MCARA Sea Stories

Frescoe Firing Phantoms Flailing

Some will say this story has the makings of a sea story as opposed to a war story. Truth, as the old saying goes is often stranger than fiction, and at times it even winds up being humorous even as it unfolds against a rather serious backdrop, in this case aerial combat over North Vietnam! Lest you are wondering, this story ends with no one being hurt if you don’t count egos being bruised!

The timeframe is early February 1966, about a year into Operation Rolling Thunder, the air campaign against North Vietnam. Given that it has been nearly 50 years there aren’t many readers around that can personally relate so some background is in order.

When the Vietnam air war began in earnest in March 1965, the twin jet Mach II McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom was the frontline fighter for all three air services. In the case of the Marine Corps it would also be employed for close air support although the grunts would argue it never measured up to the A-4 Skyhawks in that role. Never mind the Marines fighting in South Vietnam were never exposed to a threat from the air, if you have 12 fighter/attack squadrons (VMF/As) you have to get them involved in the war as “/attackers”.

By mid-1965 the transition to the F-4Bs from the F-8 Crusaders was nearly complete and with it no more guns as the Phantom only carried air-to-air missiles. (AIM-7 Sparrows & AIM-9 Sidewinders) Unlike the single seat F-8, the Phantom’s added a back seat Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) to effectively employ the sophisticated air intercept radar and associated missile weaponry. Before the deployments to Vietnam beginning in April 1965, the VMF/A aircrew training syllabus focused on the air-to-air mission, obviously to the delight of old and new fighter pilots and the RIOs, who would more or less be along for the ride on bombing missions. (My words, not theirs).

So you can understand the frustration that quickly set in with the VMF/A aircrews when they arrived in the combat zone ready to take on the Russian MiG fighters employed by the North Vietnamese air force and found they would be relegated to dropping dumb bombs on fleeting and often dubious targets in the jungles of South Vietnam. But there was one silver lining and that was the need to provide fighter cover for VMCJ-1’s old, slow, and vulnerable EF-10B Sky Knight electronic warfare aircraft, affectionately known as “whales”.

The EF-10Bs, were former night fighters in Korea with several MiG kills to their credit. Many were later converted to the electronic warfare role with their radars swapped for electronic countermeasures equipment. Re-designated EF-10Bs, they were forward deployed with VMCJ-1 in Japan for several years to conduct electronic reconnaissance missions along the periphery of Russia, North Korea and China, keeping tabs on adversary air defense radars. This Cold War exposure to threat radars would prove timely when things heated up in Vietnam. VMCJ-1, which already had a detachment of RF-8A Photo Crusaders operating off Task Force 77 aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin, deployed their six EF-10Bs to Danang airbase on the north coast of South Vietnam in April, 1965. The remaining RF-8As would join them later and the squadron would remain in country for five years. The VMF/A’s on the other hand rotated between Danang and MCAS Iwakuni Japan on three month stints in 1965 and 1966.

For the most part the Phantom flyers, looked down their noses at the VMCJers who had to fly antique aircraft to perform a mission most didn’t understand. (This was not the case of several former EF-10B Electronic Countermeasure Officers, who as newly minted warrant officers, were chosen early on for the RIO program). But, hey when you have an opportunity to engage a MiG in a dogfight as opposed to bombing monkeys you jump on it!!

At the start of Operation Rolling Thunder the USAF and Navy quickly found out the hard way that NVN was using fire control radars to direct their larger caliber AAA and would soon be provided sophisticated SA-2 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). These new threats combined with their MiG-17s operating under ground control intercept (GCI) radar direction, made it clear that U.S. aircraft would be facing a formidable air defense network. In fact, NVN MiGs had downed or damaged several of our attack aircraft during the opening weeks of Rolling Thunder demonstrating they were a force to be dealt with. Soon after, VMCJ-1’s EF-10Bs were deployed to Danang and tasked to support the NVN air campaign. The EF-10Bs quickly made their mark flying threat warning and jamming missions against NVN air defense radars in support of both USAF (2nd Air Div) and Navy (TF-77) strike and reconnaissance aircraft.

