Sunday, August 2, 2009

'Misty' pilots remember their war

As aviation enthusiasts will be aware, the Experimental Aircraft Association's annual fly-in, AirVenture 2009, took place during the past week at Oshkosh, Wisconsin. For this week every year, the airport at Oshkosh becomes the world's busiest, exceeding even such behemoths as Chicago's O'Hare and Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson airports.

Among the immense number of attractions at AirVenture are seminars and talks by pilots who've 'been there and done that' in one way or another. A highlight last year was an assembly of surviving 'Misty' fast forward air controller pilots from the Vietnam war. Many will be aware of their activities from the best-selling book by Rick Newman and Don Shepperd, 'Bury Us Upside Down'. As one reviewer summarizes it:

Unarmed except for a couple of nose guns, the Misty pilots flew low and fast, daring anti-aircraft gunners to fire on them so that they could spot the trucks, ferries and missile sites defended by cannon.

Theirs was a very personal war. While the lumbering B-52 bombers rained down their explosives from six or seven miles up, the Mistys trolled at 4,500 feet (less than a mile) -- four hours at a time, six hours, even eight hours. For a closer look, they'd go down "in the weeds", 200 feet above the ground, vulnerable to a pistol shot. They came to know the North Vietnamese gunners, or thought they did: There was a gunner on a particular limestone peak, for example, the "kid on the karst", so inept that the Mistys decided to leave him in peace for fear that his replacement might be able to hit them.

When a Misty found something worth attacking, he'd call for fighter planes that each carried more ordnance than a World War II heavy bomber. Sometimes, to fix a target in place, a Misty would strafe the first and last truck in a convoy with his nose guns, to block the road and scatter the drivers. Then, when the fighter planes arrived, he'd mark the target with white phosphorous rockets. The North Vietnamese became experts at camouflage, and the Mistys became experts at finding the trucks or storage tanks beneath the foliage.

. . .

The Mistys took casualties at an appalling rate: Of 157 pilots who served in the unit from 1967 to 1970, 34 were shot down, though most were snatched to safety by equally daring helicopter crews. Seven Mistys disappeared forever in North Vietnam and Laos, and three became prisoners of war. The POW stories, well told in "Bury Us Upside Down," are excruciating to read. To take but one example: Despite the care given to Lance Sijan by the other Mistys, who took turns cradling him to share their body heat, he died of torture and starvation, a bloody heap of rags, skin and bones.

. . .

As for the book's title -- well, you had to ask, didn't you? It comes from a fighter-pilot toast that expresses a warrior's disdain for those who write the rules of engagement: "When our flying days are over / When our flying days are past / We hope they'll bury us upside down / So the world can kiss our..." You get the gist.

There's more at the link.

Anyway, at AirVenture 2008, some of the surviving Misty pilots, led by Dick Rutan, told their stories. Here's the video of their presentation. It's a little over an hour long, so if you're busy right now, you might like to come back when you have more time and watch the whole thing. It's worth it.

From this combat veteran to these combat veterans, a heartfelt "Saaaa-LUTE!" and my grateful thanks for all they accomplished for this nation.



reflectoscope said...

I don't know if I have any words that could mean much next to all the things these guys did.

This is a bit of the back story on the PJ they mentioned; those men were as remarkable for their willingness to go there and do that as were the FACs.

To the front-SALUTE, indeed.


Brandon said...

Bury Us Upside Down just went on my Amazon list.

Mark@Bismarck said...

My son attends the United States Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs. One of the dormitories on campus is named for Lance Sijan. I will send him a link to this story.