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Troy Curnutte made a wonderful and very detailed Facebook post about his father, former USAF F-4 pilot Lt. Col. William Curnutte. Lots of stories and pictures. Lt. Col. Curnutte was in the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing, the Gunfighters, at Da Nang Air Base, Vietnam, in 1968-69 during which he flew 103 combat missions with 36 missions over North Vietnam. Here is Bill’s USAF bio:
Sad to report that Gary “Busch” Retterbush, one of the true heroes of the Vietnam war, slipped the surly bonds of earth on July 25, 2022. I was lucky to have served with Busch in the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Korat Air Base, Thailand, in 1972. My roommate was Dan Autrey, one of Gary’s backseaters. Our squadron was TDY from Kunsan Air Base, Korea, during the most intense time of the air war over North Vietnam in the summer and fall of 1972. We flew F-4Ds (ours from Kunsan) and F-4Es (from Korat).
Here are some of Gary’s USAF accomplishments:
- F-105 Thunderchief pilot
- ejected from an F-105 50 feet above the ground on 15 Dec 61
- 100 missions in the F-105 over North Vietnam
- F-4 pilot
- Shot down two MiG-21s in 1972. See Gary Retterbush 2 – North Vietnamese Air Force 0
- Three Silver Star medals. The Silver Star is the third-highest military combat decoration that can be awarded to a member of the United States Armed Forces. It is awarded for gallantry in action while engaged against an enemy of the United States.
I kept in touch with Gary over the years via Facebook despite the fact he lived for many years in Germany. He frequently liked pictures I posted. One of my biggest regrets in life is that I failed to interview Gary, Dan Autrey and Bob Jasperson via Zoom about Gary’s two MiG kills and another mission where Gary and Dan were attacked by two MiG-21s that fired four Atoll heat-seeking missiles at them 53 miles north of Hanoi. Dan was Gary’s WSO on Gary’s first kill and Bob was his WSO on the second kill. Now I know I have to do the interview with Dan and Bob.
Dan Autrey made an audio tape of the mission with Gary during which they were attacked by the two MiGs. FYI: Red Crown was the call sign of a Navy ship in the Gulf of Tonkin that had very sophisticated radars and electronics that allowed it to track all airplanes (friend and foe) airborne over North Vietnam. The Air Force Red Crown equivalent had the call sign Disco. It was an EC-121 four engine propeller airplane that orbited over Laos. In 1972 Red Crown and Disco radioed to U.S. airplanes over North Vietnam the location (range and bearing off of Bullseye aka Hanoi) of airborne MiGs.
The highlights of Dan Autrey’s recording of a mission with Gary are:
- Red Crown calls on the radio that blue bandits (MiG-21s) are at a range and bearing close to Lark 3, Gary and Dan’s call sign. Gary says “Send him out here. I’ll blow his ass off.”
- Red Crown says “Heads up. Bandits coming into the strike route 350 for 53.” Translation: MiGs are 53 miles almost due north of Hanoi approaching the F-4 bombers that were being escorted by Lark flight, a flight of four strike escort F-4Es lead by the commander of the 35th TFS, Lt. Col. Lyle Beckers (he also shot down two MiGs that summer). Gary says “305 for 53.” Dan corrects him and says “he said 350 for 53.” Gary says “they’re behind us.” At that moment the surface to air missile launch tone comes on loudly in each man’s headset, but there was no strobe on the round threat screen that normally would show the direction from which a SAM was launched. The enemy simulated a SAM launch to distract Gary and Dan while two MiG-21s attacked them from their low six o’clock position. A few seconds later Col. Beckers radioed “Lark 3 break left.” Beckers was checking Lark 3’s six o’clock and saw the missiles come off the rails. Gary immediately banked 90 degrees left and put five Gs on the F-4E. The two MiGs were at Lark 3’s six o’clock low in trail about a mile apart flying supersonic. They climbed and when each got within missile range (9,000 feet) of Lark 3 each MiG fired two Atoll heat seeking missiles at Lark 3. Dan looked back at his 7 o’clock and saw four missiles coming at Lark 3. Guess what Dan said? It’s what I would have said. When Dan saw those four missiles that wanted to kill him Dan said “oh shit.” Thanks to Col. Beckers warning and Gary’s immediate turn all four missiles missed Lark 3. Not too long thereafter Gary got on the radio and for directions to the nearest MiG. He wanted to blow its ass off.
Theo van Geffen visited Gary Retterbush on November 9, 2021. Gary is on the left and Theo on the right. Theo wrote “I drove from Utrecht, Holland to Eisenstatt, Germany to visit the Retterbush family. During that most enjoyable visit we heard a lot of war stories and I handed F-105 Thunderchief book one to Gary, dealing with its peacetime operations (book two will deal with SEA ops). Gary was the very first USAFE F-105D pilot to land at Bitburg in May 1961 and the very last F-105D pilot to depart USAFE in February 1967, from Spangdahlem. Gary, while TDY to Korat from Kunsan, downed a North Vietnamese MiG-21 on September 12 and one on October 8, 1972. The attached photo shows Gary on the left and me on the right.”
Gary is a fighter pilot’s fighter pilot. See his article called “Gary Retterbush 2 – North Vietnamese Air Force 0.”
Captain Mike McGrath spoke at the at the United States Air Force Academy’s 2019 annual National Character and Leadership Symposium (NCLS). He talked about his six years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, North Vietnam. The NCLS is the USAFA’s flagship event on character and leadership. It brings together distinguished scholars, military leaders, corporate executives and world-class athletes to motivate and equip participants for honorable living and effective leadership.
Jim George and James “Jink” Bender talk about the A-1 Skyraider and its role in the Secret War in South East Asia, and the slow, vulnerable Korean War vintage, propeller-driven fighter-bombers they flew on Combat Search And Rescue missions.
SAR missions (Callsign “Sandy”) A-1 Skyraiders were tasked with locating and protecting any pilot who was downed by hostile ground fire, while leading and directing the entire rescue effort.
ON December 5, 6, and 7, 1969 a massive 3-day rescue effort was conducted for the 2-Man crew of anF-4C Phantom (Callsign Boxer 22) shot down in Mu Gia Pass,“The Deadliest Air Space in History of Air Warfare.”
Excerpts from an Oct. 20, 2019 interview with Col. Ken Cordier, a former United States Air Force pilot who was an American prisoner of war in North Vietnam for 6 years, 3 months and 2 days during the Vietnam War.
Brigadier General Steve Ritchie (five MiG kills), Colonel Chuck Debellevue (six MiG kills) and Lt. Colonel John Markle (one MiG kill) of the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron out of Udorn Air Base, Thailand, in 1972 and share their experiences flying the F-4 in aerial combat over North Vietnam. Their presentations at the Hill Aerospace Museum as part of the Plane Talks series were recorded in three parts. The second and third videos are all the men answering questions from the audience.
Part 1 of the Presentation
Part 2 of the Presentation
Part 3 of the Presentation
This is the story of Major Robert Lodge and Captain Roger Locher getting their third MiG kill on May 10, 1972, then getting shot down by a MiG. Major Lodge refused to eject because he had vowed never to become a prisoner of war.
Captain Locher ejected and spent the next 22 days walking west in North Vietnam to get to an area where he could be rescued. On June 2, 1972, twenty-three days after he was shot down 119 U.S. aircraft were involved in Locher’s rescue.
Oyster 1, with pilot Maj. Robert Lodge and Weapon Systems Officer (WSO) Capt. Roger Locher, was the lead Phantom in Oyster Flight, a four-aircraft flight that, together with Baltar Flight, was tasked with providing MIGCAP (MiG Combat Air Patrol) air-to-air protection in pre-strike support operations against the Paul Doumer Bridge. Time on Target was scheduled for the eight planes at 9:45 a.m.
