Loss of Oyster One: The “Bloodiest Day”
The loss of Oyster One Alpha - Major Bob Lodge, USAF
May 20, 2012 updated on December 5, 2015
Addendum March 27, 2014: Why didn’t Lodge bail out? Combat Tree?
Added at the end of this story
Major Bob Lodge, USAF, Lynbrook, New York, a 1964 graduate of the US Air Force Academy (USAFA), and member of the 555th “Triple Nickel” Fighter Squadron (FS), 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing (TRW), Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base (RTAFB), spent two tours in the Indochina War, flew 186 combat missions in fighters, and shot down three enemy MiGs.
On May 10, 1972, his callsign Oyster One, flying an F-4 Phantom II jet, was shot down over North Vietnam by enemy MiG-19s and killed. His backseater and Weapons Systems Officer (WSO), Capt. Roger Locher bailed out and was rescued some 23 days later west of Hanoi in what was among the most harrowing rescue missions of the war. I wish to note now, as this applies later on in the report, that should the two fliers have bailed out and needed rescue, Lodge would be call sign Oyster One Alpha, and Locher Oyster One Bravo.
On September 30, 1977, Major Lodge’s remains were returned to US control.
By my count, Lodge received five Silver Stars, seven Distinguished Flying Crosses with a “V” for valor, and nine Air Medals as an F-105 “Thud” and F-4 Phantom II pilot. Those who knew him and flew with him considered him among the very best fighters pilots in the USAF. He wore the USAF’s senior pilot’s wings and the basic parachutist badge.
I was introduced to Robert Lodge by listening to a stirring speech given by General Mark Welsh III when he spoke to the USAFA cadets on November 1, 2011. General Welsh was and at this writing remains the commander, US Air Forces, Europe. He has been nominated to be the next chief of staff, Air Force (CSAF). His speech, about 45 minutes long, is available on the internet. I commend this speech to every American. It is inspiring, gripping and reflects a a man who is a great leader and patriot.
General Welsh said he went to visit the Academy’s Graduate Memorial Wall. The first time he did so, he came across a name he did not recognize. Welsh said this:
"It was Robert Lodge. Anybody heard of him? I went and looked him up. Robert Lodge is a member of the Class of '64; graduated from (Cadet Squadron 02), which I got the chance to visit this morning."
“Lodge was killed in Vietnam May 10, 1972, when a MiG-19 attacked his F-4 Phantom fighter. He was a five-time Silver Star recipient and received the Academy's Jabara Award for Airmanship posthumously in 1974.
"Robert Lodge is part of your Air Force heritage. Visit the wall. Pick a name. Learn something about who you are."
I decided to follow General Welsh’s advice. I had not heard of Major Lodge, and, as I would learn by researching him and his colleagues, I did not know as much about the Linebacker I bombing operation over North Vietnam (NVN) as I should have, even though I was flying aboard electronic reconnaissance aircraft mostly over Laos at the time of the campaign.
Ritchie started with a quote from General George S. Patton:
“We fight wars with machinery, but we win wars with people.”
This is so true of the American warrior.
As General Welsh said, “Robert Lodge is part of our Air Force heritage.” And Robert Lodge is part of a much larger story about the Vietnam War. He lost his life on May 10, 1972, and I aim to put his sacrifice into context. Therefore, I am going to summarize as quickly but as meaningfully as I can what got him to that fateful day. I feel we owe Bob Lodge and all the others at least that.
You may recall that the Indochina war officially began in 1965. For purposes of this report, I need to skip the early and harrowing years of the war and get to 1968 as fast as I can.
F-105 Thunderchiefs, “Thuds,” refueling during Operation Rolling Thunder
It is appropriate to remind readers that the US 2nd Air Division which evolved into the 7th Air Force, the USN in the form of Task Force 77 (TF 77) in the Gulf of Tonkin, and the Republic of Vietnam Air Force (VNAF) conducted Operation Rolling Thunder, a gradual and sustained aerial bombardment campaign against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or North Vietnam (NVN). Rolling Thunder began on March 2, 1965 and ended on November 1, 1968.
It’s objectives had a profound impact on the NVN. The effort was designed to, among other things, destroy North Vietnam's transportation system, industrial base, and air defenses, and to cease the flow of men and material into South Vietnam. This bomb damage assessment (BDA) photo shows the damage done, for example, to the Gia Lam Railway Yard in the NVN following a bombing mission.
There were all kinds of politics in the US and restrictions on air operations imposed by Washington during the campaign, but it nonetheless was hitting at NVN’s heartland and disrupting enemy objectives, the principle one being to take possession of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) and create a united Vietnam under communist rule.
This is a general view of the first meeting between the United States delegation, left, and North Vietnam delegation on the Vietnam peace talks at the international conference hall in Paris, May 13, 1968
By April 1968, the North Vietnamese (NVN) said it was interested in negotiations. Preliminary negotiations began in May 1968.
The NVN’s main objective was to get a stop to the bombing. The US listened, but wanted the NVN to stop its operations in the RVN. So the negotiations were stalled and totally ineffective. The truth was that the NVN was not at all interested in peace, but needed the bombing of the NVN to stop so it could prepare to invade the RVN without having to face all that bombing, and then execute such an invasion. The airpower employed during Rolling Thunder made huge impression on the the NVN.
One result was that the Paris Peace Talks began in January 1969 with representatives from the US, the RVN, and the NVN with Viet Cong (VC) present. In return for the end to the bombing, the NVN promised to respect the DMZ, negotiate in good faith, terminate bombardment of RVN cities. The NVN fulfilled none of its promises yet the US did stop the bombing in 1968 and would not resume them until 1972.
