I think I was there … at Top Gun

It was a fairly routine day, as if there is anything remotely resembling routine on an aircraft carrier.  The ‘Hawk, U.S.S. Kitty Hawk, was at the time the No. 1 attack carrier in Uncle Sam’s canoe club.  It was 23 January 1968 and I was the communications traffic officer, and a mere LTjg.  There being not a lot to do during nine month-long cruises I had also volunteered as an underway Officer of the Deck (OOD).  As luck would have it, I was one of only three combat-qualified OODs at the time. It was my second cruise on the ‘Hawk.  Click here for some details on her.

My duties as the comm traffic officer included generally supervising all activities in the comm center with  5 or 6 watch officers under me; but also to check all of the message traffic both incoming and outgoing to insure proper routing and handling.  A typical day included around 750-1,000 message daily and standing one of seven bridge watches. Except at this time with only three of us, the day consisted of slightly over two bridge watches daily (on the average) with my running to the comm center to check the messages, make a pass through the message processing center, then hitting the rack, eating or occasionally catching a movie.

Having just completed a bridge watch, I had checked messages in the office and was walking into the comm center.  Clacking sounds from the teletypes were the constant greeting and companion in the center; but suddenly there was extra clacking and a cacophony of bells that had an inherently urgent ring to them.  Extra clacking and unfamiliar bells were going off. Something was decidedly different.

In fact, the extra, strident sounds were right next to me and were coming from a usually quiet location just outside the main comm center.  Suddenly, I realized the difference and was frightened by it even before I looked down.  There was one teletype machine that was dedicated to Top Secret, flash traffic.  The meaning of Top Secret is, I think, obvious.  We received a fair amount of TS traffic (always printed on pink paper) but “flash” traffic? Rare.  The “flash” designation means it’s gotta get from Point A to Point B like 5 minutes ago.  Right now is almost too late.  It’s the kind of delivery priority that you would reserve for such as announcing the attack on Pearl Harbor.

And this was similarly an astounding event that might make the existing conflict in Viet Nam seem simple.  My best recollection of the message is approximately as follows:

  • From:  CincPac (that would be Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet)
  • To:  U.S.S. Kitty Hawk
  • Flash, Top Secret
  • Subject:  Orders re: seizure of U.S.S. Pueblo
  • The U.S.S. Pueblo (AGER-2) has been boarded by a North Korean patrol boat and is believed to be incapacitated and has possibly been seized. Make immediate plans to proceed to the Sea of Japan to effect rescue. Further orders to follow.

That first message was just about that short and terse.  I knew the Captain was still on the bridge so I hand-carried it to him myself, not trusting in the “bunny tube” (pneumatic tubes like department stores once used) for this event.

We made an immediate course change, the Navigator was summoned to the bridge to assist the Quartermaster in laying the detailed route from our present track which was toward Subic Bay, Phillipines because we had just finished 30 days on the “line” on Yankee Station. So much for that R&R!  As it turned out, U.S.S. Enterprise was in port in Sasebo, Japan and it was determined that she could get underway and reach the Sea of Japan faster than could we. Our orders were then to return to Yankee Station. That would put three carriers in the operating area, the only time during my two cruises that this would occur.

Yankee Station was a 35-mile diameter circle off of Viet Nam which was the carrier Op area. It was divided into three sectors, each being a pie-shaped slice. The object was that each carrier would operate in a designated sector and this would keep not only the carriers but their takeoff and landing patterns separated. With only two operating it was easy. With all three sectors “hot” it would become interesting because with two on the line one would fly days and the other one nights, but with three of us on the line there would come to be two active at all times, thus complicating both the surface picture and the air picture.

Why was this done?  The thought was that the North Korean provocation was extraordinary and the broader impact was totally unknown.  Was this a concerted effort with North Viet Nam? With the Chinese or the Russians? Was this a precursor to something bigger?  Nobody knew.

We would eventually spend 75 days on the line and my days during that time consisted of checking traffic (which had more than doubled since we carried a 3-star flag, Commander Attack Carrier Air Wing 7th Fleet), grabbing a bite of chow, racing up to the bridge (there were still only three of us qualified as OODs), running back down to the comm center and grabbing a sandwich on the way and then grabbing an hour or two of rack time before starting over again on that cycle.  I was averaging 2-3 hours total sleep each 24 hour period, never all at one time.  Luckily the junior officer’s mess had food available 24 hours a day and I would eventually eat my weight in bacon sandwiches — a handful of bacon from the “grease bin” with a bit of mayo folder in bread that was usually a bit stale.

