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Carrier at war - Vietnam 1972

EYEWITNESS Dennis Barr served as an E-4 maintenance mechanic on the USS America.
(click on any photo to enlarge)

Two and a bombAt 0200 hours I'm kicked out of my bunk by a buddy. Deep inside the ship I ignore the cold and thrash into my utilities while others sleep. The USS America (CVA-66) churns through the Gulf of Tonkin on Yankee Station, turning into the wind for a night launch. Even in the bowels of the ship, where my world consists of an 8x4 bunk, wall locker and toilet kit, you can feel the mighty ship pressing its continual contest with the cruel sea. You can hear the indefinable sounds of a carrier underway at night ? a faint, distant creaking, the barely audible purr of turbines, a clacking from a faulty air conditioner.

A dozen other sailors are in motion around me, using the head, shaving, performing that wake- up ritual of dousing your face with cold water and shaking it off. It's incredible how these men perform this routine in a ghostly near-silence, out of deference to those who sleep at this hour. I'm an E-4, an assistant plane captain on an A-7C Corsair attack aircraft of squadron VA-86, the 'Sidewinders', one of six squadrons in the America's embarked air wing.

We're on a Westpac (West Pacific) cruise which will keep us away from our home base at Norfolk, Virginia, for five months. It is September 1972 and the America is involved in the Linebacker bombing campaign against North Vietnam.

A dozen other sailors are in motion around me, using the head, shaving, performing that USS Americawake- up ritual of dousing your face with cold water and shaking it off. It's incredible how these men perform this routine in a ghostly near-silence, out of deference to those who sleep at this hour.

I'm an E-4, an assistant plane captain on an A-7C Corsair attack aircraft of squadron VA-86, the 'Sidewinders', one of six squadrons in the America's embarked air wing.

We're on a Westpac (West Pacific) cruise which will keep us away from our home base at Norfolk, Virginia, for five months. It is September 1972 and the America is involved in the Linebacker bombing campaign against North Vietnam.

Working round the clock

My job is straightforward. I'm to assist Petty Officer Engels, crew chief for A-7C Corsair Bombsnum- ber 156799, in getting the plane ready for launch and in recovering it after the mission. If time permits, I'll perform maintenance/checkup work on other Corsairs belonging to the squadron.

The pilot of our plane tonight is Lieutenant J.G. Murphy. He'll be number two in a two-plane division hurtling aloft after dark to search for Wiblicks. That's a WBLC or Waterborne Logis- tics Craft. Much of the war is being fought by daylight against targets deep in the enemy's homeland, but the America's is a round-the-clock operation and it's important to harry the boats infiltrating supplies into South Vietnam.

Bomb in dining roomI leave my billet (which I share with 88 other sailors - our bunks are stacked three deep), climb up two levels, and reach the flight deck via the passageway between the ready rooms. Known as 'Broadway', it leads to the outside iron staircase on the starboard side of the ship. Tonight we won't have to bring any aircraft up from the workshop below decks. Our Corsairs are already in a 'six pack' on the flight deck near the carrier's island. Working with flashlights (attached around our necks by cord, lest they become a hazard on the crowded deck), Engels and I perform a walk- around check of airplane 156799, looking for a sign that anything might be wrong.


By God, that plane is mine

You have to understand the fierce pride of personal ownership that I get when I'm working on old 799. Sure, it has the pilot's name stenciled on one canopy rail and my boss Engels' name, as crew- chief, on the other. But by God, that airplane is mine. Like every man who works on a naval aircraft, I feel a keen sense of personal responsibil ity, knowing that the pilot's life may depend on how well I keep the Corsair flying.

We check everything - control surfaces, cock pit, instruments, air name it. Rest on bombsIt's as if 799 is being scrutinized under a microscope. This plane's 'gripe sheet' indicates a persistent problem with the electrical system, so I get an electrician who checks it over and pronounces it okay. We review the bomb-load of six 6001b Mark 81 bombs hung under the Corsair's wings. At 0300, while we're completing a readiness check on the A-7C, the pilot, Lieutenant Murphy, is getting a weather briefing and being told that if he can't find a Wiblick he ought to keep his eyes open for a Luctar. That's Navy slang for a lucrative target.

