1st MIBARS In Vietnam!

Evaluating Aerial Reconnaissance Imagery II

The Men Who Were the Eyes

 of the

The "Flying Eye" Battalion

Photo Credit: Don Skinner, "B" Detachment, Reproduction Section, 1969-1970

Photo Credit: En.wikipedia.com

Above:  "B" Detachment Imagery Interpretation (II) Section team assembled for duty in one of the II Vans in 1968.  Entitled "Night Crew" by its contributor, the photo shows the ingenuity of MIBARS personnel in "sniffing out" all signs of enemy activity by including Sgt. Sh*thead [see the canine face in the crook'ed arm under No. 7], the detachment mascot, as a member of the interpretation team!  Left:  From World War I, an observation balloon crew poses on their gondola -- with their canine member, under the arm of the man in front, to help with sniffing out on the Western Front.

At War With The Triple Canopy

Much of 1st MIBARS' potential for examining activity on the ground was limited by the triple canopy jungle that covered many areas of Vietnam.  The term "triple canopy" referred to areas of jungle in which there was growth of multiple separate and distinct varieties of vegetation, each topping out at a different height from the ground.  Where the tops of like vegetation met at maturity and formed a layer of joining treetops was termed a "canopy."  Some vegetation did not require direct sunlight and could thrive in the shadow of taller trees.  The jungle canopies generally overlapped to a large degree -- effectively obscuring a direct view from above and making observation of the ground difficult or impossible by individuals or by surveillance photography.  Thus, MIBARS imagery interpreters were faced with attempting to analyze aerial photography of areas covered with jungle where evidence of the telltale signs or subtle nuances of enemy activity on the ground were simply not visible.  

Anatomy of An Air Strike In the Jungle

"'[Radio transmission from incoming bomber pilot announcing his arrival to the Forward Air Controller] Gunfighter Three Six is a flight of two Fox-4s, mission number Two Four Alpha.  We each have six Mk-82 high drags [bombs with parachutes or special fins used to slow descent and allow the bombing aircraft time to escape the effects of the explosions when dropping in low passes - Site Administrator], four cans of nape [napalm,  jellied gasoline], and twelve hundred rounds of 20 mike-mike [rounds of 20 millimeter cannon ammunition].'  [The author's narrative continues]. . . First, I'd level the landscape with the high drags and get a clear view of who was where.  Next we'd hit them with napalm, which would lay out a nice flaming buffer zone between their troops and ours.  If necessary, the 20 millimeter could clean up those guys stupid enough to hang around till the bitter end."  

Mike Jackson and Tara Dixon, Naked In DaNang: A Forward Air Controller in Vietnam, Zenith Press, 2004

Photo Credit: MIV

Above:  The bare swath through the middle of the jungle pictured is the result of an air strike that had taken place some time before the day of this photograph, perhaps using the common Close Air Support (CAS) bomber loading -- also known as "snake and nape."  CAS included 250-lb Mark 81 or 500-lb Mark 82 Snakeye general purpose (GP) bombs and 500-lb M-47 napalm canisters.   The Mark 81 or 82 bomb became a Snakeye with the addition of a Mark 14 Tail Retarding Device (TRD) which opened to increase drag and slow the weapon's descent after release.  This photo shows how the thick jungle has completely obscured the ground except where it has been destroyed in the strike zone.

Forward Air Controllers and 1st MIBARS Analysts -- Searching For Similar Clues

"But the former slow FACs [Forward Air Controllers using the 0-1 Bird Dog aircraft], the GIBs [guys in back -- pilots riding as observers in the rear seats of the two-seater F-100 Supersabres used by the fast FACs] were quite skilled . . .  [They taught many a fast FAC] how to see and find targets -- skills that were hard to come by in the middle of a war.  The former slow FACs were like airborne detectives, with an intuition for noticing something in the landscape below that didn't quite fit in, possibly indicating the hand of man.  While a fighter jock might zoom right over a stand of trees at 4,000 feet and see nothing out of the ordinary, [an experienced slow FAC] could tell there were several trucks camouflaged under the canopy.  [V]ehicles moving during daylight [were rarely seen], so [FACs] had to look for signs of activity.  Sharp right angles in the terrain were more often than not the work of engineers, rather than nature, and could indicate a camouflaged road or bunker or an underground storage facility.  [FACs were taught] to look for roads, paths, trails, or any other kind of traveled route that suddenly ended, or had no exit or return routes.  SAMs [surface-to-air missiles], antiaircraft guns, field artillery, and any other kind of heavy metal had to get in place somehow, and as stealthy as the North Vietnamese were, it was hard to hide every trace of that kind of movement.  Treadmarks that abruptly stopped in the middle of nowhere usually meant trucks or other vehicles were hidden nearby, or underneath foliage right where the tracks ended.  Roads or trails that led into a river didn't usually just end -- there was probably a pontoon bridge or ferry somewhere along the riverbank.  An unusual amount of dust on the treetops could suggest vigorous nighttime activity -- trucks driving down the road, excavation for supply areas, even engineers building new roads."