The NVN air force’s mainstay fighters in 1965 and well in to 1966 was the MiG-17 Fresco, a “souped-up” successor to the Korean War vintage MiG-15 that was equipped with guns only. The NVN pilots, trained by the Chinese air force, were assigned to the 921st Fighter Regiment based at Phuc Yen airbase just north of Hanoi. Suspected, but unconfirmed by U.S. intelligence, NVN was provided a number of the after burner equipped MiG-17F models in late 1965 and early 1966. Not immediately known was that 28 of the new aircraft were MiG-17PF radar-equipped variants that were formed into a special night fighter company. Employment of these night fighters like their counterparts was under the strict direction of air controllers using Russian supplied Barlock GCI radars as per Soviet doctrine. What was known, and grudgingly accepted, was that NVN managed to keep at least two primary CGI radar sites operating throughout the war. Therefore they had good radar coverage of U.S. aircraft approaching the heavily defended targets around the major cities of Hanoi and Haiphong. On the other hand, U.S. fighter escort aircraft had to operate well beyond the range of friendly GCI radars, essentially on their own as they made their way deep into the NVN heartland.

Nevertheless, given the vulnerability of bomb-laden strike aircraft to NVN MiGs, the Navy and USAF had to provide combat air patrols to cover them and Marine F-4Bs were tasked to escort VMCJ-1’s EF-10Bs.

Until 1967 the MiG’s Phuc Yen home airbase was off limits to attack thanks to President Lyndon Johnson’s puzzling war “strategy”. For the most part late in 1965 and into 1966 the NVN MiGs had not aggressively engaged the US aircraft, likely due to most of their pilots being away for transition training for the MiG-17F variants. That turned out fortuitous for them given LBJ’s famous 37 day bombing halt that started Christmas eve 1965 and extended until 31 January 1966.

When the air war resumed the plan was to conduct massive interdiction operations against the upper Ho Chi Minh Trail, the lines of communications that supported the flow of war materials from the rail lines from China and the port of Haiphong down to Laos and on into South Vietnam. Unfortunately, as often was the case, poor weather over NVN disrupted the plans for the first three days. Finally, on 3 February the weather cleared and both USAF and Navy aircraft were able to really go after NVN targets, both day and night. Navy A-6 Intruders conducted the majority of night attacks due to their superior all weather radar/navigation capabilities, but during periods of good visibility, they were joined by USAF F-4Cs from a specially trained “night owl” squadron based at Ubon air base in Thailand.

That night, two VMCJ-1 EF-10Bs were tasked to provide threat warning and ECM support for attack aircraft striking targets along roadways in vicinity of Hoa Binh, about 50 miles southwest of Hanoi. The EF-10Bs were escorted by four F-4Bs from VMF/A-323 led by their commanding officer Lt. Col. Andrew O’Donnell (later Lt Gen.). VMF-323 had been supporting the EF-10Bs since arriving in country the first of December 1965. The squadron was immediately stung by the loss of their executive officer, Major Howard Dunn, and his veteran RIO CWO-2 John Fredericks the night of 7 December 1965 while escorting EF-1B0Bs in the same general area. The cause of their loss was never confirmed but thought to be either a MiG or SAM. Both ejected and were captured and sadly CWO Fredericks died of typhoid eight months before the POWs were released.

Typically, the EF-10Bs supporting strikes in northwestern NVN flew a westerly track from Danang into Laos before turning north toward an initial point (IP) near the target area. The EF-10Bs, flying around 25,000 feet, would then use the IP as the anchor point for a 15-20 mile racetrack pattern oriented on the target ingress path of the strike aircraft. Their radar jammer antennas were fixed forward so the two aircraft split up at the IP to ensure one was always flying toward the target area in the racetrack pattern.

The F-4B escorts would normally depart early and go out west to a refueling area along the Mekong River adjacent to Thailand where they would top off with fuel from Marine KC-130 tankers, and then catch up with the EF-10Bs as they turned north. Typically upon reaching the IP, the F-4Bs would split up with one section trailing the EF-10B around its racetrack pattern keeping it on its radar, while the other orbited the area with altitude separation conducting a radar search for approaching hostiles. This tactic was to try and compensate for the lack of friendly GCI support.

The following account of what happened that night is pieced together from personal recollections of the Marine aircrews supported by UHF radio transmissions captured on the EF-10B’s ECM tape recorder. It is supplemented by recently acquired NVN air force historical records.

