In the early days of the Vietnam War, US chapter, USAF, USMC, and USN aircraft were unable to deliver ordnance with reasonable accuracy under conditions other than good weather and daylight.
It became apparent that this was not going to work, especially as the war heated up and many more US forces became involved. There had to be a way to accurately deliver bombs on targets during bad weather and at night.
There were two aircraft types that were capable of all-weather day or night bombing. These were the A6 Intruder and the B52 Stratofortress. There were only a few A6's in theater, and there were serious political concerns over using the B52, which was, after all, a nuclear strike weapon.
Out of some sense of desperation, the US government finally overcame its political willies over using the B52 in the war, and the first B52 mission in South Vietnam was flown in 18 June 1965. These early missions were accomplished not by ground directed bombing, but by using the B52’s on board system, the bomb-nav system. The results were not impressive. For example, in the first mission, 27 B52's dropped approximately 1300 bombs into a target box 1 mile wide by 2 miles long. According to the official USAF history, a little more than half of the bombs fell into the target box. The other half obviously didn’t, making it a little rough on anyone in the immediate vicinity, especially if they didn’t need killing and maiming. You know…friendly troops, orphans and school children, hospital patients, those kinds of people. This is somewhat at odds with an AP press release, in which a USAF spokesman reported "pinpoint accuracy."
Strategic Air Command was using a rather simple, and accurate, method of testing the bombing skills of SAC aircrews. This method involved no real bombs. It involved tracking the bomber with what was essentially a modified gun-laying radar, plotting the aircraft track on paper. The bomber crew would signal the point at which the simulated bomb was released. Though a voice indication would work, usually the release point was logged by means of an electronic tone that was turned on some seconds prior to simulated release, and then turned off at the release, causing a break in the recorded track of the aircraft.
If accurate altitude, ground speed, airspeed, and wind data were provided, a ballistics table for a particular bomb type could be consulted, all that external data applied to the recorded ground track, and a surprisingly accurate score rendered.
By reversing this scoring process, and tweaking the system to fine-tune its various aspects, a very accurate ground directed bombing system was devised.
This worked with most bomb types, a notable exception being unfinned napalm. It also worked with just about any aircraft that could drop a bomb, including C130’s and the 10,000 pound M-121 and 15,000 pound BLU-82/B bombs used for clearing landing zones and sometimes against other targets (COMMANDO VAULT).
Beginning in October 1965, SAC proofed out the system with F100's at the Matagorda Island Range, which was home to Detachment 7, 1CEG (later changed to 1st CEVG, allegedly to correct the perception that these troops were civil engineers rather than the hard-charging, snake-eating, steely-eyed Air Force answer to Sergeant Rock and the combat happy Joes of Easy Company).
Ground directed bombing reduced the error considerably, with most sources concurring that Skyspot could deliver within a few hundred feet or less. The first COMBAT SKYSPOT sites were deployed to Vietnam in March 1966.
Soon ground directed bombing became the much-preferred method of dropping bombs, not only by tactical aircraft, but also the B52’s.
The program became known as COMBAT SKYSPOT. CSS sites dropped somewhere in excess of 75% of all B52 strikes, which were called ARC LIGHT missions. There was a once-classified citation for the Presidential Unit Citation, signed by General George S. Brown, which actually showed the percentage at that time as 95%. Unfortunately, I don't have a copy of that document, so you'll have to take my word for it. Or not.
A number of COMBAT SKYSPOT sites were placed in Vietnam and Thailand. Off the top of my head, I can think of these:
Bien Hoa (first operational site, 1 Apr 66, call sign MACON)
Pleiku (second operational site, 26 Apr 66, call sign BONGO)
Dong Ha (fourth operational site, 30 June 66)
Dalat (fifth operational site, 26 Sep 66)
Monkey Mountain/Phu Bai (call sign MILKY)
Binh Thuy (call sign GAP)
Nakhon Phanom (third operational site, early June 66; call sign BROMO))
Ubon (operational some time after Binh Thuy closed; call sign GAP)
Udorn (call sign LID)
Mukdahan (planned site, diverted to NKP)
These were not all operational at the same time.
Matagorda Island and Detachment 7 became the training school for SKYSPOT crews going over to SEAsia. Later, in the 1970-71 time frame, this training transitioned over to Detachment 50 at Bergstrom AFB, Austin, TX. Matagorda was quite remote, with a host of logistics issues. Moving the school to Detachment 50 greatly improved support for students and permanent party. The training program was called BUSY SKYSPOT. In addition to the SKYSPOT training, Detachment 50 also hosted a TSQ-96 maintenance training course.
COMBAT SKYSPOT was used in every major campaign beginning in 1966, in Laos, Cambodia, South Vietnam, and North Vietnam, except for operations too far north to allow radar tracking. There was one short-lived but rather spectacular fiasco which involved a more or less undercover operation in Laos – see the references elseplace to COMMANDO CLUB, HEAVY GREEN, and LIMA SITE 85.
B52’s directed by SKYSPOT sites helped save the Marines at Khe Sanh and Con Thien, and in thousands of other miserable little pestholes and incidents where the lives of our grunts were seriously in doubt, COMBAT SKYSPOT beyond question kept a lot of names off the Wall. No matter one’s individual perspective, whether this was The Right War or something else, this service to our comrades was a good thing.
COMBAT SKYSPOT sites were used in tens of thousands of missions involving USAF, USN, USMC, RAAF, and VNAF fighters and attack bombers.
