MCARA War Stories
A first person account of the combat loss of a VMCJ-1 EF-10B over North Vietnam on 18 March, 1966 by Col H. Wayne Whitten USMC (ret) in tribute to Majors Brent Davis and Everett McPherson KIA during the Vietnam war. (Updated 18 March 2010)
In the spring of 1965 President Johnson authorized the initiation of Operation Rolling Thunder, a major bombing campaign against targets in NVN that was to be conducted by land based USAF aircraft and carrier-based Navy aircraft. During initial strikes US aircraft encountered localized but intense AAA fire, some controlled by Soviet designed radars, and there was the real likelihood that the NVN air defenses would soon be further strengthen by the introduction of Soviet SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems. In response to an urgent requirement for active ECM or radar jamming support for both services, VMCJ-1 deployed to Danang, RVN with six EF-10B Skyknight electronic warfare aircraft in April 1965. The USAF only had a few EB-66C EW aircraft with an active ECM capability and six were deployed in May to Takhli AB in Thailand. They were joined by the first few EB-66B converted bombers with a suite of noise jammers in the fall of 1965, and three more C models.
The introduction of Soviet supplied SA-2 SAMs into the NVN air defense inventory in June 1965 coupled with a rapid and sustained increase in the number of fire control radars associated with heavy caliber AAA had a major impact on US air operations and tactics and brought ECM to the forefront. The limited availability of EW aircraft required centralized tasking with priority given to support for strike aircraft going against the heaviest defended targets mainly in the Hanoi-Haiphong areas. The daily flight schedules or frag orders came from the USAF 2nd Air Division (later 7th Air Force) headquarters in Saigon. Both VMCJ-1 and the EB-66C squadron provided ECMOs on a rotating basis to assist in developing the frags. During the first year of operations VMCJ-1’s EF-10Bs were heavily committed with support evenly divided between Navy and USAF strike and reconnaissance missions. I should note that while active ECM or radar jamming was clearly the primary tasking for the EW aircraft, they also performed Elint or reconnaissance missions to help maintain the Electronic Order of Battle (EOB) and provided real time threat warnings to exposed strike and reconnaissance aircraft. The latter mission was deemed especially critical in the first year of air operations over NVN when very few of the fighter/attack aircraft were equipped with radar warning receivers or defensive ECM systems.
In order to facilitate independent air operations over the North, the Air Force and Navy agreed to divide NVN into six route packages with the numbering starting at the DMZ and increased northward. This allowed both services to plan operations without intensive coordination which both opposed! The Air Force had responsibility for the northwestern route packages including the Hanoi area, and the Navy controlled the eastern coastal route packages which extended from Haiphong south to Thanh Hoa and Vinh.
Prior to the Christmas bombing halt in 1965 the SAM threats were concentrated in the Hanoi area and along the coast from Haiphong south to Thanh Hoa. The threat environment as we knew it changed significantly with the lengthy bombing pause (24 Dec 1965 -31 Jan 1966) allowing NVN time with the help of their Soviet allies to realign and expand their already formidable air defense network. At that time our intelligence sources believed there were over 4,000 active AAA sites and at least 50 SAM sites occupied at times by firing elements of 15-18 SA-2 battalions. Those numbers would double in another year.
Then the inevitable happened, on 25 February 1966 an EB-66C was hit by a SAM near Vinh. It resulted in the first loss of a U.S. EW aircraft to hostile fire with one crewmember KIA. A crewmember later related that strike operations were cancelled for weather that day and their EB-66C was tasked to fly an Elint mission. The aircraft flew from its base in Thailand across southern NVN at 28,000 feet exiting on the coast northeast of Vinh and headed northward along a coastal reconnaissance track. As their aircraft transited the Vinh area one of the four ECMOs reported continuous coverage by a Spoon Rest radar employed at the SA-2 battalion to acquire targets for handoff to the Fan Song target tracking radar. Some weak, intermittent Fan Song signals were also noted but receded before a location could be determined.
Shortly before going feet wet the lead ECMO got a strong Fan Song signal and believing it to be emanating from a new SAM site near Vinh requested the pilot to reverse course so they could locate it. Inexplicably, the crew had the pilot fly a westerly heading back across the beach towards Vinh and a suspected SAM site still at 28,000 feet over an undercast layer! Their intent was to elicit a reaction from the SAM site believing they would be able to pick up the missile guidance signal before missiles were launched and take evasive action or effectively jam it. Shortly thereafter, a strong missile guidance signal was noted and the pilot was immediately warned to break hard left which he was doing when the first of a two missile salvo detonated near the aircraft severally damaging it. Jamming was initiated but negated by the defensive turn. Luckily the pilot was able to get the crippled aircraft back out over the beach where the crew ejected. Five of the six man crew was rescued but the lead ECMO was not recovered.
Although it is inconceivable that our squadron would not have known about the loss of the EB-66C, none of my former squadron mates I have contacted recall any specifics of that event. I just recently learned the details recited above from a magazine article written several years ago based on aircrew debriefs. No reference was made as to where intelligence reported the suspect SAM site’s location, only the missile engagement location The article did not state whether the aircrew thought their approach to try and locate the SAM was consistent with then EB-66C tactics, it sure was not what we would have done!
The crew recalled that the Fan Song exhibited strict emission control as it was only up and operating for very short periods, and the missiles apparently were launched prior to the guidance link being activated, a mode not previously noted.
This gave them reason to suspect that Russians were operating the system not just providing trainer/advisors. One of the ECMOs stated that a year or so later he read an intelligence report on an NVN defector who stated he was undergoing training by Russians in that SA-2 unit at the time and they affected the shoot down.
A recent book written by a US researcher on the Soviet SA-2 system with benefit from interviews of former Soviet army personnel involved in installation and support of the SA-2s in NVN, confirmed that most firing units had Soviet advisors and some were manned or controlled by Soviet crews well up into 1966. (In 2008 a former Russian missile officer claimed shooting down LCdr. John McCain’s aircraft in 1967.)
On 18 March 1966 just three weeks after the loss of the EB-66C, VMCJ-1 lost it first aircraft and aircrew to known enemy fire. Then a 1/Lt, I was the lead ECMO for a flight of two EF-10Bs with call sign Riverboat 1 & 2. Our mission was to support an early morning strike by Air Force F-105s on a target located about 10 miles west of Thanh Hoa inside a suspected SAM ring. According to intelligence the NVN MiG 21s had recently become operational from Phuc Yen airfield near Hanoi, and due to this added threat we were provided fighter escort by a section of F-4B Phantoms from VMF/A-314. Their crews joined us for the mission briefing in the squadron ready room. Captain John Trotti (later author of Phantom over Vietnam) was the section lead with mustang 2/Lt. Eugene "Mule" Holmberg as his RIO. My pilot and flight lead was Captain Bill Bergmann, a second tour aviator and experienced EF-10B pilot. Our wingman was 1/Lt Everett "Mac" McPherson with 1/Lt Brent Davis as his ECMO. Mac had only joined the squadron about a month earlier after a short training period with VMCJ-2, but quickly fit into our unit. I had flown twice with him earlier including a B-57/C-130 low level interdiction support mission two nights before which was one of the most demanding missions for our pilots. I found him a capable pilot and very likeable person. Brent Davis, my hooch mate, was a highly disciplined officer and well respected ECMO. He and I had gone to ECM school together at Cherry Point in the Summer of 1964 before he joined VMCJ-2 and I joined VMCJ-3 at MCAS El Toro. By the time we deployed to Danang on 1 November 1965 we had benefited from over a year of training with some of the Corps’ best "Flying Peons”, ie the Warrant Officers and senior SNCO’s who had years of experience in the EF-10Bs. At the time of this mission, Brent and I had both flown about 60 missions over NVN and although not complacent we were confident of our abilities and well understood the many limitations of the old EF-10B and its 1945-50 vintage ECM systems, a continuing topic of discussion among the ECMOs given the evolving threats we faced.
Our planned route of flight up to the target area was typical for supporting Air Force strike missions on the western side of NVN. From Danang we were to fly out to the northwest into Laos until passing the western corner of the DMZ, then turn northeast to our Initial Point (IP) which was about 40 miles west southwest of Thanh Hoa according to after action reports.