Shortly after departing the IP, the lead EF-10B ECMO, mustang 2nd Lieutenant Paul “Toje” Wheeler, reported intercepting a Fansong target tracking radar from a SA-2 SAM site thought to be a threat to the attack aircraft. Daily code words were published to broadcast SAM or MiG warnings to friendly aircraft over the UHF radio guard channel. Toje checked his kneeboard card for the code of the day for SAMs and made a warning call. Only problem was he had a hard time deciphering the proper code in the darken cockpit and inadvertently transmitted the code word “Red Dog” for a MIG threat instead of a SAM. Less than a minute later the lead F-4B escort reported a MiG making a firing pass that was observed by all! Talking about irony, Wheeler was a former enlisted air intercept operator during the Korean War flying the night fighter version of the Sky Knight!

When the bombing of NVN resumed, the NVN night fighters were trained and ready to take on their American adversaries for the first time at night. According to the Vietnamese account, they had been expecting attacks in the Hoa Binh area that night and one of their MiG-17PF pilots was launched from Phuc Yen as soon as the U.S. aircraft appeared on their GCI radar screens. When one of the aircraft (likely the lead F-4B) made a turn to the south their MiG was caught out front about 15 miles away at about 10,000 feet. The GCI controller called for the pilot to make a 360 degree turn and fall in behind the unidentified aircraft which he did. The MiG pilot stated he had not turned on his radar until vectored in behind the target aircraft as he was afraid of being detected presumably showing they knew EW aircraft were in the mix. He was able to detect the U.S. aircraft when he turned his radar on but before he got in gun range it malfunctioned and the had to locate his target visually which he did and made a firing pass. According to their pilot he shot down the aircraft thought to have been an A-6 Intruder! He then located other enemy aircraft ahead and reported making another successful gun run on one of them before being ordered to disengage and return to base. The pilot, Lam Van Lich, was credited with two kills, and later in the year received the “Hero of the DRV” award which was their highest military award for valor! So much for credibility of the Vietnamese!

Meanwhile the Phantoms were desperately trying to get joined back up while doing their best to sort out friend from foe. Several calls were made to “turn on your lights” no “turn off your lights” and somewhere in there lead advised the EF-10B crew to leave the scene in a “I am-in-control here” tone . According to the EF-10B aircrew debriefs they had already departed for home checking their six all the while. The EF-10Bs still had a Korean War vintage tail warning receiver designed to intercept the MiG’s radar, and yes indeed the Whale had its 20MM cannons loaded and ready for action. (of note the EF-10B mission was to warn/jam SAMs & AAA radars which transmitted on a much lower frequency than the MIG-17PF radar which would not have been monitored by the ECMO)

At one point the second section lead reported a radar lock-on to what the pilot was sure to be the MiG but without a positive visual identification held off firing to the relief of the other Phantom aircrews. The Vietnamese account confirms that their MiG was pursued back toward Hanoi by an F-4. A follow-on TF-77 report says the Marine F-4B pilot broke off an engagement as he was nearing the 30 mile restricted zone then in effect around Hanoi. At that point the F-4B escorts departed the area, with one of them diverting to Udorn airbase low on fuel. Thus ends the first confirmed night engagement of NVN MiGs with U.S. aircraft during the Vietnam War.

Needless to say playing the tape a few nights later to a packed house in the o’club made up for a lot of razzing by the Phantom flyers! But, in all fairness, this was just another frustrating would-a-could-a-should-a incident that happened a lot in Vietnam. It is now clear that had the EF-10Bs not been escorted at least one of them would have very likely been shot down by the GCI controlled MiG-17PF. So a belated Bravo Zulu is in order!!

As a post script, newly discovered data from research of NVN records for this incident rules out a MiG as having shot down the VMF/A-323 F-4B in December 1965. The 236th NVN SAM regiment claimed downing of an F3D (EF-10B) on the night of 7 December from a site about 20 miles south west of Hanoi at a time that correlates with the F-4B escort loss. There were no other reported U.S. aircraft in the area. It is very plausible that the F-4B could have inadvertently flown further north than briefed and was ambushed by a SAM, then flew for some distance southward in their crippled aircraft before having to eject.

By Colonel H. Wayne “Flash” Whitten USMC (RET)

Author of Silent Heroes U.S. Marines and Airborne Electronic Warfare 1950-2012, with NVN research by Merle Pribbinow. (CIA RET)