The date was Aug 6, 1973. A trio of three behemoth B-52s wended their way, at 30,000 feet, to a crucial target in Southeast Asia.
Their destination: a village in Cambodia that had become a sanctuary for North Vietnamese, a redoubt for waging attacks on American troops in South Vietnam — and later a fertile breeding ground for the Khmer Rouge, whose subsequent takeover of Cambodia would result in a genocide.
The plan called for the B-52s, each carrying 84 500-pound bombs in the internal bomb bay while 24 750-pound bombs hung on the underwing pylons, to home in on a battery-powered beacon set up in the center of an old town. They were depending on the beacon, installed by U.S. Special Forces and part of a system known as Wet Snow, as an offset aiming point so the bombs would score direct hits on their target.
But something went terribly wrong. A crew member failed to flip off a switch tying his B-52’s bomb release point to the beacon. As a result, 30 tons of high explosives rained down on Neak Leung, a Cambodian ferry town east of the Mekong River, killing 137 noncombatants and wounding 268.
As the nation approaches Veterans Day on Friday, Florida’s Vietnam-era veterans — more than 500,000-strong — still cope with not-always-visible scars from that conflict. The residual effects can involve survivor’s guilt, recurring nightmares or persistent pangs of regret, as have dogged Air Force Capt. Kenneth Boone Sampson, a 76-year-old Miami native and veteran of 363 missions as a bombardier-navigator in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.
Two nights earlier, Sampson had participated in a similar bombing run, guided by the same beacon. Sampson and his crew had been bombing Cambodia for eight months. But this night was different.
“The weather was bad, and I kept everyone coordinated,” Sampson remembers. “It was difficult to hit the target. ‘Wet Snow,’ the beacon system, was a complex bombing technique.
“We encountered thunderstorms towering to 50,000 feet — which I had been ordered to avoid by 20 nautical miles — while aligning the bombs on target. I was the lead aircraft. The pilots in the No. 2 and No. 3 bombers could not follow my upper rotating beacon light because of the closeness of the thunderstorms to the bomb run track.”
Sampson realized that the radar beacon was closer to the aircraft than the target and sprang into action, making constant adjustments of the video gain and antenna tilt.
Meanwhile, bombs bounced around in the aircraft as it approached, at 500 miles per hour, the aiming-point beacon and the target, enemy troop concentrations.
As he closed on the target and the aiming point, Sampson found that maintaining the radar aiming crosshairs on the beacon became increasingly difficult. The antenna tilt had to be constantly adjusted down toward the beacon. Sampson eventually hit the target.
Back at his base, Sampson, who believed himself a beneficent bomber who saved the lives of lots of ground troops, was blunt when he spoke with his mission debriefing officer about the crew’s ordeal.
“I told him that this Wet Snow bombing procedure was dangerous and almost beyond my capability as the most experienced bombardier on station, and would be very dangerous and risky for many of the less experienced bombardiers.”
He says the warning was ignored, resulting in the carnage two days later. It has haunted him ever since.
“I should have been more stern, raised more hell. It made me sad, angry, disappointed. For about 30 years, the Neak Leung disaster — for which the U.S. Embassy apologized and paid damages — was the root of a strong, sometimes overwhelming post traumatic stress guilt trip.
“He’s one of my favorite characters,” Ret. Air Force Lt. Col. James T. Larkins said. “Straightforward, decent guy.”
Larkins, author of High Road to Hanoi, flew with Sampson with the same wing but in a different squadron.
“When you fly in rough weather, the hazard goes up a little bit,” Larkins says. “You’re pushing closer to a limit and the chances are risky. The beacon could be part of the problem, not the whole of it.”
A 1964 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Sampson had to fight in the post-war years for an official diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It took a long time, but eventually the VA acknowledged his condition, thanks in part to the assistance of Col. Charles W. Hoge, a famed expert in PTSD at Walter Reed Memorial Hospital.
Today, he’s respected and beloved by retired air crew members in the reunions he attends.
“Reunion members recognize his power and comradeship,” said Larkins. “They look up to him.”
Sampson is in constant touch with the Miami Vet Center and attends group sessions from time to time.