The net result was that the NVN could refresh, refurbish, resupply and prepare for its invasion of the RVN without having the burden of American bombing in the NVN. Shipping supplies across the DMZ and by ship was tough.
So the NVN used and significantly upgraded the famed Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and Cambodia to do that and to continuously funnel new troops to the south. It now had the advantage of moving to multiple passes into Laos from the NVN without fear of any bombing. Its logistics flow then had the cover of dense jungle in Laos and a US commitment not to fight with ground forces in Laos. Except for the airpower used against the trail, the NVN were virtually home free in sending forces and supplies to its forces in the RVN. Take note of the Ban Raving Pass. The NVN could send its supplies and manpower virtually to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) without any threat from the air or ground and then cross into Laos.
It is worth noting that in the fall 1969 Kissinger assembled a planning team whose task it was to plan an all out punishing blow against North Vietnam. He has been quoted saying, “I can’t believe a little fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesn’t have a breaking point.” This philosophy would ultimately bear fruit, as you will see in a moment.
The negotiations went nowhere. They went nowhere for four years, from May 1968 through to 1972. Some called the peace negotiations the “dialog of the deaf.” Indeed, Henry Cabot Lodge resigned as the chief negotiator in late November 1969, taking effect on December 20, 1969. So did his deputy, Lawrence E. Walsh. They were frustrated with the lack of progress. The negotiations became deadlocked by February 1970.
President Nixon confers with his adviser Henry Kissinger, right, after Kissinger's return from a week of secret negotiations in Paris with North Vietnam's Le Duc Tho. This photo was taken on November 25, 1972 and is shown for illustrative purposes only, since the secret negotiations actually began in August 1969.
The Paris Peace negotiations were deadlocked by February 1970. Nixon had already become fed up with the Paris negotiations, and told Kissinger to conduct secret negotiations, which would be with Le Duc Tho. They began secretly in August 1969. Nixon gave up on just about everything with regard to previous objectives in Vietnam except that he insisted that President Nguyen Van Thieu remain in charge of the RVN, which would make the presence of NVA forces in the RVN illegal, and therefore forced reunification impossible. The NVN would not accept this, and indeed would never accept it, despite what its representatives might have said and promised over the years ahead.
Kissinger got no where as well. Le Duc Tho would not agree to any US ideas, the dominant one being that Thieu remain in charge of the RVN. Tho would not move off that dime until October 1972, for reasons you shall learn soon.
It is important to note here that the politics, and behind-the-scenes diplomatic activities occurring during these years are mind-boggling, most certainly worthy of a good deal of detailed research not present here, though I will comment that it is hard to understand how so many smart people on the US side could make so many mistakes.
On May 14, 1971, the NVN Politburo directed that a major offensive against the RVN occur in 1972. It was to be an all out attack, one that would employ virtually the entire NVA. The plan was ready in June 1971. On March 23, the US cancelled further peace negotiations because of a lack of progress, and boycotted them. Remember, still no bombing of the NVN at this time.
Reconnaissance over NVN just north of the DMZ revealed that the NVA was stockpiling weapons along the DMZ, indicating a major NVA invasion was imminent. As a result, President Nixon ordered Operation Proud Deep Alpha, executed for five days between December 26-30, 1971. Some 1,025 USAF and USN sorties were flown over North Vietnam. The missions were flown more to deter the invasion than do significant damage to key targets.
The attacks were against POL storage facilities, warehouse areas, supply camps, truck parks, SAM sites, and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) batteries south of the 20th parallel, shown roughly by the red line, to wit south of the capital, Hanoi, and the main port, Haiphong. Indeed, most of the bombing was to remain south of the 18th parallel, shown by the blue line, between it and the DMZ, the latter shown by the green line. So as you can see, the emphasis was on destroying the enemy that was butted up near the DMZ ready to invade.
But only five days bombing was not going to shut down North Vietnam, impact its will to fight on, or destroy its massive invasion force. After December 30, the no-bombing policy returned in effect, in retrospect, a waste of time and effort.
The inevitable came March 30, 1972. The NVA invaded the RVN initially with about 30,000 troops supported by regiments of tanks and artillery, mobile radar controlled anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) weapons and portable surface to air missiles (SAM). The invasion was called the Nguyen Hue Offensive, or Easter Offensive. It began with pinpoint artillery attacks and the enemy troop count intensified rapidly to estimated levels of some 200,000 troops.
By early April 1972, the NVA had committed 12 of its 13 regular combat divisions. They chose a time when the monsoon weather would make flying hard. They also surprised the US, and converted their so called insurgency to a full blown conventional war. Indeed the US expected an invasion attempt, but not of this size. In short, the US was not prepared.
The NVA experienced early successes, nearly taking over the northern Quang Tri Provnce of the RVN. It looked like the province would fall. It did not. This July 28, 1972 photo above shows South Vietnamese troops moving through Quang Tri City, what was left of it, headed to take on the enemy a bit to the north.
There was no way Nixon was going to accept this invasion. However, Nixon faced reelection in November 1972. Therefore he wanted to keep the withdrawal from the RVN on schedule. There were, at the time of the NVA invasion, about 70,000 US troops left in the ARVN from a high of 500,000. Nixon decided to counter the enemy invasion with employment of massive air power.
