Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

My War Stories

During flight training, I wanted a fighter bad, but was happy to get the back seat of the RF-4, since fighter positions were filled by the time they got to me. At the 9th TRS I was joined by classmates Mike Pavich, Leroy Stutz, John Osborne, Bob Clark, and Bob Dempsey.

The 9th deployed in July 1966, with a fleet of RF-4s to Udorn, Thailand, via Hickam and immediately went into battle over Laos for a few days before going North. I remember Leroy Stutz's comments on an RF-101 briefer discussing missions over the North the first day we arrived, departing that day on a day mission and not returning. He had been an English instructor at the Academy for us both. I also remember that during that meeting there were tears of frustration from RF-101 pilots who were losing a comrade every few days. Watch 'Twelve O'clock High' again with Gregory Peck and you will get the point. It was an introduction to real combat.

The reconnaissance mission at night was single ship, with infrared mapping which did not have much resolution, or photo cartridges which showed the gunners where we were. Therefore, we didn't use many carts at one time. The pilot in the back seat operated the radar and cameras, along with another pair of eyes.

The RF-4s were immediately put on night missions, alone, unarmed, and unafraid. What the hell, it was exciting. As backseater on a groundmap radar, I could put my front seater on target anywhere he wanted.

One of our first in-the-barrel midnight targets was Viet Tri on September 4, 1966. After entering the valley at 500 feet AGL, we popped to 1500 feet and made a 90 degree hard left turn at 480 knots to the target for a six mile run. Somehow they knew we were coming and we immediately flew into a fourth of July party of tracers filling the sky. We jinked several times and each time I put the pilot back on target. At the last second, we got photos of the river intersection with night flash cartridges, letting the gunners know where we were flying. Fortunately they missed and we went home with a new appreciation of NVN defenses.

The fighters were unleased a few hours later to attack Viet Tri, and future POWs Ron Bliss and Tom McNish were shot down over a target we had attacked for four straight days. I imagine that every gun in the country was now at Viet Tri.

In addition, an hour before, Mike Pavich and his pilot from our squadron had used the same IP for a run at Hanoi, and were also met with an unhealthy reception. They went on terrain following mode and exitted east to the gulf at 250 feet, crossing most of the valley in the blind.

Other than getting shot down, my most memorable mission was a night target between Thud ridge and Hanoi. We circled to the northwest toward China, reversed direction twice, flying below mountain tops in the blackest of nights and took a night photo of a target at the foot of Thud Ridge without being detected until over target. The previous seventeen attempts had failed to get even close.

When my captain suggested a medal, he was told that no damage, no medal. So much for being excellent. I later briefed this mission to the Class of '70 at Eglin during their summer trip. I wonder if any remember it.

One daily recce mission was to recon the weather over the NVN target of the day before sunrise. If weather was poor, the F-4s or thuds would go to an alternate. On December 2, 1966, we lost Leroy Stutz when a Mig jumped them, somehow knowing that it was an unarmed RF-4.

Later, two F-4s in tight formation acting as a sole RF-4, decoyed another Mig and nailed his butt. Tactics changed.

Rules of engagement at the time said that we couldn't shoot at Migs on the ground. On January 2, 1967, several flights of F-4s out of Ubon, led by Col Robin Olds, future USAFA COC, acting as fully loaded, lumbering F-105s, decoyed the NVN Air Force into launching Migs above a lower overcast. One rumor has it that the Vietnamese radio transmission was translated to say 'Holy crap, they're F-4s'. Seven Migs were nailed before they could get back on the ground.
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