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By Zalin Grant
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Chapter One
July 19, 1966
Attack on Co Trai

Early on Tuesday morning, July 19, 1966, the pilots of Squadron 162 began to assemble in Ready Room 4, which was located on the level below the hangar deck of the USS Oriskany. The Oriskany was one of three aircraft carriers assigned by Washington, along with air force planes flying from land bases in South Vietnam and Thailand, to participate in any air war against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, in order--said official pronouncements--to help bring the ground war in South Vietnam to a successful conclusion by forcing the North Vietnamese to cease their aggression in the South; or, at least--as time went on and the war became unpopular in America--to make them agree to a negotiated settlement. After U.S. government officials debated strategy and targeting, after they exchanged and reviewed memoranda discussing how best to pressure Hanoi into acquiescence, it was American pilots like the fifteen naval officers of Squadron 162 who carried out Washington's orders and dropped the bombs on North Vietnam.

A major strike was scheduled at noon on the railroad bridge at Co Trai, twenty-five miles south of Hanoi, and the pilots of 162 who were taking part in the attack wanted to acquaint themselves with the map coordinates of the target before the formal briefing began in the strike operations room. A transit point on the railway to the South, Co Trai was heavily defended by missile and flak sites and would be the first important target for many of the Oriskany's pilots since they arrived on Yankee Station eleven days before. A sliding panel of maps at the front of the ready room showed North Vietnam in varying degrees of closeup.

When the bombing campaign had begun more than a year earlier, on March 2, 1965, farmers made up 80 percent of North Vietnam's laborers and agriculture accounted for nearly half the gross national product, estimated a 1.5 billion dollars, an amount much less than the annual revenues of any of a dozen American corporations. In a country of nineteen million inhabitants, rice was the chief crop, and since rice needed an abundance of water in its early stages of growth, the impression an American pilot got of the country from the air, on the east, was of watery green fields divided into checkerboard patterns by dirt embankments--dikes molded by hand to hold water in the ricefields, connected by ditches to drain them. The dikes also protected the mature rice from the flooding caused by the country's many rivers during the downpours of the monsoon season, between October and May, when 85 percent of the high annual rainfall occurred. Fertilizer was second in importance only to water in growing rice, and because of the scarcity of chemicals, animal and human excrement were used in the ricefields, which produced a pervasive odor of night soil unnoticed by the Vietnamese but immediately apparent to the Americans who were forced to bail out after their planes were hit by antiaircraft fire. In the ricelands, strange-looking limestone hills and ridges jutted up in unexpected places. The delta formed by the Red River gave way on the north and west to mountains covered by jungle.

Despite the primitive aspects of the economy, there was nothing underdeveloped about the antiaircraft system the North Vietnamese had installed in their ricefields and villages with the help of Russian and Chinese technicians. The Soviet SA-2 Guideline missile, thirty-five feet long and carrying a warhead of three hundred and forty-nine pounds, exploded in an orange fireball that could be seen for miles around. The number of missile battalions was steadily growing in 1966. Each unit contained six missiles, plus radar, computers, and generators. The assemblage was mobile enough to be moved to a new position within twenty-four hours, and the missiles were rotated among three hundred different sites. The SAMs, as pilots called the missiles, were psychologically the more frightening--you could watch them coming and coming--but the flak, or shellbursts from antiaircraft guns, was the more effective in bringing down American planes. Already, there were seven thousand antiaircraft installations, firing a total of eighteen thousand tons of ammunition at U.S. planes each month. It seemed to the pilots, moreover, that everybody in the country, from young girls to old men, had a rifle pointing skyward when they flew over.

Ready Room 4, which smelled vaguely like an athletic locker room because of the sweat-damp flight suits hanging on the walls, served as a squadron office and a family room for the pilots of 162, where bombing raids were planned by day and a Hollywood movie, with popcorn, was shown each night. An astrological sketch of Orion the Hunter decorated the outside door. Inside the room were sixteen brown leather airplane chairs, grimy and worn. The front wall was a complex of maps and screens. A twenty-three-inch TV monitor, connected to the ship's closed circuit, showing takeoffs and landing on the flight deck, overlooked the room from the right. A woodcarving of a headhunter stood between a coffee urn and a ten-gallon water can. Most naval air squadrons had nicknames as a morale factor and 162 was known as "The Hunters," although the squadron had written to ask Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip, for permission to use the drawing of his Snoopy character as the squadron insignia on the tail of its airplanes.

