November 22, 1966, was selected as the day a massive air strike would be launched against the first of two high-priority targets in North Vietnam (NVN). At the 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron, Danang AB, RVN, four two-man crews were hand-picked to deliver the lethal ordnance onto both targets selected by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). A total of 17 four-ship flights were to hit a vast complex of oil and munitions storage and NVN troops.
At 0600, I awoke to the annoying buzzer of my Telechron alarm clock. When my feet hit the floor with my elbows on my knees at bedside, a feeling of total despair came over me. In the solitude of my tiny enclosure, staring unfocused at the floor, I said aloud, “Today’s the day,” thinking this was the last day of my life.
I had breakfast with 1st Lt. Galand Kramer at the Danang Officers Open Mess, the DOOM Club, so appropriately named for those of us flying into the teeth of North Vietnam’s AAA, missile and MiG air defenses. Galand himself would be shot down two months later.
We held a mass intelligence briefing at wing HQ. Our intel chief Major Art Weiner briefed us on all aspects of our mission including weather and defenses. I wondered what good it did to tell us there were guns, MiGs and SAMs everywhere. After that we had our individual flight briefings. We were to be a flight of four F-4C Phantoms.
By 0900, my front-seater, 1st Lt. Gordon “Scotty” Wilson and I were walking onto the north ramp to our weapons- and fuel-laden F-4C number 64-0755. Scotty preflighted the weapons: six-M117, 750 lb. bombs and eight Air-to-Air Missiles while I inspected the Phantom. The flight call sign was Dogwood and we were number 2.
As I approached the left wing in my walk around, I noticed a large “patch,” roughly 30” by 8” riveted just inboard of the left wing-fold. Just then, the crew chief, SSgt. Don Ward, came up to me and said words that someone in operations never, ever hears from anybody in maintenance. “Sir, the airplane was in a SAM break two days ago. They fixed it. But I don’t think they fixed it right. If I were you, I wouldn’t take the airplane.”
I was in disbelief about what I had just been told, but a realist about the exigencies surrounding me and said to Sergeant Ward that he should tell Lt. Wilson what he had just told me which he did. Scotty took one look at the patch which I admit looked a bit Sam Schwartz to me and replied, “If we have to break for a SAM, we’ll bring it back without the wingtip.”
With both my palms up and a telling expression on my face, Don Ward knew that was the end of the conversation. But for many years I wondered about what premonitions he also might have had that were similar to those I’d had when I awakened.
Since 366th TFW maintenance was overtaxed having to do all of its around-the-clock 24/7 functions, the flight leader had to turn down two airplanes before he found one that was combat ready and airworthy. Dogwood 4 was an MND, Maintenance Non Delivery, i.e., no airplane! What?
Our own Phantom was suffering from a variety of ills. The intercom was intermittent. And after Scotty started the engines, the aerial refueling receptacle would only operate some of the time. I admit now that, with the forebodings I’d had earlier, I seriously thought about pulling the aerial refueling receptacle circuit breaker so it would not open, causing us to have to abort. But I did not. I still know where the CB is.
Despite these difficulties, we began to taxi. Owing to all the maintenance problems, we did not take off as a flight but departed single-ship and joined up on the KC-135 tanker aircraft over Thailand as a flight of three.
Takeoff in a heavily-loaded Phantom requires some explanation. Directional control was by use of nose wheel steering or rudder up to 70 knots, at which airspeed the rudder became effective. Nose wheel liftoff speed was calculated to be over 170 knots and liftoff at nearly 200 knots or 230 mph! The Dash-1 (USAF “How to Fly the F-4” book) technique to accomplish this feat was to have the control stick fully aft (T.O. 1F-4C-1, Change 1, page 2-20) before reaching 30 knots below calculated nose wheel liftoff speed. In this MGTOW case, you had to have the stick in your lap before attaining 140 knots. By that point the airflow over the isoclinic horizontal stabilizer was sufficient to start the nose up.
