The Nighthawk Mission was a combined night operation of U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force assets at DaNang, nicknamed “Rocket City”. In July 1972, approximately 7,500 American GIs and Airmen were stationed at the Air Base located next to the second largest city in South Vietnam, DaNang whose population had swelled to 500,000 from the influx of refugees from the northern front. The Nighthawk Mission was to defend the city and the base from enemy rocket, mortar, and ground attacks.
U.S. Air Force AC-119 “Stinger” gunships of the 18th Special Operations Squadron (SOS), Detachment #1 stationed at DaNang Air Base and U.S. Army UH-1 Huey helicopter gunships from Delta Troop, 17th Calvary or ‘F’ Troop, 8th Calvary based at Marble Mountain Army Air Base outside DaNang provided dust to dawn air coverage for DaNang. The aircraft searched the “rocket belt” surrounding DaNang for impending attacks with clearance to fire on anything that moved outside villages and within the eleven (11) miles firing range of Soviet-built 122 millimeter (mm) rockets with boosters.
On the night of 13 July 1972 and into the next morning, Nighthawk made it biggest killing about five miles south of DaNang. About 10:00 p.m., an Army helicopter spotted a Communist soldier in a blue uniform under a tree. The helicopter gunship fired at the enemy soldier, resulting in other people running all over the place and some of them firing back at the helicopter. The Army chopper killed 13 enemies and destroyed about two dozen 122mm rockets before calling in the fixed-wing Stinger gunship. Stinger hosed the area with 7.62mm mini-gun and 20mm cannon fire, killing 13 more enemies and causing 10 secondary explosions. One U.S. Army Officer quoted in the Pacific Stars and Stripes said, “We spoiled their little party that night.”
Wayne Laessig was flying with Major Lodge’s crew and tells his story of that night in July 1972: “Lodge’s mission was perimeter defense and we were working with the Cav Chopper guys on a Nighthawk mission that found a bunch of 122s right when they first started cooking off and heading toward DaNang. We called DaNang Tower and gave them some vital seconds to sound the sirens to give everyone the chance to hit their bunkers! Simultaneously, Major Lodge was rolling in and plastering the location of the rocket launchers and blowing up a whole slew of them on the ground before they even got airborne. Gus Sininger was the FE and although the ‘frag’ orders show Lentini as copilot on Lodge’s crew, I took his place even though I had just arrived at DaNang on a C-130 from Bien Hoa earlier that day. I got a ‘no-notice’ check ride that night from Major Lodge and I was the one who called DaNang Tower in my extraordinarily professional and calm radio voice, ‘DaNang Tower, Stinger 12, Rockets, F—ing Rockets!’ Tower hit the sirens and fortunately, the Tower guys laid down on the floor because one of the first rockets hit near the base of the tower and imploded the control tower windows. We completed our mission (my unexpected check ride) and I made a right seat VFR pattern ‘blacked-out’ full stop landing without Tower permission since they were off the air. I believe our aircraft tail number was 121. Total time of our mission was 3.4 hours. I did pass my check ride with minor write-ups like ‘Landed slightly left of centerline’ and ‘a little excessive interphone chatter.’ Later, some of the Tower guys found out who the guy was that called in ‘F—ing Rockets!’ Well, I never had to buy a beer for the rest of my time at DaNang if I was near the NCO Club. The Tower guys set me up with a free beer account titled, ‘Rockets, F—ing Rockets.’ How cool was that?” Wayne and Gus Sininger also remember hauling a captured live 122mm rocket in the van back to Stinger Ops to give to Colonel Teal. The Colonel was not too happy, in fact ‘pissed’ with a live rocket in his office, and he called the base EOD to come and remove it as he blessed the flying heroes out of his office. Quoted in the Sunday, 23 July 1972 edition of the Pacific Stars and Stripes, 18th SOS Det Commander, Lt. Colonel Tom A. Teal said, “We’ve stopped between 60 and 75 percent of planned attacks from coming in.” Captured documents showed that the enemy was ordered to put maximum pressure on the base. It (the air base) was supposed to be obliterated.
Colonel Norbert Simon, 56th SOW Commander, wrote In a Letter of Appreciation, dated 3 Aug 1972: “It gives me great pleasure to forward Colonel Hoover’s letter regarding the excellent results of your 13 July mission flown by Det 1. The responsiveness and accurate fire from Stingers 12 and 17 completely frustrated the enemy’s attempt to move rockets into firing positions in preparation to attack DaNang Airfield. Please extend my congratulations, along with Colonel Hoover’s, to the Det 1 Stingers. This performance clearly demonstrates the important contribution the Gunships make to the defense of the vulnerable DaNang Airfield.”
