The Crusader became the ultimate “day fighter” operating off the aircraft carriers. At the time, U.S. Navy carrier air wings had gone through a series of day and night fighter aircraft due to rapid advances in engine and avionics. Some squadrons operated aircraft for very short periods before being equipped with a newer higher performance aircraft. The Crusader was the first post-Korean War aircraft to have a relatively long tenure with the fleet and like the USAF F-105, a contemporary design, might have stayed in service longer if not for the Vietnam war and resulting attrition from combat and operational losses.
The unarmed photo Crusader was operated aboard carriers as a detachment (Det) from either VFP-62 or VFP-63 to provide photo reconnaissance capability. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, RF-8s flew extremely hazardous low-level photo reconnaissance missions over Cuba.
The Crusader was not an easy aircraft to fly, and often unforgiving in carrier landings where it suffered from yaw instability and the castoring nose wheel. Not surprisingly, the mishap rate was relatively high compared to its contemporaries, the A-4 Skyhawk and the F-4 Phantom II. However, the aircraft did possess some amazing capabilities, as proven when several hapless Crusader pilots took off from Da Nang with the wings folded. The Crusader was capable of flying in this state, though the pilot would be required to lose weight by ejecting stores and fuel, and then return to the carrier.
When conflict erupted in the skies over North Vietnam, it was U.S. Navy Crusaders that first tangled with VPAF MiGs in April 1965. Although the MiGs claimed the downing of a Crusader, all aircraft returned safely. At the time, the Crusader was the best dogfighter the United States had against the nimble North Vietnamese MiGs. The Navy had evolved its “night fighter” role in the air wing to an all-weather interceptor, the F-4 Phantom II, equipped to engage incoming bombers at long range with missiles such as Sparrow as their sole air-to-air weapons, and maneuverability was not emphasized in their design. Some experts believed that the era of the dogfight was over as air-to-air missiles would knock down adversaries well before they could get close enough to engage in dogfighting. As aerial combat ensued over North Vietnam from 1965 to 1968, it became apparent that the dogfight was not over and the F-8 Crusader and a community trained to prevail in air-to-air combat was a key ingredient to success.
Despite the “last gunfighter” moniker, the F-8s achieved only four victories with their cannon — the remainder were accomplished with AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, partly due to the propensity of the Colt Mark 12 cannons’ feeding mechanism to jam under G-loading during high-speed dogfighting maneuvers. Nonetheless, the Crusader would be credited with the best kill ratio of any American type in the Vietnam War, 19:3. Of the 19 aircraft shot down, 16 were MiG-17s and three were MiG-21s.
The Korean War had shaken the military might of America and it led to far-reaching changes in the equipment it would need to fight any similar war anywhere in the world. The navy replaced its F9F Panther and F2H Banshee straight-winged jets with the F-4 Phantom, and the Vought F-8 Crusader became the standard carrier-based fighter, although propeller-driven aircraft, like the Douglas A-1 Skyraider,132 still had a role to play. Ed Heinmann’s Douglas A-4 Skyhawk was designed to replace the Skyraider and fulfil a multiplicity of roles for the navy, including interceptor and nuclear weapons carrier, but for a while, both aircraft served alongside each other when war broke out in South-East Asia. The Republic of South Vietnam was created in July 1954 using the 17th Parallel to separate it from the Communist North. However, Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh forces, led by General Vo Nguyen Giap, planned to take over control of the South using a new Communist guerrilla force called the Viet Cong (VC) or National Liberation Front (NLF). The VC campaign increased in intensity in 1957, and finally, in 1960, Premier Ngo Dinh Diem appealed to the United States for help. In 1961, ‘special advisors’ were sent in, and later, President Lyndon B. Johnson began the first moves that would lead to total American involvement in Vietnam.
When, in 1964, two Crusaders were brought down during a reconnaissance mission over Laos, the USAF flew a retaliatory strike on 9 June against AAA sites. On 2 August, against the background of open warfare in Laos and increasing infiltration across the North/South Vietnamese border, North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the destroyer USS Maddox in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin. The destroyer was cruising along a patrol line in the northern region of the Gulf in order to gather intelligence as part of Operation Plan 34A. This was a covert campaign that started in February 1964 and it was intended to deter the North Vietnamese from infiltrating the South. One of the torpedo boats that attacked the Maddox was sunk by a flight of four F-8E Crusaders led by Commander James Stockdale of VF-53 from the Ticonderoga, who made several strafing runs on the boats, firing their 20-mm cannon and Zuni unguided rockets. During the night of 4/5 August, Maddox, now reinforced by USS Turner Joy, returned to its station off the North Vietnamese coast to listen for radio traffic and monitor communist naval activity. Shortly after a covert South Vietnamese attack on a coastal radar station near Cua Rim, the two destroyers tracked on radar what they took to be enemy torpedo boats. Debate still rages whether there really were any North Vietnamese boats in the vicinity of the two destroyers. Apparently no attack developed and no boats were seen by the pilots of the aircraft launched to provide air cover. However, the incident was enough to force President Johnson into ordering Operation Pierce Arrow, a limited retaliatory raid on military facilities in North Vietnam. On 10 August, the US Congress passed what came to be known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which was as close as the US ever came to declaring war on North Vietnam but which actually fell far short of that. The Gulf of Tonkin Incident also resulted in a major increase in US air strength in the South-East Asia theatre and saw US involvement change from an advisory role to a more operational role, even though US aircraft and airmen had been participating in operations ever since they first arrived in the region.
The political and physical restrictions on the basing of US aircraft in South Vietnam was to some extent solved by the permanent stationing of aircraft carriers in the South China Sea. By the end of August, four aircraft carriers, the Bon Homme Richard (CVA-31), Constellation, Kearsarge and Ticonderoga had arrived in position in the Gulf and started a pattern of line duty that continued until August 1973. The carriers and their protecting forces constituted the US 7th Fleet’s Task Force 77, which, in March 1965, developed a pattern of positioning carriers at Yankee Station in the South China Sea off Da Nang from which to launch attacks against North Vietnam. On 20 May, TF 77 established Dixie Station 100 miles south-east of Cam Ranh Bay from where close air support missions could be mounted against South Vietnam. The carriers developed a system that normally kept each ship on line duty for a period of between twenty-five and thirty-five days after which the carrier would visit a port in the Philippines, Japan or Hong Kong for rest and replenishment of supplies. Each carrier would normally complete four spells of duty on the line before returning to its home port for refitting and re-equipping. However, the period spent on line duty could vary considerably, and some ships spent well over the average number of days on duty. The establishment of Dixie Station required the assignment of a fifth carrier to the Western Pacific to maintain the constant presence of at least two carriers at Yankee Station and one at Dixie Station. By the summer of 1966, there were enough aircraft based in South Vietnam to provide the required airpower and Dixie Station was discontinued from 4 August.
Operation Pierce Arrow began in the early afternoon of 5 August with twenty aircraft from Constellation (ten A-1H Skyraiders, eight Skyhawks and two F-4 Phantoms) attacking the torpedo-boat base at Hon Gai, while twelve more (five Skyhawks, four Skyraiders and three Phantoms) from the same carrier struck the Loc Chao base. Simultaneously, the Ticonderoga dispatched six F-8E Crusaders to the torpedo-boat bases at Quang Khe and Ben Thuy and twenty-six other aircraft to bomb an oil storage depot at Vinh. Unfortunately, President Johnson’s premature television announcement that the raids were to take place may have warned the North Vietnamese, who put up a fierce barrage of anti-aircraft fire at all the targets resulting in the loss of two aircraft. Lieutenant (jg) Richard Christian Sather’s Skyraider from VA-145 was hit by AAA while on its third dive-bomb attack and crashed just off shore from Thanh Hoa. No parachute was seen or radio emergency beeper heard and it was assumed that Sather died in the crash, the first naval airman to be killed in the war.
Having taken part in the abortive hunt for North Vietnamese torpedo boats during the night, Lieutenant (jg) Everett Alvarez of VA-144, who was on his first tour since graduating as a pilot in 1961, also took part in the Pierce Arrow attack on torpedo boats at Hon Gai. He was forced to eject at low level when his Skyhawk flew into a barrage of AAA during the attack. Alvarez was captured and became the first airman to become a prisoner of the North Vietnamese.
