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The Vietnam war airman who dodged a million bullets

Don Harten says: “I always just assumed I would die in Vietnam. It never occurred to me I wouldn’t.”

As a combat pilot in the United States Air Force, the retired lieutenant completed no fewer than five tours of duty during the Vietnam war. Beginning as the conflict itself did in 1965, he flew two tours in the massive B-52 Stratofortress bombers. Harten switched to F-105 fighter jets for two further tours. Having “retired” to become a test pilot, he returned in the war’s final stage to fly the new, but erratic F-111. “I was there on the first day of the Vietnam war, and there on the last,” Harten noted in 2014. That was seven years, 10 months and 26 days.

According to Craig Collins, Harten’s nephew and the author of Midair, a new book about his uncle’s military service, such duration is not just unprecedented but very nearly miraculous. The chances of an F-105 pilot being killed during a single tour of Vietnam (roughly 50 missions) was about one in four. Harten flew more than 165 missions in the F-105 alone (a total Collins believes underestimates the many unofficial sorties his uncle made). Add in 124 B-52 missions and 30 in the F-111, and Harten’s total exceeds 300.

“How he lived is a million-to-one,” Collins says. “I grew up in Nevada where there’s a lot of gambling. I am pretty sure [Harten] is the only living pilot to have been in Vietnam from the very first bomb dropped to the very last. The odds of surviving five tours of duty in Vietnam are minuscule.”

Midair makes a valiant attempt to understand how Harten survived practically unscathed, to argue for the importance of his service and weigh the impact it had on his life. It is tempting – perhaps too tempting – to attribute Harten’s indestructibility to innate talent and self-confidence. How talented was he? If one believes Air Force estimates for 1967 – that an aircraft would be fired on about 10,000 times during a single mission – then Harten dodged more than 1.6 million bullets. What makes this statistic even more incredible is the fact the planes he flew were hit only three times: twice in the tail, and once a minor shrapnel graze of the fuel tank.

Harten was, as Collins writes in the book, a top gun before Tom Cruise popularised top guns. Speaking from his home in San Diego, Collins remembers his uncle as an almost impossibly glamorous figure who flashed vividly in and out of his own childhood.

At times Harten was, perhaps, a little too vivid. One memorable afternoon, he roared up to the Collins household in his red MG sports car with silver spoke wheels, skidded to a stop and leaped out, resplendent in sunglasses and bomber jacket. Greeting his sister (Collins’ mother) with a hug and kiss, Harten convinced the entire neighbourhood she was conducting a passionate affair. This was the message that greeted Collins’ father when he got home. “That was the kind of guy Don was,” Collins says. “He would draw attention.”

Braggadocio alone does not explain Harten’s almost unique invulnerability. Collins proposes an additional combination of ambition, perpetual self-improvement as a pilot, a family inheritance of near-preternatural calm and, of course, sheer good luck. Harten was the sort of man who draws a royal flush in five-card poker at odds of something like 130,000 to one. But he was also a diligent student of flight patterns and enemy tactics.

Nowhere were all these character traits more in evidence than during the extraordinary events that began over the South China Sea on June 18, 1965. The ensuing disaster at 9,000 metres, dive into inhospitable elements and encounter with a shark not only dominate Midair – and give the book its title – but they changed Harten’s life and, above all, his relationship with death.

Harten had arrived in Southeast Asia four months earlier, in February 1965. He was part of a squadron of 30 B-52s that had flown to Guam under orders from US President Lyndon B. Johnson. After a 12-hour refuelling stop, the planes were meant to continue to North Vietnam, where they would drop 635 tonnes of bombs on Hanoi and surrounding military targets in the single largest bombing raid in history.

The highly classified mission was conceived as retaliation for a Viet Cong attack on Camp Holloway, in Gia Lai province, on February 7, which killed seven US soldiers and injured 126. Generals in the National Security Council also hoped to end escalating communist aggression in a single blow.

“It was shock and awe before there was shock and awe,” Collins writes. Except that the strike never happened.

