On 14 July, on its first day on the line, the Oriskany suffered its first combat loss. Lieutenant (jg) L. J. Cunningham’s A-4E in VA-164 was hit by AAA as it attacked barges on an inland waterway near Gia La, 15 miles south-east of Vinh. The aircraft was hit in the nose and the engine must have then ingested debris as it started running rough on the way back to the carrier. By the time Cunningham reached the Oriskany, flames were coming from the engine exhaust and the aircraft was obviously in no shape for a carrier landing. He ejected at very low level close to the carrier and was rescued by a Seasprite from the Oriskany’s HC-1 detachment. A flight of VA-76’s A-4Cs from the Bon Homme Richard was sent on an armed reconnaissance mission in search of PT boats when the aircraft came under fire just off the coast near Van Ly, 25 miles south of Nam Dinh. One of the aircraft was hit in the port wing by an anti-aircraft shell, which caused a fire in a rocket pod carried under the wing. The rockets exploded and the debris caused the engine to fail. Lieutenant J. N. Donis ejected about 15 miles off the coast and was picked up 30 minutes later by a navy helicopter.
Commander Robert Byron Fuller, the CO of VA-76, who had started his flying career in 1952 in the F9F-5 Panther and had flown 110 missions in South-East Asia, led a strike against the Co Trai railway and road bridge near Hung Yen on the Red River, 20 miles south-east of Hanoi. Just as the aircraft commenced its attack, it was rocked by the explosion of an SA-2 missile, but Commander Fuller delivered his bombs before he encountered any control problems with his aircraft. The Skyhawk’s tail was seen to be on fire and fuel was streaming from a leaking tank. As the aircraft started rolling uncontrollably, the pilot ejected and was soon captured. Commander Fuller was the second CO that VA-76 had lost within eight months. He had taken command of the squadron on 6 December 1966 when Commander A. D. McFall was accidentally killed during a night launch in the Pacific.
Next day, Lieutenant (jg) Robin Bern Cassell, an A-1H pilot of VA-1S2 from the Oriskany, was the section leader of two Skyraiders on an armed reconnaissance mission searching for boats and barges along the coast of North Vietnam near Thanh Hoa. A number of small boats were found and Lieutenant Cassell commenced an attack. During the bombing run, his aircraft was hit by automatic-weapons fire from the boats, and Cassell radioed that he had been hit. Soon afterwards, the Skyraider crashed into the sea and exploded with Lieutenant Cassell still in the cockpit.
On 16 July, the Oriskany’s air wing was having a rough return to combat, losing its third aircraft in as many days. Before the month was over, the Oriskany would lose a total of ten aircraft in combat and three in accidents. Lieutenant Commander Demetrio A. ‘Butch’ Verich of VF-162 flying an F-8E Crusader, who had been shot down on 18 August 1966 during the Oriskany’s second war cruise, was leading the flak suppression element of three F-8s during a raid by A-4s on the Phu Ly railway yard, 30 miles south of Hanoi. As the formation approached the target it came under attack from a SAM site. Verich started a split-S manoeuvre to evade two of the missiles, but his aircraft was hit by a third SA-2 as the Crusader was diving through 5,000 feet. The aircraft began to disintegrate and Verich ejected immediately. His position was only about sixteen miles south of Hanoi when he landed, so he was most fortunate to be rescued by a navy SH-3 of HS-2 from the Hornet at first light on the 17th after 15 hours on the ground close to an AAA position. The helicopter pilot, Lieutenant Neil Sparks, was awarded the Navy Cross for his courage and skill in rescuing the pilot. The helicopter had spent a total of 2 hours and 23 minutes over North Vietnam during the rescue, much of that time under fire.