For more read “Roger Locher Talks about Getting Shot Down & Evading for 23 Days.” I urge you to watch General Steve Richie’s video in which he describes the loss of Oyster 1 and rescure of Roger Locher. Steve said the following about the rescue:
“We come to fully understand the effort to which we will go, the resources we will commit, the risks that we will take to rescue one crew member, one American, one ally. Isn’t it a very powerful statement about what kind of people we are? About the value that we place on life, on freedom and on the individual? . . . The real mission, yours and mine, business, government, civilian, military, is to protect and preserve an environment, a climate, a system, a way of life where people can be free.
This nine minute video by General Ritchie describes in detail his memories of the day Roger Locher and Bob Lodge were shot down and Roger’s rescue 23 days later. It is a great speech. I recommend you watch the entire video.
Lance Peter Sijan was a United States Air Force officer and F-4 fighter pilot. On March 4, 1976, he posthumously received the Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest military award, for his selflessness and courage in the face of lethal danger.
Here is the text of Lance’s Medal of Honor citation:
“While on a flight over North Vietnam, Capt. Sijan ejected from his disabled aircraft and successfully evaded capture for more than 6 weeks. During this time, he was seriously injured and suffered from shock and extreme weight loss due to lack of food. After being captured by North Vietnamese soldiers, Capt. Sijan was taken to a holding point for subsequent transfer to a prisoner of war camp. In his emaciated and crippled condition, he overpowered 1 of his guards and crawled into the jungle, only to be recaptured after several hours. He was then transferred to another prison camp where he was kept in solitary confinement and interrogated at length. During interrogation, he was severely tortured; however, he did not divulge any information to his captors. Capt. Sijan lapsed into delirium and was placed in the care of another prisoner. During his intermittent periods of consciousness until his death, he never complained of his physical condition and, on several occasions, spoke of future escape attempts. Capt. Sijan’s extraordinary heroism and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty at the cost of his life are in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Air Force and reflect great credit upon himself and the U.S. Armed Forces.
Lance is the only graduate of the United State Air Force Academy who received the Medal of Honor.
Lance ejected from his stricken F-4 on November 9, 1967 over Laos near the border of North Vietnam. Wikipedia says:
“During his violent ejection and very rough parachute landing on the karst ridge, Sijan had suffered a fractured skull, a mangled right hand, and a compound fracture of the left leg. He was without food, with very little water, and no survival kit; nevertheless, he evaded enemy forces for 46 days. During this entire period, Sijan was only able to move by sliding on his buttocks and back along the rocky limestone ridge and later along the jungle floor. After managing to move several thousand feet, Sijan crawled onto a truck road along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, where he was finally captured by the North Vietnamese on Christmas Day, 1967. Very emaciated and in poor health, Sijan was imprisoned in an NVA camp. Soon thereafter, he managed to incapacitate a guard and escape into the jungle, but was recaptured several hours later.
Sijan was transported to a holding compound in Vinh, North Vietnam, where he was placed in the care of two other recently captured POWs, Air Force Major Robert R. Craner and Air Force Captain Guy Gruters. Although in terrific pain from his severe wounds and brutal beatings and torture from his captors, Sijan had not disclosed any information other than what the Geneva Convention guidelines allowed (name, date of birth, service, rank, and service number). Suffering terribly from exhaustion, malnutrition, and disease, he was soon transported to Hanoi, under the attentive care of both Craner and Gruters. However, in his weakened state, he contracted pneumonia and died in Hỏa Lò Prison (better known as the “Hanoi Hilton”) on January 22, 1968.
To learn more about this American hero go to read “The Courage of Lance Sijan.” Better yet, buy one of my favorite books called “Into the Mouth of the Cat: The Story Of Lance Sijan, Hero Of Vietnam,” a book that tells Lance’s story.
Watch this video about Lance:
See also “Unbroken Will: The Story of Lance P. Sijan”
On May 24, 1996, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed titled “Still the Noblest Calling” written by F-100 fighter pilot JD Wetterling. This excellent Memorial Day appropriate article starts:
“I visited with three old friends recently at a park in my town. It seems like only yesterday that we were all together, but actually it had been 28 years. There was a crowd at the park that day, and it took us awhile to connect, but with the aid of a computer we made it. I found Lance at Panel 54W, line 037, Lynn over at Panel 51W, line 032, and Vince down at line 103 on Panel 27W. We were gung-ho young fighter pilots in Vietnam, the cream of the crop of the US Air Force pilot training system, and now their names are on that 250-foot-long, half-size model of the Vietnam Memorial that moves around the country. I had intentionally avoided visiting the wall when it came to town in years past, because I did not trust myself to behave in a composed manner, but after nearly three decades it was time to try for some closure on this issue. I told my wife that I preferred to go alone, if that was all right, and, truth be known, I nearly backed out at that.”
This is a video of a fabulous and very informative speech made recently by former USAF Captain Gary Barnhill who talks about his USAF career flying the F-84, the F-100 and the F-105. He flew the Thud over Route Pack VI during operation Rolling Thunder in 1965 in the Vietnam War. His stories about Thud missions over North Vietnam in 1965 are incredible.
During one mission Gary was on the tanker getting gas when his wingman told him to eject while flying at 400 knots. Gary ejected one second before his airplane blew up. It was six seconds from the time Gary was told to eject to when his airplane blew up.
Gary said that when he first started flying north in 1965 North Vietnam did not have any surface to air missiles (SAMS), but the Russians started building SAM sites in 1965. It took four months for the SAM sites to be operational during which time U.S. leaders prohibited the USAF and the Navy from attacking the under construction SAM sites.
Shortly after the SAM sites became operational President Johnson authorized U.S. air power to attack the SAM sites. The first attack was unsuccessful. It involved 24 Thuds, six of which were shot down. When our guys got to the SAM site they found out all of the missiles had been removed. Gary said the reason six Thuds were shot down was because the U.S. alerted the North Vietnamese of the attacks so it could defend the targets.
In a TV interview of Secretary of State Dean Rusk he was asked “It has been rumored that the United States provided the North Vietnamese government with the names of the targets that would be bombed the following day. Is there any truth to that allegation?” Secretary of State Rusk answered:
“Yes. We didn’t want to harm the Vietnamese people, so we passed the targets to the Swiss embassy in Washington with instructions to pass them to the Vietnamese government.”
Here are some facts he mentions about Thud missions and pilots in 1965:
- F-105 pilots averaged getting shot down every 33 missions.
- 50% of pilots shot down were rescued.
- 158 Thud pilots were killed in action
- 105 Thud pilots became prisoners of war.
I just ordered the F-4E model shown below. Dan Autrey, my roommate at Korat Air Base, Thailand, in 1972, turned me on to it. Get it at Pete’s Collectibles. The text of the sales page that mentions Dan and his front seater Gary Retterbush. We were in the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron TDY from Kunsan Air Base, Korea, as part of Operation Linebacker I. The text says:
“Air-Commander’s New F-4E Phantom, Paper Tiger, 67-0268, 35th TFS, 388th TFW, USAF, 1972 1/72 Die Cast Model, Limited Edition Worldwide!! Introduced in late 1960 with the U.S. Navy, the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II has been an incredibly versatile and effective aircraft for numerous national militaries around the world. The multipurpose fighter saw extensive combat duty during the Vietnam War, including serving as Major Gary L. Retterbush, the pilot of Finch 3, an F-4E Phantom II. Finch flight was a flight of four Phantoms led by Lt. Col. Lyle Beckers, the squadron commander of the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron. The 35th TFS was permanently based at Kunsan Air Base, Korea, but was on temporary duty (TDY) at Korat Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand, to assist in Operation Linebacker I. On September 12, 1972, Major Retterbush and Lt Daniel Autrey took down a MiG-21 using the M61A1 20mm automatic gun. Both were awarded the Silver Star for their kill.”
Read Major Retterbush’s article on his two MiG kills called “Gary Retterbush 2 – North Vietnamese Air Force 0.”
“Operation Rolling Thunder was the title of a gradual and sustained aerial bombardment campaign conducted by the United States (U.S.) 2nd Air Division (later Seventh Air Force), U.S. Navy, and Republic of Vietnam Air Force (VNAF) against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) from 2 March 1965 until 2 November 1968, during the Vietnam War.
