
We occasionally had transient aircraft on base.  Those I remember in greatest detail were an SR-71 that [officially] Was Never There [and my pictures were burned by the Security Police Commander so that I can't prove it was] and an F-4E that had the most unique marking I saw the whole time there.  Stenciled neatly on the inside of the nose wheel door was "This aircraft is United States Air Force property.  If found, please return to the nearest Air Force base."  I left immediately to get my camera.  When I returned, it was gone.  Stealth back then?  [Note: unlike most bases, Udorn had an open policy concerning cameras on the flightline, and I usually carried one.]  There was also a Marine A-6 from Dong Muang [?] that came in with engine trouble.  After several days, an engine and a mechanic arrived to change the engine.  After the aircrew and the mechanic changed the engine, the crew boarded and left. Very self-sufficient.  By comparison [and with reason], Air Force aircrews would be at a complete loss in a similar situation. 

Those of us in maintenance quickly learn that pilots are Always Right. When a pilot reported a problem with an aircraft in post-flight debrief, we had to find and correct it, even if was the result of a "short between the headset".  "CND' [cannot duplicate] was not an acceptable response to a write-up.  Many of our weapons release problems were CND, though the aircraft and bomb rack records never said that.  For the most part, we disdained the pilots who continually reported problems that we could never find, but I certainly felt for the pilot who was hopping mad because the 2,000 LGB that he dropped failed to go off.  Instead, it merely plowed through the NVA PT-76 tank.  Sure, the tank was dead, but the blasted bomb didn't go off!  [That was actually a bigger problem than it appears to be on the surface, for unexploded bombs were often retrieved by the VC and used against us, usually as booby traps for the Army to find.  Too many booby traps were found the hard way--as they functioned.  We didn't want to help the VC in any way, and we certainly didn't want to give them mass quantities of high explosive and high-grade steel.  Weapons release worked overtime to ensure that bomb racks would function properly, and the load crews did their best to ensure that all munitions were properly loaded and would drop when and where the pilot wanted them.]

In that summer of 1972, Jane Fonda was aiding and comforting the enemy. She accused us of intentionally bombing dikes and rice fields to starve the population, which was untrue.  She hadn't a clue [and still doesn't.]  Many of our bombs were personally addressed to her.  We lamented her failure to receive one.  We'd have been happy even if it had failed to detonate!

At the start of our tours, both E squadrons were to be at Udorn for six months.  After about two months, USAF worked out a rotation plan for the TDY E units.  The plan called for three squadrons each to spend six months TDY and three months at home.  At the three-month point, the 308th thus went home, leaving its aircraft behind, and was replaced by its sister squadron from Homestead, the 307th.  At the six-month point, in October, the 58th rotated home [without losing a man, though we did lose some aircraft] and was replaced by the 308th.  When we left, some of our aircraft stayed behind, on loan, to make up for losses.  After the 58th's second deployment to Udorn, the whole program was ended [mid-1973], and both Homestead squadrons returned home.  With that, our loaned aircraft were returned to us, including tail number 307.  All of the aircraft were returned in original condition, except for 307.  The 307th TFS had been unable to resist the coincidence in numbers.  They added a "TH" to the tail number, painted a shark's mouth on the bird, and made it their squadron commander's aircraft for the duration.  Thus, despite the 58th's practice, one of our birds carried a shark's mouth, after all!  Most who saw the aircraft thus marked thought it was amusing, but the Wing Commander did not--when he saw it, on the afternoon of its return, he hit the roof.  The bird was immediately on the wash rack [called the Bird Bath] and then in the paint barn.  The commander had no sense of humor at all.  [I hope that whoever has my photos appreciates them.]

We had caliber .38 revolvers for aircrew use, and M-16s for base defense.  The revolvers were issued to the aircrew, but the M-16s were in storage.  They were packed at Eglin--each rifle was in a hermetically-sealed barrier bag, and a bagged rifle went into a second barrier bag along with a sling and two bagged magazines.  Three such combinations went into a wooden box that was banded twice and sealed. [The boxes had originally held six 2.75-inch rocket engines.]  Twenty such boxes went onto a pallet that was banded twice on each side.  The pallets came out of the secure storage cubicles at Eglin and went into nearly identical storage at Udorn.  Each cube door had two high-security padlocks, the keys to which were kept in the MMS squadron commander's safe.  So--here's the scenario.  It's oh-dark-hundred, and those of us at work on the flightline somehow learn that the base is in danger of being overrun.  There was no contingency plan, or, if there was, it was never discussed with the troops who would implement it, so I figured we were on our own.  Upon receiving my intelligence tip, I would find and commandeer a truck and drive from the maintenance side of the base to the admin side, where I would find either the MMS commander or the First Sergeant, from whom I would get the combination to the commander's safe.  [Right!]   With the cube keys in hand, I would then drive the two or three miles to the bomb dump, commandeer a flat bed truck or two and a fork lift, open the weapons cube and load the rifles on the truck, drive to the ammunition cube and put a pallet of ammunition on the truck, and drive back to the flightline in time . . . to be overrun.  Great planning.  On our return to Eglin, the palletized M-16s went right back into the secure storage cubes from which they came six months earlier. [It never occurred to me to ask either commander--the 432nd MMS or the 58th TFS--what we were supposed to do if threatened with attack.]

So far as I know, I was the only one who ever wondered how we would actually issue those base defense weapons.  The thought was not out of place, however, for Udorn security was penetrated once while I was there.  A VC [or equivalent] sapper team attempted to infiltrate the base one night.  They killed a Thai guard and his dog and managed to get fairly close to the flightline before the Security Police got permission to open fire.  [This was a Thai base, and only the Thai base commander could authorize firing on infiltrators.  Though they were under surveillance the entire time, the SPs couldn't fire until the base commander approved.  He was downtown that night, and it took a while to find him.  Once found, the SPs got permission to fire, and the fun started.  Flightline operations shut down for the duration, and we sat there in the dark listening to sporadic rifle fire going back and forth.  There was an AC-130 orbiting overhead, but it [thankfully] never fired.  The closest the sappers got to their objective, the flightline, was when the largest remaining piece of one landed within a hundred yards of a transient F-105D Wild Weasel when the satchel charge he was carrying went off.  In the end, all of the sappers were either killed or captured, but I never fully realized how fortunate we were that night until I started writing this narrative--thirty years later.

My time in SEA was limited to that one six-month tour at Udorn.  [I don't consider Korea to be SEA.]  For all its seriousness, I considered it a paid vacation.  I'd have gladly gone back on our second deployment, but I wasn't selected.  They wouldn't let me deploy to Israel that year, either, though I offered to supply my own M-1903A3 rifle and ammunition.  Initially, it was because I had less than six months of active duty to go--too short--but, in the end, no one deployed, and we sent only aircraft.  I left active duty that December, in 1973.  I've never regretted my service time.  I didn't know it then, but Thailand was the high point.

Joseph P Koss, Jr
Major, USAFR [Retired]
Aerospace Munitions Officer

 

 

 


 
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