In Oliver Stone’s 1986 Academy Award-winning movie Platoon, one of the opening scenes depicts a group of freshly scrubbed Army troops getting off a plane in South Vietnam. At the same time, a group of disheveled, battle-weary troops are getting ready to go home. More or less in unison, the veterans yell to the green soldiers, “Only 364 days to go!”
I’ve never understood why we had to serve for only one year. It has often seemed to me that if we had had to stay there for the duration, the war might have ended a lot sooner. But whoever it was who decided on the one-year rule, counting the days was very common in the Vietnam War. When I got to Southeast Asia as a meteorologist, a young captain with only six years of service, my friends all had FIGMO charts—short for “finally (or f…!), I got my orders.” These were humorous drawings that hung over a bed or a desk, on which you blocked or colored the diminishing number of days you had left. They were often embellished with obscene sexual poses, particularly toward the last few days represented on the chart.
Shortly after I arrived in Saigon in 1966, I was sent to Thailand. At that time the American public was not aware that the bombing of North Vietnam was taking place from Thailand, rather than South Vietnam. The bombers took off from four air bases in Thailand—Khorat, Ubon, Udorn and Takhli. In-flight refueling was done by SAC out of Satahib Air Force Base, south of Bangkok.
My job in Thailand was forecasting the weather for the 377th Bomb Wing missions that struck North Vietnam, Laos and northern South Vietnam. I was only there for 60 days, but it was a grueling 60 days. We had to go through a debriefing with intelligence for all the bombing pilot returnees. Meanwhile, I had to compile weather observation charts—not an easy job for me or for the pilots. They were getting shot at by SAMs, AAA, small arms and MiGs, and we had to make time for a weather report! Most guys were so bleary-eyed and bombed out, they could barely even remember how they got back safely, never mind what the weather had been like.
But Karl Richter was different. I loved debriefing Karl. A clean-cut Air Force Academy graduate, Karl was the coolest pilot I had ever met—by which I mean cool, calm and collected. And the weather reports he gave me were absolutely impressive in their detail and nearly always accurate when verified by weather satellite photos.
The bomber pilots had a different FIGMO chart routine from that used by the ground troops in Southeast Asia. They had to complete 100 bombing missions, mostly over North Vietnam, after which they could go home. When they got up to 90 missions, the powers-that-be tried to make the remaining missions easier. The operations officer would schedule a pilot to fly less hazardous bombing missions—if there were such things—to reduce his chances of getting killed or taken prisoner. The last 10, therefore, were over relatively safe areas.
The aircraft I was most familiar with was the F-105, built by Republic Aircraft. Many of these fighter-bombers are probably scattered around in the soil somewhere in Southeast Asia. The Air Force conducted a study in the mid-1960s that showed that during a typical 100–mission tour an F-105 pilot could expect to get shot down twice and picked up once. The F-105 had been designed as a tactical nuclear fighter-bomber, which means it was designed to be armed with nuclear gravity bombs. But in Southeast Asia the F-105 carried all kinds of conventional armament, and the aircraft design was reconfigured to enable the pilots to accomplish the mission.
I remember the first time I saw an F-105 on the runway when I landed at Khorat Air Force Base. Other than a Boeing B-52, it was the biggest bomber aircraft I had ever seen. The F-105 was called the “Thud”—perhaps because of the distinctive noise it made when the air brakes were applied. Another theory is that Thud was short for “Thunderchief,” the aircraft’s official nickname. Recently a former F-105 pilot, now a retired four-star general, gave me his Thud definition in a letter: “the sound the F-105 made shortly after takeoff when it crashed to the ground!” It was a good machine, though, and the pilots loved it.
I had become familiar with the word “thud” because just northwest of Hanoi, on one of the bomb runs, there was a tree-covered narrow mountain that was easily seen on weather satellite photos and could be used to pinpoint the weather in the Hanoi–North Vietnam bombing area. Pilots called this area Thud Ridge. Colonel Jack Broughton, in his book of the same name, described Thud Ridge as the most hazardous region for flight operations, an area starting inland from the Gulf of Tonkin side of the buffer zone, running past the MiG air base at Kep, past Thai Nguyen and then back to Yen Bai. Thud Ridge was a long mountain ridge that pretty well split the delta, originating about halfway between Thai Nguyen and Yen Bai and stretching out like a finger pointed to the southeast and aimed at Hanoi. The ridge stood out clearly in a hostile land where high-speed, low-level fighter pilots needed a visual anchor. That corner of the war was reserved almost exclusively for the Thud driver. I am sure the North Vietnamese have their own name for it, but Thud Ridge it shall ever be in the annals of the fighter pilots.
According to some pilots with World War II and Korean War experience, Thud Ridge had the heaviest AAA defenses ever put together by man. Laced with SAMs, radar-controlled guns, fighter planes and random firing from ground troops, the area was indeed a nightmare for bomber pilots. Many times I heard confusion, yelling and noise over the intercom as one pilot spoke to another on that dreaded trip.
