U.S. general on Vietnam War: ‘This was some enemy’

Gen. Merrill McPeak U.S. Air Force (retired)

Nearly all the missions I flew out of Tuy Hoa Air Base in South Vietnam were against in-country targets, and here I assign to the word “target” its most relaxed definition.

Former U.S. Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Merrill McPeak speaks with documentary filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

Mainly, we attacked “infrastructure,” hoping, I suppose, to make it difficult for Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army troops to live off the land. Often this came down to blowing up thatched huts — what we called “hooches” — in government-declared free-fire zones.

The Saigon regime had supposedly rounded up and relocated all the friendlies from these zones, so we were cleared to attack anything that moved or could possibly support the insurgency. Under the direction of a forward air controller (FAC), we bombed tree lines at the edge of built-up areas, spots where an active imagination might picture troops gathering; or jungle trails, fancying this would impede enemy movement; or thickly wooded areas close to trails, pinning our hopes on their potential to hide equipment and supplies.

At the end of each sortie, the FAC graded our work. Here might be a summary involving hooches, haystacks and a small sluice gate: “Seven military structures destroyed, two supply caches uncovered, one water support system damaged.” Every day, an impressive scorecard flowed from each of the in-country fighter wings into headquarters, creating the statistical certainty of victory. Pilots knew better.

Our nickname for these missions was “trees in contact,” a corruption of “troops in contact,” one of the few mission categories that was not pointless.

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One day, returning from a target in I Corps, the military-designated region closest to the North Vietnamese border, I followed the usual practice of checking in with the FAC who controlled a free-fire zone. My flight had expended its bombs on a “suspected storage area,” but we still had a full load of 20-mm explosive rounds that detonated on contact.

The FAC directed us to a bend in the river. At a point where the river exited heavy jungle, there was a clearing and a small herd of water buffalo. They were easy to see; he didn’t have to mark them.

Strafe. From the German strafen, “to punish.”

We began, and immediately the animals panicked, scattering in all directions. Still, as we fired nearly 5,000 rounds a minute from each of our aircraft, they were impossible to miss. What happens to a water buffalo hit by an explosive 20-mm round is not pleasant. At the end, the FAC gave us our score: “Ten enemy transport systems destroyed.”

I believe there is no dishonor in killing enemy in combat. But this was some enemy, some combat.

Merrill McPeak flew 269 missions in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970. He eventually became Air Force chief of staff and retired in 1994 after 37 years in the military. He lives in Oregon.