As a result, the US initiated Operation Freedom Train on April 5, 1972 against NVA supply concentrations south of the 18th parallel. It was a Naval air operation over the southern portions of North Vietnam from where most of the enemy forces and their supplies were coming into the RVN. Aircraft involved in Freedom Train operations were from the carriers Hancock, Coral Sea, Kitty Hawk and Constellation. While that was to be the rule, the missions were usually flown between the 17th and 19th parallels, with special attacks authorized above the 18th. By the end of April, attacks were authorized throughout the region below 20-25’ N. Aircraft also attacked SAM sites defending stockpiles north of the DMZ.
On April 16, 1972, USAF F-4 Phantom IIs went into North Vietnam. Furthermore, B-52s with fighter escorts bombed fuel storage tanks at Haiphong, followed by Naval aircraft attacking a tank farm and warehouse complex just outside Hanoi. Interestingly, the Paris Peace talks resumed on April 27, 1972, but the US and RVN suspended the talks on May 4, 1972 indefinitely. Kissinger kept up his secret negotiations.
I need to take a break here. For purposes of this report --- remember we started remembering Bob Lodge, Oyster One Alpha — so I will be talking about USAF F-4 Phantom IIs against North Vietnamese Soviet-made MiG-17s, MiG-19s, and MiG-21s in air-to-air combat during the Linebacker I air campaign. The Navy and Marines were deeply involved in the air campaign as well. In fact, the Navy, because of its Top Gun fighter pilot training program, fared better against the NVN Air Force than did the USAF. My apologies to the Navy and Marines for leaving them out of most of the rest of my discussion. I did so only to keep this report manageable.
A note on Top Gun; forget the movie. The Navy set up the program in 1969 at Miramar, California. It grew out of the bad experiences with the air-to-air missiles. All services flying in Rolling Thunder took unacceptable losses, about 1,000 aircraft lost from 1955-68. The USAF chose to upgrade the F-4. The Navy concluded it was giving its pilots inadequate training. So the Top Gun program was established.
Let’s take a brief look at all four aircraft before we get going.
The Soviet MiG-17 was a major player for the North Vietnamese in the Vietnam War. It carried one 37 mm cannon, two 23 mm Cannons and up to 1,100 lbs. of external stores on two pylons. She could fly at 711 mph at 10,000 ft. The ability of the enemy pilots flying this old aircraft to shoot down US fighter aircraft such as the F-105 and the others flabbergasted US military planners. The enemy pilots loved this airplane.
The Soviet MiG-19 was a second generation, single seat, twin jet-engined fighter, the first Soviet fighter capable of supersonic speeds at level flight. She was introduced to the Vietnam War in 1969, at Yen Bai. Most MiG-19s supplied to the NVN came from China, in limited numbers, thought not to exceed 54. She saw extensive combat in US Linebacker I and Linebacker II bombing over the NVN in 1972. She could not carry missiles, but had two 23 mm (later two 30 mm) cannons in the wings.
The Soviet MiG-21 was a supersonic fighter, early versions seen as second-generation, later third-generation. The pilots called these, “Blue Bandits,” to make sure they knew exactly what they would be up against. This was a powerful aircraft (Mach 2.05 max speed), and could fly to a max altitude of about 62,000 ft. But, she was designed for short range (981 miles range) ground-controlled intercept (GCI) missions, which would grow to be a huge vulnerability. They first arrived directly from the USSR in April 1966. She carried two ATOLL air-to-air missiles, which were very accurate and reliable between 1,000 - 2,000 yards. She also had one internal 30 mmm cannon, could carry two missiles or two 1,100 lb. bombs. The pilots liked her maneuverability and climb, though there were pilots who preferred the MiG-17 because of her better visibility and maneuverability.
This is a USAF F-4C rolling out on takeoff configured for an escort role with Sparrow air-to-air missiles under the fuselage, and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and extra field tanks under the wings. She was a tandem two-seat, twin engined, all-weather long range supersonic fighter and fighter bomber. Her top speed was Mach 2.2 and she was the main air superiority fighter for both the Air Force and Navy. She also was used extensively as a bomber. She had enormous thrust, a huge advantage to either engage or disengage. She was not quite as agile as her adversaries. Her greatest weakness was she had no cannons. Planners at the time believed that guns would not be needed in supersonic aerial combat.
That was not a good decision, as most dogfights were at subsonic speeds. In 1967, external gunpods were mounted on the aircraft but the gerry rigging did not work out well; the guns were not accurate. In the late 1960s, a 20 mm M61 Vulcan gun was integrated with the F-4E. The F-4E became the mainstay for the USAF.
The F-4 was developed for the Navy, and became operational with VF-121 on December 30, 1960. The USAF checked it out and a variant was developed called the F-4C, ready in 1963. The USAF flew it in its first combat sortie as part of Operation Pierce Arrow on August 5, 1964. But Navy pilots, Lt (jg) Terence M. Murphy and Ensign Ronald Fegan achieved the F-4’s first aerial victory over a Chinese-made MiG-17.
Most F-4s were outfitted in Vietnam with the AIM-7 Sparrow radar guided missile, an example shown here. Steve Ritchie would comment later that during the war, over 200 Sparrow radar guided missiles were fired and they never left the F-4. Of those that did, the kill rate was 0.11, or 11 of out 100 were victorious, in short, terrible.
The F-4 also left a black trail of smoke, detectable at great distances. Many pilots would turn on one after-burner and leave the other one off to reduce the problem. She was also a heavy aircraft, often called “the brick,” but a two engine brick that gave her some good bounce for the pound and incredible acceleration and speed, crucial when breaking off an attack or chasing a target. All this said, the F-4’s performance in Vietnam early on left a great deal to be desired.
