Week of June 16
Much like the ground war, air combat in Vietnam was qualitatively different from air warfare in previous American conflicts. In World War II and the Korean War, fighter pilots engaged in dogfights at close range, primarily with machine guns. In Vietnam, however, a recently-introduced primary weapon, the air-to-air missile, allowed fighters to engage enemies that were miles beyond visual range. Radar guided air-to-air missiles represented a transformational shift in the technology and tactics of air warfare.
This week, we are highlighting the first time air-to-air missiles were used successfully against enemy aircraft over Vietnam. On June 17, 1965, two U.S. Navy F-4 Phantom II aircrews recorded the first confirmed American air-to-air kills of the Vietnam War.
On the morning of June 17, a strike force of 14 aircraft launched from the carriers USS Midway and USS Bon Homme Richard to conduct a strike on the Thanh Hóa Bridge in North Vietnam. The strike force included six F-4 Phantom II air superiority fighters from Fighter Squadron 21, whose job was to provide cover and protection for the attack aircraft. As the attack planes completed their mission and were returning to the carriers, the radar intercept officers aboard two of the F-4s (in Navy F-4s, the radar intercept officer sat behind the pilot), Lieutenant John C. Smith and Lieutenant Commander Robert Doremus, spotted two radar contacts approximately 45 miles away to the north. Smith’s pilot was Commander Lou Page, and Doremus’s was Lieutenant Jack E. D. Batson. Both pilots moved their Phantoms into attack positions. When the aircrews finally established visual contact, they realized they were facing four North Vietnamese MiG-17s.
As they moved rapidly toward the enemy aircraft from head-on, the American crews targeted separate MiGs, and each fired one of their AIM-7 radar-guided Sparrow missiles at close range. The first missile hit its target, shearing off one MiG’s wing, while the second scored a direct hit, destroying a second MiG-17. Documents declassified 32 years later showed that only one of the four MiG’s later returned to base, confirming that a third MiG was also downed, likely from impacting debris when its wingman was destroyed.
Now low on fuel and concerned about engaging in a turning dogfight with the remaining North Vietnamese plane (the MiG-17 could quickly out-turn the F-4), Batson recalled that “we disengaged by lighting afterburner, climbing up through an overcast, and rendezvousing. Then we reversed heading, reestablished the [search] formation, and went back through the clouds looking for the rest of the MiGs. We saw smoke trails from our missiles, but no MiGs and one parachute.” With fuel at critically low levels, the Phantoms turned for the coast and headed for the Midway, where they were heartily congratulated by their shipmates for registering the first air-to-air victories of the war. All four men received the Silver Star Medal.
The U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force used air-to-air missiles extensively for air combat for the first time in Vietnam, and over the course of the war they greatly improved the tactics and techniques required for successful use of these weapons. Navy/Marine Corps aviators downed a total of 61 enemy aircraft during the war, while Air Force Airmen downed 137, the majority using AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-9 heat-seeking Sidewinder missiles. The Air Force’s sortie-to-loss ratio in Vietnam was the lowest of any American war up to that time, at just 0.4 aircraft per 1,000 sorties.1
1Brad Edward, US Navy F-4 Phantom II MiG Killers, 1965–70 (New York: Osprey Publishing, 2001), 24–27. Peter Davies, USN F-4 Phantom II vs VPAF MiG-17/19, Vietnam 1965–73 (New York: Osprey Publishing, 2009), 5, 53–54. John B. Nichols and Barrett Tillman, On Yankee Station: The Naval Air War Over Vietnam (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1987), 153. John T. Correll, “The Air Force in the Vietnam War,” (Arlington, VA: The Air Force Association and the Aerospace Education Foundation, 2004), 17, 26.