USN Air War Vietnam 1964-73 Part II

Phantoms and MiGs met each other in the sky over Vietnam on many occasions throughout the first half of 1967 and American crews also continued to run the gauntlet of SAM missiles and ground fire. On 24 March, Lieutenant Commander John Cooley ‘Buzz’ Ellison, pilot of an A-6A Intruder in VA-85 ‘Black Falcons’ on board Kitty Hawk was lost along with his bombardier/navigator Lieutenant (jg) James Edwin Plowman during a four-aircraft night strike force SAM suppression mission against Bac Giang Thermal Power Plant near Kep in North Vietnam. SAM sites, light, medium and heavy AA batteries, automatic weapons and small arms defended the target. (John Ellison had been forced to abandon an A-6A on 15 May 1966 when the aircraft was unable to take on fuel as it was returning from a mission). After the crew radioed that they had released their bombs the Intruder was tracked by radar (probably by an E-2 Hawkeye) to be about ten miles north of their planned course. The radar plot disappeared in Ha Bac province when the aircraft probably fell victim to AAA. One source claims that Ellison made voice contact with a SAR force but neither crewman was rescued or ever heard from again, although rumours persist that at least one of the men was held captive in China. However, after the end of the war, when China released the US airmen who had been shot down over Chinese territory, neither Ellison nor Plowman was amongst them.

On 18 May 1967, Lieutenant Robert John Naughton of VA-113 from the Enterprise, who was on his second tour in South-East Asia and flying his 194th mission, led another pilot on an armed reconnaissance mission during which they attacked the Dong Thuong railway bridge ten miles north-east of Thanh Hoa. As the aircraft started a 30-degree dive to fire a pod of unguided rockets, it was hit by ground fire. The aircraft burst into flames, probably having taken a hit in a fuel line or tank, and within seconds, Naughton lost control of the aircraft and ejected. He was captured and spent the rest of the war as a PoW until released on 4 March 1973. Commander Kenneth Robbins Cameron, the executive officer of VA-76 on the Bon Homme Richard, led an attack on the Thuong Xa transhipment point ten miles north of Vinh. This was an important facility where supplies could be transferred from the railway, which terminated at Vinh, to the main coastal road that fed other roads heading south. Cameron rolled in to attack the target from about 10,000 feet, but during the dive, his aircraft was hit by AAA and Cameron ejected. He was captured but, according to the Vietnamese, he died on 4 October 1970.

19 May – Ho Chi Minh’s birthday – proved to be one of the worst days of the war when the first navy raids on targets in Hanoi itself resulted in the loss of six aircraft and ten aircrew over North Vietnam. The three participating carriers, the Enterprise, Bon Homme Richard and the Kitty Hawk each lost two aircraft. The first Alpha strike of the day was on the Van Dien military vehicle and SAM support depot near Hanoi, which had already been bombed on 14 December 1966, when two aircraft were shot down. Among the first aircraft into the target area was the CAP flight of F-4s from VF-96 led by Commander Richard Rich, the squadron’s executive officer. Volleys of SAMs were fired at the formation forcing the aircraft down to a lower altitude, which was dangerous due to the intense AAA and small-arms fire. Commander Rich’s aircraft was damaged by an SA-2 that detonated close to the F-4. Two minutes later, with the Phantom even lower, a second SAM was seen to explode close to the aircraft at which point a command ejection sequence was initiated by the NFO. Rich’s back-seater, Lieutenant Commander William Robert Stark was knocked unconscious by the ejection and suffered compound fractures of the lower vertebrae, a broken arm and a broken knee. He landed about twenty miles south-west of Hanoi but there was no sign of Commander Rich, who is presumed to have been killed in the crash.

