Bonus Deal

DinkyDau Billy's use of the term caused one of those little flashbacks we all have, now and again. You know, like in "12 O'Clock High", when Harry Stovall, who was Major Stovall during the war (played by Dean Jagger) goes back to England after the war, and finds that cookie jar or whatever it was that was in the squadron mess. He then wanders out to the old airfield, now abandoned, and soon flashes back to B17's taking off and the rest of the movie flows from there.

So that's where I was when Billy mentioned "Bonus Deal". Sometimes a phrase will cause it. Sometimes just the smell of diesel exhaust or burned JP at the airport can cause it. Remembrances coming floating to the top...

By 1971, the war had been grinding on for at least eight years, that part of it that the Vietnamese came to call "The American War".

By early 1971, the American involvement was well on its way to winding down, though quite a few caskets were still to come home before it was over.

At the end of January 1971 a grand experiment in the Vietnamization program, turning the military mission over to the South Vietnamese, was launched. Operation Lam Son 719 was a major incursion into Laos near the Laotian town of Tchepone. The objective was to interdict and destroy a major North Vietnamese army buildup near that town.

Almost all of the ground troops were ARVN, the South Vietnamese army. But, they were heavily supported by US Army helicopters, slick troop carriers and gunships, and we lost a lot of them in this operation.

By this time in 1971, Lam Son 719 had turned into a bloodbath, a slaughter, a military debacle for the books. ARVN was beaten back mercilessly. Some of us might remember the images of ARVN troops trying to escape by hanging off the skids of the Hueys. It was a scene that would be repeated during the fall of Saigon. It was a stark warning that everything the politicians and the military brass was telling us about how well things were going with Vietnamization was so much bovine excrement.

We ran a lot of B52 strikes in that operation. Many of them were in support of desperate ARVN troopers in immediate danger of being overrun.

The B52's did not use their on-board bombing systems, for most of the mission during the war. Their systems could not find discrete targets in that triple-canopied jungle. They relied on a radar ground-directed bombing program called COMBAT SKYSPOT. Still, they would use their on-board systems for station-keeping, that is, maintaining proper position relative to each other. The bombers would fly in groups...cells...of three, trailing one behind the other by a mile or two, depending on the mission profile. The radar crew would track the first bomber and tell it when to release, and the other two would time off the first. Keeping in position was critical for that timing.

Sometimes a bomber's on-board system would go belly up. Then, the gunner in a B52 in front of the one with the bad system would safe his guns and lock on to the problem bomber with his own little gunnery radar, and he would give that bomber range and azimuth calls during the bomb run. That way, the problem bomber could maintain an accurate place in the cell.

That tactic was called a BONUS DEAL.

Late one afternoon, we at the CSS site at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, were listening to the tactical channels, listening to the helicopter crews trying to get people out, and getting shot to pieces in the process. Our radio call sign was BROMO. Tchepone was maybe fifty miles away. We could bomb almost out to two hundred nautical miles, so Tchepone was well within range.

There was a Cobra gunship down, surrounded by the North Vietnamese Army. We were crisscrossing the area around them with tactical air strikes to keep them off the Cobra crew while some Hueys tried to do a rescue. Things were getting overwhelming.

We had some B52's divert from another target, coming inbound. This was a cell, a formation, of three B52's, call sign Copper. They had called the IP, the Initial Point, inbound on the bomb run, and just as they did, Copper 3, the last B52 in the cell reported his BNS, his Bombing/Navigation System, was out.

We wanted all those bombs on the ground. The aircrew wanted 'em on the ground. God knows the Cobra and Huey crews wanted them on the ground. The only people who didn't want them on the ground were the North Vietnamese.

Copper Cell went for a BONUS DEAL. Copper 2's gunner safed his guns and locked on to Copper 3. We're about 120 seconds out now.

"Copper cell 120 seconds." Our controller to the aircrews.

"Copper cell doors." Copper 1 advising Copper cell to open the bomb bay doors.


"3." Copper 2 and Copper 3 acknowledging.

"Copper 3's 4000 yards 3 degrees left." That's Copper 2's gunner giving position info to Copper 3. Copper 3 is 4000 yards (2 nautical miles) behind Copper 2 and 3 degrees left of his track. That puts him offset the right amount. He's in position, confirmed by the gunner in 2.

"Copper 3 roger."

"Copper 1 half a degree left, 60 seconds." That was our controller, telling Copper 1, Copper Lead, to make a minor course correction. The other bombers follow Copper Lead.

"Copper 3's 3800 yards 3 and a half degrees left." Copper 2's gunner again. 2's creeping up a bit.

"Copper 3 roger."

"Copper 1's on center line, 30 seconds." Our controller again, advising no course correction, the cell was on the track.

"Copper 3's 3900 yards 3 degrees left."

"Copper 3 roger." Slightly off, not enough to make any difference now.

"Copper 1 stand by final countdown 5...4...3...2...1...Hack!"

"Copper 1 bombs away....".

A few seconds later..."Copper 1's complete....Copper 2's complete...Copper 3's complete...."

And that was it. Fairly mundane stuff, though a bit tense, in a radar van fifty miles from Tchepone...but on the ground, it beat back the North Vietnamese long enough for a Huey to get in and get the Cobra crew out, though not without a lot of pain and suffering in the process.

On the ground, with three loads of 108 five hundred pounders and seven hundred fifty pounders going off right in front of them, and a hail of 23mm cannon and 14.5mm machine gun fire slamming through the air around them and through them, the Huey crew bounced down hard next to the Cobra. A gunner and a medic scrambled out of the Huey and dashed over to the Cobra, and dragged both of the Cobra crewmen back. The Huey was shedding bits and pieces. The copilot's door looked like a seive and the plexiglass was almost gone, just a few shards left. There was more blood leaking out of the Huey than either the gunner or the medic had ever seen before. The Huey lifted off as mortars started dropping around them and hied off to the east, sounding like a cement mixer gone mad with a load of gravel, trailing minor bits and pieces and leaking hydraulic fluid, fuel, and blood, all mixed together in a hellish cocktail.

They made it back.


There's all kinds of 'em in this life.



and here is another Copper cell, bound for Skyline Ridge and Long Tieng, also in Laos: