F-4 Phantom
5 min read

I got to the Vietnam War near the end of the summer of ’67. I don’t know that it dawned on me right away that there would be some possibility of leave to go back home and see my family until my combat tour was complete.

Youthful ignorance is a wonderful thing. It routinely attempts the impossible. I put in for Christmas leave. And just like that, my flight commander approved it.

After the first 30 or 40 missions getting shot at and watching others get hit, the prospect of seeing my family again became much more meaningful.  And Christmas was coming like a freight train.  My thoughts of home, Mom and Dad, my wife and three daughters, became ever more poignant as the holiday got closer.  Then we got fragged on the Doumer Bridge.

Approaching mid-December, the destruction dealt by the Thuds (F-105) and Phantoms (F-4) back in August had been repaired. And Seventh Air Force in Saigon told us we had to go back and do the job over again. Crap. Why now? Couldn’t it wait a few more days? I could be high over the western Pacific in a C-141, eastbound to the fireside of comfort, safety and love we all dreamed about, especially at this time of year.  Home for the holidays! I was at full quiver.

F-4 Phantom

The destruction dealt by the Phantoms had been repaired and Seventh Air Force in Saigon told us we had to go back and do the job over again.

But it began to look like I was going to have to earn my combat aviator pay the hard way before I could escape for Christmas. We planned and honed our knowledge of Nguyen’s defenses to the keenest edge. Paul Doumer had built the silly bridge right beside Ho Chi Minh’s front porch. This was downtown—total, unmitigated terror. It was all there—guns, MiGs and missiles, and kids with rocks, and little old antique grandmothers with shovels to smack you up side the head if you punched out and made it to the ground still alive. I was all too aware of the distinct possibility of a long, maybe permanent, postponement of that cherished Christmas leave.

The weather gods refused to cooperate, and the agony became prolonged. We would get up at 2am, finalize the planning, and brief the Alpha Strike mission only to get scrubbed for weather on the way out to the ramp. Once we launched as an afternoon Alpha Strike and got cancelled for weather on the tankers out over the Gulf of Tonkin. Another day we went through the entire routine – briefed, launched, refueled and got within sight of landfall only to be turned back by the weather reconnaissance flight for a low cloud deck over the target.

My nerves, and everybody else’s, were getting frazzled. I was not the only one planning to go home at Christmas.  About a week before Christmas, we finally went all the way. It was an afternoon Alpha Strike. I kept thinking, “We’ll get cancelled again. The weather will be bad. My jet will spring a leak or something and I won’t go. But what if I do? And what if I don’t come back? What about my kids? What will happen to them?”

I remember sitting on the edge of the bed the night before I left to go off to war in the first place. I wasn’t afraid to go. It was my duty and I’m a good soldier.  But I was so afraid for my little girls. A whole year away from them, and just what if I were killed or taken prisoner? Who would take care of them? Who would help their mother see that they arrived at womanhood ready? I collapsed into sobbing.  I guess it isn’t manly to cry, but there’s a chink in the macho of fathers.  I don’t care what they do for a living.

My position in the strike package was right behind Green Sixteen, the last guy in the wave of sixteen Thuds. The game plan was for the Thuds to wipe out the bridge with three-thousand pounders, followed by eight F-4s to seed the river with Mark 36s.

A Mark 36 looks like a 500-pound, high drag bomb. It is actually a mine. They are magnetically fused to explode when they sense metal. We figured the Thuds could drop the bridge with three-granders to cut off land traffic, and we would lay those wicked little seeds on the river bottom to make life interesting for anybody who tried to boat anything across.

I’m here to tell you, you haven’t lived until you have gone down the slide simultaneously with two dozen fighter bombers, all near transonic, all pointed at the same half acre of real estate, every pilot looking nowhere but straight through the pipper and at the altimeter.

The intelligence just behind the eyes of the man is now at this moment riveted on one single, horribly piercing purpose: kill that bridge.  And we did.

As we rolled into the dive, my last glance outside the cockpit left burned into my brain forever a sky full of great, sharp-nosed darts, separated by dark explosions. All of them aimed straight down.  We had been cautioned in training that the big iron fins on a Mark 36 would fail if you released them at a speed in excess of 550 knots. The aircraft bucked and shook as the bombs charged loose of the shackles and streaked for the river below.

Then, in the instant before the g-forces on pull-out shoved my skull into my shoulder blades, and buried my rear end deep in the seat, I saw the Mach meter slide past one-point-one. In a hard left turn to defeat the enemy gunners below, I strained my eyeballs back over my shoulder to see the bombs simply hanging there, all fins completely intact.