As the nose rises, pitch attitude must be controlled to achieve a nose-high attitude of 10 to 12 degrees. So that the pilot does not have to be utilizing his attitude indicator for this, the canopy rails happen to be canted downward at just the correct angle making it possible to perform the takeoff maneuver using purely visual references, e.g. when the canopy rails are parallel to the ground, the nose is 10-12 degrees up. At this moment the twin J-79 afterburners are briefly licking at the runway with two, huge, yellow-orange flames.
After liftoff, caution must be exercised to avoid over-rotation. This requires the pilot to smoothly and precisely adjust control inputs to maintain takeoff attitude as the aircraft accelerates and the landing gear and flaps are retracted. Even at max takeoff weight, Scotty had to be careful not to exceed the landing gear limit airspeed of 250 knots with both afterburners cooking. He did this all without missing a beat. Despite being a first lieutenant, Scotty Wilson was in my opinion, the best stick in the 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron.
Maximum allowable gross takeoff weight in an F-4C was 58,000 lbs. And we were just below that weight when we left Danang AB, RVN from runway 17L on the 22nd of November 1966.
Scotty gave me the airplane and I climbed out at 350 knots until it came time to find the tanker on the radar. Then we switched roles and Scotty flew while I coordinated the rendezvous. Dogwood 3 had already arrived and was taking fuel through the KC-135’s boom. Scotty gave the Phantom back to me and then it was my turn. I slipped off the right wing of the tanker into a spot 50 feet aft of where I’d have to be for the boomer to plug into my receptacle. After I was “stabilized,” the boomer cleared me into the contact position.
I flew the airplane to a point in space below the beautiful Stratotanker where I judged the “contact” position to be. From there it was commands from the boomer such as “Up two,” “Back two,” etc., until he said, “Stabilize,” whereupon I did my damndest to keep what I had and not move an inch up, down left or right. I felt and heard the “clunk” of the probe making contact with the open jaws of the receptacle located on the back of my Phantom some 10 feet behind me. “Contact,” followed by, “You’re taking fuel,” announced the boomer.
From the back seat, I accomplished the fuel on-load at an altitude of 25,000 ft. having to use minimum afterburner on the left engine to stay in position due to the heavy load. Flight lead arrived and took his fuel after we were finished. Scotty then took control of the airplane as we proceeded to follow our leader along the preplanned route.
From the refueling track exit over northern Thailand, our route took us over northern Laos and into North Vietnam. We accomplished the weapons checklist just as we entered enemy territory: Centerline station, Bombs ripple, Intervalometer set, Master Arm. The bomb release button was now hot!
Approaching what should have been Point Alfa on our planned route, I noticed the nav pointer was off to the left when it should have been dead center straight up. I quickly figured out that, because we were going to be late, our flight lead was cutting Alfa out and going directly to Bravo. I confirmed this by dialing in Bravo’s coordinates and the needle pointed straight ahead.
I yelled on the intercom, “Deep six check! He’s taking us direct to Bravo and right over Yen Bai!” Without hesitation Scotty rolled smoothly to the left into a near 90 degree bank and applied right (top) rudder and held it for a few seconds while I looked for the SAM that was certainly coming for us. But there was no SAM. So Scotty did the same check with a roll to the right with the same result. Phew! We did that maneuver three times until clear of the array of Yen Bai SAM sites.
Just as we were positioning ourselves for the right-hand turn at Bravo, the lead aircraft unexpectedly turned to the left. Scotty compensated nicely and kept us in formation while I was continually “checking six.” During the left, 270 degree turn, the flight leader must have been having problems with his navigation system because he asked if our own nav equipment was operating normally, saying, “Dogwood 2, how’s your inertial?”
I’m thinking, “How does anybody know how their INS is doing when they can’t see the ground?” We were at 25,000 feet above a solid, 10,000-foot undercast. While I was thinking how dumb a question that was, Scotty asked me an entirely different one over the intercom:
“Do you know where we are?”
