PORTLAND, Ore. --
On National Vietnam War Veterans Day, we remember those who served and sacrificed during the nation’s longest war of the 20th century. Some nine million served in the armed forces during the time of the war, and 58,000 names of the fallen are remembered on the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial in Washington DC.
For this commemoration, we take a look at some of the steeds our nation’s air warriors rode into battle in the war-torn skies over Vietnam during the Rolling Thunder air campaign which survived the war and eventually served in the Oregon Air National Guard (OreANG).
As the OreANG converted from the McDonnell F-101B Voodoo fighter-interceptor to the McDonnell Douglas F-4C Phantom II fighter in late 1980 and early 1981, the F-4 Phantom era of the 142nd Fighter Group began. And with it came some of the F-4C aerial victors of the Vietnam War.
Ultimately, some 78 different F-4Cs served at one time or another for various lengths of service in the group’s two fighter squadrons, the 123rd Fighter-Interceptor Squadron (123rd FIS) at Portland ANG Base and 114th Tactical Fighter Training Squadron (114th TFTS) at Kingsley Field.
Many Oregon Phantoms were combat veterans of Southeast Asia. And 10 of those jets were credited with 12 aerial victories over North Vietnamese MiG fighter jets between 1965 and 1967. This article will focus on those 10 aircraft and highlight some of their victorious aerial encounters over MiG fighters of the Vietnamese Peoples Air Force (VPAF).
First USAF Aerial Victories in Vietnam – July 10, 1965
Due to the aerial threat posed by MiG fighters when the Rolling Thunder air campaign commenced in March, 1965, after the MiGs began air combat in April, 1965, the USAF deployed 18 F-4Cs to Southeast Asia where they served under the command of the Second Air Division. The twin-engine, two-seat jets soon encountered the enemy.
F-4C serial number 64-0679 (in the 123rd FIS from 25 Sep 1980 to 8 Jun 1986) was one of two jets which achieved the first USAF aerial victories of the war. Taking advantage of the enemy’s habit pattern to go after F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bombers and force them to prematurely jettison their bombload, and/or shoot them down to stop the damage and destruction they inflicted, Mink Flight, four F-4Cs took off late on July 10, 1965 in order to simulate a last, late flight of F-105s, flying F-105 flight paths, speeds and altitudes to fool the enemy.
Although the plan didn’t work out as cleanly and precisely as hoped, the Phantoms successfully engaged and shot down two MiG-17s with AIM-9B Sidewinder infra-red guided-missiles. Mink 04, 64-0679 (in the 123rd FIS from Sep 1980 to Aug 86) flown by Capt. Thomas S. Roberts and Capt. Ronald C. Anderson of the 45th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS), maneuvered in three dimensions to dodge a MiG gun attack and achieve a position to fire upon and shoot down a MiG. After its Oregon service it became a static display near the 35th Fighter Wing headquarters building at Misawa Air Base, Japan.
For the next nine months, the MiGs became scarce, as the VPAF sought to improve its pilot and fighter jet capabilities and air defense system sensor array, command and control, and ground-based anti-aircraft artillery and missile systems, in order to more-effectively engage aggressive American fighter pilots.
It wasn’t until the monsoon season ended in April, 1966 that another F-4C scored an aerial victory. On April 23, 1966 the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing’s (TFW) 555th TFS F-4C 64-0699 (in the 123rd FIS from Apr 87 to 20 Jul 1989), flown by Capt. Robert E. Blake (USAFA 1959) and 1st Lt. S. W. George as Mink 04, screened F-105s attacking the Bac Giang railroad and highway bridge 25 miles northeast of Hanoi, along the troublesome northeast railroad. As Mink Flight met an opposing force of four MiG-17s head-on, a swirling dogfight developed as the two formations sought advantage over each other. After a climbing separation maneuver, a pursuing MiG-17 fell off the tail of Mink 04’s and rolled down and to the right.