The Kitty Hawk’s CAP flight fared no better when it took over about one hour later, and it also lost one of its F-4s. The SAMs were still being fired in great numbers, and despite violent evasive manoeuvres, Lieutenant (jg) Joseph Charles Plumb’s aircraft in VF-114 was hit in the belly by an SA-2. The aircraft became a mass of flames and the engines wound down rapidly. As the tail section began to disintegrate, Plumb and his back-seater, Lieutenant (jg) Gareth Laverne Anderson, decided that it was time to leave and ejected near Xan La, 12 miles south-west of Hanoi. Plumb recalls being captured by peasants and thrown into a pen where a bull buffalo was goaded by the villages into charging the pilot. Luckily, the animal was less than enthusiastic about the whole affair. The two fliers were incarcerated in the Hanoi Hilton.

One of the waves of bombers that attacked the Van Dien depot consisted of six Intruders from the Enterprise. When the formation was 30 miles south-west of Hanoi they began to receive warnings on their APR-27s of Fan Song radar signals, which meant that they were being tracked by a SAM site. Flying at 12,000 feet, Lieutenant Eugene Baker ‘Red’ McDaniel of VA-35 saw an SA-2 coming towards his aircraft, so he rapidly jettisoned his bombs and made a hard right turn, but the missile exploded directly in the path of the A-6. The hydraulics must have been hit as the aircraft became uncontrollable after a few seconds and the crew ejected about twenty miles south of Hanoi. His NFO, Lieutenant James Kelly Patterson broke his leg on landing but hid for four days as enemy forces searched for him. A Fulton extraction kit was dropped to him on the morning of the 21st, but it was recovered by North Vietnamese troops before he could reach it.155 One of his last radio messages was to say that he was moving further up a hill to avoid enemy forces. Jim Patterson was not seen in any of the PoW camps in North Vietnam but information suggests that he had been captured. ‘Red’ McDaniel was captured almost as soon as he touched down and suffered very badly at the hands of his captors.

A special raid on the North was targeted at Hanoi’s thermal power plant. The attack was made by just two A-4s equipped with Walleye TV-guided bombs and escorted by four A-4 Iron Hand aircraft and twelve F-8s, six for flak suppression and six for fighter escort. During the raid on the power plant, both of the Bon Homme Richard’s Crusader squadrons provided aircraft for the CAP over this ‘hot’ target. However, the SAM sites that had wrought such havoc in the morning were still active. Lieutenant Commander Kay Russell of VF-211 was the leader of a six-plane escort flight that engaged a number of MiG-17s just to the west of Hanoi. As the Crusaders were chasing the MiGs away from the target area, Lieutenant Commander Russell’s aircraft was hit first by ground fire and then by an SA-2, which caused the aircraft to burst into flames and the pilot to lose control. Kay Russell ejected and was quickly captured. A total of four MiGs were shot down by the F-8s during the engagement. Six F-8s of VF-24 were assigned the flak suppression mission during the Hanoi raid. This flight also had to contend with MiGs and SAMs, but it was the intense anti-aircraft fire that brought Lieutenant (jg) William John Metzger down. He had chased MiG-17 away from the target, but as the Crusader was climbing through 1,500 feet, it was hit twice in the fuselage by AAA. One of the anti-aircraft shells tore a hole in the cockpit and wounded the pilot in the left arm and leg and broke his right leg. Metzger ejected about ten miles west of Hanoi and was soon captured. He was eventually released along with Lieutenant Commander Russell on 4 March 1973. The Walleye attack on the power plant failed as the bombs were released at too low an altitude to guide to the target. However, two days later, another Walleye attack scored a direct hit on this important target.

The final loss on what came to be known in navy circles as ‘Black Friday’ was an RA-5C reconnaissance aircraft of RVAH-13 from the Kitty Hawk. Lieutenant Commander James Lloyd Griffin and Lieutenant Jack Walters were tasked with obtaining BDA photographs of the Van Dien depot, which had been attacked about four hours earlier. As the aircraft made its initial turn over Hanoi for its photo run, it was at about 3,500 feet and doing around 700 knots. The aircraft was next seen to be engulfed in flames and flying in a north-westerly direction. About ten miles from the city, the Vigilante suddenly pitched up and the forward fuselage started to break up. Both crew ejected from the flaming, disintegrating wreck and apparently both men were taken to the Hanoi Hilton but survived only a few days, whether as a result of their injuries or from torture is not known.

