1st MIBARS In Vietnam!

The Hand-held Camera Program


Conventional Cameras and Light Aircraft

Overcoming the Limitations of

Short Time Frames and Bad Weather

Photo Credit: MIV

Above:  Portrait of a Killing Zone.  A 1967 aerial view of a United States Army Special Forces Camp, abandoned some two year prior, in the A Shau Valley of the former Republic of South Vietnam, taken from a light aircraft flying at an altitude of approximately 3,000 feet.

Why This USAF FAC Stopped to Ask Questions

". . . just following orders is no excuse.  These were atrocities -- bombing villages from the air, just pulverizing houses, attacking people on the basis of little or no information.  And there was this absurd supposition that if someone ran away from your attack, they automatically belonged to the Viet Cong.  . . . The FACs were equipped with phosphorous rockets.  They were used as markers for the bombers, but phosphorous rockets are particularly horrifying weapons -- worse than napalm."

Jonathan Schell, journalist, quoted in Christian G. Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides, The Penguin Group, 2003.

In December 1966, a US Air Force Forward Air Controller (FAC), from the 20th Tactical Air Support Squadron (TASS) at DaNang Main Air Base, came to "B" Detachment to inquire about an activity that he had observed on the ground.  FACs  of the USAF, the US Army, and the US Marine Corps flew light observation aircraft over the battlefield, directing air and artillery strikes and rescue missions.  While patrolling outside of DaNang, this FAC had unexpectedly flown over a large concentration of individuals, clad in black, who began to flee at his approach.  He was unsure of whether the observed activity constituted a bona fide military target.  "B" Detachment had no information on enemy presence in the area, nor did it have in its library any existing imagery that might speak to the issue.  To complicate matters, the monsoon season was under way, meaning that consistent rain and low cloud cover prevented MIBARS from asking the USAF to fly a photographic reconnaissance mission.

Kick the Tires and Light the Fires!

Photo Credit: David Andrew Sciacchitano, U.S. Air Force, assigned to the 20th TASS in DaNang during 1966 and 1967.  His photographs may be found on the Military (dot) com Photo Center, Wikipedia (dot) org, and Wikimedia Commons.

Above:  A Forward Air Controller of the 20th Tactical Air Support Squadron, headquartered in DaNang, waits for a signal to begin taxi to the active runway for take-off by safety-conscious and ever-watchful members of his ground crew at the air field at Hue Citadel, north of DaNang in July 1967.  His white helmet visible through the windshield on the right side of the cockpit, this pilot is flying a Cessna O-2 -- or Oscar Deuce -- which began flying in I Corps as a replacement for the Cessna 0-1 Bird Dog.  The 0-2 utilized tricycle landing gear, two undercarriage wheels plus a nose wheel, while the 0-1 used conventional landing gear, two undercarriage wheels and a tail wheel.  The annotating circle below the aircraft's wing marks one of the two mounting pylons and launch tubes that carried a total of 14 white phosphorous marker rockets -- ten more than the predecessor 0-1, one of which is visible in the background of this photograph to the left.  While the "kick the tires and light the fires" saying was probably associated primarily with jet pilots, it could well apply to anyone who took to the skies in wartime Vietnam.     

"B" Detachment's commanding officer decided to send a man back to the questioned area the following morning with the FAC.  If the same ground activity was observed, his plan was to obtain fresh, low-level photographs of the movement using two hand-held held cameras that were in the detachment's property inventory -- a Pentax 35-mm single lens reflex (SLR) and a larger 70-mm aerial camera.  The photographs would then be "read-out" -- i.e., evaluated -- by Imagery Interpretation Section specialists in an attempt to determine the validity of the possible target.  The services of two volunteers were secured for the following day.  The mission was scheduled for early morning, but given the uncertainty of the season, a back-up flight was also planned for the afternoon.  The morning flight was aborted due to bad weather, but the afternoon flight was able to reach the target area where the scattering of people on the ground was observed taking place once again.  Pictures were taken -- thus beginning what came to be known as "B" Detachment's Hand-held Camera Program.  From then on, at its own initiative or when requested to do so by other intelligence organizations, "B" Detachment volunteer personnel flew photo missions to obtain timely and close-up imagery of small targets or special areas of interest.

"B" Detachment's commander became battalion commander a short time later, and similar hand-held photography programs were ultimately established in other 1st MIBARS field detachments.

Expansion of the 1st MIBARS Intel Collection Effort

"Our basic mission was to interpret Air Force imagery and convey our findings in a timely fashion to the appropriate Corps Tactical Zone.  Since the vast majority of our target areas were under heavy foliage the results of our efforts were not of great value.  We felt it was imperative that a way be found to improve our photo coverage.  This need led to the development of "hand-held" missions.  My staff [NOTE: LTC Matta moved to Saigon as battalion commander early in 1967 - Site Administrator] christened our effort as the "LATTA" program for Low Altitude Tactical [Target] Acquisition.  One wise guy suggested that we deem it Medium Altitude [Tactical Target Acquisition, or "MATTA"] but was voted down.

[Forty years have elapsed, and I do not recall specifically] how we came to have the necessary camera equipment and the helicopter [Click Here For "D" Detachment and the Baby Huey] that would provide the stable platform needed to get the imagery we had to have. Fortunately, we did have a qualified chopper pilot in our unit which helped.  I suspect that General McChristian had a lot to do with our success in getting what was necessary.  He was a first class supporter of any effort to improve the intel [military intelligence] product."

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

Click on a link below for specific information on the Hand-held Camera Program

First Mission

First Results

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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