Have you read THE CAVE? It is an exciting novel about a C-130 flareship crewmember who is shot down over Laos and declares his own personal war on the antiaircraft gunners who shot him down - The Cave.

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No, bats are not blind, but we might as well have been on those dark nights over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and southern North Vietnam. It's too bad we didn't have the senses of a bat because if we had, we might have been able to see something on the truck routes that wound their way through the dense forest beneath the wings of our C-130A.

Operation Blind Bat was perhaps one of the most interesting if not dangerous missions of the Vietnam War in the years between 1964 and 1970, when the mission was terminated. Because the Communist infiltrators took advantage of the darkness of night to make their way south out of North Vietnam, the United States Air Force worked diligently to find a way to detect the nearly illusive trucks and other means of transportation by which the North sent supplies to their troops in South Vietnam. Dropping flares from transports was nothing new in Vietnam; the technique had been used in World War II and Korea. In South Vietnam, C-47s and C-123s flew nightly flare missions in support of ground installations that might find themselves under attack. But the C-130 Blind Bat mission was different; our targets were trucks, not enemy squads and we were flying interdiction missions, not support for ground forces.

The C-130 flare mission had its beginnings sometime in 1964 when a detachment of C-130Aswas sent to Da Nang Air Base, perhaps by way of Tan Son Nhut, where the 6315th Operations Groups was maintaining a "Southeast Asia Trainer" mission at the time. According to the late Bill Cooke, who was one of the two navigators involved, the crews went in to brief for the night's mission and when they got back to their airplanes, they discovered that they had been spray-painted black! Just when the first missions is flown is disputed. While it is known that missions were flown in November 1964 with Cat Z maintenance troops from the 21st TCS flying as kickers, the mission probably actually started many months earlier using only loadmasters who threw the flares out the paratroop doors. There is no doubt that in April 1965 the mission became semi-permanent at least, and two or three C-130As were kept at Da Nang until the project was cancelled and a new one was simulataneosly established at Ubon AB, Thailand.  From Da Nang, the C-130As from the 6315th Operations Group at Naha, Okinawa, flew nightly missions out over Laos seeking out targets. The C-130s operated as part of a four-ship formation made up of the flareship, a pair of USAF B-57 Canberra attack bombers and a USMC EF-10 EWO aircraft known as Willy the Whale. With the C-130 serving as a mother ship to lead the formation to the target, the team would leave Da Nang and hit west, and later north, to seek out the enemy and destroy him.

Though automatic flare launchers were later developed (but never used by Blind Bat), the mission in the early days was very much a Rube Goldberg arrangment. The "flare launcher" was actually an aluminum tray that had been manufactured in the Sheet Metal Shop back at Naha, while the flares were stored in wooden bins tied to an airdrop pallet. The crews were equipped with the "finest" detection equipment - which consisted of the pilots' and navigator's eyeballs and a pair of binoculars!

Even though the equipment was rudimentary at best, the mission evidently was a thorn in the Communist side, for on July 1, 1965, a mortar and sapper attack on Da Nang was evidently aimed at the ramp where the three C-130 flareships were parked, waiting to go out on a mission. Two airplanes were destroyed in the attack and the third was damaged, along with an airlifter C-130B that had the misfortune to be parked nearby. The flareships were the first C-130s ever lost to enemy action. The mission was seen as limited successful by the Air Force, but research was begun to develop a new weapons system with both reconnassance and attack capability that eventually led to the AC-130 gunship and the B-57G.

In early 1966 the flare mission moved from Da Nang to Ubon, Thailand. At Ubon the mission changed, and recieved a new name as the Blind Bat call sign came into use. Actually, Blind Bat was one of two call signs used by the flareships, with Lamplighter being the other. Blind Bat missions operated over Laos while the Lamplighters went north, across the Anamite Range into North Vietnam. According to some veterans of the mission, flareships at one time operated as far north as the Hanoi-Haiphong area, but increasing enemy defenses forced the C-130s to operate further south in the Route Package One and Two areas south of Vinh. By 1967 the threat of SAM's in North Vietnam caused a cessation of operations over the North.

