DENNIS DERRIG’S WAR
U.S. Navy Lieutenant and A-4 Skyhawk Pilot, USS Ticonderoga and USS Ranger, Yankee Station, 1964 – 66
I’m from Mapleton, North Dakota, near Fargo, and enlisted in the North Dakota Air National Guard when I was seventeen years old. I went on to attend the University of Detroit for two years until I was selected as a Naval Aviation Cadet in 1961. After flight schools at Pensacola, Florida, Meridian, Mississippi, and Beeville, Texas, I received my wings and commission as an Ensign in March 1963. I reported to NAS Lemoore south of Fresno, flew both prop planes and three different kinds of jets, and performed landings on two different carriers.
I was an A-4 Skyhawk pilot and was assigned to squadron VA-55. We went aboard the USS Ticonderoga in 1964 as part of Carrier Air Wing 5. We went on a cruise to WESTPAC, the Navy term for the Western Pacific, and were on Yankee station off Vietnam from May to December, with two stopovers in Japan. We were on station on August 2 when the Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred. I was the duty officer that day, when the US destroyer Maddox was attacked by North Vietnamese patrol boats. We received a call for help and sent four F8E Crusaders to assist, hitting three of the North Vietnamese boats. Two days later, the same thing happened with the destroyer Turner Joy and our jets hit three more North Vietnamese patrol boats. After that, both the Ticonderoga and the Constellation launched retaliatory strikes against four of their Navy bases and other shore facilities along the coast of North Vietnam. My squadron had flown many reconnaissance missions before and after, but we didn’t fly any of those attack missions. And for those who say the “Gulf of Tonkin Incident” never happened, I personally watched wounded U.S. Navy personnel from the two destroyers being brought aboard our ship for medical treatment.
We returned to port in California in late December 1964, and our squadron was stationed at NAS Lemoore again. We were equipped with Shrike missiles. The Shrike was an anti-missile missile specifically designed to take out SAM surface-to-air missile batteries by locking onto their radar as soon as it locked on us. That was a dangerous game. A SAM was about the size of a telephone pole and it didn’t have to hit you. It had a proximity fuse and all it had to do was get close. The
The USS Ranger was departing for WESTPAC in December 1965 and they needed a Shrike squadron for SAM protection, so VA-55 was switched to Carrier Air Wing 14 and went aboard Ranger with them. We were on Yankee Station for my second tour from January 10, 1966 until August 6, 1966, when we left for Japan and then Alameda Naval Air Station in California.
This was a very active seven-month cruise and our squadron went out on combat missions every day. I flew an A-4 Skyhawk again on 150 missions, either bombing or going after SAMs, during which my plane was hit twice. The second time, I lost my hydraulics and the horizontal stabilizer, which made for a difficult landing back on the carrier. The squadron lost 9 of 22 aircraft, and the losses became personal. That year, a friend I graduated from high school with was shot down and remained missing for years. They finally found his remains and he was buried in Fargo a few years ago. Another friend went down over North Vietnam in 1966. He was captured and beaten to death in one of their POW camps.
In addition to going after SAMs, we did conventional bombing. Our armaments would change with the mission, but we carried rockets, missiles, bombs, and cannon in various configurations. On one mission I put a 2,000-pound bomb down the smokestack of a North Vietnamese machine shop and blew it to pieces. We also flew missions over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. The North Vietnamese were using anything they could find to haul carts full of arms and equipment down the trail, including elephants, and I killed several of them.
President Johnson was so scared of taking any civilian casualties that we were ordered not to bomb anything near a city. Of course, the North Vietnamese knew that and were actually being warned ahead of time of our missions, so that’s where they put everything that was important. Russian ships were delivering weapons and supplies to them at Haiphong, and we couldn’t do anything about that, either.