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

Imagery Interpreters Using Experience and Intuition To Fill In The Blanks

"Plotting was sometimes a challenge, especially when [imagery was obtained by missions] flown over the jungles or along the west border.  It was almost solid trees and sometimes you couldn't find any landmarks at all.  The Air Force usually supplied a rough sketch of the subject area, but that didn't always help.  We were supplied with a plastic measuring tool that looked like two "L" shapes.  I can't remember what the heck we called the things, but the plotter would configure the gizmo to the size/scale of the photograph and trace the inside to show the location of the various photos.  On easier missions we might trace every tenth photo or so, but if the mission was one of those jungle jobs, we might have to go over a hundred photos between landmarks and using the SWAG (Scientific Wild Ass Guess) system, try to fill in the middle as best we could."

Roger Houglan, "B" Detachment, Imagery Interpretation, 1967 - 1969

Project Wayside

"One of the most significant missions undertaken by the 1st was Project WAYSIDE, a complex operation to produce annotated photomaps of selected areas in South Vietnam.  The topographic map coverage we had in the early days was not accurate enough. While terrain features may have been correctly depicted, survey data and grids were only approximate.  The MIBARS initiated Project WAYSIDE in an effort to provide photomaps of U.S. installations and areas in which military operations were planned.  These maps proved to be reliable enough to permit accurate artillery support to be fired from map data, something that had been not always possible with the topographic maps previously in use.  These photomaps became extremely popular and were in great demand."

LTC Michael Tymchak, VIETNAM STUDIES: The Role of Military Intelligence 1965-1967

.  .  .  And Don't Ask Me Again -- Ever!

"We all probably thought we weren't doing much good over there, I know I did, but I have seen some information on the Internet . . . and it sounds like the ground commanders actually valued our output.  Seemed very granular at the time but it probably did fit into a bigger picture that was impossible for us to see from our vantage.  I wish I could get more perspective on how we fit in.  [Another Imagery Interpreter] always seemed to know more than anybody but he would always smile and say 'I could tell you but then I would have to kill you'." [Note: a standard joke in the intelligence community when one did not wish to answer another person's question and didn't want to bother with explaining why; a similar ruse was restricting access to a certain area for a party or other such activity by putting a sign reading "SECRET" on the door -- Site Administrator.]

Mike Garemko, "B" Detachment, Imagery Interpretation, 1968-1969

Photo Credit: MIV

Above:  Imagery Interpretation Specialists check target locations on an operational map.

Photo Credit: MIV

Above:  Indisputable evidence that Imagery Interpreters were as adept with brooms as they were with the M-14 Rifle and Imagery Interpretation gear.

Unique Features of Vietnam's Waterways

Photo Credit: MIV

Photo Credit: MIV

Left:  Up river from DaNang on the Song Han River, covered boats are anchored off shore, referred to by most GI's as "junks" or "sampans" after the well-known Chinese boat terms commonly known to Americans.  It was assumed that these boats were used as living places by people who worked on the river, but some were equipped with boom-like structures suggesting also work boats.  In the arena of military intelligence during the Vietnam War, boats were always suspect for their role in transporting weapons, ammunition, food, supplies or infiltrators.  However, one "B" Detachment officer was invited by a Vietnamese counterpart for a weekend visit to his home in Hue, to include an overnight stay on a covered boat on the Perfume River with food, drink and some friendly female companionship.  A night on the river -- according to the gracious Vietnamese host, in the quiet of the evening, amid the flickering lamp lights of the river residents, the rocking motion of the covered boat, beneath the twinkling stars in the black sky away from the city, with the sound of the river gently lapping against the hull -- was a place where one could truly find peace and contentment in a country at war.  Right:   Fish traps on the Song Han River.  These structures were built in the center of the river and channeled fish to the point of the "vee" where they could be collected in nets or baskets.  Fish weirs such as these have been employed by hunter-gatherer societies for centuries.        

A Journalist's Recollection

"Early in our war, there were quiet days when we would jeep the highway between DaNang and the old city of Hue.  There each would hire his own sampan and be poled into the middle of the Perfume River to lay back on bamboo mats and be rocked by the breezes.  Above, on a high bridge later destroyed by war, an endless stream of Vietnamese coeds bicycled home from the university at day's end, all wearing the pure white ao dai of the young, innocent girl.  All wore their shining black hair waist length, some with it cut square across the ends, others with it untrimmed.  They were visions shimmering in the heat, so lovely, so beyond our reach.  I dream of them still and wonder if they somehow survived Tet, survived the war, and gave birth to new generations of girls who bicycle across the Perfume River and into the dreams of young men.  . . . If I could go back in time to that other Vietnam, it would not be to the war of my youth, but to the Perfume River and to those remarkable young women."