Following the establishment of TF 77 aircraft carriers in the South China Sea in August 1964, it was six months before the US Navy was again in action, although thirteen naval aircraft had been lost in accidents over South-East Asian waters during this time. Although air strikes against North Vietnam were part of President Johnson’s 2 December plan, they were not immediately instigated. However, VC attacks on US facilities at Saigon on 24 December and Pleiku and Camp Holloway on 7 February caused President Johnson to order the first air strike against North Vietnam since Pierce Arrow in August 1964. In retaliation, the order was given for a strike from carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin. On 7 February, Flaming Dart I, as the strike was code-named, saw forty-nine aircraft launched from the decks of the Hancock and Coral Sea against VC installations at Dong Hoi, while the Ranger sent thirty-four aircraft to bomb Vit Thu Lu, and other targets were hit by VNAF A-1s. The raid was led by Commander Warren H. Sells, Commander of Hancock’s Air Wing 21. In the event, monsoon weather forced Ranger’s strike force to abort their mission against Vit Thu Lu, but Dong Hoi’s barracks and port facilities were attacked by twenty aircraft from the Coral Sea and twenty-nine from the Hancock. The strike was carried out at low level under a 700-foot cloud base in rain and poor visibility. An A-4E Skyhawk from the Coral Sea flown by Lieutenant Edward Andrew Dickson, a section leader of a flight of four aircraft of VA -155, was lost. (Dickson had had a miraculous escape from death just one year earlier when he was forced to eject from his Skyhawk over the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California during a training exercise. His parachute failed to deploy properly, but he landed in a deep snowdrift that broke his fall causing only minor injuries.) About five miles south of the target, Dickson reported that he had been hit by AAA and requested his wingman to check his aircraft over as they commenced their run into the target. Just as the flight was about to release its bombs, Dickson’s A-4E was seen to burst into flames, but despite a warning from his wingman, he continued with his bomb run and released his Snakeye bombs on target. Dickson headed out towards the sea but his aircraft became engulfed in flames, and although he was seen to eject, his parachute was not seen to deploy, and the aircraft crashed into the sea about half a mile off shore. There was no sign of Lieutenant Dickson in the water despite a SAR effort that continued for two days.
The Flaming Dart I mission of 7 February did not appear to have the effect on the North Vietnamese that Washington had hoped for. On 10 February, the Viet Cong struck at an American camp at Qui Nhon causing serious casualties. The immediate response to this was Flaming Dart II, flown the following day, when a total of ninety-nine naval aircraft from the Coral Sea, Hancock and Ranger were sent against NVA barracks at Chanh Hoa near Dong Hoi. The target was attacked in poor visibility with low cloud and the Coral Sea suffered two aircraft and one pilot lost on this raid. The first to be brought down was Lieutenant Commander Robert Harper Shumaker’s F-8D Crusader of VF-154, which was hit in the tail (possibly by debris from his own rockets) when he was pulling out from an attack on an anti-aircraft gun position. The aircraft’s afterburner blew out and the hydraulic system must have been damaged, as the F-8D soon became uncontrollable, forcing Shumaker to eject over land, although his aircraft crashed a few miles off shore from Dong Hoi. Shumaker’s parachute opened about thirty feet above the ground and he broke his back on landing, for which he received no medical treatment. A few minutes after Shumaker’s Crusader was shot down, another wave of aircraft hit the Chanh Hoa barracks and another aircraft was lost. Lieutenant W. T. Majors of VA-153 from the Coral Sea in an A-4C was also attacking enemy AAA, using CBU-24 cluster bombs. After delivering his bombs, he climbed the Skyhawk to 4,000 feet and set course for the carrier. However, his engine suddenly seized and could not be relit. Faced with no alternative, Majors ejected over the sea but was picked up almost immediately by a USAF rescue helicopter. Bomb damage assessments at Chanh Hoa showed that twenty-three of the seventy-six buildings in the camp were either damaged or destroyed during the raid.
