Air Force Capt. Adam West spotted the convoy near the invisible line that split North and South Vietnam, just as he'd spotted countless Viet Cong convoys shuttling a seemingly endless supply of weapons in a war that felt like it would never end.
Business as usual, the Council Bluffs native thought as he called in the airstrike.
Two Navy F-4 fighter jets swooped into the area on the afternoon of Jan. 27, 1973, beelining to drop their 500-pound bombs and destroy the enemy caravan.
West commanded the bombing run, his 177th mission as a forward air controller in Vietnam, from a slower-moving turboprop known as an OV-10 Bronco. He had been here nearly a year, and these runs had long since blurred together. Some days West flew a mission, landed, debriefed, rebriefed and went right back up into the sky.
Except that today, something seemed wrong. As he flew near the target, why did the Viet Cong fire their heavier artillery? The kind they rarely fired? The kind that could turn an American plane into dust?
“Why are they pumping every last thing they have at us?” West wondered.
Business as usual. That's what West's commander had demanded at the morning briefing.
The order was shorthand for this: Ignore the news that American and North Vietnamese officials had all but reached a peace accord in Paris. That the ink was drying on a cease-fire and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam.
There was ample reason to stay skeptical. Two U.S. presidents had tried, and failed, to broker such a deal for the better part of five years. In October 1972, the war had seemed over. Just after New Year's Day 1973, it had seemed over.
The war wasn't over.
So West dodged in and out of the clouds and listened to the radio as the F-4s, each flown by a two-man crew, reached their target.
Run one: Business as usual. The American fighters destroyed several of the trucks. We're taking heavy incoming fire, they reported over the radio.
Run two: The Americans destroyed several more trucks. Except this time, one of the pilots reported he had pulled out of his bombing run. The incoming fire was too thick.
West knew all about surviving enemy fire that seemed too thick — it had strafed his wings so many times, he'd lost count.
He had flown his Bronco into typhoons. He had landed his Bronco with punctured fuel tanks and busted radios and blown-up engines.
He was still here, unlike the roughly one in three forward air controllers flying slow-moving turboprops whose Vietnam tour would end with a flag-draped casket. Even better, every fighter pilot Capt. West had sent into battle had come home.
Third run coming.
The lead F-4 dipped toward the convoy, dropped the rest of his bombs, started to pull away and ...
“We've been hit,” the unfamiliar voice of Navy Cmdr. Harley Hall, the lead F-4 pilot, crackled through the radio.
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Stay calm, West thought, stay calm. They had planned for this moment. The pilot of the F-4 knew where to steer his damaged plane, where to eject, where to parachute to safety.
“We have to eject now,” Hall said over the radio.
West turned his head and watched two parachutes float slowly toward the ground, directly above the Viet Cong.
“I'm fine,” said the voice of Lt. Cmdr. Phil Kientzler, the other person in Hall's F-4, as he drifted helplessly toward the ground, talking on what's called a survival radio.
Then he wasn't.
“We are taking incoming fire.”
American bombs had been raining on the Viet Cong all afternoon. They had no plans to take prisoners.
“Alpha is hit,” Kientzler said on his survival radio.
Alpha was Hall.
“He's limp in his chute.”
Several seconds passed.
“I've been hit.”
The survival radio went dead.
A continent away, beneath the priceless chandeliers of the Majestic Hotel, official delegations from the United States, North Vietnam and South Vietnam reviewed the final draft of what would come to be known as the Paris Peace Accords.
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Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon's confidant, and North Vietnam's Le Duc Tho had hammered out the details in the previous week.
Truth be told, they had come to almost this exact same agreement before Halloween 1972, but South Vietnam's president, angry at his exclusion from the negotiations, had balked at the deal and slowed it for months.
But none of that mattered anymore.
Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., the famed U.S. ambassador, signed the agreement with a flourish of a ceremonial pen on Jan. 27, 1973, as did William Rogers, U.S. secretary of state. Kissinger and Tho smiled and shook hands for the cameras.
There was only one detail left: In the comfort of a four-star Paris hotel, the men decided that the cease-fire would begin at midnight, Greenwich Mean Time.
After all, they had been fighting forever. What was one more day?
Council Bluffs' Capt. West didn't know of the signing ceremony or the handshakes happening in western Europe.
He was screaming at another pilot trying to rescue the downed F-4 crew just across the border in South Vietnam.
“I'm going down for a look-see,” said the Air Force pilot, Lt. Mark Peterson, a man West had never met.
“No, you aren't!” West ordered. He could see the Viet Cong guns pointed at the sky, waiting.
“Yes, I am,” Peterson replied calmly.
A surface-to-air missile screamed toward Peterson's plane.
“Break left! Break left! Break left!” West yelled. Peterson broke left, and then back right.
The right engine exploded and Peterson's plane began to tumble. Two more parachutes, belonging to Peterson and co-pilot Capt. George Morris, floated toward the ground and landed. Morris came onto his survival radio.
Peterson has been seen, he said. He's OK. He's going to be captured.
Roger, West said.
“Oh, my God, they just killed him!” Morris screamed into his radio.
Seconds of agonizing silence.
“They see me!” Morris said.
“Roger that,” West said. “Understand. Prisoner of war.”
“Roger. POW,” Morris said.
Then West heard Morris scream, and the sound of a .51-caliber machine gun firing. He listened as another survival radio dissolved into static.
Let's skip past West flying his Bronco back to base that day, the fuel gauge on empty, his brain numb, his chances slim, before he landed with maybe 30 seconds of fuel to spare.
Let's blow right by the story of Lt. Cmdr. Phil Kientzler — the co-pilot on that downed F-4 — who miraculously survived and returned home after a brief stay in a POW camp.
Let's skip West getting out of the Air Force and having a long and successful career as a civilian intelligence analyst. Breeze past him moving back to the Omaha area, to Lake Waconda, and finally, as a 64-year-old, having time — maybe too much time — to think about his 177th and final mission in Vietnam.
Let's focus in tight on what happened after West landed that night, after he tried to explain to an irate commanding officer what had gone wrong.
In the middle of the night, the shelling and gunfire that West had heard every day for a year — the noise that sounded as normal as the wind — dissolved into static.
Silence. Minutes of unbearable silence.
Then fireworks began to explode in the night sky. Actual fireworks. Celebratory fireworks.
The cease-fire had been reached. The peace treaty had been signed. West was going home.
For most U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, the war had ended. For West, it had ended one day too late.
“You just sit back and you wonder 'What could I have done differently?' If I had done this instead of that, would they be alive?”
On his 177th and final mission, Capt. Adam West lost three men.
They were among the last pilots to die in South Vietnam.
“I guess someone had to be last.”
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