Capt. Blake recalled: “I went into a diving roll and came straight down on the MIG. The pilot must have seen us on his tail. He applied full power and dove toward a valley. As I came out of the roll, I fired one Sparrow. I had a bad angle on him and missed but I realigned and fired again.” This AIM-7D hit the target. “The smoke looked like taffy streaming from the rear,” as Mink 04 achieved a rare victory with a Sparrow. Blake was the first Air Force Academy graduate to score a MiG kill in the war. This Phantom is preserved at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona.
As the Rolling Thunder campaign over North Vietnam escalated, by the end of 1966, the F-4C force in Southeast Asia had built up to 190 jets, as compared to the 18 deployed in the summer of 1965. At the time, the Phantoms were based at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base (8th TFW “Wolfpack”), Cam Ranh Bay Air Base in South Vietnam (12th TFW) and Da Nang Air Base (366th TFW “Gunfighters”) in South Vietnam.
Operation Bolo – January 2, 1967
In order to combat the increased air threat posed by the new MiGs and enhanced air defense system, and restricted politically from striking the MiG airfields, one of the best known and dramatic air combat missions of the war took place on January 2, 1967. F-4Cs simulated F-105 fighter-bombers and provoked a North Vietnamese response with their best fighter, the MiG-21.
Instead of finding bomb-laden F-105s to harass, the MiGs found Robin Olds and Phantom crews of the 8th TFW Wolfpack ready for air combat. Seven MiG-21s out of 11 which rose to fight that day were shot down within minutes without any friendly losses, a stinging loss for the enemy of nearly half of their operational inventory of MiG-21s. Two of the victors in this epic air battle served in the 142nd Fighter Group, 63-7683 and 64-0838.
As the Bolo forces engaged the enemy in a 15-minute donnybrook within a 15-miles radius of Phuc Yen Airfield, 555th TFS aircrew Capt. Walter S. Radeker, III, and 1st Lt. James E. Murray, III as Olds 04 in 63-7683 (123rd FIS from May 1981 to 23 Oct 1989) downed the second MiG-21 of the battle, right after Col. Robin Olds blasted the first MiG-21 from the sky with an AIM-9.
They reported: “Ford Flight, (led by 8th TFW deputy commander for operations, Colonel Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr.), which had just entered the target area, called MIG’s at Olds Flights’ 6 o’clock. Olds 03 observed one MIG-21 at 6 o’clock, and Olds 01 and 02 concentrated on two MIG’s, one at 8 o’clock and one at 10 o’clock.”
“Olds 04 then performed a high-speed yo-yo which afforded us an excellent advantage on one MIG-21, who passed underneath us apparently tracking Olds 03…Initially we had a very poor Sidewinder tone. We then added some more power and climbed slightly and the Sidewinder tone became excellent. The missile was fired after the radar-heat switch had been transferred to the heat position, and guided right into the MIG. It struck slightly forward of the tail, immediately resulting in a burst of black smoke and a violent tuck-under. The MIG was observed to be uncontrollable and violently falling, still trailing smoke.”
63-7683 survived the war and peacetime service in the ANG and is now on display at the Museo Nacional de Aeronautico y del Espacio, in Los Cerillos, Santiago, Chile.
As Olds and Ford flights egressed the area, in came Rambler Flight from the Wolfpack’s 433rd TFS. Flying 64-0838 (in the 114th TFTS from Jul 1985 to 28 Aug 1988) as Rambler 04 were Maj. Philip P. Combies and 1st Lt. Lee R. Dutton. The flight spotted four MiG-21s in a loose formation at 2 o’clock low at about 6 to 8 miles. A mile or two behind them were another two MiG-21s.
