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Nakhon Phanom During The Secret War 1962-1975

23rd TASS - Steel Tiger

How The Harley-Smith-Wolfe Amphitheater was named

May and June 1966 were particularly deadly for the fliers over Steel Tiger North. The gunners were getting better at their duties and tactics by the time the dry season started giving way to the deluges of the summer monsoon. On the evening of May 15th Spooky 10 disappeared with eight crewmen aboard. The AC-47 was orbiting just east of the Chokes when the ABCCC controller took the crew's last position report.

The Cricket's lost another FAC three days later. Captain Thomas E. Morris, flying as Gombey 25, directed an airstrike against Route 137, the North Vietnamese portion of the new road that FACs had found in March. After completing the strike, he and the high FAC, Captain Lee D. Harley (Gombey 19), started back down Route 137 to return to NKP.

A low overcast of the southwest monsoon forced the FACs below their normal altitudes. Captain Thomas led at about 700 feet above the ground. Captain Harley trailed a couple of miles behind at about 1,000 feet. Just inside the Laotian border, Captain Harley was giving the strike report to the ABCCC controller when the radio transmission broke off in mid-sentence.

Captain Morris made quick calls on UHF, VHF, and FM, but neither he nor the ABCCC controller could reestablish radio contact. He turned back to the northeast and saw white smoke rising from the jungle about 4 miles behind in the big meadow the covered most of the area between the Ban Laboy Ford and the North Vietnamese border. Captain Morris asked ABCCC to scramble rescue forces as he tried to get a closer look at the wreckage.

The white phosphorous rockets and remaining fuel were burning fiercely by the time Captain Morris came overhead. The gunners held their fire until he banked over the downed O-1 at 700 feet. Captain Morris reported:

... the ground fire was extremely heavy, the tracers were numerous, and the sound of the weapons was extremely loud. I began evasive action and dove my aircraft toward the ground in an attempt to get out of the line of fire as soon as possible. While evading, I called Cricket Control and reported my situation and the seriousness of the enemy defenses. I honestly did not think I would make it out of the vicinity. When the shooting stopped, I turned my aircraft around and saw that I was about three miles from the crash site and noted heavy smoke from the ground weapons arising from all around the crash site.

Captain Morris's O-1 was hit but not seriously. He stayed long enough to turn over on-scene command to a pair of Navy F-4s who came in response to the report of the downed aircraft. Then, with barely enough fuel remaining to get back to NKP, Captain Morris turned for home, once again.

When the rescue forces arrived, the F-4 flight leader made a high-speed, low altitude pass to pinpoint the crash site for the rescue force commander. Intense antiaircraft disabled the F-4, and both crewmembers ejected. The rescue helicopter picked up the two Navy fliers.

About an hour and a half after Captain Harley's aircraft crashed, the SAR forces detected a beeper. The emergency radio signal continued intermittently for a couple of hours. The source of the signal moved to a nearby village, but the antiaircraft fire prevented any close looks by the SAR forces.

In addition to Captain Harley, the O-1 carried Airman First Class Andre Guillot. Airman Guillot was a member of the Combat Control Team assigned to NKP.

The big meadow, into which Captain Harley and Airman Guillot crashed, was already well on its way to becoming a major storage complex and transshipment center. From that cloudy day on, the valley also became known to the fliers at NKP as "Harley's Valley."

The losses on 18 May 1966 point up two factors that were integral parts of the fabric that made up Operation Cricket. First, flying under low overcasts was inherently dangerous. The combat equations turned in favor of the gunners, who could mass below the clouds, rather the favoring the fliers whose maneuverability was restricted. With the aircraft silhouetted against the clouds, the gunners became better shots. And, when one aircraft was down, you could expect both sides to put up a fight until the rescue was completed or abandoned.

The second factor of interest involves the relationship between the high FAC and the low FAC. The high FAC normally flew a very random trail formation several hundred feet above the low FAC. While the high FAC's responsibilities included keeping the lead FAC in sight, the leader seldom saw the high FAC during the maneuvering over the Trail. If Captain Harley had not been speaking on the radio when the groundfire struck his aircraft, a number of minutes could have passed before anyone discovered that the high FAC was not still in position. So, even though the low FAC faced danger every time he rolled in on a marking pass, flying as a Cricket high FAC in an 80 mile-per-hour aircraft included its share.

Reports From The Trail