On-scene commanders and pilots made a lot of tactics adjustments and intelligence support to the fighters over NVN improved greatly.
The great advantage for the US was that American pilots were much more skilled than their NVNAF counterparts. Use of a pilot and a radar weapons systems officer on the aircraft gave the fighter great advantages.
Both the Navy and the USAF also employed the Sidewinder AIM-9 heat-seeking missile, a graphic example shown here. It was a short range missile, but like the AIM-7, it also demonstrated less than desirable performance.
Both missiles frequently missed their targets and were subject to countermeasures. All this said, people worked feverishly to improve both missiles.
All these issues and others not mentioned here notwithstanding, the F-4 was the US’s dogfighter, she had incredible acceleration and climb rates, and a great inertial navigation system.
With that background, let’s get started. By way of summary, the Paris Peace Negotiations began in May 1968 and broke off in March 1972. The NVA launched a massive invasion of the RVN on March 30, 1972. USAF-USN Linebacker I bombing of the NVN officially began on May 9, 1972, but prior to that, the Navy launched Operation Freedom Train over the NVN south of 18 degrees north and then up to 20 degrees on April 5, 1972. USAF B-52 bombing of the NVN also resumed in April.
The first USAF F-4s to enter the NVN did so on April 16, 1972, Bascoe flight of four.
Ten miles away from this fight, the Bascoe Flight leader, Fred Olmsted and his wingman were chasing two MiG-21s, known lovingly as “Blue Bandits” to differentiate them from the less capable MiG-17s and MiG-19s. Unexpectedly, the lead MiG-21 dove and flew out of the fight, leaving his wingman alone against two F-4s. After considerable maneuvering, Olmsted approached his target from the rear, close enough for a shot, and fired his Sparrow. The missile hit the MiG-21 in the right wing, but the MiG pilot was able to continue flying. Olmstead continued the chase, fired a second missile, but it did not track. The third missile away, he hit his target and killed him.
This was by some accounts the most active day of dogfighting thus far in the war. The North had only 62 MiGs, and on this day, it lost two of those.
Between April 4 and May 23, 1972, 124 additional B-52 long range strategic bombers arrived in Guam, bringing the combined total of B-52s in Guam and Thailand to 210, more than one half the Strategic Air Command’s (SAC) total force of B-52s. This photo credited to Corbis shows them parked at Anderson AFB, Guam in June 1972. Furthermore, the US increased its F-4 Phantom II fighter force in theater from 185 on March 30, 1972 to 374 by May 13.
It was now the NVN’s turn to be surprised. It had focused on a major ground campaign, and had underestimated what massive air power the US would bring to the table and what a toll such airpower could take on the NVN and NVA. It had probably also not foreseen that air power would mine the Haiphong Harbor and that there would be a resumption of such lethal bombing of Hanoi. The NVN may also have not understood how fast the US could get so much air power to the fight.
Following meetings with the NVN in Paris, on May 4, 1972, President Nixon directed Admiral Moorer to develop the attack plan which resulted in the Linebacker I operation. That plan was already well in the works.
An F-4D of the 435th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, armed with two 2,000-pound GBU-10 Paveway I laser guided bombs (LGBs) over North Vietnam in September 1972.
Linebacker I had two major objectives. First, stop the offensive. Second, take the war to the enemy’s heartland, to wit, Hanoi and Haiphong. However, the US sought to destroy the enemy’s war-making capabilities without destroying the will of the people, arguably a mistake.
The president announced the decision to the American public on May 8, 1972. Linebacker I would be waged until October 23, 1972. During that time, the US dropped 155,000 tons of bombs on NVN roads, bridges, railroads, and power facilities. The Haiphong harbor was mined.
The NVN was jolted by the campaign. Adding insult to injury, neither the USSR or China opposed the campaign other than through supplies and equipment replenishments. Ultimately, the 1972 Easter Offensive failed. By mid-September the NVN Politburo had decided to seek a negotiated settlement. But, the NVN remained steadfastly against President Theiu remaining in power and still wanted to use negotiations to get the Americans out of the air war business in order to prepare for later operations in the RVN. In fact Linebacker I had essentially neutralized the NVN’s ability to wage offensive warfare until he Americans left.
Throughout September and October 1972, the NVN vigorously tried to get a negotiated settlement by November 1972. Nixon would not halt the bombing. By early October, the NVN dropped their demand for Thieu’s resignation, they accepted Nixon’s proposal for a cease-fire, which would have left NVA forces in the RVN, and they agreed to release the prisoners of war (POW).
Very briefly, the RVN started changing the agreement, the NVN found the changes unacceptable, and on December 14, 1972, talks between the two sides broke down. Nixon had committed himself to an end to the war, so this breakdown was not well received in Washington. Kissinger issued an ultimatum to Hanoi threatening NVN with “grave consequences” if it did not return to the negotiating table within 72 hours. On December 14, Nixon ordered the reseeding of Haiphong harbor and ordered the JCS to prepare a three day “maximum effort” bombing campaign to begin within 72 hours.
Linebacker II was born, and proceeded from December 18-29, 1972. Some 729 B-52 missions were flown over the NVN, dropping 15,237 tons of ordnance on 18 industrial and 14 military targets. Fighter bombers brought in another 5,000 tons of bombs. Some 212 more B-52 missions were flown over the RVN against NVA and VC targets. The NVN experienced heavy damage to its infrastructure.
