“Instinctively, my eyes found the patch we coveted the most … the bold, embroidered words read: ‘North Vietnam – 100 missions F-105.’ It was beautiful and signaled the finale I had dreamed about.” Capt. (later Brig. Gen.) Kenneth Bell on receiving the ceremonial 100-mission flight suit after completing his 100th mission over North Vietnam
Operation Rolling Thunder pilots had mixed emotions when President Lyndon B. Johnson called a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam in time for Christmas Eve in 1965. F-105 Thunderchief pilots at Korat and Takhli Royal Thai Air Bases in Thailand knew it would take longer for them to reach the milestone 100th mission the Air Force had determined would earn them a trip home from Southeast Asia. Still, the pilots of the 469th Tactical Fighter Squadron, deployed to Korat from McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., celebrated the no-flying Christmas Day with a party in Lt. Col. Bill Cooper’s trailer. Retired Col. Bob Krone assumed command of the 469th TFS on April 24, 1966 after Cooper was killed when his F-105 was shot down by a missile over the Phu Lang Thuong Bridge. Another pilot, 1st Lt. Jerry D. Driscoll, was captured and held as a prisoner of war in Hanoi for more than six years.
Two days after they arrived at Korat, the squadron lost its first pilot when Capt. Donald G. Green was killed on Nov. 15, 1965. In the early years of the war, F-105s had such a high loss rate that the squadron had a saying, the supreme optimist was “the F-105 pilot who stops smoking to prevent cancer,” Krone said. So reaching the 100th mission was on every pilot’s mind.
“Pure joy is a rare wartime emotion,” Krone said. “But joy comes to an aviator after the solo flight, when doing a roll after penetrating an overcast into a sun-filled sky, and especially when landing with honor after the last combat mission.
“Those of us who reached the 100 counters were the lucky ones. Thirty-five percent of all the F-105D/F pilots and electronic warfare officers who flew in the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1968 did not reach the 100th mission.”
Rolling Thunder was a systematic, but frequently interrupted, bombing campaign designed to discourage Viet Cong aggression, to interdict the flow of supplies going south and provide a morale boost to South Vietnamese forces. The Air Force flew from bases in South Vietnam and Thailand and hit targets north of the demilitarized zone across North Vietnam. Although Rolling Thunder officially began 50 years ago on March 2, 1965, bombing missions in the North actually began in 1964. The F-105D and the Wild Weasel F-105F flew 85 percent of Air Force combat missions to North Vietnam. Eight of 16 Airmen on the Wild Weasel crews that flew out of Takhli Royal Thai Air Base were killed, wounded or taken as POWs.
“The (Wild Weasels) were the guys who had the highest risk of anybody because they would go in and search for missile sites and try to wipe them out,” Krone said. “They would be there before we got there, we would leave, and they would still be there trying to clean up things. They had terrible losses. I have a lot of good friends who were Weasels. They were a huge part of the Vietnam effort.”
The Air Force was the only service that adopted the 100 mission policy. In November 1965, the service established the length of a tour as either one year or 100 missions in Laos and North Vietnam, or a combination of the two, although by February 1966, only missions over North Vietnam counted toward completing a tour. However, to reach 100 missions, pilots faced MiG fighters, surface-to-air missiles and a combination of anti-aircraft artillery and automatic weapons.
“As far as I know, there was never a policy like that before Vietnam, and I don’t think there has been one since,” Krone said. “The policy was we’re sending you there for a combat tour, but you will not have to go back involuntarily until everybody else with the same qualifications as a pilot has gone. That was a historic policy for the military.
“It was continually on people’s minds of getting to that 100. It didn’t deter anybody from flying a mission, but it was a cloud that hung over everybody all the time. It was a cloud that let you know when the sun would come out, and you would be going home.”
Under Krone’s command, the 469th TFS designed a 100 Mission Patch in 1966 and also initiated the “100 Mission Reception” for pilots returning from their 100th mission. They were greeted by fire engines and trucks loaded with crew chiefs firing flares to lead the aircraft as it taxied to the parking ramp, where they were met by commanders, pilots and maintenance specialists with congratulations and champagne on a red carpet. They then rode to operations to log their final mission on the mission board, followed by the “Ringing of the Bell” in the bar.
Krone also helped to produce an Air Force Aerospace Audio Visual Service film called “There is a Way” to remind pilots that it was possible for them to reach the 100-mission mark, and established a policy that every attempt would be made to make a pilot’s final three missions routine with low risk, or “a milk run.” His own 100th mission, when he became the first squadron commander to reach the plateau, was a milk run. His 99th was not, he said.
No other pilot was available on a huge joint mission to Nghe An Province, North Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh’s hometown, a large military depot on the Red River Delta.
The 100-mission policy ended as Rolling Thunder began winding down in March 1968 without achieving any of the operation’s strategic objectives. After President Johnson ended all bombing north of the 20th Parallel, aircrews arriving after June served one-year tours, regardless of the number of combat missions.
After his tour ended in June 1966, Krone was sent to personnel headquarters at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, to set up a crew control shop that would manage the Air Force’s pilot and navigator resources stateside for Southeast Asia needs. He also spent 10 years advising the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, on the planning for the “100 Mission Exhibit” that was opened in 2009.
During Operation Rolling Thunder, U.S. aircraft dropped 643,000 bombs and inflicted about $300 million of damage on North Vietnam; however, the military also lost 900 aircraft, and estimates put the cost of the bombing campaign at about $900 million.
During his career, which ended in 1975, Krone flew a total of 125 combat missions in Southeast Asia, received the Silver Star, Bronze Star, four Distinguished Flying Crosses and 11 Air Medals. He earned a doctorate degree as a colonel at UCLA in 1972 and has been an author, educator and consultant in advanced management theory and practice. He was involved in NASA research in 1980 while on the University of Southern California faculty, which eventually led him to become the president of the Kepler Space Institute in 2013.
Despite the controversy of the war back home, Krone believes the pilots who flew in Rolling Thunder, as well as the thousands of service members who served in Vietnam, made an important lasting contribution that historians are just beginning to fully realize.
“My conclusion for the meaning of the Vietnam War was the United States spent 11 years fighting communism in Vietnam and helped the demise of communism, because it tended to make them concentrate on what we were doing, rather than going elsewhere in Southeast Asia, which they were dedicated in doing,” Krone said in a presentation he gave on the meaning of Rolling Thunder and the war to the National Museum of the United States Air Force.
“They didn’t go to Singapore, Indonesia or Thailand, and that was all in their design. I firmly believe that one of the main reasons the Cold War ended on our behalf was the fact that we spent that time and resources in Vietnam.”
At the 50th anniversary of the beginning of Rolling Thunder, Krone and other pilots who survived their combat missions on North Vietnam will honor their comrades who didn’t make it home.