1973 – Top floor of the BOQ at Cubi Point, Philippines.

Fifty years ago, a ceasefire was implemented in Vietnam this past week. https://history.army.mil/html/reference/army_flag/vn.html This link gives a history of the Vietnam war.

I entered the U. S. Navy in the summer of 1968. I said, “I do.” to the Navy on a Sunday afternoon at NAS Dallas, Texas. The following Wednesday night, I said, “I do.” to my wife. I went to Dallas with my best friend to take the Naval Aviation Aptitude Test.

We both passed that test. I passed the aviation physical test, and he failed it – several times – hypertension. He was also my ‘best man’ at our wedding. I went to Pensacola in June of the following year (Class 2469) and became an Ensign in early October 1969. My best friend got a 4F medical deferment and was exempt from service. In May of 1970, I earned my Naval Flight Officer wings. My first duty assignment was VP-6, NAS Barbers Point, Hawaii.

We arrived in Hawaii in early January 1971. My squadron was returning from a six-month deployment in the Philippines. My first flight in my squadron was as a navigator taking people home for the holidays – post-deployment. I navigated from Hawaii to the mainland, and then the pilots took over the nav duties flying airways using TACAN. My first flight was from NAS Barbers Point to Harrisburg, PA.

P3 Aircraft

https://www.lockheedmartin.com/en-us/products/p-3.html The P3 aircraft’s primary mission is antisubmarine warfare. It can fly for many hours – most of my operational missions were at least 12 hours. The typical mission had three pilots, two flight engineers, one radio operator, one radar operator, one navigator, one tactical coordinator, two acoustic operators, and one ordnanceman. On some flights, an in-flight technician was also part of the crew.

Our squadron left Hawaii in late November 1972 for another six-month deployment in Westpac (western pacific). The mission was to fly the ‘yellow brick road’ (South China Sea), looking for infiltrator trawlers leaving North Vietnam and resupplying troops via the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam. Every vessel over 1,000 gross tons was subject to scrutiny.

South China Sea

https://www.google.com/maps/place/South+China+Sea/@11.1678673,112.0437852,5z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m5!3m4!1s0x317e79d4f0390dcf:0xd347a86ae63c44c9!8m2!3d15.488092!4d114.404754 To remain on station for a long time, two of the four turboprop engines would be shut down as it became economically feasible to maximize distance and safety.

Unless we came across a Soviet warship, we flew on two engines and stayed at 200 feet all day. Our objective was to locate and identify, in detail, all vessels transiting the South China Sea. Radar was critical for this mission. Contacts would be called out, and a plan to catch each of them was quickly devised.

Inbound to the contact (merchant ship in most cases), stabilized binoculars would be used to identify the ship’s name – usually on the stern or the bridge. We would fly down the vessel’s path and take pictures while one person called out the upright structure (masts, kingposts, cranes, etc.), and another would identify the course and speed. The location and time were annotated in the logs. The funnel markings and any deck cargo were also noted.

The name and structure sequence of the vessel were researched in publications we carried onboard. If the ship looked authentic, we could reduce the amount of data recorded in the navigation logs. If not, then as much information as possible was documented. Soviet Bloc vessels earned an extra flight over the top of the ship to take pictures. Photos were taken of both sides and the stern of every ship.

Our squadron had twelve aircraft and a dozen flight crews. During this deployment, three aircraft and four flight crews were rotated from Cubi Point, Philippines, to Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, and Utapao, Thailand. Each detachment flew for ten days and then rotated to the next base. In one month, we flew out of each location.


https://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/ho/time/dr/17411.htm#:~:text=Nixon’s%20plan%20worked%20and%20in,America%20honored%20the%20cease%2Dfire. The ceasefire started at 8 a.m. (Saigon time) on the 27th of January 1973. My crew flew a 10.5-hour mission that day in P3A (152162) and a 9.3-hour mission in P3A (152152) the next day. That month we flew over 100 hours. I remember distinctly flying and knowing that the ceasefire had gone into effect. We did not expect anything different, but it never hurts to be vigilant.

Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam

https://www.mrfa.org/us-navy/us-navy-mobile-riverine-force/u-s-naval-bases-support-activities-vietnam/cam-rahn-bay-u-s-naval-base-1965-1971/ Flying out of Cam Ranh Bay meant you were on-station rigging vessels within minutes of taking off. We would arrive at our first contact with just enough daylight to read the ship’s name. After that, we would fly until there was not enough daylight to continue the mission. We planned the end of the flight to be near Cam Ranh Bay for fuel reasons.

If we found an infiltrator trawler transiting south, we made one pass, took a photo with a telescopic polaroid, and departed the area with just that one pass. It was to give the trawler the indication that we were not interested in collecting any further data. We would standoff about 12-15 miles and keep the contact under radar surveillance.

A message was sent back to the squadron and the ‘ready alert’ aircraft would be launched immediately (usually within 30-60 minutes). If we caught the trawler early in the day, we would remain with him until the alert launch got to our location, and we turned it over to the alert bird. We then continued our mission. If this occurred later in the day, we truncated our mission and returned home after ensuring that the alert aircraft had control of the target.

What happened to the trawler? First, it would be tracked by us (Navy P3s) and sometimes a submarine. Then, if it turned into South Vietnam, aircraft would be launched to destroy the trawler.

Utapao, Thailand

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Air_Force_in_Thailand Missions flown out of Utapao, Thailand, were usually relegated to the Indian Ocean. We would get an advanced look at the merchant traffic headed for the South China Sea. Our ‘locate’ and ‘rig’ mission was applied to every radar contact. Some days we were delayed taking off from Utapao because a few dozen B-52 bombers were taking off in front of us.

At Cubi Point, Philippines, we could go off base into Olongapo for R&R. There were no off-base trips allowed at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam. However, our free time at Utapao was some of the best of my life. If we did not have to fly the following day, most of us would jump on a baht bus, head to Pattaya Beach, and spend $6 a night to stay at the JUSMAG (Joint US Military Assistance Group) lodging – on the beach.

We returned to NAS Barbers Point, Hawaii, in May of 1973, having spent six months monitoring the ship traffic transiting the South China Sea.


It is interesting how routine things that happened years ago can seem like they were yesterday. It is hard to believe I was flying missions there fifty years ago. P3 aircraft have seen more than 50 years of service and have had many changes. It is no longer in service. NAS Barbers Point is no longer a military base.

I put 31+ years in the military – my first 4+ on active duty, the next 20 or so in the Reserves, and my final 6+ mostly on active duty. My wife and I will celebrate 55 years of marriage later this year. There is an old saying, Join the Navy, and See the World. I only got to 61 countries in the world, compliments of the Navy.

Live Long & Enjoy Life! – Red O’Laughlin – RedOLaughlin.com


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