In March, Operation Rolling Thunder, an air offensive against North Vietnam, was launched and the navy’s first strike took place on 18 March, when aircraft from the Coral Sea and Hancock bombed supply dumps at Phu Van and Vinh Son. The US Navy’s second Rolling Thunder mission, on 26 March, resulted in the loss of three aircraft out of seventy dispatched. The ability of the North Vietnamese air defence system to monitor US raids was a concern even in the early days of the war and the targets for this mission were radar sites at Bach Long Vi, Cap Mui Ran, Ha Tinh and Vinh Son. Lieutenant (jg) C. E. Gudmunson’s A-1H Skyraider of VA-215 from the Hancock was hit on his sixth pass over the target at Ha Tinh, but he managed to fly to Da Nang where he crash-landed about five miles west of the airfield. Commander K. L. Shugart’s A-4E Skyhawk of VA-212 from the Hancock was hit on his second run as he dropped his Snakeye bombs on the radar site at Vinh Son. Shugart headed out to sea as the aircraft caught fire but the electrical system failed, forcing him to eject about ten miles off shore. He was picked up by a USAF helicopter. Lieutenant C. E. Wangeman, an F-8D pilot in VF-154 on the Coral Sea, did not realise that his Crusader, actually the Coral Sea air wing commander’s aircraft, had been hit as he was attacking an AAA site at Bach Long Vi. However, after leaving the target area, his aircraft began to lose oil pressure and his wingman observed an oil leak. Wangeman climbed to high altitude and he managed to fly the aircraft for over 200 miles before the engine seized and he was forced to eject 20 miles north of Da Nang. He was rescued by a USAF rescue helicopter.
On 29 March, the Coral Sea’s air wing returned to Bach Long Vi island, which it had visited three days earlier. Again, seventy aircraft were despatched on the mission, including six A-3B bombers from VAH-2. Three aircraft were lost in the first wave as they were attacking AAA sites around the target. Commander Jack H. Harris’ A-4E Skyhawk in VA-155 was hit during his low-level bomb run, causing his engine to wind down. Despite attempts to restart the engine, the commander had to eject over the sea close to the target but was picked up by a navy ship. VA-154 pilot Commander William N. Donnelly’s F-8D Crusader was hit during his first attack and his controls froze as he was making his second pass. He ejected at 450 knots at about 1,000 feet with the aircraft in an inverted dive and was extremely lucky to survive the ejection with only a fractured neck vertebra and dislocated shoulder. He came down in the shark-infested waters four miles north of Bach Long Vi, and for 45 hours, he drifted in his life-raft, which sprung a leak and needed blowing up every 20 minutes. Twice during the first night he had to slip into the water to evade North Vietnamese patrol boats that were searching for him. Fortunately, he was spotted by an F-8 pilot on 31 March and was picked up by a USAF HU-16 Albatross amphibian. Another squadron commander, Commander Pete Mongilardi of VA-153, was almost lost when his A-4E was hit and had to be ‘towed’ back to a safe landing on the Coral Sea by a tanker as the Skyhawk leaked fuel as fast as it was being pumped in. Lieutenant Commander Kenneth Edward Hume’s F-8D in VF-154 was hit by ground fire as he was firing his Zuni unguided rockets at an AAA site on the island. A small fire was seen coming from the engine and Hume attempted to make for Da Nang, but after a few minutes, the aircraft suddenly dived into the sea, and although the canopy was seen to separate, there was no sign of an ejection.
The battle against the North Vietnamese radar system continued on 31 March with further raids on the Vinh Son and Cap Mui Ron radar sites involving sixty aircraft from the Hancock and Coral Sea. Lieutenant (jg) Gerald Wayne McKinley’s A-1H in VA-215 from the Hancock was hit by ground fire during its second low-level bomb run and the aircraft crashed immediately. By this time, both the USN and the USAF were flying regular missions over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos in an attempt to staunch the flow of arms and other supplies from North Vietnam to the Viet Cong in the South.140 On 2 April, Lieutenant Commander James Joseph Evans of VA-215 from the Hancock flying an A-1H was shot down by AAA north of Ban Muong Sen during an armed reconnaissance mission while in the process of attacking another AAA site.