On the morning of July 19, 1966, Richard Bellinger, the commanding officer of 162, was the first to arrive in Ready Room 4. Bellinger was annoyed to find that once again two folding cots had been left open by junior officers who had passed the night on standby alert. The ready room, unlike the junior officers' personal rooms, was air conditioned; and the younger pilots enjoyed getting the chance to sleep there. The night before, the Oriskany's passageways had registered ninety-four degrees Fahrenheit at 10:00 P.M. Bellinger began to dismantle the cots, and Rick Adams, a junior officer who had used one of the beds, returned from breakfast and finished the work.

It was difficult for Bellinger to stay angry with Rick Adams for very long. Bellinger and his wife had no children, and Rick, who was twenty-five, had become almost like a son. Navy pilots flew under a two-plane buddy system for mutual support, usually linking a senior officer to a junior officer, and Rick had been Bellinger's wingman on the Oriskany's first combat cruise in 1965. Adams had dropped out of the University of Minnesota after majoring in philosophy for three years and had spent time in Aspen skiing before he signed up for the Naval Aviation Cadet program. On one of their first strikes near Hanoi, Rick had calmly radioed Bellinger, "Hey, Belly, look behind you." Bellinger looked, just in time to see two missiles hurtling up toward him. He went into a sharp turn and they missed. "You could at least get a little excited," Bellinger told Adams. That flight cemented their friendship, and at the end of the cruise when Bellinger, as the new squadron commanding officer, had the opportunity to select six veterans to return from the 1966 cruise, Rick was the first one he chose. The rest were sent to teach tactics at naval air stations in the States, and the squadron was filled out by new men, pilots such as Dick Wyman and John (Black Mac) MacDonald, who, along with Rick, were to become known as some of the best on Yankee Station.

Rick had found the 1965 cruise a little disappointing. He had been trained as a fighter pilot, and he went on his first flight over North Vietnam fully expecting to fight MiGs. He scanned the skies, looking for a smoke trail, a glint of canopy, anything that would reveal the presence of an enemy plane. But the North Vietnamese had few MiGs and even fewer well-trained pilots. They quickly lost five planes when they first challenged the Americans in the summer of 1965, and they just as quickly changed their tactics. Instead of confronting the Americans directly in air-to-air combat, they mainly used the MiGs for psychological purposes. The presence of a MiG in the sky forced American tactical bombers to jettison their bombs to evade or fight more effectively and caused them to dive into the range of antiaircraft fire. Thus the MiGs could often thwart an American mission simply by taking off. Frustratingly for Rick Adams, the enemy planes remained ghosts. In October 1965, Adams had been hit by a missile. He and Bellinger were separated from the strike group, flying over a small valley, hoping to catch a MiG by surprise. Rick saw the flash and felt a sharp thump. It was, he said, like being in a car when someone kicked on the side. He looked in his mirror and saw that his right wing was on fire. The normal way to eject was to reach up with both hands and pull the face curtain down, triggering a charge that shot the pilot and seat out of the cockpit. Adams pulled the curtain down with one hand almost to the point of ejection and continued to fly as long as he could.

"The number of Americans who jumped out of airplanes prematurely was endless," said Adams, explaining his decision years later. "They caught on fire. Someone yelled 'Eject!' And they went out to become prisoners of war." He made it back to sea, suffering only burned hands before he was forced to eject, and was picked up by a helicopter and taken to a destroyer. He was the first pilot hit by a missile to escape death or capture. The tale of his panache in riding out a burning airplane spread throughout the fleet.

On the morning of July 19, 1966, Rick Adams was not scheduled to fly against the bridge at Co Trai. Nor was it likely he would fly any more strikes against North Vietnam. The week before, four days after the Oriskany arrived at Yankee Station, Rick had been shot down for the second time, on this occasion by antiaircraft fire. He was the first American of the war to be downed twice and rescued, and the navy had decided that was enough.

To the other pilots, Rick had become a Saint Christopher, a four-leaf clover, a rabbit's tail, a good luck charm to be touched before a mission; and as Squadron 162 gathered in Ready Room 4, he was the center of attention. By 9:00 A.M., Dick Wyman, Black Mac, Jim Nunn, Terry Dennison, and the rest, all the pilots but one, had taken their assigned chairs and were sipping coffee and talking quietly. Cal Swanson, the squadron's executive officer, the only one missing, was the flight leader of the men from 162 who were taking part in the Co Trai raid.

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