Itching to serve: A Grim Reaper in Vietnam

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. William G. Eldridge
  • 13th Bomb Squadron commander
No matter how bad a war gets, some Americans will always serve. 

In previous Warrior articles, you read about 13th Bomb Squadron "Grim Reapers" serving in WWII and Korea. Both those wars had political and popular support from home. Sometimes, that support fades, as happened during the Vietnam War. However, despite the debates at home, it seems you will always find an American Airmen itching to get into the fight. 

That was the case with Capt. Bob Butterfield (now a retired Colonel) who twice volunteered to fly and fight in Vietnam. 

On August 2, 1964, a U.S. intelligence ship fired on and damaged several torpedo boats stalking it in the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam. After the U.S. Navy reported a second attack a few days later, the U.S. began retaliation air attacks. The air war became increasingly intense over the next few months. By March 1965, more and more USAF squadrons began arriving in country. 

In late August 1964, the 13th Bomb Squadron arrived in Vietnam from Clark Air Base in the Philippines and set up operations at Bien Hoa Air Base near Saigon. The squadron flew the B-57 Canberra bomber. The original Canberra design was British, but the U.S. manufactured its own version of the twin-engine light bomber. It was built for low level missions and carried four 20 mm guns, or eight 50 cal guns, and up to 4,500 lbs of bombs in a rotary bomb bay. It could carry additional weapons on the wing, and it could loiter in a target area for up to four hours. 

In 1964, as the Vietnam War was just starting, Captain Butterfield was at a desk job. He said, "I was trying to get back into a flying squadron from a dull wing staff job at Naha Air Base, Okinawa. A personnel requirement came in which called for an aide to the vice commander at PACAF. I figured that if I could get the job, then I would have a good chance of getting back into a squadron on my next assignment." He got the job. 

Having previously flown the B-57 and the F-86F, Capt Butterfield liked the air-to-ground mission. When the PACAF vice commander was reassigned, Captain Butterfield asked for and got a B-57 assignment to the 13th Bomb Squadron. While in Vietnam, his family stayed on base at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. 

The missions in Vietnam were challenging. Crews were often retasked to new targets after takeoff. One of the most important missions was supporting troops on the ground--close air support. 

Captain Butterfield writes about a mission he flew in January 1966 near the town of Bongson during a major battle between a large Viet Cong force and two U.S. battalions. 

"My navigator, Capt. Hugh Davidson, and I had taken off on a scheduled mission to attack a target in the northern part of South Vietnam, when we received an urgent call for close air support at Bongson about 100 miles south of Danang. Upon arrival, the airborne Forward Air Controller, flying a 0-1 Cessna, told us the village was heavily fortified with a series of bunkers and trenches and several storage buildings. 

"The weather was marginal, with low scattered clouds and a broken-to-overcast ceiling at 3500 feet, and the friendly troops were only 200 meters from the perimeter," he continued. "Hugh and I decided to make shallow dives on the first two passes to drop our four 1,000-pound bombs on the trenches and bunkers. On the next two passes, we hit the storage areas with six 250-pound bombs and then re-attacked the trenches with seven 260-pound fragmentation bombs. During those four passes we received weapons fire and saw black puffs from what we thought were 37-mm rounds. 

"The FAC then asked for strafing along the north and east bunkers, since the enemy was still exchanging fire with our troops after our last dive bomb pass," he wrote. "We made five strafing passes in those areas, which seemed to suppress the remaining enemy activity. 

"After the last strafing pass, with the four 20-mm guns, the FAC cleared us off the target and reported we had destroyed 15 structures, collapsed and damaged numerous bunkers and trenches, and killed a large number of enemy soldiers," Captain Butterfield wrote. "Later we learned that the U.S. forces were able to recapture the village within two hours, and the mission that we had participated in was called Operation Masher." 

During his tour in Vietnam with the 13th Bomb Squadron, Capt Butterfield flew 95 missions. After three years in the Pacific theater, he was given another assignment. However, six years later, he was able to work an assignment to an F-4 squadron stationed in Danang. During his second tour in Vietnam flying F-4s, he remembered, "I sometimes rolled in on the same targets that I had hit in the B-57 six years before!" 

Today, Col. (ret) Butterfield is an active member of the 13th Bomb Squadron Association. His enthusiasm for service and his warrior spirit are contagious. Despite continual debates about today's conflicts, I bet that American Airmen still itch to serve with the same enthusiasm Capt Butterfield had 40 years ago in Vietnam.