A-6 Intruder Units of the Vietnam War
Vietnam was called “The Helicopter War,” which suited me just fine, having served as a UH-1H “Huey” doorgunner. But as a modeler, a Long Islander (home to Grumman and Republic), and an armchair historian, I have to concede that quite a number of other aircraft types served heroically, if not stoically, and are owed much, much more appreciation for the extraordinary tasks they accomplished under some of the most suicidal “rules of engagement” ever self inflicted upon a combatant. The Grumman A-6 Intruder has starred in a couple of books and movies, with her pilots among the authors. Indeed, the author of this book, Rick Morgan,”is a retired Navy Lieutenant Commander with more than 2300 hours of flight time… principally in EA-6B Prowler, A-4 Skyhawk and A-3 Skywarrior type aircraft.” Though too young to have served in Vietnam, Morgan flew combat in Desert Storm.
My modeling interests include an interest in my models’ history, as well as camouflage and markings. That’s why my time and money is spent on references, as well as kits. Osprey seems to know that a lot of us have similar interests, and caters to us with books that complement our modeling endeavors. As I write, Grumman’s A-6 Intruder has served for four decades in various derivatives. This book is specific to the 1973 era’s end of the Vietnam War, ending with comments about the introduction of the A-6E replacing A-6As in December, 1971, with many surviving A airframes being converted to E models to “serve through the end of Intruder operations in 1996.”
Osprey is a prolific publisher that has coupled excellent authors with fantastic artists. The front cover is usually an attention-getting painting showing the featured aircraft at its best. In this case, artist Jim Laurier has captured the 30 October 1967 nighttime mission of Lt. Cdr. Charlie Hunter and Lt. Lyle Bull’s lone A-6 attack at as low as 50 feet on the Red River ferry docks in Hanoi. The docks had just come off the restricted target list. They flew through a gauntlet of 20 SA-2 SAM sites and “exactly 597 AAA emplacements,” returning to the USS Constellation safely. They were both awarded the Navy Cross, the first of five A-6 crews to win it. Both airmen rose to Rear Admiral. Surprisingly, their aircraft is not one of the color side view plates or photos in the book. Modelers can piece it together, as a good side view of VA-196 no. 406 appears on pg 25. Lt. Cdr. Hunter flew no. 410. For that matter, like other Osprey books in this series, this is not meant to be a stand-alone reference for modelers. You’ll need books like those referenced for detail drawings and photos, and a more complete history. With just under 100 pages, there are limitations on what can be included.
This book offers a brief chronological history of the A-6 in the Vietnam War, and has black and white and color photos of crews and aircraft throughout. Osprey’s format includes 30 color plates, each a side view of an A-6 with a descriptive caption that indicates its significance. For example, the first plate is 1966 VA-35 Black Panther Squadron’s Cdr. Art Barie with a black radome and 120 mission marks. The Black Panther Squadron insignia is small, behind the canopy. The second plate shows a 1969 VA-35 A-6A with the off-white natural fiberglass radome, but the Black Panther Squadron insignia now takes up the entire vertical tail. A U.S.S. Kitty Hawk VA-85 A-6A is shown in experimental S.E. Asia color camouflage, but modelers would be better served if a top view was also included. Aircraft are shown with typical bomb and fuel loads, including times when there were bomb shortages and aircraft flew with a third or less of the weapon load they were capable of carrying. Point of fact – the Intruder was second only to the B-52 in the amount of ordnance they could carry!
The limitation of the book’s 96 pages means it can’t cover everything, and the author acknowledges that his almost 300 page operational history of the A-6 is more exhaustive. Following the Korean War, the U.S. Navy and Marines redefined the need for an all-weather, medium attack aircraft. Grumman’s A-6 quickly filled that role upon delivery to VA-75, its first squadron, deploying directly to southeast Asia in 1965. Ten Navy and four Marine Intruder squadrons would fly combat operations over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. As with most new aircraft, the A-6 had initial problems that were worked out over both time and newer models. Some of the earliest A-6 losses were attributed to “premature bomb detonation” (i.e., while still attached to the wing). That problem forced Cdr. Jeremiah Denton and his B/N (bombardier/navigator) to eject and become the first Intruder crew to become P.O.W.s. Denton would write of his internment in When Hell Was in Session, earn the Navy Cross for his leadership in prison camp, and retire as Rear Admiral in 1977 and be elected Senator in 1980. Through the January 27, 1973, declaration of peace, 84 (or 17%) of the total A-6A / EA-6A production was lost. That included 92 crewmen, plus 53 more who were P.O.W., some prisoners as long as seven years.
