First Person War Stories

Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.

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Col. Kent Harbaugh: Phantom Pilot in Vietnam

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Col. Kent Harbaugh: Phantom Pilot in Vietnam

This past Sunday was Father's Day, so Warriors in Their Own Words host Ken Harbaugh interviewed his dad, Col. Kent Harbaugh.

Col. Harbaugh was a Phantom pilot in Vietnam, and later commanded a nuclear missile wing during the cold war.

Ken Harbaugh: I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors in Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.

Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.

This past Sunday was Father’s Day, so I interviewed my dad, Col. Kent Harbaugh. I grew up, like most sons, thinking my father was invincible. Even his stories about taking enemy fire as a Phantom pilot over Vietnam made him seem larger than life.

That was before I knew what it meant to go to war.

Every son, every child, one day realizes that their parents, their fathers, are mortal. All the more reason that we keep their stories alive.

Here are a few of them -- from a Phantom pilot, wing commander, and best father a son could hope for.

Kent Harbaugh:

I'm Kent Harbaugh, senior, pilot of T-38s initially as an instructor pilot and then RF-4C reconnaissance airplanes.

I'll start in fifth grade when we were assigned a weekly reader to examine as elementary students. This particular issue had an article on the founding of the Air Force Academy. That sort of impressed me, but what really impressed me was the picture of the pilot with his helmet standing in front of a thunderstorm with lightning shooting out of it. I just said "Wow, that looks neat. I'm going to do that" which, in fact, is what I ended up doing.

Well I graduated in 1963 with a path to an early master's degree at Georgetown University contingent on going to pilot training upon receiving the masters. As I left the academy, probably the best feeling I had was seeing the academy in the rearview mirror of my car as I headed off to Washington to grad school, and then to Williams Air Force Base for pilot training.

While I was in pilot training, in fact, my goal was to fly a C-130 so I could fly around the world in my own airplane and join lots of other people in hundreds of different places. But then as I neared completion of training and T-38, one of the instructors talked me into coming back as an instructor pilot, saying that would be a lot more fun and get a lot more flying. So that, in fact, is what I did for the next four years.

After I had been an instructor pilot for a year or two, the war was picking up and they needed more and more pilots. So it became more likely that I would go. And at that point, all of us wanted to go. All of us wanted to be fighter pilots and wanted to go to Vietnam.

Once I realized that I was probably going to go to Vietnam, I went along with everybody else who happened to be fighter pilots, coming back as senior instructors, and said "Well, I ought to fly an F4 and drop bombs and shoot guns." But then as the process progressed, I filled out my volunteer form to go to Vietnam, realizing that that was part of the final decision. And when the orders came back, much to my surprise, it was for a reconnaissance airplane, the RF-4 rather than the fighter that I thought I'd volunteered for. So I went to the personnel people and said "Hey, you got this wrong, I want to be a fighter pilot." And they turned around and said "No, you got it wrong on your volunteer form. You put down Recce rather than fighter." So off I went to RF-4 combat training.

The RF-4 was an interesting airplane in that it was half a fighter, the F4, but also partially a F-111. The radar had been changed and essentially had the same radar in it as the F-111. So it could follow the train and it could work around mountains. Although it was not automatic, the pilot had to do all of the maneuvering as a sensor carrier, amazingly versatile for that era of technology. It had optical cameras, it had infrared sensors and it had electronic listening, if you will, very elementary. But nonetheless it covered pretty much the spectrum of what we were looking for or looking at.

The war was going along at full speed and pilots and navigators were being called into the tactical forces from all of the commands. So in the case of the reconnaissance RF-4s, since we did a lot of our work at night. Most of the navigators came from the Strategic Air Command and were Bombardier's or senior navigators who would sit behind us and not only help navigate, but ran all of the sensors for us. So highly experienced, very senior people, some senior majors and lieutenant colonels flying in the back performing these tasks for us.

It depended on their experience and their maturity. I had some old grizzly sack bombardiers that I would follow anywhere and follow their instructions to get there. Then I had younger navigators that didn't have as much experience and I would note that they were in the rear cockpit, but I would depend more on my own sense and my own logic and my own guidance actually training them to be more experienced in the R4.

Occasionally we would have a quick reaction mission. Not sitting alert, but if an army unit got into trouble and called for reconnaissance, we would send the first crew available out to the first airplane available and in fact, plan the mission on the wing of the airplane and get into it. The other extreme were the night missions, where we would spend probably four or five hours going through the radar navigation, the steps to get from one target to the other, analyzing the threat and then finally putting together our flight plan and going to fly it. And in those cases, some of those missions would last six or seven hours with multiple refuelings.