The NVN returned to the negotiating table and the Paris Peace Accords were signed on January 27, 1973. Neither the NVN or RVN had any intention of abiding by these accords, except that the NVN did release US POWs. As you know, the NVA took over most of the RVN in the ensuing two years and captured Saigon on April 30, 1975. The war was over and the NVN had reunited the two Vietnams into one, just as had been their plan throughout.
Well, we have covered a great deal of ground to put Bob Lodge's mission on May 10, 1972, the beginning of Linebacker I, into context.
Linebacker I officially began on May 9, 1972.
Bob Lodge and his backseater, Roger Locher, leading Oyster flight into the NVN, flew Lodge’s last mission on May 10, 1972. The History Channel, in its “Dogfights Season 2: The Bloodiest Day” video, presents you a blow by blow animation of the massive air fights that occurred on this say. Its video starts like this:
“In the air war over Vietnam, one day stands out among all the rest: May 10, 1972. The full fury of American air power was unleashed on North Vietnam. More North Vietnamese MiGs are shot down on this day than on any other day of the war.”
The day began at 0730 hours, May 10, 1972, when 30 USN fighters from the USS Constellation launched the first assault against North Vietnam. The intent was to cripple the communist invasion of the South, named the Nguyen Hue Offensive, that had begun on March 30, 1972.
A-6 Intruder aboard USS Constellation, 1968, crewman signals ready for launch
A-7 Corsair at full power on catapult, USS Constellation, 1968.
The Navy employed A6 Intruder and A7 Corsair bombers targeted petroleum storage tanks in the port of Haiphong, which the Navy had also mined. In short, they were to lay down some iron.
F-4 Phantoms of VF-92 flew escort. Here you see a VF-92 Silver King F-4J Phantom II launching from the Constellation in 1973.
Two Navy F-4s received MiG warnings to the northeast of Hanoi and peeled away from the bombers and jumped two MiGs taking off from Kep Airfield.
From this point on, the North Vietnamese would lose more MiGs in one day than on any other day in the war.
This shows the location of Kep Airfield. Note how the map is divided for the areas around Hanoi and Haiphong. These were known as Route Packs. Route Pack 6B and 4 were Navy territory, while 6A and 5 were Air Force land. As a general rule, the Navy handled Haiphong while the USAF handled Hanoi.
The Navy F-4s rapidly descended to 6,000 ft. to as low as 500 ft. off the Kep field runway. The MiGs got airborne, the Phantoms engaged chasing at tree top level, and shot one down. They were then jumped by two more MiGs, so we have three now. After a short fight, the two Phantoms called off the fight and returned to the Constellation.
This photo shows a bombing attack on May 17, 1972 against Haiphong. You get the idea.
In the mean time, the Navy attacked the Haiphong petrol tanks and destroyed them. Once done, all hands returned to their ships.
The day’s attacks were coordinated, and USAF fighters congregated over Laos and refueled, employing six KC-135 tankers. The strike package was composed of 32 F-4 Phantoms, while 28 more flew escort, with about 60 more aircraft flying support missions such as jamming and intelligence collection.
This is when Oyster flight of four Phantoms from the famous Udorn RTAFB-based 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, known as the “Triple Nickel Squadron,” flew into North Vietnam toward Hanoi from the southwest at low altitude to avoid radar. Its job was to patrol the airspace ahead of the strike package, working to make sure no MiGs were posing a threat. Two other F-4s, Balter Flight, flew behind them and above them. John Markle with Stephen Eaves flew Oyster 2. Steve Ritchie flew Oyster 3 with Chuck Debellvue. Bob Lodge flew Oyster 1, the flight lead, with Roger Locher.
Ritchie would later say that Lodge and Locher were considered by their colleagues to be the best fighter crew in Southeast Asia.
The idea was to allow enemy radar to spot Balter Flight with a view toward luring enemy fighters out so Oyster Flight could engage them by surprise.
Four MiGs approached from west of Hanoi at 15,000. Oyster Flight moved to engage. Lodge took the first two shots with his missiles. Then Markle fired. His first was a dud, but the second one went off to the races. Ritchie locked on to a third MiG.
Lodge’s first missile ran out of fuel. The second missile destroyed the target. Markle’s missile also hit its target. Ritchie’s target saw what was happening and broke away from the fight. Ritchie’s missile burned out. So Ritchie takes on the fourth MiG, approaching him head-on. The MiG flew right by him, over his canopy. Ritchie does a very rapid 180 turn while the MiG kept flying straight. He fires his first missile but it fails to track. The second missile exploded under the belly of the target and destroyed it. That’s three out of four MiGs gone.
In short order, Lodge found a fifth MiG and engaged him. Lodge got too close to use his missiles. Markle flew behind Lodge to protect his rear. Suddenly two MiG-19s popped into the fight in an ambush and flew in between Markle and Lodge. The MiG-19s had cannons and began firing at Lodge. Lodge’s right engine was hit, the Phantom caught fire and started spinning out of control in a flat spin. The F-4 rolls on its back, the fire spreads, Locher punched out but Lodge apparently could not escape, and went down with his ship — I will note in a moment experts now think Lodge chose not to escape, but instead go down with his aircraft.
Addendum March 27, 2014: Why didn’t Lodge bail out? Combat Tree?
Interesting followup story on this at the end of this report.
Markle hit the deck to escape, and the rest of Oyster Flight beat feet out of this area.
Locher’s chute opened, he landed deep in enemy territory, and he would evade the enemy for 23 days before being rescued.
