100 Missions North: History and Traditions

By Duford, Jeff | Air Power History, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

100 Missions North: History and Traditions


Duford, Jeff, Air Power History


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In November 1965, the United States Air Force instituted a 100 combat mission tour for aircrews flying out country over North Vietnam and Laos. Before then, these aircrews rotated in and out of theater on temporary duty. With Operation Rolling Thunder heating up, however, the need to station and replace aircrews in Southeast Asia on a long-term, stable basis became evident. The 100 mission tour policy spawned a rich tradition among Air Force aircrews which included a special patch, elaborate end-of-tour celebrations, and many humorous customs. This tradition provides a meaningful insight into the unique culture of Air Force Airmen who flew over North Vietnam during the war in Southeast Asia.

History

Mission-based tours date back to the U.S. Army Air Forces' experience during World War II. Initially, a tour was determined by time, typically one year in a combat theater. In late 1942, numbered air force commanders were authorized to determine tour lengths. Commanders periodically raised the required number, in some cases up to 100 combat missions, to maintain aircrew numbers and because the odds of survival rose as the Axis war machine declined. For some USAAF aircrews, however, tour length depended on time in theater or the number of combat hours flown. (1)

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Maintaining combat effectiveness was the most important reason to rotate crews on some fixed basis. Exposure to battle over time eventually led to combat fatigue, rendering an Airman ineffective or incapable of performing his duties. Other reasons included spreading hazards equally and getting combat-trained Airmen back to the States to train new ones. USAAF Airmen appreciated having a fixed tour based on missions, and they felt it improved morale considerably. They preferred having something to work for and look forward to, rather than the hopeless alternative where they would fly in combat until they were seriously injured, captured, or killed. (2)

During the Korean War, the Air Force also utilized a mission-based tour policy. In 1951, the criteria for a tour was established at 100 combat missions for single-engine fighters, forward air controllers, tactical reconnaissance aircraft, and fifty combat missions for twin-engine fighters, bombers, and multi-engine reconnaissance aircraft. In 1952, the benchmark rose to 100 combat missions for fighter and reconnaissance aircrews, 100 missions (or nine months in theater) for forward air controllers, seventy combat missions (or nine months in theater) for all-weather fighters, fifty combat missions for light bombers (B-26s), and six months for medium bombers (B-29s). (3)

During the early part of the Southeast Asia War, from 1961 to 1965, Air Force aircrews based in South Vietnam stayed for one to two years, while those based in Thailand served on a temporary duty basis, typically 90-120 days. By fall 1965, Operation Rolling Thunder strikes against North Vietnam placed higher demands on personnel rotation. In early November, tour length became one year or 100 missions out-country (meaning Laos or North Vietnam), whichever came first. (4,5)

This policy permitted aircrews to count previously flown missions over North Vietnam and Laos, and the first Airman completed a 100 mission tour less than two weeks after the policy began. On November 15, 1965, Capt. Donald Beck, an RF-101C pilot in the 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, completed his 100th out-country mission (Beck's total included missions over Laos and North Vietnam).G The first Airman to fly 100 missions over only North Vietnam was Capt. Eldon "Joe" Canady, an RB-66C electronic warfare officer (EWO), who completed his 100th on December 13, 1965. (7)

Perhaps the most difficult 100-mission tour to complete involved the F-105 Thunderchief aircrews. "Thud" losses represented nearly twenty percent of all USAF combat losses during the war, and most of these occurred during Operation Rolling Thunder. …

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