The four objectives of the operation (which evolved over time) were to boost the sagging morale of the Saigon regime in the Republic of Vietnam; to persuade North Vietnam to cease its support for the communist insurgency in South Vietnam without sending ground forces into communist North Vietnam; to destroy North Vietnam’s transportation system, industrial base, and air defenses; and to halt the flow of men and material into South Vietnam. Attainment of these objectives was made difficult by both the restraints imposed upon the U.S. and its allies by Cold War exigencies, and by the military aid and assistance received by North Vietnam from its communist allies, the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China and North Korea.
The operation became the most intense air/ground battle waged during the Cold War period; it was the most difficult such campaign fought by the United States since the aerial bombardment of Germany during World War II.
Here are three F-4 in combat in the Vietnam War books you can buy on Amazon:
- The Vietnam Air War: From The Cockpit Col. Dennis Ridnouer. The Vietnam War is one of the most misunderstood military conflicts in twentieth-century America. Showcasing seventy-two true stories told by American servicemen who fought from the skies, this unique and historically significant collection is a stunning record of the air war in Southeast Asia during the 1960s and 1970s. There is no political agenda. There is no partisan opinion. There is no romanticizing. These are simply tales from the thick of an endlessly complex conflict, raw and uncut, told directly by the men who were foisted into its napalm- and sweat-soaked clutches. Occasionally funny, sometimes tragic, and often harrowing, these true accounts bring new and personal perspectives to one of the most studied and most maligned wars in America’s history, revealing with no Hollywood glamorizing what the war was really like for members of the US Air Force of all ranks and myriad functions who answered the call to fight. They saw no choice but to follow the orders they were given. And for better or for worse, by the time they returned, each of them would be changed forever.
- The Vietnam Air War: First Person Col. Dennis Ridnouer. As Dennis M. (Mike) Ridnouer writes in the foreword of his new oral history, The Vietnam Air War: First Person, over five million missions were flown in the Vietnam War. The many pilots, crew, and support personnel who risked their lives daily don’t deserve to fade into obscurity. Unhappy with the lack of first-person retellings of the war, Ridnouer made it his new mission to preserve these men’s tales of bravery and duty. The result is more than one hundred stories from the front lines of the war. Air Force Fighter Pilots, Weapon Systems Operators (WSOs), and Electronic Warfare Officers (EWOs), recount their stories of air-to-air engagements, near misses, successes, and failures. A pilot explains why he buys a drink for every tanker driver he meets. An airman explains what a Thud is. A veteran vividly describes his homecoming. These stories and others provide a much different account of the war than those found in history books. The pages come alive with perilous missions and skilled maneuvers. Airmen from all walks of life were united during the war, and their tales include stirring accounts of friendship and comradery.
- Green Ink: Memories of a Fighter Pilot by Rear Admiral H. Denny Wisley. The biography of a navy fighter pilot who started out from immature, shaky beginnings. He found himself in the navy while growing up during Vietnam. He was the first to shoot down two enemy airplanes and flew 350 combat missions during three deployments aboard USS Kitty Hawk. The ledger he kept will bring you right there with him as he recounts many of those more than exciting missions including being shot down near Hanoi. He flew F4 Phantom to 85,000 feet during operational test flights at the McDonnell-Douglas factor in St Louis. Later at VX-4 in Pt Mugu, California he tested the F 14 Tomcat and flew the MiG 21 from Area 51. He went on to command a Fighter Squadron from USS Midway home-ported in Japan and then went on to be Flight Leader and Commanding Officer of the Blue Angels. He went on to Command the aircraft carrier John F Kennedy.
On June 2, 1972, at approximately 1330 hours, Brenda 01, a hard-wing F-4E, tail number 68210, flown by Major Phil Handley shot down a MiG-19 with the 20mm cannon approximately 40 miles northeast of Hanoi. At the time of the kill, the estimated flight parameters were: F-4 mach 1.2+ (800+ kts/hour); MiG-19 0.77 mach (500 kts/hour); altitude above terrain 500 feet; slant range 200-300 feet; and flight path crossing angle 90 degrees. This was the only MiG-19 shot down by an F-4 gun during the Vietnam War and is believed to be the highest speed gun kill in the history of aerial combat.
One of the guys in my F-4 Phantom squadron, the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron based at Kunsan Air Base, Korea, in 1972 made a video about the squadron’s deployment to Southeast Asia. I was reviewing old compact discs and found the video. I can’t remember who made it or how long it has been sitting in my closet on the CD.
After I published this post Ray Seymour sent me the following message:
“Dave Lowder and I supplied the photos and I put it together for the Rats Phoenix convention in May of 2012. That’s when Joe Lee Burns organized a mini reunion of the 35th in memory of Jim Beatty. No credit needed. Be well. On a separate note, Gene Doyle’s son Eric is the commander of the Blue Angels.
OK this isn’t an F-4 video, but it’s a great fighter video. It documents the flight of a civilian who got a two hour ride in the backseat of an Alabama Air National Guard 30 year old F-16 Falcon. During the flight they refueled from a 50 year old KC-135 Stratofortress.
OSCM Larry “ACE” Nowell, US Navy (Retired) is a retired US Navy Master Chief Petty Office (E-9) who wrote the following:
I served onboard the USS Chicago (CG-11) in 1971 and 1972 in the Tonkin Gulf where I was the Air Intercept Controller Supervisor. I worked with many Air Force F-4s during air-to-air engagements
with enemy Migs, during their airborne emergencies, and I guided some of them to minimum-state emergency inflight-refueling. During my time on-station I used the call-sign Red Crown. My personal call sign was ACE and my AICS number was 0012.Lou Drendel talked about me in his book ‘….AND KILL MIGs’ on page 74, captioned “The Voice of Red Crown”.In December 1971 I began providing critical information and guidance to air force fighters which were being threatened by enemy Migs in North Vietnam and Laos. I was officially credited for assisting in 9 MIG-kills while controlling the air force fighters. I was involved in more than 100 live air-to-air engagements. Additionally, I was also given credit for preventing four F-4s from running out of fuel by arranging emergency expeditious rendezvous’ for them with KC-135s when they reached minimum fuel while deep in North Vietnamese airspace.At one point in 1972 an air force command in Thailand invited me to come over for an interview with the press but my commanding officer would not allow me leave the ship as he believed the trip was too dangerous to make. I was offered a “box of squadron goodies” by one pilot but I could not give my mailing address to him as we were not on a secure net. I never got a chance to meet or talk to anyone in the air force about the engagements and saves, but I would surely love to.In late 1972 I was awarded the Navy Distinguished Service Medal for my work on USS Chicago as an air-intercept-controller while in the Gulf of Tonkin and in 2005 I was inducted into the US Navy Surface Warfare Hall of Fame for that same work. I would certainly appreciate it if you would publish this letter or some other suitable notice in your MIG SWEEP as request any of your RRVFPA members who were involved in any of the incidents mentioned herein to contact me. My telephone is 865-898-9273 and my e-mail address is [email protected].Very Respectfully,
The Aviation Geek Club: “The first official American aerial victory of the Vietnam War was scored on Apr. 9, 1965 by Lt. (j.g.) Terrence M. Murphy and his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Ens. Ronald J. Fegan from Fighter Squadron 96 (VF-96), who downed a Chinese MiG-17 while flying from the USS Ranger (CVA-61) in F-4B Phantom II BuNo 151403, callsign ‘Showtime 602.’ The story behind Murphy and Fegan’s victory is quite interesting because several details of their engagement are still classified today.”
by Dick Francis
On 27 June 1972, flying as a USAF F-4 Phantom WSO and dropping chaff, my plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile (SAM) over Hanoi, North Vietnam. I was immediately captured and imprisoned in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” spending my first month of captivity in solitary confinement in a section of the prison known as “Heartbreak Hotel”. Thereafter, I was moved into a 20×60 foot cell with Dave Grant, Bill Beekman, and more than 400 pumpkins. Pumpkin soup became our staple food source, along with a baguette of French bread.
