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During the Vietnam War, the skies were filled with fast jets, huge bombers, roaring transports and roaring helicopters. They were hard to miss. Other, less visible but no less important, aircraft did not provide weapons, bombs or transportation, but they did provide something equally important to those fighting a war on land: a pair of eyes in the sky. These aircraft, piloted by air traffic controllers, flew over the battlefield looking for enemy troops and then sent bombers or fighters to attack them.
The Vietnam War CAF is the legacy of a concept that dates back to the Civil War. In 1862, the Union Army used hydrogen-filled balloons to locate and report the positions of Confederate troops and artillery on the York-James Peninsula in Virginia. During World War I, air observers also sat in the open cockpits of wooden biplanes over the Western Front, noting enemy troop movements, artillery positions, and other useful details.
Since then, air observers have had a virtually unbroken history in warfare, spanning World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, and continuing into the 21st century. The century lasts. Small, slow, fragile aircraft, with a single pilot who can assess the battle on the ground and decide from the air what action to take, are essential elements of modern warfare, even in the age of jets.
Hundreds of Air Force, Navy, Army, and Marine Corps FACs provided vital assistance to Vietnam. They were the link between the friendly ground units and the fast elements, the tactical hunters. Whenever a Marine Corps, Special Forces, or other Army unit needed air support, the CAF climbed into their small Cessna O-2A Skymaster surveillance aircraft and flew to what was called Indian Country. On the approach, the pilot made radio contact with the ground unit to find out where the enemy was and, more importantly, where his friends were.
The CAF, on duty anytime, anywhere, had no real weapon other than his pistol. His main resources were three radios and a load of 10 white phosphorus rockets, which were used to mark enemy targets for incoming American aircraft with bombs. A single radio could be used for communications with the air base, ground troops and fighter planes. Rapid response time was required to switch between radios when air strikes were requested and air bases and ground units needed to be informed. The CAF had the authority to call for air strikes against the enemy. If ground troops were in danger of being overrun, he could even divert aircraft involved in other operations.
The Cessna O-1 Bird Dog was the first aircraft flown by the air traffic controllers of the 20th Air Force. The TASS flew. / U.S. AIR FORCE
A keen eye, a steady hand on the controls and a quick mind were needed to assess the situation. It was these qualities that earned Air Force Captain John P. Calamos the reputation of being one of the best air traffic controllers of the war. He served with the 20th Tactical Air Support Squadron at Da Nang Air Base and made nearly 400 flights as an FAC and more than 1,000 flying hours. A balmy night over Thuong Duc Special Forces Base in September 1968 secured him a place in Vietnam War history.
Kalamos, son of Greek immigrants, was born in Chicago and flew only once or twice as a child, he said. The idea of jet fighters flying in formation seemed like an amazing feat.
He enrolled in the Air Force ROTC at the Illinois Institute of Technology and received his commission in 1963. Kalamos entered active duty in 1965 and completed pilot training at Webb Air Force Base, Texas. I wanted to be a fighter pilot, but I was assigned to fly B-52s, he says. His squadron was stationed at Beale Air Force Base in California.
Kalamos didn’t spend much time in the big B-52 Stratofortress planes. I was ordered to go to Vietnam to work as an air traffic controller, he said. After FAC training in Florida, he arrived at Da Nang Air Force Base in South Vietnam in May 1968. It was a shock to go from the largest bomber in the Air Force to a small Cessna 0-2A, known as Kalamos.
The Air Force began operations at Da Nang Air Base in 1962 to support U.S. forces and the South Vietnamese Army. Originally used as a troop transport base, Da Nang became one of the largest integrated air bases in the Far East in 1965. Dozens of air force units of the army and the navy, tactical bombers, reconnaissance planes, attack planes and tactical fighters were stationed there.
The eighth. In May 1965, Da Nang welcomed a new unit, the 20th Tactical Air Support Squadron. The original plan was to purchase 30 aircraft, but the 20th TAAS spent most of the summer of 1965 with fewer than 20 Cessna O-1 Bird Dog surveillance aircraft because the Army was slow to provide aircraft.
After the pilots assigned to the squadron completed a series of familiarisation flights, they were given a series of tasks in the area.
Among its tasks were conducting intercepts to detect enemy troop movements, conducting air strikes, and supporting air rescue operations over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, an operation called Tiger Hound. At least three forward operating bases – Khe Sanh, Kham Duc and Kontum – have been established to support the CAF mission.
In July 1966, the 20th TASS was deployed for defensive operations, known as Tally Ho in the Steel Tiger area of operations in Laos, which extended 30 miles north of the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam.
Kalamos, who was in 23. Bomber Squadron in the United States flying B-52s, received the Air Medal of Merit. / U.S. AIR FORCE
When Kalamos arrived in Da Nang in May 1968, the 20th Infantry Division was in the process of forming a new army. TASS abandoned the O-1 Bird Dog, whose origins date back to 1947, and flew the more powerful Cessna 0-2A, the military version of the civilian 337 Skymaster. At the end of 1966, at 20. TASS the first squadron to receive these aircraft. The Air Force has ordered a total of 350 0-2A Skymasters.
The O-2A, nicknamed the Oscar Deuce, had two propeller engines in the nose and one in the tail, known as the tractor-pusher configuration, under the high wing between the two tail arches. With its large angled windows that provided excellent visibility, the 0-2A was ideal for the FAC role, but offered no protection to the pilots.
The O-2A’s most valuable asset was its superior range. With a cruising speed of 140 to 160 miles per hour, the Cessna could fly more than 1,000 miles. It was retired from service when the more modern North American-Rockwell OV-10 Bronco light attack and observation aircraft entered service in 1969.
The O-2A’s low cruise speed allows it to hover above and around a relatively small combat area, which helps the pilot maintain situational awareness on the ground. McDonnell F-4 Phantom II fighter-bombers and North American F-100 Super Sabre fighters move too fast to allow accurate bombing when there is less than a few hundred yards between enemy and friendly forces. Accurate targeting was of utmost importance in air attacks when American and Allied forces were in close proximity to each other.
The CAF aircraft directed the airstrikes from orbit and fired white phosphorus rockets to mark the target, Kalamos said. We knew where the friendly and enemy ground forces were. That’s what missiles are for. The fighters could not hit until we told them they were clear for hot mode, meaning the target was clear of enemy forces and could be hit. The FACs told the stormtroopers which target was located and which direction to go.
The downed pilots and friendly infantry carried different colored smoke bombs which enabled the FAC to recognize them under the dense foliage of the forest. However, the North Vietnamese army also used flares to confuse American troops.
One day Kalamos receives a call from an infantry unit that has been attacked by NVA troops deep in the forest. I communicated by radio with the planes and the ground crew, he recalls. I had to find out where they were, and the man said: That’s not my problem: I’m going to blow some red smoke. Suddenly, two red plumes of smoke appeared in the forest. This means that the enemy listened and used [red] flares to impede a rescue attempt. And then the guy says: I’m sending up green smoke! Then I saw two different green fumes.
Kalamos knew that the North Vietnamese soldiers had copied the color of the missile. On the ground, the American infantry also recognized this and tried to do things differently. Meanwhile, fighter jets were in orbit nearby, waiting to be deployed, Kalamos added. Then the man called the radio: Send up yellow smoke! And only a yellow smoke rises. At that point, the infantryman said: I don’t have any yellow smoke! Catch them! Then I’ll use the hot radio! The target is the yellow smoke!
The FACs were in orbit, within sight of the target, while the fighters moved and dropped ammunition. The bombs exploded one by one, destroying the view of the combat zone, but when the smoke cleared, he had to decide whether to ask for another bombing. It often took numerous bombing raids to overcome the undisciplined North Vietnamese troops.
Due to the low altitudes and treks required for their missions, the CAF was in almost constant danger of being shot down and captured. Trying to stay away from ground fire, Kalamos said, staying above 1500 feet and not flying straight for too long. There was a lot of ground fire, including fire from small arms. When we fired the missiles, we had to go down to make sure we hit the target, but right after that we were back at 1500 feet.
Until 1968, the CAF performed a number of important air support functions, almost always alone. They collect information on NVA movements, weapons and personnel and act as a liaison between ground and air units.
When Calamos served with the CAF in the fall of 1968, the Special Forces camp at Thuong Duc, established in late 1965, was one of the Green Beret fortifications the U.S. Army had built in South Vietnam near the Laotian border to control NVA activities in the area. They were armed by the 5th Special Forces Group A and paramilitary units from the Montagnard tribes, one of South Vietnam’s ethnic minorities.
Thuong Duc’s A-109 camp was located in a river valley about 25 miles southwest of Da Nang. The SWAT team occupied the central camp complex, which was connected to the outer ring of camps and outposts in the mountains by an intricate network of communication and land roads. The camp was well situated on two ridges with a beautiful view of the river valley below. Its proximity to Da Nang Air Force Base gives it even greater tactical importance. The camp was also on one of the main routes the NVA used to attack American targets in the area. The North Vietnamese were determined to destroy it at any cost.
Although Special Forces have mortar and artillery teams, they lean heavily on what is now called Close Air Support. The CAF’s mission was to identify the enemy and deploy the necessary aircraft to counter the threat. There were six of us in Da Nang, Kalamos said. We were assigned areas around [Quang Nam province], including the Thuong Duc camp.
In September 1968, NVA forces began preparing for a major offensive against Da Nang, and the first item on their attack list was the Thuong Duc camp. Two NVA infantry regiments, totaling about 3,000 men, secretly moved mortars and artillery to surround the camp and its outposts on three sides. The attack began at 2 a.m. on the 28th. September, when units of the 21st and 141st. An NVA regiment attacked and captured outposts Alpha and Bravo, which were located about 600 meters from the camp border. Troops of the Special Forces and Montagnards conducted successful but bloody counterattacks to recapture key outposts.
