Reflections of Southeast Asia: Oregon ANG Veterans of the Vietnam War

  • Published
  • 142nd Wing/Historian's Office

Today, March 29, 2024 is National Vietnam War Veterans Day, when the nation honors those US military members who served during the Vietnam War.  Some nine million Americans served in the armed forces during the Vietnam War years.  Over 58,000 of them died.  On this day we remember their service and sacrifice.

A Vietnam Veterans Day was proclaimed by President Barack Obama in 2012, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the US involvement in the Vietnam War.  March 29 was officially designated by President Donald Trump as National Vietnam War Veterans Day, a recurring observance, in 2017. 

March 29, 1973 was the day the last U.S. combat troops left South Vietnam and the day the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) in Saigon was disestablished.  Also, on/about this date, the North Vietnamese government in Hanoi released the last of its acknowledged prisoners of war.

In 2015, we shared about the wartime experiences of some of the Vietnam veterans of the Oregon Air National Guard (OreANG), which you can read in “Remembering the OreANG's Vietnam Veterans,” here.

This year we have a few more Oregon ANG Vietnam veterans’ stories to share.  These men served far and wide in the combat theater of operations, and some in units that came from far and wide to serve.

A Nickel Pilot

An Oregon Air Guardsman who served in Southeast Asia is Lt Col James R. “JR” Alley.  He joined the Oregon ANG out of high school and enlisted in the Food service Squadron in 1953.  The next year he became an aviation cadet and in 1955 became a radar observer in the F-94B night/all-weather interceptor, and then in the F-89 Scorpion and then went to pilot training. 

In 1963 he volunteered for active duty.  After an initial tour as a T-33 instructor pilot he transitioned to the F-4 Phantom II and on to a combat tour in early 1968 with the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) of the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing (TRW) based at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base (RTAFB).  In SE Asia service he flew 450 combat hours in 210 combat missions.

“When I was at Udorn as the Nickel (Triple Nickel, the 555th TFS) Weapons Officer, I would ride past the alert pad with an F-102 in the revetment and wondered why it was there.  One day, after a bombing mission, enjoying a beer at the club and having my back to bar, I saw a guy walking into the bar and it about blew my mind.  It was Hal McKenna, one of my long time old guard buddies.  We looked at each other and couldn't believe it. 

Anyway, after all the hand shaking and hugging, we talked and Hal was the guy pulling alert and flying the Deuce with the 509th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron (FIS).  He had been at Bangkok, Korea and Germany doing the same things as Bill McDonald (in the Palace Alert program, described in the 2015 article at link above). 

Hal gave me a tour of his alert facility and we had dinner together one night.  It was not long after that the 102 was pulled off alert and the 432nd took over the alert roll with an F-4.  As for a combat tour for those guys, it was different than ours.  They could not fly into Laos or Vietnam, so they really did not fly any hot combat missions from what Hal told me.”

Lt Col Alley also remembered Lt Col John R. “Jack” Loacker, a fellow Oregon Air Guardsman who went on active duty to fly the AC-119K Stinger gunship.  Loacker first transitioned into the C-119 at Lockbourne AFB, Ohio in 1968 before heading to SE Asia.  There the AC-119K was operated by the 18th Special Operations Squadron at Phan Rang Air Base (AB) in South Vietnam from October of 1969 to August of 1971.  The Stinger was optimized with sensors and weapons for hunting North Vietnamese trucks on the Ho Chi Minh trail. 

And JR remembered another Oregon Air Guardsman who went on active duty for the war, Art Sklar, “He had been infected with Agent Orange during his tour in Vietnam flying RF-4C recces and AC-47 Spooky gunships,” before he succumbed to the adverse effects of exposure to the chemical defoliant.

A Governor’s “Fortunate Son”

Another Oregon Guardsman who transitioned to active duty around the same time as Lt Col Alley and later went to war was Dennis A “Denny” Smith, son of Oregon Governor Elmo Smith.  After a brief stint in the Air Force, he joined the Oregon ANG in 1960 and went to pilot training.  He rejoined the Air Force in 1962 and in 1965-1966 flew the F-4C Phantom II fighter out of Cam Ranh Bay AB in South Vietnam for 11 months, completing 180 combat missions.  Most of Capt Smith’s missions were in support of ground forces engaged in combat in South Vietnam. 

