By John O’Meara

Special to the Crisfield Times


EDITOR’S NOTE: In honor of Memorial Day,

May 30, the Crisfield Times presents the

following article by Princess Anne

Town Manager John O’Meara.



          There were many kinds of combat missions flown by American pilots in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, which mainly covered the years 1965 to 1973. The Air Force, and to a lesser extent the Army, flew hundreds of cargo missions with large planes. The Army and Marine pilots flew helicopter missions to get the troops out in the field, to take out the wounded and dead, and to bring the soldiers back to their main base after the patrol. Another type of air combat was flown by crews of the Air Force B-52s. They dropped huge bomb loads from high altitude.




And then there were the fighter planes. These were the planes that could fly supersonic, faster than the speed of sound. They could attack enemy aircraft, and the North Vietnamese had a significant number of Russian built MIG fighters around Hanoi. But their main function was twofold. First, to bomb enemy installations, supply facilities, and truck traffic coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North Vietnam through Laos. And second, to support American troops in the field who were in contact with the enemy. These planes, whether the F-100 Super Sabre, or the F-4 Phantom, or the A-6 Intruder, were collectively referred to as “fast movers”.


           This is an article about fast movers in South Vietnam and one mission, flown late in the war that, after a fashion, tells the story of the Air Force, Navy, and Marine pilots who flew over South Vietnam day in and day out for eight years. This mission was flown during the late morning of March 5, 1971 by two Air Force pilots who went to the assistance of Firebase Alpha 4, located a few miles to the south of North Vietnam. It was in danger of being overrun by North Vietnamese infantry.






There were dozens and dozens of firebases all over South Vietnam. They were small American islands out in the country, a long way from the large Army and Marine Corps facilities. Their purpose was to provide artillery support for the soldiers and marines who were on patrol and came in contact with the enemy. They would also fire on places where intelligence suspected enemy troop concentrations or facilities. The artillery cannon could send a 174 pound shell 20 miles and a 200 pound shell 10 miles. This meant that soldiers who were on patrol in the countryside were almost always able to call for artillery support no matter where they were in South Vietnam.


           To protect the Firebase from enemy attack,



 there were armored personnel carriers, a few tanks, and some infantry. The big guns were protected by earthen berms, pushed up by a bulldozer. Soldiers who fired the big guns were referred to in Army slang as “cannon cockers”. The infantry manned bunkers around the perimeter of the Firebase. When the Firebase came under a serious attack, soldiers in the bunkers were augmented by support personnel, such as cooks and truck drivers.


Everything on the Firebase was in a bunker, the mess hall, first aid station, sleeping quarters, everything. So the soldiers essentially lived underground. Above, the ground was red clay without a blade of grass. In the dry season, it was hot and dusty; in the monsoon season, hot and muddy. A soldier assigned to a firebase could expect to stay there for a year. There were long days of boredom interrupted by periods of terror measured in hours.


           Around 9:00 a.m. on March 5, 1971, the rockets and mortars started exploding in and around Firebase Alpha 4. This was to be a prelude to a massive ground attack by units of the North Vietnamese Regular Army. G.I’s raced to their defensive positions, bunkers or foxholes, and the Army ground commander sent out the verbal radio call “danger close”, words than meant that this attack threatened to overrun the American outpost. For Air Force fighter pilots, the description “danger close” had a special meaning: the bombs they would be dropping would explode dangerously close to American soldiers.





Phan Rang Air Base was 320 miles south of Firebase Alpha 4. Air Force Lieutenant Dan Kuebler was in the alert shack near the end of the runway when the call for assistance came in. The Air Force always had eight pilots on alert with eight planes loaded with ordinance and capable of being airborne in five minutes. But only two planes would respond to any one call; that would leave the other six available for three more emergencies.


           Kuebler and his wingman took off and went north at 500 miles per hour for the forty-minute flight to Firebase Alpha 4. Lt. Kuebler was in command of the mission even though he was out ranked by his wingman, a Captain. This was because the Captain was new to Vietnam, having recently been reassigned from an air base in England.


They each flew an F-100 Super Sabre. The F-100 had become operational in 1953 and, in May of that year, it became the first truly supersonic plane. “Truly supersonic” in the sense that it was the first plane in the world to break the sound barrier in level flight. Captain Chuck Yeager had broken the sound barrier in 1947 in the Bell X-1, but he had done it with his plane pointed downward and thus had the assistance of gravity. The F-100 had a great amount of power and could carry a lot of bombs and rockets. Its only drawback was limited range, it couldn’t travel as far as some of the other fighters, especially with a full load of ordinance. But in South Vietnam, of all the fast movers, it was the principal workhorse until it was withdrawn in 1972.