A decision had also been taken to interdict the North Vietnamese rail system south of the 20th Parallel. The prime target was the giant Ham Rong (Dragon’s Jaw) road and rail bridge over the Song Ma River 3 miles north of Thanh Hoa, the capital of Annam Province, in North Vietnam’s bloody ‘Iron Triangle’ (Haiphong, Hanoi and Thanh Hoa). The 540-foot by 56-foot Chinese-engineered bridge, which stood 50 feet above the river, was a replacement for the original French-built bridge destroyed by the Viet Minh in 1945, blown up by simply loading two locomotives with explosives and running them together in the middle of the bridge. It was a major line of communication from Hanoi, 70 miles to the north, and Haiphong to the southern provinces of North Vietnam and from there to the DMZ and South Vietnam and was heavily defended by a ring of 37-mm AAA sites that were supplemented by several 57-mm sites following these initial raids.
Shortly after noon on 3 April, USAF and USN aircraft of Rolling Thunder, Mission 9-Alpha, climbed into South-East Asian skies for the bridge at Thanh Hoa. The USN mounted two raids against bridges near Thanh Hoa on the 3rd. A total of thirty-five A-4s, sixteen F-8s and four F-4s were launched from the Hancock and Coral Sea. Lieutenant Commander Raymond A. Vohden of VA-216 from the Hancock who was flying an A-4C Skyhawk was hit by small-arms fire during his first bombing run during an attack on a bridge at Dong Phuong Thong about ten miles north of the Dragon. His wingman saw the aircraft streaming fluid and the arrester hook drop down. Soon afterwards, Vohden ejected and was captured to become the navy’s third PoW in North Vietnam. The raids were the first occasion when the Vietnamese People’s Air Force employed its MiG-17 fighters, thus marking a significant escalation of the air war in South-East Asia. During this raid, three MiG-17s attacked and damaged a Crusader when four of the F-8Es tried to bomb the bridge. The F-8E pilot was forced to divert to Da Nang. This was the first time a MiG had attacked a US aircraft during the war in South-East Asia.
The threat of MiG activity over South-East Asia resulted in increased efforts to provide combat air patrols and airborne early warning and the F-4 Phantom and F-8 Crusader were tasked with air defence of the fleet and protection of strike forces. On 9 April, two Phantoms of VF-96 on the Ranger were launched to relieve two other aircraft flying a BARCAP (Barrier Combat Air Patrol) racetrack pattern in the northern Gulf of Tonkin. However, the first aircraft to launch crashed as it was being catapulted from the carrier. The aircraft’s starboard engine failed during the catapult shot and the aircraft ditched into the sea, but both Lieutenant Commander William E. Greer and Lieutenant (jg) R. Bruning ejected just as the aircraft impacted the water and were rescued. Lieutenant (jg) Terence Meredith Murphy and Ensign Ronald James Fegan were then launched and took over as section leader with a replacement aircraft flown by Lieutenant Watkins and Lieutenant (jg) Mueller as their wingman. As the two Phantoms flew north, they were intercepted by four MiG-17s that were identified as belonging to the air force of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The two Phantoms that were waiting to be relieved on BARCAP heard Murphy’s radio calls and flew south to engage the MiGs. The air battle took place at high altitude near the Chinese island of Hainan and Murphy’s Phantom was not seen after the MiGs disengaged. The aircraft was thought to have been shot down by the MiGs but a Chinese newspaper claimed that Murphy had been shot down in error by an AIM-7 Sparrow missile fired by another Phantom. One of the MiG-17s was seen to explode and was thought to have been shot down by Murphy during the dogfight but it was never officially credited due to the sensitivity of US aircraft engaging Chinese aircraft. Murphy’s last radio call was to the effect that he was out of missiles and was returning to base. Despite an extensive two-day SAR effort, no sign of the Phantom or its crew was ever found.
On 8 May, the US Navy mounted its first raid against a North Vietnamese airfield when Vinh air base was attacked by a strike force from the Midway. Commander James David La Haye, the CO of VF-111, was attacking the airfield’s AAA defences with Zuni unguided rockets and 20-mm cannon fire when his aircraft was hit by ground fire. The Crusader was seen to turn towards the coast with its wings level but streaming fuel until it crashed into the sea a few miles off shore near the island of Hon Nieu. No attempt at ejection was seen, although the pilot had radioed that his aircraft had been hit. About six hours after the strike on Vinh airfield, Detachment A, VFP-63, Midway’s photographic reconnaissance detachment flew a BDA mission to assess the damage done to the target. During the run over the airfield, Lieutenant (jg) W. B. Wilson’s RF-8A Crusader was hit by ground fire and sustained damage to the fuel tanks, hydraulic system and tail fin. Despite the damage and loss of fuel, Wilson managed to make for the coast and fly south towards a tanker where he took on enough fuel to reach the carrier or Da Nang. Unfortunately, soon after taking on fuel, two explosions were heard from the rear of the aircraft as either fuel or hydraulic fluid ignited. The aircraft’s controls froze and Lieutenant Wilson ejected over the sea about thirty miles off Dong Hoi from where he was rescued by a USAF Albatross.