Capt Smith shared some wartime recollections in a 1966 Oregonian newspaper interview by staff writer Wayne Thompson after his return from Southeast Asia: “I’ve seen some enemy soldiers at key outposts chained to their weapons.  This is a dirty, ugly war in many ways.  No matter where you are in this country, you notice that.”  He was quick to acknowledge the contributions of others in the war.  “The real flying heroes in this war are the F105 Thunderchief pilots, who go on the major strikes over North Viet Nam.  These guys really run into the opposition…”  And despite the dangers of delivering lethal ordnance at “very low” altitudes against enemy targets in the South, he said “However, our lot isn’t quite as trying as that of the foot soldier...”

In a prescient comment, he talked about how ”the fellows (the other pilots) talk about the war a lot; we read the newspaper accounts and the briefings.  But somehow I feel the American people are missing a chapter here and there…  I feel we are winning most of the battles, but possibly not the war.”

Cam Ranh Bay Crew Chief

Not long after Denny Smith left South Vietnam, a young crew chief who later joined the Oregon ANG was working in the 557th TFS of the 12th TFW, an F-4C Phantom II unit at Cam Ranh Bay AB. Then Sergeant Edward J. Fenner, who later joined the Oregon ANG, served there in South Vietnam from March, 1967 to March, 1968. 

His squadron was “…mostly ground support missions with an occasional foray into NVN, Laos and Cambodia. Never seen it rain so hard except in Panama in 1982.  Crew Chief at CRB wasn't near as bad as the grunts in the field had it.”

Still, he ensured the maintenance readiness for a warplane which fought the enemy directly.  On November 19, 1967, his F-4C, 64-0696, didn’t return from a combat mission.  It was lost to enemy fire during a night CAS mission near Dak To.  The pilot, 1st Lt. Charles C. Nelson, was killed and the WSO, 1st Lt Steve Marenka, was rescued by an Army helicopter.  “A combat loss,” he remembered.

Ed said that he worked “…scheduled missions mostly, worked alert for 2 months in the summer of 1967. Alert was nice, air conditioned trailers and had our own cook.” 

“Was in Hawaii on R&R when Tet started. Got an extra day with an overnight stay at Guam because the civilian Airline driver refused to land the dark even - we got shot at the next day. Got to experience an assault landing in a 707. I mean a real assault landing, very steep approach with the flare at the last second. The green tracers are so pretty!”

Ed joined the Arizona ANG in 1969, then transferred to Oregon in 1986.  He worked at Kingsley Field in the F-4C, F-16 ADF and the F-15 Eagle eras first as a crew chief and then a flight chief before he retired as a Chief Master Sergeant in 2004.

Twice to Southeast Asia

Lt Col John L. “Cactus Jack” Fisher flew the F-4 Phantom II during two combat tours in Southeast Asia.  His squadron first introduced the new F-4E with an internally-mounted 20mm cannon into service at Korat RTAFB with the shark-mouthed 469th TFS in mid-November, 1968.   

This first flight of F-4Es from the US to the combat zone, Operation 47 Buck 9, was depicted in a 1969 painting by famous aviation artist Keith Ferris titled “Bad News for Uncle Ho.” (Hat tip to Col Lars Granath)

Fast forward to 1972 and he deployed in the 49th TFW from Holloman AFB, NM to Takhli RTAFB in Operation Constant Guard III, TAC’s huge response to the North Vietnamese Easter Invasion of 1972.  The wing deployed 72 F-4D Phantom IIs, 3,195 airmen and 1,600 tons of cargo from Holloman AFB to Takhli for five months.  The 49th TFW flew 4,000 sorties and over 21,000 combat hours in Operation Linebacker, only losing two F-4Ds to anti-aircraft fire from enemy forces in South Vietnam, with both aircrews recovered.  

Between the two assignments, Cactus Jack flew a total of over 300 combat missions in Southeast Asia.  He joined the Oregon ANG in the 1974 and retired in 1990 as the F-4C era ended.