During the intelligence briefing by the squadron S-2 we were told there was no recently reported SAM activity posing threats along our northerly approach path which would bring us about 10 to 15 miles to the west of Vinh. Our electronic order of battle maps typically depicted plots of previously active SAM sites with 20 nautical mile threat rings in black versus red for known active sites. The site suspected to have downed the EB-66C would still have been plotted, and I seem to recall an old site on the east side of Vinh. In any event as a standing rule all of our missions were carefully planned to stay clear of active and inactive sites as we knew the EF-10Bs were especially vulnerable to SAMs.
Nevertheless, I should point out that SAM “site” is somewhat of a misnomer as the NVN SAM battalions quickly dropped the use of well prepared sites in accordance with Soviet doctrine opting to use roadsides or hastily cleared areas to set up their mobile launchers and associated missile control radar vans. By 1966 most of the NVN SAM battalions had a primary and secondary site available for them to move to and be ready for operations in a matter of a few hours which all but obviated our ability to locate and destroy them.
Keeping clear of SAM rings was easier said than done with our poor intelligence on the SAM site locations coupled with our old aircraft not having an inertial navigation system. We had a line of sight TACAN navigation system, but our mission that day like most on the western tracks was well beyond TACAN range requiring reliance on dead reckoning navigation in the crucial phases of the mission. The weather that day was marginal for strike operations. At our operating altitude of 26,000 feet, we found ourselves above a solid to broken cloud layer with no visual terrain cues. For the most part our F-4 escorts were not much better off in the area of navigation capabilities and of course we were all beyond friendly GCI radar coverage long before approaching our Initial Point.
For these extended range missions often nearly three hours long, we carried two 300 gallon wing tanks in lieu of ECM or chaff pods. This left us with the two internal noise jammers that were typically employed against Fan Songs and the Fire Can fire control radar associated with 57/85 MM AAA. Unlike the multi-position EB-66C equipped with 9 internal jammers, the EF-10B could not receive or jam the long range Spoon Rest target acquisition radar employed by the SAM battalions. Our intent was to temporarily degrade the Fan Song’s ability to acquire and track inbound bomb-laden strike aircraft and hopefully preclude a successful missile engagement. The effectiveness of the EF-10B’s ECM against the sophisticated Fan Song radars was known to be marginal at best given the low power (200 watts) of the jammers and the standoff ranges that we had to operate from due to the threat. We did not have steerable antennas which required us to point the nose of the aircraft toward the targeted radar, a tactic that must have been well known by the NVN Air Defense Command by 1966.
The Fan Song transmitted on two different frequencies from separate antennas controlled by different operators to track targets in azimuth or elevation. Hard intelligence on vulnerabilities of the Fan Song to ECM was not often available to us in 1966 but we adopted new tactics when we thought they would work better.
I recall some feedback that suggested it best to employ our limited jamming assets against one of the Fan Song radars beams in an attempt to deny either azimuth or elevation to the track solution. On the other hand, the EF-10B’s ALT-2 jammers had proved very effective against the Fire Can fire control radars.
On our approach to the target area we normally kept section integrity until reaching our IP. Using the IP as an anchor we then established a racetrack pattern about 20-25 miles long oriented along the ingress axis of the strike group and split the section so that one jamming aircraft was always pointed at the target. While a measure of protection for strike aircraft could be achieved from the standoff jamming orbits, we were concerned that the Fan Song radar would burn through our low powered jamming if we were caught inside a SAM envelope or it would serve to enhance our radar returns. Our EF-10Bs usually flew their orbits straight and level above 20,000 feet making them sitting ducks for attacking MiGs and SAMs as the SA-2 system was designed to counter medium altitude targets. This led to creation of our Duty Bogey patch that featured a worried Whale caught in the cross hairs!
In 1966, the most serious operational deficiencies of the EF-10B’s EW suite was its antiquated receiving system and lack of a separate missile launch warning device that could detect the SA-2’s command guidance signal. The manually operated receiving system was very effective in intercepting and analyzing individual radar signals but it was cumbersome and ill suited to the dense threat signal environment encountered over NVN. Moreover, once a jammer was turned on it blanked out the entire receiver essentially blinding the ECMOs. To put the receiver operation in perspective it might be liken to monitoring two different radio programs using manually tuned FM and AM radios. The two highest threat radars we dealt with in NVN, the Fan Song and the Fire Can, operated on widely separated frequencies in the same band. To monitor both required the ECMO to manually tune back and forth ie the equivalent of shifting between different radio programs at opposite ends of the FM band.
