The narrative that follows is my recollection of the events surrounding the downing of a USAF C-130A flying as Blind Bat 01, and events leading up to and following the loss. I am recording these recollections for two reasons; first is to provide a written record for Tom Brotherman, son of Major Tom Mitchell , one of the pilots of Blind Bat 01. The second is to keep my memories fresh.
Courtesy of Tom Brotherman
Blind Bat was the call sign of C-130 Forward Air Controllers (FAC). The linked story is to show the importance of these crews who lay their lives on the line as well as the attack aircraft and were frequently lost. They carried no defensive weapons. The bold print and emendations are mine. (Mark Witt)
I am Harold W. Lowe. I
flew the Blind Bat mission for just about a year, from late 1967 to late 1968. I
was a captain, and was called 'Smokey'. I flew my first Blind Bat tour as a line
pilot, and was asked to stay with the mission as the Tactics and Training
officer, and as the Check pilot. It was in the latter functions that I had most
of my contact with Tom Mitchell.
The primary role of the
Blind Bat mission was to find, illuminate, and direct air strikes against North
Vietnamese truck convoys. We also struck river traffic (sampans), AAA sites,
river fords, bridges and POL (petroleum, oil, lubricant -ed) dumps.
Occasionally we supported ground operations and rescue missions.
The 'Blind Bat' call
sign was utilized for missions flown in Southern Laos (also referred to as Delta
area). 'Lamplighter' was the call sign used by the C-130's flying in Northern
Laos (Echo area). We had a sister flare ship outfit operating out of NKP (Nakom
Phanom, Thailand -Ed) flying C-123's, call sign 'Candlestick'. If I
remember correctly, they flew primarily in western Laos. There were locations on
the ground that were referred to as 'Delta' points (not to be confused with the
Delta area). These points were used in radio communications so as to not reveal
strike locations to those who might be monitoring our frequencies.
We were controlled by
our frag orders and the AOB (air order of battle). We were directed by ABCCC
(Airborne Command and Control Center), an EC-130 in orbit that had numerous
operators and communicators aboard, and would send us our ordinance (the strike
aircraft). The ABCCC call signs were Cricket, Hillsborough, Alleycat and
Moonbeam. Typically, the aircraft we employed for our strikes were F-4's, B-26's
(Nimrod), B-57's (Redbird and Yellowbird), and AT-28's. Occasionally we
would get support from A-4's (Navy and Marine) and A-1's (Sandy) from the rescue
squadrons. It was a B-57 Yellowbird that took the downing of Blind Bat 01 very
personally and attacked the AAA battery that we believed hit them the next
night. I will explain more further in this narrative.
The ground school
portion of the Blind Bat training lasted about a week. It included tactics,
procedures, rules of engagement, survival (both in the air and on the ground),
safety, and emergency ordinance disposal. Flare handlers were taught how to set
fusing, arm and launch the MK-24 parachute flare, and the "logs",
which were ground marker flares. All crew members were instructed how to disable
a flare that had been inadvertently triggered aboard the aircraft.
The airborne portion of
the training consisted of about a week of 'ride alongs' with a qualified crew.
This was followed by two weeks of instructional rides with instructor pilots and
navigators. A navigator check ride and a pilots' check ride were given, and a
comprehensive written test was administered covering all aspects of the mission.
Upon successful completion of this training, the pilots were certified as FAC's
(Forward Air Controllers -ed)). I seem to remember that this was
certification by 7th Air Force. As a result of my instructional
rides, and checkout of pilots Bill Mason and Tom Mitchell, I came to the
conclusion that Tom was an exceptional C-130 pilot and a go-to guy for the Blind
STORY OF A KNIFE
As a result of many
missions as a Blind Bat pilot, I developed what I believed to be the optimum
survival vest configuration. I didn't carry much .38 ball ammunition; rather I
elected to carry tracers to use as signal devices. I replaced food rations with
two extra radio batteries. I doubled up on dextroamphetamines, figuring I
couldn't get rescued if I wasn't awake. And I carried knives. Lots of knives.
One of my knives was carried on the back of my vest, with the handle protruding
slightly above my left shoulder. This made it easy to reach with my right hand
in the event that I had to cut parachute risers or harness. I bring this up
because Tom Mitchell thought this was a pretty hot setup and replicated it for
his use. The knife that Tom used for his over shoulder was a Buck model 119.
THE LOSS OF BLIND BAT 01
At the time that Blind
Bat 01 was shot down, we were flying five sorties a night. The first two
aircraft covering Delta area were Blind Bat 01 and 02. Echo area was covered by
Lamplighter 01. About midnight, these three aircraft would return to Ubon and
were replaced by Blind Bat 03 and Lamplighter 02.