The 18th turned out to be another bad day for the Oriskany with the loss of three A-4Es and one pilot. VA-164 mounted a raid on the Co Trai railway and road bridge, which had been the target just five days earlier. Lieutenant Commander Richard Danner Hartman had successfully bombed the target and was leaving the area when his aircraft was hit by AAA. The Skyhawk caught fire and Hartman ejected about twenty-five miles south of Hanoi. Encouraged by the success in recovering Lieutenant Commander ‘Butch’ Verich on the 16th, a SAR mission was quickly organised and aircraft from VA-164 orbited over Hartman’s position to provide protection. However, this was an extremely ‘hot’ location, and after about twelve minutes, another A-4 was hit by anti-aircraft fire. Lieutenant Larrie J. Duthie was jinking to avoid being hit, but there was so much flak in the sky that there was very little chance of avoiding it for long. His flight controls began to fail and his oxygen supply failed, probably as a result of the oxygen tank being hit and burning its way through the aircraft’s structure. Duthie came down near Nam Dinh, about forty-five miles south-east of Hanoi. Worse was to follow a little while later as a rescue attempt was made by an SH-3 but was beaten back by strong anti-aircraft fire. One of the escorting A-4Es from Duthie’s section was hit as it pulled out of a 45-degree dive to launch Zuni rockets against gun positions. Lieutenant Barry T. Wood noticed his fuel gauge was rapidly unwinding, indicating a fuel leak, so he jettisoned his ordnance and made for the coast. He ejected about eight miles out to sea and was picked up by a boat from a SAR destroyer, the USS Richard B. Anderson. Meanwhile, both navy and USAF rescue forces were attempting to reach Lieutenant Duthie. In the face of intense ground fire that damaged several helicopters and escorting aircraft, an HH-3E piloted by Major Glen York made a successful pick up. York was awarded the AFC for this daring rescue. The next day, a SH-3A from the Hornet’s HS-2 and piloted by Lieutenant D. W. Peterson attempted to reach Hartman once again. The helicopter was hit by ground fire and crashed killing all on board including the pilot and Ensign D. P. Frye, AX2 W. B. Jackson and AX2 D. P. McGrane. Following this tragedy, the SAR mission to rescue Lieutenant Commander Hartman was reluctantly called off. It had cost the navy two A-4s and a helicopter with the lives of four men. Meanwhile, through all the activity overhead, Lieutenant Commander Hartman was in hiding on a karst hill and in radio contact with his flight. He evaded the North Vietnamese for three days and was resupplied by air during this time. However, he was eventually captured and was either killed at the time of capture or died soon after in a PoW camp. His remains were returned by the Vietnamese on 6 March 1974.
On 19 July, the Co Trai railway and road bridge, which had been the scene of the losses on the 18th, was hit again. Once more, the raid resulted in tragedy, and for VF-162, this raid was exactly a year from a raid on the same target with similar tragic results. Commander Herbert ‘Herb’ Perry Hunter, the executive officer of VF-162, who had previously flown as a member of the Blue Angels aerobatic team, was leading the flak suppression element during the raid when his Crusader was hit in the port wing by 57-mm anti-aircraft fire. The fuel tanks in the wing were ruptured and the aircraft’s hydraulics were partially disabled. Commander Hunter and his wingman, Lieutenant Lee Fernandez, crossed the coast and headed towards the Bon Homme Richard, thinking it was the Oriskany. The damage to the aircraft meant that two bombs could not be jettisoned, nor could the Crusader take on fuel. The Crusader’s wing was unusual in that the entire wing was raised at the leading edge to give more lift during the approach and landing. However, Commander Hunter could not raise the wing and attempted a landing with the wing in the normal flight position. The aircraft hit the deck hard and fast, missed the arrester wires, wiped off its landing gear and plunged over the side into the water. Commander Hunter may have been stunned as he hit the deck as he was found floating under water with a partially deployed parachute. This traumatic incident, together with his moral opposition to the war and an eyesight problem, badly affected Lieutenant Fernandez, who later turned in his wings and then retired from the navy.
On 20 July, a series of strikes on the My Xa POL storage facility 15 miles north-west of Haiphong resulted in the loss of two navy A-4E Skyhawks on the 20th. The first aircraft was hit in the tail by AAA as it climbed to commence its attack on the target. Commander Frederick H. Whittemore, the executive officer of VA-212 on the Bon Homme Richard, disconnected the flight controls after experiencing complete hydraulic failure. He was only able to control the aircraft by using the horizontal stabiliser and rudder but nevertheless flew out to sea before ejecting 60 miles east of Hon Gai. As the aircraft meandered 30 degrees either side of the desired heading and its altitude varied involuntarily between 2,000 feet and 6,000 feet, it is a miracle that Whittemore managed to position himself over the water, where he could be rescued by a navy helicopter. Another raid on the My Xa POL storage site later in the day resulted in the loss of a VA-163 Skyhawk from the Oriskany. Approaching the coast about twelve miles east of Hon Gai, Lieutenant R. W. Kuhl encountered light flak and felt his aircraft hit and his engine start to vibrate. Kuhl lost his radio and the cockpit began to fill with smoke, forcing him to turn back. He continued out to sea, but as he approached the northern SAR destroyer, which was positioned about forty-five miles south of Hon Gai, the aircraft became uncontrollable and he ejected safely.
On 25 July, a truck convoy was spotted near Ha Tinh, 20 miles south of Vinh by a section of two VA-163 A-4Es from the Oriskany during a night armed reconnaissance mission. Under the light of flares dropped by one of the Skyhawks, Lieutenant Commander Donald Vance Davis started his strafing run but was either shot down or flew into the ground by accident. It was apparent that the pilot had not survived the crash. On 29 July, a KA-3B of Detachment G, VAH-4, on board the Oriskany suffered a double engine failure while on a tanker mission over the Gulf of Tonkin about 150 miles north-east of Da Nang. Unable to rectify the problem, all three crew abandoned the aircraft but only the pilot was found and rescued.