Combies described the engagement: “The MIG’s broke left and…my pilot secured, by boresight, a full system radar lock-on on one of the MIG’s. I had selected radar and interlocks-out, as prebriefed for an ACT (air combat tactics) environment. I had no difficulty in tracking the MIG. I don’t think I pulled over 4 G’s at any time during the whole battle. Using the Navy tactic of disregarding the steering dot, I pulled lead on the MIG using the reticle. When I felt I was where I wanted to be, I pulled the trigger, released, pulled again, and held. I did not observe the first Sparrow at all. However, I saw the second from launch to impact. We were approximately 1 mile behind the MIG, in a left turn, at approximately 12,000 feet at the time of launch. The second Sparrow impacted in the tailpipe area followed by a large orange ball of fire and a chute sighting.” This aircraft is on display at the US Space & Rocket Center, in Huntsville, Alabama.
(For a sense of the regard in which fighter pilots held the legendary warrior Robin Olds, one can find on the internet and listen to “The Ballad of Robin Olds” by warrior bard Lt. Col. Dick Jonas, USAF (Retired).)
Battles of Apr-May 1967
The enemy licked his wounds, replaced losses and conducted more training before deciding to seek battle again after the northeast monsoon cleared. Coming out of the monsoon season ready for combat in the spring of 1967, the VPAF jumped into the fray again as tempo of Rolling Thunder increased. More than two years into Rolling Thunder, some of the enemy airfields like Kep and Hoa Loc were now permitted by Washington to be attacked.
On 23 April, 1967 as F-105 Thunderchiefs, and some F-4 Phantoms carrying bombs as well as their air-to-air missiles, destroyed nine MiGs on the ground and possibly destroyed three more. Some of the MiGs made it into the air and fought back. 366th TFW, 389th TFS F-4C 64-0776 (in the 123rd FIS from 24 Sep 1980 to 24 Oct 1989) flown by Major Robert D. Anderson and Capt. Fred D. Kjer as Chicago 03 in a strike flight, shot down a MiG-21 with an AIM-7E.
Their after-action report described how Chicago flight saw two MiG-21s turn into the strike force, so the flight jettisoned external fuel tanks and bombs to engage them. This pair of MiGs broke away, and then another pair appeared which Chicago engaged. As Chicago 01 and wingmen pursued one MiG into the clouds, Chicago 03 “…continued accelerating to attack the other MIG. With the pipper on the MIG, a boresight radar lock-on was obtained and then a full system lock-on. At this time the range was marginally close for a successful Sparrow shot. A climbing turn to the outside was initiated and the pipper placed again on the target. The radar was still locked on.”
“One missile was fired that left the aircraft going slightly right of the MIG-21, but guided back to the target, striking the MIG in the right aft fuselage. A large explosion was observed and fire and fuel began streaming from the MIG. It continued the left turn and bank increased until inverted and the plane went straight into the ground. The MIG was hit around 32,000 feet. No chute was observed prior to aircraft impact, approximately 16 miles northeast of Thai Nguyen.”
Aircraft Commander Anderson commented later, “The one thing I learned, is that you can’t afford to be complacent up there. You have to keep looking around. He (the MIG pilot) thought he was out of the fight, home free. He made no evasive maneuvers. I don’t think he ever saw me or knew what hit him.”
This was the first of three aerial victories credited to this jet, known in Oregon service as “Miss Piggy” (as named by her OreANG dedicated crew chief, also a SE Asia F-4 crew chief veteran, Ken “Rooster” Coats, and now on display at the Museum of Flight, Seattle, Washington in SE Asia livery with full complement of missiles and a history of her time with the OreANG (and showing Ken Coats as crew chief).
May of 1967 saw frequent aerial engagements between F-4Cs and the MiGs as the VPAF fighters were forced to defend their bases. On May 14, 1967, three MiG-17s were shot down by 366th TFW, 480th TFS F-4Cs, including a MiG-17 which fell to 63-7704 (in the 114th TFTS from Dec 1985 to 2 Mar 1987) flown by Capt. James T. Craig, Jr. and 1st Lt. James T. Talley as Speedo 03. The aircrew used a SUU-16A 20mm gun pod, one of two MiG-17s shot down by 480th 20mm fire that day in the first successful use of the gun by F-4Cs in air combat. This F-4 is now on display at General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The third MiG fell to an AIM-7E Sparrow launched by Major Samuel O. Bakke and Capt. Robert W. Lambert flying as Elgin 01 in 63-7699 (in the 123rd FIS from Apr 1981 to 9 Dec 1986, now on display at the Midland Air Museum, Coventry, Great Britain).