After the move to Ubon, the flare mission changed somewhat. Instead of departing as part of a formation, the C-130 flareships began going out single-ship to patrol a specified area looking for targets. Each flareship was allotted a certain number of strike flights each evening, and had the option of calling for more through the Moonbeam Airborne Combat Command Center which circled high over Laos each evening controlling airstrikes.

In the spring of 1966, shortly after I reported in to the 35th Troop Carrier Squadron at Naha, I had my introduction to the flareship mission. I went in-country as the senior loadmaster of a crew commanded by Captain Bob Bartunek, with Captain Steve Taylor as copilot, Lt. Dick Herman (the writer) as navigator, SSgt Cecil Hebdon as engineer and Airmen Mike Cavanaugh, Willy Donovan, Sam McCracken and myself as loadmaster/flare kickers.

To say that our tour at Ubon was exciting is an understatement. Every other night our crew took off sometime between just before dark and midnight and headed northeast, out over Laos and sometimes up into North Vietnam. No, we were not shot at every time we flew, at least not that we could see, but we were certainly shot at enough! My introduction to North Vietnamese antiaircraft came about within the first five minutes after we penetrated the skies of North Vietnam on my orientation flight. I was flying with a 21st TCS crew as an observer before our crew started missions the following evening. We put the flare chute out as we neared the Mu Gia Pass, and dropped a string to see if there were any targets in what was the most heavily defended place in southern North Vietnam. Our flares had no more than popped when we were greeted by cherry-red tracers, 37-MM fire, coming up somewhere far felow. "I want my mother!" That was my thought when I realized someone down there was trying to kill me! bu tthe rounds missed and we went on to a typical night of flare kicking over North Vietnam.

My tour started out during the dry season and we saw and attacked a lot of trucks, but then it went into  the rainy season and truck traffic on the Trail became light. A lot of our missions were aimed at targets that had been identified from reconnaissance photographs taken earlier in the day. "Suspected" truck parks and ammo dumps were usually the targets in such instances. Other times we would just patrol the skies looking for the lights of trucks on ground below. Since the NVA used shielded headlights, the trucks were difficult to spot. And as often as not, when we did find a convoy, they would speed into the shelter of a "village" where they were off-limits to air strikes. Yes, the US news media was lying when they told the country that "unrestricted" air strikes were being conducted in Southeast Asia. The air strikes were very restricted, so much so that legitimate enemy targets were quite often spared.

One of our best nights came about strictly through a series of mistakes, all of which linked together to become a triumph. We had been told during our briefing to look for a "suspected" ammunition dump along the banks of a river in North Vietnam. Our intrepid officers had spotted the "dump" and had called in a flight of USAF F-4's to take it out. But just about the time the fighters arrived in our area, and right after Bartunek had told us to load six flares into the chute, the pilots lost sight of the target completely. If they couldn't see it, they couldn't tell the fighters were it was. The fighter pilots only had a few minutes of loiter fuel and they were starting to complain. Willy Donovan was sitting on the cargo door holding the flares in place with his feet and his legs were beginning to ache. Bartunek was getting frustrated. Finally, Willy had had enough. He raised his feet and let the six flares slide out into the night, where they burst into a brilliance that turned the night beneath us into near-day. With the illumination, someone, I think it was Dick Herman, spotted the target again just as Bartunek was raking Willy over the coals for letting the flares go without being told to do so. Everyone settled down and got back to the business of trying to destroy the enemy.

The first F-4, a Gunfighter out of Da Nang, roared in over the target and dropped his bombs. They hit close to the target, but not close enough to do any damage. His wingman came along behind him. He not only missed the target completely, his bombs fell on the opposite side of the river nearly a mile away! But through a fluke of good fortune his bombs fell smack in the middle of the real ammo dump which was cleverly concealed and had not been detected. Even though he missed his aiming point by a mile (literally!) the errant fighter pilot destroyed the real ammo dump. We heard later that the pilot was put in for a Silver Star for the mission.