On 29 July, one of the greatest tragedies of the war in South-East Asia occurred as the result of a simple electrical malfunction. The Atlantic Fleet carrier Forrestal (which in 1955 had been the first carrier built to handle jet aircraft) had left Norfolk, Virginia, on 6 June after a major refit and was assigned to TF 77 on 8 July. After working up in the South China Sea, the Forrestal took up her position at Yankee Station on 25 July for her combat debut off Vietnam. Four days later, after flying just 150 combat sorties, she was limping away from Vietnam towards Subic Bay in the Philippines for temporary repairs before returning to Norfolk, Virginia, on 14 September for a major refurbishment. On the morning of 29 July, as a launch was under way, a stray voltage ignited a Zuni rocket pod suspended under F-48 153061. One of the rockets fired and zoomed across the deck to hit a Skyhawk’s fuel tank, causing a chain reaction of explosions and fire on the flight-deck. The Skyhawk pilot, Lieutenant (jg) D. Dollarbide, was incredibly fortunate to escape and be rescued by his plane captain. The aircraft on the deck were soon well ablaze, the fire fed by over 40,000 gallons of aviation fuel together with bombs and other ordnance. Bombs detonated, blowing holes in the armoured deck through which fell burning fuel and ordnance that set fire to six lower decks. After the inferno was eventually brought under control the next day, a total 134 men were dead, sixty-two more injured and twenty-one aircraft destroyed with another thirty-four damaged.
On 31 July, the Oriskany had had an extremely tough re-introduction to combat in South-East Asia with the loss of twelve aircraft and seven airmen since the ship started combat operations on 14 July. An SA-2 claimed the last victim of the month. Lieutenant (jg) Charles Peter Zuhoski of VF-111 was flying as escort to an Iron Hand operation to the east of Hanoi. The aircraft found what they were looking for and started manoeuvring to avoid a volley of missiles. Lieutenant Zuhoski was climbing through 11,000 feet when his aircraft was hit in the rear fuselage by a SAM. The engine seized, and with the rear of the aircraft a mass of flames, the pilot ejected and landed near the village of Ngu Nghi, ten miles east of Hanoi. Like many pilots now coming into South-East Asia, Charles Zuhoski was on his first operational tour of duty after completion of flying and combat training. He joined VF-111 in March 1967, got married on 3 June, departed Alameda on the Oriskany on 16 June and became a PoW on his fourteenth mission on 31 July. He was released by the North Vietnamese on 14 March 1973.
During April to July 1967, the navy accounted for another dozen enemy aircraft but one of its worst days occurred on 21 August when three A-6A Intruders in a four-plane strike force of Milestone flight from VA-196 ‘Main Battery’ aboard the Constellation were shot down during a raid on the Duc Noi rail yards five miles north of Hanoi. The naval strike was unleashed at exactly the same time as the USAF strike was going in at Yen Vinh nearby. The Intruders were led by Commander Leo Twyman Profilet, the CO of VA-196 and a veteran of the Korean War where he had flown ninety-eight combat missions in the Skyraider. The Intruders’ route from the coast-in point had been uneventful, with the exception that the cloud base was between 3,000 feet and 5,000 feet and storm clouds were building up. Further along their route, they received indications of launched SAM missiles and observed bursting 85-mm AA fire. Lieutenant (jg) Forrest G. Trembley in the Intruder flown by Lieutenant (jg) Dain V. Scott reported that they had been hit and were advised to reverse course and return to the coast. Trembley transmitted that they were experiencing no difficulty and that they would proceed to the target rather than egress alone. Several SAMs had been launched at this time and a transmission was made, ‘Heads up for the Air Force strike’ which was being conducted in the vicinity of the Intruders’ target. Commander Profilet and Lieutenant Commander William M. Hardman were hit in the target area. As Profilet’s aircraft rolled into a 30-degree dive from 7,500 feet, an SA-2 exploded close by, which badly damaged the aircraft’s starboard wing. A few moments later, the wing came off and the aircraft cart-wheeled towards the ground. The crew ejected and landed close to Hanoi and were quickly captured and taken to the Hanoi Hilton. Profilet and Hardman were on their fifty-ninth mission together when they were shot down. A total of fifty-one SAMs were fired at the Constellation’s aircraft during a series of strikes on this day.
