By Evan La Rue
This spring marks the 50th anniversary of a massive U.S. air campaign against the Viet Cong who were sequestered in the jungles and fighting a guerilla war against a technologically superior foe. This chapter in military history and its bitter lesson cries out to be remembered in this era of anxiety over a destabilized Syria and a potential alliance with Russia to fight ISIS from the skies.
Operation Junction City — named for the Kansas hometown of one of the commanders — was the largest bombing operation of the entire Vietnam War, and it commenced in February 1967. The idea was to flush the Viet Cong forces out of their hiding places with more than 3000 tons of ordinance dropped from aircraft, and then destroy them with infantry and armored cavalry.
Three months of fighting resulted in a lot of dead soldiers on both sides, tons of captured rice and weapons, and great frustration on the part of American generals that the best efforts of its world-class military could not succeed in turning around a popular countryside movement. In the end, we held Saigon and a few garrisons, while Ho Chi Minh and his nationalist allies held everything else.
The Vietnam War taught us many lessons about the limits of air power, and I was there to witness it firsthand the year after the failure of Operation Junction City. I was a pilot of the United States Air Force 11th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron assigned to fly the McDonald Douglas RF-4Cs over enemy territory.
We flew night missions out of Udorn Royal Thailand Air Base to “acquire targets,” but not for bombing and killing people, but only to take aerial photos so that our analysts might perceive the presence of Viet Cong units so that future missions could try to take them out.
We carried no armament or weapons, only cameras and sensors, and had side looking radar for coastal surveillance and an infrared rotating prism for road surveillance. Both of these were mostly used at night. At the top rear of the aircraft was a mechanism where a flare was shot out and when it exploded a bright flash was created and thus a picture was taken.Then our photo interpreters could see the objects in 3D. Among some of the crew, I earned the nickname “Lash,” after the movie Western actor Lash La Rue who shares my last name, though we are not related.
My navigator was Maj. Martin M. Burdick, and we flew 20 night missions over North Vietnam using only ground map radar to find our targets. And by “targets,” I mean objects like a bamboo bridge 12 feet wide and 30 feet long located 200 miles from our base in the pitch black of night. There was no lying as to whether or not you got the target, as you either came back with the photo or you didn’t.
On the night of July 17, 1968, the enemy fire was so thick that our photos were overexposed due to the lights of the tracer bullets flying all around. My friend Capt. Bradley Gene Cuthbert told me about this as he had heard about the mission from the photo interpreters. He was a guy from Fort Madison, Iowa who told me he always wanted to be a published writer when the war was over. I never got to read anything that he wrote, other than the following document composed on a typewriter [Officers must write up accounts of combat achievements in order for anyone to be considered for a medal], and so this was gratifying for me to read:
Recommendation for Award of the DISTINGUISHED FLYING CROSS
On 17 July 1968, Captain Evan W. La Rue and Major Martin M. Burdick distinguished themselves by heroism and devotion to duty while participating in aerial flight in an unarmed RF-4C photo reconnaissance aircraft at night over North Vietnam. The crew was assigned three pinpoint targets, two of which were key interdiction points on one of the prime infiltration and supply routes leading from North Vietnam. These targets, in close proximity to each other, were highly defended by 23/37/57MM anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) positions, and were located in rugged terrain, far from readily identifiable navigational check-points. The third target was a vital ferry crossing serving the same infiltration route, and well-defended with 23/37/57 and 85MM AAA positions, as well as several surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites. It was in the same area as the previously mentioned interdiction points. Thus, fuel requirements dictated that two of the three targets be acquired on the same run, consequently reducing the probability of successful target acquisition, and simultaneously greatly increasing the possibility of hostile AAA reaction. The flight to the Initial Point (IP) was accomplished without incident. Descending to a lower altitude than planned (in mountainous terrain), in order to fly under existing weather, the crew came under accurate, tracking 37/57MM AAA fire almost simultaneous with the activation of the photoflash cartridges over the first target. Unable to execute effective evasive maneuvers due to the requirement for level flight while acquiring photography and also because of the necessity for a straight-line flight track for the second target, Captain La Rue and Major Burdick commenced mild vertical jinxing and increased airspeed while continuing their run. The ground fire continued throughout the first target run, and less than 60 seconds later, additional AAA fire commenced from the second target area while the crew was still inbound to it. With complete disregard for personal safety, this crew decided to complete the run as planned, activating another string of photoflash cartridges over the second target while already experiencing intense 37/57MM AAA reaction. With the deployment of the photoflash cartridges, the accuracy of the ground fire increased considerably, and continued throughout the target run. Executing a hard break and climb out of the target area, the crew then proceeded to the Initial Point for the final target, which was located in the same area as the first two targets. Once again descending below prevalent weather, a pass was made on this remaining target, with no hostile reaction encountered. After deployment of this final strip of photoflash cartridges, the crew returned to home base, where subsequent photo analysis confirmed that Captain La Rue and Major Burdick obtained 100% coverage of all three important targets. That such success was obtained in the face of extremely heavy hostile reaction on inordinately lengthy target runs attests to the devotion to duty and high degree of professionalism of this aircrew. The outstanding airmanship and great courage displayed by Captain La Rue and Major Burdick under conditions of undue risk and extreme navigational difficulties reflect great credit upon themselves and the United States Air Force.
Then he added a note of his own, referring to my British wife:
Attached find a courtesy copy of your heroic exploits, for the edification of the Cambridge Lass, the dozen kids, forty grandkids, and Mama . . .
Medal recommendation writing is a particular genre: dry and bureaucratic. But I was grateful for it, and for the continuing faith he had in these missions that were beginning to seem more hopeless as the days wore on.
I wish I could say that Brad Cuthbert went on to find a career as a writer after the war was over, however, as it happened, I was in the command post on November 23, 1968 on Brad’s 28th birthday when word came in over the radio that he and his navigator were blown out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile near Dong Hoi in North Vietnam.
Only one parachute was seen leaving the aircraft and, as we found out later, it was the navigator, Mark John Ruhling, who became a prisoner of war and wasn’t released for nearly five years. When I visited Washington, D.C. many years after the end of the war, I made an etching of Capt. Cuthbert’s name from the memorial wall.
My purpose here is to fulfill a vow I made to myself that Brad Cuthbert would be a published writer even if it meant that it would happen posthumously. And to recall the human costs of war, even as we allow ourselves to believe once again in the invincibility of air power.
Evan La Rue served as an Air Force Captain in Vietnam and is a former Price/Cost Analyst with Hughes Aircraft Company.