14 April 2006

20yrs ago today another strike against terrorism

So in an earlier post I talked about how my father was involved with the freedom of navigation exercise against Libya in 1986 while sailing on board the USS Coral Sea. Well today, 14APR06 (or 15th depending on which side of Zulu you sit), 20yrs ago today he was in the ready room as the CAG brief his squadron on their part of Operation El Dorado Canyon. This is his story, again as mention before some of this is coming from human memory so some of the details are little hazy.
I mentioned that at various times during the previous 3 months of operations VQ-2 was flying their electronic intelligence birds (EA-3B's or EP-3's) collecting intelligence. What sort of intelligence? Well they were listening in to satellite phone calls, tracking movement of Soviet units in and out of Libya, tracking Libya units moving around the country, and just anything that radiates a radio signal. Heck they even record the evening news and sitcoms on the TV service. So after the FON, the Coral Maru's battle group pulled into Meissina in Italy. One of the more interesting incidents that occurred during the transit to Meissina was that a US TV news crew had hired out a private aircraft to try and over fly the battle group just near the end of the FON exercise. They were intercepted by an F-18, flown by a marine. While trying to direct them away from the battle group the news crew tried to interview him over the guard channel. The US Navy had published a notice to mariners and airmen stating that overflight of the battle group during the FON was prohibited with in 50nm of the fleet. So this pilot was watching his navigation equipment count down, and after exhausting his attempts to prevent the overflight he closed the attempted interview with this; "I don't know about you all but I have one of the best designed ECM systems in the world. If you chose to continue on your flight path you may be shot down by the ships down below and I don't want to get in their way between a dumb missile and their dumb target." Upon which he flew off and after taking some pictures for intelligence purposes flew back to his patrol position. All the while the first ship came up on guard with the standard phrase that the news crew was approaching a US Navy task force, if they had read NOTAM xxx and that if they don't turn away they will be shot down. Needless to say they turned away a few minutes later. He isn't sure if that part of the their piece on the operations go on the nightly news, but the audio record from the carriers side was played for a while in the ready rooms during the rest of the cruise.
Part of his squadron was over in Sigonella getting a few of the aircraft repaired more in depth then what the ship could provide at the depot facility there. Then on April 5th a bomb detonated at a West Berlin disco. This disco was frequented by members of the US Army unit based in Berlin. It killed 2 American Service members and injured about 200 hundred others. That night through both direct means and national technical means, intelligence services detected a radio signal going back to Tripoli from the suspected terrorist group that did the attack. That was all that Pres Reagan needed, to push the issued. The ship received orders to get underway that next day, they had to cut back their shore visit to Messina. My father stayed behind in Sigonellia overseeing the repair job with a stay back maintenance det. He was the officer in charge of the maintenance guys, while the 4 aircrew they had played around. It really wasn't that bad, 9-10hrs of work and then off to enjoy the city of Sigonellia, cause of a shortage of official government transportation and lodging at the base. The guys were put up in a 3-star hotel and were issued by the NAS Sigonellia 4 brand new BMW 325I's. So the aircrew got one, my father got one, the 2 Chiefs got one and the rest of the guys from E-6 on down had to share (about another 10guys). My father remembered were he came from though, so there were a few times so he would offer a ride to some of the junior enlisted or tell the Chiefs to ride with him while the junior enlisted had one more car to ride in.
Meanwhile the ship sailed out to their favorite location, the Gulf of Sirte, she was later joined by the USS America Battle group and again 6th Fleet flew on board from his headquarters at Naples. There was talk about bringing the USS Saratoga back, but she had already out chopped (meaning that she had already left operational control of the fleet commander) and was already overdue to be home by about 2 weeks due to her being need for the March operations.
Around the 10th the two aircraft that his squadron, VA-55, had left with the depot were put back together and had passed their functional check flight to make sure that everything worked. So the beach det cleaned up and got ready to catch the C-2 Greyhound out to the ship.
