On 1 July 1972 I was number 4 in Brushy Flight, attacking a target in Kep, North Vietnam. As we exited the target area, our flight was targeted by a Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) from our left 7 o'clock position. This SAM was tracking differently than a typical SA-2. The typical SA-2 traveled in a lead-pursuit flight path, not too difficult to defeat if you can see it. this SAM was different. It was traveling in a lag-pursuit flight path, aiming directly at out flight.
We separated into two sections of two aircraft, about 1000 feet apart, with each wingman flying in close formation with his lead aircraft. As number 4, I flew in formation on the left wing with Brushy 3, the deputy flight lead. I watched the missile track toward our section in my left rear-view mirror. It was heading directly for me. As it was about to hit me, I flinched to the left and was immediately rocked by the sound of the explosion as it hit Brushy 3.
Fortunately, Brushy 3 did not go down. The missile detonated as a proximity burst. His aircraft was leaking fluids, but continued to fly. Because he had lost his utility hydraulic system Brushy 3 could not refuel, so he would have to land at DaNang, South Vietnam, if his fuel supply lasted. I was assigned to escort him to DaNang. Miraculously, his fuel supply lasted, and he landed with an approach-end engagement on runway 17 left while I landed on runway 17 right.
After refueling, I led another F-4 in formation back to Ubon. The reason I led the flight, at low altitude, was because the other aircraft could not pressurize. It had taken a small arms round through the rear canopy, right through the back-seater's heart.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial – The Wall – has panels that list the KIA (Killed In Action) casualties in chronological order of their loss. Panel W1, the last panel, encompasses the date July 30, 1972. My name is not on that panel, because my military Brothers, Sid Fulgham, J.D. Allen and the crew of Purple 28, saved my life.
I was Number Four in Walnut Flight, four F-4s on a strike deep into enemy territory north of Hanoi. The flight was being led by our new squadron commander, Sid Fugham, on his first mission leading a strike over Hanoi, and J.D. was the deputy flight lead, Walnut Three. Enroute to the target, we faced heavy reactions. SAMs (surface-to-air missiles), AAA (anti-aircraft artillery) and MiG calls (enemy aircraft). As we egressed the target area over the Gulf of Tonkin, Lead called for a fuel check, and that was when we all realized that my fuel was significantly below the other airplanes in the flight. In fact, I wouldn’t have enough fuel to make it to the post-strike refueling point.
Sid was out of ideas, and that’s when J.D. went into action. With Sid’s concurrence, J.D. took command of the flight, sent us over to the emergency GUARD frequency, and made contact with the refueling tankers. One of them, Purple 28, volunteered to fly up into enemy territory to meet us. That crew put their airplane, their lives, and their careers on the line to save me.
Back in 1972, navigation was not the GPS precision it is today. The INS (inertial navigation system) position on the F-4 could be off by as much as 10 miles for every hour of operation. The only way to roughly determine our position was radial/DME from a TACAN located on a Navy ship, far away. J.D. asked the tanker for his position from the TACAN, then gave the tanker a heading to meet up with us. Picking the tanker up on radar, J.D. told him when to begin his turn to a heading to match ours, and told him to start a descent. In the meantime, he directed me to start a half-nozzle descent.
My WSO and I were running through the Preparation For Ejection checklist, and I was periodically reporting my fuel state. The last reading I recall seeing was 0 on the tape and 0030 on the counter. About two minutes fuel. With fuel gauge tolerance, perhaps a bit more, perhaps less.
Up until this time I had simply been flying the headings, speeds and altitudes J.D. had assigned. I was pretty much operating on mental autopilot. The next thing I knew, I looked up and saw the refueling boom of the tanker directly above me, flying a "toboggan maneuver". I opened up my refueling door and immediately heard the rush of JP-4 entering my aircraft. And I knew I wouldn’t need to step over the side on this mission.
I think of J.D. and the tanker crew, and silently thank them, every time I hold my wife, my kids, my grandkids. If they hadn’t stepped up to the plate when they did, I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have made it home. When you pull the ejection handle over shark-infested enemy-controlled water, there are a thousand things that can happen to prevent a happy outcome.
So on this coming July 30th, I want to once again thank my Brothers, the brave tanker crew, Sid Fulgham, and J.D. Allen.
My Last F-4 Flight
In 1973 I was assigned to the 44th Tactical Fighter Squadron, at Kadena Air Base, in Okinawa. The squadron was on long-term TDY to CCK Air Base, in Taiwan. I was going through squadron check-out in the F-4C, and had flown a gunnery mission to Ie Shima bombing range in Okinawa.
For several weeks before July 5th I had been feeling unusually tired. I still ran five miles every day, and put in a lot of hours at the squadron on my additional duties as Life Support Officer, as well as filling in for the Admin Officer, who was TDY. But, naturally, as a self-designated Iron Man, I didn't check in with a flight surgeon.
On this flight, I was feeling really, really weak. During the pitch-out during our arrival back at the base, I was blacking out from two Gs! After we taxied in to park, I couldn't climb out of the airplane by myself, and an ambulance crew took me to the hospital. Turned out I had Mononucleosis.
After I was released from the hospital, I was placed on non-flying duties for several months, and during that time I was reassigned to Wing Headquarters in a desk job. Although I continued to fly after I recovered, it was in the T-39 Sabreliner, not the F-4. So I never had the closure of a "champagne flight" in the F-4.