From the S&S archives:They say An Loc looks like hell

By HAL DRAKE | S&S STAFF CORRESPONDENT Published: April 25, 1972

BIEN HOA, Vietnam — "I guessed that this was what the end of the world would be like," the young pilot recalled as he and other pilots related what they saw only in blurred, streaking motion.

Darkness and sheets of rain, Capt. Frederick A. Elder recalls, were broken by flares that cast a pale glitter over the broken rooftops and bomb craters of An Loc.

Flames and explosions were everywhere — thunder seen but barely heard over jet screams. Smoke billowed thousands of feet; C130 gunships poured down tracers.

It was a scene any man would have wanted to get away from — particularly if he sat in a jet and could have thrust himself away in seconds. But Elder circled until the voice of a forward air controller ordered him into a bomb run.

He sighted his target, loosed his bombs but saw nothing as they exploded — only felt the lurch as he pulled back up. He didn't want to see anymore.

"In all my 238 missions", he said, "I never conceived of anything like this."

Elder, 27, of Atlanta, flies with the 8th Special Operations Sq. at Bien Hoa AB. The outfit goes back to World War I but nothing in its history will likely match the stories out of "Rap Valley."

It's a squadron of jaunty young swingers, quiet old professionals, abstemious elders like Lt. Col. Gordon Weed, who commands the squadron and is, as a matter of fact, an elder in the Mormon Church.

They fly the A37 Dragonfly, a kind of transistorized jet fast enough to fluster enemy gunners but slow enough to lock on a target and destroy it before it flashes away. That's the reason it has been thrown a lot of business at An Loc.

"They don't even give us coordinates anymore", Elder says. "They just say, go to Rap Valley."

It's only 15 minutes from Bien Hoa and has flashed into their sights again and again. Elder recalls, as North Vietnamese soldiers swarmed over the roof of a deeply-dug bunker and a South Vietnamese officer ordered, "put it right on top of us." Elder did it, but could hardly be impersonal about it — even if the target blurred away after that.

Pilots believe they have faced some of the most intense ground fire of the war in Rap Valley, with more than 30 51 cal. machine gun positions singled out in one mission.

Lt. Col. Melvin N. Ledbetter, 37, of St. Petersburg, says that An Loc is still recognizable as a town, "but is pretty beat up." He has backhanded respect for his enemies, recalling runs on anti-aircraft positions, behind every lashing stream of fire that reached for him a man who didn't run.

"When we were supporting ARVN along Route 13 (which thrusts through the town), a guy hosed me down all the way, until the bomb I dropped vaporized him," he said. "We respect them — well-trained, well-equipped, well-led".

And 1st Lt. Greg Hunter tells of the time he lost an argument with a 51 cal.

"The weather was bad, with an overcast of 3,700 feet, with higher altitude and a longer roll, I could have got him. I heard a sort of a thump and saw fuel streaming out of my pylon tank. Have to hand it to that gunner, he was pretty good. I lost 600 pounds of gas, but made it back".

Hunter's buddy, 1st Lt. Wally Moorehead, flew later that day and felt kind of personal about the gun. Later he told Hunter, "Hey, you don't have to worry about taking that hit. I silenced him for you".