As we studied the threats- Well, the first thing I realized was we would go into Intel and they had the maps where the threats were plotted out, red circles for those that had fired very recently and then yellow for older ones. As I looked at our targets and our flight path, I realized all we were doing is flying from one red circle to the other, which is where they had the questions about what's in there and who's shooting. So we knew we're going into it. Then it was a matter of applying a little bit of logic, and I'll give you a couple of examples:

The first time I knew I was fired at, we were at 4,500 feet trying to follow trails in southern Vietnam and Cambodia. I watched and looked out the side of the canopy and saw these birds flying up at me. Then I continued the circle, and halfway around, not only were there birds flying up at me, but they're flying faster than I was. I realized that, my gosh, somebody's actually shooting at me. But fortunately, we followed the rules. We were high enough that the ammunition, the slugs were just fluttering through the air by the time they got to us.

Another example on a night mission, we were using the infrared sensor and trying to determine when the North Vietnamese forces were coming into the South for the fighting season along the Laotian border. And there was a long valley that had the road down the middle that they would use to come in. Typically to do the reconnaissance running, you go right down the middle of the valley and cover the road. But we decided, or I decided, to take two runs, one on the left side, then one on the right side. As we dropped into the valley, we had three strobes of radar that hit our airplane, we knew it was out there. So we pushed up the throttles to full military power and we're gradually accelerating as we're doing our run. Halfway down the valley, we started seeing these flashbulbs go off behind us, one, two, three, and then the fifth one was right up beside the airplane. They were 37 millimeter shells exploding, and what they had done was determined by dead reckoning when we ought to be at what place over the middle of that road and let us have it. Now, we only did one run that night and then came home.

Yeah, I was surprised when I went- well, as an instructor pilot, I was young and brash and full of confidence and went to combat. I knew I was immortal. Just going to be invincible. Go on forever until the second or third event of people shooting at me, and I didn't get angry. I just became more realistic. "Hey, this may not last forever and I have to be ready for that."

Basically just focused on getting the job done from day to day. For example, we were there when the initial U.S. incursions went into Cambodia and we were doing it before the forces were on the ground. So we didn't question the politics of that. We had orders to shut off our IFF, no radio communications, and were to come back. That was the rule of the day. So we all did just the best we could.

As a crew member, our job was to be available 24 hours for whatever came down in the frag order. So in some cases, I would spend three or four months flying nothing but nights. So sleep all day, eat dinner, and then go in to plan and go fly. But no thought of the politics or that aspect of it.

As we got more experience, we would spend more time in the targeting process and in the scheduling. So by the time I'd been there six or eight months and had a good feel for the flying, I was in the targeting business, which would take the directions from the higher headquarters, translate them into packages of doable reconnaissance missions, and then brief them to the pilots. Later, just before I came home, I was a Wing Plans Officer, flying functional check rides rather than combat sorties and working from the office during the day.

As we developed the target packages and handed them out, there was really no questioning of why I went here or why I went there. The major reason for that is most of it was over the jungle and we couldn't see what was down there anyway.

Although, there was an interesting situation in Cambodia where we took pictures of a place called Angkor Wat, which is a very important Buddhist temple of great historical significance. In looking at the photos after we came back, the interpreters saw long white shapes inside the walls of Angkor Wat, and the intelligence people immediately said "Those must be missiles. They must be bringing anti-aircraft missiles into Cambodia." So we went back at a lower altitude, faster, and confirmed photo wise that they are, in fact, teak logs that they're using to rebuild the temple.

That resulted in a tasking from headquarters for Recce to go out and photographically identify every temple in Cambodia, no matter how old it was or whether it was in ruins or not. We spent hours and hours slogging through the jungle trying to identify these places. But in doing that, we preserved them rather than having them bombed or destroyed.

If we'd concluded that the logs were really SA2 to missiles, it would have been a major escalation in the war since none of those were in Cambodia up to that point. The natural response would be to destroy them before they destroyed us. So in all likelihood, Angkor Wat would have been bombed and lost.

The Recce pilots were the fighter pilots with brains. The rest of the fighter pilots went out in four ship formations in order to collect enough of a brain to do the job. Recce always- well, we always went out alone. Sometimes there were two ships. But completely on our own, which I found extremely rewarding because we had not only the responsibility but the complete authority to do whatever was necessary to accomplish the mission.

