Major, U.S. Air Force, Strategic Air Command
October 1967 – October 1968
During the invasion of Saipan in June 1944, my father, Lou Doyle, was a 42-year-old enlisted Seabee carrying a Browning Automatic Rifle. His job on Saipan was to build an airstrip for Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay’s Twentieth Air Force B-29s—the forerunner of Strategic Air Command (SAC). Also on the island, commanding a Marine platoon, was Lieutenant David Lownds. My experience in Vietnam includes an improbable story of connecting the dots, events and people from 1944 to 1968. The principal characters are Lou Doyle, Curtis LeMay, David Lownds, John Chaisson, William Westmoreland, Judd Smith and me.
I graduated from the University of Southern California Air Force ROTC in 1955 and was assigned to SAC as an intelligence officer at Biggs Air Force Base, Texas, where some of the earliest B-52s in SAC were stationed. From Biggs, I became a targeting officer at HQ SAC; then Torrejon Air Base, Spain; and back to HQ SAC under General LeMay.
In 1967 I volunteered for Vietnam service and was assigned to Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) as a B-52 targeting officer. My job was to select points on the earth where ordnance could be dropped from the B-52 force in South Vietnam. David Lownds, now a colonel, was assigned to the Khe Sanh Combat Base as commanding officer of the 26th Marine Regiment. At MACV, located in the suburbs of Saigon at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, I worked for Brig. Gen. John Chaisson, USMC, and then for General William Westmoreland. This short chain ensured close command and control of B-52s supporting MACV.
During late 1967 and early 1968, before the Tet Offensive, but responding to North Vietnamese Army (NVA) action around Lang Vei and Khe Sanh, we began targeting B-52s with standard 500-pound bombs against NVA troops in the area. After the January 30 Tet attack, MACV was advised that North Vietnamese troops were tunneling to come up inside the wire at Khe Sanh, a tactic that was probably necessary because strategic air employment denied the NVA close above-ground access to Khe Sanh.
One day in early February, Brig. Gen. Chaisson told me we were going to see General William Westmoreland, whom I had never met. General Westmoreland briefly reviewed the tunneling reports with us and told us to figure out a response using B-52s.
It happened I was to get a haircut that day, and in the barber’s chair I suddenly recalled that SAC had 500-pound earth-penetrating bombs in its inventory. I left the chair and securely phoned Lt. Col. Judd Smith at SAC’s 3rd Air Division Intelligence, Anderson Air Force Base, Guam. Smith was a friend of mine, a targeting officer who had been at HQ SAC with me. I asked him about the availability of the earth-penetrating 500 pounders and he said, yes, they were on Guam. We discussed the timing to download B-52s on the ramp and upload the “diggers.” I then reported this opportunity to General Chaisson and we went immediately to General Westmoreland. After hearing this report, Westmoreland directed an immediate “go.”
As the munitions handlers worked especially hard on Guam, we had one more task to close the loop. Someone from MACV called Colonel Lownds at Khe Sanh Combat Base to brief him on the plan and ask how close to the Khe Sanh wire we could target. Lownds said to bring them as close to the wire as possible. What a great response that was!
The B-52 strikes using the earth penetrators continued for some time, and the ground rumbled like an earthquake. As the NVA tunneling effort stopped, we came to believe our tactical change had worked. In the wake of Khe Sanh, Colonel Lownds said the B-52 strikes were “a godsend, a miraculous thing,” according to James S. Robbins in This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive. “It’s almost scary when you think about it,” said Lownds. I agree.
Mini Tet followed with more attacks in May and August, and when October arrived, I was ready to leave Vietnam. I went immediately to my next job on the Air Staff at the Pentagon and then to several other Air Force posts over the years. I retired as a major general in 1989.
It wasn’t until I read Robbins’ book on Tet that I learned that Colonel Lownds went into Saipan along with my dad. For me, connecting the dots from Saipan to Khe Sanh has again reinforced my pride in our armed forces.
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.