The critical missile guidance signal , which was only on the air during the minute or so a missile was enroute to a target, was in a separate band requiring the ECMO to switch tuners ie change to a separate AM radio and attempt to find another radio program during a commercial break! Beyond just intercepting and identifying the threat signals the ECMO also had to attempt to get a line of bearing to the emitters to ascertain they were emanating from the target area. This involved use of another display and was often a difficult task when dealing with the complex Fan Song radar signals. Recall the EB-66C had 4 ECMOs to handle these tasks plus a navigator to assist the pilot.
We launched on time and proceeded out to the west into Laos to pick up our F-4B escorts who had to hit their tanker near the Thailand border before joining us. With our escorts onboard and having received the codeword confirming the strike was a go we leveled off at 26,000 feet and just off the corner of the DMZ turned north towards our IP about 125 miles away. Shortly afterwards, both Brent and I detected a strong Fan Song signal coming from off the nose quadrant.
Quickly conferring with Brent via radio we decided the flight should immediately arc out to the West for at least 20 miles to ensure we were not heading into the envelope of a newly emplaced SAM. We normally only gave SAM warnings when a Fan Song was observed in its high pulse repetition frequency or final target tracking mode ready for missile launch. I don’t recall what mode the Fan Song was in at the time but I did put out a precautionary SAM warning over the guard channel for AE 2, the map grid quadrant which included the Vinh area.
Bill turned the flight to the west and radioed our escorts about the situation. After moving out to the west we turned north continuing well past Vinh and then turned back east towards our IP hoping we had circled around the newly detected SAM. Over the next 20 minutes or so as we proceeded up our new approach path, the Fan Song radar was coming up and down intermittently making it difficult to locate but it appeared to be emanating from the vicinity of Vinh. I should note that the Fan Song radar signals often looked like pinwheels on our direction finding display and it was difficult to obtain a good line of bearing. Audio identification of a Fan Song on the other hand was easy as it had a very pronounced rattlesnake-like chirp.
As we approached our IP west of Thanh Hoa we were close to the F-105’s target time due to our diversion, so Bill called for our wingman to detach and picked up the planned heading inbound to the target. Riverboat 2 was to make a slow separation turn then follow us to provide maximum jamming coverage from the forward quadrant. At that time I had my head in the display boot concentrating on detecting threats to the inbound strike aircraft. I recall the NVN air defense radar environment was quite active as there were several Navy as well as Air Force strikes underway that morning. I did not detect a Fan Song signifying a SAM threat to the inbound aircraft nor do I recall seeing the “Vinh” Fan Song up at that time. I did detect a Fire Can signal dead ahead and began jamming it as the F-105s radioed they were commencing their run in to the target. In so doing, the second major EF-10B system deficiency came into play as I temporarily lost the ability to monitor the Fan Song signals while jamming the Fire Can.
Things got real busy in the cockpits over the next few minutes and no one in retrospect was able to put a good location on any of the aircraft given our lack of reliable navigation aids. As I remember, we had just made our outbound turn to the west when Bill called my attention to a large fireball to our front in the vicinity of where we expected our wingman to be. They would have likely just rolled out on the heading inbound to the target. In fact, Mule Holmberg reported in a 2005 interview that “we saw an EF-10B turn left, go about a mile and disappear in a ball of flames”. Bill and I couldn’t figure out what we had just seen, at first thinking it may have been a flak burst as we had not seen the missile and neither of us saw an aircraft emerge or chutes. Bill called several times for Riverboat 2 on guard and with no answer the shocking reality came home that it was their aircraft in that fireball likely caused by a SAM. The escorts reported losing contact as well. Although no calls were made at the time, Mule later recalls a second missile detonating near his lead F-4 causing it to momentarily lose control.
About this time the F-105s called safely off their target. Recognizing we were in no-man’s land with our exit route likely going to be through a SAM envelope, Bill began defensive maneuvers keeping an eye out for missiles coming through the cloud deck below; ready to turn into the missile in accordance with defensive tactics at the time.