Our motto was 'Alone, Unafraid and Scared Shitless.' So particularly at night, it was a challenge to be out there by yourself where you could see the artillery firing into the woods that you were going to take the imagery of. But the camaraderie was one of competition, and I think fighter pilots recognized that it took somebody a little bit different to go out unarmed and do the same thing they were doing. We were the bait and they were the hammer.

The RF-4 was not at all suited for what we were using it for. Certainly not designed to do it. It was designed to be an air-to-air interceptor flown off aircraft carriers. So not much consideration for air conditioning, for example. Where the Navy pilots were up at 30 or 40,000 feet and cool as could be, we were down at 200 feet sweating our butts off. But adding the change with the sensors changed the configuration of the front of the airplane so that in fact, we were faster than the fighters. That added a little bit to the animosity of who was going first. Nonetheless, it was extremely reliable with two engines and two people able to come back.

We were over the middle of Cambodia when there was a compound that was being overrun by the North Vietnamese. So we took a photo run as low as we could go and as fast as we could go, which is just subsonic over the village and its Buddhist temple. The first time was fine. We were low on fuel, so we refuelled from a KC-135 and then it went back for the final run. Again being invincible, I wasn't concerned about making two passes at very low altitude, but as I did, I flew into a hail of lead and I'm sure nobody knew that they hit our airplane, but they did. They essentially severed three of the four hydraulic lines that kept us in the air, and started a fire inside the airplane. So we climbed as high as we could, and about that time, all those nice, comfortable green lights went out and all the yellow and red ones came on, which is not what you want to see. But then all of the lights went out and we lost all electricity.

Well, it happened that there was a fighter that had refueled just before us and we were able to get off radio calls to him. He came down, found us with his radar, and led us back to Saigon, to Tan Son Nhut. Got out of the airplane and he came over to Ops or that crew came over to Ops. As it turned out, the front seater was one of the first graduates that I had graduated from pilot training, back seater was in the last class.

We could see the runway at the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, but decided that we'd try to get back to Saigon. If we had had to eject, we had 200 miles of walking through very unfriendly territory. So we knew that really was not an option. Once the fighter caught up with us, we were fairly confident that we could keep the airplane in the air. It had stayed airborne. As it turned out, when we looked at the battle damage, part of it had blown panels off the bottom of the airplane. En route back, we had to fly through a monsoon storm downpour. So we believe that the rain came through the open belly of the airplane, put out the fire and it kept on going.

As our experience progressed, we became more and more concerned about the aircraft being shot down and the pilots who were not being rescued. But the general response was to pack one more handgun and make sure that you didn't become a prisoner. Resist as long as you're able to resist. Then if they got you, they got you.

Unfortunately, I have too many of the graduates of pilot training that I had helped train end up as POWs, plus some during the time that I was over there who were contemporaries of my own. It was difficult to adjust to the fact that they were there in the Hanoi Hilton and I was still able to come back to the BOQ and the officers club.

It was particularly difficult to recognize or admit the hardships they were going through whereas we had very good living circumstances as we continued to fly. But we knew at any time we could be the next one to go down.

There was an interesting relationship between the Army and the Air Force in South Vietnam in particular, which is where I flew- where our primary mission was supporting those grunts out in the field. At the isolated fire support bases for example, they would shoot up flares when they go by to let us know "Hey, we're down here, keep it up."

Occasionally- Well, we had photo flash cartridges in the back of our airplanes to do night photography, and occasionally we'd roll up on the side and fire a couple back at them. So it was definitely mutual respect, and in our case, admiration for the crud that those guys were going through.

The best chow was at the Army headquarters dining hall in Saigon itself. So occasionally, we'd get up our courage, get a pickup truck and head in for dinner. But we always had two or three guys in the back of the pickup to throw out the hand grenades that may have been tossed at us as we were going in. So it was always a risky business, but one that was always good for a great steak.

I'd have to conclude that our military strategy wasn't any better suited for Vietnam than the RF-4 was. We did not have an understanding of the Vietnamese culture to start with, much less any understanding of the communist North Vietnam. So much of our effort, in fact, alienated both sides rather than accommodate them. The tragedy I see is that this isn't the last war that we had that problem, that failure to understand before we went in or when to get out.