At about 2330 hours on
the night Blind Bat 01 went down, I received a call at my quarters to come to
Tactical Operations Center (TOC). On reporting to TOC, I was informed that 01
was unaccounted for, and then went to the control tower to confirm take-off
time, and monitor communications. After enough time had gone by that 01 would be
out of fuel, inquiries were made to all likely recovery locations where 01 might
have landed. All inquiries came back negative. Various sources were queried and
a most-likely scenario came to be that Blind Bat 01 had been shot down in the
vicinity of Delta 18 (Xepon, or Tchepone). This was one of the most heavily
defended areas in southern Laos. With the mission commander's permission, I put
together a volunteer crew to fly a break-of-day search for Blind Bat 01. Three
things remain with me to this day about that daylight flight. I flew right seat
in hopes that we would FAC a rescue; I have never been more terrified to be
flying low and slow and in daylight over an area that just shot down one of our
planes; and we didn't find Blind Bat 01. (In December 2001, Tom Brotherman
shared some information with me as to where the wreckage of Blind Bat 01 was
located. It was found in 2000, approximately 350 meters inside South Vietnam
near the Laotian border, roughly 11 miles southeast of Xepon. On that morning,
we searched the area approximately 10 miles west and northwest of Xepon.)
On the night
following the downing of Blind Bat 01, I took off as Blind Bat 04 with a
throw-together crew. The call sign Blind Bat 01 was never used again. We flew
directly to Delta 18, and with one of the Yellowbird B-57's loitering overhead,
we set up an ambush of the AAA site that we thought most likely hit 01. We
figured that if we could get this guy shooting, Blind Bat 04 could mark his
location and Yellowbird could strike. Our tactic was to orbit and flare just up
the road from the gun, simulating a pending strike on an approaching convoy. On
the third or fourth orbit, the gunners just couldn't stand it anymore and let us
have it with a 10 or 15 round burst. Yellowbird was on the perch and rolled in
on the target immediately. He released 3 of his 4 iron bombs (500 pounders). He
missed, but succeeded in getting the 37 to lay on another long burst. The
Yellowbird pilot must have done a hammerhead directly over the gun, because what
our crew saw next was all but unbelievable. With his anti-collision beacon ON,
Yellowbird released his last iron bomb and four napalms in a true vertical
attack. With numerous secondaries going off, this guy made pass after pass with
his 20mm until he was totally out of ammunition. One can only assume that this
guy flying his B-57 out of Phan Rang was some kind of PISSED! We never knew for
sure if we got the right gun, but some gun crew paid dearly that night.
A THIRTY THREE YEAR SEARCH
When a combatant goes
MIA, a designee is appointed to take care of his personal effects. Partly
because I was Blind Bat staff, but mostly because Tom and I had become friends,
I was the guy to clean out his quarters and get his stuff packed up to be sent
home. To those who have had to do it, you know how much it hurts. You are angry,
sad, scared and can only imagine the grief that the people unpacking those boxes
will feel. Tom's stuff got packed and I went back to flying until we got a
replacement crew in and qualified.
Weeks, maybe months
The Blind Bat crews
stored their helmets, headsets, checklists, survival vests and other flight gear
in what might be described as plywood lockers inside a Conac container. A Conac
is a big steel box that has two big doors on one end. It is about 25 feet long
and 6 and a half feet high. The crew Conac had a can of hydraulic fluid, wiping
rag and .38 cal bore brush on a shelf. Being holstered in a wet leather holster
most of the time created a bad environment for a handgun. The aforementioned
maintenance items ostensibly could be used to keep our side arms functional. I
throw this in just because of how ironic that whole concept was.
At some point in time,
a crewmember needed a locker. The only one not being used at the time had a lock
on it. I was asked to remedy the problem. When the offending lock was pointed
out to me, I realized that this had, indeed, been Tom Mitchell's gear locker. We
always locked even an empty locker in order to preclude some practical joker
from switching locks (every three number combination Master padlock looks the
same). Since we always took our flight gear with us when we flew, I figured his
had disappeared with him and Blind Bat 01. I cut the lock and opened up the
locker. Inside lay Tom's Buck knife. Apparently it had fallen out, undiscovered,
from his survival vest.
I debated with myself
what to do with Tom's knife. Should I contact the guy that forwards personal
effects, and perhaps reopen wounds that might be starting to heal? Or, since Tom
was MIA should I just hold on to it, and when I see him again, just give it
back? Praying that he would eventually return, I elected the latter. Tom didn't
return. So I figured that some day I would find one of his family and give it to
them. That process took 33 years.
In May of 2002, there was a reunion of Blind Bats in Biloxi, MS. Tom Brotherman and I will meet there. An ordinary Buck knife, model 119, has drawn us to this point. As sure as night follows day, I will lose it when this tangible piece passes from friend to son. But I will have achieved something that needed doing for a long time.