Author of Flight of the Intruder, A-6 pilot Stephen Coonts, stated in an interview that his book was a compilation of his and other aircrews’ experiences – and his imagination. Much like the more successful war stories we’re accustomed to, any totally true war story would be overly long and boring, as an A-6 crew’s tour was considered mostly boredom with occasional moments of unbelievable terror. Coonts got past the misleading statistics, pointing out that the high loss rate was the price paid by the A-6 to become the Navy’s “best night and foul-weather platform, particularly during the region’s notorious monsoon season. The A-6 Intruder became a true classic of naval aviation.” The complete story of air combat during the Vietnam War includes the ridiculous micromanagement by Washington and their “rules of engagement” that had some of our best airmen risk – and forfeit – their lives for worthless targets, while the most tempting targets were “off limits” (i.e., Lt. Cdr. Charlie Hunter and Lt. Lyle Bull’s Red River ferry docks mission in Hanoi), or allowing the enemy to renew building up their AAA capability whenever there was a bombing halt (that same Lt Cdr. Hunter’s mission)…or sending aircraft out with minimal bomb loads due to bomb shortages.
Author Rick Morgan mentions a few noteworthy anecdotes, particularly about one of the last Intruders lost in Vietnam. It was flown by VA-196 XO Gordon Nakagawa on a night strike on Haiphong harbor during Operation Linebacker II*. For the most part, for most of the war, Haiphong harbor was off limits in spite of the extensive traffic of arms and aid from Russia and China. Nakagawa‘s wingman was future author Stephen Coonts. Nakagawa was hit by AAA and had 16 500lb bombs under his wings when he and his B/W had to punch out. Being of Asian lineage, he received “special attention” by his captors. Intruders dropped numerous “smart bombs” during Operation Linebacker II, “reporting an 80% system success rate overall… it signaled the beginning of the end of the use of large numbers of unguided bombs” that would “…reach operational maturity during Operation Desert Storm.”
The book concludes with Appendices of Squadron Assignments, Carrier Assignments, Land Bases, and Intruder inventory year by year for each mark from A-6A to EA-6A.
If you have any interest in U.S. Navy aircraft during the Vietnam War, and especially if you intend to build a model of an A-6 Intruder during that period, I recommend that you add this softcover book to your library. Written by one of its pilots who quotes other pilots, it’s an unfailing, intense history of what it felt like to be an Intruder pilot during the Vietnam War. It’s not everything a modeler requires in a reference, but it is still a very good value for your money.
Thanks to Osprey for providing this book, and thanks to IPMS Vice President Steve Collins for allowing me to review it. (I can add my own anecdote. Just before IPMS received this book for review, I was assigned an E.N.T. Doctor at my V.A. In conversation, I learned that he was Stephen Coonts’ and the U.S.S. Enterprise’s flight surgeon during Linebacker II. I received the book for review before IPMS knew that. Small world, after all!)
- A-6 Intruder In Action, Squadron Signal, by Lou Drendel
- Air War over Southeast Asia, Squadron Signal, by Lou Drendel
- Military Jets Design and Development, Thunder Bay Press, by Robert Jackson
*Towards the end of 1972, the Communist North Vietnamese again walked out on the Paris peace talks. President Nixon ordered a “maximum effort” called Operation Linebacker II. It was the U.S.’s greatest military effort of the war, aimed to get the Communists back to finish negotiations. It succeeded beyond his wildest expectations as Nixon never knew that his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, could have returned to the negotiations as the victor, demanding most favorable terms for our ally, South Vietnam. Since the war ended, North Vietnamese leaders have written and spoken about times when their backs were against the wall and they had been ready to surrender. The most notable one was at the close of Tet, the end of 1968 to the beginning of 1969. The Viet Cong (VC) were virtually wiped out and South Vietnamese civilians did not rise up to overthrow the “suppressive democratic” government. The North (NVA) were also beaten and lost every success they claimed. General Giap has stated that hearing Walter Cronkite misstate that the VC had taken the U.S. Embassy (they tried, but failed) and that, in his opinion, there was no way the U.S. could win this war, the best we could do was hope the North would offer us a face-saving peace treaty. Giap was flabbergasted. He was defeated and about to beg us to end the war. He said that Cronkite, and LBJ’s refusal to run for re-election, and the media and peace marches and the spineless leaders in Washington, convinced the Communists that if they held out a little longer they would win diplomatically.
Linebacker II eliminated most of the “restricted target” list and hit Hanoi and Haiphong like never before. In addition to attacking the Ho Chi Minh trail where ordnance destroyed individual trucks, now entire truck parks were targeted as they off-loaded in Communist harbors. Similarly, ammunition dumps, food stocks, other supplies and troops were destroyed in mass quantities before they even began their trip down the trail. Giap was at the end of his rope and the North’s negotiators went back to Paris to beg for peace. It’s my opinion that, had the U.S. unleashed the likes of Linebacker II earlier in the war, the North would have surrendered then. We would have won in 1968, but Kissinger and Nixon were desperate to obtain an immediate “Honorable Peace Agreement.” Congress was breathing down their necks, Watergate was breaking news, and the media echoed the doom and gloom statements of Cronkite, so the U.S. grabbed Defeat from the jaws of Victory. To the surprise of the virtually defeated Communist North, the U.S. again refused to believe our own intelligence and instead accepted the defeatist media reports as gospel. It was a sad betrayal by Washington DC of the sacrifices of the Intruder crews, the carrier crews, the entire U.S. military, and the South Vietnamese people.