A key part of his message: “Don’t medicate. Speak out. I wrote reams about my story..... My recovery is mostly related to my narrative.”
A crew member failed to flip off a switch tying his B-52’s bomb release point to the beacon. As a result, 30 tons of high explosives rained down on Neak Leung, a Cambodian ferry town east of the Mekong River, killing 137 noncombatants and wounding 268.
Indeed, the Miami VA uses trauma narrative in exposure therapy to relieve tension and stress, says Dr. Daniella David, chief of psychiatry and medical director of the PTSD program. “It’s one of the evidence-base therapies used at the VA in the treatment of PTSD. When vets feel depressed, they should go to the VA and talk to a therapist.”
Today, Sampson lives with his Thai wife, Angkarb Toy. They’ve been married 42 years.
“I’m the one who suffers,” she jokes. “I take everything from him. He’s a good guy now, but before, it was very bad. I don’t regret anything. I love him. We hang on.”
Dalton Narine is a retired features editor for the Miami Herald and a Vietnam veteran with PTSD who served in the Iron Triangle and the Michelin Rubber Plantation. He can be reached at email@example.com.
South Florida veterans
As of September 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Florida had 401,206 peacetime veterans and 1,157,235 wartime veterans. The latter include:
▪ 474,468 Gulf War veterans
▪ 506,040 Vietnam era veterans
▪ 156,802 Korean Conflict veterans
▪ 79,688 WWII veterans
▪ 255,805 Iraq/Afghanistan veterans
Note: Some individuals served in more than one conflict, a reason why the individual numbers don’t add up to the total.
Department of Veterans Affairs
Veterans Day Events
Thursday, Nov 10
Veterans 5K Buddy Run: You and two friends are asked to befriend a service member (a reservist, a member of the National Guard, an ROTC cadet, active duty or veteran) and enter the run as a team; 7-9 p.m. Thursday; Fort Lauderdale Beach Park, 1100 Seabreeze Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. $22.50, $30. 954-802-7402.
Friday, Nov 11
Miami Beach Veterans Day Parade and Picnic: Will be held along Ocean Drive from Fifth to 14th streets, turning on 14th Street and proceeding to Flamingo Park baseball stadium at 1435 Michigan Ave. The parade is followed by a wreath-laying ceremony and picnic with a demonstration from the All-Veterans Parachute Team; 11:11 a.m.-1 p.m. Friday, Free. 305-673-7575 or http://web.miamibeachfl.gov/news/scroll.aspx?id=77448.
Surfside Veterans Day Ceremony: Includes presentation of colors, scout troops and the mayor as master of ceremonies. Light refreshments provided; 10 a.m., Veterans Park, 8791 Collins Ave., Surfside. 305-866-3635 or www.townofsursidefl.gov.
Nova Southeastern University Honors Veterans: Features the BSO Color Guard, guest speakers and active and retired military personnel. Nova Southeastern University – Don Taft University Center, 3301 College Ave., Fort Lauderdale-Davie. Free. 954-262-2159.
Red, White & Tunes: A Veterans Day tribute features performances by three local bands, and includes a free buffet for the first 100 veterans. All proceeds go to the Florida Veterans Foundation; 6 p.m.-midnight; Marina84 Sports Bar & Grill, 2440 W. State Road 84, Fort Lauderdale. Call Becky Jaime at 954-734-2424 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Warrior For Life Veterans Day Yoga: The yoga class is led by Judy Weaver, co-founder of Connected Warriors, and includes a guided meditation by Molly Birkholm, founder of Warriors At Ease. Mats are available; 4 p.m., Museum Park, 1075 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Free to all veterans and military personnel with ID and for kids under 12; $15 minimum donation for all others. 305-458-1647 or http://bit.ly/2fe7iPV.
Veterans Day Share-A-Haircut Program Hair Cuttery is hosting its Veterans Day Share-A-Haircut program on Nov. 11. For every haircut purchased at a Hair Cuttery salon, one free haircut certificate will be donated to a veteran. Last year, Hair Cuttery donated 30,000 free haircuts; Hair Cuttery 1788 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.