The A-7C eats people

In these pre-dawn hours, a time of wind and cold and discomfort, our job is grueling physical work. Once it becomes time to start the engines we have to be extremely careful. The droop-Pilotmouthed Corsair with its low air intake and no grille between inlet and engine ? eats people. More than any other naval aircraft, our A-7C can ingest anything from a monkey wrench to a human being. It can be, and has been, fatal to the careless deck hand.

Soon pilot Murphy is in the airplane, starting up, taxiing forward to position himself on the catapult for launch. My work on 'our' airplane is done for the moment but other hardworking deckhands attach the launch bridle, check the weight of the aircraft, and finally use America's massive steam catapults to send Murphy and his flight leader slamming into the sky. As I watch the two Corsairs climb towards the North Viet namese coast I reflect upon all the men around me who help to get them there...


The men behind the scenes

To keep a carrier air wing in combat you need more than mechanics, electronics technicians, fuel handlers and armament specialists. You also need to keep alive this floating city from which aviators cotae and go. This takes food, drink, a laundry, a dry cleaners, air conditioning, communications. The Hollywood stars of an attack carrier like the America are the brightly-clad deck crewmen who risk their lives daily to attach a catapult bridle to a crewed-up Intruder, or who maneuver Phantoms and Corsairs around the crowded deck in a blurred cacophony of noise and motion. But don't ever tell me that we could run the war without a 14 hour day from that crewcut Texan kid who works the ovens in the bakery, or the sweat and toil of that skinny black guy from Chicago who types up the ship's drill bulletin, the Plan of the Day. The cook, the tailor and the typist may not get into the credits like a missile guidance technician or a catapult launch chief do, but it takes an intense commitment by every last man-jack aboard the 1047-foot, 60,300-ton America to keep the carrier and its air wing in the war, And how about the medics? Burning JetToo often, we've had to pull a pilot out of a bullet-riddled aircraft. Some guy suffering from a gut wound, a spraying by hot metal fragments, or grievous burns. The medical technicians and doctors who labour on our wounded deserve all the credit they can get. They were particularly important on those occasions during the Vietnam war when a carrier at sea was decimated by a lethal fire. It happened to the Oriskany and later to the Enterprise.


There's no time to worry

Worth thinking about. Anything is worth thinking about to escape from my worries. I'm racked by the gut-wrenching knowledge that my airplane and my pilot are now up there in the black night, closing with the enemy. Did I check that instrument panel warning light carefully enough yesterday? Did we miss anything in our walk-around check this dark morning? Should we have worried more about the electrical system? We want Lieutenant Murphy to go into battle with the best damn airplane on the carrier...

But there's no time to waste thinking, not on a carrier. With Engels and some others, I join a work party to get the hangar at the 0-4 level ship-shape. By 0600 we are working in a yellow glare, stowing gear, moving aircraft around, cleaning up, tacking an unexpected maintenance problem with another plane. There's no more time to worry about Murphy.

Aboard America are a ship's complement of 2800 men (150 officers and 2650 enlisted) plus 2150 in the carrier air wing: a total of 4950 souls.

A chief looks after his men

The officers? Well, the skipper is in charge. No doubt about that. The skipper of a carrier is always a naval aviator and senior captain who has previously commanded a smaller vessel. The XO (Executive Officer) may be a captain or senior commander, and he's the 'hard ass' who whips things together and makes them work. Perhaps third in importance is the Air Operations Officer, called the Air Boss. He looks down at America's six-acre deck from 'Pri-Fly', atop the steel island, and makes decisions about the movement, launch and recovery of aircraft to keep the choreography of the flight deck functioning smoothly. When an Alpha Strike of 28 to 36 aircraft is returning to the carrier, several perhaps with battle damage, at the same time that a combat air patrol must be launched, the Air Boss sorts out the priorities and decides who moves first.

Then there are department heads. But for us in the wing, the two most important officers are our CAG (carrier air wing commander) and our squadron CO. Every one of these men, all the way down the line, is a seasoned professional.

