Operation Spring High was a costly fatal mission with last minute changes, wrong tactics, improper ordnance, and a high loss of aircraft and airmen. Of the 46 F-105’s that attacked the two SAM sites, six aircraft were lost with three pilots killed, two captured, and one rescued.
Speed & Angels Productions will soon be releasing the much-anticipated sequel to their 2018 award-winning documentary Thud Pilots. The feature documentary is scheduled for a Pay-Per-View World Premiere on the 4th of July (https://www.speedandangelsproductions.com/pay-per-view/) and The Aviation Geek Club has been given an exclusive sneak peek to the official trailer of Thud Pilots II – Rise of the Hunter Killer.
Inspired by the highly acclaimed book, Thud Pilot by renowned F-105 driver, Vic Vizcarra, Thud Pilots II continues the story and legacy of the most iconic fighter in the Vietnam War. The follow-on sequel reveals first-hand stories from pilots who refused to be beat despite having their hands tied behind their backs due to inane target restrictions and rules of engagement. The rise of the Hunter Killer mission is featured in the film and the following excerpts by Vic Vizcarra from his book, Thud Pilot are visually told in this film.
“On 2 March 1965, the Johnson Administration initiated “Rolling Thunder,” the gradual but systematic bombing of North Vietnam intended to stop the Communist regime from toppling the South Vietnamese government. At the start of the campaign, the White House established a 10-mile circle around Hanoi where air operations were prohibited. An extension of this circle to 30 miles designated a restricted area in which the White House personally controlled all air operations. On 27 July 1965, 48 F-105D Thunderchiefs, “Thuds” as they were affectionately called by their crews, were tasked to strike two Surface-to-Air-Missile (SAM) sites in North Vietnam in retaliation for the war’s first SAM shoot down, an F-4C, three days earlier. However, the battle to counter the SAM threat had not started with this mission. Unbeknownst to the men tasked with this mission, a rigorous debate on what should be done about this new threat had been on going at the White House since the SAMs were first discovered on 5 April 1965. The Johnson Administration had been debating various courses of action in response to five SAM sites discovered under construction in the administration’s prohibited area around Hanoi. The discovery came only 34 days after initiation of the “Rolling Thunder” campaign. This rapid counter to an offensive campaign that was intended to last only six to eight weeks shocked the administration. The CIA in concert with the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), immediately advised the White House these sites must be destroyed before becoming operational. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara opposed these recommendations and convinced President Johnson to keep the SAM sites on the growing list of “off limit” targets. As construction of the five sites progressed, the JCS continued to recommend the sites be destroyed; all three times their recommendations were ignored as the Johnson administration did not want to pose a threat to North Vietnam’s closest allies, the Soviet Union and Communist China. The Communist North recognized and exploited the sanctuary provided them which continued to cost the lives of several U.S. pilots flying missions up North. The first SAM shoot down compelled the White House to reassess the denied JCS recommendations, but Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara still opposed striking all the SAM sites for fear of escalating the war. The debate on the course of action continued into the actual day of the retaliatory attack. Finally, two days after the shoot down, the JCS prevailed and President Johnson agreed to, in his words, “take them out.” The mission fell to the F-105 pilots at Takhli and Korat in Thailand. On the evening of 26 July, the Tasking Order came down that there would be a maximum effort by the Korat and Takhli F-105 squadrons against all known SAM sites. The JCS had finally won out over the objections of McNamara, who was still recommending a more limited response. The strikes in North Vietnam were about to heat up! The North Vietnamese anticipated this attack. The strike packages were detected and tracked by their early warning radars until contact was lost in the ground clutter 14 miles from the SAM sites. The only element of surprise was the extreme low altitude approach that hampered their ability to lower some of their guns sufficiently due to the protective berms surrounding the emplacements. Nonetheless, the North Vietnamese were able to put up an effective Triple-A barrage, shooting down three F-105’s within the first nineteen minutes of the attack. The losses did not end there. The attack against SAM Site 6 lasted over an hour and the final F-105 shoot down of the mission occurred forty-eight minutes after the previous three F-105 losses. SAM Site 7 was nearly under continuous assault for thirty minutes as six flights made their low-level attacks with BLU-27 napalm and CBU-2A cluster bombs. Over half of the attackers returned to their bases with battle damage.