The reheat is cooking and we are pointed southeastward toward the water. We’ll make it. Christmas will come. And I will be there.

F4 Phantom
Dick Jonas
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12 replies
  1. Dale Hill
    Dale Hill says:

    Dick, Thanks for relating your story of war at Christmas time. I previously told my tale here last Christmas and it was titled CHRISTMAS AS A FORWARD AIR CONTROLLER OVER LAOS. BTW, loved the many songs you sang, which we could all identify with whether flying low and slow or at the speed of heat! Merry Christmas to you and yours. Boots

    Reply
  2. Dick Jonas
    Dick Jonas says:

    Website is http://www.erosonic.com
    Dale —
    I worked with quite a number of FACs during my combat tour. One evening I was Lead-GIB in a 2-ship strike at a nasty little place called Tchepone down in southern Laos. We made two passes each and got the crap shot out of us. As we departed, the FAC gave us the BDA, and finished with ” . . . and, uh, I’ll give you 4,000 rounds of triple-A.” All four of us were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for Heroism for that mission. I guess for being lucky enough to not take a single hit from the triple-A.
    Best for the holidays, my friend.

    Reply
    • Dale Hill
      Dale Hill says:

      Dick, I remember flying past Tchepone on numerous occasions. One day, I worked a flight on a suspicious clump of bushes along the river where it formed the ‘Catcher’s Mitt’ and that clump of bushes exploded mightily, which impressed both me and the F-4 drivers dropping the bombs!

      Reply
      • Dick Jonas
        Dick Jonas says:

        Dale —
        On another mission, I think long before we struck Tchepone with its ” . . . uh, 4,000 rounds of triple-A”, it was a 4-ship into southern Laos. #1 and #2 went in and put their loads into the thick jungle. Then #3 rolled in. When he pulled off, a column of fire and smoke the size of a hangar belched up out of the jungle. Shack!!!

        Reply
  3. Mark Scardino
    Mark Scardino says:

    Love your warrior stories gentlemen. I was in 67-88 and stationed at numerous F4 bases and one base with F105s. In Korea the base had O2s, replaced by the OV10 along with F4s, DC130, rescue H3s, and a U2. Highly respect the men who flew in SEA under political restraints. Ret MSgt.

    Reply
  4. Peter Christian Rearick
    Peter Christian Rearick says:

    My first Christmas away from home was in 1990, Saudi Arabia for Desert Shield. Bob Hope came out and put on a show for us. Thanks for the memories, Bob, nothing but love for you.
    In 2003, my C-130 crew celebrated Christmas Eve by delivering pallets of small arms ammo into Bagdad. At least we weren’t the guys waiting to use that stuff, so it could have been a lot worse.
    Merry Christmas to all, and I hope everyone reading this is home with loved ones.

    Reply
  5. Eric P
    Eric P says:

    First, love your songs. Thanks for carrying on a tradition.
    I went through most of my career always being home for the holidays—left for Thailand on 2 January 73, home before Thanksgiving. Left for Desert Storm in mid-January. By 1993, I felt guilty, kids were in high school, so I volunteered for the holiday rotation during Provide Comfort as Mission Director on AWACS to allow someone with little kids stay home. Was a great tour.
    Thankfully most families will never have to experience these separations, but I’m grateful for all that have. Especially you folks in RP-6! Nickel, and a shot of Weed, for all those not with us .

    Reply
  6. Cal W. Tax
    Cal W. Tax says:

    Dick,
    You are a legend in the fighter pilot world and not only an excellent musician, a great pilot and leader but also a talented writer. A hard to find combo in a knuckle dragging Phantom driver.
    I think back to the many times you and I flew together in the 7th TFS and the good times we had
    Yes, I was one of those “Thuds” that dropped that f***ing bridge that you so eloquently describe and we did it more than once. Your description of the environment of “Downtown Hanoi” is right on and still gives me goosebumps. We were both VERY lucky not to have spent several Christmas seasons in that place.
    Keep the great stories coming. I have shared a few with Air Facts and have some more in the pipeline.
    Give me a call sometime if you’re near Atlanta.
    Check six old buddy.

    Reply
    • Dick Jonas
      Dick Jonas says:

      Cal —
      I’ll never forget taking off in a 4-ship of Phantoms with you at Spangdahlem. Your cockpit steps were down and somebody says, “Hey, Three, your steps are down!” And you came back with no hesitation, “Is there anybody on ’em?”

      Reply

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