I stuck with the Air Force primarily, I think, because of the values instilled at the Academy. My first assignment back was as a matter of fact a political science instructor at the Air Force Academy. And it was at the height of the protest from the Vietnam War resisters, if you will. We couldn't wear our uniforms downtown. They were trying to plow up the entrance to the Air Force Academy to plant wheat. They'd stand up in a chapel and shout that we were killers and pigs, and I had to rationalize all that with the fact that people had been shooting at me just so these protesters would have the freedom to protest. So I saw the need to continue to serve the country through a period of great distraught. The way to do that was partially through education, as an instructor at the academy, and partially by being an officer who could explain the dilemma to the troops in the Air Force.

While I was at the academy, I had a particular dilemma. I was on the track to go back and get a Ph.D. and return as a full time instructor. But as I looked at what was happening in the Air Force, I decided that I wanted to return to the field to be with the troops rather than in the ivory tower with the scholars. As a result, I did that, and was able to try to relay some of the lessons that I had learned and seen in Vietnam to the younger troops coming through the Air Force.

Kent Harbaugh

My first flying job was as a front line rookie pilot that Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin, Texas, where I had to come back to the reality of the Air Force. Up to that point, my experience in Vietnam was you did whatever you had to do to get the mission done. Well, in the peacetime Air Force, the mission wasn't as important as the numbers- getting the flying hours, being safe, no incidents, no accidents. On more than one occasion, I had come up to the wing commander and explained why I had done something that seemed totally logical to me, but wasn't bureaucratically approved in a peacetime Air Force.

After a tour of Bergstrom, we ended up in Germany at Zweibrüken Air Force base right on the front lines essentially of the Cold War. Our mission was to essentially patrol the border between East and West Germany, Czechoslovakia, and try to watch what the Soviets were doing on the other side. It was a period where military spending had been reduced, so we had fewer and fewer spare parts. The young men and women who were in the Air Force were not getting all of the benefits and privileges they should have. But much to our amazement -my amazement- they all came together and tried to get the job done.

For example, we would have alert practices that would last two or three days and they would be in chemical gear most of that time, getting smelly, sweaty and almost like army troops. But they did it. We had one exercise where we decided that we would go ahead and simulate evacuating the base. So the Russians were coming. So they all got on their little tugs, their pickup trucks, whatever they could, and we paraded down the main street of the base and headed toward the gate. They were cheering at the, I guess real realization that they were important enough to be evacuated.

After the flying tours, I ended up being a defense attache in London. And this is a period of time where NATO decided in a dual track decision to negotiate with the Soviets to disarm, but at the same time install cruise missiles to balance the Soviet threat. So I ended up on a cruise missile base with the task of making sure that the missiles were ready, but at the same time not upsetting all of the local communities around the base.

So the big challenge was really one of community relations and getting the surrounding villages on our side, which we did. But inside the wire, the challenge was taking people who had never been near a cruise missile, training them and getting the operational and the amount of time we had. Interestingly, most of them who had missile experience were from the Strategic Air Command, and they had been at the same base for 15 years in a silo with minutemen. And here we expected them to go out into the boondocks with these transportable cruise missiles.

Well, one of the funny stories, interesting stories, was our chief chef at our dining hall was a great guy, a master sergeant. I told him that I thought that the food was very important, but it was more important for the troops who were deployed out supporting the missiles than it was for the officers who were back on the base eating in the chow hall. So he went to the army, found trailers and ways to get food out on those dispersal sites. One of his first adventures was to an army base where we had launchers hidden in trees.

We could see down in the valley, the mock village that the army had built in order to practice assaults. It was right on a little stream with a bridge. Here comes our NCO with his Humvee and his trailer of food behind him through the valley. Just when he hit the bridge, the army began their exercise, setting off explosives, blowing up buildings, plumes of smoke, everything else. He barely got up the hill to us, got out of his Humvee, and he was a black guy who was just as white as a sheet by the time he reached us. But as a result of that, when he got back to the base, we made a paper Purple Heart, and rewarded him for his combat experience as a cook, and gave him the Purple Heart.

The concept behind the cruise missile was to have a portable threat that could move more frequently than the Soviets could target with their ballistic missiles. So, the designers came up with a truck mounted launcher that would carry four missiles, could go out into the field with a launch control center, and move about every day, every other day. Guarded by a ground security force. So the intent was to move faster than the Soviets could target you. The challenge was keeping the whole thing secure and tied together.