Better Lucky than Good, Twice

Another two-Phantom-tour veteran is Lt Col John C. “Chap” Wasson, Jr.  His first tour after going through the F-4 RTU at Davis Monthan AFB, Arizona was to the famed Wolfpack, the 8th TFW at Ubon RTAFB, where he was assigned to the 25th TFS “Assam Dragons” from September, 1970 to September 1971.  The F-4D had technical improvements which earlier Phantoms didn’t have, such as laser-guided bombing and the LOng Range Navigation (LORAN) blind-bombing capabilities.

From Ubon, Chap flew as a Weapons System Officer (WSO) on over 240 combat missions.  He flew on protective reaction strikes to Route Packs 5 and 6 in North Vietnam in response to North Vietnamese engagements of RF-4C reconnaissance jets, versus targets in Laos and along the Ho Chi Minh Highway, and focal points such as the Mu Gia and Ban Karai passes between Laos and North Vietnam. 

About 100 of his missions were as escort for AC-130 Spectre gunships seeking and engaging ground targets on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the Laotian panhandle.  Working at night was challenging but performed regularly, despite the speed and altitude differentials between the two aircraft.  Perched above the gunship, an escorting F-4 would pounce from the opposite side of the stacked orbit on any enemy anti-aircraft artillery which fired upon the gunship.  Including a night air-to-air refueling from a tanker needed to sustain the mission, a typical Spectre escort sortie could last up to three hours.

Although he saw a lot of action, Chap was never hit by enemy fire.  On one memorable return to Ubon, however, his F-4D’s nose gear suddenly failed and folded back, the nose dipped and the aircraft’s centerline external fuel tank snagged on the midfield arresting barrier.  The Phantom burst into flames but Chap and his pilot, Capt James Mackin (editor of TAC Attack safety magazine in the early 1980s, now Air Combat Command’s Combat Edge magazine), were able to evacuate the aircraft safely, even though it burned up.  The F-4, which discharged AIM-7 Sparrow missiles that cooked off and flew down the runway, ended up a total loss.

Following his first tour, Chap became an F-4D instructor WSO in the 434th TFS at George AFB, California.  He was there in the spring of 1972, when North Vietnam launched its Easter Invasion of the South.  A call for volunteers found all members of the 434th stepping forward to serve, and the squadron deployed in May, 1972 to Takhli RTAFB.

Although the squadron was only in SEA from August 12 to October 6, 1972, Chap flew a lot as Operation Linebacker (Linebacker I, separate from the Christmastime Linebacker II campaign) was underway to repel the North Vietnamese offensive. Hanoi, Haiphong, Yen Bai, the Barrel Roll and Steel Tiger areas in Laos, he flew everywhere.  Sometimes after a mission he recovered in South Vietnam at Da Nang AB, refueled and rearmed and attacked again on the way back to Takhli.   Out of around 100 more combat missions, a particularly satisfying one was a 48-aircraft package which savaged MiG-21 Fishbed fighters on the ground at a North Vietnamese airfield, accomplished without loss.

Chap joined the Oregon ANG after the war, joining the initial cadre of instructors at Kingsley Field as an IWSO, assumed command of the 142nd’s Operating Location Alert Detachment (OLAD) at Kingsley Field, Oregon in October, 1987 and later served as the Logistics Group commander in the 142nd at Portland before he retired in October, 1995.

Looking back at his wartime experience and some 350 combat missions, he said “anyone who tells you they survived because they were good is either clueless or lying.  There’s no way you can dodge all the flak and missiles they threw at you on missions up north.”

Alone, Unarmed and Unafraid

Another Phantom II veteran was Lt Col Gerald O. Clark, who became an Air Force pilot in 1959 and served overseas in Germany from 1964 until he served in Southeast Asia.  He flew the RF-4C photographic reconnaissance version of the Phantom from Thailand from June to December, 1967, likely in the 11th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron of the 432nd TRW at Udorn RTAFB. 

On August 11, 1968, in a ceremony held at Portland Air Base, Oregon’s Adjutant General, Maj Gen Donald N. Anderson, presented then-Capt Clark with his latest awards.  Altogether, Clark received the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters, and Air Medal with eight oak leaf clusters for his Vietnam service. 