As Kuebler and his wingman approached the target area, they met the Forward Air Controller, who had left the sky over Firebase Alpha 4 and was now five miles south of the Firebase. The Forward Air Controller was an Air Force pilot who flew above targets, talked to the ground observer, and guided the fighter pilots to the target. These pilots were called FACs and they flew a small Cessna airplane. The FAC told Kuebler that the target area was not “workable” due to low cloud cover and that he had left the area because of heavy and intense ground fire. He said that two F-4 pilots had arrived over Firebase Alpha 4 shortly before, checked out the cloud cover, and returned to their base with their bombs still on board. The sky that the F-4 pilots didn’t like was completely overcast with clouds at 800 feet above the ground. The cloud cover was very thick, it went from 800 to 8,000 feet.  

This is what is wrong with bombing from a low altitude: in order to have a reasonable chance of hitting a target, a pilot had to aim his plane at the target at an angle. The sharper the angle, the higher the degree of accuracy. The best angle was straight down, that is at 90 degrees (remember the film footage of the German Stuka dive bombers in WWII). The worst approach for dropping a bomb was no angle at all, flat and parallel to the ground. (This is before the “smart” bombs that were so effective in Iraq.)  

The problem with cloud cover at 800 feet is that under the clouds, where you could see the target, you couldn’t drop the nose of the plane to get an approach angle because you would be (1) too close to the ground when you released the bomb and the four-second fuse would not have expired and the bomb would not explode. And (2) your plane would crash into the ground because you had no air room to pull the plane up from your downward approach to the target. The pilot would have run out of time and space. Hence the term: “unworkable”. And Kuebler knew that the F-4 pilots were right. No jet fighter plane could make a depressed angle bomb run from 800 feet and survive. (800 feet is the distance from Gordon’s Confectionary to the City Dock.) Dropping the bombs from a flat and level approach (the worst approach for accuracy) was not an option because the enemy was too close to the firebase and Americans might be killed by the explosions - the nightmare of every fighter pilot.


Adding to the unworkable nature of this particular target was the ground fire. The ground fire threat was increased because of the low cloud cover. Pilots didn’t like to fly under an overcast sky because the cloud cover above them highlighted the plane for North Vietnamese gunners on the ground. Moreover, pilots didn’t like to attack targets at low altitude because all of the different caliber guns on the ground could be brought to bear on the low flying plane. As the plane’s altitude increases, fewer and fewer types of small arms and anti-aircraft guns could reach the plane. At real high altitude, the plane could only be hit by one type of ground fire - a surface to air missile. To have the best chance of avoiding ground fire and still be reasonably accurate, Kuebler preferred to begin a bombing attack at 6,500 feet, release the bomb at 4,500 feet, and bottom out at 3,000 feet above the ground.




Kuebler wanted to see the Firebase and the terrain around it before making the decision whether to abort the mission. The FAC said it was five miles ahead and he would direct them in, but would not go in with them. Kuebler and his wingman made two passes over the Firebase. They could see mortars and rockets exploding on and near the base. They could see that the area surrounding the base had been cleared of trees and shrubs. This area, which the ground troops cleared in order to see and fire at oncoming North Vietnamese before they got to close to the fire base and overran it, was known to the Air Force pilots as the fence. As in FAC to PILOT: “Your target is 100 meters west of the fence near the bend in the river”. And then, as a safety precaution, the pilot would always repeat the instruction back to the FAC. Safety here being the safety of the ground troops from a bomb meant for the North Vietnamese, but which instead lands on the Americans because of a miscommunication between the FAC and the pilot.


         The FAC told Kuebler that the ground observer had told him that the Firebase was in danger of being overrun from the southern perimeter of the fence. The Firebase was in a valley that generally ran east to west. The ground sloped north to south. This meant that there could be only two approaches – west to east or east to west. The north – south approach options were out because a plane approaching the southern perimeter of the base from either of these directions would have to fly over the Firebase. If the bombs were off target, they might explode among the Americans.


