A Group Called Wolf
Lt. Col. Mark E. Berent, USAF (copyright by Mark Berent)
As the SEA interdiction campaign spread to North Vietnam and Laos, slow-moving forward air controllers (FACs), in their O-1s and O-2s,began to encounter intense ground fire. It was then, in l967, that the jet FACs began to take over in high threat areas. A former commander of the Famed 8th Tac Fighter Wing's jet FACs reminisces about these men . . .
It has been nearly thirty years now since I returned from combat, since I flew my last mission from a fighter base in up-country Thailand. And I'm filled with memories, some sweet, some bitter, but all of them so intense I can recreate any given moment in my mind.
Combat makes indelible marks on a man's spirit, if he thinks more than just gunnery-range thoughts. True, your political philosophy undergoes a massaging, a rethink. Then, eventually, comes an inner affirmation, more solid than you ever thought Stateside: "Yes, I know why I am here." But the down-deep emotional feelings, conceived and born from day-to-day living a war, undergo no such evaluation. They are just there; no chance at metamorphosis, or even redress. You can't change what you've seen and felt, and that's it.
In the bitter and the sweet, the dark and the light of my recollections is one that shines out brighter perhaps than all the rest. It is of a group called Wolf.
When I knew those pilots at Ubon, their radio call sign was Wolf, and they wore a simple "Wolf FAC" flash at the shoulder seam of their flight suits. They called their boss Papa Wolf on the ground and Wolf-Oh-One while airborne. Their F-4 combat unit didn't exist on any organizational chart. It had no unit manning document.
Instead, it was supported entirely by the four fighter squadrons of the Wolfpack of the famed 8th Tactical Fighter Wing. The squadrons supplied the aircraft, the maintenance, and the weapons people.
They also supplied the carefully selected, full-time pilots and navigators who flew the Wolf mission. Although they came from different squadrons, you couldn't find a more closely knit fraternity of fighter pilots than those fast-moving forward air controllers (FACs) who flew their jet fighters along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, in a role traditionally belonging to the slow-movers."
The slow-movers are those valiant FACs who control air strikes from O-1s, O-2s and the OV-10. And, friend, they are considered slow relative only to their plane's ground speed vs. that of an F-4 or an F-100. Ask any Green Beret in South Vietnam (and other places) about his personal Air Order of Battle. Chances are he'll promptly respond with a somewhat irreverent sign and the words, "FAC, TAC, and Napalm." These men know who does the job in close air support.
As the interdiction war spread to North Vietnam and Laos, so did the plucky slow-movers. Operating at their normal low altitudes, where they could see things, survival became a chancy proposition for them. To complement the slow-movers, something else was needed, something that could get eyeballs down on the deck yet maneuver them fast enough to avoid the severe myopia brought on by lead pollution.
So the F-100 pilots started the fast-mover FAC program in 1967 and chose "Misty" as their call sign. The idea spread to F-4s and even Marine TA-4s, call sign Playboy. Stormy, Laredo, Tiger, these are other call signs of the fast- movers now flying from various fighter bases in SEA. Each unit has more or less identical criteria for its members: They must have at least a hundred combat missions, be top flight crews, be unconditionally recommended by their squadrons, and be volunteers.
Invariably they are the loner type who likes to mix it up, get down in the weeds and find the enemy, then challenge him to come out and fight. But, like their slow-moving brethren, they must have the maturity to mix prudence with daring, to differentiate between courage and recklessness. They must have a fast eye, memory for detail, ability to control several flights of fighters at once, and an intimate knowledge of every rock, bush, gun, bypass, truck park, and trail over hundreds of square miles. They must know location and height of the black-rock karst, and be intimately familiar with where the guns are, when they like to shoot, and what positions look promising for new sites. These are the fast-movers, the jet-FACs who, along with the slow-movers, fly the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
These men must also be in damn good physical shape to take the four- and five-hour trail-sniffing missions. They twist and turn, dive and zoom, always pulling Gs, jinking, heads constantly swiveling as they cut back and forth over the trails, around the karst, and through the passes at 400 to 500 knots. Don't think they can't see things during those maneuvers and at those speeds. One Wolf saw a bush out of place, just an ordinary run-of-the-mill bush among hundreds by The Alligator at Ban Karai. He chandelled up, rolled in to check it out, and found his gunsight square on a camouflaged command car. Scratch one command car and not-too-wise driver.
That kind of perception is common among all the FACs, fast or slow. And in other ways, too, the Wolves are fairly representative of the fast movers. For one thing, when I knew them, half were bachelors, and that says something right there. For another, all were top-rated officers who most assuredly had minds of their own. Papa Wolf didn't have to lead this kind of pack; he sometimes had to lope like hell to stay up with them.