As all this way going on, the strike aircraft kept heading toward their targets. One of these targets was the Paul Doumer bridge east of Hanoi, known to the North Vietnamese as the Long Bien Bridge. Four flights of F-4s , 16 in all, headed to it. The story of the American attacks on this bridge is an incredible one, with countless attacks launched against it all failing to bring it down. But these F-4s had a new weapon, the laser guided munition (LGM), known as the “smart bomb.” This bridge was important because destroying it would seriously affect the ability of the enemy to move supplies to its troops engaged in South Vietnam.
Goatee was the lead fighter, with electro-optic or television guided bombs, called Walleyes. Goatee released his Walleye at 15,000 ft. The rest of the F-4s had LGMs, or Paveways. Goatee’s job was to hit the bridge on the side. Napkin, Biloxi and Jingle flights followed, their job to hit the bridge along its length. Multiple bombs hit their target, and the Doumer Bridge was at long last disabled.
The USAF had completed its mission and headed back to Laos and to Thailand. This brought on the third phase of attacks for the day, once again conducted by the Navy.
Showtime 106 was a Navy Phantom F-4J flown by Lts. Matt Connelly with Tom Blonski, VF-96 “Fighting Falcons.” He escorted the strike group off to his right. The strike group began its attacks against the Hailing railyards. What would happen next, and the Navy F-4 pilots had not expected this, was the most intense MiG air-to-air combat of the war.
Connelly, shown here giving a blow by blow description aboard ship, heard a call from a fellow aviator saying he had MiGs on his tail. Connelly searched for the group, and spotted a Navy A-7 attack aircraft with two MiG-17s on his tail. The MiG-17 was a very able aircraft, but was subsonic. Connelly maneuvered to get behind the MiGs. He fired a missile but the MiG did a very hard turn and flew right over Connelly and past him. As Connelly hit his afterburner to give chase, he saw an incredible sight, as many as 20 MiGs and 25 Navy aircraft (F-4s, A-6s, and A7s) in a fight.
Connelly spotted his MiG-17, and gave chase. The MiG-17s canopy prevented a good view for the pilot and his aircraft rolled very slowly. As a result, Connelly was able to get behind him. The MiG pilot apparently could not see the F-4 behind him and straightened out, enabled Connelly to get off a missile, and he shot and killed him. That’s two MiGs gone.
In the meantime, other dogfights remained underway, and Connelly gets in there to battle. He found himself behind a MiG and he hit his man. As a result of this fight, Connelly was low, so he climbed back up, and spotted yet another MiG. The MiG flew directly under the F-4 and flew up right next to him. Because of his maneuver, Connelly lost airspeed and thrust, and went into a post stall gyration, to wit, it stopped flying. He went into a bad downward spin, out of control.
Connelly had faced this situation in training, so he held his cool: he said, “So just put your hands in your lap, sit back and relax, and enjoy the ride.” He had been trained to know that as the F-4 keeps heading downward, it would gain airspeed and eventually stabilize. And that is just what his Phantom did. He was out of missiles, so he headed back to his carrier.
Yet other F-4s were still engaged. Over Haiphong Harbor, Steve Shoemaker with Keith Crenshaw are flying combat air patrol for an A-7 Ironhand mission, which was a dedicated strike against surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites. A MiG-17 then flew about 100 ft. on top his canopy. Shoemaker had not expected to engage MiGs on this day, but he saw one, and said he felt like a “mad dog in a meat shop” and gave chase.
Interestingly, as Shoemaker chased his targets he remembers seeing aircraft flying all over the place. He then spotted a MiG right on a fellow F-4’s tail, so he broke off his chase to help his comrade. He ended up about 200 ft behind the MiG, but had no guns or he could have taken him down then. He decided to fire a missile at least to scare the MiG pilot. Just as he fired it, another Navy F-4 popped in between him and the MiG, causing Shoemaker’s aircraft to get shaken up by the exhaust. The missile narrowly missed the second F-4.
Shoemaker stabilized and all of a sudden, it seemed like the whole air war had stopped. He heard the others saying they were headed back to their carriers. He felt he missed the fight, but then below him he saw another F-4 with a MiG in pursuit. Shoemaker gave chase, the MiG spotted him, so he broke off from the F-4 he was after to avoid Shoemaker. The two of them flew in descending spirals. Thinking he had lost his chances, he fired a missile anyway and hit his target, which at this time was flying at about tree top level.
Shoemaker realized he was essentially alone out there now, so he decided to head back to the carrier. However, what would he see but a MiG-17 coming in on him. They each maneuvered around, and Shoemaker saw he was running out of gas, so he beat feet and the MiG gave up.
Not discussed here, Randy “Duke” Cunningham (left in photo) with Willie Driscoll (right), Showtime 112, were with them all this same day and scored three MiG kills, to become the Navy’s leading MiG killer. He already had two kills from previous battles so the two became the first American aces of the war, and would be the Navy’s only aces. On this day, however, he was hit by a SAM on his way out and both crew had to eject in the South China Sea. They were rescued.
By the end of the day, the Americans had destroyed 11 MiGs, the most ever shot down in a single day. The Navy scored eight of the 11. In addition, the strike packages did a massive amount of damage to their targets. To my knowledge, the US lost only aircraft and one crew, Bob Lodge, on this day.
So, that was the air battle on May 10, 1972, the “Bloodiest Day” for enemy MiGs.
I want to return to the rescue of Roger Locker, Bob Lodge's back seater, who did eject, as it turns out, safely, and eluded capture for some 22 days, and rescued on the 23rd day. This photo shows Locher after he was rescued.