While continuing calls on guard we worked our way out to the west then turned south, now down below 20,000 feet with the F-4s in loose trail. Needless to say I was monitoring the Fan Song frequencies and recall getting an intermittent signal for a short while but no sustained threat. I was still concentrating on it when we got a call from Mule that we had flax bursts tracking us at six o’clock. Bill broke sharply jettisoning our drop tanks. I was able to get a jammer on a strong Fire Can signal in record time breaking its lock as verified by Mule seeing the flak go erratic.
Shortly afterwards we crossed into Laos and pressed on back to Danang while urgently requesting SAR assistance from the air controllers. None of us thought there was a chance the aircrew survived what appeared to be a direct missile hit, and with no ejection seats the chances of anyone successfully parachuting from a crippled EF-10B were next to none. Back on the deck at Danang, I recall our plane captain asking when our wingman would be back and in a strange voice answering probably never. The SAR effort proved fruitless and the names of lieutenants Brent Davis and Everett McPherson were added to the growing Missing in Action (MIA) list.
In retrospect our mission marked the beginning of the end for the EF-10Bs being tasked to support USAF operations deep into NVN from western tracks. This was partly due to a review of the changing threat situation that had resulted in loss of the first two EW aircraft to SAMs and perhaps better appreciation of the limitations of the venerable EF-10Bs. But there were other factors that came into play. Back in CONUS, the Marine Corps was rushing to complete testing and sort out problems with its new EA-6A electric Intruders. Plans were for this new state-of-the art aircraft to be deployed by a detachment from VMCJ-2 to relieve us in late October 1966. Meanwhile, the Air Force had undertaken a major contingency effort to convert more B-66 bombers into EB-66B jamming aircraft and had slowly built up their inventory in country. In fact, 7th Air Force put VMCJ-1 in for a Air Force Outstanding Unit award for in essence covering their ECM aircraft shortfall during the first year of Rolling Thunder operations. (this award was later rejected by HQMC noting overlap with a NUC … go figure!) In any event over the next three months the EF-10Bs increasingly were tasked to support carrier-based strikes from safer standoff orbits in the Gulf of Tonkin. That trend continued during the summer as the Navy’s bombing campaign against NVN POL sites was given priority.
After completing my tour in Vietnam in early December I was assigned to the newly formed Joint Reconnaissance Center on the CINCPAC staff in Hawaii. About a year later, I received a letter from Everett McPherson’s younger brother Raymond, then a Lt (jg) chaplain serving with the Marines in Okinawa, searching for any details of his brother’s fate. I gave him the gist of the information I have related here for which he was most grateful as the family had learned next to nothing from official sources.
We stayed in contact over the years with Ray keeping me informed as his family pressed for some final word of Mac’s fate, as did the Davis family who through their Foreign Service contacts had tried in vain to get some information through the Paris peace talk negotiators. The return of the POWs in 1973 without any of them able to provide any information was troublesome, and the family’s hopes of finding some tangible evidence that would bring them closure began to fade.
Finally, in July 1991, a field team from the US Joint Task Force-Full Accounting charged with tracking down information on our MIAs found documentation in a NVN museum listing McPherson and Davis as being buried in Nghe An province, northwest of Vinh. In January 1992 the Vietnamese released a Military Region IV Air Defense Operations Journal from 1964-1973. In it were entries recording the shoot down of an F3D-2 (old designation for EF-10B) on 18 March 1966 by the 61st Battalion, 236th Missile Regiment in Nghe An province with the loss of two air crewmen. Unexplainably, this information was not passed to the family until July of 1993! That same month the field team interviewed several residents of the village of Quang Thanh that were eyewitnesses to the crash of what was confirmed to be EF-10B BuNo 127041, our missing aircraft. One reported seeing the aircraft flying in smoking and veering wildly with obvious control problems and what appeared to be someone ejecting from the aircraft just before it impacted the mountain above the village. The crash site was some 20 miles south of our officially reported location of the explosion, so it is evident Mac survived the missile hit and made a valiant effort to get the crippled aircraft out over the coast.
The aircraft had apparently not sustained a direct hit but like the EB-66C was fatally crippled from the blast of the missile warhead in close proximity. (The kill zone of the warhead was over 200 feet wide). According to the reports, a group of villagers went to the crash site and found one body in the wreckage and the other in a tree about a kilometer away. The villagers reported a visit to the crash site the next day by foreigners whom he believed to be Russians.
The crash site location was marked for future recovery efforts that ultimately resulted in retrieval of remains later identified as belonging to Brent Davis in May 1997, but nothing on Everett McPherson who did not survive the low altitude bail out.