The flight out was uneventful, however the landing was different. He didn't get a chance to get completely out before he was being hounded by his department officer (the squadron maintenance officer) to get all the aircraft in an up and up situation. It was the 11th of April, and the word was that the president was thinking of direction action against Libyans for their continuing support of international terrorists.
The night of the 13th was when the real change occurred again in the ready room. Nearly all the maps that were put up to track home and cruise were taken down and replaced with very large maps of Libya and the surround seas. On top of that the squadron intel officer had put colored pins at various locations and had placed colored circular transparency material on top of various places. These represented things such search radars (and their ranges), AAA, SAM's, suspected and known fighter units, etc. Also placed with a piece of parachute cord attached to it was a cardboard cut out of the ship. The string had sharpie marks on it to represent ranges on typical load outs.
That night the skipper scheduled an AOM, or all officers meeting, where he laid out what was going on, to get the SAR data up to date, review squadron and air wing procedures for downed aircraft, and finally to collect and letters home.
The morning of the 14th opened to a bunch of commotion on the flight deck and the setting of the no smoking lamp. The magazine rats were breaking out weapons and getting them staged for lifting to the flight deck where they were going to be loaded on the right aircraft. The flight sked was in the mail box my father made for his stateroom door. Both he and his roommate looked it over and realized that the day was going to be very busy. 8 aircraft were scheduled to fly. 6 aircraft were scheduled to fly down town, with 2 as turning spares. A turning spare is an aircraft that has the engine running, the aircrew in it, and it is ready to take of and replace an aircraft that can't do it. Think of it like this, a NASCAR team who have a car turning up in the garage just in case the other car blows a engine or a gets into a bad wreck. That car would then come rolling out of the garage and right into the race. Same idea with a turning spare.
Anyhow, breakfast and lunch were kind of muted in the wardroom and in the ready room. Most of the talk was attempts to be light and tried to be fun, yet there was that air of the mission hung over everyone head. When my father got back in the ready room just after lunch is when the official word came in over the squadron telephone and planning circuit for the TV. The President of the United States had authorized a retaliatory strike against Libya in response for overwhelming evidence that they were continuing to support international terrorism. The targets had come in as well, the two A-6 squadrons the Navy was providing in this mission were going to strike targets in the Benghazi Peninsula. F-18's and A-7's were going to strike selected air defense sites in the country and flying all the way out of RAF Lakenheath was the USAF and they were supplying F-111F's which were going to strike targets in Tripoli and the surrounding country side.
Now a quick aside here, kind reader. Following the Church Committee hearings, post Watergate and Vietnam war. It came out about a number of illegal activities that the FBI, CIA, and other US intelligence agencies operations in the previous 2 decades. Such things as assassination of various foreign leaders. President Ford wrote and signed in EO 11905 which forbid any member of the US Executive Branch from ordering the assassination of a foreign leader. This was later modified by President Reagan with EO 12333 , which further drew the lines hard and fast on what could and couldn't be done by US intelligence agencies. This further defined assassination and who could and couldn't order it. Check out the link and read paragraph 2.11. Okay now that this has been said, back to the story, but keep this little tidbit in the back of your mind.
So it was found out that the Warhorses were going to bomb the airfield at Benina. Because it was believed that this is how the terrorists tied to the Achille Lauro flew out of their training camp into Alexandria and because of the MiG-23 and MiG-25 fighters based out of there could cause problems with any of the strike packages over in Tripoli. VA-34 the other A-6 squadron based on the USS America was tasked with bombing the Jamahiriyah (located in the city of Benghazi) barracks. Again because they housed members of Abu Nidal's group and other members of other various terrorist groups before then were shipped overseas on their heinous missions. The F111F's were tasked with taking down Tripoli airfield, the terrorist camp near Murat Sidi Bilal, and the Azizyah training barracks in downtown Tripoli.
The US during the time frame of the 8th up to the 11th hour on the 14th tried to get overfly rights from the Spanish and the French. Both of which denied it, so in turn the USAF units had to fly over 1300 miles out of England down around the Iberian Peninsula, through the straits of Gibraltar and over to the targets. They had to refuel over 11 times just one way.