On June 1, 1972, Steve Ritchie and his backseater Debellvue were on a mission and on their way back to home base, when a warning came over the radio saying MiG-21s were crossing into Laos, heads up to all aircraft. Then, there was a break in the plethora of communication chatter, and Ritchie said a call came out over the air that said this:
“Any Allied aircraft, this is Oyster Zero-One Bravo.”
At first, Ritchie said there were no Oysters in this package. And then he realized it was Roger Locher’s callsign. Ritchie said they answered his call, to which Locher responded:
“Guys, I’ve been down here a long time. Any chance of picking me up?”
Ritchie said they said, “You bet,” after which they promptly returned to Udorn RTAFB.
Still on June 1, Capt. Dale Stovall, staging out of Nakhon Phanom RTAFB, commanded a flight of two Jolly Green search and rescue (SAR) helicopters accompanied by two A-1H Sandy escort and cover fighters, such as shown above. Capt. Ron Smith was Sandy 01. He left the other Sandy and the two Jollies at a high karst which was a "fairly safe" area. area but close to the survivor. It was also fairly close to Yen Bai NVN air-base. There was a MiG who did make a "fly-by" of the formation but did not engage.
After leaving the other Sandy and two Jollies, Smith conducted a low level search across the Red River at about 160 knots. He received heavy 57MM fire. Nonetheless, he was able to talk to and authenticate Locher. Because the enemy fired its 57mm at Smith, he was able to get a good position on Locher because Locher told him he was just north of the guns. While the rescue mission had to be called off because of the 57mm fire and low fuel, Smith was able to identify Locher, and in his mind develop a rescue plan to circumnavigate the guns and get Locher out the next day.
It is worth noting that Locher was located about seven miles from the enemy airfield Yen Bai and 60 miles northwest of Hanoi, making this the deepest rescue attempt ever into enemy territory. Regrettably, the rescue attempt was aborted and all hands returned to home bases. Of course, they were disappointed. But they knew what a fighter Locher was. He was on his third combat tour in Southeast Asia and had flown over 400 combat missions so they hoped to try again.
However, there now as a problem: both the US and enemy knew where Locher was. This probably added some urgency to getting him out as soon as possible.
"I had to decide whether we should risk the loss of maybe a dozen airplanes and crews just to get one man out. Finally I said to myself, Goddamn it, the one thing that keeps our boys motivated is the certain belief that if they go down, we will do absolutely everything we can to get them out. If that is ever in doubt, morale would tumble. That was my major consideration. So I took it on myself. I didn't ask anybody for permission. I just said, 'Go do it!' "
Two officers at NKP did the core of the rescue mission planning. They were Capt. Ron Smith, USAF (left),an A-1H pilot from the 1st Special Operations Squadron (SOS), and Captain Dale Stovall, USAF (right), a HH-53C Jolly Green helicopter pilot from the the 40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron (ARRS), both at NKP. Both Smith and Stovall had flown the June 1 aborted rescue attempt and decided to lead the rescue on June 2 as well. And, as I mentioned, Smith's experiences the previous day enabled him to get a good sense for what the mission plan for June 2 should be. That planning effort was supported by others such as at 7th AF and its subordinate flying and intelligence units, and involved considerably more aircraft and crews than were employed the previous day.
Smith would fly the mission on June 2 as Sandy 01 along with three other Sandies. Stovall would fly his HH-53C Jolly Green as Jolly 30 or Low Jolly, which meant he was designated as the chopper that would pick up Locher. High Jolly flew slightly higher than and off-set from Low Jolly to act as a rescue helicopter in case something happened to the Low Jolly.
Since writing this story, I received a presentation from Ross "Buck" Buchanan who flew Sandy 02 as Smith's wingman for the June 2 mission attempt. The article, "The SAR Rescue of Rodger Locher," is a first hand account from a man who was at the rescue scene and at the recovery base at Udorn RTAFB. I recommend it to you as Buchanan describes in some nice detail what happened as seen by him from from his cockpit.
Capt. Ronald Smith, flying his A-1H, had contact with Locher and guided Stovall’s Jolly Green to the site. Locher emerged from the jungle canopy. Stovall found Locher, the flight engineer put down the jungle penetrator, and they picked up Locher as he was about to be captured. Buchanan's feeling for the mission is that it surprised the enemy in close proximity to the survivor. Buchanan does not think an enemy capture of Locher was imminent, though that might change if this rescue mission failed, which it did not.
The Jolly Greens throttled up and headed out, marrying up with some C-130 refueling tankers, while the fighters flew cover, and brought Locher back to Udorn RTAFB.
General Vogt (left in the photo) flew up from Saigon to meet Locher. The doctors and chaplains took Locher away, but released him to go to the Officers’ Club, in his party suit.
Ritchie would say:
“A total force rescue victory against all odds, with no losses. And when we think about that and analyze it and compare it, say, to the theme of that movie, ‘Platoon,” which suggested that we shoot each other in the back. And then we come to fully understand the effort to which we will go, the resources we will commit, the risks that we will take to rescue one crewmember, one American, one Ally. Isn’t it a very powerful statement about what kind of people we are, about the value that we place on life, on freedom and on the individual.”
After Locher returned to the US, he attended pilot training and was assigned to the Phantom—this time in the front seat as pilot. He flew the F-4 in New Mexico, Alaska, and Florida before transitioning to the F-16 and serving in instructor and flight commander positions. He later played a key role in the early days of the super-secret "black program" that produced the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter. He retired in Sabetha, Kansas, where he resided as of April, 2010.
With regard to Bob Lodge, he, along with Roger Locher, became the first USAF fighter crew to kill a MiG in 1972, on February 21, and it was the first night kill.