Six days later, on May 20, six MiGs were downed by F-4Cs (four MiG-17s and two MiG-21s). One of the MiG-21s was knocked down with an AIM-7E radar-guided missile fired by Lt. Col. Robert F. “Earthquake” Titus and 1st Lt. Milan Zimer. They flew as Elgin 03 flying 366th TFW, 389th TFS F-4C 64-0777 (with the 123rd FIS from Nov 1982 to 24 Oct 1989, now displayed at the Cavanaugh Flight Museum, Addison Airport, North Dallas, Texas).
One of the four Mig-17s destroyed during an engagement during an F-105 strike on the Bac Le railroad yards was lost to an AIM-9B, the victory credited to Major Philip P. Combies and 1st Lt. Daniel L. Lafferty as Ballot 01 in 8th TFW, 433rd TFS 64-0673 (in the 114th TFTS from 28 Jul 1985 to 16 Apr 1987, now on display at the Pima Air & Space Museum, Tucson, Arizona).
Lt. Col. Robert “Earthquake” Titus, Commander of the 389th Fighter Squadron of the 366th TFW (the Gunfighters) returned to the skies over North Vietnam and achieved two more aerial victories on May 22 in F-4C 64-0776 (in the 123rd FIS from 24 Sep 1980 to 24 Oct 1989), thus employing the AIM-7 Sparrow, AIM-9 Sidewinder and SUU-16 gun pod to shoot down three MiGs.
Leading a flight of F-4Cs as Wander 01, and providing an anti-MiG Combat Air Patrol in support of an F-105 strike force hitting an army barracks and supply depot in the Hanoi area, Titus caught the glint of the sun off a couple of MiGs some 11 miles ahead.
Losing visual and then radar contact, however, he rejoined the F-105 formation which soon came under MiG-21 attack as the enemy approached, fired a missile at the strike force and climbed away sharply toward a layer of cirrus cloud at 20,000 feet.
Titus pursued: ”I was in close pursuit, had a very strong Sidewinder tone, and I fired the missile. The missile was tracking as he (the MiG) disappeared into the cloud. The missile went through the same hole. I deviated slightly to the right, came out on top of the cloud deck, and noted some debris in the air and smoke off to the left. I don’t know what it was, but there was some foreign matter in the air – very discernable. I mentioned it to my back-seater.”
Almost immediately, Titus spotted another MiG-21 at his 1 o’clock position a mile away; “I turned toward him and put the pipper on him and got another Sidewinder tone and fired another missile. Almost immediately the MIG started a hard descending left turn and we went from, I would guess, 25,000 feet down to about 2,000 feet while he was doing all sorts of twisting, turn reversals, rolling all sorts of hard maneuvers. It was very impressive to see the rapid role response and directional change ability of that airplane. I proceeded into the dive with him. We could not obtain a radar lock-on, presumably because of the ground return. We were right in the vicinity of Hoa Lac airport. There was quite a bit of flak; SAM’s were going off.”
“The MIG made a very high-G pull-out and leveled at approximately 1,500 to 2,000 feet above the ground. In his pull-out he was at wing-level so I got the pipper on him and fired a long burst of the SUU-16 at him. I did not deserve any impacts and thought I had missed him. However, he did slow down quite rapidly. I overshot, pulled up to the left, did a reversal, came back around and called for my number two to take him. About this time number two had overshot and came up to my right. I turned off watching the MIG and called for number three, and as I did so I observed the MIG was in a shallow, wing-rocking maneuver and continued on down in the shallow dive and impacted with the ground. Where he was hit I don’t know, but apparently he was out of it after the first hits were taken.”