The real glue that holds the ship together is the chief. A chief petty officer may be a grizzled old salt or a modern-day technocrat. Either way, he swings his weight. You screw up, he'll hang you. You do it right, he'll make sure you get some recognition. A chief watches out for his men. One hardworking Corsair wrench monkey desperately needed leave to go home and straighten out a bad marital problem. Our chief arranged the trip by applying a rather liberal interpretation of the regulations. In return, he retained a good worker.

It would be nice to have the luxury of going down to 'Combat' (the America's Combat Information Center, also called CIC) to listen to radio traffic and find out how Murphy is doing in my personal' A-7C Corsair. No such luxury is permitted. We're busy working on other airplanes until the word comes that Murphy is on final approach and has 'called the ball'. This means that he has lined up with the light on the cambered deck (the"ball') which tells him that he's on a glide path for a perfect 'trap', or carrier landing. We scramble up to deck to watch him land.


Checking for bullet-holes

Murphy makes a nice approach in the dim light that precedes dawn, tail hook hanging down. He catches the number three wire and comes slamming to the deck. All of his bombs are gone. We learn later that he and his division leader located some North Vietnamese sampans along the coast, dropped flares, and bombed 'em. There was only light gunfire from the boats which apparently missed, but we still have the job of checking over every inch of the Corsair for bullet holes. We don't even get a chance to talk with the grinning Murphy as he heads for his debrief. As a gesture of thanks to his plane captain, he swats Engels on the behind, then trundles off with his flight gear.

Murphy's mission was, for me, only the start of the day. At about 0700 we'll prepare the Corsair for another mission. Murphy may fly her again ? two combat missions a day is not unusual - or another pilot may take her. This time, it may be another two-ship mission or it may be an Alpha Strike to Hanoi...

We'll be at it about another six hours. Finally, at about 1400, I'll be free for a meal and then some sleep before waking up to start over again.

The all-important mail

During the line periods our life on this ship is one of almost completely uninterrupted work. The North Vietnamese have not actually challenged our fleet, not yet at least, so we are not always at full General Quarters, but we're constantly aware of the war and there are few breaks. The big event is the twice-weekly arrival of the carrier onboard delivery C-IA cargo plane which brings the all-important mail from home. Perhaps today I'll be able to grab a few minutes to finish a tape I'm sending home and get it on the next outgoing. But there'll be little time for other pleasures. The war continues...


The US Navy began carrier operations off the coast of Vietnam in early 1965, when strike aircraft from the USS Coral Sea and USS Hancock mounted the first of the Flaming Dart reprisal attacks on the North. Part of Task Force 77 of the US Seventh Fleet, the carriers operated on what was known as 'Yankee Station', an area about 140 kilometers off the coast of North Vietnam. At first three carriers were involved, steaming independently and with destroyer escort, but in June 1965 this number was increased to five. By that time a sixth carrier had been dispatched, at General Westmoreland's request, to 'Dixie Station'. About 185 kilometers southeast of Cam Ranh Bay off South Vietnam, this position was used to hit targets in the South. The carrier remained on station for about a year, until sufficient airbases had been established ashore.

Yankee Station became the base for all US Navy aircraft taking part in Operation Rolling Thunder?the bombing of the North between March 1965 and November 1968. All types of naval aircraft took part?A-4 Skyhawks, A-7 Corsair 11s, A-6 Intruders, F-4B Phantoms, F-8 Crusaders and A-3B Skywarriors - and by 1966 they were carrying out sustained operations along selected 'route packages'. Each carrier launched and recovered its aircraft for 12 hours, paused for 12 hours to rest and replenish its stocks of fuel and ordnance, then recommenced operations for a further 12 hours. Except during periods of bad weather, there were always aircraft from at least two carriers on call.

When Rolling Thunder ceased in 1968, the carriers on Yankee Station moved their operations to the South, but in 1972, in response to the communist Easter invasion, President Nixon ordered them to restart attacks on the North as part of Operation Linebacker. By then a total of six carriers was on station, contributing to one of the most awesome displays of naval-airpower in the modern period.

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