Despite the heavy losses of the previous day, the navy was out in force again on the 20th. An Alpha strike on the Bac Giang thermal power plant near Phu Lang Thuong, about twenty-five miles north-east of Hanoi, resulted in the loss of the A-4 flown by Commander Homer Leroy Smith, the CO of VA-212, who was leading seventeen aircraft from the Bon Homme Richard. He had just pulled up having launched his Walleye bomb when his Skyhawk was hit by AAA and burst into flames. Accompanied by his wingman, he headed for the coast but was forced to eject about twenty miles north of Haiphong. Like Griffin and Walters, Commander Smith was apparently taken to the Hanoi Hilton but survived only a few days and was reported to have been tortured to death. On 21 May, the navy again raided the Hanoi thermal power plant and the Van Dien depot. The raid on the thermal power plant was accompanied by several sections of Crusaders dedicated to flak suppression but one of these aircraft fell victim to the intense anti-aircraft fire around the target. Lieutenant Commander R. G. Hubbard of VF-211 on the Bon Homme Richard was jinking to avoid the flak when his aircraft took a hit in the afterburner section. The afterburner nozzle was stuck in the open position and fuel was leaking from the aircraft but fortunately did not ignite. Hubbard was escorted out to sea where he refuelled from a tanker before flying to the Bon Homme Richard. However, when the gear was lowered, the hydraulic system must have ruptured and the aircraft burst into flames. Hubbard ejected and he was picked up by one of the carrier’s Seasprite helicopters.

A strike on the Van Dien SAM and vehicle support depot also resulted in the loss of a single aircraft and the rescue of its crew. The TARCAP flight was once more provided by the F-4Bs of VF-114 on the Kitty Hawk. One of the squadron’s Phantoms was flown by Lieutenant H. Dennis Wisely, who had shot down an An-2 Colt biplane on 20 December 1966 and a MiG-17 on 24 April 1967. His back-seater was Ensign James ‘Jim’ H. Laing. Their F-4B was hit as it was retiring from the target at low level. The TARCAP flight had evaded three SAMs but came down low and ran into intense flak. The aircraft was peppered with automatic-weapons fire and suffered failures of the hydraulic and pneumatic systems. The pilot decided to make for Thailand rather than risk the gauntlet of the intense air defences between Hanoi and the coast. The decision was a wise one, as the aircraft crossed the Laotian border before becoming uncontrollable, forcing the crew to eject near Sai Koun, 85 miles south-west of Hanoi. Jim Laing’s parachute started to open the instant his ejection seat fired, with the result that he broke an arm and sprained his other limbs. Both men were picked up safely by a USAF HH-3 after a navy SH-3A had to be abandoned in Laos after running out of fuel during the first rescue attempt. This was the second ejection and rescue for Ensign Laing, who had been shot down with Lieutenant Commander Southwick on 24 April.

On 24 May, Lieutenant (jg) M. Alsop of VA-93 from the Hancock was taking part in an attack on a target 10 miles south-west of Ninh Binh when he felt his A-4E hit by an anti-aircraft shell. He headed due south for the coast with the engine making ominous rumbling and grinding noises. Once out to sea, the engine flamed out and Alsop ejected about 15 miles off Thanh Hoa, from where he was picked up by a navy helicopter. Next day, two A-1H Skyraiders of VA-215 from the Bon Homme Richard were on an armed reconnaissance mission along the coast about 15 miles north of Vinh when they saw a number of small cargo boats that were used for transporting supplies. Lieutenant O’Rourke, the leader of the section, dived on the boats followed by Ensign Richard Campbell Graves. Both aircraft fired rockets at the boats, but as Graves pulled up from the attack, his Skyraider suddenly dropped one wing and dived into the sea. Graves did not escape from his stricken aircraft, which probably fell victim to anti-aircraft batteries on the nearby shore. The MiG base at Kep was a target for the Hancock’s A-4Es. Lieutenant (jg) Read Blaine Mecleary of VA-93 was flying in the flak suppression section, on his 56th mission of the war and had just reached the target area at 13,000 feet when his aircraft was hit by AAA. With the aircraft performing a series of rolls to the right Mecleary managed to fly about twelve miles to the east before having to give up the unequal struggle and eject. He was badly injured during the ejection and was unable to walk for two months.