While all of that was happening the crews that were going to fly that night were reviewing for the umptenth time safe ejection areas, the SERE cards, air defenses, etc. All while waiting for take off time. The idea was that everyone was going to hit at the same time or at least with in minutes of each other. The call came for flight ops and my father got dressed in his flight deck ensemble and like before went up top to watch the planes off and to check up on the maintainers to see how they were doing. My father got some minor flash backs looking at all the aircraft armed to the teeth up there on the flight deck waiting for the chance to fly; he served as one of the maintainers for another A-6 squadron during their 68 Tet cruise and the 1972-73 Easter Offensive cruise. Fighters with their air to air missiles, aircraft configured in the Iron Hand mission, bombers with a full load of bombs.
The engine turn up was given and everything looked good, so he went back down to the ready room to wait out the rest of the launch and recovery. Yet seconds in to the launch one of the go birds had a problem with is radar system that upon initial look was going to take some serious troubleshooting to correct, so they let loose one of the turning spares. One of the other birds had a minor problem with its TRAM turret, it got hung up while trying to get unstowed. The flight deck troubleshooter looked at it for a few minutes, bleed a bit of the hyd pressure. He had the B/N stow it and unstow it a few times more and everything worked on the up and up. The squadron's flight deck representative asked the crew if they wanted to go and they gave the go signal. So they still went
After the launch and while listening in on the ready room radio to the squadron common circuit, the bird that had a problem with their TRAM turret had it got caught up while trying to unstow. They still wanted to go, but CAG called them back and told them that unless they had an up and up system not to go. So his squadron had 2 aborts. Meanwhile the two spares had a chance to go instead. Everyone in the Navy's side of the house hit their tankers and loitered a few minutes before receiving the go word from the E-2's that were orbiting over the area directing traffic. The guys when in and did their job, the score the next morning was that over 90% of the targets were hit. Shown that night was some of the TRAM video on the ships TV service so the rest of the ship could see what was struck and they also had an explanation from the CAG of what was being struck and what was being seen on the video. After that most of that video was forwarded to the Pentagon. Loss was only 1 F111F which it is believed was shot down over the Gulf of Sirte. My father remembers that the ship in turn launched some extra aircraft and had a couple of helos standing by ready to ferry any crew rescued from a ship back to the carriers, after a call came in from the tankers that one of the F111F's was missing.
The next few days were interesting, on the BBC radio and on the various video of the US broadcast news that they got following the strike showed that while most in the US agreed with what was done. However, most of European governments and intellectual elite was up in arms, even more so when Libyan State TV came out and showed Qaddafi in bandages and with morning the lost of one of his adopted children. Now it is known that Qaddafi, like most other despotic Arabic rulers, live a nomadic lifestyle. They never stay in the same place twice in a row, sometime no one but the leader knows up to when the bus stops and everyone piles out for the night. So it just happened to be that Qaddafi was staying near the Murat Sidi Bilal terrorist camp that night. It also happen to be that the F111F that dropped the bombs there went long/short/wide with part of their stick and a couple landed near his portion of the training camp. No one knew he was there. The French a few days afterwards, and to this day, claim that the errant bomb that landed near their embassy in Tripoli was because the air crew didn't like flying the long way around. Well that is total BS too; because it was stressed, at least to the Navy strike crews, that if they were going to be dropping bombs on known military targets. However, if a civilian asset was too close or moved to close to the target then the run was to be called off. In the case of the French embassy, the US showed the FLIR video and showed how the aircraft were attack the Azizyah barracks in downtown Tripoli and how either due to dust of previous bombs or from a failed guidance head the laser guided bomb dropped on those barracks went long/short/wide and landed in the French compound. Overall, when the ship came home later that spring they were welcomed home like every sailor in the Norfolk area and the Qaddafi calmed his terrorist ambitions for a while. My father and a few of my family members are proud of what they did there and proved that the A-6 and the tactics for strike warfare that the US Navy had developed post Vietnam would work and wouldn't end up like the Bekka Valley fiasco from about 3yrs previously.

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