Sometime in September I was moved to another cell of the same size, joining 24 other prisoners of war. Eventually, with the addition of more recent shoot-downs, the population of our 20×60 foot cell grew to 48 prisoners. The courtyard of the prison was sectioned so that the area outside of each cell was partitioned by bamboo and tar paper, enabling the North Vietnamese prison officials to keep the more recently captured prisoners, FNGs, isolated from those captured years earlier in the war, FOGs (feel free to use your imagination regarding the initials).
Then in October, 1972, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger announced “Peace is at hand”. The North Vietnamese, thinking that the Paris peace talks would lead to a cessation of hostilities, changed their attitude towards the segregation of FNGs and FOGs and their ability to communicate with each other, and removed the bamboo and tar paper fences. During “yard time” in the week or so that followed, I developed a friendship with one of the prisoners shot down earlier in the war, and we shared a great deal of our personal information and military history with each other. One day my new friend asked me, in all sincerity, if I thought he was crazy. When I questioned why he would ask such a thing, he replied that he had been in prison so long (five and a half years) that he no longer had a frame of reference for his sanity. Of course, I responded that he wasn’t crazy; he was as sane as the rest of us (if you don’t count landing jet fighters on an aircraft carrier).
It has always been a source of amusement to me that a naval aviator, future Congressman, U.S. Senator, and presidential candidate would ask me, an Air Force aviator, if I thought he was crazy! I share this story because fifty years ago today, my friend John McCain was shot down on a bombing raid over Hanoi on 25 October 1967. May God continue to bless you, John!
Then Lt. Harlan Elseth made a great video of pictures he took in 1967 – 1968 when he flew 148 combat missions in the F-4 as a member of the 13th and 555th Tactical Fighter Squadrons during the Vietnam war. He had 100 missions over North Vietnam and 48 missions over Laos while flying out of Ubon & Udorn Air Bases, Thailand.
This video made by PBS channel KPBS is about four men who flew aircraft in the VIetnam War. One man was a helicopter gunship pilot. Another was a Huey helicopter pilot. The last two men were fighter pilots – a Navy A-4 pilot and a USAF F-100 pilot. The intro to the video says:
“The honest, personal accounts of four combat pilots during the Vietnam War. From helicopters to jets, these men reveal how they felt risking their lives in a war that was confusing and unpopular, to say the least. They share their missions, the close calls, and how they were treated when they came home. Saving lives by taking lives, changed them forever.”
By Timothy Karpin & James Maroncelli
Ok, this article is not about flying the F-4 in combat, but as a person who sat on nuclear alert at Kunsan Air Base, Korea, in 1972 and 1973 with a nuke bomb on my F-4 I found it very interesting. Here is the beginning of the article:
“Major Alfred D’Amario thought the worst was over after his violent ejection from the dark and smoky cockpit of his Boeing B-52G Stratofortress. The bomber he had abandoned was diving in flames toward the nearby ice-covered Bylot Sound off Thule Air Force Base in northwestern Greenland. D’Amario knew that the one-point safe bombs would not go “nuclear” in a crash. As he descended, the major sighted an orange fireball eight miles to the west. Suddenly, an intensely bright white light outshone the orange jet fuel blaze as the high explosives in four hydrogen bombs in the bomb bay detonated from the shock of impact. A supersonic blast wave tore outward in all directions into the subfreezing arctic air. In several seconds, D’Amario’s easy downward drift was interrupted. As he recounted in his book Hangar Flying: “I watched it [the bright light] for a few seconds and, suddenly, all Hell broke loose. My parachute and the life raft both took off to my right leaving me what looked like ten or fifteen feet to the left of them. Then, I started swinging back and forth between them.” D’Amario and five of his fellow crewmen made it safely to the ground. One crew member did not. Thus began one of the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command’s worst “Broken Arrow” nuclear incidents of the Cold War.”
By Shelby G. Spires
During the Vietnam War, Johnston’s was the job of a jet fighter pilot blended with a forward air controller, or Fast FAC, he marked targets, controlled air strikes and found targets all from the front seat of an F-4. Finding the cave, marking it and setting loose two Navy aircraft on it is a prime example of what a forward air controller did on a daily basis. In Southeast Asia, the FAC had two general roles: support troops on the ground who were fighting off enemy soldiers and try to find targets to destroy with air strikes. The basic concept of Fast FAC was fulfilling the requirement for forward air controllers in a high threat area.:
The backseater who ejected from this F-4 is a pilot named Kenny Boone. Kenny was one of my instructor pilots when I went through F-4 replacement training unit (RTU) at Luke AFB, Arizona, 1971 – 1972. Kenny was a pilot flying in the back seat on an orientation mission over the Ho Che Minh trail over Laos on November 18, 1968. Kenny’s airplane was hit by AAA while bombing the trail. Ray Battle, the aircraft commander, thought the airplane was going to crash so he told Kenny to eject. The frontseater recovered the airplane and landed it after Kenny departed.
Kenny landed in high trees in Laos. He was 200+ feet above the ground. Kenny heard the bad guys shooting and and acted as a tree-borne forward air controller. Kenny decided he would be safer in the trees so he did not use his tree lowering device to let down to the ground. It was getting dark and the search and rescue guys told Kenny they could not rescue him until the morning. Kenny stayed atop the trees in his parachute harness all night. The next morning the Jolly Green helicopter dropped Kenny a tree penetrator and lifted him from the trees to safety.
Kenny is the only instructor pilot I remember from my F-4 RTU. One day in 1972 Kenny’s brother talked to my class about his experience as a slow forward air controller flying the O-2 Skymaster in southeast Asia. He had recently finished his FAC tour and returned to the U.S. I distinctly remember 8 mm movies Kenny’s brother showed us taken during some of his FAC missions.
What follows is Ray Battle’s comments on the mission:
Kenny Boone and I were flying a fast mover FAC mission along the Ho Chi Min trail in Laos. It was an orientation ride for Kenny as he was newly assigned to my unit. We were at 4,000 feet and Kenny was flying the airplane when I heard an explosion, the aircraft shuddered and the front windscreen was covered in what turned out to be hydraulic fluid.
My sensation was that the aircraft as out of control and I ordered Kenny to eject which he did. Instinctively, I took the stick and throttles in hand and to my amazement, the aircraft as flyable. I called for help for Kenny and headed back for Thailand where we were stationed. I was given the option of ejecting or landing gear up as the landing gear would not come down.
I elected to land gear up and catch the runway wire with my tail hook. I have 150 aircraft carrier landings and thought I could easily make and arrested landing on the runway. I pulled the power off just as I touched down and the aircraft settled onto the wire cutting it.
The aircraft slid down the runway and veered off to the right before fish-hooking to the right and stopping. It caught on fire and I jumped out safely. As you know Kenny was recovered after spending a nervous night hanging in a tree in Laos In retrospect, My ordering Kenny to eject was a mistake which I have always regretted. I felt at the time I was saving his life and I intended to eject after he did. We both survived the incident for which I am grateful.”
The picture below is B flight of the 311 Tactical Fighter Training Squadron at Luke AFB 1972. I’m in the back row 6th guy from the left. Kenny is in the front row third from the left.
More About Kenny Boone
After attending Undergraduate Pilot Training at Reese Air Force Base, Lubbock, Texas, F-4 Replacement Training, Air Force Survival Training and Jungle Survival Training, he was assigned to the 497th Tactical Fighter Squadron ‘Night Owls’, 8th Tactical Fighter Wing ‘Wolfpack’, Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand in 1968 as a Weapons System Operator (WSO) aka Guy In Back (GIB) flying the F-4D, Phantom II.
On November 18, 1968, just six days after the first Wolf mission was flown out of the 8th TFW, Ubon RTAFB, Major Benjamin Ray Battle (433rd TFS) and 1st. Lt. Robert Kenneth ‘Kenny’ Boone (497th TFS) while flying a 433rd TFS aircraft were hit in Southern Steel Tiger. A 37mm impacted the radome and entire radome was blown off.
Unfortunately Kenny died in 2010. See Kenny’s memorial web page.