Missing targets was a common occurence on night missions by fighters in Southeast Asia. Every crewmember who flew the Blind Bat or C-123 Candlestick mission can attest to the phenomenal lack of accuracy on the part of the fighter pilots, especially the F-4s. Of all the airplanes working over the Trail at night, the WW II vintage A-26 Invader was undoubtedly the best. One afternoon we went up early and worked with an A-26 near the Plain of Jars. For nearly an hour the NIMROD pilot worked over the target, first dropping bombs, then napalm, then firing rockets, after that his guns and finally dropping his own load of eight flares on the supply dump. It was undoubtedly the best airshow I have ever seen.

Along with the A-26s, the USMC and Navy A-4s were the most accurate bombers working the Trail. Air Force F-4s were undoubtedly the worst. The F-100s and A-1Es were pretty good, but they were flying mostly in South Vietnam in support of ground forces and not working over the Trail. (Navy A-1s operating from carriers operated over both North Vietnam and Laos.) The AC-47 gunship was tried over the Trail just before I got to Ubon but this was one mission the venerable old Gooney Bird was not suited for. In less than a week Charley shot down both of the Spookies and AC-47s spent the rest of the war working in South Vietnam or in the lesser defended areas of Laos. It was not until the advent of the super gunship, the AC-130, that an effective truck killer came on the scene.

There was one area where the F-4s were good, though and that was with CBUs, or cluster bombs. The CBU had been developed for use against antiaircraft sites, and the Communists were well aware that it they revealed their position, a flight of CBU-carrying F-4s would soon be on the way to take them out. Watching a CBU strike was something else. One night a particular gun made the mistake of firing on us when we were a little bit out of range. Bartunek called in a flight armed with CBUs. I watched as the F-4 drew red tracers from the enemy gun as he made his bombing run. Suddenly, tiny winking white lights erupted all over the place from which the red tracers were originating - and the red cherry balls suddenly ceased. I must admit it sort of did my heart good to witness the gun crews destruction.

Even though we were flying out of Thailand, we were not safe from enemy attack. One evening while my crew was out on a mission, an enemy team tried to probe the base - right outside the Blind Bat enlisted men's quarters! A Chinese Nung guard managed to sound the alarm. He got off one shot with his shotgun as an NVA special ops soldier was cutting his throat. But the one shot was enough. A few shots were fired but the enemy soldier disappeared into the night.

One evening our crew had an unusual experience. We were called out of Laos to drop flares between Ubon and the Mekong River which constituted the border between Thailand and Laos. We were told to look for helicopters on the ground. It turned out that North Vietnamese aircraft had penetrated the area, evidently to deliver supplies to insurgents in the area or an enemy team. We did not see anything. Later we learned that an F-4 had been scrambled off of Ubon and had picked up the target on his radar, but in the rush to get him off the ground, the ordinance team had failed to pull the pins on his Sidewinders. The missiles failed to fire and the unidentified airplane - probably a helicopter - got away.

Sometime in late 1966 a Blind Bat crew from my squadron, the 35th TCS, tangled with a North Vietnamese MiG and managed to live to tell about. They were working in northern Laos when Moonbeam diverted them to a point just inside the Laotian border about 120 miles west of Hanoi to provide flare support for friendlies on the ground who were under attack. The crew was busy dropping flares when they were alerted by College Eye, an EC-121 radar ship orbiting over Thailand, that a pair of MiGs had just taken off from Gia Lam Airport and were headed their way. It takes a MiG about ten minutes to cover 120 miles and it was not long before the crew had company. No American fighters were anywhere close to their position and the Blind Bat flareship was not armed. The crew had only one weapon at their disposal and that was the manueverability of their airplane, combined with rugged terrain beneath them. They dove toward the ground, knowing they were over mountains and had no maps of the terrain on board the airplane. But they had a radar and a sharp navigator. Using the radar to keep from hitting a ridge, the C-130 crew wove their way through the valleys while the MiGs searched for them with their own radar. The enemy fighters were so close that the energy from their search radar caused waves on the C-130 crew's set. When they got back to Ubon later that evening, the fighter pilots in the officers club were dissappointed that they had missed a chance at a MiG. The C-130 crew was just glad to be alive!

