1st MIBARS In Vietnam!

Evaluating Aerial Reconnaissance Imagery I

The Bread and Butter Work

 of 1st MIBARS --

The "Flying Eye" Battalion

Photo: vertical aerial photograph of a hamlet showing buildings, cultivated fields and grave sites

Photo Credit: MIV

Above right.  A vertical photograph, taken from the back seat of an O-1 Bird Dog using a 35-mm hand-held camera, of a Vietnamese village or hamlet, in 1967.  The circular features clustered to the upper right in this photograph were found throughout South Vietnam.  When found singly, they were sometimes misidentified as anti-aircraft machine gun emplacements by neophyte analysts of aerial photography who were unfamiliar with the culture of the country.  They were actually Buddhist gravesites, circular, it was said, because the deceased were interred in an upright  position.  

Anti-Aircraft Gun Emplacements

"A .50 caliber site, for instance, could be anywhere.  These were portable single guns usually placed in a small round bunker that allowed the gun to be swung quickly around, through 360 degrees.  Fifty cals . . . were effective only up to about 1,500 feet.  Pilots could often pick them out by the greenish tracers that helped tell the gunner where he was aiming -- usually one tracer every seven rounds."

Rick Newman and Don Shepperd, Bury Us Upside Down: The Misty Pilots and the Secret Battle for the Ho Chi Minh Trail, 2007, Presidio Press

I Corps -- "B" Detachment's Area of Concentration

"The I Corps Tactical Zone (CTZ) covers some 11,000 square miles or about 17 percent of the total land area of South Vietnam.  There are five governmental provinces with a population in the order of two million people, or about 15 percent of the total population.  [These provinces included Quang Tri, with its notable war sites of Khe Sanh, Dong Ha and Quang Tri City; Thua Thien, which encompassed Phu Bai and Hue City; Quang Nam, which included Da Nang and Hoi An; Quang Tin, with Tam Ky and Chu Lai, and Quang Ngai, which included Quang Ngai -- Site Administrator.]  The bulk of the two million people live in the coastal lowlands, which constitute a narrow flat plain that extends from the sea to the foothills of the mountains.  The bulk of the terrain in I CTZ is the highland region consisting of a chain of rugged mountains extending the length of the area from north to south.  The mountains are characterized by steep, rocky slopes, sharp crests, and deep narrow valleys.  The valleys are of lush tropical evergreen forests."

COL William G. Benedict, et.al., A Critical Analysis of US Army Intelligence Organizations and Concepts in Vietnam, 1965-1969, US Army War College, 8 March 1971 [Via vietnam(dot)ttu(dot)edu]

Photo: view inside of a Tactical Imagery Interpretation Facility support van showing imagery interpreters at work

Photo Credit: MIV

Above:  Interpretation crew at work in one of "B" Detachment's Imagery Interpretation vans.  A senior sergeant is seated at the desk, conferring with an II specialist.  Rolls of aerial photography paper prints, produced by the Repro Section, with the blank sides outward, are on the desk to his left.  Other II Specialists are posting information to the situation maps on the walls, using grease pencils or masking tape to highlight areas of interest on the acetate covering.  At left, a warrant officer technical lead is seated at a work table, perched on a solid wood stool.

"B" Detachment's Imagery Interpretation (II) specialists were specially trained to carefully examine aerial photography for information of value to soldiers on the ground.  This mission required the ability to  identify topographic features, ground disturbances, objects and human activity appearing on imagery taken by a wide range of reconnaissance aircraft at various altitudes and angles.  Imagery Interpreters continuously monitored surveillance photography covering their assigned area of operations so as to detect changing conditions, populations or movements on the ground, thus providing a wealth of reference material for combat commanders and staff operational planners.   Information determined to be of intelligence value would be forwarded promptly to the concerned organization -- a typical report might include a written analysis along with paper prints of the strip photography and selected pictures of significance annotated using mechanical drawing skills for substantiating and clarifying the analysis.  These are interior views of the Tactical Imagery Interpretation Facility (TIIF), its ancillary workspace, and its complement of Imagery Interpreters  in 1967. 

Above Left:  II duty sergeant at his desk, partially obscuring an Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) liaison officer.  A large map of the I Corps Tactical Zone operations area covers the left wall, while smaller maps of other areas of interest are mounted to the right.  Maps were covered with a clear acetate overlay sheet which protected surfaces and allowed erasable annotation using grease pencils.  Above Right:  An II specialist locates the geographical area covered by the film in the reader to his right on a tactical map, while other personnel use a stereoscope to assist in accurately identifying features on the ground.

Unintended Beneficiaries of "B" Detachment's Work?