On 30 May, the SAMs claimed their tenth and final victim of the month during a raid on the Do Xa transhipment point 15 miles south of Hanoi. Commander James Patrick Mehl, the executive officer of VA-93 aboard the Hancock, who was piloting an A-4E, was leading an Iron Hand section in support of the raid and started to receive warnings of SAM activity near the target. The section evaded one missile but as Mehl started to climb through 16,000 feet to fire a Shrike, his aircraft was hit by another SA-2. He tried to make for the sea but was forced to eject near Hung Yen and was immediately captured. On 31 May, a series of raids by the air force and the navy was flown against targets at Kep on the final day of the month. Four Skyhawks of VA-212 from the Bon Homme Richard were on their way to Kep airfield when they encountered intense anti-aircraft fire about 20 miles north-east of Kep. Lieutenant Commander Arvin Roy Chauncey’s aircraft was hit in the engine and caught fire. He turned towards high ground and jettisoned his stores, but the aircraft lost power and he was forced to eject. He was captured and joined the rest of his shipmates in the Hanoi Hilton. Like most of the others, he was released on 4 March 1973. When Lieutenant Commander Chauncey’s aircraft was hit, his flight called for SAR assistance and stayed in the area to protect their leader and the SAR forces when they arrived. However, Lieutenant (jg) M. T. Daniels almost suffered the same fate as the lieutenant commander when his aircraft was hit by AAA about eight miles north-east of Kep. He headed out to sea in search of a tanker, but with his radio inoperative, he was unable to rendezvous and take on fuel. Unable to refuel, he found a SAR destroyer and ejected close by when the Skyhawk’s engine flamed out. He was picked up by the destroyer’s Seasprite SAR helicopter.

On 22 June, the Hai Duong railway bridge was attacked on the 22nd by a flight of A-4Es from the Hancock. Like all bridges in North Vietnam, it was well defended with numerous AAA sites of various calibres. Lieutenant Commander James Glenn Pirie of VA-93 was pulling up from his attack and jinking violently when his aircraft was struck twice by anti-aircraft fire. With the aircraft on fire and the engine winding down, James Pirie ejected near the bridge and was quickly captured. Six days later, Commander William ‘Bill’ Porter Lawrence, the CO of VF-143, led a flak suppression section of F-4Bs during a raid on an important transhipment point ten miles north-west of Nam Dinh. His back-seater was Lieutenant (jg) James William Bailey, a veteran of 183 combat missions over South-East Asia, having flown with VF-143 on board the Ranger in 1966. The Phantoms were at 12,000 feet and were preparing to roll in on the target when Commander Lawrence’s aircraft was hit by 85-mm flak. With the aircraft’s hydraulics failing, Lawrence released his CBUs on the target and had difficulty in pulling out of his dive before part of the tail section separated from the Phantom. The crew ejected and were captured and suffered the usual torture and beatings.

On 30 June, four A-4C Skyhawks were launched from the Intrepid to hit the Ben Thuy thermal power plant on the Song Ca River just south of Vinh. One of the pilots was Lieutenant LeGrande Ogden Cole, who was on his second tour on board the Intrepid having flown 100 missions from the ship in 1966. In the face of intense flak, the Skyhawks rolled in one after the other to bomb the target but Lieutenant Cole’s aircraft was not seen after the attack started. However, Cole’s wingman did report seeing a large explosion and fire to the south of the target which at first he thought was a stray bomb. When Lieutenant Cole failed to rendezvous with the rest of the flight it was surmised that he had been shot down. Photographs of the target area taken by an RF-8 showed no sign of the Skyhawk’s wreckage and no SAR beeper or radio transmissions were ever heard.