One afternoon, four of us were sent out to fly a “recon” mission along the beach. One of our guys had flown that morning and had seen a train with boxcars parked along the edge of a small town about five miles inland. Before we took off, we decided we would fly our mission along the coast, peel off inland, and take out that train. We were loaded with 4-inch Zuni rockets and found the train parked right where he said it would be. Our flight leader went in and took out the engine. The next two guys went in and tried for the boxcars but missed. I went in last and put my rockets right on one of the boxcars. Kaboom! It went up and you could see the smoke ten miles out at sea. But we didn’t hit anything in the town.
As soon as we landed back on the ship, we went into debriefing. We weren’t there very long when the Task Force Admiral came in. “What were you guys doing flying inland like that attacking that train?” he demanded to know. “That wasn’t your mission. You were only on recon!”
Our flight leader turned, looked up at him, and said, “I heard the whistle blow.” The admiral stared at him for a moment, turned, and left. But if we had been fighting that war right, there wouldn’t have been a train running anywhere in North Vietnam to begin with.
On one bombing mission, our Squadron Skipper Mike Chewning was hit by small-arms fire which came up into the cockpit and hit him in his right arm. He was losing a lot of blood and could only use his left hand, but somehow he managed to get back and land his A-4 on the carrier, with us screaming at him to stay awake. He went through a lot of surgeries, but they were able to get the nerves in his forearm connected back together again. Today, he plays tennis and does other things that you’d never believe someone could do after a wound like that.
The first day we were on line, after the December 1965 Christmas stand down, we went out on a bombing mission. It was bad weather, and we were flying under heavy overcast. On our third run over the target, both my plane and my section leader’s were hit by 37-millimeter antiaircraft fire. He went down, lost radio contact, and we couldn’t find him. Our squadron commander and I made pass after pass around the target area, but we were running out of fuel and finally had to break off. As we flew back out over the beach, we saw him in the water in a raft. We called in an Air Force Albatross search and rescue helicopter, and we hung around to keep the bad guys away until it arrived. At that point we were really running low on fuel but were able to connect with a tanker and get back to the Ranger. For that operation, I was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross.
When the cruise was over in August and we returned to California, I got out of the Navy, got married, returned to college and got my degree. In 1968 I returned to Fargo and went back in the Air Guard. Back then, the Guard was an important part of the nation’s air defense. This was the Cold War. I flew F-102s, F-101s, T-33s, C-54s, and F-4s. We had two to four jets armed and ready round-the-clock as a deterrent to Russian bombers coming over the pole. I continued to fly as a Guard member, plus I spent two or three days a week on active duty doing standby, and had a full-time job with the Guard doing base civil engineering. I finally retired in 1990 as a Lieutenant Colonel.
RICK INGOGLIA’S WAR
US Air Force, E-4 in the Air Police, Guarding the Gate at Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base, 1964 – 65
I grew up in a mixed Italian-Jewish neighborhood in Detroit. Back then, the Air Force had a deal where you and your friends could enlist and go to basic training together, so six of us decided to do that. My father had served in World War II, as had some of my relatives, and it seemed like the thing to do. This was 1962, long before the Vietnam War started.
My father had a medical equipment company and I had a job in high school doing oxygen therapy at the local hospital. I told the recruiter that’s what I wanted to do. He said no problem, they had a course for that, and after the school I could come back to Selfridge Air Force Base near Detroit and be an oxygen therapist. So, I enlisted. Of course, when I went to Basic at Lackland and met with one of their career counselors, he had no idea what I was talking about. He said the Air Force didn’t do that kind of work. But since I had tested well for finance and accounting, he said I could do that, or I could become a cop or a cook. Some choice, so I picked cop. After that school, I spent the next two years in Michigan, all right; but up at Kincheloe Air Force Base on the Upper Peninsula near the Canadian border and Sault Sainte Marie, where I was a guard at a missile site, about as far from Detroit as you can get in Michigan.
