The term “fog of war” is military lexicon to refer to the unexplained bad decisions and counter productive tactics that are common in warfare. It also references the contorted state of mind that leaders experience prior to making a decision to send their troops off to battle. While it is common knowledge that the Iraq war took these premises to the highest level imaginable, the “fog of war” dominated all aspects of the Vietnam war. This poignant story by an ex-Air Force F-4 Phantom pilot exemplifies the severe mismanagement of the Vietnam war!
Dick Keirn was shot down fifty years ago. Dick was our “A” Flight Commander. He was sent over to Ubon, Thailand to learn the ropes from the 45th TFS (Tactical Fighter Squadron) that we were replacing. Dick was flying the first aircraft to be shot down by a SAM in the Vietnam War. He was part of a flight of four flying in close formation above 30,000 feet in poor weather. The original track they were supposed to fly had them flying over SAM sites 1-5, just verified as active. Our Intelligence Officer called 2d Air Division to ask why and they said to fly somewhere else. SAM sites 6&7 had also been verified but the bases flying over North Vietnam were not notified for twenty-four hours after verification. Ubon was told while Dick was in the air.
Dick was injured and captured. He was a POW for 7½ years. He had been a POW in WWII in Germany. The other pilot in the plane was also captured and died in captivity. He had been a Raven (Electronics Warfare Officer) prior to going to pilot training. My guess is that he was tortured to death by the Russians.
We learned about Dick when we landed at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. I knew immediately what our response would be – so did the North Vietnamese. We’d wait three days and attack the SAM site. The North Vietnamese removed the sites, put up dummies and hauled every AA gun they could to the area. We lost seven F-105s in the attack.
We lost more pilots over the next couple of months. We had five F-4s shot down. Two pilots were rescued, Jack Gravis and Wiley Nolen. Six were killed, Jim Branch, Gene Jewell, Cham Chesnutt, Mike Chwan, Chuck Scharf and Marty Massucci. Two were captured, Jim Hivner and Tom Barrett.
I didn’t know it for a long while, but Dick being shot down was a harbinger of things to come – not just what, but why. His flight had no possibility of accomplishing anything but flying a sortie over North Vietnam. It was a sortie war. Our enemy was the U.S. Navy. We were in a contest for appropriations – more sorties – more bombs dropped. I remained incensed over the pointless loss of life, the unbelievable incompetence of our leadership.
A documentary movie titled “The Fog of War-Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara” will provide insight into the theme of the fog of war, particularly the Vietnam war. McNamara was the US Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam war.