Another crew that was glad to be alive was also from the 35th TCS. Major Frank's crew was working near the Communist stronghold of Tche Pone in Laos when they took a hit from a large caliber antiaircraft gun. This particular gun was a legend. The bad guys had it mounted on a railroad car and kept it hidden inside the mouth of either a tunnel or a large cave near the city. They would roll it inside where it was impervious to air strikes, then bring back out again to take a pot-shot at a "Yankee Air Pirate." The Blind Bat crew thought their number was up. The round set fire to their left wing, and was burning brightly fed by the hydraulic fluid in the primary system. Major Frank had rung the "prepare to bailout" bell and was just about to sound the "bailout" signal when the loadmasters called that the fire had gone out. After consuming all the hydraulic fluid in the system, the fire burned itself out before reaching the fuel tanks that were on either side of the dry bay in which it was burning. Still, they had problems. The airplane would still fly, but all hydraulic pressure to the ailerons had been lost. SSgt Kenney, the engineer, went in back to help the loadmasters, Airmen Benstead, Taylor, Harris and Delaney, to put the fire out. Frank and the co-pilot, Lt Nelson, used all of their strength on the controls while Kenney and the loadmasters provided additional muscle pulling on tiedown straps that they had attached to the aileron bell crank. (Kenney now says they didn't use a strap, but that was the story the crew told when they got back to Naha.) They managed to bring the airplane to a safe landing at Nakonpham, Thailand, where each of the crewmembers kissed the ground when they jumped out of the airplane.

Getting hit on a Blind Bat mission was almost a regular occurence, but surprisingly, casualties were fairly low. Two Blind Bat flareships were lost during the course of the war, along with their crews. Some crewmembers were wounded by flak on other missions.

There was some bitter humor with the mission as well. McNorton, a loadmaster in the 21st TCS, was called "Combat McNorton" because of his thirst for adventure. Before Seventh Air Force put a stop to it, C-130 crews frequently fired their M-16s at the ground during strikes and sometimes used flares as bombs. I set up one bombing mission myself. We dropped a load of six after setting the fuzes for a long interval over the Mu Gia Pass. McNorton threw out a flare and hit a B-57 with it. As I remember, it was McNorton who came up with the Blind Bat black beret and patch that flareship crewmembers wore at Ubon.

A navigator had an experience of rather mixed blessing sometime in 1969. By this time Blind Bat had recevied some new equipment, including the Black Crow ignition detector and other equipment, including a system that required a navigator/operator to sit in a seat mounted on the outside of one of the paratroop doors. This particular navigator was coming inside the airplane when he accidentally caught the rip cord of his parachute and extracted himself from the airplane! He made it to the ground safely where he spent an uneasy night until the helicopters came for him at dawn. He was picked up and returned to Ubon - where there was a message waiting for him that he had been passed over for promotion and was being RIF'ed out of the service!

Blind Bat was a forerunner for the AC-130 gunship mission which replaced it in 1970. Most of the techniques and much of the equipment used on the gunships had been developed and/or tested by Blind Bat crews. Though there was still a mission for Blind Bat, cost considerations led the Air Force to terminate the program in 1970 after the gunships came on the scene. Funding for the mission transferred to a new progam using modified B -57s that had been equipped with sophiticated detection equipment.

Not long after I put this page up, I heard from Bob Bartunek. Bob reminded me of an incident that happened one night when we were - literally! - upside down in a C-130! The navigator had drifted off and let us get a little bit too close to a flak trap. When the guns opened up, the pilots saw the tracers coming right at us. For years I thought Steve Taylor was flying, but Bartunek says that on this particular evening he was flying from the right seat and Taylor was in the left seat calling fighters. I know where I was - sitting on the door holding the flares in the chute with my feet. All of a sudden our A-model Herkybird was rolling all the way over onto its back! This is no shit, Sherlock! Bartunek rolled the airplane upside down and pulled through in a split-S - which probably kept us from getting shot out of the sky. And the whole thing was so smooth that not a single one of the flares came out the tray. The navigator, who was still half asleep when we went through the aerobatic manuver, said there was no way we could have gone upside down - because his coffee had not even spilled!