Below is the text of a comment I posted today in the comments section of an article entitled “The tragedy of the PBS-Ken Burns version of the Vietnam War.” I just finished episode 7 of the 10 episode series.
I worried that the series would be slanted and biased, but so far I think it is evenly balanced. I like the series. It takes me back to that period of time and has made me re-examine my feelings about the U.S. involvement in the war. I highly recommend the series, but it does bring back the pain of losing 58,200 Americans, 2 million civilians on both sides, 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters and 200,000 – 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers.
One of the comments to the above article was from an F-4 pilot who started his comment with:
“In 1971 and 1972, I flew 120.5 sorties in the F4E out of Da Nang AB. I have a BA in Asian Studies and I have lived in Asia and the Pacific 5 times.
Like Burn’s Civil War ‘history’ the Vietnam War series also promotes false leftist narratives such as the claim that Tet uprising and the Easter Offensive were American defeats.”
What follows below is the text of my reply to the above comment.
I too flew F-4s in Southeast Asia in 1972. My squadron was the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron at at Korat Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand. We were TDY from Kunsan Air Base, Korea.
I just finished episode 7 of Ken Burns series. My impression is the series is neutral. You said “the Vietnam War series also promotes false leftist narratives such as the claim that Tet uprising and the Easter Offensive were American defeats.” I haven’t gotten to the Easter Offensive yet, but the series did not portray Tet as a victory for the north. To the contrary. The series clearly said Tet was a major defeat for the north and that the north lost 40,000 – 58,000 people.
The series did show that the U.S. media portrayed Tet as a U.S. defeat, including Walter Cronkite’s famous TV editorial in which he said the U.S. should exit the war.
One segment that really struck home with me was former Chief of Staff of the USAF General Merrill McPeak’s statements about his experience dropping bombs from his F-100 and being a Misty FAC in 1968 and 1969. He said dropping bombs in South Vietnam was a waste, but bombing trucks on the Ho Chi Minh trail was very effective.
McPeak mentioned BDA, bomb damage assessments, and what a joke it was. He said “at the end of any sortie where we dropped bombs on what we called “trees in contact” because there was nothing important down there we would always get bomb damage assessment” such as “twelve supply sources destroyed, two structures collapsed.” He said the BDA “was phony, just a waste of time.”
After each of my bombing missions with a FAC the FAC gave our flight BDA. For example, the FAC might say, 2 military personnel KIA, four military structures destroyed and 2 military pack animals destroyed. This meant we killed two people and destroyed four thatched huts and two water buffaloes.
I believe we did good work when we dropped our bombs to defend troops in contact, i.e., bombed the bad guys who were attacking the good guys. Sometimes, however, we did bad work. For those who never dropped dumb bombs from a high speed jet fighter you should know that accurate bombing was very much an acquired skill of each pilot. A huge factor was the wind because the wind blew the bombs while they were descending. A pilot could do everything perfectly to hit the target, but where the bombs actually landed depended on the wind.
We sometimes dropped bombs use a procedure we called “sky puking.” This was not dive bombing. It was flying straight and level at altitude and releasing the bombs. I remember one night in 1972 somewhere over the northern part of South Vietnam the weather was so bad we were not able to dive bomb. The airborne command post directed my four ship flight of F-4s to rendezvous with an F-4 that had a loran bombing system.
When our four airplanes joined the loran F-4 there were four Navy F-4s in a line on one side of the loran F-4. My flight lined up on the other side of the loran F-4. We were probably 15,000 – 20,000 feet high, nine Phantoms in a line abreast. There was a cloud under-cast so the steady lights from the airplanes caused the clouds below to be illuminated with an eerie light.
As we approached the target (we had no clue what the target was) the loran F-4 alerted us to get ready to “pickle.” Pickle was the term that meant press the bomb release button. When the loran F-4 said pickle all eight F-4s released 12 Mark 82 five hundred pound bombs. I remember watching the 96 bombs disappear into the soup below. I prayed we did not kill any innocent civilians.
I believe the F-4’s purpose in 1972 was to repel the North Vietnamese Army’s invasion of South Vietnam in April of 1972. We accomplished that goal. Unfortunately the goal of the U.S. through out the entire nine year war was not to defeat North Vietnam. The goal of the U.S. was to kill North Vietnamese and Viet Cong until they stopped fighting.
One segment of Ken Burns series is about the battle for Hill 875. U.S. Army men climbed Hill 875 because they knew tons of enemy were at the top. The North Vietnamese spent a month digging trenches and bunkers and preparing for the battle. After four days the Americans “captured” the summit at a cost of 115 men killed and 156 wounded. Helicopters quickly flew the “victors” from the summit and the U.S. left Hill 875 forever. One hundred fifteen brave American men gave their lives on Hill 875 for what?
The only thing General Westmoreland cared about was the body count. How many enemy did the U.S. or the ARVN kill in a battle? If we had small losses compared to the enemy’s large losses we won the battle. The goal of Westmoreland and President Johnson was to kill massive numbers of people and outlast North Vietnam rather than win the war as quickly as possible with the least loss of life.
There is an excellent September 23, 2017, interview with General McPeak. The following text is from the interview:
“In the Burns and Novick film, McPeak says that U.S. forces faced an impossible challenge in the Vietnam War because ‘we were fighting on the wrong side.’
In retrospect, McPeak edits that comment. ‘What I should have said is, when you get involved in somebody else’s war, you’ve got to pick the right side.’ The U.S. was supporting South Vietnam, and the documentary provides ample evidence of what McPeak says, namely, that the government there was corrupt, and lacked the support of the people.
‘It was blindingly obvious to me, and to a lot of other people in my squadron, that we were trying to prop up a government that had almost no chance of surviving on its own,’ McPeak says.
Had the South Vietnam government been closer to a true democracy, there might have been a chance at victory, McPeak says. Lacking that, he recalls, ‘This was not going to ever be a winning effort. I saw that quickly, and anybody with eyeballs could see it.’
The U.S. decision to fight using conventional means also made victory impossible, McPeak says. ‘I mean, we could have nuked Hanoi, and game over. That’s a win, if you think that’s a win.’
McPeak continues, ‘Given the limitations that we imposed on ourselves there, there was no way we could win.’
By the time McPeak arrived in Vietnam, he says, the U.S. government was so heavily committed that ‘it had become a matter of our prestige,’ and ‘we had to save face. So, we continued an idiotic intervention on behalf of a corrupt regime.’
I agree with the General. Why did our leaders sacrifice so much precious blood and treasure without ever intending to win the war?
What do you think about Ken Burns series? Please leave your comments below.
Former Navy Commander Dick Nelson got a message from former Commander J.B. Souder in which Commander Souder wrote about meeting with thirteen former MiG pilots in San Diego, California, on September 21, 2017. Commander Nelson wrote:
J.B. was, by all accounts, one of the Navy’s top RIOs in the F-4 Phantom II. He received the Silver Star for one of his missions, in which he saved several friendly aircraft by his tactical expertise, during a large MIG engagement. He flew over 300 combat missions, and crewed an F-4 that shot down a MIG. Ironically, a flight leader’s bad judgment resulted in J.B. and his pilot being shot down by another MIG, and he spent a tour in the Hanoi Hilton.
He recently attended a get-together with a dozen former North Vietnamese MIG pilots and U.S. pilots with MIG kills—a gathering of eagles. His narrative of this unusual meeting is truly fascinating. This is a little long, but well worth the read:
Below is the text of J.B. Souder’s very informative and interesting account of the meeting between the former adversaries.
I’m cruising along at 37,000 feet some place over Arizona. I’m headed back to Port Orange after a fantastic adventure in San Diego with some of my old fighter squadron friends and others from my days at NAS Miramar. I’ve decided to write a little recap of the event for a bunch of friends with different backgrounds so the language will vary for the benefit of those who have combat or aviation experience and others who don’t. The “facts” I’m reporting are subject to my diminished hearing and my failing memory.