The last navy aircraft lost during the month of June was a VA-146 A-4C Skyhawk from the USS Constellation, which was on an armed reconnaissance sortie over North Vietnam. A metal bridge was seen near Thieu Ang, 30 miles south-west of Nam Dinh and the aircraft rolled in to drop their bombs. As Lieutenant John Michael McGrath was pulling up from the target, his aircraft was hit in the wing by AAA causing sudden and total loss of control. McGrath ejected immediately but his parachute only just opened as he fell through some tall trees. During the ejection and subsequent landing, he broke and dislocated his arm and fractured a vertebra and a knee. Further injuries were suffered during the torture sessions soon after arrival at the Hanoi Hilton.

During a raid on the railway yard at Hai Duong on 2 July, Lieutenant (jg) Frederick Morrison Kasch, a A-4B pilot of VSF-3 from the Intrepid, was just pulling up from his bombing run when his aircraft was hit by AAA, causing partial engine failure. He trimmed the aircraft in the hope of reaching the coast and was accompanied by his wingman as he flew 35 miles to the south. However, as they approached the coast near Luc Linh, Kasch was down to 500 feet and he was advised to eject. His wingman lost sight of him, as Kasch was flying so slowly, and when he came round again, all he saw was the wreckage of Kasch’s aircraft among some houses. There was no sign that Kasch had survived. On 4 July, an Independence Day raid on the railway at Hai Duong resulted in the loss of an A-4C and its pilot, Lieutenant Phillip Charles ‘P C’ Craig of VA-15 aboard the Intrepid. Craig had flown 100 missions on a previous tour. The raid itself was successful and the aircraft headed back to the coast. However, despite radio calls from Lieutenant Craig indicating that he had reached the coast, he did not rendezvous with the rest of the formation and could not be contacted on the radio. A SAR mission was quickly mounted but found no trace of the pilot or his aircraft. North Vietnamese radio later reported that two aircraft had been shot down during the raid. Although this was inaccurate, as only one Skyhawk was missing, it was assumed that Craig had indeed been shot down near the coast to the south of Haiphong.

On 9 July, the USS Constellation mounted a strike on the main Haiphong POL storage site. A formation of A-4Cs of VA-146 was approaching the target at 12,500 feet and was just about to roll in when a volley of SAMs was launched against them. One of the SA-2s hit Lieutenant Charles Richard Lee’s Skyhawk and blew its tail off. The aircraft entered a slow inverted spin until it hit the ground about 10 miles south-west of Haiphong. Lee was not seen to escape and was probably incapacitated by the SAM detonation. At almost the exact same moment that Lieutenant Lee was being shot down, a SAM battery scored another hit a few miles away to the north-west. The Intrepid’s aircraft were targeted at the army barracks at Ban Yen, but before they arrived at the target, they also encountered SAMs. Lieutenant Commander Edward Holmes Martin, the executive officer of VA-34, who was on his nineteenth mission over North Vietnam, was leading the formation at about 10,000 feet and was taking evasive action, but an SA-2 exploded close to his aircraft and peppered the Skyhawk with shrapnel. The aircraft caught fire and quickly became uncontrollable forcing Martin to eject about ten miles south of Hai Duong. He was quickly captured and spent the rest of the war in various PoW camps until his release on 4 March 1973.

On 12 July, two days before the Oriskany officially took its place back on the line on its third tour of duty off South-East Asia; it lost its first aircraft. A VA-163, A-4E Skyhawk was launched for a training flight as part of the pre-combat training programme, but the aircraft left the deck with insufficient airspeed and crashed in the sea after the pilot ejected. The navy lost a Skyhawk of VA-212 from the Bon Homme Richard on its way to a strike on the railway at Mai Truong in North Vietnam. Lieutenant Commander J. H. Kirkpatrick was five miles south of Hai Duong when his aircraft was hit in the port wing and fuselage by ground fire. The aircraft suffered hydraulic failure, fuel pump failure, an unsafe undercarriage indication and a loss of engine power. Soon after crossing the coast about 15 miles south of Haiphong, with the aircraft barely able to stay airborne, Lieutenant Commander Kirkpatrick ejected. He was rescued by a navy SAR helicopter.