A Fighter Pilot’s Perspective Of The Air War Over North Vietnam

thud-pilotCol. Tom Snodgrass (Ret.), Right Side News

Thud Pilot
Vic Vizcarra
Ordering Information – http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/ThudPilot

Full Disclosure
I must tell the reader that Col Vic Vizcarra was a former Air Force colleague, neighbor, and has been a personal friend for forty years, and during all those years I have known him to be a man of intelligence, common sense, honesty, and honor.

A Fighter Pilot Goes To A Mismanaged War

There are two aspects to this book that make it a very interesting read. The first is the account of President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s pathetically incompetent air war strategy that was based on an apparent total ignorance of the history of warfare and how bad strategy affected the warriors on the point of the spear. The second is the author’s gripping, minute by minute description of missions against North Vietnamese targets and his gutsy rescue by the US Navy after he experienced engine failure over North Vietnam.

The Johnson Administration’s ‘No-Win’ Strategy

The ill-conceived basic premise of the Johnson-McNamara strategy that needlessly cost so many American lives totally ignored Carl von Clausewitz’s dictums that the purpose of war “is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will” and that “victory consists. . .  in the destruction of the enemy’s physical and psychic forces.” Instead the ill-conceived military strategy McNamara chose for the war’s conduct contributed substantially to the deaths of more than 58,000 of US armed forces personnel. The tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths that were the bitter fruits of McNamara’s strategy of limited war, which he termed “Flexible Response,” mark McNamara as an object of scorn in US history. McNamara’s conduct of the war is certainly fair game for someone whose life was directly affected by McNamara’s decisions as was the author’s.

The major weaknesses and incompetence in McNamara’s war strategy are multiple. First, he and his “wiz kids,” recruited from industry and academia, lacked practical military experience, so they did what they knew best and set out to quantify warfare in order to calculate how to put the most cost efficient forces on the battlefield. Unfortunately, McNamara and his civilian “brain trust” confused efficiency for effectiveness. As a consequence, American servicemen paid in blood for McNamara’s cost accounting-obsessed approach to national security that lost sight of how to secure victory, while pursuing cost savings.

Col Vizcarra recounts a classic case of McNamara’s green-eye-shade, bean-counter mentality dictating battlespace tactics that were clearly stupid in terms of warfighting and caused pointless addition risks for aircrews. For example:

“During this deployment, the press in the United States reported that a bomb shortage was developing in Southeast Asia. The Pentagon vehemently denied it and rightfully so. Even though it was true, you couldn’t let the enemy know it. But what I found troublesome was that the bean counters were running the war. Instead of sending out fewer aircraft fully loaded, higher headquarters continued the same sortie rate, sending us out with only two bombs rather than the normal load of six. I found the needless exposure of so many pilots flying with 1/3 the bomb load senseless.”

Second, another egregious example of McNamara’s weak and incompetent warfighting strategy that definitely cost innumerable US aircrew lives was his inexplicably naïve belief that, if the US did not attack surface-to-air-missile (SAM) sites when they were being constructed and before the sites were operational, the North Vietnamese would not “escalate” the war (e.g., refrain from shooting down US strike aircraft with SAMs?). Col Vizcarra describes how McNamara’s bizarre theory manifested itself in SEAsia:

“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. Unknown to us in the trenches, 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. CIA Director John A. McCone, in concert with the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), immediately advised the White House that these sites should be destroyed before they became operational. The advice was discounted, but a month later, McCone’s replacement, William F. Raborn, strongly recommended similar action. However, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara opposed these recommendations and convinced President Johnson to keep the SAM sites on the growing list of targets that were off limits. As the construction on the five sites progressed towards completion, in May, June, and July, the JCS recommended the sites be destroyed; all three times their recommendations were ignored.”

At the time that the construction of the North Vietnamese SAM sites was discovered by US Intelligence, I was a Flight Commander in an Air Force Signals Intelligence intercept operation at a remote location monitoring the war. I vividly remember receiving daily Intelligence reports documenting the SAM sites construction progress and being perplexed as to why the sites weren’t being destroyed before they became operational?! As a lieutenant, I naïvely assumed at the time that Johnson and McNamara would have been dedicated to the best interests of American fighting forces and US victory. However, Col Vizcarra recaps true Johnson Administration failed, no-win approach to the war that I was unaware of:

“The Johnson administration applied air power in North Vietnam gradually . . .  While the United States proceeded perfunctorily, North Vietnam leadership was determined to use all principals of warfare, including the elements of surprise and ambush. The North recognized and exploited the sanctuary provided to Hanoi as a result of the White House’s overly restrictive Rules of Engagement (ROE) that served as a significant detriment to our flying missions up North.”

 Republic F-105D Thunderchie
A Republic F-105D Thunderchief in flight with a full bomb load of sixteen 750 lb (340 kg) bombs on its five hardpoints.

Flame Out Over Enemy Territory

While carrying out one of these missions in North Vietnam, Col Vizcarra experienced engine failure. After bailing out of his disabled F-105, Col Vizcarra waited in a cave for rescue and was eventually hoisted from the jungle to a rescue helicopter, where he picks up his story:

“I finally felt someone grab the back of my collar as the penetrator reached the door of the helicopter. I was about halfway pulled in when the helicopter tilted nose down and started to accelerate away from the area.

“After about 25 minutes, he pulled the gun in, shut the door and handed me a life preserver. I thought, I need this just to cross the Mekong River? A little while later, he opened the door and started throwing out the machine-gun, ammo cans, and anything that wasn’t permanently fastened to the airframe. I wondered what the hell was going on! Then I remembered their passionate plea while I was on the ground to hurry up because they were getting low on fuel. He was getting rid as much weight as he could to conserve fuel. Now I started worrying how close had these guys cut it!

“I felt the chopper nose come up as it started to decelerate and enter a vertical descent for landing. I felt the touch down and the crewman jumped out the door and then turned to help me out. It was totally pitch black as I jumped out of the chopper; the flashes of cameras going off blinded me. Simultaneously, I smelled and felt the spray of seawater hit me in the face. I was totally surprised and shocked to find myself on a ship at sea! Up to now, I’d been thinking all Air Force. I had no idea I’d been saved by the Navy!”

Col Vizcarra’s surprise at being aboard a US Navy ship at sea coupled with shock of the trying experience he had just survived go a long way toward explaining the stunned expression on his face in the photo that graces the cover of his book.


Col Vizcarra’s war memoire provides a rare glimpse into the futile strategy pursued by Johnson and McNamara that caused so much pain in US military fighter community, as well as a view of the nitty-gritty of war as seen from fighter cockpit perspective. It is a very enlightening read.

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Col. Thomas Snodgrass, USAF (retired) served over a year in Peshawar, Pakistan, working with Pakistani military intelligence. During his year in Vietnam he daily scheduled 130 U.S. Army and Air Force intelligence collection aircraft. In his final overseas tour he was the U.S. Air Attaché behind the Iron Curtain in Warsaw, Poland. In total, Col. Snodgrass was variously an Intelligence Officer or an International Politico-Military Affairs Officer (military diplomat) serving duty tours in seven foreign countries, as well as teaching military history and strategy at the Air War College, US Air Force Academy, and USAF Special Operations School during a thirty-year military career. Additionally, he was awarded an Air Force scholarship to get a history master’s degree in revolutionary insurgent warfare at the University of Texas, as well as being granted a year’s educational sabbatical to teach and to write about international relations as an Air Force Research Associate in the graduate school at the Center for Advanced International Studies, University of Miami, Florida. Following the Air Force, Col. Snodgrass was an adjunct professor of military history for ten years at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Arizona.