Friday, May 16, 2008

Fullbore Friday

40 years is a long time. BZ.
Not many men in the military are eager to join a brand-new unit, where they don't know people, don't know what they'll be doing and don't have a proud unit lineage.

But the Navy assured the men it would be good for their careers.

So some men volunteered and a lot more were drafted to join Observation Squadron 67, so named because that was the year it was born.

After a while the men took to calling themselves "the Ghost Squadron" because they felt forgotten, participants in a secret war that neither the U.S. nor the North Vietnamese wanted to acknowledge was being waged next door to Vietnam.

Silenced for decades by their classified missions over Laos, the men finally in recent years began to speak publicly of their war, a decision that would ultimately lead to a rare historic correction by the Navy.

Forty years after the squadron's actions, VO-67 has been awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest decoration for combat valor a unit can receive. Some of the surviving 300 members of that squadron will be on hand Wednesday in Washington, D.C., for the ceremony in front of the U.S. Navy Memorial.

"It's special after all these years," said John Forsgren, a young sailor who served in the squadron and lives in Arlington. "But it's also bittersweet. How do you get proud of something that you did 40 years ago? There's a bit of a feeling of 'Why didn't they recognize the unit 30 years ago?'"

The Presidential Unit Citation is reserved only for the most valorous combat units, and it's worth noting that far fewer of them were awarded for the Vietnam War than Medals of Honor. A unit receiving the citation is the equivalent of every man receiving a Navy Cross.

Ensign Laura Stegherr said Navy Secretary Donald Winter received "relevant, new and verified" information about the squadron's actions in Laos that warranted the decoration.

Secret mission

VO-67 wasn't really an observation squadron, though they pretended they were. Their unit patch reflected the ruse, showing an airplane sending signals to the ground. In reality, it was the opposite -- the squadron was listening to what was happening on the ground, not interfering.

"It was so secret that not many top people in the Navy knew the squadron existed or what we did," said Ed Landwehr of Fort Worth, a navigator and bombadier on Crew 4.

The idea came from Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who was unhappy with the results of the bombing campaign in North Vietnam and wanted some other way to interdict supplies into South Vietnam. His answer was "Igloo White," the code name for his plan to create an "electronic barrier" at the Demilitarized Zone.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail was largely under triple canopy jungle, hard to detect and busiest at night. Using dropped microphones and seismographic sensors would be a way for the military to gain intelligence on what was moving down the trail, when and how much. Then they could call in airstrikes.

"We didn't find out what we would be doing until right before we deployed," said Herb Ganner of Hurst, a navigator and bombadier on Crew 1.

What the pilots and crews had to do sounds simple enough -- take off from an airfield in Thailand, fly a short distance into Laos and drop the camouflaged sensors along the trail.

The men flew only in the day, usually every other day, and could expect to be airborne no longer than a couple of hours.

But the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the lifeblood of the war for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, was a very hostile place for air crews, particularly slow-moving, virtually defenseless ones flying at only 500 to 1,000 feet.

"The missions were short-lived, but they were adrenaline-pumped," Ganner said.

The Navy prepared for a loss rate of upward of 60 percent to 70 percent, which the men found out about while they were in Thailand.

"They tried to reassure us that the loss rate was not necessarily those killed," Ganner said, "but that it meant the airplanes would be so damaged that they would be out of commission."

It never got that bad. But within a span of six weeks in 1968, it felt like it was. Twenty men from three crews died in January and February 1968, the time of the huge Tet Offensive.

Painful memories

After all these years, the survivors of VO-67 still wince at the memories of Jan. 11, when the first crew did not come home.

Tony Bissell of Bedford was a petty officer on another plane that day, and he can still remember the awful silence on the radio as Crew 2 did not answer any communication. Later that night, the officers' club was packed wall to wall with men getting stupid drunk. Nine men dead in a second.

"We didn't have to buy a single drink that night," Bissell said. "The Air Force guys were very sympathetic."

Interservice rivalry seemed to take a back seat to the men's shared missions and misery. To this day, the men of VO-67 credit the Air Force forward air controllers in Thailand for saving their hides many times because of their knowledge of the trail.

Each crew had its own identity, and rarely did they ever share with each other their specific missions. The less the men knew, the better.

"We knew how susceptible we were to getting shot down," Ganner said. "I used to carry a Geneva Convention card and my ID tags. I never took my wedding ring, my wallet, anything personal."

At least once the "Ghost Squadron" came out of hiding to participate in the acknowledged war.

In January 1968, the Marines at Khe Sanh were under siege by thousands of North Vietnamese. VO-67 was ordered on low-flying missions to drop sensors around the Marine base, so more accurate fire could be leveled.

Their citation says they "contributed to saving countless lives."

As for their careers in the Navy, the men said VO-67 failed to help them at all. In fact, most of them believed it hurt their promotion chances because no one in the Navy had heard of it.

Still, the belated recognition matters to many of them, for both reasons large and small.

"I've talked about it recently with my wife of 19 years, and she will say, 'I don't believe you,'" Forsgren said, laughing. "This is vindication."


The men flew the Lockheed P-2 Neptune, a 1950s-era anti-submarine patrol airplane. The squadron's planes were heavily modified for the mission, including the addition of M-60 machine guns, an armored belly and a jungle-green paint scheme.

The squadron was based at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base, just across the Mekong River from Laos. Their primary mission was over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, but they also performed missions in South Vietnam.

Twenty men of VO-67 died in Southeast Asia in three incidents. One is still missing in action, Cmdr. Paul Milius, who earned a Navy Cross for allowing seven crewmen to bail out of their badly damaged aircraft before going down. The Navy named a destroyer for him in the 1990s.

The squadron flew combat missions for nine months and sustained a 25 percent loss rate. It was disestablished in July 1968, and the Air Force took over the mission until 1972.

Among the North Texas men who served in the unit: Tony Bissell of Bedford, John Forsgren of Arlington, Herb Ganner of Hurst, Ed Landwehr of Fort Worth, Fredrick Rerko of Dallas and Lowell Shaw of Plano.

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