So where does Top Gun fit into this? Remember when Tom Cruise’s character, Maverick, joins his graduation (his RIO, Goose, had died when ejecting after their F-14 entered an unrecoverable flat spin) and they suddenly get orders due to a crisis?  The crisis was a disabled Naval vessel and the ship to which Maverick, Iceman and the others reported was … you guessed it … the Enterprise.

The Navy established Top Gun in March of 1969 (see this Top Gun page), about a year after the Pueblo incident. I have to believe that a lot of the inspiration for the rescue crisis in the movie (although it was released much later, in 1986) was the Pueblo incident.  Further, the markings on the supposed Mig-28’s (there is no such Mig) were North Korean.  Also, Iceman’s squadon patch is the Black Lions, VF-213, which was embarked on the ‘Hawk during the Pueblo incident.

The dogfight is also reminiscent of another incident from my days on hawk involving an F-4 that survived an unbelievable dogfight and multiple SAM attacks.  But that’s another story.

Some links about the Pueblo incident:

Operation Red Fox — Air Force operation.

Dept. of the Navy photos — Naval Historical Center

An outstanding retrospective entitled PUEBLO a Retrospective, by Commander Richard Mobley, U.S. Navy covers the event in great detail.  (http://www.nwc.navy.mil/press/Review/2001/Spring/art8-sp1.htm) Accessed Aug 7, 2005.

From World Knowledge Library comes an artcle with some cross-referenced detail.

Jim Liewer, Documents: U.S. ruled out military action over USS Pueblo for fear of war with Chinese or Soviets,  Stars and Stripes, Jan. 27, 2002, (http://www.kimsoft.com/2002/pueblo-ss.htm) Accessed Aug. 8, 2005. This article discussed the political aspects of failing to attempt a rescue as now better known due to de-classification of documents.

Splash one more

I’ve guessed that the movie Top Gun is loosely based on the seizure of the U.S.S. Pueblo by the North Koreans in 1968 and have written about that.  I think that the dogfight is highly reminiscent, but obviously not based directly on, an incident that also happened in 1968 to an F-4 Phantom based on the ‘Hawk, the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk during one of my two cruises.  Here’s how the story goes to my recollection.

The F-4 was over the North (N. Viet Nam) when the crew saw a surface-to-air missle (SAM) lift off, toward them.  The typical maneuver was to dive right at the SAM and then jink one way or the other at the last moment. Obviously an important timing issue there!  Then a dual-site lit up (two SAMs fired simultaneously) and more radical maneuvering, then another and another.  I don’t now recall how many total SAMs were fired at this F-4 but it was a half-dozen or better, some in pairs, and the manuevering as was later described to me was radical, to say the least.

At some point they were jumped by Migs and while evading them (and in the process downing 3 of them) the F-4 was the target for more SAMs.  At some point the dogfight and SAM-dodging took them down to the deck and they were at a very high rate of speed … “hauling ass” was the pilot’s description to me.

They wound up flying through a valley, almost on the deck, and successfully had evaded the last of the Migs. They took that action because they were out of missiles and canon ammo, and now were running low on fuel.  It was time to  head for the ship.

Suddenly the RIO screams at the pilot “don’t pull up, DIVE damn-it … we’re inverted.”  They were inverted, flying through a valley at an extremely low altitude and the RIO realized that the pilot was disoriented and did not appreciate one very important reality:  they were upside down and  climbing for altitude would actually have put them into the ground, instantly.

Meanwhile, back on the ship, there was “joy in mudville” for the air battle had been followed over the radio broadcast and it was clear that a hero was on the way back. He called “feet wet” (meaning now over water) and would soon be in sight because we were only about 75 miles off the Vietnamese coast. And he was still “hauling ass.’

Then, just as did Maverick in Top Gun, the F-4 jockey requested a fly-by which was summarily denied. Not to be deterred, a supersonic fly-by did indeed occur to the delight and wild cheering of the flight deck crew and spectators gathered on the signal bridge.  The Captain just grinned (he was just 6-8 feet from me … it was my watch) as he heard the air boss cuss the pilot.

The F-4 circled the ship and entered a left downwind (they’re ALL left downwinds for carrier patterns) for landing when he flamed out … out of fuel.  There it was:  $3.5 million worth of airplane (hey, it was 1968) and the heroic crew punching out less then 1/2 mile from the ship on a downwind approach to landing.

Splash one more ….