About 8-10 months ago a retired Marine colonel named Charlie Tutt assembled a group of aviators to go to Hanoi, Vietnam, to meet with some Mig pilots from the war. They went, had a great time, and decided to invite the Mig drivers to come to the USA. The Mig drivers accepted the invitation and arrived in San Diego on September 20th.
Nine American former pilots and one RIO hosted the meeting with thirteen Vietnamese pilots. The Americans went out on the internet and invited any/all of us who had tangled with Migs during the war, or who were just interested in it, to attend the meeting both to get good looks at the Mig pilots “up close and personal” and to add to the stories. I went. There were about 25—30 American former aviators in all. Among the Mig pilots were guys who had flown the Mig-17, the 19 and the 21, and among them were three retired Lt Generals. Two of the Lt Gens were aces with six kills each, and the other one had four. Most of the other ten pilots had American kills. Among the Americans were navy F-4 pilots and RIOs, USAF F-4 pilots and WSOs, F-105 pilots, and two navy guys who’d flown the A-1 and A-4. Our navy Phantom crew who made ace, Randy Duke Cunningham and his RIO, Willy Driscoll, were there. Six American former POWs were there too, four Air Force and two navy. My dear friend Bob Jeffery was there. Bob was a USAF F-4 pilot who got smoked on his FIRST mission on December 10, 1965, and spent the next 7 & 1/2 years in Hanoi. Some of the Viets brought their wives as there were five or six women there too.
The event opened with a meeting in the conference room of the Holiday Inn Bayside at 0830 on Thursday the 21st. A rostrum was set-up in the front of the room with a microphone and the American and Vietnamese flags properly displayed. There were several cloth covered round tables which seated ten each situated all around the room, each with note pads and pens at place. There were coffee and ice-water urns in the rear of the room. The Vietnamese pilots and American crews mixed and schmoozed the first half-hour or so until the meeting was formally opened by Charlie Tutt who sort of MC’d the whole day.
The idea was for the pilots who had actually engaged each other in the air to form panels to discuss what happened then to brief all of us on the events after they got all their lies….uh….er….facts straight. Several were able to identify each other so they met at the two front tables and with the aid of interpreters got their stories and events synced up. After about an hour they went to the rostrum and told their stories by one pilot talking a few minutes then the interpreter doing her work, then the other pilot taking his turn talking with the interpreter doing her work again.
The first interpreter was a woman who had to interpret a stranger-than-usual southern Vietnamese dialect into a northern dialect so the other interpreter could understand before translating it into English. Needless to say, that process was laborious and we lost a lot of the meaning, sentiment and emotion while it took place. One interesting thing though, was a long session with 82 year old Sen.Col. Nguyễn Văn Bảy, the most highly decorated Vietnamese Mig-17 pilot. He got 7 kills and became “a national treasure” so Ho Chi Minh pulled him out of combat and limited him to instructing for the next few years. Van Bay was the spittin’ image of Ho Chi Minh himself, incidentally…
After an hour and a half lunch break we had a new interpreter who did a much better job and everybody seemed to enjoy the stories much more. That interpreter was a former Mig-21 pilot, now airline Captain Nguyen Nam Lien who flies 787 Dreamliners for Vietnam Airlines. Before the afternoon session began I introduced myself to him and I was startled to hear him say “Oh yes, I know you, we have met before”. I asked him when-where-and how and he said he’d been the AirBus pilot who flew me and “Jeremy” Morris from Hong Kong to Hanoi back in 2000—-17 years earlier— when Jerry and I went over there trying to meet-up with the guy who Jerry and I helped bag back in 1967. That guy is the infamous (now retired Lt General) Mai van Cuong…one of Vietnam’s three pilots tied for 2nd leading ace of the war.
Jerry and I had stopped to chat with Lien as we were getting off the AirBus in Hanoi and Lien remembered us by name! Lien had written a book in Vietnamese about all the air-battles between the US and Vietnamese and had detailed descriptions of each one (at least as detailed as he could get) from combing through tons of official records in Hanoi, American military libraries and books authored by credible American and foreign writers, as well as personal interviews. It was interesting to have him read about both of my encounters with Mig-21s to me. The one intercepting van Cuong was sketchy but factual and the one which told how Hoang Quoc Dung (pronounced Zoong) intercepted me was virtually the same as which Zoong had told me—but it was a lie. Zoong told both Lien and me that he climbed to about 15,000 feet while heading south to meet us then after sighting me he swooped down to my six (behind me) and smoked me with an Atoll, a heat-seeker missile. I knew it was a lie because the Vietnam Airlines AirBus captain who took Jerry and me back to Hanoi in 2006 knew Zoong personally and he told us what really happened. The truth was that Zoong came at me from a head-on intercept, flying under the almost solid undercast, then did an Immelmann up to my six o’clock and shot me. I’d told people for years that a 2nd Lieutenant on his familiarization-two flight could have shot me down for all the degree of difficulty it was. My flight-leader, the most exalted fighter-pilot the navy had ever known, led us right into a trap and handed us to the Zoong on a silver platter. Anyway, after that “personal” session with Lien he opened the afternoon session and did a great job of translating the interesting facts of the fights.
Before he started the translations Lien took the time and made a special effort to emphasize that “Now we can finally tell the truth…all the records in Vietnam have been opened and studied for the facts and the truth is now exposed. From now on we will finally tell only the truth”. I found that to be interesting because it tacitly admitted that they had been lying in the past…or at least evading or hiding the truth. That also made me wonder why Zoong had lied to us about how he shot me down.
One revealing, and at the same time funny, story was about the lone kill the US got with a Talos missile. The C.O. of the USS Chicago forty years ago has wanted to know for years if the one Talos he fired brought down the entire flight of four Mig-17s he was shooting at that day in May 1972. I’m thinking it was the 12th. The answer is NO, it brought down only ONE Mig; and the guy who it brought down told the story. He was on his very first mission after becoming combat qualified in the Mig-17 and he was #2 in a “loose” flight of four. They were at about 18,000 feet south of Hanoi and headed south. His lead gave him a signal to cross-over to the opposite side of the formation and he did. Just seconds after he did, the missile exploded, tearing his Mig to small pieces. To say the least, he was VERY surprised but ejected successfully. Later, after meeting up with his leader again he accused him of knowing the missile was coming and had crossed him over in order that the missile would guide on him instead of the leader. We all got a big laugh out of that.
Another interesting snippet was that the North Koreans had asked the Vietnamese if they could send some pilots to fly with them so they could get some experience fighting Americans. Yes, but the Koreans had to be under the Viets’ control and fly according to their doctrine. Originally the Koreans sent 16 pilots then sent more later, and the Koreans did indeed fly against the US. There was no mention of a Korean ever shooting an American down, but there is a monument to deceased flyers in Hanoi and there are 20 North Koreans listed on it. I wonder if Kim Jung Un knows about that monument…..?
NO RUSSIANS EVER FOUGHT AGAINST US. The Russians sent instructors to Hanoi and they did fly instructional flights, but none ever flew in combat. It was against Ho Chi Minh’s wishes to get the Russians involved in actual combat. They DID provide all the Mig-21s the Vietnamese flew but they didn’t actually fight against us…except once! They didn’t say where it took place—Kep, Phuc Yen or Yen Bai, but here’s the story:
One of the Viet’s best pilots had been injured, or had been sick, and he was grounded for a while. When it came time for him to “get back in the saddle” he was paired with a Russian instructor to fly an unarmed two-seat Mig-21 to refresh his skills. Shortly after they took off they were jumped by two USAF Phantoms and the Russian was having a terrible time trying to defend against the two Phantoms. The Viet pilot was an accomplished combat pilot and took control of the plane. He masterfully evaded both the Phantoms until (I guess) the F-4s got so low on fuel they had to knock it off and departed the area. The Mig pilot landed the 21 and when they got on the ground the Russian instructor was “shaking like a leaf”. He told the Viet pilot “Alright then, you saved my life, so come on over to my place and I will give you some VODKA!!!!!!” BIG LAUGHS again by both the Viets and the US crews. That is the only recorded time any Russian did air-battle with an American [in this war].