Of the three remaining Intruders of Milestone flight, two of them, flown by Lieutenant Commander Jimmy Lee Buckley and his bombardier-navigator Lieutenant Robert L. Flynn and Lieutenant (jg) Dain V. Scott and Lieutenant (jg) Forrest G. Trembley, became separated from the deputy leader in the other aircraft but were tracked on his radar screen and those of an orbiting E-2 Hawkeye and on the Constellation itself. Flynn was well-known throughout his air wing for carrying his cornet with him on combat missions with which to sound the US Cavalry charge into a keyed microphone just before roll-in. The two Intruders flew north-east away from the target, but instead of turning out to sea, they continued heading north-east until they crossed into China, almost 110 miles from Hanoi. It was possible that low cloud and thunderstorms forced them to head further north than had been planned and they apparently missed their pre-planned turning points. Whatever the cause, when the aircraft crossed into Chinese airspace they were attacked and shot down by Chinese MiG-19s and the event was loudly proclaimed on Peking Radio.
On 31 August, on the last day of the month, the Oriskany dispatched ten A-4E Skyhawks from VA-163 ‘Saints’ and VA-164 ‘Ghost Riders’ against a railway bridge at Vat Cach Thuong near Haiphong. A concerted campaign had started the previous day to isolate Haiphong, through which about 85 per cent of the North’s imports arrived. As the ships bringing in the supplies could not be attacked or the harbour mined, the only alternative was to try to cut all routes out of the city. About thirteen miles south-west of Haiphong on the approach to the target, the formation encountered a volley of SAMs. One of the missiles exploded directly in the path of Lieutenant Commander Hugh Allen Stafford and his wingman Lieutenant (jg) David Jay Carey. Stafford was flying at about 16,000 feet and the force of the explosion blew him out of the cockpit of his aircraft still strapped to his ejection seat. Fortunately, his seat separated and his parachute deployed automatically, and although badly injured, he was lucky to survive at all. Lieutenant Carey, who was on his first mission over North Vietnam, was also in trouble. His engine wound down and the rear end of his aircraft was on fire. He ejected from the aircraft and, like his leader, was quickly captured. A few minutes after the first two aircraft went down, the aircraft of Lieutenant Commander Richard Clark Perry, the leader of the VA-164 element, was hit by another SA-2. Streaming fuel, Lieutenant Commander Perry turned out to sea escorted by two other VA-164 aircraft. About two miles off the coast, the aircraft became uncontrollable and Perry ejected. A SAR helicopter was already on the scene and a helicopter crewman saw Lieutenant Commander Perry hanging limp in his parachute. When he entered the water, he failed to surface, and when the para-rescue man reached him, he was found to be dead, probably from a chest wound. As the parachute lines were twisted around the pilot’s body and the North Vietnamese were firing mortars at the helicopter from the shore, Lieutenant Commander Perry’s body had to be left in the water.
On 24 October 1967, seven hours after Kep airfield was bombed, the navy and air force made a coordinated attack on Phuc Yen, the first time this major air base had been attacked. The raid was accompanied by several flights of Phantoms that flew CAPs over various points in North Vietnam. Radio Hanoi announced that in the afternoon eight US warplanes had been shot down and that a number of pilots had been captured. Two of the losses were F-4B Phantoms of VF-151 ‘Vigilantes’ from the Coral Sea. One was crewed by pilot Commander Charles R. Gillespie, the CO of VF-151, who led one of the Phantom sections and his NFO (Naval Flight Officer or navigator), Lieutenant (jg) Richard C. Clark, the other, by Lieutenant (jg)s Robert F. Frishmann and Earl G. Lewis. These were brought down by SAM missiles during a strike on the Hanoi, Haiphong and Vinh Phuc region of North Vietnam.
As the raid was flying down Thud Ridge, still 13 miles north of the target, it was engaged by a SAM battery. Commander Gillespie saw one of the SA-2s and dived to 14,000 feet to avoid it, but moments later, the aircraft was hit by another missile that the crew had not spotted. The aircraft burst into flames and the hydraulics failed, leading to loss of control. The cockpit filled with smoke, the intercom went dead and Gillespie had to use hand signals to order abandonment. He ejected safely but was not able to tell if his NFO escaped from the aircraft, although other members of the section reported seeing two parachutes. It seems that Lieutenant Clark did not appear in any of the PoW camps. The other members of Gillespie’s flight remained overhead near Thud Ridge to provide cover for any possible rescue attempt. About fifteen minutes later, another Phantom was hit by a SAM. Lieutenant Robert F. Frishmann was flying straight and level at 10,000 feet when it was damaged by a missile that exploded behind the Phantom. One of the engines failed and caught fire, but before the crew could take any action, another SA-2 exploded just in front of the aircraft. The Phantom immediately rolled out of control and both crew ejected. Frishmann thought his NFO had been killed, but the pair met up after more than four hours on the ground. However, both men were found and captured by the Vietnamese. Frishmann’s arm was badly injured when the SAM exploded, but a North Vietnamese doctor operated on the arm removing the elbow joint and shortening the arm by eight inches.