Johnson, seeking “to avoid images of the wealthiest country in the world dropping bombs on the capital city of a largely impoverished third-world country”, favoured the “gradualism” strategy espoused by defence secretary Robert McNamara. Johnson’s decision to authorise Rolling Thunder, eight weeks of “incremental aerial bombardment”, ended the devastating “decapitation” plan favoured by General Curtis LeMay, chief of staff of the US Air Force.

On Guam, Harten and his comrades spent four idle months at Andersen Air Force Base, swimming, snorkelling, fishing, drinking beer and chatting up women. They were unanimous in their conviction that Rolling Thunder was “Fubar” (f***ed up beyond all recognition).

“There was no way fighter jets could bring even a small country like North Vietnam to its knees by punching at its jungle midsection,” Collins writes. “The consensus was that the jet jockeys needed to step aside and let the big boys take out Hanoi in one or two missions.”

For Harten, these reservations were justified when the Viet Cong refused to enter negotiations with the American aggressors. If anything, they had grown in strength, audacity and, crucially, support. The Soviet Union, which only weeks earlier had been unwilling to offer assistance, had now sent anti-aircraft batteries and surface-to-air missiles.

In May 1965, Harten’s B-52 squadron was finally author­ised to attack. Codenamed Arc Light, the new operation targeted the jungle of the Ben Cat district and was scheduled to take off at 3am on June 18. If a 4,000km, top-secret mission conducted in radio silence with midair refuelling doesn’t sound hazardous enough, Harten and his comrades flew into Super Typhoon Dinah, a category-five storm with winds topping 300km/h. The fourth-largest typhoon in recorded history, it had whipped up the waves in the South China Sea to 12 metres.

Typhoon Dinah was responsible for the first major mistake in this inaugural Arc Light mission. Under the command of Captain Jim Gehrig, Harten’s B-52 was one of three that arrived early at the aerial refuelling location over the Luzon peninsula in the Philippines. Treading water (so to speak) at 9,000 metres for nine minutes was no easy feat for planes that, fully fuelled, can weigh 118 tonnes, not counting 22 tonnes of ammunition.

Flying one minute apart, each B-52 banked left and began a 360-degree circle, 40km in circumference. Harten identified a problem long before it materialised. His B-52 would complete its circuit at about the same time as the next cell of three planes, flying about two minutes behind, would arrive. If Harten’s calculations (which he voiced to his navigator) were correct, they risked a head-on collision with another B-52 at a closing speed of 1,700km/h.

Tragically, Harten was proved right. While the oncoming plane dived in time to avoid a direct crash, its massive tail sliced off a portion of Harten’s right wing, cutting open the fuel tank. The resulting explosion could be seen 320km away.

What happened next was the stuff of nightmares. Gehrig ejected, but, whether in fury, haste, panic or a combination of all three, he forgot to fasten himself into his seat, which held his parachute and life raft. As the B-52 spun out of control, Gehrig fell 9,000 metres to certain death.

Various possibilities flashed through Harten’s mind, but his only option was to eject. Gehrig’s mistake was a reminder to buckle himself into his seat, but in the first of several tech­nical malfunctions, the ejection trigger failed. Harten was on the verge of parachuting from one of the plane’s hatches (a suicidal notion, as it meant abandoning his survival kit), when the mechanism finally worked and he shot into the night.

Harten’s desperate battle to release the trigger meant he had not been sitting in the correct posture to absorb the 15 Gs of force caused by ejection. By rights, he should have died.

“Thirty per cent of all plane ejections are fatal anyway,” Collins tells me.

Harten sustained severe whiplash that broke a vertebra in his neck. There was no time for pain, as directly below, the B-52 was being rocked by a series of explosions, the third of which blasted shrapnel into Harten’s left calf. When the plane eventually crashed into the ocean, 22 tonnes of jet fuel blew up, forcing the rapidly descending Harten to take yet more evasive action.

His own plunge into the South China Sea brought no relief. The typhoon turned his parachute into a wind-powered speed­boat. Yanked to the surface, he was dragged through the water, flipping onto his back to avoid drowning. After another battle with stubborn equipment, he managed to release one of the pins connecting him to the chute.