A similar story was that one day the US attacked one of the Migs’ air fields. A 21 pilot went up against them and stayed engaged until the Americans departed. By the time the fights were over and the Americans were gone the Mig pilot realized he was out of gas and wouldn’t have enough gas to fly a regular approach and landing. So he just flew right back to directly overhead the field and ejected.
Another big laugh-getter was a short story by one of the Viets. He said that he had barely gotten into combat when on one of his very first missions he had been shot down. He said he was angry at the American pilot who embarrassed him by bagging him until he realized the truth of the situation. After a lot of thought he was able to adequately mentally insult the unknown pilot. He said he was finally able to imagine saying to the American, “OK, big deal, congratulations, that was a big accomplishment. You managed to shoot-down a private pilot”.
There was one Mig-19 pilot in their group, Lt.Col. Phùng Văn Quảng. He had only one kill and nobody there had fought a 19 so Quang gave us a brief on the 19. He said it was grossly underpowered and on a hot day they had to turn it into the wind to help get it started. He said he had a couple of occasions to chase Phantoms and F-105s out of the Hanoi area but he could never catch up to them—-he could never close the gap. He seemed a little embarrassed to be a 19 pilot. He said all the 19s came from Russia except one which they got from China. And if I heard it correctly, all the Mig-17s the Viets flew came from China too.
A lot of the afternoon was taken up by an interview with Lt General Pham Phu Thai, a four-kill Mig-21 driver. He was very animated and smiled a lot and was told a good story. He had been the Chief of Staff of the Viet Air Force at one time as was in on a lot of the “big thinking”. He said at one time too many Viet pilots were claiming kills which they could not substantiate. So, in order to keep the pilots honest, if they claimed a kill their bosses told the pilots to “bring me the tail of the airplane”. They literally had to get a piece of the plane they’d shot down. He said after they made that rule the claims died down a lot.
I told LtGen Thai that we Americans did tours in Southeast Asia then returned home, but the Viet pilots were at home and stayed at home. I asked him if he had stopped counting missions or if he knew how many he’d flown, expecting to hear a sum of several hundred. To my surprise he said he’d flown only 215 missions. I asked about engagements and he said he’d had 25 engagements, only 20 of which he would consider true dogfights. I had 334 missions in three cruises, so I still don’t understand the reason for the big difference in numbers. I did not get to talk to Thai again or I would have asked him to ‘splain….
Someone asked Thai who the Viets preferred to fight, the USAF or the NAVY. He was ever the diplomat and said they preferred the USAF as (1) they had to fly a long time from Thailand in order to get to targets in Vietnam so hopefully they were tired when they got there, (2) they brought a LOT of airplanes with them which provided more to pick-on, and (3) they stayed in the area longer providing more opportunities for fights. He said the navy just came screaming in, did their bombing job and dashed back out across the coastline to the safety of the water…much better chance for a rescue in case the plane went down. He also said a navy plane going down in the water “made it a lot harder to get the tail of the airplane”. BIG LAUGH there. At the end of his talk, in whispered tones from the corner of his mouth, he also said, “Navy more difficult”.
During another brief interview, a Viet pilot said his most dreaded adversary was the navy F-8 Crusader, that it was the hardest to fight against as it had a gun. That made me wonder if the era the Mig pilot referred to was before TOP GUN came along [when the F-4 community finally learned to dogfight].
FLASH BACK: During that first meeting back in Hanoi one of the navy guys had asked the question of the most senior officer in the group, himself a six-kill Mig-21 pilot, Lt General Nguyễn Đức Soát, (pronounced “Swat”) who were the better adversaries, the USAF or the NAVY. Soat gave a diplomatic answer too, but while the group was laughing or otherwise distracted, he whispered to the questioner, “I think we both know the answer to that”.
After that session there was a three-hour break before the “From Dogfights to Detante” night on the USS Midway Museum and another long Q & A session for the public. I’d had enough by 3:30 so I took the rest of that day off and rejoined them around noon the next day at MCAS Miramar for the air show.
The commanding general of the Third Marine Air Wing, Major General Wise and CO of the air station, Colonel Woodward, invited the Viets and their hosts to watch the air show in the “BIG TENT”. I had been invited by the CO, Marine Air Group Eleven, Colonel Simon “Simple” Doran, a long-time and highly valued friend, to do the same. There were plenty of tables with programs and there was a delicious buffet set up and a bar complete with beer, wine and whiskey, and a photo booth for souvenir photographs. They also had a huge tub of vanilla ice cream with a myriad of toppings for dessert. The Viets were all over, most of them sporting TOP GUN ball caps which Cunningham had given them, and they were scurrying back and forth to get good views of the airplanes and the jet-powered truck. Bob Jeffery and one of his side-kick pals from his Viet squadron days was there and I explained basic differences in US Navy/Marine Corps and US Air Force philosophy/policy/doctrine/viewpoints/ways of doing things to them. They both understood our ways but found it hard to believe and accept.
When the Blues took off the Viets were all eyes to the skies and you could see by their smiles and gestures that some of them were flying right along with the Blues. I sat with Lt Gen Nguyễn Kim Cách another six-kill Mig-21 pilot and I pointed out to him the tail hooks down on the F-18s as they came by inverted or during the dirty loop, and I gestured to him that I snubbed my nose at the USAF guys in the tent. He understood and we laughed. He was a charming fellow and I decided that from his stories the day before and his animated conduct now he was the most mischievous of all the Viets.
After the air show—around 5—we went over to the O-Club and Bob and his pal were once again “wowed”. Bob said he’d never seen an O-Club like that before. I told him there were none. I saw retired Lt General Tom Conant who had been the Commanding General of the Third Marine Air Wing at Miramar a few years back and who is now working for Lockheed Martin in the F-35 program. It was GREAT to see Tom again after about six-seven years and he invited us to fly the F-35 simulator they had set up in the club’s dining room. I told Tom that Bob had been cooped up in Hanoi for 7+ years so I’d really like to see Bob fly it. Bob flew it. He liked it, but he claims he just FORGOT to try for a carrier trap. Heh-Heh…..Sure…
I took Bob into the WOXOF room (a bar) and he could hardly believe the decor. The Marines have made it look like a bunker compete with one wall of sand bags and large, carved wooden plaques displayed all over the place (each time a Marine squadron goes on cruise they have a plaque made which depicts their squadron and its theme, mission and personnel). We had a grand time reuniting with old friends and around six the Viets showed up and a few minutes later the Blues showed up. They had a mutual-friends-society back-slapping session in one of the back rooms then they all came out to have some libations in the main bar and on the back patio—both of which were packed! I met the incoming BOSS of the Blues, Commander Eric “Popeye” Doyle, a long-time and close friend of Simple’s, and I took the opportunity to give him some learned advice on leading the Blues next year; I told him to not F it up! He said that was the best advise he had gotten so far and I told him I normally gave out advice too younger and lesser experienced aviators…and there wasn’t even a charge for it. He looked at me kinda funny.
The Viets left and the Blues mingled and I drank two-three-seven too many more Jack ’n Cokes and kept schmoozing, then around 9:30 I left too…and I sure was glad I had a designated driver.
I thoroughly enjoyed both the days I spent with the Mig drivers and the events were well planned and superbly executed…the host aircrew did great jobs making things happen “behind the scenes”. I must mention, however, that our pal Jack—Fingers—One Gun—Ensch seemed to do the heavy-lifting because he was everywhere at one time. I didn’t see him much but every time I looked up I could tell he’ d been there because I could see his smoke. He was in and out of minimum burner the whole time, darting all over the place assuring that things were going as intended and on schedule. At one point I did hear him say the day at the Miramar air show reminded him of taking the kids to Disneyland. I suspect Jack’s work and “attention to detail” was the primary cause the event went so well and was so much fun for the rest of us. Just like 44 years ago in Hanoi, Jack’s great personality and sense of humor made it a lot easier—-not fun—-but a lot easier—-for us to be there.
