Lake Oswego resident shares tales from secret Vietnam War operation
During missions to destroy supply trucks in enemy territory along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Lake Oswego resident and Air Force veteran Merrill McPeak flew so close to the ground his plane was once punctured by a handgun.
To him, these near-brushes with death weren't scary or risky. They were fun.
"I know what I'm doing in an airplane. I didn't consider it risky at all," he said. "It's the guys on the ground that are in trouble when flying around the area."
McPeak, who is now a retired four-star general, undertook these missions as part of a secret operation, called the MISTY Experiment, the Air Force deployed to hamper North Vietnamese supply routes during the Vietnam War. And he is featured in an upcoming documentary slated for PBS, called "The Misty Experiment: The Secret Battle for the Ho Chi Minh Trail."
According to Executive Producer Dean Echenberg in a press release, the film is "a testament to an amazing group of brave men who jumped at the chance to change the course of a devastating war."
The MISTY program was born out of a desire to curtail the transportation of supplies coming from Russia and China through Laos and Cambodia. The United States struggled to do so because its pilots were flying too slow and high, making them ineffective and easy targets. So they decided to form a secret, highly skilled squadron that would fly close to the ground in enemy territory.
McPeak entered the Vietnam War after flying as part of the Thunderbirds in air shows around the world — work that created close calls in its own right.
"Most of the time the two solo pilots do low-level aerobatics, coming head on at each other. There's collision danger. You want to create collision effects. You want to miss the other guy but not miss so far that it's obvious," he said.
Then, shortly after he got to Vietnam, he was put in charge of a MISTY squadron and asked to clean up the program, he said. What they didn't realize, McPeak said, was that he was just as much of a prankster as they were.
"I didn't ask for the job. I was called up and told to go do it," he said.
McPeak wound up being in charge of scheduling and scheduled himself for as many missions as he could, eventually logging 98 in four months. This was despite the fact that around 30% of the MISTY program participants were shot down amid work that was taxing from a mental standpoint (remembering target locations) and physically (from undertaking many sharp maneuvers to evade gunfire). The MISTY pilots also had to become experts at identifying enemy movement, like dust accumulation on trees or canopies that were actually man-made camouflage.
"We spent a lot of time at very low altitude looking for traffic that was parked. That meant we had a lot of exposure to ground fire in Laos," he said. "We lost a couple hundred Air Force airmen in Laos and none came back. It was sort of hazardous duty. You had to be semi-stupid to volunteer to do it."
McPeak said the North Vietnamese Army usually wouldn't shoot at them until they were targeting something important. The return of gunfire usually meant they had done their job. McPeak recalled the explosions that would erupt after he hit certain targets.
"I was getting ready to go home. I saw him coming and out of sheer luck I managed to get gun sight on him and fire a few rounds. I hit an ammo truck and it cooked off (exploded). There were fireworks going in all directions," he said.
Though in retrospect he felt that the Vietnam War was a bad idea, McPeak did not regret anything about his participation in the war and felt that the MISTYs were highly effective in disrupting the opposition. He enjoyed working with his fellow pilots who had a similar mentality as him, and even the missions he was a part of.
"I loved every minute of it. Nothing is better than combat when you want to have a good time, when someone is shooting at you," he said.
And, at least in terms of the Air Force, he felt the problems they faced in Vietnam were technical, not cultural. McPeak, who went on to become the Air Force chief of staff, helped address deficiencies after the war. And by the time Operation Desert Storm in Iraq rolled around, the Air Force was in much better shape, he said.
"We couldn't hit what we were aiming at, so we invented system-guided munitions. We could not handle the radar defense array, which was very heavy around Hanoi, so we invented stealth, which took away radar's ability to track us. We couldn't operate at night, so we invented night-vision devices," he said.
The documentary, which includes McPeak and others' first-person accounts of their experience in the program, will be broadcast on public television starting May 2, but the specific air times have yet to be determined.
"We knew this story needed to be told in a way that honors the vets who served and gives a human perspective of a conflict that's been subjected to animosity for five decades," producer Ian M. Adelson said in a press release.
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