Posthumously promoted, Major Brent Davis was buried in Arlington in December of 1997 with full military honors including a missing man flyover. Everett’s brother, then Captain Raymond McPherson, and other members of his family attended the service.
The family of Major McPherson has arranged for a memorial service for him at Arlington on 4 June 2010 which would conclude with a missing man flyover. A marker with his name has been emplaced in a field of honor set aside for unrecovered Americans KIA in Vietnam.
A couple of years ago I did an analysis of all the reported aircraft losses by NVN SAMs around the 18 March 1966 timeframe as reported in Chris Hobson’s book Vietnam Air Losses. Bear in mind that the cause of several of these losses was not known until years afterwards. I found that at least four and maybe six aircraft were confirmed or suspected of being downed by SAMs or related AAA south of Thanh Hoa starting with the EB-66C on 25 February. On 7 March two RF-101 photo reconnaissance aircraft on a mission northeast of Vinh were lost to unknown causes possibly to SAMs. On 17 March, a VA-94 A-4C off the USS Enterprise piloted by Lt (jg) Baldock was downed by a SAM just east of Vinh and he became a POW. Ironically, several months before I supported a strike where he had been hit by AAA fire which tore an eight inch hole in his tailpipe and at the request of his lead, we escorted him safely to Danang. Our EF-10B was lost the next day well north of Vinh. Finally on 23 March, the last combat loss of an F-100F Wild Weasel I was due to AAA during an attack on a SAM site 20 miles northwest of Vinh.
For over 15 years I have speculated that the 61st battalion that claimed our EF-10B was likely responsible for the EB-66C and the other losses. I now have learned that there were in fact two battalions of the 236th Missile Regiment operating south of Thanh Hoa and it was its 63rd battalion that downed the EB-66C and the A-4C near Vinh. The 61st battalion on the other hand was reported to be operating from firing positions closer to Thanh Hoa and claims to have shot down the two RF-101s just over a week before downing our EF-10B.
I recently contacted a retired CIA analyst who has translated numerous Vietnamese military documents and written a lot on the war as reported by the government of Vietnam. One of those translated documents was the History of the Air Defense Service, Vol II published in 1993. Ironically, one of the authors listed was the former commander of the 61st Missile battalion. From that document I learned that early in 1966 the NVN Air Defense Command requested and received General Staff approval to move some of the missile units into their Military Region IV south of Thanh Hoa to protect their lines of communications leading into the Ho Chi Minh trail. As a result the 236th Missile Regiment and the 230th AAA Regiment were ordered to move units south of the 20th parallel for the first time. On the eve of the Tet Lunar new year, the 61st missile battalion with supporting AAA units crossed the infamous Dragon Jaw bridge and set up the first of several firing positions below Thanh Hoa.
On 13 February before moving south of Thanh Hoa the 63rd battalion claimed to have shot down a high altitude reconnaissance drone. The loss of a SAC Lightning Bug drone is confirmed by US sources.
Of note, this drone carried a special CIA Elint package that intercepted and relayed to its control aircraft the long sought after parameters of the up and down links of the SA-2 Guideline missile and the warhead’s proximity fuse. This critical information was soon used by the Navy and Air Force radar warning receivers installed in tactical aircraft to detect missile launches.
In late February, the two battalions were tasked to work their way south from Thanh Hoa to Vinh along Route 15. The headquarters of the 236th Missile Regiment moved south along Route 1 to a position northeast of Vinh to better coordinate the two battalions operations. Their guidance was to make maximum use of aggressive guerrilla tactics, operating independently with secrecy and surprise to shoot down enemy aircraft.
According to their plan the 63rd battalion was to move down to a site at Nam Dan 10 miles northwest of Vinh and position themselves for the first shot. That opportunity came with the overflight of the EB-66C on 25 February which resulted in a successful ambush engagement. The separate history of the 236th Missile Regiment relates that on 13 March the 63rd battalion moved to the east of Vinh in the vicinity of the Vinh airfield. The battalion reportedly only set up three missile launchers as they had difficulty finding cover in the open coastal terrain to avoid detection by U.S. photo aircraft. Late in the afternoon of 17 March a flight of Navy A-4Cs from VA-94 flying at about six thousand feet east of Vinh was engaged by the 63rd missile battalion and Lt.(jg) Baldock’s aircraft was shot down and he became a POW. (The cause of this loss was not confirmed at the time and likely not highlighted in the over night intelligence reports available to the squadron S-2 by the time of our mission briefing about 0500 18 March.)
