Lee’s Old Airplane
I was a member of the first Able Mable Reconnaissance Task Force. After leaving Japan, and refueling at Okinawa, we spent one night at Clark AFB, in the Philippines. The last leg of the flight must have been high altitude; there was frost on the walls in the plane. We were packed in like an odd assortment of sardines with equipment and parts all pressing in around us.
Our next stop was at Don Muang RTAFB, Bangkok, Thailand in mid-afternoon on 6 November 1961. Everything we needed to get four RF-101C’s ready to start flying got packed with us on two C-130 cargo planes. When we rolled to a stop, and the rear of the aircraft opened. To our complete surprise, we were surrounded by Thai Army troops with weapons in their hands. They knew we were hand carrying weapons and they wanted us to turn them over before we set foot on their soil. So, they took our guns and ammo. We immediately began unloading and setting up our maintenance area in an old hanger. The four aircraft we were expecting needed to start flying missions at first light the next morning.
We had five brave pilots ready to fly every daylight hour for the next eight weeks. Many flew low-level reconnaissance flights over Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam and received small arms fire almost from the first missions. There were no guns on these planes, only cameras to shoot pictures. Later they were sitting ducks for the surface to air missiles supplied by China and Russia.
Major Harbst landed one day after a 50 Cal round shattered the canopy right behind his head. I saw some blood on his neck when I was unstrapping him from his ejection seat. A piece of the canopy hit his neck just below his helmet. He might have been the first American injured by enemy fire. We were down to three ready to fly airplanes for a few days until a new canopy got flown in.
Over 58,000 died before that war ended. We spent two months flying many missions out of Don Muang RTAFB. The Able Mable project later moved to a different airbase. Many of those brave pilots were shot down in the war over North Vietnam.
I was the crew chief on RF-101C, 56 – 080. A/1C Leland Olson.
Able Mable Crew after 1000 Sorties in Vietnam
Our orders read have weapons as required; personnel will have in their possession all necessary field equipment including two blankets, shelter-half, and mess gear. Personal copy of immunization record, medical clearance, and personal
Identification tags. Security clearance for this mission is secret and top-secret. We left Misawa Air Base in two C-130 cargo planes. They were both loaded with aircraft maintenance equipment. We all wondered where we were headed, maybe a camping trip, huh? I didn’t think much of the tent idea.
We found out the next day we would be eating from a tent field kitchen and using the old G.I. Mess Kits while we were there. Three big garbage cans full of boiling water to dip your mess kit into after chow. Our quarters were an old building the Japanese used for prisoners in the 1940’s, but it served as a roof over our heads. The walls and ceilings were crawling with little lizards but they became friendly little guys because they ate bugs constantly. You did not want to fall asleep with your hind end up against the mosquito netting. After so many bytes in a 24-hour period, you were supposed to check in at sick-call for malaria tests
We set up cots with mosquito nets over them. It sure was better than sleeping in a tent! That was big snake country. We had outside toilets and showers; there were boardwalks to get there. Often there were snakes underneath the boards I traveled quickly to shower or the big outhouse. Our photo lab crew had a portable lab tent set up processing photos as soon as the first planes landed. “The Able Mable Reconnaissance Task Force.” The aircraft was ready on 7 November and began reconnaissance sorties over Laos the next day.
I kept the secret of the Able Mable Task Force to myself, but it soon became well known to the world that the U.S. Air Force was flying sorties out of the Royal Thai Airport. Don Muang was an international airport with planes coming and going day and night. The Thai government set us up on the far south end of the runway. We used an old hanger that was partly in the jungle. The U.S. flying reconnaissance missions over Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam continued for many years out of Thailand. In the years soon to follow there were different landing strips built in Thailand and South Vietnam.
Some school teachers from Misawa Air Base in Japan came to Bangkok for their Christmas holiday break. That soon ended the secret part of the mission for the 45th Tac Recon Squadron. We were known as the Polka Dot Squadron. After Christmas break when the teachers returned to Japan they told the Commander’s wife, “we saw your husband’s Polka Dot planes flying missions out of the international airport at Bangkok.” Able Mable had to have been set up with much haste because the polka dot paint jobs on our airplanes never got removed until much later.
The RF 101C also got used during the Cuban Missile Crisis. There were pictures on file of two people sitting in an outhouse with no roof. The cameras on the RF- 101 C showed a clear view of them sitting in their toilet. The RF-101C was an outstanding, fast photo Recon airplane during that era.