One of the higher level challenges in NATO is the fact that if you were going to launch a nuclear weapon from one country into the territory of another, you had to have the concurrence not just of the U.S., but of that other government. So Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan would both have to agree before we could launch our particular missiles. With the relationship between the two of them at the time I was there, there is no doubt that there would be agreement. Plus, they looked at this as a defense of the UK, which in fact it was, not so much a defense of the United States. So they might even be more motivated to prevent the Russians from coming in.

My mission was to provide deterrence, which meant keeping my people and these missiles safe and able to launch at any time. So the whole focus was on being prepared with hope and expectation that if we're really prepared, we never have to be used.

The challenge was twofold. One, building up the base and the capability with people who had never been around a cruise missile, but at the same time always knowing that President Reagan and Gorbachev were negotiating to do away with us.

One of the highlights was the fact that we were able to build a base fast enough that the first flight of missiles became operational before the treaty was signed. And that did two things. One, really warmed my heart. The F-111s who were stationed at a nearby base were taken off their nuclear alert because the cruise missiles came on and that was probably 20 crew members who didn't have to go all the way across East Germany into Russia.

The other was the fact of keeping the people motivated. Once the treaty was signed, we made our goal of becoming operational, ready to go. But now we have to unplug the whole thing. The way we approached that was during all of our buildup, we had two themes. One, we wanted Gorbachev to hear every morning because today is not the day. One day at a time, but then the other was, our ultimate goal, was to force him into getting rid of his SS-20 missiles, and the trade off was our missiles. That both made the world safer while we still have the deterrence if the negotiations failed.

As a commander and a military professional, I always look to the civilian leadership and follow it. So I always knew that what I was building could be disassembled and sent home. When that happened, in fact, I was quite happy because now fewer missiles, fewer nuclear warheads, were across the world.

Most of our people saw it the same way- That we had succeeded in doing what we wanted to do.

Now, let me diverge just for a moment and mention one of the characters, RAF Molesworth, a lady named Peggy. Peggy was a devout quaker pacifist, but also a trained nurse. She stood outside our main gate, come rain, wind, snow, whatever it was, holding up posters as we came in each morning to go on duty. They were posters like "Kent, grow wheat rather than missiles" Not antagonistic or anti-American so much, but just 'I don't like what you're doing here' and I sort of have to agree with her.

One morning I went home to work and I stopped at the front gate, rolled down the window and called Peggy over to the car. She was sort of hesitant to come not knowing what I was going to do to her. Well, I told her "Peggy, you need to change that sign." She said "What?" A bit taken back. And I said, "No Americans know what Candlemas is." "Oh, you don't?" "I don't have the foggiest idea what it means. Go make another sign." So she says "Oh, ok." She went back to her little caravan.

Next morning when I rolled into the base there she was out in the rain and her sign said this time: "We like Americans, but not your missiles." I gave her a thumbs up, she gave me a smile and we had it made right there.

When we were initially organized we were the 55th tactical missile wing, which had no ring to it at all. But looking at RAF Molesworth, it had been the home for a B-17 bomb group during World War Two, and they happened to be the 303rd. So fortunately the Air Force commander was also a history buff, and I said, "Well, let's try to tie the missile wing to the 303rd bomb group, because they have a tradition here in this part of England.

He said ok, went back and we fought the change. It turned out to be a masterstroke because, for example, the farmer who owned the land around RAF Molesworth had been a small boy in the same house during World War Two. He watched the B-17s take off to bomb Germany. As the Americans were leaving, they gave him a ride and a B-17, and that made him love Americans for the rest of his life. He became a key part of the community relations effort to keep protesters away and to integrate the new American visitors into the local English villages.

As I retired and reflected back on it, I was often asked if I missed flying. The answer was no, I'm just grateful I survived. Some people ask me if I miss the prestige of being the defense attache to the court of St. James in London. The answer to that is, I prefer Texas barbecue to the cocktail circuit. So, no, I don't miss that. But I'll tell you what I do miss are the NCOs. They are the heart of the Air Force. They're the ones who taught me how to be a servant leader rather than just a leader leader. How to listen and be compassionate, how to take care of your people, and this is probably the best lesson that I have had out of my entire air force career: If you take care of your people, they'll take care of you. Which is as true today as it was 50 years ago. This was true in the civilian world as it is in the military.

KH: That was my dad, Col. Kent Harbaugh.

If you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review - it really helps other listeners find the show.

Warriors in Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with the Honor Project. Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Senior producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Dave Douglas. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Warriors in Their Own Words.

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