Meanwhile the 61st battalion remained deployed to sites further to the northeast of Vinh closer to Thanh Hoa. On 7 March, it claimed to have shot down the two RF-101s with one missile from a firing position just off Route 15 about 35 miles southwest of Thanh Hoa. Afterwards the battalion continued to work its way down Route 15 eventually establishing a firing site in the vicinity of Giang Son about 7 miles north of the intersection with Route 7. It was from this site the 61st Battalion engaged and shot down Riverboat 2 around 0730 on the morning of 18 March. In fact the Vietnamese unit history records two F3D-2Qs being shot down that day, obviously wrong, but likely correlates with lieutenant Holmberg’s report of a near miss on his F-4B by a second missile shortly after he saw the missile that downed Riverboat 2 detonate. The Giang Son firing site was about 18 miles south of our planned IP which would have been at the edge of the missile envelope. Most likely Riverboat 2’s separation turn brought the aircraft down into the kill zone and it was struck just after competing its turn according to the F-4 escorts. The inherent ambiguity in our navigation also could have been a factor.
The map below approximates the route of the EF-10Bs up to the IP about 40 miles southwest of Thanh Hoa and the racetrack pattern from the IP into the F-105’s target area. The reported firing site used by the 61st Missile battalion to shoot down Riverboat 2 is depicted to the south of the IP.
The black dot to the southeast marks the approximate location of the crash site of Riverboat 2 northeast of the intersection of Routes 7 and 15 some 20 miles southeast of the IP.
In retrospect I believe the Fan Song we intercepted early on in our mission was from the 63rd battalion’s site at Vinh airfield and not from the 61st battalion located well to the northwest. Given their battle plan to use ambush tactics, having the short range Fan Song radar on well before we entered the kill zone makes no sense. More likely, the 61st battalion tracked our route of flight with their Spoon Rest radar and identified us as a flight of EF-10Bs. When we departed the IP I did not detect a Fan Song and apparently after I began jamming the Fire Can ahead in the target area our wingman and the trailing escorts were selected as targets resulting in the engagement just after completion of their separation turn to the left which would have carried them closer to the missile site. This is consistent with what the escort air crews reported. That meant the 61st battalion’s Fan Song tracking radar only had to be up momentarily before the missiles were launched. According to the Vietnamese history this was exactly the tactics used later on in the war when another EB-66C was ambushed while in one of their standard orbits northwest of Hanoi. In fact it became a case study for training their missile crews.
Interesting enough the 61st battalion was ordered into Ha Tinh province south of Vinh after the EF-10B incident, crossing the Song Ca or Lam River west of Vinh on the night of 21 March. It would be the first SAM unit in Route Package I and could have been the source of several unconfirmed SAM sightings over the next few weeks.
According to the historical document the 61st battalion had worked its way down to the vicinity of Mugia Pass on the border with Laos just days after the first B-52 raid there on 12 April. It remained in the southern route packages until July before returning back north.
April 2010 translations from a book about the US and MiG-17s published in 2009 by the People's Public Security Publishing House in Hanoi adds further details about the 61st Missile Battalion and one of its key operators Nguyen Xuan Dai. Dai was born in 1940 and joined the NVN army in 1960 where he was later received training on the SA-2 system in the Soviet Union in 1965. Assigned to the 61st Battalion as a guidance radar tracker he was involved in successful engagements of several U.S. aircraft including the claimed shootdown of the two RF-101s by one missile on 7 March 1966. He also was credited as being the range tracker involved in the shootdown of Riverboat 2 on 18 March. ( eroneously reporting shooting down 2 aircraft). Most interesting, he was later promoted to missile control officer and led the engagement and shootdown of then LCdr. John McCain on 26 October 1967 after his unit had been pulled back to defend Hanoi. He was awarded the title of Hero of the People's Armed Forces in 1970 and later retired from the army.
Based on the new information from the Vietnamese side we are much closer to the end of this story but if history tells us anything in this case it is not to close the book! HWW