"Missions always had a security classification on them Ė 'Confidential' mostly, sometimes 'Secret', and perhaps on limited occasions Ė 'Top Secret'.  I believe we shared mission reports with the Vietnamese next door in the adjoining offices.  Having read a bit on the war and learning about how the "enemy" had infiltrated all levels of the Vietnamese government and military, I look back now and wonder why we just didnít eliminate the middle man and sent our reports directly to the VC instead of routing them through official channels."

Gene Pianka, "B" Detachment, Imagery Interpretation Section, 1967-1968

Photo: imagery interpretor evaluates a roll of duplicate positive transparencies using a light table in one of the TIIF support vans

Photo Credit: MIV

Above:  An II Specialist evaluates aerial imagery on a light table.  The 9.5-inch, continuous roll format film that he is examining, was used widely in automated cameras mounted on USAF reconnaissance aircraft and was the format in which "B" Detachment received most of its imagery for evaluation in 1967.  For this reason, devices with spools and cranks for handling large rolls of film were found throughout "B" Detachment's working areas.  Imagery could be received as either photographic negatives or as positive images on film.  The rolls were transported in metal canisters, scores of which were stacked around the TIIF, the Repro Section facility and a Conex Box (similar to one of today's land-sea freight containers) used for storage near the I Corps Compound wall.  It was this imagery that the Reproduction Section either duplicated or printed on continuous rolls of paper.

US Army Definitions

". . . SURVEILLANCE was the systematic observation of airspace, surface, or subsurface areas, places, or things, by visual, electronic, photographic, or other means for [Military] Intelligence purposes.  A Surveillance Mission was characterized by the great expanse of terrain that it covered and the repetition with which it was flown.

RECONNAISSANCE was a mission to obtain, by visual or other detection methods, information about the activities and resources of an enemy or potential enemy.  A Reconnaissance Mission was directed toward one or more specific target areas without the requirement for continuous coverage.  Comparatively speaking, surveillance was formal and continuous, using highly sophisticated equipment; reconnaissance was more informal and target-oriented.

Both aerial surveillance and reconnaissance missions were classified as either PREPLANNED or IMMEDIATE.  Nearly all were of the first category, based upon anticipated requirements for Intelligence Information.  Immediates responded to unforeseen requirements and were characterized by urgency of time involved between request for, and receipt of, the information."

Army Aviation in RVN -- A Case Study, Chapter IV, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Support, 11 July 1970, Headquarters, PACAF, 7th Air Force, DOAC.  [Via www.vietnam(dot)ttu(dot)edu.]

What The Imagery Interpreter Might See  In A Frame of Imagery . . .

Photo Credit: Daryl Tucker, Reproduction Section, "B" Detachment, 1967-1968

Above:  From February 1968, an example of an Imagery Interpretation Section work product -- an annotated photograph of a launch area for Soviet fin-stabilized 122-mm rockets.  The photo is labeled to identify the entrance to a bunker for the storage of weapons, a protected area for battery personnel when firing, a trail for re-supplying the installation, and a circular earthen fortification for an anti-aircraft weapon -- looking much like a Vietnamese Buddhist grave site adjacent to it.  A machine gun would be installed in the center of the fortification, allowing the gunner to move around the trench for 360 degree targeting.  The elevated location of the weapon would also allow the gunner to raise the angle of the gun and thus engage aircraft flying directly overhead or abruptly changing altitude to try and avoid ground fire.  This particular image -- lacking full annotated data such as true north orientation, date and time indication, location and mission data -- is a training aide for new analysts. 

All In A Day's -- or Night's --  Work

The film canisters from the 460th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing were picked up at the DaNang airport and brought back to the Detachment compound. They were logged into the Detachment by someone in the office. I recall making pickups at night from the airbase but donít recall what immediately happened to themĖ whether they were logged in or brought immediately into the Imagery Interpretation (II) vans for work to start on reading out the missions.

