Lest we forget: F-4 Phantom II—445 total lost in the SEA Air War, 382 in combat more than any other fixed wing aircraft
First combat loss F-4C 64-0685 (45th TFS, 15th TFW) shot down Ta Chan, NW NVN on 20 June 1965. Final loss: F-4D 66-8747 (432d TRW) on 29 June 1973.
Forty-five years ago this month – August 15, 1973– I flew in the backseat of an F4 Phantom II jet on a bombing mission over Cambodia as a member of the 13th TFS out of Udorn RTAFB.
By Congressional order noon that day the air war in South East Asia ended; a war that had gone on continuously since 1965. As I was on alert that morning, my F4 flight was the unofficial last combat mission launched from Udorn for the Vietnam War (although reconnaissance F4 flights would continue).
Right at noon as the war ended, we heard a radio message on Guard: Little Orphan Annie has crossed the Blue Ridge Bridge. I repeat Little Orphan Annie has crossed the Blue Ridge Bridge, then the sound of a toilet flushing. This is all that I remember about that day. I don’t remember the target or any other details of that last mission.
In his book On War and Writing, Samuel Hynes, a former professor at Princeton and US Marine World War II veteran, writes that there are two major sources for personal war information: remembering and reporting. Remembering takes place in the anecdote I just shared and is often affected by time. Reporting draws on the letters contemporaneous with the events.
During the Civil War, a letter of Union Major Sullivan Ballou, written in July 1861, touches the reader with the strength of his words: “I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter…. And I am willing — perfectly willing — to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt …” However, the letters home covering the very brutal battles of Anzio and Monte Casino in World War II, by Army infrantryman Babe Carlo contain no lofty rhetoric. He wrote letters designed to spare his family the horrors of war so that they would not know what he was experiencing.
Sadly, both Ballou and Carlo would never return home. Only the two men knew what they went through.
45 years ago, beginning in May 1973 as a member of the 13 TFS, I flew combat missions almost every day until the war ended.
My letters are somewhat like Carlo’s, but they do share some of the challenges I was facing. I mention flying in combat, but also talk about my pay records being lost. I complain that my room mate drinks up all my instant coffee and then add almost in passing “We flew to Cambodia where we blew up an enemy gun emplacement.” I talk of an emergency: “22 July 1973: We took off fully loaded with 18 Mark-82 (500 lb) bombs and started to get erroneous flight inputs. The plane lurched toward the ground and I thought that we were going to have to eject…,”then write about a squadron party and that I have less than 300 days until I get “Back to the World.”
500 pound Mark 82 bomb load on F4
And then there is 15 August 1973, I wrote to my wife: “I find it hard to believe that the war is over. Strange to be in combat one day, training the next as if nothing had happened.” It’s almost as if I didn’t want combat to end.
Reading them now, I understand what the letters sought to convey: I did some amazing things but I am OK –don’t worry.
But in those letters there is always part of them that only speaks to me. No matter how far I am removed from those events of 45 years ago, they will never go away. As the years pass, I think most about the men I served with in the 13 TFS in combat. They were some of the best men I will ever know. We shared an amazing adventure. We were tested in combat and we did well. We were changed. And I think I would never have missed this experience for a moment.
Yes, being overseas in combat was bittersweet time.
(To hear the Orphan Annie radio transmission in a dropbox link click here )
For a another look at this mission on August 15, 1973 see this piece I wrote for the 40th anniversary of the end of the air war click – https://jenorv66.wordpress.com/2013/06/11/the-last-flight-of-the-vietnam-war/
A shorter version of this story appeared in the Geneva NY Finger Lakes Times on August 12, 2018