Given the other two choices, and unless circumstances dictated otherwise, pilots in Vietnam normally chose to attack from west to east. This was because the ocean was due east of any point in Vietnam. And the ocean meant safety because the Americans owned the ocean. The U.S. Navy had the big ships and the ocean was bare of obstructions. Our planes could fly overhead and see a hostile boat miles away and it would have no chance of reaching and capturing a downed pilot. So the pilots liked to pull out of a target strike at full throttle heading directly east for what they referred to as “feet wet”. If the plane was disabled by ground fire, they hoped to get to the ocean with whatever speed and altitude the plane had coming off the target, plus anything else they could get out of the crippled aircraft. Then they would bailout over the water with other planes flying overhead to provide protection and to give direction to the rescue helicopter, which would be dispatched within minutes of receiving the distress call. Bailing out over land anywhere in South Vietnam was hazardous. There was a good chance you would be captured and, if you were, it was a high probability you would not survive.          


           Despite this preference for a west to east approach, Kuebler decided against it because the pilots would have to make critical turns to the right. Accuracy would be paramount since they would be dropping bombs “on the fence”, close to the Americans at the Firebase. So they would make their bomb runs from east to west and avoid making turns to the right. (This preference for turning left sounds odd, but if you think about it, most people feel more comfortable turning left rather than right. That is why athletic courses, whether for cars, horses, or runners (baseball and track) all have left turns.)


Because the north and south approach options had also been eliminated, all of their passes would be made from the same direction. This one-way approach strategy might improve accuracy, but it had a big drawback. Pilots, whether helicopter pilots, fighter pilots, or heavy bomber pilots, all hated making multiple approaches to a target from the same direction. The reason is that the North Vietnamese would know the direction they were coming from each time they made a pass. And they would be waiting, prepared to hit the plane with every thing they had. There was no surprise to the enemy, no confusion, no adjustment that had to be made on their part. And they didn’t even have to aim at the plane, or try to lead it like a hunter shooting at a flying duck. Instead, they could fire at the area that the plane would have to fly through on the way to the target. It was called barrage fire and it was difficult to dodge.




So after making the two passes, Lt. Kuebler had a plan. But it would require a maneuver he had not done before (and would never do again), which was this: in order to establish the downward attack angle towards the target and not crash the plane, he would set up in the clouds, not below. Then he would come out of the clouds, make a last second (literally) adjustment, drop the bomb, and still have enough altitude to pull up before striking the ground and enough altitude for the bomb's four-second delay fuse to expire.


Kuebler told the FAC to stay in the area because they would attack the target. He and the wingman needed the FAC because he was their contact with the ground observer at the Fire Base. The Fire base radio was on FM and the pilots’ radios were on UHF, but the FAC was on both. So he relayed the messages back and forth.


 Outside the target area, Kuebler explained his plan to his wingman in the terse abbreviated language pilots use to talk to each other. But to us it would be described this way:  Outside the Firebase on its south side, imagine a box in the shape of a rectangle. One long line of the box runs past the Firebase and over the attacking enemy. It is the target leg. The pilots will drop their bombs at different points along the target leg. Then they will turn left on a short leg of the box, then turn left again and go down the other long line of the box that is the observation leg, and then left again along the other short leg, which is the climbing leg. This is the box and the two pilots will fly this box over and over until the have dropped all their bombs and expended all their ammunition.




And this is how they will do it: The attack run starts at the climbing leg, that’s the short line on the box’s left side. The pilot flying along this line is climbing up into the clouds. He will set his gun sight according to the plane's air speed, dive angle, and the bomb release altitude. In the clouds, the pilot will rely only on his cockpit instruments to obtain the critical attack geometry. At 4,500 feet and at just the right time, he rolls the plane to the left and down into a 15 degree approach.  He is flying blind as he makes his descent to 800 feet, then he comes out of the clouds into the clear and he is on the target leg, the bottom long line of the box alongside the Firebase. He has a second or two to make an adjustment, that is to shift the direction of the plane, then he drops one bomb. The plane is going 525 miles an hour (more than twice as fast as Dale Earnhardt ever drove his race car) and he will pull up some where between 100 and 200 feet off the ground. So close that anyone nearby would feel the heat from the plane’s afterburner.


While Kuebler is doing this, his wingman is going along the top parallel line of the box in the opposite direction. He is watching Kuebler to see how he does, he is “going to school” on Kuebler. He has to watch to see where Kuebler’s bomb explodes, but he also has to listen to the FAC who is passing on the ground observer’s evaluation and instruction on where to drop the next bomb. The ground observer will evaluate Kuelber’s bomb drop as in “ bomb on target” or “bomb 50 meters west of target”. The wingman is now listening for the next instruction on where he, the wingman, should drop his bomb, such as “ drop 70 meters south of first bomb”. The most recently exploded bomb, with its smoke and bomb blast, will always be the point of reference for where the next bomb should hit the ground.