The Army helicopter gunship and two AC-119 Stinger gunship crews were awarded the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry for actions performed during the Nighthawk operation on 13 July 1972. The following 18th SOS Stinger crews who were presented with the Cross of Gallantry:
Crew # 2 – Takeoff Time: 2115 Zulu Crew # 3 – Takeoff Time: 0015 Zulu
PLT – LODGE PLT – MELEEN
COP – LAESSIG COP – BAEHRE
NAV – BOTT NAV – HINKLE
FLR – RHOADES FLR – MANGUN
NOS – BLUM NOS – ROBERTSON
FTE – SININGER FTE – GRAVES
AG1 – BARTLETT AG1 – IMAN
AG2 – McDUFFIE AG2 – KESSEL
AG3 – PHILLIPS AG3 – FRANTZ
ILO – WOLF ILO – FRIEL
From Official Order No. 43/SD3/TQT/CP/CL, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces, General CAO AN VIEN thru Brigadier General NGUYEN DUY HINH, Commander 3rd Infantry Division cited at Division Level the following Stinger gunship officers with the Award of The Gallantry Cross with Silver Star: WILLIAM G.S. LODGE, Major, 18th SOS, USAF – a brave field grade pilot officer who has extensive experience in strategy. Particularly in the aerial support patrol flight during the night of 13 July 1972 at 5kms southwest of Hieu Duc district, the subject officer, although facing with the night time darkness and the hindering mountains, disregarded dangers, observed and found out a number of enemy troops transporting rockets to fire accurately at the targets, causing death to 13 invading Communist at the place and 20 detonations from the burning rockets. Similar citations were included on the Official Order for the Cross with Silver Star for the other four officers on Lodge’s crew: Captain JOSEPH R. LENTINI, II, Major DON C. BOTT, First Lieutenant ROBERT W. RHOADES, and Lieutenant Colonel FRED N. BLUM. NOTE, First Lieutenant WAYNE LAESSIG flew in place of Captain Lentini on the mission (Lentini did not receive the award. Laessig did receive The Gallantry Cross with Bronze Star for the mission). Citations at the Brigade Level that accompanied the award The Gallantry Cross with Bronze Star were similar for the remainder of Lodge’s Stinger crew. AUGUSTIS D. SININGER, Staff Sergeant, 18th SOS, USAF – a brave and outstanding flight engineer. Particularly in the aerial support flight (Stinger-Night-Hawk) at 5 kms southwest of the Hieu Duc district, when it was found that a number of enemy troops was transporting rockets to the shelters, the subject NCO skillfully operated the aircraft engines in order to help the aircraft to move easily in destroying the enemy. The result was that 13 invading communists were killed at the place, and the burning rockets gave out 20 detonations. Other Stinger crewmembers awarded The Cross with Bronze Star at the Brigade Level were Staff Sergeant FRANK L. BARTLETT and Sergeant DANIEL R. McDUFFIE. Awarded The Gallantry Cross with Bronze Star at the Regiment Level were Sergeant ROBERT B. PHILLIPS and Sergeant LEROY A. WOLF.
From Official Order No. 45/SD3/TQT/CP/CL, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces, General CAO VAN VIEN thru Brigadier General NGUYEN DUY HINH, Commander 3rd Infantry Division cited at Division Level the following Stinger gunship officers with the Award of The Gallantry Cross with Silver Star: STEPHEN R. MELEEN, Captain, USAF, 18th SOS – a brave and outstanding pilot officer. Particularly in the aerial support patrol flight during the night of 13 July 1972 at 5kms southwest of Hieu Duc District, although facing with the bad weather, the night time darkness and the hindering mountains, Captain Meleen skillfully piloted his aircraft to fire accurately at the enemy target, causing death to 13 enemy troops at the place. In addition, with his effective air support, the Army unit pursued and shot down 12 invading communists, caught 5 prisoners and confiscated a number of documents. Similar citations were included on the Official Order for the Cross with Silver Star for the other four officers on Meleen’s crew: First Lieutenant FRANKLIN G. BAEHRE, Jr., Lt. Col. SCOTT C. HINKLE, Captain PETER B. MANGUM, and First Lieutenant WILLIAM F. ROBERTSON. Citations at the Brigade Level that accompanied the award of The Gallantry Cross with Bronze Star were similar for the remainder of Meleen’s Stinger crew. FREDRICK R. GRAVES, Staff Sergeant, USAF, 18th SOS – a brave and outstanding mechanic. Particularly in the aerial support patrol flight (Stinger-Night-Hawk) at 5kms southwest of Hieu Duc, he skillfully operated the aircraft engines in order to effectively help the air crew to fire accurately (on) the enemy targets. The result was that 13 invading communists got killed at the place and 20 detonations burst out from their rockets which were exploded by the fire attack. Other Stinger crewmembers awarded The Gallantry Cross with Bronze Star were Staff Sergeant DELANOR E. IMAN, and Sergeant THOMAS G. FRANK. Tech Sergeant NEIL M. FRIEL was cited at the Regiment Level for The Gallantry Cross.
Sources: July 23, 1972 Pacific Stars and Stripes; 18th SOS, Det. 1 Frag Sheet 13 July 72; Vietnamese Orders for Cross of Gallantry, and Stinger crewmembers Wayne Laessig and Gus Sininger.