The Vietnam War Should’ve Ended in Days, not Years

America’s Greatest Military Blunder Explained in Kamps’ Foreword to Midair

Excerpted from Midair by Craig K. Collins (Lyons Press)
Available here in hardback, paperback, ebook and audiobook.

Read Midair: Chapter One | Read Midair: Chapter Two | Read Midair: Chapter Twenty-Eight

on Harten’s name is not common knowledge in America, even within the service to which he dedicated his adult life. This, to be sure, has something to do with the fact that Don’s war — Vietnam — is not normally revered in heroic terms in US military history. But, just as surely, his name is what the term “unsung hero” is all about.

Midair (Lyons Press) is a true account of one of the most remarkable tales of survival in the history of aviation — a midair collision at 30,000 feet by two bomb-laden B-52s over a category 5 super typhoon above the South China Sea during the outset of the Vietnam War.

Above all, Don was a warrior who could be mistaken for someone who would feel more comfortable in the age of medieval knights except for one thing: flying jets. His driving ambition was to be the very best at his profession. While his comrades-in-arms received accolades for shooting down enemy MiGs or, less fortunately, for showing great leadership among fellow POWs at the Hanoi Hilton, Don’s goal was to be the absolute best at precisely delivering high explosive ordnance on enemy targets and bringing his flight mates home to talk about it.

With great determination he pursued that goal through multiple combat tours in three different aircraft types that were as different as night and day: the B-52, the F-105, and the F-111. This itself was an achievement that set him apart from his contemporaries. Becoming an expert in these diverse platforms, he not only successfully took them into the jaws of death but dedicated himself to improving their capabilities and tactics.

he B-52, of course, is the centerpiece aircraft of this story. One can only imagine the horror of two massive jet bombers heading right for each other at high speed over the middle of the South China Sea and, oh yes, at night during a typhoon. Don’s survival story is harrowing indeed. The near disasters, the near rescues, the sea conditions, and last but not least, the sea creatures, keep you on the edge of your seat with a quiet “I’m glad that wasn’t me” going through your head.

Listen to first three chapters of Midair free here.

When I was asked to write this foreword, I expected to be treated to a standard military biography, but that’s only half the story. Interspersed among the narratives of Don Harten in Vietnam are vignettes of the extended tribe that produced a man like him. These passages are captivating as one identifies family traits that show up in Don. To be sure, there is a good bit of dysfunction here, and a lot of recurring behavior that, in normal individuals, would be considered character flaws, but in a combat pilot are positive attributes. The result is a well-rounded picture.

lthough combat pilots have occasionally been maligned with having reputations as hard-drinking womanizers who like fast cars, they seldom fit such a one-dimensional mold. In more than two decades of working with them at the Air Command & Staff College in Montgomery, Alabama, I’ve found them, as a whole, to be dedicated professionals with a high degree of analytical skill outside of their own areas of expertise. The Vietnam generation of pilots was no different. Popular history likes to brand the Vietnam-era pilot as someone with a cowboy mentality and a “stabbed-in-the-back-at-home” complex, who shouldn’t be taken seriously when it comes to analyzing the war.

Lt. Don Harten’s B-52 bombing a Viet Cong stronghold in North Vietnam, 1966. (Official USAF photo.)

Serious history, however, comes down on the side of the pilots and the generals. In studying the documents and interviews dealing with critical decisions of the war, both sides agree that massive bombing in 1965 would have severely crippled North Vietnam’s ability to wage war. For example, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs William Bundy and Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton, the two architects of President Lyndon Johnson’s eventual “incremental” bombing campaign, admitted in their draft cover memorandum that the Joint Chiefs’ “Option B” for a heavy dose of air power was more likely to produce results than the other options on the table. On the other side of the hill, since it is always good to ask the people who won, Sr. Col. Bùi Tín of the North Vietnamese General Staff remarked in an interview: “If all the bombing had been concentrated at one time, it would have hurt our efforts. But the bombing was expanded in slow stages under Johnson and it didn’t worry us. We had plenty of time to prepare alternative routes and facilities.” Don Harten believed that at the time, and has held that position ever since.

Listen to first three chapters of Midair free here.

Just what was it that Harten and the Air Force were expecting to do when his wing deployed from Mather AFB, California, to Andersen AFB, Guam, in February 1965? The plan, which was developed but never executed, was as follows:

First Night: Strike by thirty B-52s from Guam against the jet fighter base at Phúc Yên, north of Hanoi, followed the next morning by sixty-eight fighter-bomber sorties striking the Gia Lam air base in Hanoi and the Cat Bi air base in Haiphong, as well as revisiting Phúc Yên.

Phase I (3 weeks’ duration): Continuous attacks on lines of communications and military installations south of the 20th parallel in North Vietnam.

Phase II (6 weeks’ duration): Isolation of North Vietnam by destroying rail links to China.

Phase III (2 weeks’ duration): Isolation of North Vietnam by mining port approaches and destroying port facilities; destruction of supply and ammunition storage in the Hanoi-Haiphong area.

Phase IV (2 weeks’ duration): Destruction of all remaining targets on the Joint Chiefs of Staff 94-Target List and re-attack of other targets not completely put out of action by initial attacks.

At that time such a program was undoubtedly achievable as North Vietnam had weak air defenses with only thirty-four fighters, no surface-to-air missiles, and comparatively few anti-aircraft guns. Unfortunately, we waited years to finally launch a serious air offensive that would ultimately bring the enemy to the negotiating table. The shame is that we didn’t do it sooner, avoiding the investment in blood and treasure that followed the “gradualism” policy.

As our famous North Vietnamese opponent, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, observed in an interview with PBS in 1983, “There is only one rule in war: one must win.” Don Harten never forgot that, but our policy makers did.

Charles T. Kamps
Assistant Professor of Joint Warfare Studies
US Air Force Air Command & Staff College
Maxwell AFB
Montgomery, AL

Read Midair: Chapter One | Read Midair: Chapter Two | Read Midair: Chapter Twenty-Eight

Author Craig K. Collins, right, and his uncle Maj. Don Harten, a retired combat pilot who’s remarkable survival story and experiences in Vietnam are told in the book Midair. Collins is the author of two books of literary non-fiction: Thunder in the Mountains (Lyons Press, 2014) and Midair (Lyons Press, 2016). He is currently finishing the manuscript of his first novel due out in 2021. (Photo: Sacramento Bee)

Craig K. Collins is a San Diego-based writer and the author of Thunder in the Mountains (Lyons Press, 2014) and Midair (Lyons Press, 2016). He has a novel due out in 2021.

Available in hardback, paperback, ebook and audiobook.

Copyright © 2016 by Craig K. Collins. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote passages in a review.

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Craig K. Collins

Author of Midair (Lyons Press, 2016) and Thunder in the Mountains (Lyons Press, 2014). At work on a novel, as well as a book of historical non-fiction.