He clambered onto his inflatable, oval rubber life raft. About the size of an average bathtub, it was tossed about by waves bigger than most houses. The survival bag proved useless, designed with Arctic conditions in mind: wool socks, a rifle, sleeping bag, ski mask, a guide to surviving the tundra. The most useful items – a radio and flare – were missing, probably lost during ejection. Harten, Collins concludes, was “floating in the South China Sea with only his wits and hope”.

Dawn brought little relief from the storm, only rising nausea and extreme fatigue. A huge orange freighter passed only 400 metres due north without spotting him. The only reprieve from monotony was occasional bouts of terror. Harten was suddenly dragged underwater by the parachute, which was still attached by one of two cords. Only frenzied cutting with his knife saved him from drowning – again.

By this point, readers of Midair will have lost count of the times Harten could, and prob­ably should, have died. Even good news had a habit of turning bad. Weather conditions improved as Typhoon Dinah moved north to Taiwan, where its 230km/h winds destroyed 500 homes. But Harten now had time to think: “How long would he live? Another day? Two days? … What would it be like to drown? Would it hurt? … Would they ever find his body?”

Just when he thought it was safer to be in the water, he spotted something moving in his peripheral vision. “From beneath a wave, a large fin sliced the water and came to the surface again, passing beside the raft before slipping out of view…” The prospect of a shark attack was, Collins suggests, his uncle’s deepest fear – so much so that Harten formu­lated a suicide plan, reserving one bullet for this very purpose.

The next few hours passed in a cycle of vomiting and shark watching. Hope arrived, at long last, in the shape of a US Air Force refuelling plane. But even salvation would be drawn out and dogged by disaster. A new life raft was dropped, then swept quickly out of reach.

When it came, the rescue aircraft almost crashed and had to be rescued itself. A frozen, exhausted Harten would eventually be transported to safety on the same orange freighter (a Norwegian ship called the Argo) that he had glimpsed earlier.

 

While Harten was fighting for his life in the South China Sea, his squadron – now 27 in number, after a third plane had been forced to land in the Philippines – completed its mission. Twelve hundred bombs destroyed an area of jungle measuring 1.6km by 3km. The value of Arc Light was significantly harder to measure. The Pentagon declared the raid an unqualified success but not one Viet Cong casualty was found, nor any evidence of damage to Viet Cong defences.

As well as narrating Harten’s individual story, Midair makes a provocative argument about American foreign policy in Southeast Asia. The biggest players in the US military and political establishment are portrayed as locked in their own war of attrition. Collins says Harten has never wavered in his belief that LeMay’s plan to carpet-bomb Hanoi in February 1965 would have ended the Vietnam war before it began. As Collins writes in Midair, one single, devastating B-52 mission would have prevented 129,000 others.

This theory is backed up by Charles Kamps, a military historian at US Air Command in Alabama, who writes the foreword to the book. Another historian, Emeritus Professor Robert McMahon of Ohio State University, is not convinced.

“I don’t think the war could have been avoided by a massive attack on Hanoi in early 1965,” he says. “The basic problem that the United States faced then, and throughout the war, was that the Viet Cong insurgency in the south controlled a significant portion of the territory and population of South Vietnam. Nothing that was directed at North Vietnam would have led to the defeat of the southern-based insurgency.”

Harten, whom Collins describes as “extremely patriotic and anti-communist”, is equally zealous in his denial that the US lost the Vietnam war.

“My uncle is adamant that we won,” Collins says, arguing the Linebacker II bombardment against Hanoi in December 1972 was a facsimile of LeMay’s plan for February 1965.

“The US bombed for eight nights and the North Vietnamese crumbled. They had zero defence after that. I am convinced [the US] won the war, and then just walked away.”

Again, McMahon demurs. “It is a great exaggeration to say that the insurgency in the South, or the North’s ability to continue fighting the war, were destroyed,” he says.

