But the Navy assured the men it would be good for their
So some men volunteered and a lot more were drafted to join
Observation Squadron 67, so named because that was the year it was born.
After a while the men took to calling themselves "the
Ghost Squadron" because they felt forgotten, participants in a secret war
that neither the U.S. nor the North Vietnamese wanted to acknowledge was being
waged next door to Vietnam.
Silenced for decades by their classified missions over Laos,
the men finally in recent years began to speak publicly of their war, a
decision that would ultimately lead to a rare historic correction by the Navy.
Forty years after the squadron's actions, VO-67 has been
awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest decoration for combat valor
a unit can receive. Some of the surviving 300 members of that squadron will be
on hand Wednesday in Washington, D.C., for the ceremony in front of the U.S.
"It's special after all these years," said John
Forsgren, a young sailor who served in the squadron and lives in Arlington.
"But it's also bittersweet. How do you get proud of something that you did
40 years ago? There's a bit of a feeling of 'Why didn't they recognize the unit
30 years ago?'"
The Presidential Unit Citation is reserved only for the most
valorous combat units, and it's worth noting that far fewer of them were
awarded for the Vietnam War than Medals of Honor. A unit receiving the citation
is the equivalent of every man receiving a Navy Cross.
Ensign Laura Stegherr said Navy Secretary Donald Winter
received "relevant, new and verified" information about the
squadron's actions in Laos that warranted the decoration.
VO-67 wasn't really an observation squadron, though they
pretended they were. Their unit patch reflected the ruse, showing an airplane
sending signals to the ground. In reality, it was the opposite -- the squadron
was listening to what was happening on the ground, not interfering.
"It was so secret that not many top people in the Navy
knew the squadron existed or what we did," said Ed Landwehr of Fort Worth,
a navigator and bombadier on Crew 4.
The idea came from Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who
was unhappy with the results of the bombing campaign in North Vietnam and
wanted some other way to interdict supplies into South Vietnam. His answer was
"Igloo White," the code name for his plan to create an
"electronic barrier" at the Demilitarized Zone.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail was largely under triple canopy
jungle, hard to detect and busiest at night. Using dropped microphones and
seismographic sensors would be a way for the military to gain intelligence on
what was moving down the trail, when and how much. Then they could call in
"We didn't find out what we would be doing until right
before we deployed," said Herb Ganner of Hurst, a navigator and bombadier
on Crew 1.
What the pilots and crews had to do sounds simple enough --
take off from an airfield in Thailand, fly a short distance into Laos and drop
the camouflaged sensors along the trail.
The men flew only in the day, usually every other day, and
could expect to be airborne no longer than a couple of hours.
But the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the lifeblood of the war for the
North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, was a very hostile place for air crews,
particularly slow-moving, virtually defenseless ones flying at only 500 to
"The missions were short-lived, but they were
adrenaline-pumped," Ganner said.
The Navy prepared for a loss rate of upward of 60 percent to
70 percent, which the men found out about while they were in Thailand.
"They tried to reassure us that the loss rate was not
necessarily those killed," Ganner said, "but that it meant the
airplanes would be so damaged that they would be out of commission."
It never got that bad. But within a span of six weeks in
1968, it felt like it was. Twenty men from three crews died in January and
February 1968, the time of the huge Tet Offensive.
After all these years, the survivors of VO-67 still wince at
the memories of Jan. 11, when the first crew did not come home.
Tony Bissell of Bedford was a petty officer on another plane
that day, and he can still remember the awful silence on the radio as Crew 2
did not answer any communication. Later that night, the officers' club was
packed wall to wall with men getting stupid drunk. Nine men dead in a second.
"We didn't have to buy a single drink that night,"
Bissell said. "The Air Force guys were very sympathetic."
Interservice rivalry seemed to take a back seat to the men's
shared missions and misery. To this day, the men of VO-67 credit the Air Force
forward air controllers in Thailand for saving their hides many times because
of their knowledge of the trail.
Each crew had its own identity, and rarely did they ever
share with each other their specific missions. The less the men knew, the
"We knew how susceptible we were to getting shot
down," Ganner said. "I used to carry a Geneva Convention card and my
ID tags. I never took my wedding ring, my wallet, anything personal."
At least once the "Ghost Squadron" came out of
hiding to participate in the acknowledged war.
In January 1968, the Marines at Khe Sanh were under siege by
thousands of North Vietnamese. VO-67 was ordered on low-flying missions to drop
sensors around the Marine base, so more accurate fire could be leveled.
Their citation says they "contributed to saving
As for their careers in the Navy, the men said VO-67 failed
to help them at all. In fact, most of them believed it hurt their promotion
chances because no one in the Navy had heard of it.
Still, the belated recognition matters to many of them, for
both reasons large and small.
"I've talked about it recently with my wife of 19
years, and she will say, 'I don't believe you,'" Forsgren said, laughing.
"This is vindication."
ABOUT THE GHOST SQUADRON
The men flew the Lockheed P-2 Neptune, a 1950s-era
anti-submarine patrol airplane. The squadron's planes were heavily modified for
the mission, including the addition of M-60 machine guns, an armored belly and
a jungle-green paint scheme.
The squadron was based at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force
Base, just across the Mekong River from Laos. Their primary mission was over
the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, but they also performed missions in South
Twenty men of VO-67 died in Southeast Asia in three
incidents. One is still missing in action, Cmdr. Paul Milius, who earned a Navy
Cross for allowing seven crewmen to bail out of their badly damaged aircraft
before going down. The Navy named a destroyer for him in the 1990s.
The squadron flew combat missions for nine months and
sustained a 25 percent loss rate. It was disestablished in July 1968, and the
Air Force took over the mission until 1972.
Among the North Texas men who served in the unit: Tony
Bissell of Bedford, John Forsgren of Arlington, Herb Ganner of Hurst, Ed Landwehr
of Fort Worth, Fredrick Rerko of Dallas and Lowell Shaw of Plano