Midway’s run of bad luck continued. On 27 May, the US Navy flew a strike against the railway yards at Vinh, one of the most frequently hit targets in the southern part of North Vietnam. Commander Doyle Winter Lynn, CO of VF-111, was attacking an AAA site near the target when his F-8D Crusader was hit by ground fire. Lynn, who had been one of the first navy pilots to be shot down in South-East Asia when his Crusader was shot down on 7 June 1964 over the Plain of Jars, radioed that the aircraft had been hit and the F-8 was seen to go out of control and hit the ground before an ejection could take place. On 1 June, in preparation for further attacks on the railway yards at Vinh, the Midway sent Lieutenant (jg) M. R. Fields, one of its Detachment A, VFP-63, photographic reconnaissance RF-8A Crusader pilots, to check the state of damage and to see which areas needed to be attacked again. At 500 feet over the target, the aircraft was hit by ground fire, which damaged its hydraulic system. Fields felt the controls gradually stiffening as he raced for the sea. He was fortunate to be able to get over 30 miles from the coastline before the controls eventually froze solid and he was forced to eject. He was soon rescued by a USAF Albatross amphibian.
Next day, two more Midway aircraft were lost. During a raid on a radar site a few miles south of Thanh Hoa, an A-4E flown by Lieutenant (jg) David Marion Christian of VA-23 was hit by AAA when pulling up from its second attack with Zuni rockets. The aircraft caught fire immediately and Christian radioed that his engine had flamed out. It could not be confirmed if Christian ejected from the stricken Skyhawk before it hit the ground. Thirty minutes after the aircraft was lost, an EA-1F Skyraider of Detachment A, VAW-13, arrived from the Midway to coordinate a SAR effort for Lieutenant Christian. As the Skyraider was about to cross the coast at low level near Sam Son, east of Thanh Hoa, it was hit by ground fire and crashed. The Midway lost its fifth aircraft in three days on 3 June during an armed reconnaissance mission in the Barrel Roll area of Laos. Lieutenant Raymond P. Ilg’s A-4C Skyhawk of VA-22 was hit by AAA over Route 65 near Ban Nakay Neua, ten miles east of Sam Neua. The aircraft caught fire and Ilg ejected immediately. He evaded for two days until he was picked up by an Air America helicopter.
On 17 June, two VF-21 ‘Freelancers’ F-4Bs from Midway scored the first MiG kills of the war when they attacked four MiG-17s south of Hanoi and brought down two with radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow missiles. Commander Louis C. Page and his radar intercept officer, Lieutenant John C. Smith, together with Lieutenant Jack D. Batson and Lieutenant Commander R. B. Doremus scored the victories and they were each awarded the Silver Star. Three days later, on 20 June, Lieutenant Clinton B. Johnson of VA-25 from Midway, flying a propeller-driven A-1 Skyraider, shot down a third MiG-17. On 12 June 1966, Commander Hal Marr, CO of VF-211 ‘Flying Checkmates’ equipped with F-8Es aboard the Hancock, became the first Crusader pilot to shoot down a MiG when he destroyed a MiG-17 with his second Sidewinder missile at an altitude of only fifty feet. Marr was also credited with a probable after blasting of more MiGs with his 20-mm cannon. Nine days later, on 21 June, Mann’s wingman, Lieutenant (jg) Philip V. Vampatella, shot down another MiG-17 while covering a rescue attempt to bring home an RF-8 pilot shot down earlier. On 9 October, an F-8E pilot, Commander Dick Bellinger, CO of VF-162 from the Oriskany, became the first navy pilot to destroy a MiG-21 when he obliterated one of the enemy fighters with heat-seeking missiles during an escort mission for A-4s from the Intrepid.