Lt Col Clark joined the Oregon ANG in 1969 and flew the F-102 Delta Dagger, then the F-101 Voodoo where he was a member of the top F-101 team in the 1976 William Tell competition.  Sadly, he was lost in a tragic F-101F accident at Buckley Field, Colorado on September 22, 1978 along with Capt Stephen P. Peglow.

A “Civilian’s” Perspective

The late Brad Newell flew the F-89, F-102 and F-101 in the Oregon ANG and helped ensure the readiness of North American air defense.  As a commercial pilot flying for Northwest Airlines during the war, he had occasion to fly into South Vietnam and recalled back in 2014 “I had at least half a dozen trips to Nam with the airline (NWA), but never felt threatened over there.  You always heard small arms fire and flares lit the sky from one end of the country to the other.  Even saw/heard a gunship working next to Da Nang one night.  I never worried because I was a fighter pilot and thus immortal.”


In the 142nd Wing’s history office, we are aware of other Oregon Air Guardsmen who served in Southeast Asia, and know something of their service in the war - we hope to learn more about their experience in Southeast Asia to share in future commemorations: 

- Col Ray A. Pilcher joined the USAF in the early 1960s and became a pilot in the F-102 Delta Dagger.  He flew 119 combat missions over Vietnam, and in early 1968 was sent to South Korea as part of the response to the North Korean seizure of the USS Pueblo.  He joined the Oregon ANG in 1969, led the Redhawk team in its award-winning performance at the 1984 William Tell competition and commanded the 142nd Fighter-Interceptor Group in the F-4C era in the mid-1980s.

- Col Lars Granath flew 178 combat missions in the F-4E Phantom II with the 469th TFS at Korat RTAFB, from September, 1971 to August, 1972, accruing 235 combat hours.  He shared “as an aside, in ‘75 I was selected to be one of the initial instructor pilots in the first F-15 squadron, the 555th (Triple Nickel) at Luke AFB. Circular career  - F-4, F-15, F-101, F-4, and F-15.” 

Col Granath joined the OreANG in the spring of 1979, trading an F-15A for the F-101B.  He became commander of the 123rd Fighter Squadron in 1991 early in the F-15A Eagle era, then commanded the 142nd Fighter Group from 1996 to 1998. In 2010, he helped dedicate one of the early-production F-15A Eagle fighters he flew on active duty and in the ANG, 73-089, at the Evergreen Air & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon.

- Col Scott Powell started out in combat flying the F-4E in 1971 with the 366th TFW/390th TFS at Da Nang AB.  Then when Da Nang closed out in 1972, he shifted over to Korat and flew in the 388th TFW/34th TFS.  Col Powell flew 301 combat missions and garnered 650 combat hours. 

After the war, he joined the Oregon ANG and was a member of the winning F-4 team in the 1984 William Tell competition, then commanded the 123rd Fighter-Interceptor Squadron with F-4Cs and later commanded the 114th Fighter Squadron in the F-16 ADF era at Kingsley Field before moving up to command the Western Air Defense Sector at McChord AFB, Washington.

- Col Larry L. Kemp, another former commander of the 142nd in the Eagle era, graduated college in 1973 and was assigned to Udorn RTAFB in the late stages of the Vietnam War.  After service in the F-4 at Clark AB, Philippines and in the F-5E aggressors at Nellis AFB, Nevada, he joined the Oregon ANG.  Col Kemp was a member of the 1988 William Tell competition team and commanded the 142nd Fighter Group in the 1990s.

- Maj Michael Roehr spent 30 months in Southeast Asia after becoming a pilot in 1967.  He flew, we believe, the F-4 Phantom II in Southeast Asia.  After the war, he then flew the F-105G Wild Weasel at George AFB, California before he joined the Oregon ANG in 1979.  Maj Roehr commanded the 142nd OLAD at Kingsley Field from 1985 to 1987.

- Capt Todd Petty enlisted in the USAF in 1971 and flew 86 combat missions as a B-52 Stratofortress tail gunner.  He left active duty in 1985 and joined the Oregon ANG – he flew F-4Cs with the 142nd’s team in the 1986 William Tell competition.