 Then it’s the wingman’s turn. He comes to the end of the observation leg, turns left onto the climbing leg and goes up into the clouds, eyes glued to the instrument panel, then he rolls left and down onto the target leg. While he is doing this, Kuebler is turning left onto the observation leg to go to school on his wingman’s efforts, and to get the observation and instruction from the ground observer as relayed to him by the FAC. And so it goes, around and around the box, with Kuebler and his wingman always across from each other.






Kuebler and his wingman would each drop one bomb per pass. This would not be the type of attack pilots called “one pass and haul ass”. Kuebler’s plan was to spend as much time over the target as their fuel and ordinance would permit. The reason: in order to give maximum assistance to the ground troops, it would be necessary to keep as much pressure on the enemy for as long a time as possible. The pilots and the Americans on the ground were playing for time. Time would permit other resources, if necessary, to be brought to the Firebase, such as armored vehicles or troop reinforcements by helicopter. Over time, with increased casualties the North Vietnamese would be worn down and the attack would be called off.


 Multiple passes would also increase bombing accuracy (meaning more death and destruction to the North Vietnamese) because of the opportunity for making corrections through the observations of the ground observer. One pass by each plane dropping all of their bombs might be spectacular, but it could be a miss and time would quickly run out for the troops at the Firebase. On the downside, multiple low altitude passes by the planes would create a lot more exposure for the pilots.


Each plane flew four bomb passes and then each flew five machine gun passes, firing short bursts of 20 millimeter bullets into different parts of the target area. Then, after 18 passes they were finished. The ground along the southern boundary of the Firebase and the area south of it was devastated. They had dropped 2,000 pounds of high explosive iron bombs and 3,000 pounds of napalm, a petroleum jelly that burned and suffocated anyone close to the explosion. After that, they fired 1,600 high explosive incendiary bullets into the target area. The FAC reported that their bombs had all struck within 30 feet of the targets.


They had done all they could do and they were low on fuel. There was no way they could get back to Phan Rang. Kuebler radioed the closest air base, Danang, and declared a fuel emergency. The Air Traffic Controller at Danang cleared them for a priority landing. When they had parked their planes at Danang, the pilots inspected them for battle damage. Kuebler’s plane was riddled with bullet holes from the intense ground fire, but the holes were all in the rear of the aircraft, away from the sensitive flight controls in the front. Two hours later, they were cleared to return to Phan Rang. The next morning, they were back at the alert shack, waiting for another call to go to the assistance of U.S. soldiers in contact with the enemy.




           Air Force, Army, Marine, and Navy pilots flew thousands and thousands of missions in support of soldiers and marines on the ground during the eight years of the Vietnam War. A total of 4,798 U.S. aircraft were shot out of the sky during this period. Hundreds of pilots and aircrew members were rescued, but hundreds were killed, either when they were shot down or during captivity at the hands of the North Vietnamese communists or the Laotian communists. Although 549 servicemen were listed as missing in Laos and 82 were listed as missing in Cambodia (most of which were aviators), not one of these was released when the 591 aircrew members came home from Hanoi in March of 1973.


And those pilots that survived and returned home did not have a clear idea of the impact they had had in the war. It was very rare for a combat pilot in any service to know the results of his missions in South Vietnam. They would take off, fly to the target area, meet the FAC, follow his directions, drop their bombs, and return to their base. They would do this day in and day out. They would not learn the outcome of the life-death struggle taking place on the ground. And the soldiers and marines who were there would never see or talk to the pilots who often made all the difference in their fight for survival.  


So this letter I received a few weeks ago, speaks for thousands of middle aged men scattered around the country. I had asked Paul Lanza of Stafford Virginia, for some background information for this article. He was at Firebase Alpha 4 that morning in March of 1971, when Kuebler and his wingman made their 18 passes through the clouds. He sent this reply, with the emotion bubbling up after 32 years:


         “Those pilots did extraordinary things. There was nothing sweeter than to see those fighters come screaming in at almost tree top level, drop their loads, and scream out again. They were there night and day to bail us out. When you see Kuebler, would you tell him thanks, not only for me, but for everyone of us who were on the ground. We loved those pilots. Without them, a lot more of us would not have come home.”


    And thank you Corporal Lanza and all of the soldiers of the 8th Battalion, 4th Artillery who served on firebases in Vietnam.


And welcome home. 




EDITOR’S  NOTE: Dan Kuebler flew 275 combat missions in South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. He retired from the Air National Guard in 1995 with the rank of Lt. Colonel and a Silver Star for his mission to Firebase Alpha 4. He resides in Crisfield with his wife, the former Barb Landon.