Over the course of the day, the NVA stepped up the pressure with mortar and artillery attacks on the surrounding villages to concentrate fire on the camp. This flawed tactic cleared the area, allowing the NVA to bring their short-range mortars closer to the camp. Special Forces and Montagnards continued to repel attacks after sunset.
At that point, Kalamos, call sign Lopez 58, was sent to relieve the FAC, which was conducting the day’s airstrikes. By this time the enemy had lost the initiative, but he continued to try hard to break through the American perimeter.
In the darkness of night, Kalamos in his little Oscar Deuce scours the ground for gunshots, flares and explosions. There were spores flying at me, he said. I couldn’t see the enemy troops, but I knew where they were because of the ground fire.
According to Kalamos, who received information from the Green Berets, the opposite sides were only 200 feet apart. The thugs were too close for the fighter jets to hit accurately, he said. The night made it even more risky. More light was needed. He summoned rocket planes that dropped a steady stream of missiles, illuminating the battlefield with a strange white light.
Kalamos asked the Da Nang base, which had been conducting airstrikes all day, to send more planes with ammunition. Phantoms and Super Sabers fly low and drop cluster munitions and general purpose bombs. Kalamos assessed the damage and effectiveness of each attack. The bombs exploded in yellow and white flashes that left spots in his eyes.
Small fires were lit, filling the gloomy nightscape and exposing a hellish collection of bodies and weapons. Nevertheless, the remnants of the two NVA regiments refused to surrender. They are constantly looking for a weak spot in the American and Montagnard cordon.
Kalamos noticed these attacks. More white missiles crashed as he screamed: It’s hot. FCC asked for a full second strike against a determined opponent.
The weather was bad and sometimes it was hard for me to see what was happening, he said. The second attack came right where I had placed my missiles.
One of the very large planes from the Vietnam War was brought in when Kalamos was called.
The scary boat from the fourth grade. The airborne command squadron is on another mission. A crew member stands in front of the rear cargo door of the aircraft nicknamed Puff the Magic Dragon. / U.S. AIR FORCE
The Douglas AC-47, called with typical American humor Spooky and Puff the Magic Dragon, was the most advanced warship of its time. This converted C-47 transport carried three General Electric 7.62 mm rotary mine guns mounted in the left cargo door and two windows. Each gun had six rotating barrels like the Gatling gun and fired between 2000 and 6000 rounds per minute from a belt of 5000 rounds. The AC-47 often had a load of 24,000 rounds of ammunition.
The pilot of the Spooky operated the weapon while looking through the reticule in the left side window. The aircraft made a so-called pylon turn in an anti-clockwise direction, allowing the pilot to send a jet of glowing lead in the shape of a flaming cone over an area the size of a football pitch. Ground fire and exploding mortars gave the pilot a clear direction to aim. At night, the tracers looked like orange laser beams, which made finding targets easier. A steady stream of bullets literally tore through the foliage, causing death and destruction wherever it hit. This concentrated firepower dealt the NVA troops a heavy blow on the night of the 28th. September inflicted heavy losses.
After four hours in orbit over the battle of Thuong Duc and calling on all aircraft that could help, Kalamos was launched at 2 a.m. on September 29 and flew back to Da Nang. The SWAT camp was then secured and the NVA was expelled. It was a long and bloody battle. At least 68 NVA members were killed in direct attacks on the camp, while hundreds more were killed in air strikes. The number of casualties among American and friendly troops was negligible, although exact figures are not available.
Working with Air Force and Marine Corps aircraft, the CAF played an important role in protecting the Thuong Duc camp and surrounding area from an NVA attack that threatened to overwhelm American and Montagnard forces.
Kalamos’ outstanding services above the battlefield earned him an award, the Distinguished Airman’s Cross, which is given to members of all branches of the military who have demonstrated heroism or excellence in flight.
I spent more than 1,000 hours in Vietnam, Kalamos said, and 833 of those hours were combat hours.
After his rotation to the United States in May 1969, Kalamos returned to the B-52 bombers stationed at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. He spent five years on active duty and another 12 years in the reserves, flying Cessna A-37 fighter jets. One can’t help but wonder what the Air Force had in mind when they took Kalamos off the B-52 and put it on a Cessna O-2A, then put it back on the Stratofortress. Still, the Special Forces soldiers who served in the Thuong Duc camp are very happy that the Air Force did so. V
Mark Carlson writes regularly for more than a dozen military history magazines and is the author of The Marines’ Lost Squadron-the Odyssey of VMF-422 and Flying on Film-A Century of Aviation in the Movies 1912-2012. He lives in San Diego.
This article was published in the June 2021 issue of Vietnam Magazine. For more articles from Vietnam Magazine, subscribe here and visit us on Facebook :
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