Eventually, I got orders for an overseas assignment to a country that hadn’t been in the news much up till then: Vietnam. When I was at one of the West Coast bases going over, I had to get prescription lenses for my gas mask and they sent me to the base hospital to get them made before I left. As I wandered through the halls, I knocked on a door to get directions. Lo and behold, what did I find but the Oxygen Therapy Department! Worse, it was using the same equipment I used back in Detroit. Unfortunately, that guy back at Lackland was nowhere around.
I arrived in Vietnam on November 1, 1964, on a Pan Am flight. Promotion in the Air Force was very slow before the war, and I was an E-4 Senior Airman assigned to Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base, about five miles from Saigon. Among other things, the Air Police are responsible for base perimeter security and the gates, which is where I was assigned. There was no fighting going on, but we had bunkers, fencing, barbed wire, and all the rest. The base had been built some ten years before, and I have always been embarrassed to tell my infantry friends that we had mess halls, a BX, hot showers, and barracks, and I slept in a bunk with sheets.
One of my friends was a guy named Joe. We usually worked the gates together, and we would always have a couple of Vietnamese MPs, the “white mice” as they were called, assigned with us, since both Americans and Vietnamese used the gates. Joe and I didn’t speak a word of Vietnamese, and they didn’t speak any English, but we got by, got to know them, and became friends. After a month or two, the Vietnamese guys started inviting Joe and me back to their compound after we got off work, to play cards and drink some beer. They lived in an area called Go Vap, just north of Tan Son Nhut, where the Vietnamese military and their families lived. Joe and I were married. Neither of us had any interest in the bars in Saigon, so we started to go to Go Vap several times each week. The people there were very friendly, we would get swarmed by little kids, and we had a great time.
After a while, the boss of Vietnamese gate guards, a major named Tran, called us aside. He spoke some English and asked whether I could buy him a Honda motorcycle at the American BX. He heard they sold them there. I did some checking, and sure enough you could buy about anything at the BX in those days. Anyway, it cost $380. I ordered one for him, he paid for it, and it arrived a month later. It was fire-engine red, and when I delivered it to him at Go Vap, I don’t think there was a happier man in Vietnam that night. Apparently, a red Honda was the ultimate status symbol, and made me a friend for life.
Three weeks later, Major Tran came to see Joe and me. He said everyone in the compound really liked us, and he wondered if we could teach his people some English. We said sure, and then wondered how the hell we were going to do that. We never thought to ask the Air Force for any help. We just did it ourselves. Joe’s wife was a teacher, and she took it on as a school class project back home, raising money for supplies and books. Major Tran arranged for a room, chairs, blackboard, and other things at Go Vap. A couple of weeks later a big box full of “Dick and Jane Readers” arrived and we were in business. We tried to keep it simple, just teaching them words, phrases, and some conversational English. We didn’t try to get into adjectives, adverbs, or grammar, just enough for them to talk to Americans and be able to get along on the subjects they were likely to deal with. We began with twenty-five people, mostly ARVN soldiers. Before we knew it, we had thirty-five and even more, as friends and relatives kept slipping in the back door. It was great, and something I have always been very proud of. Here’s one of our class photos with some of the MPs. As a people-to-people, army-to-army thing, I hoped it would do some good for bridge building and our relations with the Vietnamese.
My tour was over on October 15, 1965, and I went home. That was about three weeks after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, two months after the 1st Infantry and 101st Airborne Divisions arrived in country, and one month after the 1st Air Cav. When I was there, everything was peaceful. True, the Air Force Base and Go Vap received a few mortar and rocket rounds from the VC during my tour, but nothing serious. The big battles were still to come, and the character of the war would soon change dramatically.
When I got home, I attended Walsh College on the G.I. Bill and got my degree in accounting. I worked for some banks and then went into the medical equipment field like my father. I started up and sold three different medical equipment businesses before I retired.
I’m now 73 years old. I have been treated for Agent Orange-related cancer and had a serious stroke. Still, I stay active with golf, working with local vision support groups and stroke support groups, and attending veterans’ meetings.
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