This F-4C, 776, achieved its three victories using every air-to-air weapon available to it, a radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow, an infrared-guided AIM-9 Sidewinder and a SUU-16 20mm gun pod. For this intense combat mission flown in 64-0776 in a high-threat environment, Lt. Col. Titus was awarded the Air Force Cross, the second-highest award for valor, with a citation which read:
“The President of the United States of America, authorized by Title 10, Section 8742, United States Code, takes pleasure in presenting the Air Force Cross to Lieutenant Colonel Robert F. Titus, United States Air Force, for extraordinary heroism in military operations against an opposing armed force as an F-4C Mission Commander in the 389th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 366th Tactical Fighter Wing, Da Nang Air Base, Vietnam, in action near Hanoi, North Vietnam, on 22 May 1967. On that date, Colonel Titus led his flight into one of the most heavily defended areas of North Vietnam in direct support of F-105 strike aircraft operations. Undaunted by accurate flak and five surface-to-air missiles that were launched at his aircraft, he repeatedly and unhesitatingly engaged numerous MiG-21s in defense of the friendly aircraft. During these aggressive and courageous aerial encounters, Colonel Titus destroyed two MiG-21 aircraft. As a direct result of his tenacity and extreme bravery in the face of great danger, the F-105 force was able to accomplish its assigned mission. Through his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness in the face of hostile forces, Lieutenant Colonel Titus reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.”
(Note: Though not as famous as Brig. Gen. Robin Olds, Brig. Gen. Robert “Earthquake” Titus USAF (Retired) was a legend also, as mentioned in the Dick Jonas song “Wrench Bender’s Revolt” which one can find in an internet search)
Last F-4C Aerial Victories - 5 Jun 67
The F-4C’s frontline days in combat were coming to a close in mid-1967 as the newer F-4D variant of the Phantom II arrived in theater. The last F-4C aerial victories of the war took place on June 5, 1967 when three MiG-17s were shot down. The Wolfpack’s Maj. Richard M. Pascoe and Capt. Norman E. Wells flew as Chicago 02 in 8th TFW, 555th TFS F-4C, serial number 63-7647 (which flew in the 123rd FIS from Jun 1987 to 24 Oct 1989).
Flying as wingmen for Col. Robin Olds, Chicago Flight heard the radio calls from another F-4 flight battling MiGs and hurried to join them. After spotting a MiG-17 above the other aircraft already in combat, Col. Olds as Chicago 01 pursued the lone MiG and in the pursuit expended all of his air-to-air missiles. Lacking a SUU-16 gun pod such as was being used over in the 366th TFW, he passed lead over to Maj. Pascoe in Chicago 02.
Pascoe reported, “I fired two AIM-9’s as the MIG started a slight climb and observed the first to impact at the extreme tail end and the second about three feet up the fuselage from the tail.,. The MIG continued in his left descending turn and struck the ground as the canopy was seen to leave the aircraft. The aircraft was totally destroyed.” Col. Olds and his backseater saw the hits and crash of the MiG, and noted that the pilot ejected shortly before the aircraft hit the ground in “… a large fireball.”
It was the second aerial victory for this aircrew, counting their January 6, 1967 downing of a MiG-21 in F-4C 64-0839 as Crab 01; this aircraft, 839, was lost during a combat mission on 10 Mar 1967 while flown by Capt. John R. Pardo and 1st Lt. Stephen A. Wayne in the famous “Pardo’s Push” incident. F-4C 63-7647 is now preserved at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon bearing two red stars reflecting this aircrew’s two victories in the war even though 647 is only credited with the June 5, 1967 victory.
Backseater Wells recalled, “Getting a MIG gives you a tremendous sense of accomplishment, though in the 8th TFW it got a little expensive. It was traditional for the MIG killers to celebrate their victories with practically the whole base. We bought one hundred drinks each at the Officer’s Club, NCO Club, and the Airman’s Club. We sure didn’t mind doing it though, and it was especially good for morale with the Airmen, who worked very hard on the airplanes and really appreciated knowing that their efforts had paid off. The esprit de corps in the 8th was exceptional. Colonel Olds was an inspirational leader.”