To me, this is a refreshing change of phraseology, demonstrating a far greater sense of situational awareness. I replied that I still had a positive lock to a radio nav-aid and if he could get us through the clouds I could get us to the target. Scotty then said over the radio to the leader, “Dogwood 2 has a good inertial.” Pilots who have used the AN/ASN-46 nav system (Up to 7 NM per hour error) will know what’s going on here.
Flight lead replied, “Dogwood 2, you have the lead.” So that it is crystal clear to the reader, this means that two 1st Lieutenants were leading a flight of Phantoms to a JCS target on the outskirts of Hanoi referred to as “Bullseye” by those of us who flew over the north. The time was 1151. Our TOT (Time Over Target) was scheduled for 1153. We were going to make it.
At this point, because of the unexpected turn, our formation was too bunched up; we were too close to each other to be able to provide mutual look-out support. I was too busy inside the cockpit to see it happen but the other two Phantoms banked away sharply to assume the proper lateral spacing. Without any electronic gear onboard to warn us of active SAM sites, there was no way for us to know that at that very moment a Soviet-built SA-2 missile was streaking its way towards our Phantom from directly behind us, “Dead 6 o’clock,” in fighter pilot lingo. Just as the original lead aircraft rolled back to a wings-level position a mile to our left and reacquired us visually, the SAM struck our F-4 too late to shout a warning.
We were only two minutes from the target, descending through 14,000 ft. at a speed of 540 knots or about 650 miles per hour.
The explosion was ear-splitting and seemed to go on and on. This is known as temporal distortion. Our airplane flew out of the fireball with orange flames and thick, black smoke trailing from the wings, fuselage and tail. We’d had it. The direct hit had felt like we’d had a collision with a fully-loaded cement truck. There was a terrifyingly loud and long explosion followed by staccato metal-to-metal sounds, probably of the J-79 turbine and compressor blades departing for parts unknown. Sayonara, engines!
I looked first into the rear-view mirrors and could see only orange flames and inky smoke. I then looked at myself to see if I was in one piece. How about that for a cool presence of mind? I was O.K. The cockpit pressure vessel was intact; incredibly, it had not been penetrated despite a direct hit by a Soviet SA-2 missile traveling at over Mach 2 with a 400 lb., high-explosive warhead! Peering over Scotty’s shoulders into the front seat, I could see we were done for. Both Fire and Overheat lights were illuminated and all the amber and red indicators on the telelight panel by Scotty’s right knee were lit. The aircraft banked sharply to the left, then to the right. Despite our brief conversation enroute to the tanker about pilots who had ejected from their burning airplanes prematurely (their aircraft flew on for long distances before going out of control) what happened next got my attention.
Scotty yelled, “GET OUT!” With the “OUT” still echoing in my ears there was a BOOM!, then the air noise of the jettisoned canopy. Scotty had ejected. For the briefest moment I contemplated that a right 60 degree turn would take me via the shortest route out of NVN. Not that northern Laos is a very hospitable place to be, but it would give you a better chance for a rescue by an Air Force chopper. I even remember glancing around the cockpit at the throttles and the control stick. It was another scene of temporal distortion. The control stick was lazily wandering left and right; the throttles were all the way forward in the full afterburner position but there was no thrust coming from the J-79s. There were no J-79s! All this took no more than one second.
But survival instincts and thorough ejection training were running the show. Subconsciously I probably realized I was sitting alone in the back seat of a burning airplane. The man who had less than an hour ago cautioned me against premature ejection had ejected. All these thoughts, survival instincts and USAF training synthesized into one, crystal clear and powerful inspiration. While my eyes and my thoughts were on flying out of enemy territory, my hands moved swiftly to the lower ejection handle while my body automatically assumed the correct ejection posture; back straight, legs extended, elbows tucked in close to the body, and BOOM. I’d pulled the lower ejection handle and was away from my burning Phantom. I was falling towards the Earth and still attached to my Martin-Baker (made in England) ejection seat below a four-foot drogue chute to stabilize my rapid descent.