Still More to Learn

With other Vietnam veterans of the Oregon ANG though, we may know of their service but lack details about their service, such as that of TSgt Lamont Tellis, an OreANG recruiter in the early 1980s.  Jerry Ford was stationed in South Vietnam from 1969 to 1970 and was a crew chief in the Oregon ANG after the war.  Ron Moore, Bill Morris and Steve Allison were other Redhawks who flew combat in Southeast Asia during the war.

And then there are still yet others who served in the Oregon ANG and in Southeast Asia whom we don’t know about in the wing history office.  So, there are abundant opportunities for citizens and service personnel to recognize the men and women who honorably served our nation in the Vietnam War.  Lest we forget.

For any Vietnam War veterans reading this, Oregon ANG or not, please record something about your experience for your family, and save some pictures that help tell your story.  Remember your comrades in arms too, and help tell their story. 

Consider contributing to the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress to help preserve your account of your experience – to find out more about this opportunity and how to participate, please see the Veterans History Project website here.

Impact of the Vietnam Experience

The influence of Vietnam War created a generation of combat-experienced air warriors who influenced the Air Force and the air reserve component (Air national Guard and Air Force Reserve) for decades afterward, even until today. 

The author’s first assignment in the 432nd TFW at Misawa Air Base, Japan from 1987 to 1989 saw many Vietnam veterans in wing leadership positions who brought out the best in the men and women assigned to the unit.  The wing had leaders like wing commanders, Cols R. Dean Stickell (F-100, 3rd TFW/416th TFS, Clark AB and other bases in South Vietnam) and John G. Lorber (F-4, 8th TFW/497th TFS, Ubon RTAFB); Vice Commander Col David W. Jenny (F-100F Misty FAC, Phu Cat AB); Deputy Commander for Operations Col Ralph B. Femrite (F-105D, 355th TFW/357th TFS, Takhli RTAFB), Combat Support Group Commander, Col Charles B. DeBellevue, top US ace of the Vietnam War (F-4, 432nd TRW/555th TFS, Udorn RTAFB) and 14th TFS Commander Lt Col David Hamilton (F-4, 8th TFW/25th TFS, Ubon).  They each left an imprint on the men and women of the wing, part of which is reflected in this article and other historical writings by this author.

The Vietnam experience was also transmitted between generations off duty in song at Misawa, such as in the fighter pilot songs by warrior bard Dick Jonas who served in the Wolfpack at Ubon.  Songs like “The Ballad of Robin Olds,” and “Teak Lead,” and many more from Jonas and others told of the war experience.  And echoing as I type is the refrain from “Blue 4,” “But we'll keep on flyin' and we'll keep on dyin', for duty and honor never end."

About a year after leaving Misawa, in 1990, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s military invaded neighboring Kuwait.  General Charles A. “Chuck” Horner, who commanded the US/allied air component in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, was an F-105D Thunderchief pilot in SE Asia in 1965 and again to war in the F-105F Wild Weasel in 1967.  He remembered the painful lessons, and the tremendous expenditure of blood and treasure in the Vietnam War.  General Horner directed the highly-successful air campaign which helped oust Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait and set back Saddam’s arms programs and ambitions in the region.

Vietnam War Impact in Oregon

In Oregon, it's hard to understate the tremendous importance and influence of Vietnam veterans and their rich, if costly, combat experience on the Oregon ANG.  It was essential to Oregon’s successful transformation in organizational culture, mindset and capability from a strictly homeland air defense unit to that which added a world-class air superiority mission performance. 

This change was led by Vietnam veterans, probably beginning late in the F-101 era as Vietnam veterans joined the unit with their combat experience.  It began in earnest during the OreANG’s F-4C era in the 1980s with the Phantom II’s better air combat capabilities and was fully realized in the F-15A Eagle era which followed.  It continues in the F-15C era now. 

Air superiority is not a birthright, and must be earned by each generation.  The wings of Oregon’s F-15C Eagles fly today with the Vietnam generation’s experience imbued into them – this experience and heritage will soon be infused into the F-15EX Eagle II coming to the 142nd Wing this summer. 

On this Vietnam War Veterans Day 2024, we salute these Oregon Air Guardsmen and all our Vietnam Veterans for their service during the long, trying conflict.  Thank you for your examples of duty and honor which inspire the men and women serving community, state and nation today.