By the time the system had matured, most of the sites were equipped with the AN/MSQ-77. Udorn and Ubon had the AN/TSQ-96. Nakhon Phanom had both an AN/MSQ-81 and an AN/TSQ-96. Nakhon Phanom and Udorn also played roles in the HEAVY GREEN project.
Later in the war there was considerable doubt as to the usefulness of the bombing, especially in Cambodia. Anyone who was there, and who considers it objectively, comes to the conclusion that we dropped an awful lot of bombs on nothing but empty real estate as part of an area denial scheme. See also the page for OL-25 at Ubon for more views on the Cambodian bombing. That notwithstanding, COMBAT SKYSPOT was used extensively to relieve pressure on US forces, and to a lesser extent, on ARVN forces. Some of the most spectacular uses included the prelude to the Cambodian incursion, the battle for Skyline Ridge, the relief of beleaguered ARVN forces in Lam Son 719, LineBacker I, Con Thien, Khe Sanh, An Loc, Kontum, and of course numerous battle sites during the Tet ’68 offensive.
With few exceptions, COMBAT SKYSPOT was not a particularly demanding mission. As the war dragged on and physical conditions improved on the bases where the sites were located , the worst aspects were probably boredom and heat, and separation from family. With few exceptions, crews slept in relatively comfortable hootches on real beds, had real showers, had access to real chow halls, and had many amenities that grunts only occasionally experienced. The sites located on the Thai bases were particularly comfortable. But, there were a lot of repeat tours, and these separations took a heavy toll on families and relationships. As far as actual combat, that just didn’t happen, certainly not anywhere near the sense we think of it involving patrols, firebases, troop insertions into hot LZ’s, and so on. Bases on which the COMBAT SKYSPOT sites were located were in fact subjected to enemy attack, but these were general in nature. The few casualties suffered were not so much the result of combat operations but rather some tactically naive technicians being slaughtered through stupidity on the part of the command. That doesn’t make it any easier, and it certainly does not lessen their individual courage and accomplishments;if anything, those attributes tend to illustrate that the leadership was often unworthy in comparison.
Six men were killed on 5 June 1966 near the Dong Ha site, when they sallied forth after refusing accompanying security forces, in order to complete final surveying prior to activating the Dong Ha site:
Losses at Phou Pa Thi, on 11 March 1968 (see links for HEAVY GREEN/Lima Site 85):
The commander of this operation was a fellow named Jerry Clayton, who was not present when the site was overrun.
The highest decoration the Air Force can present for bravery is the Air Force Cross. This award is awarded to US and foreign military personnel and civilians who have displayed extraordinary heroism in one of the following situations: while engaged in action against an armed enemy of the United States, while engaged in military operations involving conflict with a foreign force, or while serving with a friendly nation engaged in armed conflict against a force in which the United States is not a belligerent party. Prior to 1960, when Congress established the Air Force Cross, enlisted men were decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross for heroic actions. In the Vietnam era, countless airman performed brave acts which were above and beyond the call of duty; however, of the enlisted airmen, only 20 were awarded the Air Force Cross. Since 1975, only one airman has earned the award, bringing the total to 21 recipients.
Chief Etchberger was born 5 March 1933 in Hamburg, PA. After a long and distinguished career, the Chief was assigned to the 1043d Radar Evaluation Squadron, Bolling AFB DC. The Chief was deployed to Laos in support of OPERATION HEAVY GREEN, a highly classified and covert operation providing precision radar bombing in North Vietnam. Geneva Accords prohibited stationing US Armed forces personnel in Laos except for accredited attaches. Chief Etchberger and other selected personnel were "officially" discharged from the Air Force and hired outside the Department of Defense.
On 11 March 1968, Chief Master Sergeant Richard L. Etchberger was manning a defensive position when the radar site, Lima Site 85 was overrun by enemy ground forces. The enemy was able to deliver sustained and withering fire directly upon this position from higher ground. His entire crew dead or wounded, Chief Etchberger continued to return the enemy's fire thus denying them access to the position. During this entire period, Chief Etchberger continued to direct air strikes and call for air rescue on his emergency radio, thereby enabling the air evacuation force to locate the surrounded friendly element. When air rescue arrived, Chief Etchberger deliberately exposed himself to enemy fire in order to place his three surviving wounded comrades in the rescuer slings permitting them to be airlifted to safety. As Chief Etchberger was finally being rescued, he was fatally wounded, by enemy ground fire. His fierce defense which culminated in the supreme sacrifice of his life, saved not only the lives of his three comrades but provided for the successful evacuation of the remaining survivors of the base.
Chief Etchberger was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Air Force Cross. He was added to the official Department of Defense killed in Action listing sometime after 1981.
On September 21, 2010, President Barack H. Obama awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously to CMSgt Etchberger. He presented the medal to the sons of CMSgt Etchberger in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
24 February 1968, at Gia Dinh:
Lowell V. Smith, killed by shrapnel from rocket/mortar, at Tan Son Nhut AB, Saigon-Gia Dinh.
The last COMBAT SKYSPOT/ARC LIGHT mission of the war was on August 15, 1973, from OL-25 at Ubon RTAB. That involved WHITE cell, a very shaky beacon, a track that looked like it had been laid by a drunken sidewinder, and a target of vague description somewhere in southwestern Cambodia.
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