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Long overdue

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By John Barnhart

A Navy Squadron recently received a presidential unit citation for service in a combat zone — in Vietnam.

Most units that receive citation are so honored shortly after leaving combat. Robert Gross, a Big Island resident, believes three factors contributed to his unit's delay.

One factor is that VO-67 was a Navy unit serving under Air Force command and the Air Force did not give it the same consideration it would have given one of its own units. A second reason was that the unit was disbanded within a couple of months after being withdrawn from combat. A third reason was that the squadron's mission was highly classified at the time.

The unit designation of all Navy aircraft squadrons begins with the letter V. The "O" in VO-67 indicates that it is an observation squadron. The units' mission was to drop listening devices on the Ho Chi Minh trail, a jungle route that the North Vietnamese Army used to ship supplies south. The idea was that the listening devices would detect truck movements on the trail and attack aircraft could home in.

VO-67 flew an aircraft called the P2V-5 Neptune. It dated back to the 1950s and was built as an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft. As originally configured, it would drop sonobuoys ? listing devices designed to detect submarines. It also carried homing torpedoes which could be air dropped to chase and destroy a submarine.

The P2V-5 had four engines, two big 18-cylinder Wright Cyclone R-3350 twin row radial engines and a pair of jet engines, one located outboard of the each of the reciprocating engines. It had a surface search radar mounted on the belly, aft of the cockpit and a magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) in a 17-foot "stinger" protruding from the tail. This detects the minute local variation in the earth's magnetic field that a submarine would cause.

By 1967, the P2V-5 Neptunes were obsolete. They had been replaced by the P3 Orion.

"Our versions, they pulled out of the junkyard," said Gross.

The aircraft were modified for their new mission. The MAD stinger was removed as there were no submarines on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Chaff launchers were installed in the tail. The chaff would create puffs consisting of strips of metal foil intended to create a false target for radar-guided missiles or anti-aircraft guns.

The surface search radar was removed and a a terrain-clearance radar was added under the plane's chin.

The terrain-clearance radar because the plane would drop its listening devices from an altitude of 500 feet while flying at 250 knots, nearly 320 mph.

They also had Norden bombsights installed. The Air Force was able to locate enough of them to equip the squadron's 12 planes and retired Norden bombsight technicians, of World War II vintage, were called out of retirement to refurbish the sights. Navy crewmen had to be trained to use this vintage equipment and a World War II era training film was located in the Smithsonian Institute for that purpose.

The overhauled P2V-5s were redesignated OP-2E.

"This whole outfit was thrown together," said Gross.

Gross was transferred to VO-67 on a three day notice. He had been in the Navy since 1959 and was sent to this squadron because he was a reciprocating engine mechanic. This included changing the engine on an AD-1 Skyraider, a piston engine attack plane, that a Navy pilot named John McCain had flown through some high tension wires. Gross said that McCain made it back to the carrier "with wires attached to the airplane at various points."

The particular experience that got Gross picked for this squadron is that he had worked on Super Constellations, which had the same type of engine as the Neptunes. These planes, based on a reciprocating engine airliner, carried radar and were based in Newfoundland and Iceland. They were an airborne extension of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, a radar network developed half a century ago to detect Soviet bombers coming over the north pole.

Gross said that he and most of the men of VO-67 were never officially told the squadron's mission was, although knowing that they had all been hand-picked made them wonder. Nevertheless, they thought it was another ASW outfit, with not the most modern stuff, until they started training over land. After about three months of training, they figured it out.

VO-67 was based in Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base and Gross was part of the ground crew that kept the aircraft flying. He was in charge of a four-man crew of aircraft engine mechanics. Along with maintaining the engines, they also replaced propellers. Gross said that the planes had four-bladed fiberglass propellers and these could take a hit from small arms fire and still function. The bullet would just make a hole.

Metalsmiths took care of bullet holes in other parts of the plane, and the planes came back from missions with holes in them. They flew at such low altitudes, and they had to fly in a straight line while dropping their listening devices, that they were vulnerable to everything, down to individual soldiers shooting AK-47s into the air. Some of this ground fire was aimed downward as they flew through valleys. Gross said that the crew of one plane painted a Purple Heart medal on the side of their plane after it took hits through a fuel tank.

Gross and his men worked under rather primitive conditions. They had wooden platforms, which they had modified, that the planes were pulled up to. This brought them up to the level of the big engines. The platforms had roofs to shield them from the sun, but that was it. At least the engines were new, having been installed during the aircraft's refurbishment. Gross said that they were a reliable engine

During its year in combat, the squadron lost three planes and 20 men. This was much lower than expected. Gross said that he had been told that the Navy expected to lose as many as 75 percent of the men assigned. He believes the quality of the pilots made the difference.

One of the men killed was a personal friend, named Frank Dawson. Gross recalled that he and Dawson went to a movie together the night before his last mission. The next day, he was gone.

Two men were lost when a plane was hit in the radar well by what was probably a 37mm round, mortally wounding one crewman. The remaining eight crewmen bailed out but the pilot, Captain Paul Milius was never recovered. He is listed as missing in action and presumed killed and the USS Milius (DDG-69), which was commissioned in 1996, is named for him.

Two other planes went down with their entire nine-man crew. One, Crew II, flew into the side of a fog-shrouded mountain. The recovery of the crew's remains was the cover story of the July 22, 2001, issue of Parade. Gross said that the remains of all nine men were recovered, along with the bones of their mascot "Snoopy." The aircraft's emblem featured the famous cartoon dog and the Latin motto "Cave Canem," meaning "Beware of the Dog." Gross said that they had a canine mascot that always flew with them.

All the squadron's losses occurred in a six week period.

The presidential citation notes one particular event in which VO-67's work was instrumental in providing real time intelligence that prevented the U. S. Marine base at Khe Sanh from being overrun by North Vietnamese troops during the Tet Offensive of early 1968. The sound and motion detecting sensors that VO-67 dropped alerted them to enemy troop movements.

Gross said that the sensors were initially delicate and that's what required the low altitude drops. Battery life was limited, so replacements had to be periodically dropped. He said that each one was supposed to self destruct via an acid vial if the North Vietnamese found and moved them. He said, however, there was one case where the North Vietnamese troops did recover a working sound sensor, but they didn't keep it for long. Its microphone picked up the voices of the North Vietnamese soldiers as they discussed their find. They loaded it in a truck, but it continued transmitting, revealing the truck's location and allowing attack aircraft to locate it and blast it. The last thing the microphone picked up was the sound of falling bombs coming closer, then all transmission stopped.

Gross said the altitude from which the senors could be dropped rose to 1,500 feet and then to 5,000. Then, the Air Force took over the job, using F-4 Phantoms. On May 25, 1968, the Chief of Naval Operations sent orders to decommission the squadron, effective July 1, 1968, a little more than 14 months after it was commissioned. Gross, who was career Navy, retired in 1979.