|Colonel Herbert O. Brennan, USAF|
(Portrait courtesy of Colin Kimball)
Colin is a photographer and portrait artist, he does portraits of fallen warriors. A number of his works hang in the Collin County Courthouse in McKinney, Texas. This is Colin's second guest post here at The Chant, his first was here, number two in what I hope will be a continuing series.
Colonel Herbert O. Brennan, USAF
By Colin Kimball
In the late 50’s when I was born, my father was serving as a crew chief for the 78th Tactical Fighter Squadron, the Bushmasters, on F-84F Thunderstreaks, a tactical nuclear fighter bomber, based at the now closed RAF Shepherds Grove in Suffolk England. Then Major Herbert O. Brennan was the Bushmasters’ executive officer. My father speaks very kindly about the West Point Graduate who not only had exceptional piloting skills but great leadership abilities. Fighter units being what they were in those days, were tightknit outfits and pilots and ground crews worked hard and played hard together. The formalities of rank were present during duty hours, off duty, these men were friends. My father, a young Staff Sergeant at the time, recalls found memories of Major Brennan who could grease the landings like no one else and played as hard as he worked. Hard landings and the associated maintenance they cause, are the bane of a crew chief’s existence. Major Brennan was loved by those whom he led.
Less than a decade later Colonel Brennan, a combat veteran of the Korean War, enjoyed a great assignment as an instructor at the Air Force Academy. He could have stayed stateside, enjoyed the Rocky Mountain air, bided his time to retirement and impart his knowledge to young Air Force Cadets so that he could watch his kids grow up and see his wife every night like those in the civilian world. Col Brennan was a warrior. He volunteered to serve in Vietnam. He did not have to go. He would have to put those nice simple luxuries that civilians take for granted and leave his family to serve his country.
Assigned as the Deputy Commander of the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing at Da Nang Air Force Base, Col Brennan served under the legendary Wing Commander and Korean War Ace Col Fredrick “Boots” Blesse. Boots and “Bert” as Brennan was known to Blesse, were roommates. Flying the F-4C, a Navy interceptor forced on the Air Force, the 377th became not only an active fighter bomber unit but also innovated field modifications to the Phantom by installing a gun pod on its underbelly to turn it into the gunfighter role traditionally borne by fighter aircraft. The experience of the 377th played a major role in convincing Big Air Force to influence McDonald Douglas to make a major modification to the airframe when the F-4E model was introduced later that carried an internal cannon. Further, all subsequent fighter aircraft that have been developed since Vietnam, have an internal cannon.
One of the missions that the Wing was involved in was interdiction bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in North Vietnam and Laos. As a part of their mission, they deployed a new innovative delayed action FMU-35 fuse that allowed the bombs that were released to delay their detonation for hours after they were released. The idea being that bombs dropped on the roadways would lie and wait and become mines when truck traffic resumed hours after the bombing missions stopped to catch traveling trucks traversing the roads unaware of the 750 pound bombs that now functioned as a mine. Sounded good in theory. As these fuses were deployed, the 377th began to experience mysterious losses of aircraft.
On 9 November, 1967, Lt Col John Armstrong and Lt Lance Sijan, went down under mysterious circumstances on night time bombing mission near the Ban Loboy Ford in Laos. Lance Sijan successfully ejected from the Phantom as it blew up out of the sky, with no observed ground fire, and endured a harrowing tale of survival and eventual capture by the North Vietnamese. He died in captivity as a POW and was the first Air Force Academy Graduate to receive the Medal of Honor. His story is remarkable and I recommend reading about Lance Sijan if you do not know him.
The very next day, two Phantoms from the 377th, using the call sign Baffle 01 and 02, mysteriously disappeared from radar as they dropped their bombs on a Combat SKYSPOT Mission over North Vietnam. SKYSPOT missions were directed by Air Force Radar systems and used when weather conditions prevented visual identification of targets. These two aircraft piloted by Major James Morgan and 1LT Charles Hunneycutt (Baffle 01) and Lt Col Kelly Cook and 1LT James Crew (Baffle 02) disappeared immediately from radar at the point of the countdown when their bombs were released. No communications were heard from the crews as their aircraft disappeared from radar. Without any direct observation, the mystery of the loss of these two aircraft along with Armstrong and Sijan deepened.
On 27 November, Boots Blesse returned from R&R in Hong Kong and was scheduled to fly a mission with his regular backseater 1st Lt Douglas Condit. Knowing that Bert had been flying a desk in his absence, Boots decided to let Col Brennan take his place in the line up and fly with Condit on a night mission over the Ban Kari Pass along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. According to Blesse, “it was the fair thing to do” to give up his seat on this mission. In an incident similar to Armstrong and Sijan a few weeks earlier, Col Brennan’s plane blew up in the sky. Blesse was devastated. It would have been him. He now had eight air crewmen that were lost under mysterious circumstances and he suspected faulty fuses. He made his case to higher headquarters about the suspected the FMU-35 fuses. Big Air Force sent a team to investigate, but could not find a problem and by the end of December, 1967, the FMU-35 fuses were ordered back in service.
On January 16, 1968 two Phantoms from the 377th piloted by Major Charles Lewis, 1LT Jack Kelly, and CPT Scott Stoven with 1LT Thomas Moe as his backseater were tasked with a SKYSPOT Mission. As a secondary safety measure, Lt Kelly recommended to Major Lewis that the Phantoms should execute a sharp pull up maneuver upon bomb release in the event that the fuses were causing premature detonation. The young Lieutenant’s advice saved their lives because upon the release of the bombs, the fuses detonated the bombs immediately and both Phantoms were blown out of the sky. Because of the maneuver there was enough space between the detonation and the disintegrating aircraft such that all crewmembers were able to eject. Lewis, Kelly and Stovin were picked up by rescue crews. Lt Moe was captured and spent the rest of the war as a POW. Upon return to base, with a direct observation from the survivors, the fuse problem was confirmed. Blesse’s suspicions were vindicated and from that point on he ordered the armament crews to disconnect the FMU-35 fuses. There were no further mysterious Phantom aircrew losses from Da Nang.
1st Lt Douglas Condit was posthumously promoted to Major. In 1993 his remains were returned by the Vietnamese Government. His family had closure and buried him with full military honors in his home state of Oregon. Col Blesse, retired from the Air Force as a Major General being the recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, three Silver Stars, five Distinguished Service Crosses, a Bronze Star with Combat “V” and 21 Air Medals. He retired from the Air Force in 1975 as a legend and passed away in 2013, after successfully dodging a premature end to his career by making a decision to let his friend take his place on a fateful combat mission. One can only imagine the guilt he endured for the rest of his life. It clearly was not his time. Our Lord had more for him to do. Col Brennan, the hard-working, hard-playing fighter pilot, loved by all, remains to this day missing in action, one of over 1,600 men from the conflict in Southeast Asia that still bear that status. Col. Herbert Owens Brennan served when many would not. He gave his fullest measure of devotion to serving our nation and preserving our freedoms that many folks take for granted. Please remember Col Brennan and his family. My father speaks of him in the highest regard. He was indeed a Noble Soul.
He was loved by the men he led.
Thanks Colin, for keeping the memory of these men alive.
You can see more of Colin's work here.