Air University Review, January-February 1983

Reflections of a THUD Driver

Lieutenant Colonel John F. Piowaty, USAF (ReT)

IN looking back on my experiences as an F-105 pilot in the midsixties, I realize that some of my strongest recollections involve the general frustration that we Thud drivers felt concerning the restrictions under which our war against the North was fought. Our rules of engagement (ROE) were defined with a rigid precision that made little sense to us at the timeand which make little more sense to me today.* I particularly remember the cynical relief with which we learned we were to strike one railroad bridge at Lang Son in the fall of 1967.

* See W. Hays Parks, "Rolling Thunder and the Law of War," Air University Review, January-February 1982, pp. 2-23.

This was our first strike inside the Chinese buffer zone, about ten miles from China. Here was a chance for us to hit one bridge and a chance for their gunners to fire at twenty Thuds. The force commander wanted to give us a steep bomb run: he did—about 90 degrees! Each of us had a bridge under his pilot boom. Looking straight down, we lost our orientation with the river that snaked through town and the several railroad bridges that spanned the river. We hit all three plus a dike. The Wild Weasel pilot who hit the dike—attacks on dikes were forbidden by our ROE—was exonerated. A strike photo showed a 6x6 truck flying through the air off the road surface of the dike; it was deemed a legitimate target of opportunity—a "fleeting lucrative" as it was called—and thus open to attack. Otherwise. . . After we got shot at over Lang Son, our wing commander took flak from Washington because we struck more than the one bridge released to us.

The interdiction campaign was hampered by more than concern for collateral damage. It was hard to understand the mentality that sent us to Kep railroad yard again and again for interdiction. Freight continued to pass through large yards, for they had ties, track, ballast, machinery, and manpower for repairs and switching to shunt trains through on undamaged track. At the entrance to Hanoi, rail traffic was routed off the Doumer Bridge onto a completely separated span that lay on the river bank, then back up and onto the tracks into town.

A visiting general from Seventh Air Force asked a group of captains at Takhli, of which I was a member, what we thought of the interdiction campaign on the Northeast railroad. He got an earful. I told him I thought we were more interested in photography than interdiction and that if I were to go after the railroad I’d give each flight of four a ten-mile segment of single-line track as far from towns as possible. Each flight member would have his own section of rail to go after. The probability of achieving a cut—we used the technical acronym for probability of kill, Pk, pronounced "P sub k" ‘—on any one segment might be reduced; but the overall Pk for at least one cut remained

the same, and there would be an even better Pk for each individual bomber than when rolling in out of a 16 or 20 ship gaggle. We could even rocket and strafe rolling stock caught between cuts. (Remember how free-ranging P-47s did more to stop rail traffic in France than did all the bombing of marshaling yards.) Seventh Air Force approved the plan and authorized a strike for multiple cuts. The day came, the weather was bad, the day passed, and to my knowledge such a strike was never made.

In spite of Harrison Salisbury’s beliefs, we caused very little collateral damage. There were plenty of antiaircraft artillery batteries in villages, but many of them came alive only after we passed overhead. I would imagine that at least as many tons of Russian shrapnel fell on North Vietnam as did American bombs. The North Vietnamese learned very quickly to put guns where we bombed—the Mo Trang two-track siding became a hot spot after we hit it a

couple of times—and to put supplies where we didn’t. I remember a protected building in Route Pack I, a church we were told. My wingman, one day, bragged that he got a large warehouse.

"Not a big white building with a pitched roof?"

"Yeah. Why?"

"That was a church. We weren’t supposed to hit it.’’

"Well, whatever it was, I got a helluva secondary (explosion) out of it!"

No matter what basis one uses to argue against the White House’s hand in the war, waste, inefficiency, and lack of effectiveness stand out. By the time President Nixon got serious and won in two weeks, as we could have done in any two weeks for nearly a decade, it was too late to hold the victory. We marched home as victors and let the losers spoil South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

Alamogordo, New Mexico


Lieutenant Colonel John F. Piowaty, USAF (Ret), (B.A., M.S., Troy State University), is regional manager for Pepsi Cola in Midland, Texas, and Vice-President of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association. His previous assignments include Commander, 479th Aircraft Generation Squadron; faculty member, Air Command and Staff College; advisor to Iranian Air Command and Staff College; and an F-111 pilot. Colonel Piowaty is a graduate of Squadron Officer School, Air Command and Staff College, and Industrial College of the Armed Forces.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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