At 10,000 ft, the automatic man-seat separation features operated exactly as advertised. The four-foot stabilizing chute was severed, my lap belt was opened and the “butt snapper” straps straightened, “booting” me out of the seat while simultaneously pulling the ripcord that would deploy my parachute. All I was aware of was a short, sharp ringing sound and my white, silk parachute billowing above me. Phew! The baro switch was supposed to open my chute at 10,000 ft. The clouds were reported to be at 10,000 ft. Both were exactly right because the top of my parachute was practically in the bottom of the clouds right above me.
The first thing I looked at was the horizon and I could almost hear the words of “The Vanquished” as if they were spoken to me.
Looking down past my flying boots lay North Vietnam. For the first few seconds, I was disoriented and didn’t know which way I was facing. I looked to my left and there, on the ground already was the wreckage of my stricken Phantom. Immediately, I looked in the opposite direction and saw Scotty in his chute. Unfortunately, there was more to see in that picture.
Scotty’s arms seemed to be at his sides and head slumped forward. I was concentrating on Scotty and my eyes were focused only on him. Then came the shock. Just to the right of Scotty’s lifeless figure was the light-brown and white cloud characteristic of an SA-2 detonation! A second missile had been fired and aimed precisely where our aircraft would have been had we dived straight ahead to avoid the first missile.
Although I was only a few thousand feet away, I hadn’t been able to hear the explosion. It must have occurred just before my own chute opened. Scotty was probably hit by shrapnel from the missile. At the very least, he had just been knocked out. At least that’s what I hoped. But, I knew the SA-2 was a powerful weapon; 400 lbs. of high-explosive surrounded by a thousand 1-inch diameter stainless steel balls inside the 6-foot long nose cone. At this point I could only pray he would revive by the time he reached the ground.
I looked for an escape route. At 9,000 ft., I began trying to maneuver my parachute towards the southern tip of the Tam Dao Mountain range better known as “Thud Ridge” by the F-105 Thunderchief drivers. At first it seemed to be right below me. But the effort proved futile. As I descended lower and lower, I realized that by the time I reached the surface I’d still be a long way from even the base of the higher ground.
At 2,500 ft. I could see small “hooches” (straw huts) on the ground. All my attention had been focused on escape and I had inadvertently bypassed the opportunity to use my emergency radio to make a distress, Mayday call. By this time I was at 1,500 ft. It was then that I could see a shapeless, black mass on the ground. It was moving and changing shape ever so slowly. It was people! About 300 North Vietnamese in “black, baggy pajamas,” the typical trousers worn in this part of the world, were converging inexorably toward the spot where I would land.
In order to avoid my radio falling into enemy hands where it could be used to lure American rescue teams into an ambush, I broke the antenna and tossed it. I then drew my .38 caliber service revolver, opened the cylinder, emptied all the ammunition and threw it away. It was less than a minute before I would be on the ground.
I looked back to my right. Scotty hadn’t regained consciousness. Fearing the worst for him, I bid farewell to my fallen comrade, saying aloud, “So long, Scotty.” With only 300 feet to go, I prepared for my parachute landing. It was noon. I took one last look at the horizon. The spot where I landed was probably a potato patch. The soil was mercifully soft, loose and moist. My ungraceful arrival didn’t raise much dust.
The black, shapeless mass of Vietnamese peasants was all over me. Despite the excellent sound-sealing qualities of my helmet, their jabbering was extremely loud and intense. Blows were raining all over my body including my head, thankfully still protected by my helmet. I was flat on my back. Looking down toward my feet, I could see dozens of hands. Some were grabbing and pulling at my anti-g suit, flight suit and boots. Others had knives and were, to my complete surprise, cutting the clothing and equipment from my body. They were in absolute frenzy.
At this moment, I felt a great calm envelope me. The terror I felt just moments before vanished. I thought to myself, “I’m dead.” I just didn’t know what the moment of death would be like. I imagined the instrument of death: a bullet, a knife, a shovel, hammer, pick, axe… At that moment, I felt a long, cool piece of steel slide between my throat and my helmet strap. In that instant, I realized how I would die; they were going to slice my head off. The blade began moving back and forth. But, instead of cutting through my throat, as I’d imagined, the blade moved away, cutting the helmet strap. Phew II!
