A look at the history of the F-100D "Super Sabre" aircraft's service in Vietnam, and the important role it played during the Tet Offensive.
In the quiet of the Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia sits the U.S. Air Force F-100D “Super Sabre,” serial number 56-3440. Only the jungle camouflage and bombs hanging under the wings suggest the airplane’s history of service in Vietnam. 440, as it is familiarly known (the last three digits of its serial number), was in Vietnam from June 1965 until July 1970, but its most intense combat was seen 50 years ago, during the Tet Offensive.
The campaign took its name from the Vietnamese new year celebration, Tet, that begins on the second new moon after the winter solstice. In 1968, the second new moon occurred in the early morning of January 30. In prior years, there had been an unofficial truce period around the holiday – each side would independently announce what dates they would observe a truce around Tet, but the dates were often not the same. North Vietnam announced in October 1967 that it would observe a truce from January 27 to February 3, but the North Vietnamese government had already planned to start a “General Offensive and Uprising” at the beginning of Tet. North Vietnam’s leadership believed that the South Vietnamese were angry with their ineffective, collaborationist “puppet” government and the U.S. for its military presence and political interventions. The North was convinced that their “General Offensive” would lead to a “General Uprising” by the Southern population.
At midnight on January 30, 1968, Vietcong forces (with some support from the People’s Army of Vietnam, better known in the U.S. as the North Vietnamese Army or NVA) simultaneously attacked five provincial capitals in central South Vietnam along with the coastal city of Da Nang, with a second, much bigger wave of attacks hours later. This was the beginning of the largest military action by either side in the war up to that point.
What’s now known as the Tet Offensive lasted until September 23, with pauses ahead of the second and third phases of fighting that began on May 5 and August 17, respectively. Throughout this period, the USAF F-100s, including 440, flew almost daily ground attack missions from Biên Hòa Air Base outside Saigon against Vietcong and NVA targets, mostly in the south.
The F-100 was an important part of the U.S. response to the Tet Offensive. Officially called the “Super Sabre,” USAF personnel more often called it the “Hun,” short for “hundred” after its designation number. The Hun was originally designed as an interceptor (to intercept incoming bombers before they could drop their bombs), the C and D models added aerial refueling and ground attack capability, including the ability to carry nuclear weapons. Ds made up the majority of F-100s used in Vietnam along with some two-seater F models.
North American Aviation delivered 440 to the Air Force in December 1957. For the next few years, the aircraft rotated through several Tactical Air Command squadrons based in the U.S., with temporary duty deployments at bases in France, Spain, Italy, Turkey, and Japan.
In June 1965, with the increase of U.S. military assistance to South Vietnam, the 31st Tactical Fighter Wing, to which 440 belonged, began rotating its four squadrons through 90-day temporary duty assignments at Biên Hòa Air Base in South Vietnam. 440 arrived with the first squadron, but was destined to remain in the country for many more years. These were among the first U.S. jet aircraft assigned to Vietnam. In November 1965, the USAF changed the basing of its aircraft in Vietnam from temporary duty to a permanent change of station. The Air Force also reorganized its personnel, and 440 served with numerous squadrons during the war. It was part of the 90th Tactical Fighter Squadron (3rd Tactical Fighter Wing) from May 1966 through March 1969, including during the Tet Offensive, and is currently painted and marked the way it was during this period.
Though initially F-100s in Vietnam were used to escort F-105s in the bombing role, the Air Force discovered that the aircraft were not a good match against North Vietnamese MiG-17s and -21s in air-to-air combat. Ultimately, although designed as an interceptor, F-100s served most of the war almost exclusively in the close air support (CAS) of ground forces mainly in South Vietnam, southern North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
The Tet Offensive in 1968 was aimed at U.S. and South Vietnamese government and military locations in South Vietnam. Consequently, most of the F-100’s targets during this time were “in-country.” 440 is displayed with a typical load for an F-100 on an in-country CAS mission at this time: two unfinned napalm canisters on the outer wing pylons; two external fuel tanks on the intermediate pylons; and two 500-lb Mk. 82 “Snake eye,” high drag bombs on the inner pylons, a combination the pilots called “snake and nape.” Both types of bombs could be dropped from low altitude, with the napalm dropped on the first pass over a target, and the bombs on the second pass. Most Hun missions were short, lasting between one and two hours, and it was not unusual to fly more than one mission per day. Sometimes they struck targets mere miles from their bases, leading pilots to quip that they were dropping their bombs before their gear was even up.
F-100 pilots gained a reputation for getting in low, especially on CAS missions. The low altitude improved accuracy – important when some missions required dropping bombs within about 165 feet (50 m) of friendly forces. The reliability and accuracy of the F-100 led the ground forces to refer to the planes as “flying artillery.” This low flying often came with a cost – in 1967 one pilot succumbed to ground fire while making his ninth pass against a target. During its time in Vietnam, 440 was hit by ground fire at least six times, and once went so low when dive-bombing that it flew through the treetops before it could regain altitude. It wasn’t the only one: numerous F-100s were lost to ground fire and tree strikes, though others were able to return to base after such episodes.
The pilots faced danger on the ground as well as in the air. Viet Cong (VC) sapper soldiers would try to sneak onto the base at night to place explosive charges next to planes, ammunition dumps, fuel depots, or support vehicles, while VC snipers would occasionally fire on personnel or even target aircraft landing or taking off! Biên Hòa Air Base was also struck by a large force of three NVA units at the start of the Tet Offensive. The attackers began their assault at 3:00 a.m. on January 31 and managed to destroy several aircraft, but the attack had been beaten back by 2:00 p.m. Though Biên Hòa was never again threatened by ground assault, the NVA and VC occasionally launched rocket and mortar attacks from outside the base perimeter.
Even though the Tet Offensive ended in September 1968, it had changed the nature of the war, bringing increased combat to South Vietnam for the rest of the conflict. In 1969, the USAF began drawing down its forces as the U.S. tried to return responsibility for fighting the North to South Vietnam and its army, a policy called “Vietnamization” of the war. 440 returned to the United States in July 1970, serving with the USAF until June 1972, when it was one of the last F-100s in the USAF. 440 served with the Michigan Air National Guard from 1972 until 1978. On August 8, 1978, 440 made its final flight to Andrews Air Force Base, where it was turned over to the Museum. In April 2013, 440 was put on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center, restored to its appearance while serving in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive.