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by Dick Francis, 523rd Tactical Fighter Squadron, Vietnam Prisoner of War
Following completion of my training as a Weapons Systems Officer in the F-4 Phantom, I was assigned to the 523rd TFS at Clark AB, Philippines. However, as a result of North Vietnam’s invasion of South Vietnam in March of 1972, my squadron had been deployed to the 432nd TRW at Udorn RTAFB, Thailand to participate in the Operation Linebacker airstrikes over North Vietnam. Having arrived in theater only about two weeks earlier, I had flown a couple of lower risk missions into Route Pack 1 (the part of North Vietnam just north of the DMZ) and a few missions into Laos and South Vietnam. However, I kept worrying about how I would hold up once I had to go “downtown” to Hanoi. At that time, Hanoi was the most heavily defended city in the history of aerial warfare. Somewhat nervous about the situation, I wondered if I would survive this temporary duty assignment (TDY) of unknown duration. Normally aircrew members stationed in Southeast Asia (SEA) either flew 100 missions over North Vietnam or served a combat tour of one year, whichever occurred first.
Then one morning my flight was scheduled to fly north so we attended the Wing briefing in the Deputy Commander for Operations (DCO) complex. When the briefing officer pulled the curtain back, the map showed the order of battle for a raid on the Hanoi rail yards. As the briefing progressed a feeling of dread and anxiety began to creep over me. Upon completion of the briefing, I ducked into the men’s room on my way back to the squadron. Taking temporary refuge in a toilet stall just to calm my nerves, I noticed some graffiti on the door that provided some comic relief that helped reduce some of my anxiety.
It said, “I’ve got 364 days left on my tour and it seems like I just got here yesterday.”
Editor’s Note: Captain Francis was shot down by a SAM over Hanoi on 27 June 72. He was captured, spent 274 days in the Hanoi Hilton and Zoo prisons, and was repatriated 28 March 73. See Gavin Francis’ article in which he remembers his father getting shot down and returning to his family in 1973. Dick’s frontseater that day, Lt. Col. Farrell Sullivan, the 523rd Tactical Fighter Squadron’s squadron commander, was killed in action by the SAM.
Foxtrot Alpha: “U.S. Air Force serial number 61-0007, a B-52H known by its nose art as ‘Ghost Rider,’ was brought out of seven years of storage at the Defense Department’s boneyard in Arizona. Its new mission? To replace an active B-52H that was badly damaged by fire while on the ground at Barksdale Air Force Base and make the USAF arms treaty-dictated fleet of 76 B-52s whole once again.
Everyone who has been to war has stories they retain for the remainder of their lives. Some are told; others are just ‘filed away’ in a forgotten part of our mind, maybe to be awakened by a reminder. Some are tragic; some funny; some ironic. A friend sent me an e-mail last week with a website called “The Virtual Wall” where more than 58 thousand names of Vietnam casualties are cataloged. I looked up a couple of names I recall and they reminded me of some “war stories” from long ago.
One name was Captain Tom Amos. On Saturday, April 1, 1972, the phone rang at an early hour in the upstairs dayroom of the ‘Few Q,’ the modulux dorm that housed the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron Panthers. Nearly all the Panthers were sound asleep, hung over from a ‘wild and crazy’ party on Friday night. The fellow who wasn’t hung over was Tom Amos who had just arrived at Kunsan AB, South Korea the day before.
Tom answered the phone and a voice on the other end said, ‘This is the command post. Wake everyone in your building and have them report to squadron operations in 30 minutes. This is a silent recall.’
So Tom Amos walks through the building, opening doors (we never locked anything) and informing everyone within earshot of the message. Now picture this scenario: it’s April Fool’s Day about 5 in the morning; you’re hung over; a stranger just opened your door and said something about a silent recall. Would you buy this or conclude it was a prank from the neighboring squadron, roll over and go back to sleep?
When no one showed for the recall, the Director of Operations Colonel Tyler G. Goodman stormed into the Few Q and the recall wasn’t silent anymore. My squadron mates told me (I was off-station in Seoul that weekend and sober as a judge) that his greeting was both loud and traumatic.
The gist of the silent recall was that two days prior, the North Vietnamese had launched their largest ground invasion yet, and the 35th was executing Operation Commando Fly to augment Air Force fighter units in Southeast Asia. No one I knew of had ever heard of Commando Fly before that morning.
Two weeks or so later, I’m at DaNang Airbase temporarily assigned to the 421st Black Widows along with Tom Amos as fill-ins to replace combat losses. After a week of hard flying, I’m DNIF (duty not to include flying) for a couple of days and assigned as night duty hog, running the Ops desk at the squadron. One of my jobs is to check the sign out log which was our method in combat of filing a flight plan. I notice that Larry “Howdy Doody” Trimble and Mase Burham didn’t sign out when they went to fly.
When Trimble and Burnham return from their mission to sign in, I inform them of their infraction and the penalty – one case of beer for the squadron bar. This was not a major financial setback since beer cost 10 cents a can in the war zone. Major whining ensues. Then Trimble’s light bulb goes off: “Hey Joe, is there any rule that we can’t drink the beer we just bought?”
My cogent reply: “No, but you’ve got two strikes against you. First, its 7:30 in the morning and second, no way you two are going to down a case of beer.”
Trimble thinks this over for a moment and comes back: “Well, we’re coming off duty so we can start drinking, and three can drink more beer than two. When’s your shift over?” “In 30 minutes,” I reply. “Great says Howdy; Mase and I will get a head start and you can join us when your relief shows up.”
A half hour later, I’m sitting on a bar stool joining my friends for a Budweiser breakfast. We started strong but gave up after consuming about half the case. Yawns were followed by heavy slumber.
I realize that these war stories might damage my reputation with my tee-totaling friends. I would offer in defense that it was a long time ago; I was young; it was war; yada, yada, yada.
Within a week, all three of these fellows were dead. Larry Trimble’s jet was hit by a SAM over Dong Hoi, North Vietnam. His backseater was able to eject, survive, captured, and repatriation a year later, but Larry was not so fortunate. Tom Amos and Mason Burnham were killed during a night bombing mission over Laos. Their bombs hit the target, followed immediately by a fireball at 12 o’clock. Our maps for this area were very inaccurate, especially the heights of the surrounding mountains. Also, it was very easy to become disoriented during night dive-bombing. It could happen to anyone.
I never had the opportunity to fly with any of these fellows in the short three weeks I knew them. They were each considered to be excellent aviators. So there you have a couple of stories from long ago, containing humor, irony and tragedy. So goes war.
We lost another Vietnam air war hero. Former USAF Colonel Jack Broughton died on October 24, 2014, at the age of 89. He is the author of two incredible books about flying combat missions in the most heavily defended area in the history of aerial warfare, Route Pack VI, the area around Hanoi, North Vietnam. Colonel Broughton won four Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Silver Stars and the highest Air Force decoration, the presidentially-awarded Air Force Cross
Stars & Stripes: “In his 1988 book, ‘Going Downtown: The War Against Hanoi and Washington,’ Broughton labeled Johnson and McNamara as ‘Washington weenies’ and asserted that pilots and other aviators died because they were prohibited from hitting anti-aircraft emplacements and other “sanctuary” sites in North Vietnam. The U.S. ‘lost a bunch of good people and good machinery all over Southeast Asia with their outhouse mentality on war,’ Broughton wrote. . . . ‘Thud Ridge,’ which does not have the political tone of the other two, is often assigned reading for Air Force pilots in training.”
Read “Testing the Rules of Engagement During the Vietnam War” and Colonel Broughton’s obituary in the New York Times.
Here are links to Col. Broughton’s Vietnam air war books, Thud Ridge and Going Downtown. I read both of them and highly recommend them.
In the military section of the Treasures of Madison County Museum is a group photograph around an F-4D Phantom II. The picture was taken in May 1972 at DaNang Air Base, South Vietnam. About twenty members of the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron “Panthers” are included in the photo including yours truly. In the cockpit of the jet is the squadron commander, Lt. Col. Lyle L. Beckers.
Lyle recently died at the age of 81 in Gainesville, Georgia from the effects of Alzheimer’s. Four decades ago, we knew him by his moniker “Sky King” as a fearless fighter pilot leader. Where did that name come from? Some of you might recall the children’s television adventure Sky King from the 1950s.
I served under a variety of fighter squadron commanders in Korea, Vietnam, England, and Germany as well as a couple stateside. Some were better than others, but as a whole, they were fine leaders and taught me a great deal. Lyle Beckers stands out though. He was a highly experienced fighter pilot in both the F-100 Super Sabre as well as the F-4 Phantom. He was also a graduate of the Fighter Weapons School, literally graduate school for “jet jockeys.”
I arrived at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea in mid-March 1972 for my first duty assignment out of flight training. I spent the next couple of weeks in-processing, and before I knew which way was up, my squadron was sent south to the war in Southeast Asia. What prompted this sudden change of course was the North Vietnamese had launched their Easter Offensive on March 29 with 200 thousand invading troops. The only way to halt this invasion was with air power. We were the first outside unit to respond; many more would follow.
Initially, our people and jets were split between two bases, DaNang in South Vietnam and Ubon in Thailand. We filled in to replace combat losses but before long, the squadron was reunited at DaNang under our own flag. The two lieutenant colonels in the 35th were the commander, Lyle Beckers, and operations officer Bill Mickelson. They were both experienced fighter pilots with previous combat tours and complimented each other well. Beckers was the leader while Mickelson was the ‘people person.’
Lyle Beckers led the toughest missions. In mid-May, Operation Linebacker began and we regularly flew high risk missions into the industrial heartland of North Vietnam. I can never recall a Linebacker mission where Beckers was not the flight lead of our first 4-ship. He led from the front. Frequently, I was on his wing in another jet, usually the number four aircraft. His decision making was precise and flawless.
Do you recall a couple of years ago when some official in the Obama Administration said that the United States was leading the coalition against Libya “from behind?” Lyle Beckers wouldn’t understand that; it wouldn’t compute. A leader is in front and never asks his troops to do anything he isn’t willing to do himself. That was Lyle Beckers’ style of leadership and we all looked up to him.
Most of our missions into North Vietnam were air-to-air missions meaning we were there to protect the strike flights from MiG attacks. On May 23rd, Beckers was leading our squadron when the flight was jumped by MiGs. He used an AIM-7 Sparrow missile to shoot down a MiG-19. The number 3 aircraft shot down a MiG-21 with the 20mm canon. Number 2 registered a probable kill with an AIM-9 Sidewinder missile. Altogether, a very successful mission.
Three months later in September, Beckers registered his second MiG kill, this time against a MiG-21 using an AIM-9 and the gun. MiG kills in the Vietnam War were infrequent and hard to come by. Only a handful of pilots registered more than one kill. Lyle Beckers was one of the few who did.
Colonel Beckers was an imposing fellow, probably taller than 6’1”, and he was possessed with all-American looks. It pains me to think of a strong leader felled by Alzheimer’s, but he is well now and at peace. Let us pray: “Father of all, we pray to you for Lyle, and for all those whom we love but see no longer. Grant to them eternal rest. Let light perpetual shine upon them. May his soul and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”
Read “The Tale of Gator 3” about an F-4 mission lead by Colonel Beckers.
Sad news from Jeannie Beckers on September 24, 2014, about the passing of her husband Lyle C. Beckers. Col. Beckers was the commander of the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron when it went TDY from Kunsan AB, Korea, to Da Nang AB, South Vietnam and Korat AB, Thailand in 1972. Lyle lead many 35th TFS strike escort missions into Route Pack VI and shot down two MiG-21s.
Jeannie sent a message to family and friends that said:
“It is with a very sad heart I am writing to let you know my precious Lyle passed away this morning at 5:AM EST. He died peacefully with Lisa, Laurie, Rob and I at his side. Patti will be here Saturday. A private Memorial Service will be held in our home Sunday morning. His final internment will be at a later date in Arlington Cemetery. He was a brave Warrior to the end. We shall miss him always.”
Joe Lee Burns sent an email message in which he said:
“Lyle was a hero to me, a role model. I wanted to be able to fly as good as he could, and he tried to teach me that. I love him and started missing him before now. Godspeed, Sir. Save me a seat.
I will share one Lyle Story: 81ST TFS out of Hahn AB, W Germany. We were at Wheelus AB, Libya for gunnery camp to escape bad weather in Germany in December (1968). Major Lyle Beckers was flight lead (I think I was Comet . . er . .I mean, #6 – flight lead of the last 4 jets) for the Saturday morning 9 ship departure (one jet was hard broke for parts) to Aviano AB, Italy and then back to Hahn in time for Christmas. Our Callsign was something like “Panther 21” flight.
Lyle briefed the takeoff sequence, rejoin ground track, and final flight check in before departing Wheelus airspace. Flight lead took off single ship from runway 29; flew about 2 miles, made a loose 180 degree turn for rejoin. The rest of the Phantoms took off as 2 ships and rejoined in trail. After another 180 degree turn the fight requested a flyby at 1,000 feet AGL, which was approved. Our formation was a single followed by 4 line-abreast 2 ships.
Abeam the tower, Lyle calls, “Santa Flight Check.” As briefed, he followed with “Rudolph,” the next two ship responded “Dasher,” then “Dancer,” followed by “Prancer” and “Vixen,” then “Comet” and “Cupid,” and then “Donner” and “Blitzen.” Tower clicked its microphone switch twice in response (probably because of the laughter in the tower). Before changing to Departure Control frequency, Lyle called, “Wheelus Tower, ‘Santa Flight’ departing your airspace, Merry Christmas, ‘Ho Ho Ho’”.!!!”
Jeannie replied: “Lyle said ‘HO HO HO!’ when he read it….said he was sorry he couldn’t add anything to your remembrance, but he knows you are right!!! Best love, Jeannie Beckers for Lyle.”
The F-4E flown by Lyle Beckers and Lt. Thomas Griffin on September 12, 1972, when Col Beckers got his second MiG-21 is now on static display at Soesterberg Air Base.
Here’s a 1972 group photo of the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron taken at Da Nang with Col. Lyle Beckers, the commander of the 35th TFS, in the front seat. See the bigger version of this picture with names of the guys. Note: Joe Lee Burns photoshopped himself into the top row.
On May 24, 1973, President Richard Nixon hosted the largest dinner party ever given at the White House. The dinner honored the 590 men who were captured by North Vietnam during the Vietnam War, tortured and returned with honor after the U.S. signed the Paris Peace Accord in January of 1973. Over 1,200 people attended the dinner hosted by President Nixon and his wife.
Forty years later on May 24, 2013, the Richard Nixon Foundation hosted a second reunion of the former POWs. Over 200 former POWs attended the reunion.
The video below is President Nixon’s address to the dinner guests.
On May 25, 2014, the Richard Nixon Foundation hosted a panel of former Vietnam War POWs. The extraordinary panel consisted of Cmdr. Everett Alvarez (USN), 8-year POW; Lt. Col. Tom Hanton (USAF), President of NAM-POWs, 9-Month POW; Capt. Mike McGrath (USN), 6-year POW; Cmdr. Paul Galanti (USN), 6-year POW and Roger Shields, Nixon White House POW/MIA coordinator. Frank Luntz, President of Luntz Global, moderated.
July 11, 1972
I turned off my Big Ben alarm clock at 0230, the usual wake-up time for our Linebacker mission. When the scheduling board simply indicated “Special”, we knew it would be a 0400 mass briefing at Wing Headquarters for a bombing mission over North Vietnam. We wouldn’t know our target until the mission briefing. The schedule was normally posted at the end of each day’s flying, and the previous day I had seen my name listed for the number four position in Jazz Flight for today’s Special. My Weapon Systems Officer would be Bill Woodworth.
F-4 pilots quickly become creatures of habit mixed with ritual, and I walked the short distance to the Ubon Officer’s Club to have my standard breakfast: cheese omelet, toast with butter, and coffee. I had successfully flown thirty-one Counters – missions over North Vietnam – and I wasn’t about to change anything without a pretty compelling reason. A few weeks earlier, the Thai waitress had misunderstood me when I had ordered, and brought me a plain Omelet. I politely ate it, and the mission on that day was the closest I had come – up until then – to getting shot down.
After breakfast, I walked to the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing Headquarters building, and performed my usual routine of stopping by the Intel desk and checking the Shoot-down Board. The Shoot-down Board was a large Plexiglas-covered board that listed the most recent friendly aircraft losses, written in grease pencil. We could tell, at a glance, if any aircraft had been shot down the previous night, the call sign, aircraft type, and survivor status. There were no friendly aircraft losses over North Vietnam to enemy action in the previous day.
That was not surprising. The Special for the previous day had been canceled when the strike leader, my Squadron Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Brad Sharp, crashed on takeoff when his left tire exploded at 160 knots. He aborted, taking the departure end barrier, and his aircraft caught fire when pieces of the shredded tire pierced his left wing fuel tank. Brad’s emergency egress was delayed when he got hung up by his leg restraint lines. As he sat in his seat, seeing the canopy melting around him, his WSO, Mike Pomphrey, ran back to the burning aircraft and pulled him out, saving his life. As Mike dragged him to a drainage ditch 100 yards away to hunker down, the ejection seats, missiles and, eventually, bombs cooked off. Ubon’s only runway was out of commission, and the entire Linebacker mission, for all bases, was canceled. Overnight, the runway at Ubon was repaired, and our mission was on for this day.
Air & Space: “In December 1972, the B-52 bombers that North Vietnamese missile crews had been waiting for came to Hanoi. Night after night. Over virtually the same track. I had come to Hanoi to research my second book about the air war over North Vietnam: the story of the December 1972 B-52 bombing of Hanoi, known as Linebacker II. I had arrived with the standard U.S. understanding of the raids. In early December 1972, President Richard Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, faced a political defeat. The North Vietnamese had broken off negotiations in Paris. It was clear that they were waiting for an anti-war U.S. Congress to return in January, cut off funds for the war, and give them a victory. To force the North Vietnamese to sign the agreement, Nixon decided to bomb Hanoi. After initial heavy U.S. losses, B-52s were able to attack with relative impunity and, after 11 days of raids, the North Vietnamese returned to Paris to sign the agreement they had rejected in December.”
If you’re a regular viewer of CBS’ reality series “Amazing Race,” you know that the current program is being filmed in Vietnam. The show raised the ire of many last week when the contestants visited a war memorial in Hanoi to look for a clue. The war memorial was the wreckage of an American B-52, shot down in December 1972 where two airmen died. Apparently, the program showed little if any regard or reverence for the sacrifice of two American patriots for their country.
The next week, the show and their parent company apologized for their cavalier approach to veterans and those of us who served in Vietnam, in particular. The incident took my memory back to an earlier time four decades ago. It was the spring of 1972 and I was flying combat missions from DaNang Air Base, South Vietnam. In early May, we received the orders to “take the gloves off” and go after the North Vietnamese who had escalated the war by ignoring a cease-fire and invading South Vietnam in late March.
The air offensive was code-named Operation Linebacker and would continue unabated for the next five months. Our targets were key combat infrastructure points that the north used to move war materials to their troops in the south. This included railroads, truck parks, bridges, ferries, airfields, communications, etc. These and the north in general had been off-limits to our airpower since 1968. In that four year hiatus, the North Vietnamese had built up their defensive infrastructure of fighters, missiles, guns and radars so that flying north was much more difficult and hazardous.
My squadron (35th TFS Panthers) was permanently based in Korea and filled with very experienced pilots. Our commander only sent highly experienced crews on Linebacker missions because they were more demanding and dangerous than normal combat flying. The pilot I was crewed with was a North Carolinian named Charlie Cox. Charlie was my flight commander; had a previous combat tour; more than 2000 hours in the Phantom; and was a Fighter Weapons School graduate. In fact, we had eight weapons school grads in the 35th, which might be a record.
Linebacker missions were complicated affairs requiring as many as a hundred or more aircraft flying from as many as five different bases. Most were fighters like the F-4 my unit flew, but there were also air refueling tankers; electronic combat aircraft; airborne weapons controllers; etc. Standing by on alert were rescue helicopters and their escorts in the case of an aircraft loss which frequently occurred.
On one missions I recall, there were 12 flights of four (48) fighters just from our base, not counting support aircraft. I’m sure there were more than 200 aircraft scheduled for that mission. At Korat (the second base we flew from), we had a single taxiway and runway. Anyone with either steering or brake problems was instructed to taxi off the taxiway into the dirt to keep the traffic flow moving.
These missions were flown over long distances and involved flying between 3 to 5 hours depending on the route. Since we couldn’t carry that much fuel, we nearly always refueled before entering North Vietnamese airspace and tapped the tanker upon exit before returning home. The tanker we used was the KC-135 (same design as the old Boeing 707) which incidentally, is still being used by the Air Force.
I have no idea how many Linebacker missions I flew that summer. Of my 121 combat missions, 43 were flown over North Vietnam, but not all of those were in support of Operation Linebacker. All the remainder were flown over South Vietnam, generally close air support (CAS) missions. In my six month tour, I didn’t fly against any targets in either Laos or Cambodia, although we often overflew those inland countries transiting to and from our base in Thailand.
In early October 1972, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger was sure he had a peace accord with all parties. The Linebacker missions were halted and my squadron deployed back to our home base in Korea. It had been more than six months since we deployed. Then the deal fell through. Two months later, Linebacker II began in mid-December, but this was much more intense. Now, B-52 bombers went north to join the fighters in taking the air war to the North Vietnamese.
The campaign lasted only 11 days but did the trick. Fifteen B-52s were shot down including the one that Amazing Race visited, but the bombers packed quite a wallop. At the end of the Linebacker II, the north was literally defenseless. They ran back to the bargaining table to beg for peace and an end to hostilities. We had to wonder – if President Johnson had done this seven years earlier in 1965, how many lives and tragedy on both sides would have been avoided?
After F-4 RTU at George AFB, several of us had our orders changed at the last moment from DaNang to Misawa.AB Japan in Jan 70. I was assigned to the 391st along with a couple others including Jeff Feinstein who was a WSO ace in 72, 555th out of Udorn. The wing was the 475th and if I recall correctly, the other two squadrons were the 392nd and 67th. For a time we also had the 16th TRS and their RFs. We pulled alert and flying out of both Taegu and Kunsan, Kunsan was nuke as well as air defense, Taegu was air defense only. Seems like we spent close to 179 days in Korea in one and two week increments.
At the time the wing was in the process of picking up the D models out of SEA, prior to that the 475th was little more than a flying club. Had an ORI which we busted mainly due to bad comm between Kunsan and Misawa. The name of the game was that we kept one squadron at Kunsan and if the red balloon went up, maintenance generated planes and we flew them to Korea to for the main event. Early in 1971 it was announced that the planes would be leaving Japan for Korea. By April the planes had left, guys who had a SEA tour were sent to Kadena with the C models out of Yokota, Those of us who hadn’t were sent to Kunsan. Initially the wing was designated the 3rd TFW. The three Misawa squadrons were designated the 35th, 36th, and 80th, the 391st becoming the 80th and the 36th going to Osan. Shortly thereafter the wing picked up the 8th TFW designation.
I was one of the initial Juvats, the name coming from a part of the rocker for the 391st patch “Fortuna Estes Juvat” which seemed to refuse to come off when the patches were ripped off flight suits.
I believe that Misawa then Kunsan were the operational test and initial deployment sites for the Combat Tree birds.which then went to Kunsan. We flew a lot there and I suspect I flew all the Tree birds at one time or another.
Those of us who had lots of Misawa TDY time had our tours curtailed and I then went to Holloman AFB in Feb 72. Was there only for two months and was enroute to a Crested Cap orientation in late April when we got recalled and were informed the wing was going to SEA TDY, destination **classified** duration unknown! We ended up ferrying the whole wing, four squadrons, to Takhli three days after announcement, a squadron per day. I was assigned to the 8th TFS Blacksheep and was in the second wave. We got designated the night squadron and routinely flew three turn missions mainly out of DaNang but a few to Bien Hoa.
DaNang was sucky but Takhli was even worse save for the rockets – saw the fireworks several times nights and spent several days there with a sick bird. A lot of us lived in tents initially because the old barracks were unfit for human habitation. The night squadron got four to a room air conditioned hootches. We stopped off at Korat once for an oil pressure problem – it was more like an R&R rather than a RON. I tried to follow what was going on with the Kunsan guys and planes. Heard one of the Tree birds was shot down shortly after arrival in April but then had some success with them hunting MiGs.
I had just gone through a divorce and elected to stay in SEA when the wing redeployed in Oct back to Holloman. For a short time I was assigned to the DaNang unit, 421st, that was sent to Takhli as DaNang was phasing down. The 421st had lost so many planes and crews that the decision was made to redistribute the planes and crews elsewhere. Most ended up at Udorn;’ I went to Korat after a 30 day leave trip to CONUS. You guys had redeployed back to Kunsan by then but left one plane with maintenance issues behind. I offered my services to fly it back to the Kun but I guess you guys wanted to send a crew so they could collect their combat pay and tax exemption.
In going through your crew lists I saw quite a few I recognized and/or flew with. Will Mincey was in the 80th when I was there and a couple others. I knew many of the 35th guys as well. One of the 80th guys who left Kunsan, went to Seymour Johnson then TDY back to SEA in 73 and was flying the last plane to be shot down, in Cambodia, in summer 73 just before the final end of the conflict on Aug 15. His name is Jack Smallwood and so far as I know is still MIA but presumed to be KIA. For a long time I thought our flight had dropped the last bombs of the war at 1150, but an A-7 flight claimed the “honor” expending at 1157. Then it was all over at 1200. My final mission count was 279 with 119 of them in NVN, probably half in RP6. thanks to all the flying out of Takhli, I logged over a thousand hours of combat time. In 73, the Fast FAC program was started up.again at Korat so I flew a lot of five hour, road recce sorties as well as Spectre escort on the trails.
Went to RAF Lakenheath after Korat and sadly my flying career came to an end as I was diagnosed with a kidney disease. Eventually I ended up at Wright-Patt as a design development engineer. Worked on the new engines for the F-15, F-16, KC-135R, and B-1. Also worked on F-22 and was a part of the initial B-2 deployment team.
Presently retired from 34 years combined civilian and military time with the USAF in Central TX NW of Austin, TX
In 1964, British pop star Petula Clark went to the top of the charts with her hit song “Downtown.” If you’re my age, then the tune is familiar but the song is a classic and various forms are trotted out periodically. There is a current commercial which uses “Downtown” as its background musical theme.
About the same time that the song was first released, Operation Rolling Thunder was initiated in the skies over North Vietnam. For three years, the Johnson Administration sent Air Force and Navy fighters over North Vietnam to bomb selected targets. The theory behind Rolling Thunder was that we would send a message to Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese communists that we were really serious and if they would stop their aggression against South Vietnam, we would stop the bombing. Rolling Thunder lasted for three years until early 1968 and was unsuccessful in its political objective.
The Pacific Command (PACOM) air planners divided North Vietnam into six regions which they named Route Packages. They were numbered sequentially from south to north. Route Pack VI was the large industrial heartland of North Vietnam, bisected by the Red River Valley. This route package was divided into two sub regions: Route Pack VI Bravo included the port city of Haiphong and was the primary responsibility of the Navy and their 7th Fleet air wings.
Route Pack VI Alpha included the capital of Hanoi and was the primary responsibility of the Air Force wings operating from bases in South Vietnam and Thailand. The fighter pilots who flew into VI Alpha to attack targets around Hanoi referred to this as “Downtown.” It had the reputation as the most heavily defended air space in the history of warfare, protected by a layered system of interceptors, surface to air missiles, and anti-aircraft artillery.
After three years, LBJ halted Rolling Thunder in an effort to bring the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table. Over the next four years, we stayed out of North Vietnamese airspace, however when the Communists launched their Spring Offensive with 200,000 troops in 1972, the only way to stop the onslaught was with airpower.
At the time, I was a lieutenant newly assigned to the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron “Panthers” at Kunsan AB, South Korea. On April Fools Day, our 18 F-4D Phantoms deployed to Southeast Asia, the first of many Air Force, Navy and Marine squadrons to join the fray.
Our supposedly “quick” period of temporary duty lasted 196 days. We flew first from DaNang AB, South Vietnam until mid-June and then moved to Korat AB, Thailand. During that period of time, I flew 121 combat missions, 78 of which were flown over South Vietnam primarily in close air support of ground units in contact with the enemy. I flew 43 missions over North Vietnam including 16 “Downtown.” Without exception, these Linebacker missions over Hanoi were the most hazardous I faced.
Generally we flew at about 15 thousand feet and kept our speed above 480 knots where our energy gave us good maneuverability to defeat the SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missiles. If we carried a centerline fuel tank, we drained that first and jettisoned the sluggish tank. As a result, our jet was cleaner, lighter and more maneuverable.
Most of my missions “Downtown” were escort missions for the bombers, so we were light and maneuverable, ready to tangle with any MiGs that might interfere. On the few occasions where we carried bombs, we were quite heavy until the ordnance was cleaned off the aircraft. We would ripple all twelve 500-pound bombs on a single attack; our motto was “one pass and haul a**.”
My closest encounter with the enemy came during a late summer mission. We escorted Oak Flight from Ubon that dropped seven laser-guided 2000 pound bombs on Gia Lam just east of Hanoi. We made a wide sweeping turn north of Hanoi over the lake where John McCain went swimming five years earlier. The gun positions on the south side of the lake put up a lot of flak, but no one in our flight was hit. Exiting the target area to the southwest, my radar warning receiver lit up indicating a SAM was headed our way. The cumulous clouds below us made picking up the missile difficult. At the last possible moment our lead aircraft saw the streaking SAM and called for Finch 4 (my aircraft) to break right. Our 5-G barrel roll was successful in dodging the missile. Close but no cigar!
So go downtown, things will be great when you’re Downtown – don’t wait a minute for Downtown – everything’s waiting for you.
This video is a tribute to Air Force and Navy pilots who flew north of the Red River in the northern most part of North Vietnam during the Vietnam war. People who flew north of the Red River were eligible to join an exclusive club called the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association and called River Rats. The north Vietnamese propaganda machine and Jane Fonda called them Yankee Air Pirates. See the River Rats Facebook page.
We wait. We hope. For You to Return. My favorite commercial aired during the 2013 Super Bowl was the one that paid tribute to our brave military personnel. Oprah Winfrey narrated the commercial.
On May 10, 1972, the USAF and Navy shot down 11 North Vietnam MiGs in the skies over North Vietnam at a cost of two USAF and two Navy F-4s shot down. Jeffrey Ethell and Alfred Price wrote a great book about this day called “One Day in a Long War, May 10, 1972, Air War, North Vietnam” that describes in detail events of that day. I recommend this book. It’s in my collection of books written about the Vietnam air war. A lot of people I know are mentioned in the book or the appendix that contains the names of all USAF and Navy F-4 air crews who flew north that day. F-4 drivers of the Vietnam war era will probably recognize a lot of names.
“One Day in a Long War recounts firsthand accounts of almost one hundred eye witnesses, analyzes cockpit voice recordings and draws from official documents, many declassified for the first time, to tell its story. During May 10 an elite corps of American fighter pilots – many of them first-generation Top Gun graduates – flew more than 330 sorties against major transportation centers around Hanoi and Haiphong. But the Vietnamese fought back with 03 ground to air missiles and 40 MiG fighters.
What words are spoken in the cockpit of a Phantom as the crew prepares to engage MiGs closing in at nearly 1,000 miles per hour? What thoughts go through the mind of a pilot struggling to hold his crippled plane in the air for one minute longer, to get clear of enemy territory so he and his crewmen can parachute into the sea? How does it feel to be in a Phantom running in to attack the notorious Paul Doumer Bridge at Hanoi with laser guided bombs as missile after missile streaks through the formation? And what tactics would enable a force of 16 of these fighter bombers to carry out such an attack without the loss of a single plane?
One Day in a Long War is a definitive reconstruction of the most intensive air combat day of the Vietnam conflict.”