Since I first put this page up in 1996, more than 100 former Blind Bat people have managed to find each other. Several of us have been communicating almost daily on the Flareships Email group described at the top of the page. We had our first reunion at the Holiday Inn Express in Biloxi, Mississippi the weekend of May 9-12, 2002. We all had a great time renewing old friendships and making new ones. Bob Bartunek and I were there from our crew. Sam McCracken passed away a few years ago of a heart attack. Dick Herman, the nav, is a successful military aviation novelist.

Speaking of novels, I have written my own about the Blind Bat mission. It is available direct from the publisher, Author House, as well as from book sellers such as and Barnes and Noble.. Here is the promo I have on the web for it - The Cave.

There is an amazing footnote to the story of our crew's time at Ubon on the Blind Bat mission. Although I never connected the dots, our crew  played a role in one of the most amazing events of the Vietnam War, although we had no idea that we were a part at the time. In February 1966, US Navy LtJG Dieter Dengler was shot down over Laos in an A-1 Skyraider. After evading the enemy for several hours, he was finally captured by Pathet Lao troops and because he was captured by them, he remained in Pathet Lao custordy. Dengler was kept in a decrepit Laotian camp along with two other Americans, an Air Force lieutenant who had been shot down in a helicopter the year before and a kicker from an Air America C-46 that was shot down in 1963, and four Asian Air America employees who were on the same airplane. Although no one at Ubon had an inkling of the role we were playing, our nightly missions passed over the camp where the POWs were being held and our presence was a key element in the escape plans they made. In late June a few weeks before our crew finished our tour, the seven men escaped. Dengler and Air Force Lt. Duane Martin went off together while the others went in different groups. The rainy season had begun and they were unable to signal the nightly C-130 as they had planned. Finally, after they had been in the jungle for about five days, Dengler and Martin managed to signal a C-130, but no rescue mission came to save them. Apparently, it was our crew.

After almost a week in the jungle, the two airmen were weak from fatigue and illness and were starving. Martin, who was already near death from malaria, convinced Dengler to go with him to try to steal some food from a nearby village. They were spotted by a young boy and a villager rushed out and attacked them with a machete. Martin was killed by the blow and Dengler, who was kneeling beside him, jumped up and rushed the village then fled into the forest and eventually returned to the abandoned guerrilla camp where they had been hiding. Demoralized and to the point he was ready to die, Dengler determined that he make a signal that the damned C-130 crew couldn't miss! He revived the small fire he had built a few days before and put torches aside to be ready to set the flimsy huts on fire. Later that night the C-130 did come over, and he burned the village to the ground! The crew did, in fact, spot his fires - it was us - and when we got back to Ubon the debriefing officers were very excited about the account. Yet, for some reason, no rescue mission was sent out. Apparently the higher-ups in intelligence decided it must not be an American.

When no rescue force appeared, Dengler was still demoralized, and he wasn't sure if he had actually seen the C-130 or was hallucinating. He woke in another tropical thunderstorm but decided to try go find one of the parachutes from one of the flares. Just before daylight he found it, and reading his account of how much that piece of cloth meant to him brought tears to my eyes when I read his account. He took the parachute and put it in his knapsack and used it a few days later to signal Air Force A-1 pilot Lt. Col. Eugene Dietrich when he was finally spotted and rescued.

None of us had an inkling that the fires we had seen that night had been set by an escaped POW and it wasn't until Bob Bartunek and Dieter Dengler got in contact through the Skyraider Association that the pieces were put together. (Bartunek commanded an Air Force A-1 squadron later in the war.) Although I knew about Dieter's book, I had never read it until after the recent movie about his ordeal was released in the summer of 2007. Had I read it sooner I would have known that  Dengler owed his life to the parachute from the flare we dropped over him that night.

Note - Lt. Col. Robert D. Bartunek, USAF (Ret.) passed away in April, 2012. Sam McCracken passed away several years ago. Willy Donovan is also deceased, as is Bill Rambin.)

(Sam McGowan, revised 7/20/2012)

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