“Operation Spring High was a costly fatal mission with last minute changes, wrong tactics, improper ordnance, and a high loss of aircraft and airmen. Of the 46 F-105’s that attacked the two SAM sites, six aircraft were lost with three pilots killed, two captured, and one rescued. The mission was a total victory for the North Vietnamese. Knowing the U.S. would retaliate once they successfully employed a SAM, the North Vietnamese immediately removed the missiles and equipment from the firing sites and deceptively replaced at least one of the sites with fake missiles. Within 24 hours of their first SAM employment, both launch sites were vacated and turned into flak traps with 130 Triple-A guns. Prior to the mission order, new intelligence photos of the targets showed what appeared to be fake missiles made out of bamboo poles tied together and painted white to resemble SA-2’s. The JCS recommended scrubbing the mission but were again over-ruled by McNamara stating too much planning had been executed to stop now and North Vietnam must see the resolve of the U.S. not the weakness. Official North Vietnam Air Defense documentation acquired after the war substantiated JCS’s suspicion. The first firing of a SAM in the war had been part of a larger plan to set an elaborate flak trap to ambush and inflict heavy losses to a large American force. Even though their plan succeeded, and the loss of life suffered great losses destroying bamboo missiles, the mission was not a total failure. The results of “Operation Spring High” provided lessons that formed the genesis for development of tactics and equipment, enabling U.S. forces to operate in a SAM environment and turned the enemy hunter into the hunted. The SAM shoot-down of the F-4C and the “Spring High” disaster generated an Air Staff Anti-SAM Task Force headed by Brigadier General Kenneth “KC” Dempster and involved the Air Force, Navy, and Defense Contractors. The Task Force immediately discarded bureaucratic procedures and resorted to “best commercial practices”. Program managers worked expeditiously, communicated informally and relied on trust. Defense contracts were immediately initiated based on handshake commitments between program managers and contractor representatives. In one $6.7 million-dollar program, a Polaroid picture of an agreement written and signed on a blackboard served as the contract. The first Radar Homing and Warning (RHAW) receivers were installed in F- 105’s at Takhli in December 1965, only 5 months after the Spring High mission and less than 3 months from the Task Force go ahead. The Task Force developed the concept of operations for a special Anti-SAM aircraft resulting in the first Wild Weasels. The first of these modified F-100F’s arrived at Korat 25 November 1965 and achieved their first SAM site kill on 22 December of that year. QRC-160 jamming pods began arriving in theater in September 1966. The Air Force accepted all forty-seven separate solutions developed and proposed by the Task Force. The importance and success of these developments cannot be overemphasized in that during the same time, the SAM threat had grown to 18 confirmed sites and another 18 suspect sites. Yet operations in SAM areas not only did not diminish, but targets were successfully attacked while bisecting the SAM’s effectiveness from 5.7% in 1965 to 2.8% by 1966. By the war’s end, the SAM effectiveness had been reduced to 1.15%. “Spring High” was Vic Vizcarra’s seventh mission that tour and unlike his previous tour, he was starting to get used to being shot at. However, he did state that “Spring High” was definitely the most exhilarating mission he had flown, even without seeing any of the flak. The requirement to fly close formation during the shooting phase prevented that but he did say he’d never forget those sickening radio calls and emergency beepers, which was scary enough. He also stated he felt bad for a fellow Thud Pilot who was launched as a spare and thrown into the Lead flight when one of the mission members aborted at the last minute. “It happened to be his first combat mission and that’s one hell of an introduction to combat when you’re flying into a flak trap and seeing a wingman get shot down that he didn’t even know!”
Col. (Ret.) Vic Vizcarra accumulated 3590 total flying hours during his 24-year Air Force career. A Vietnam combat veteran, he flew 179 missions in Southeast Asia in multiple iconic fighters.
Thud Pilots II – Rise of the Hunter Killer Pay-Per-View World Premiere available here from Jul. 4, 2021.