Saturday, 25 May 2024

‘The Misty Experiment’ shines another light on Vietnam War



‘THE MISTY EXPERIMENT’ ON PUBLIC TELEVISION

The consequences of the Vietnam War remain arguable and controversial. Nearly 50 years after the infamous fall of Saigon, one can easily debate why victory proved unattainable or how we ended up in an unfortunate quagmire.

Was it the failure of political leadership? After all, Vietnam figured mightily in Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection for the presidency in 1968. Was it the struggle of fighting an enemy that uses guerrilla tactics and the dense jungle for cover?

Airing on public television stations across the country in time for Memorial Day, “The Misty Experiment: The Secret Battle for the Ho Chi Minh Trail” tells the largely unknown story of U.S. Air Force pilots volunteering for a treacherous secret mission.

By 1967, American forces in Vietnam had entered a stage of expanded air and ground battles throughout Southeast Asia during a time of increased southward flow of weapons and supplies from North Vietnam.

Convoys of trucks carrying Chinese and Russian supplied weapons traveled on newly carved or expanded roads through the jungles of Cambodia and Laos, known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Traditional intelligence flights, the Air Force’s Forward Air Controllers, were hobbled by slow aircraft that made them easy targets. It became clear the U.S. needed to fly closer and faster to gain the advantage.

Quietly, an elite squadron of combat-seasoned pilots was recruited, supported by on-the-ground intelligence and ancillary personnel. Referred to by their radio call sign, the so-called “Mistys” would spend months flying into danger.

The select pilots knew they had a 30 percent chance of being shot down, killed or taken as prisoners of war. The latter possibility was not a good one, as the horrors of internment were well-known. The late Sen. John McCain was a poster boy for POW torture.

“The Misty Experiment” chronicles how judgments by American military leaders resulted in not being allowed to hit ports where supplies to North Vietnam were coming in. The decisions were made to keep Chinese forces from moving into the battle.

As supply routes were left open for North Vietnam to exploit, the U.S. government became convinced a new approach was necessary. Air Force commanders designed an experimental method that needed pilots with steely nerves.

As seen in the film, Misty pilot Don Sheppard, who flew 58 missions and later became Major General, says when the nation was not willing to bomb the harbors, “we were the ones who had to pick them off, truck by truck.”

The pilots “were a bunch of guys who would do anything to accomplish the mission we were given … an impossible mission to stop the flow of arms and material coming south,” Sheppard says.

Unlike today’s automated drones and satellites that pinpoint target areas, the Mistys relied on human observational skills to root out enemy movements.

The pilots developed “Misty eyes” in the ability to spot signs of enemy troops such as dust accumulations on tree leaves indicating nearby movements, tell-tale splash patterns on creek beds pointing to truck traffic, or too-perfect canopies that suggested man-made camouflage.

The Mistys flew hours-long daily missions, putting their bodies through extreme physical stress from G-forces during quick evasive maneuvers, while also taxing their eyes and brains to identify and remember enemy locations.

Upon their daily returns, and often finding their planes riddled with battle damage, the pilots would debrief for hours with intelligence officials to create detailed maps with the crucial information they recounted.

“There was an atmosphere of innovation,” says Misty Intelligence Officer Roger Van Dyken in the film. “One flight reconnaissance fed into the next. The next day’s group of pilots tested the theories from the day before. There was constant pressure.”

The missions began showing results after just a few weeks, and the thrill of flying risky sorties proved undeniable to the plots. The physical and mental strains of flying F100s caused the Mistys to be limited to 100 missions in 120 days.

“There were a few of us thought ‘gee, this is so much fun. How can I can back to South Vietnam? This is where the action is,” says Misty pilot and military history author Dick Rutan, who appears in the film and was himself shot down and then rescued.

Of the 157 Misty pilots who served, 34 were shot down; eight were killed and four became prisoners of war. About half of the men who served are living; many are in their late 70s and 80s.

The discipline required for these missions translated into other successes after leaving the missions. Two pilots became Air Force Chiefs of Staff; two more became astronauts. Many became industry CEOs. One Misty alumnus received the Medal of Honor for his service.

Those interested in history and military history buffs, in particular, are bound to find “The Misty Experiment: The Secret Battle for the Ho Chi Minh Trail” a fascinating look at the bravery of men called to duty in a war that divided the nation.

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.

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