The Viet Cong were significantly weakened, he argues, but fighting continued in the South, conducted by North Vietnamese regular forces. “That problem is never solved by the US until Kissinger essentially capitulates during the drawn-out secret negotiations and agrees not to contest the continuing presence of North Vietnamese forces in the South.”

And what of Harten himself? “He is, I am pretty sure, the only pilot to have had a catastrophic collision at an extreme altitude and high velocity, ejected and lived,” Collins says.

The bullet that would have ended his life had the shark attacked became a lucky charm accompanying Harten on every one of his subsequent missions. It became a symbol of his respectful disregard for death.

“Don always said one of the things that got people killed [in Vietnam] was panic and fear. The B-52 crash gave him the perspective that I might as well go out in a blaze of glory.”

If this makes Harten sound like an irresponsible maverick, then it’s far from the case. As Midair illustrates, he was so cool and calculating that Collins suspects he was either a high-functioning sociopath or suffered from narcissistic personality disorder – or possibly both. Harten certainly broke rules, disregarding standard procedures as an F-105 pilot. But in this instance, years of experience and study convinced him the flight plans ordered by Strategic Air Command were costing lives, in part, by being so predictable to Vietnamese and Russian artillery.

Reading between the lines, Midair is an exploration of obsession, how an intense passion creates meaning but closes down myriad possibilities.

“God, I loved flying combat,” Harten told his nephew recently. “I loved it more than life itself.”

This love was born innocently enough, in childhood, when Harten saw a fighter jet scream over Pocatello, in the US state of Idaho, during a military air show after the second world war. By adulthood, however, flying seems to have become a substitute for the kinds of relationships and joys that define most people’s existences.

“[Don] did two tours in the B-52 which fulfilled his requirement. He could have gone home and had a cushy job anywhere in the world,” Collins says. Instead, he remained long beyond the point that even the most ardent patriot might have considered dutiful.

Is this why Harten maintains so stridently that the US was victorious in Vietnam, because he needs political justifications to vindicate his extra­ordinary service? Or are deeper, more human impulses at play? Collins concedes that the very skills that made Harten a great fighter pilot did not equip him for a happy civilian or emotional life. Now 75, he lives alone in Nevada, not far from Nellis Air Force Base, which provides a poignant soundtrack of jets roaring overhead.

The price he paid for his choices and experiences suffuse Midair’s bathetic and melancholy final chapter. Married three times and with “countless” ex-girlfriends, Harten has rarely seen his children in the last 30 years, and has never met his grandchildren.

“Don finds people difficult … After an hour or two of being around people – especially family members – Don gets exhausted from having to maintain a façade of sociability,” Collins says.

What lingers is the impression of a man who lives in almost self-imposed solitude, trapped by the past. Harten’s main points of human contact today are other retired combat veterans, perhaps the only people able to fully understand what he has seen and done and what he continues to live with.

“You don’t know what survivor’s guilt is, with eight of your closest buddies dying,” Harten said in 2014, a defiant combat pilot to the last.

“If I could go relive it all over again, I would in a heartbeat – even if it meant I had to go through another B-52 crash,” he says. “I’d do it gladly just for a chance to fly combat again.”

Dinah’s other victims

Typhoon Dinah killed at least 61 people in Taiwan and 19 in Japan in June 1965, but didn’t affect Hong Kong too badly, according to the South China Morning Post .

In Macau, two film crews were inconvenienced, according to a June 19 report.

“Overcast skies and occasional showers have made outdoor shooting virtually impossible, and camera tech­nicians are cursing the weather for its vagaries, which lets the sun out when they are at their meals but hides it when they emerge into the open,” ran the report, referring to the crew producing The City of the Name of God , a movie that would not be released until 1969.

Omoon or The City of The Name of God , as the movie database IMDb calls it, stars Terutoo (or Terutoyo, according to the Post) Taneda, a Japanese actor about whom not much is known online.

The other film crew was from “North German Radio”(presumably the Hamburg-based Norddeutsche Rundfunk), which was documenting Macau for a television series called Mirrors of the World .