The successes of the F-4Cs in air combat forced the MiG-depleted VPAF into another standdown to regroup. The MiGs returned to fight in late August, 1967, but the service and success of the F-4C had run its course by then. The jets continued USAF service in other locations, such as with the 18th TFW at Kadena Air Base and the 347th TFW at Yokota Air Base in Japan and elsewhere before going into Air National Guard service after the war.
In Oregon Service
In Oregon ANG service, these MiG-killers carried on in performing a growing air capability in Oregon as the 142nd Fighter Group not only conducted its standing strategic air defense mission. With the F-4C Phantom II it also grew an air superiority capability reflecting the successful use of the versatile F-4 in air-to-air combat against other fighters during the Vietnam War.
Several of these F-4C aerial victors became veterans of the OreANG’s participation in successive William Tell Worldwide Weapons Meets in 1984, 1986 and 1988 where the 142nd Fighter Group gave active duty late-model F-4E, F-106A Delta Dart and the newer F-15A Eagle units a good run for the money. OreANG aircrew skill and maintainer excellence brought out the best in the old F-4C airframes enabling Oregon to dominate the F-4 category and nearly beat them all for overall top honors. “Miss Piggy,” sweet old 776, flew as Beaver 01 in all three competitions. Some jets aren’t just good, they’re golden, and their aircrews and maintainers make them shine.
Although no Oregon ANG veterans were MiG killers in the Vietnam War, several of them did “phly” or “phix” the F-4 Phantom II in Southeast Asia during the war. Some of their recollections of wartime service can be found in the historical article “Remembering the OreANG’s Vietnam Veterans,” at: https://www.142wg.ang.af.mil/News/Features/Display/Article/864347/remembering-the-oreangs-vietnam-veterans/
On this National Vietnam Veterans Day 2023, we honor all those who served and sacrificed in that longest American war of the 20th Century. We remember the jets that once flew in hostile skies and achieved aerial victories. And we remember the 15 Oregon Airmen still missing and unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, according to the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency (DPAA), according to the agency’s searchable database online at: https://dpaa-mil.sites.crmforce.mil/dpaaFamWebVietnam
The saying, freedom isn’t free may sometimes seem trite but it’s true. Air superiority isn’t free either – it is not an American birthright as some may have become used to or expect. The F-4Cs that flew combat in Vietnam fought hard to achieve air superiority and it didn’t come easily or cheaply then. Nor is it likely to in the future against any near-peer adversary. Hence the need to remember and heed Colonel Robin Olds’ admonition to fighter pilots, that “…our mission is to fly and fight and don’t you forget it!”
Hat tip to Lt. Col. Richard Williams, USAF (Retired), a 123rd FIS Weapon System Officer, for his great help with OreANG F-4C service dates, pictures and fates.
Note: The 142nd Wing History Office has an ongoing search for images of the following F-4Cs which served in the Oregon ANG - if you have a photo of any of these in Oregon colors and markings and are willing to share it with us, please contact the 142nd Public Affairs Office via the contact information on the wing’s website.
63-7413 (114th TFTS)
63-7676 (123rd FIS)
64-0831 (123rd FIS)
For Further Reading
Drendel, Lou, “…AND KILL MIGS: Air to Air Combat in the Vietnam War (Revised Edition),” Squadron/Signal Publications, Carrollton, Texas, 1984
Futrell, Robert F., Eastman, James N., Hanak, Walter K and Paszek, Lawrence, Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia 1965-1973. Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center, Air University and Office of Air Force History, Headquarters USAF, 1976
Hallion, Richard P., Rolling Thunder 1965-1968: Johnson’s air war over Vietnam. Osprey Air Campaign Series, Number 3, Osprey Publishing, New York, New York, 2018
Michel, Marshall L., III, Clashes: Air Combat over North Vietnam 1965-1972, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 1997
Olds, Robin, with Olds, Christina and Rasimus, Ed, Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds, St. Martin’s Press, New York, New York, 2010