Joseph L. Galloway, Under Fire: Great Photographers and Writers In Vietnam, Catherine Leroy (Ed.), 2005, Random House, New York, New York

1st MIBARS In the Fight

"SGT Kramer came to me to explain a 'situation.'  A fire base had been under heavy attack for three days.  Due to heavy cloud cover, they were unable to get any aerial intel.  Finally, a break in the clouds allowed an F4 to fly a photo mission.  SGT Kramer told me the situation and that the F4 was on its way to the Saigon photo lab to develop the film for this Priority 1 mission.  Scatback [a small Learjet courier aircraft] would arrive that night to drop the film.  I stopped over to G2 [intelligence section of a combat command] to find out when Scatback was due.

At 1:00 a.m., I was on the side of the runway when it touched down.  Out the door came the bags containing the various missions, the Priority 1 among them.  I raced back to the PI [photo interpretation] lab and completed the report in about 1 hour.  Bunkers, trail activity, rocket pits, mortar pits, etc., and all fresh.  SGT Kramer stopped in a couple of times to check on progress.  I literally ran the report to G2.  I had found about 35 items.  The guy from crypto [the cryptological section of a large military unit -- responsible for coding and decoding messages] took the report and went into his protected room.  He told me to wait.  About 30 minutes later, he pops out and told me to stand beside the partially open door so I could hear what went on.  I didn't know it before then but there were B52's launched for this mission and they were waiting on my report to lay in flight lines for dropping bombs.  Holy Crap!  I sure hoped my coordinates were right on.  There were 3 secondary explosions called out from the drop, and I heard a few days later that the siege of the firebase had ended.  Now that was fun!  Rarely did we get feedback of the effect of what we did as PI's [photo interpreters], so hearing it first hand was just thrilling.  Knowing that my report helped end the siege was especially satisfying."

Norman Black, "D" Detachment, Imagery Interpretation Section, Nha Trang, 1968-1970

Burning the Midnight Oil -- Night and Day

Photo Credit: Joe Buesing, "B" Detachment and HQ, Imagery Interpretation Section, 1969-1970

Photo Credit: Scott Wede, "B" Detachment, Imagery Interpretation Section, 1969

Above, Left:  Imagery Interpretation Specialist locates area of interest on a topographic map.  Table-top work space ran much the length of the II Vans.  At the center is a portable viewer for examining positive transparency film, handles at the bottom and on each side allowing the imagery to be moved back and forth on spools over a lighted panel.  A fixer viewer is at right, its film transport mechanism handles protruding outward, built into the leading edge of another work table.   Above, Right:  From 1969, two II Specialists at work in the II van, the analyst on the left typing a report on a manual typewriter with a pencil dangling from his mouth.  In the background, maps mounted on the wall show "B" Detachment's area of operations for surveillance and analysis, tubes from overhead fluorescent fixtures reflected as wavy white lines in the clear acetate covering.  The shapes visible on the clear acetate covering mark boundaries or areas of special interest and were created with strips of tape placed on, and removed from, the acetate.  Note that by this time, the olive drab tee-shirts adopted by the Army, along with subdued uniform insignia to enhance concealment in the field, were much more in evidence.

A Word About Tradescraft . . . 
"Almost everything we did came from "dupe-pos's" (duplicate positive images) in a transparency form, and it was in 9" x 18" format, with the exception of the Army stuff which I believe was 5" x 5", give or take.  We nicknamed them "Little Lookers".  In either case I was always amazed at the sharp resolution of the photos, although as time went on I more or less took that for granted.  We hardly ever worked with negatives or photo printouts.  Generally, the only time we used photos was when we needed to make a mosaic and that didn't happen very often.  I made a lot of them and I think Gene Zwarycz made a few.  . . .Once in a while we'd see camouflage detection film.  What a beautiful sight to behold with the brilliant blues on the water and deep, rich greens.  After B/W [black and white] transparencies it was like looking at art.  But that film was very expensive to use and didn't give too many positive results.  The function of the film was to detect dead foliage since the lack of chlorophyll in the leaves would yield a different color from the standard green.  We probably didn't see that type of film more than a half dozen times, if that.  One other type of film that I personally saw a lot of when I was in Phu Bai but not very often at Det B was infra-red film which was supposed to detect the difference between hot and cold.  The more heat something gave off the whiter the imprint.  At the altitude the missions were flown usually all that was detected was little dots, very similar to looking at the night sky.  I personally felt that the image output was about as useful as looking at the night sky."
Roger Houglan, "B" Detachment, Imagery Interpretation, 1967 - 1969

Interpretation Section MAIN PAGE

Tactical Imagery Interpretation Facility (TIIF)

The TIIF -- A Closer Look

Evaluating Aerial Reconnaissance Imagery I

Lessons Learned In Rocket City

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