1st MIBARS In Vietnam!

Hand-Held Camera Program

First Results

 December 1966, West of DaNang, RVN


Photo Reconnaissance Flight Over 

An Unidentified Hamlet

To Investigate Suspicious Activity


Photo: aerial view of a palm grove amid cultivated fields in which the Viet Cong had established an indoctrination center west of DaNang

Photo Credit: MIV

Above:  What's going on here?  A palm grove, surrounded by cultivated farm lands, is the scene of suspect activity.  See detail photos below.

"B" Detachment's first Hand-held Camera Program mission took place during the afternoon of 15 December 1966 or thereabouts.  A planned morning flight to the area had been cancelled due to heavy rain and low cloud ceilings.  The weather cleared by afternoon, however, and the back-up mission was flown.  As the USAF 0-1 Bird Dog approached the hamlet of interest to the Forward Air Controller (FAC), people on the ground began to scatter, many along the dirt path crossing the center of the hamlet through a grove of palm trees.  Since the appearance of the FAC aircraft was generally associated with a possible air strike, running from an area being over flown by an 0-1 was typical behavior for persons on the ground, particularly those who had reason to fear that bombing might be imminent.

The "B" Detachment photographer-observer took these photos using the unit's 70-mm aerial 35-mm cameras.  Reproduction Section personnel were so determined to get in on the action with the FACs that -- instead of seeking out an established Air Force, Naval Support Command or US Marine Corps photo lab for processing -- Repro Section staff developed the film in a trash can using chemistry from the ES-38A.  Only about half of the film exposed on the flight survived this inventive method of processing, but the pictures below were enough to demonstrate that the questionable activity pictured justified a closer look by Marine ground forces.

A Successful Experiment In the War Zone

"We did accomplish our goal of becoming more than simply a delivery service of intelligence data that was of questionable value to our combat units.  The environment in Viet Nam limited our effectiveness though the LATTA [Low Altitude Tactical Target Acquisition] program [NOTE: created as the Hand-held Camera Program in "B" Detachment - Site Administrator] certainly improved our capability."

LTC Tony Matta, "B" Detachment and HQ, Commanding Officer, 1966-1968

"B" Detachment's photographer-observers began to learn important lessons from this first flight.  FACs were sensitive to the threat posed by concentrated ground fire.  While maintaining an altitude of 1,500 feet was enough to render single pot shots from small arms essentially harmless, much more lethal fire power could be produced when several individuals on the ground aimed at a single point -- the aircraft's engine, for example -- and fired their weapons in unison.  Consequently, upon completion of his pass on this hamlet, the pilot took abrupt evasive action that clearly demonstrated the need for strict use of the aircraft's safety equipment and the absolute necessity of keeping in close communication with the pilot.

This incident demonstrated the capability that was inherent in the spirit of cooperation that existed between the military services operating in DaNang in 1967 -- a questionable situation was discovered by a FAC of the US Air Force, investigated and identified by Intelligence and Signal Corps personnel of the US Army, and resolved by tactical ground forces of the US Marine Corps.  

A Picture Is Often Worth A Thousand Words

Photo: aerial view of Vietnamese on the ground, fearful of an air strike being directed by the Forward Air Controller in the 0-1 Bird Dog aircraft are running at full speed to leave the area

Photo Credit: MIV

Photo: detail photograph of Vietnamese and man-made openings in the ground visible between the trees of the palm grove

Photo Credit: MIV

The photographs above are detail images of the palm grove in the center of the hamlet.  Left:  Persons are shown running upward to the left along a dirt path in order to leave the hamlet.  These individuals are wearing the tan Vietnamese non la, the conical palm frond hat, and the ao ba ba, the black pajama-like dress characteristic of both the peasantry and some insurgent combatants during the Vietnam War.  Enlargements of this frame showed that the figures on the ground, some transporting materials on carrying sticks, were running at full-stride, perhaps reflecting fear created by their discovery and the possibility of imminent bombardment.  Right:  Hat-wearing, black-clad individuals are seen dispersed beneath the palm trees to the right side of the photograph.  The circled areas show reinforced, man-made entryways often associated with underground structures such as bunkers or tunnel complexes.  Earthwork of this nature was not normally characteristic of hamlets and villages but was seen where defensive positions were established or where facilities or supply caches were concealed.  During the overflight, these structures were not apparent to either the FAC or the MIBARS observer but they were clear and obvious when this imagery was processed and examined later.  For tactical commanders, operational planners, and military intelligence specialists, defensive human behavior and terrain features such as those pictured at the site above, were red flags for possible military activity and called for documentation and  immediate investigation. 