Then there are the black thoughts, the memories of men lost in the Wolf mission. There was Jim who spoke so quietly while coolly directing hot firefight, whose laconic last comment was, "Well, I guess we better get out," as his aircraft went uncontrollable from ground fire. His back-seater got picked up; Jim is sill up there in the karst.
Paul and Peter just never came back; fine Paul who worked so tirelessly as the Wolf Ops Officer, and quiet, gentle Peter who was on his first Wolf mission. Sturdy Grey, and Neal, the enthusiastic, laughing pilot we called Indian, got it one day while rooting out a bulldozer at the Dog's Head. Brad was the Papa Wolf who got blown out of the sky but was safely rescued with his back-seater one dark afternoon. Rick took a hit and spent a long, agonizing time having his skin glued back on. His back-seater was last heard from on the ground, over his survival radio, in a shoot-out with the enemy.
Kenny spent a night hanging in a tree while the local Lao chamber of commerce whacked all around the area looking for him. Ray, the founder and first Papa Wolf, once brought back his Phantom with the nose blown clean off and no landing gear. He walked away from that one.
Despite their casualties, the Wolves spread more than their share of havoc, as was evidenced by an array of enemy gunners rotting by their busted guns, or the great number of enemy truck drivers who had little more than a smoking steering wheel to show for their grand drive down the Trail. I remember B.C. getting the Silver Star on his first front-seat mission.
Golden Throat Butch was in the back seat as his checkout pilot. (The then-current Papa Wolf used to get airsick back there!) How they whooped and hollered as they de-gunned, de-trucked, and de-stroyed practically everything the enemy had in Mu Gia Pass that day.
Black Dan, The Wing Director of Operations, was on raid that day as a strike commander, and he won the Star, too. He and Super Skip, the Wing Commander, went through the regular Wolf Checkout program and would fly a Wolf mission at least once a week. You won't find commanders like that much anymore. It's damn near not allowed.
The Wolf Operations office was an interesting place. It was an old converted lounge, just off the main intelligence room in Wing headquarters. (It was sort of folksy and a favorite gathering spot for the strike pilots, so it didn't look too military.) To foil unfavorable reports from Inspector General or other administrative teams that would periodically inspect the base, the Wolves would merely flop over the sign hanging above the door, "Wolf Ops." Its back side read "Lounge." Then they would sit around and whistle, read intelligence magazines, and look busy. After all, no inspection team expects too much from a lounge, anyhow. They really didn't have much time for that sort of thing, though; they had to be on the trails from before first light to dark. One Wolf FAC would relieve another after a four-hour stint by joining up, if he had enough fuel, and showing the next man where new enemy materials were hidden. Otherwise, they would switch to Wolf common channel on the radio and talk each other in. They could procure air strikes for hot targets by calling the airborne command post, but mostly they had flights fragged to them the night before.
They carried plenty of smoke rockets and a full load of 20-mm, and rarely returned with any of either.
The Wolves, as did the other FACs, had huge areas of responsibility and would hum up and down their route structure looking for trucks and guns and trouble. They would make bullfighter pirouettes by suspected guns to make them come up and give away their positions. They would look under karst overhangs and in caves for biding trucks. To block traffic, they would destroy whole sections of trail where it wound around cliffs.
Except while controlling a strike, they were alone. Beside the psychological strain on the enemy of someone always on their trails, the Wolves successfully prevented daylight traffic flow and road repairs in their area. They provided real-time intelligence on such things as new trails being hacked out. They found foot and bicycle traffic prints, discovered fuel pipelines, located revetted guns and truck parks, and just generally raised hell throughout their section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But that's nearly over now.
Soon these units may not exist except in the war memories of the FACs and hundreds of strike pilots (not to mention North Vietnam's transportation troops and its AAA battalions). Misty the great Misty, already deactivated, has disappeared from the rolls.
A vast amount of anti- and satirical material has been written and filmed about this war, but not much has been said about the courage and honor of the men in the field, the guys out doing the job, men like Wolf FACs. Some are alive, some dead or torn up. Too many are in the solitary hell of the Hanoi Hilton. You don't hear much about any of them. Now, you don't. Maybe you will someday, when the bitterness and frustration that cloak this strange war fade. Then the vague, valiant figures, who now move almost unseen in the mists, may emerge. Until then, the Wolves and the Tigers, the Playboys and the Stormys, Mistys, Falcons, and the Laredos will have to live and fly in our memories. You just can't forget.