When a mission came in, it was accompanied with an initial readout from the Air Force at Tan San Nhut. I think the report showed the starting and stopping map coordinates of the mission, number of frames, type of film (photo, infra-red, camouflage detection, radar), scale (500:1 to 50,000:1, with most of the missions at 5,000:1) and security classification (most were Confidential, with a very small smattering of Secret over the 14 months I was there). One person would take the roll of film, put it on a light table and plot every 5th frame (or 10th- canít remember which) on a piece of acetate that had been taped over the geographic maps that we had. Once that mission had been plotted, another person would review the roll of film, frame by frame, looking for anything that might be of mission interest. Once something was noted, reference could then be made to the acetate plot of the mission to determine where the frame was situated on the geographic map and a coordinate fix as to its "exact" location. The item was then recorded on paper (canít recall if there was a ready-made for that or just lined paper) indicating what was noticed and its map coordinates. Once the readout was completed the finished report was forwarded to the company office for (I assume a review by someone) and typing up. The report was typed on stencils and copies were mimeographed. I could type a little at the time and volunteered as company clerk for about a week when the regular clerk(s) was/were gone. Typing reports on stencils was difficult, as typos were corrected by using a razor or other sharp object to scratch off the offending typo from the carbon. You then had to reset the report in the typewriter and hope it lined up with what had to be corrected. It was very time-consuming when I was doing it and even a very good typist would have to go through the same error-correcting process Ė though there would have been far fewer errors. I donít know if any imagery was included in the reports Ė this might have been something the Reproduction Section would have been involved with as the IIís were working with positive transparencies and the Reproduction Section would produce photos. I donít recall any time that a photo came back and we were asked to annotate it. I also donít recall doing any annotations with [drafting tools].

With respect to the tools we had in readout and reporting, I can only imagine how much more efficient and effective using todayís equipment would be like. Digital photos could be delivered to a readout area, items of interest would be isolated and enlarged without losing too much definition, reports could be typed up while reading out the mission and digitized copies of the items inserted on a geographic map could be included next to each reported item. As an added efficiency, the analyst could search the computer files to determine if the item had been reported before. One of the drawbacks to the tools we had in 1967-1968 was when reading out a mission that had been flown over an area previously (who knows how long before) and you spotted an older item of interest, the question was had it been reported before. There was no database in the II vans of previous missions. Similarly, even if the fly-over of the area had only been done a few days before, perhaps a different II was reading out the mission Ė one person on the day shift and a second person on the night shift.

When I arrived in June 1967, there were one or two teams in two of the vans and on the 3rd, as that was the Tactical Imagery Interpretation (TIIF) van and workspace was limited in there. The unit was quite small at that time Ė the people that I recall were Pianka, Furth, Adams, Brown, Lockhart, Keuter, Guest, Bryan and perhaps Bostwick, Abate, Hill and Woodard. I donít recall the warrant officers, or other officers, playing any part in the analysis process. Ditto for any of the E-7's, but the E-6's provided some assistance in interpreting some of the findings. I assume the E-6's and E-7's were handling the administrative portion of the back office work Ė reviewing reports, keeping records, etc.

During my tour there was no fixed job that you did all the timeĖ i.e., always reading out missions or always plotting missions. One day a person might plot and the next might read out missions. During particularly heavy workload days, you might read out in the morning and plot in the afternoon. Looking into a light table for hours at a time was tough on the back and the eyes. Missions could have hundreds, if not a thousand frames, or more.

Gene Pianka, "B" Detachment, Imagery Interpretation Section, 1967-1968

Some Tools of the Trade

In addition to aerial photographs, "B" Detachment Imagery Interpretation Specialists were skilled at working with topographic maps to chart areas covered by photo reconnaissance missions and to pinpoint the the locations of objects, people and activity that might be of military intelligence value to ground commanders and planners.  The following excerpt from the web site of the 1st Battalion 6th Infantry, US Army, "Map Information and Selection," speaks broadly to map reading skills: 

"Tactical operations in Vietnam for Allied ground forces were coordinated using maps that displayed terrain, vegetation, and structures on a scale of 1:50,000. At that scale, one and 1/4 inch represented approximately one mile. Aviation units generally relied upon larger scale maps for their more extensive operations.

The clear plastic map scale at [right, below] was used to determine exact grid identifiers to the nearest 100 meters for locations within a particular map grid square. Each map grid square is 1,000 x 1,000 m.  The rule in map reading is to "read right and then up.  " For example, the map coordinate BS 648 936 was used to identify the location of the small fire support base at Nui Pho Tinh to the nearest 100m.  Several 105mm howitzer and 4.2 in. mortar were fired from that location, which also just happened to be a surveyed horizontal control point for cartographic (map) reference."

From: www (dot) a (dash) 1 (dash) 6 (dot) org.

Graphic: sample of the type of topographical map used by the US Army in Vietnam

Graphic Credit: 1st BN, 6th Infantry, U.S. Army



Graphic: a scaled triangle used by the US Army to determine map grid coordinates for a point of interest on a map

Graphic Credit: 1st BN, 6th Infantry, U.S. Army

Interpretation Section MAIN PAGE

Tactical Imagery Interpretation Facility (TIIF)

The TIIF -- A Closer Look

Evaluating Aerial Reconnaissance Imagery II

Lessons Learned In Rocket City

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