"First Flight: A Recollection"

When the FAC came to "B" Detachment, I had been in-country for only about two weeks, an obvious newbie -- pink-cheeked, pudgy, and wearing stateside fatigues with bright metal insignia.  After a check of the imagery coverage maps and indexes in the Tactical Imagery Interpretation Facility (TIIF) produced no existing information on the area in question, the Commanding Officer, also newly-posted to DaNang, suggested that the FAC return to the area the next day so that an accompanying member of the detachment could take photographs using a conventional camera. Without hesitation, and much to my relief, one of the Imagery Interpretation Section warrant officers requested the assignment. The CO approved this request but then noted that – since the monsoon season was well under way and the weather unpredictable – a back-up mission also should be scheduled. At that point he turned to me and stated, in front of the small group then assembled, that he was sure that I would like to go. What could I say? I never forgave him for that.

Anticipating the possibility of some involvement in flight operations should I be assigned ultimately to a unit in Vietnam, I had taken flying lessons a year before with the post aero club at Ft. Gordon, Georgia, having soloed a Piper PA-18 Super Cub but not having attained the flight hours required for a private pilot license. So, I was to find myself somewhat at ease in the back seat of a small military aircraft, particularly one having a demountable control stick and throttle quadrant installed by the passenger seat.  By mid-morning of the following day, I was advised that the first scheduled mission had been rained out and that my afternoon flight would be attempted. So, I drove to DaNang Main Airbase with the detachment’s two cameras – a 35-mm Pentax single lens reflex and a 70-mm camera, somewhat larger than a conventional twin-lens reflex and of un-recalled manufacture.

The take-off of my maiden flight from DaNang Main Air Base in an Air Force Cessna O-1 Bird Dog spotter aircraft, piloted by the USAF lieutenant colonel, was uneventful. After a few minutes, the pilot advised that we were approaching the area of interest, and I readied my cameras. Soon a hamlet appeared below us to the left, and people on the ground began scattering in all directions. I raised my cameras but, due to the height of the window transom above my sagging canvas sling seat, I was unable to position the cameras to photograph straight down. The pilot did a "figure eight," and on the return leg, I released the safety harness, knelt on the seat with one leg, rested by forearms on the transom and began taking pictures.

I had unbuckled without telling the FAC.  We made the photo run OK, but on pull-out from the low pass, the FAC took immediate evasive action – a very abrupt climbing right turn, the centrifugal force of which propelled my mid-section through the window. I was just able to grasp the window frame with the tips of my fingers, but hanging from the aircraft from my belt line up, and with two camera slung on straps around my neck and swinging outside of the aircraft, it was difficult to keep from falling out or losing the cameras.  I was, however, able to hold my position until the FAC returned to level flight -- after about a half a dozen additional rotations and climbing about 2,000 feet.  Eventually, the return to level flight allowed me to pull myself back into the aircraft. Of course, I should have told the pilot what I was going to do, but then he should have told me that he was shy about ground fire. For years afterwards, and always in the much-described cold sweat, I had flashes in which I saw myself falling into the jungle – only two weeks in country and still wearing stateside fatigues.  The FAC never looked rearward during the flight, and I never mentioned this episode to him.  I've often wondered how he would have explained an empty rear seat upon his return to DaNang Main.

While inbound to DaNang, and still substantially west of the city, the FAC came on the intercom to advise that the "chip detector" light for the 0-1's engine had lighted.  He advised that the chip detector was a magnetic plug in the engine sump that sensed the presence of metal fragments in the engine oil, an indication of impending mechanical failure.  The FAC further advised that if the engine failed, he intended to ride the aircraft to the ground but would pull his seat forward to allow me -- should I decide to do so -- to bail out.  The pilot also noted that chip detector malfunction was common.  In the end, I remained aboard, the aircraft returned safely to DaNang, and "B" Detachment had the beginning of a new intelligence-gathering capability to offer in I Corps. 

Right:  In a portrait taken strictly for consumption by the home folks, this "B" Detachment observer is shown ready to jeep over to DaNang Main dressed for a photo-reconnaissance mission.  He is equipped with Bausch and Lomb Aviator sun glasses, an M-14A1 rifle and extra magazines in pouches, flight helmet, and 70-millimeter aerial camera.


Photo: Aerial photographer equipped with M-14 rifle and ammunition pouches, 70-millimeter aerial camera and flight helmet
Photo Credit: MIV

Hand-held Camera ORIGINS

First Mission

Flying With the FACS

Instructions From The Pilot

On Patrol With the 21st RAC

Wings Over DaNang

The A Shau Valley

Recollections From the Back Seat

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