Vietnam 'Ghost' vets honored after years of secrecy
Date: May 14, 2008 2:31 PM
TY Vietnam Coasties ~
By DAVID McLEMORE / The Dallas Morning News
Inside a suburban home with a neatly trimmed yard, five members of the Ghost Squadron share secrets about a long-ago war.
For more than 30 years, members of the clandestine Naval air squadron VO-67 could not talk about their role in the Vietnam War.
Now, as they prepare to go to Washington on Wednesday to receive the presidential unit citation – the highest award for heroism given to a military unit – they find the recognition bittersweet.
"We were part of something special, and it is a time of joy that we're getting recognized at last," said Tony Bissell, 62, of Bedford.
"It is nice," agreed John Forsgren, 62, of Arlington. "But it doesn't mean as much as it would have 40 years ago. Vietnam is now ancient history.
For these gray-haired men, it's fresh as yesterday.
In late 1967, the members of naval anti-submarine patrol units began receiving orders to report for a special operation.
The 300 officers and enlisted men were formed into squadron VO-67, equipped with specially modified P-2V5 Neptune patrol planes and sent to Thailand under top-secret orders. It was not lost on anyone involved that there were no submarines there.
In Thailand, they were told they could not tell anyone what they did, not even family. The unit was soon known as the "Ghost Squadron," since it didn't exist.
"We had no idea what we were getting into," said Herb Ganner, 65, of Hurst, who served as a bombardier and backup pilot. "We soon found we were part of a new type of warfare.
The squadron's mission was to fly over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a complex network of trails, roads and truck routes that fed supplies through Laos to North Vietnamese units in South Vietnam.
They flew at treetop level, low and slow, and dropped a variety of electronic sensors and listening devices along the trail. Specially equipped planes flying at higher altitudes picked up signals of North Vietnamese supply and troop movements and relayed them for bombing missions.
"The equipment is crude by today's standards but it was state of the art in 1968," Mr. Ganner said. "The Vietnamese found some of the microphone transmitters we dropped into the trees, and we could hear them talking all the way to Hanoi.
It was extremely dangerous work. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was thick with surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft guns. The Neptunes flew so low, North Vietnamese soldiers frequently peppered the planes with rifle and machine gun fire.
"You never knew what would happen," Ed Landwehr, of Fort Worth, said. "You'd attend a briefing with a guy and he'd walk off to his plane and you'd never see him again. And those who made it home had lots of holes in their planes.
The danger sets in
During its brief existence, VO-67 lost 20 people and three airplanes. The survivors all have tales of near-collisions. They like to tell about a time Lowell Shaw's plane drew heavy anti-aircraft fire. By intercom, the pilot asked how everyone was. Mr. Shaw replied he could now wave his hands out both sides of the plane.
Mr. Shaw, who suffered a severe stroke two years ago, cannot speak and uses a wheelchair. He nods vigorously, and then bursts into laughter when asked if the story is true.
No one thought much about the danger, if only because they were so focused on doing the job asked of them.
"On your first mission, you were concerned but too excited to be scared," Mr. Ganner said. "By the time the operation ended, we knew exactly how to do what we had to do. It was routine.
Something else was at work, Mr. Landwehr said.
"When you're in your 20s, you think you're bulletproof," he said. "It's only later, when you're older, that you realize how bad it was.
During the 1968 Tet offensive, when about 20,000 North Vietnamese forces, reinforced with tanks, encircled the Marine base at Khe Sanh, the Ghost Squadron took on a close air support mission for the beleaguered Marines.
Using the techniques honed on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the Ghost Squadron flew lumbering patrol planes into intense enemy fire, dropping acoustic sensors around Khe Sanh. Marine artillery and aircraft used the information to identify enemy troop concentrations and to set firing missions.
Marine commanders said the roughly 1,000 Marine and allied casualties during the 77-day siege would have doubled without the intelligence provided by VO-67.
For the remaining veterans of the Ghost Squad, congratulations from a Marine at Khe Sanh on their presidential citation meant a lot.
"The approval of this high unit award was well- and hard-earned at the usual butcher's price," wrote Ken Pipes. "Congratulations to each individual. ... They are our Combat Brothers!"
'A strange time'
On July 1, 1968, the Navy ended VO-67. Squadron members were ordered to return to the states for further assignments – and told to keep silent about their actions over the past 500 days.
They scattered across the globe, finding the Navy had moved on without them.
"We were behind in our training. The time in Thailand affected our seniority. We'd spent 18 months out of the mainstream of Navy life. And we had been part of something unique and useful.
It was a strange time," Mr. Ganner said.
Mr. Landwehr and Mr. Shaw made a career of the Navy. The others left after four-year enlistments, settling into civilian careers. Eventually, about a half-dozen settled in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Then, 30 years after the squadron's last mission along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the Navy declassified the history of VO-67. And surviving members began tracking each other down.
In 1999, they formed the VO-67 Association and held their first reunion. There are now about 160 survivors.
About 80 members of the Ghost Squadron will attend the ceremonies in Washington.
The trip will be valuable for one thing, Mr. Landwehr said. It will let the world know what they did.
"Each year, there's fewer of us left," he said. "It's important the country know our story while we're still around.