With the helmet strap no longer in existence, my helmet flew off like a slingshot. Now, the frenzied noise was deafening. My head, no longer protected by my helmet, was now receiving direct hits from clubs, rocks, rifle butts and God-knows-what. The villagers made short work of removing everything except my T-Shirt and skivvies. And they did so with knives having little concept or knowledge of zippers, snaps or the technical difficulties associated with releasing parachute risers. It’s a real shame but they ruined a perfectly good pair of nearly new, highly-polished USAF flying boots with zippers; they cut right through the damn zippers!
All of a sudden, they stood me up. I am unable to understand why I didn’t feel dazed by all of the blows to the head I’d received. But then, the blood began to run down from the breaks in the skin on my head and into my eyes. I wanted to wipe the blood away but my hands were tied behind my back. I looked around me to see hundreds of people, mostly villagers, including old folks and children. A few of the men wore shoddy uniforms and were armed with old-looking, bolt-action rifles. These were probably the local militia. Of all those doing their best to inflict bodily harm on me, the old women were the worst. They would persistently be trying to attack me while the militia men unemotionally fended them off. It was late November, the temperature was 40F, and all I had on were my underwear.
I was escorted a few hundred feet to one of the village hooches I’d seen from above. Surprisingly, a young couple bandaged my head wounds. I remember their faces were not contorted with anger or hatred but rather with kind expressions of understanding almost bordering on a smile. After that, I was blindfolded and transported two miles by motorcycle sidecar to another village and locked in a small building made of large stones. There, I waited for about five hours, during which time it seemed that everyone in the village, save the oldest and youngest, came to visit the new arrival. I found out what it’s like to be a zoo animal except nobody threw me any peanuts.
During this relatively minor ordeal, I asked permission of my guard, using sign language, for permission to relieve my bladder. Permission was granted and I promptly made a big hit with the youngsters in attendance. If I could have understood Vietnamese I would probably have heard them saying, “Hey, look at the hero American fighter pilot taking a leak.”
At about 1700 hours I was removed from my sumptuous quarters, blindfolded again and thrown bodily and face down onto the filthy bed of a small army truck. For the next two hours I ate dust, dirt, rust flakes and rodent droppings as we pounded our way over the worst rutted roads into Hanoi.
Upon arrival at the Hoa Lo prison, I was placed in a dimly-lit room with light green, uneven walls. Those bumps on the walls, in retrospect, were a poor man’s acoustic treatment for trying to muffle the screams of Americans being tortured there. This room was known, unaffectionately, by all who suffered there as “the room with the green, bumpy walls.” Seated on a small, wooden stool, the interrogation began in the usual way with, “Name, rank, serial number and date of birth.” When I refused to reply to any further questions except by repeating my name, rank, serial number and date of birth, my interrogating officer, in a most sinister way, and in a very convincing manner said, “Crecca, you will die in Vietnam.” In a matter of minutes I was bound with ropes. My arms were tied behind my back with the elbows laced tightly together. I lost all feeling in my arms very rapidly. Manacles were locked onto my wrists as well. The pain was unbearable except that I had to bear it whether I wanted to or not.
Then, I was pushed face down to the floor and blindfolded. I could feel them loop a rope around my neck, then attach the rope to my wrists and again, in similar fashion, to my ankles. Suddenly, I was lifted from the floor. My brain raced to imagine all the possibilities: A snake pit? A well? Before I could muse over any more unhappy endings, I was dropped onto the floor. Better than snakes or drowning in contaminated water, I thought briefly, before I was elevated again and dropped again. I was starting to get the idea. The process of lifting the “American air pirate” and dropping him (me) face first onto the floor went on for over an hour.
The next thing I knew, I was back on the wooden stool facing my interrogator. He still had the baleful look of an owl about to gobble a mouse. I was the mouse. But, knowing this might be my only chance to talk before the fun and games began anew, I concocted a mission scenario that I hoped would be accepted as truth.