Of the six route packages (RPs) that American airmen had designated in North Vietnam, RP I was considered the safest, in contrast to RP VI—the Hanoi–Haiphong area—which in turn was subdivided into 6-A and 6-B and was one of the principal areas bombed in North Vietnam. When targets were assigned in Route Pack 6, you knew it was not going to be an easy day. As chief weather officer, I used to instruct young forecasters never to say that the weather was going to be great in North Vietnam, because if they did, the pilots would not sleep well. I figured the least we owed them was a decent night’s sleep.
One night when Karl was coming up close to the end of his first 100 missions, he and I had a couple of drinks in the Khorat officer’s club. “You know, Hank,” he said, “I love to fly, I love this place and this whole mission. It doesn’t scare me at all. I’m single, a lieutenant, an Air Force Academy grad.” He went on to say that if he volunteered for another 100 missions he could have his career made, maybe all the way up to making general.
To this I replied, “Karl, you’re crazy!” He said he wasn’t. Rather pleadingly, I asked, “Is it worth the risk?” He insisted that it was. I couldn’t believe my ears: Karl had decided to volunteer to fly another 100 missions, most of them right into the bowels of North Vietnam.
When my temporary duty in Khorat was over, I was reassigned back to weather central in Saigon as a weather satellite analyst. Like many people in Southeast Asia at the time, I followed Karl Richter’s adventures. Pretty soon he was up to 190 missions, and only 10 “easy” ones remained. Of course, one has to remember that Karl was used to flying the toughest missions in the world. Maybe “easier” was anathema to him. Maybe Karl should have been given only hard targets.
Karl completed his 200th mission over Laos and returned safely to Khorat in July 1967. We all cheered in the command post at the Seventh Air Force. After his 200th mission, Karl, incredibly, wanted to fly a North American F-100 tour and then another as a FAC. Why? “If I can add an in-country tour to my present experience,” he said, “I believe I can become the most qualified expert in the Air Force on this kind of air war.”
Lieutenant Richter meant what he said. He was determined—perhaps determined and aggressive enough to have reached his lofty goal. But nobody will ever know.
On July 28, 1967, Richter was checking out a newly assigned F-105 pilot in the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing. The 24-year-old combat veteran piloted his Thunderchief northward, past the DMZ into the relatively safe RP I sector. It was to have been a routine mission, and promised to be relatively easy. His wingman was a newcomer, and for him it was his checkout mission.
Richter and his wingman saw a bridge. Instructing the new man to stay above and watch, the veteran rolled his F-105 and dived. Suddenly, AAA opened up. The deadly rounds spat upward, hitting the Thunderchief on its way down. Instinctively, Richter pulled up. His fighter-bomber grabbed for the sky and gained altitude. They turned toward Khorat and home, but the crippled jet couldn’t make it. “May Day! May Day!” Richter called, and then he punched out.
I was working that morning in the base weather station in Saigon with my satellite pictures when a voice announced over the loudspeaker that Karl’s aircraft had been hit by groundfire over Laos and he had bailed out. Karl’s wingman had seen the chute. Air rescue was alerted and sent in Sikorsky HH-3E Jolly Green Giants to pick him up. Everyone was glued to the loudspeakers. The air rescue teams were excellent. These guys were the cream of the crop, dedicated to saving every downed pilot.
General McGoff, the Seventh Air Force operations officer, was very concerned. He followed the search mission minute-by-minute. We all stood by and waited for the report. There was silence. The chute had disappeared into a fog bank and cloud cover. The valley below was full of karst, porous limestone ridges. Hostile forces normally avoided that area because of the rough terrain. Richter should have been comparatively safe until the Jolly Green could get there. The rescue helicopter was nearby, and its crew picked up the lieutenant’s beeper signal immediately and homed in on the downed pilot.
No one will ever know exactly what happened, but something interfered with Richter’s descent. Either he swung into the side of a sandstone cliff, or his chute became snagged on a protruding tree. In any case, the parachute must have collapsed. When the helicopter crew found him, he appeared to be in critical condition with multiple broken bones. But soon afterward a voice shattered the airways: Karl had been picked up—but he was dead. His parachute had apparently landed in a tree in such a way that his neck had been broken.
Richter’s trip home to his family in the Midwest was in an aluminum casket, the reusable type used to carry corpses back to the States, with a stop in a hangar at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. The U.S. Air Force named a lounge after him at the Air Force Academy—Richter Lounge, they called it—although now the cadets call it by another name, “Arnie’s.” How soon they forget!
I think of Karl every once in a while, especially when I see a movie on cable about the Vietnam War. Karl was a great all-American kid, a superb pilot and a very brave soldier. In another era, Hollywood would have made a movie of his life.