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned General Welsh’s comments about Robert Lodge. He said, "Robert Lodge is part of your Air Force heritage.” He inferred that by studying him, and the others on the Air Force Academy Graduate Memorial Wall, we would “Learn something about who (we) are."
I also mentioned a paper done by Brigadier General Steve Ritchie, who was a classmate and friend of Lodge, and the USAF’s only ace pilot of the war. Ritchie drew upon Lodge’s loss and Locher’s rescue to address what kind of Americans so many are, and what kind the rest ought to be. Clearly, Ritchie was inspired by these two fliers, but also by so many he met in his life’s experience.
He started with Vince Lombardi, quoting him telling his players, “Unless you believe in yourself and put everything you have into your pursuits—your mind, your body, your total dedication— what is life worth? The quality of life is in direct proportion to your commitment to excellence, no matter what your field of endeavor.’’ Ritchie would say that it was these qualities that enabled them to rescue Roger Locher.
He then mentioned Air Force General Jim Mullins who would command the USAF’s Logistics Command. Mullins said, “We must not shrink from the pursuit of excellence and quality, because our very survival depends on it.”
Admiral Hyman Rickover, USN, who developed naval nuclear propulsion, known as the “Father of the Nuclear Navy, said, “Survival for America requires the revival of excellence. Internal mediocrity can destroy us just as surely as anything external.”
“The laws of success that govern our society—that keep America strong—are the same laws that care for and nurture our families, our businesses, and our spiritual and intellectual endeavors. If we are going to be the best that we can be, if we are going to realize our most profound dreams, we must be willing to be different in our quest for excellence, because it is a moving target that requires constant sight adjustment. Conformity and satisfaction with mediocrity kill the conscience and deaden the soul of man.”
Ritchie said that the “dedication to superior performance, achievement of a mission, excellence in a cause,” no matter what walk of life, are a state of mind. We cannot afford to “remain average, and be content with stagnation.”
Ritchie quoted Leo Rosten, born in Russia, a teacher, academic, humorist and scriptwriter, who said, “I cannot believe that the purpose of life is merely to be happy. I think the purpose of life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be honorable, to be compassionate. It is, above all, to matter, to count, to stand for something, to have it make some difference that you lived at all.’’
Ritchie stressed the importance of leadership. Leaders, to him, understand people. He asked why do people die for their leaders. He remarked, “The answer is because we admired them. We respected them. We were devoted to them. We loved them. Never, ever, would we have done anything to disappoint them. Our loyalty was absolute, and what is more, that loyalty cut both ways. We knew how much they depended on us to help them achieve their missions. We knew that they genuinely cared about our needs, our hopes, and our dreams. We knew that we could count on them for support, for help when the chips were down, because they understood the real meaning of both leadership and followership.”
He said leaders understand the “power of positive discipline,” something that “inspires and instills a desire to achieve, to win, to be the best one can be. Positive discipline does require sacrifice, but sacrifice is the willing result as subordinates, inspired by their leader, self-impose the highest standards in their professional lives.”
Great leaders make you feel like this:
“I love you not only for what you are, but for what I am when I am with you.”
So, we now know Bob Lodge and a whole lot more.
Addendum March 27, 2014: Why didn’t Lodge bail out? Combat Tree?
I reported earlier, “The MiG-19s had cannons and began firing at (Major Bob) Lodge (Oyster 1). Lodge’s right engine was hit, the Phantom caught fire and started spinning out of control in a flat spin. The F-4 rolls on its back, the fire spreads, Locher punched out but Lodge apparently could not escape, and went down with his ship.”
I have since been alerted to why he might not have ejected. Reason one is he was an unusual F-4 pilot: he had a Special Intelligence Clearance, also known as Special Compartment Intelligence (SCI) clearance. These clearances are held very closely and it is extraordinary for a combat fighter pilot to have such a clearance.
What might he have known? It turns out there was a program then called Combat Tree. Combat Tree was an identification friend or foe (IFF) interrogator that could interrogate enemy MiG transponders. This means he could identify a fighter as enemy long before they had visual contact. A few were installed on F-4D fighters in Lodge’s wing, normally reserved for flight lead.
Marshall Michel’s book, Air Combat over North Vietnam 1965-1972, addressed Combat Tree. Colonel Michel wrote that the equipment was known as the QRC-248 enemy IFF transponder interrogator. Michel wrote:
“(Combat) Tree F-4s could see and identify the MiGs on their own radar screens even at low altitude; now flights of F-4s with Trees could be sent on MIGCAP into North Vietnam, arriving before the strikers and setting up patrols between the MiG airfields and the target to cover the strike and chaff flights as they entered North Vietnam...
“A MIGCAP ideally obtained two Tree F-4Ds in the number 1 and 3 positions and two cannon armed F-4Es as number 2 and number 4; unless absolute unavoidable, there was always one Tree aircraft in the flight.”
Michel went into some detail on the QRC-248 in case you’d like to study it more.
Michel specifically addressed Oyster 1, Major Lodge. He wrote:
“The loss of Oyster 1 had been especially disturbing; he (Lodge) had been the wing weapons officer at Udorn and the most knowledgeable pilot in the wing about the Combat Tree system. He had scored his third kill just before he was shot down, and he appeared to be well on his way to being the first Air Force ace. After the back seater (Roger Locker) was picked up and explained how the front seater (Lodge) had deliberately ridden the aircraft down rather than take the chance on being captured and interrogated by the North Vietnamese, no one was surprised ---‘He was that kind of guy’ was the common opinion.”