Since we were shot down well before reaching our target and also because most of the strike flights had declined to enter the target area due to decidedly unfavorable weather, my story had to deny the Vietnamese any foreknowledge of the real target. If I failed to keep this from them, they would reposition their anti-aircraft batteries and SAMs to make the target a “flak trap,” making this JCS target even more formidable than before. More aircraft would be shot down and pilots killed or captured. I was asked the same questions over and over in an attempt to trip me up. But, I stuck to my story answering the same question in the same way each time. The session finally came to an end after midnight. I fell into a restless, nightmarish and shivering cold sleep.
Thus ended my first day as a POW in North Vietnam. I would spend the next six years and three months in five different prison camps around the city and countryside in North Vietnam; the farthest very near to the Chinese border. Phew III!
It was the determination of President Richard M. Nixon to mount Operation Linebacker II, sending B-52s to attack the capital city of Hanoi and the port city of Haiphong, forcing the communists back to the peace conference in Paris that resulted in the end of the Vietnam War and the release of the prisoners-of-war. Had it not been for President Nixon and the sheer courage of the B-52 and tactical aircrews, the POWs would never have returned.
Following the release of all the POWs we met President Nixon at the State Department in May, 1973. By my count I was about the 335th POW to walk up onto the stage to shake hands with the President. I was at a loss for words. What could I possibly say to the President of the United States that he hadn’t already heard 334 times before? As my turn got closer and closer, I was still mentally tongue-tied. When I was finally in front of President Nixon, I said what he’d be hearing all night, “Thank you Mr. President for bringing us home with honor.” Then without missing a beat I said, “And I’m really sorry about that F-4. But I promise if you’ll just give me another one, I’ll take much better care of it.” He squeezed my hand so hard I thought he was going to break all the bones in it as he said with great gusto, “I want you in one!”
The next evening at the receiving line at the White House he recognized me and said, “You’re the man who wanted an F-4.” I said I was and he said, “You’ve got it!”
I flew Phantoms until leaving to fly transports for Flying Tigers and then Federal Express. Thank you President Nixon for my life and my freedom.
Our flight should never have been going into the target. First of all, we only had three airplanes. One of our F-4s was not delivered by maintenance. You need four for effective mutual support; i.e., lookout coverage for all four in all quadrants. Secondly, everybody else — all the other strike flights, 15 of them, one after the other — were calling, “Outbound for weather” meaning the target area was socked in and it would be just plain stupid to drop into the clouds where it would be hard to locate the target and easy to get nailed by a SAM (Surface-to-Air Missile).
So why were we going in anyway? Because the Director of Operations (DO) was leading a flight-of-four on MiG Cap hoping to shoot down a MiG. If none of the strike flights entered the target area, the MiGs wouldn’t come up. If the MiGs didn’t come up, he couldn’t have a chance to shoot one down. And the Officer Effectiveness Report (OER) of the guy leading our flight would be written by the DO. Get it? Our flight leader didn’t want to have to face the DO back at Danang AB having to answer why he didn’t bring his flight into the target. A sub-standard OER means you don’t get promoted on time.
The result of the egotistical attitude by the DO and the lack of courage and sound judgement by our flight leader cost Scotty Wilson his life, put me in communist prisons for over six years, resulted in my father’s untimely death at the age of 58 and a host of other horrors back home while I was away. The USAF also lost F-4C Phantom 64-0755.
Scotty Wilson had a beautiful wife and daughter whose lives were torn asunder as well. His remains were returned to the USA in April, 1986, and he is interred at the Air Force Academy Cemetery, Colorado Springs, Colorado. Rest in Peace, dear Scotty.
I taught math, physics, automotive theory and practice, and classical music in the Hanoi Hilton. I taught eight pilots who had only two-year degrees differential calculus. I learned Russian and some higher math.
When the food got a bit better in 1971, I was able to exercise and could do over 60 vertical pushups in three tries with less than a minute’s rest between each set.
When I was shot down I weighed 157 lbs. I went down to about 125 in the winter of 1968. By 1973, when we were released, they’d given us enough to eat so that I was back up to 155.
I hope you enjoyed reading this.