On Yankee Station
(excerpted from On Yankee Station
by John B. Nichols and Barrett Tillman,
© 1987 by Naval Institute Press)
Because Vietnam borders almost wholly on the Tonkin Gulf in the South China Sea, American carrier forces operated in just two spots: "Yankee Station," south of Hainan for strikes against North Vietnam, and "Dixie Station," off South Vietnam. From Dixie Station, strikes were also launched into Laos and Cambodia. The following passage from On Yankee Station illustrates a lesser known aspect of the naval air war over Vietnam:
"The admirals lost control of the war for a few hours one afternoon in 1968.
A Ticonderoga pilot had taken some bad hits and had ejected near Haiphong, landing in the Haiphong River, smack in the middle of Indian country. Floating about two hundred meters from each bank, the flier abandoned his raft when automatic weapons and mortars began ranging in.
A navy helicopter flying toward the downed aviator was itself damaged by gunfire. The chopper pilot pulled back, nursing a stricken aircraft with a dying crewman aboard. A second helo arrived, but it too was driven away by intense groundfire.
A line of merchant ships waiting to enter the crowded harbor was anchored a few hundred meters away. Most were Warsaw Pact vessels, and one wonders what tales they told their comrades that afternoon. For they witnessed firsthand the value which free men place upon a single life.
The word about the downed pilot had gotten out immediately. Aircraft from all over the Tonkin Gulf raced toward the shootdown site. Someone took control and, with precision born of experience, began to direct attacks against both banks of the river. AAA came up in awesome volume. SAMs arced into the sky. Aircraft were hit, though none were downed, and the rescue effort continued.
Crusaders, Skyhawks, and Phantoms depleted their ordnance and raced back to their ships. Recovering aboard, they taxied to the catapults for "hot" refueling and arming. Ordnance was loaded, fuel hoses were plugged in, and sometimes a pilot was replaced. The procedure violated every operating procedure ever published. It begged for a stray electrical current to set off ordnance. Fortunately, that didn't happen.
Refueled and rearmed--sometimes not even fully loaded--the A-4s and F-8s proceeded at their own frantic pace, oblivious to the ordinary command structure. It had never happened before, and it almost certainly never happened again. But in minutes instead of hours, the rescue CAP was reinforced, directed by whomever had the picture. A jaygee may have commanded the operation at one point.
The evolution was repeated for hours. Aircraft with bombs or ammunition remaining hustled out to the Gulf for a quick fix from one of the orbiting tankers, then sped back to Haiphong. Probably every sailor in Task Force 77 had his ears tuned to the closest source of scuttlebutt, listening to the drama unfolding one hundred miles away.
Eventually the intensity of the airstrikes began to tell. Fire from shore began to slacken, encouraging the duty helicopter to try again. When gunfire erupted once more, the chopper had to withdraw. The aerial pounding resumed. Both banks of the Haiphong River were blasted and smoking as carrier planes arrived overhead, some on their fourth sortie. A few of the pilots were on their third flight of the day.
Meanwhile, the object of all this attention remained in midstream. The downed pilot drifted in his lifevest and watched the proceedings with strong interest. So far it had been a standoff; the choppers couldn't get to him, but neither could the Vietnamese. Yet it couldn't go on much longer--daylight wouldn't last forever.
Again, the gunfire
abated. At that moment, taking advantage of the lull, the helo swooped
in. It lowered its hoist, the aviator hooked on and was drawn
upward. The helicopter chugged out of that flak-infested hole with one
American safely aboard. Word flashed across the task force
frequencies: "We got him out!" For the pilots who fought
this insane war year after bloody year, this was a victory no one could
U. S. civilians who served aboard ships on Yankee Station:
(page last revised 08/10/2003 04:51 PM -0400 )