Well, we’re over east Texas or Louisiana now and my memory—-and my fingers—-are about exhausted. I wish more of my old squadron mates, the Fighter Squadron 143 Pukin’ Dogs, would have come to that interesting and “awesome” meeting with our former enemies, but they didn’t. I also wish they had come to the O-Club for reunions with some of our old navy buddies (I saw several from the two reserve F-4 squadrons at Miramar in the early ‘70s) but they didn’t. I felt very selfish having all that fun to share with only Bob Jeffrey, but I just soldiered on and endured it.
That meeting with the Mig pilots made me think of when Jerry Morris and I went back to Hanoi that second time in 2006 when we had that terrific experience of meeting with Hoang Quoc Dung: it was surreal. This meeting was a lot more fun since we got to do more than just talk and it was a lot more laughs with 13 of them. It felt GREAT to have a kind of “cathartic experience” with Zoong and it was really fun to watch the other Americans in the group as they intermingled and interrelated with the Vietnamese. All our exchanges were cautiously friendly and respectful, although you could tell there was that ever-present “fighter pilot playfulness” and people felt free to joke and tease each other a little and laugh a lot. If anyone reading this has an opportunity to mix with some former Vietnamese enemies I highly recommend you meet them and get to know them and have fun with them…they aren’t our enemies any more…
Jaybee Souder….somewhere in the free skies above the USA…
Visiting VN Pilots:
1. Lt.Gen. Nguyễn Đức Soát MiG-21 6 victories
2. Sen.Col. Nguyễn Văn Bảy MiG-17 7 victories
3. Sen. Col Lê Thanh Đạo MiG-21 6victories
4. Lt.Gen. Phạm Phú Thái MiG-21 4 victories
5. Sen. Col. Ha Quang Hung MiG-21
6. Sen.Col. Nguyễn Thanh Qúy MiG-21
7. Lt.Col. Phùng Văn Quảng MiG-19 1 victory
8. Sen.Col Từ Đễ MiG-17
9. Lt.Col. Nguyễn Sỹ Hưng MiG-21
10. Lt.Gen. Nguyễn Kim Cách MiG-21 6 victories
11.Sen. Col. Lữ Thông MiG 17/21
12 Lt.Col. Vũ Phi Hùng 921st Fighter Regiment
13. Mr. Nguyễn Nam Liên 910th Fighter Regiment—Interpreter
US Host Aircrews:
1. Curt Dose’ USN F-4J, 1 victory
2. Jack Ensch USN F-4B, RIO, POW, 2 victories, 1 loss [received the Navy Cross with Mugs McKeown ’61 as his RIO]
3. Rick Hartnack USMC F-4B
4. Jim Hoogerwerf USAF C-130B, TAC Airlift
5. Clint Johnson USN A-1, 1 victory
6. John Ed Kerr USN F-4J
7. Pete Pettigrew USN F-4J, 1 victory
8. Dave Skilling USAF F-100, Misty FAC
9. Charlie Tutt USMC F-4B
Some Others attending:
1.Winston Copeland USN F-4N, 1 victory
2.Denny Wisely USN, 1 victory
3.Jaybee Souder USN RIO, POW (the only one there to win 1, lose 1)
4. John Cerak USAF F-4 pilot, POW1 loss
5. Tom Hanton USAF F-4 WSO, POW 1 loss
6. Chuck Jackson USAF F-4, POW 1 loss
7. Bob Jeffery USAF F-4, POW 7 1/2 years
8. Jim Fox USN RIO, F-4J
9. Matt Connelly USN F-4J, 2 victories”
The radar homing and warning system (RHAW) was a very important black box installed in F-4s that flew in combat in the Vietnam War. The device gave crews audio and visual input whenever a radar beam struck the Phantom. The three main components of the RHAW system were the threat display unit (TDU), the round cathode ray tube (CRT) and the audio sounds the RHAW system made in the headset.
The TDU was a small rectangular box with two rows of lights. When a radar beam struck the F-4 the frequency of the beam caused a light on the TDU to illuminate with the type of radar. For example, the light might be AAA for a gun radar or AI for a MiG radar. The lights nobody wanted to see were the two flashing lights that said MISSILE and LAUNCH.
Each type of radar also caused a tone to be played in the crew’s headset. The pitch of the tone varied depending on the type of radar beam that struck the Phantom. Crews could determine the type of radar by the pitch of the tone.
The CRT was a round little TV screen about the size of a travel alarm clock. This device displayed three items of information: (1) the type of radar beam that hit the airplane such as a solid line, a dashed line, dots or a line and dot, (2) the relative strength of the radar by the length of the display, and most importantly the clock position of the radar. If the display was a solid line from the center of the screen going towards 6 o’clock the radar was at the 6 o’clock position.
There was also a little red light at the top right of the CRT that had the letters A/S to the left of the light. The A stood for “azimuth” and the S stood for “sector.” The SA-2 control van had several radars on it. One radar went left then right, back and forth. Another radar went up and down repeatedly. The A/S light would illuminate if the F-4 was in the intersection of the SA-2 surface to air missile (SAM) left and right (the azimuth) radar and its up and down (the sector) radar. To track an F-4 the target had to be in the intersection of these two radar beams. We called the A/S light the “awe shit” light because if it came on it meant the bad guys were about to fire a 35 foot long supersonic flying telephone pole at the F-4.
Watch the video to learn more about this life-saving black box.
P.S. Some guys in my squadron would fly into Route Pack VI with their RHAW gear turned off because they said it created “information overload” and could distract from radio traffic and situational awareness.
On September 8, 1972 at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, I was part of a six F-4 Phantom mission that briefed at 0-dark-30 for a 4 vs. 2 similar Air Combat Maneuvering (ACM) flight in the restricted area Southwest of St. Petersburg, Florida. All aircraft were configured “slick” no tanks, no ordinance.
Capt. Paul Poppe was the overall mission commander and the aircraft commander of Where 01. I, 1st Lt. David Johnson, was assigned as the student WSO in Where 01 in F-4E 66-310.
Upon takeoff, Paul and I noticed uncommanded pitch oscillation and we went through the emergency procedure and both agreed that the most likely cause was runaway stabilator trim. We followed the emergency proeedures, pulled the stabilator trim circuit breaker and engaged the autopilot. We joined up with the other five aircraft, aborted the mission and arranged for an escort back to MacDill. The instructor pilot in the lead of the two ship formation was Major Al Winkelman. Winkelman’s F-4E with a student pilot in the front seat had a PC-1 failure in their aircraft so we chose to escort each other home. Major Winkelman suggested to us that we should think about getting out of the aircraft.
Descending through 5,000 feet, in accordance with the Emergency Procedures in the checklist, Paul and I initiated a controllability check, to see if the aircraft would be controllable in a landing configuration. I was calling out the checklist items and Paul would then execute the procedure. That’s when our day went from bad to worse.
The first item on the checklist was to disengage the autopilot. As soon as Paul disconnected, the aircraft pitched 90° down and began to accelerate, even with the throttles in idle. Paul said the stick would not move fore and aft and asked me to pull as well. With both of us pulling, and our feet on the dashes we could not pull hard enough to move the stick.
At that point I told Paul adios and I pulled that wonderful Martin-Baker ejection handle between my legs. The ejection initiated perfectly, I had a horizontal ejection over Sarasota Bay and when I regained my eyesight I checked my canopy and looked for Paul.
Paul ejected several seconds later and was in the water near the South end of Longboat Key off Sarasota. I think he had one swing in his parachute before hitting the water.
I feel that I ejected somewhere between 3500 and 3000 feet and could see as I descended that Longboat Key was a mass of Mangroves and I steer my parachute toward the only clearing I could see. I landed safely, grabbed my survival radio and smoke flares and used my helmet as a basket and headed East toward the water.
I was picked up the U.S. Coast Guard. Paul was picked up by a MacDill rescue helicopter, and flown to the MacDill base hospital. The conclusion of the accident board, after 30 days of dredging for parts, was that the pitch control linkage had become disconnected, that part was found on the last day of dredging and there was no joining pin.
God Bless Martin-Baker for my last 45 years!!
See Richard Keyt’s article called “Thank You Martin Baker.”