Capt. James A. Branch and 1Lt. Eugene M. Jewell probably thought they were fortunate to have been selected to fly the F4 Phantom fighter jet. The Phantom, used by Air Force, Marine and Navy air wings, served a multitude of functions including fighter-bomber and interceptor, photo and electronic surveillance. The two man aircraft was extremely fast (Mach 2), and had a long range (900 – 2300 miles, depending on stores and mission type). The F4 was also extremely maneuverable and handled well at low and high altitudes. The F4 was selected for a number of state-of-the-art electronics conversions, which improved radar intercept and computer bombing capabilities enormously. Most pilots considered it one of the “hottest” planes around.
On September 4, 1965, Branch and Jewell comprised the crew of an F4C assigned a bombing mission over North Vietnam. The mission target was in Nghe An Province, near a railroad about halfway between the cities of Tho Trang and Phu Dien Chau. During a low-altitude strafing run, the aircraft was shot down, crashed and exploded. No parachutes were observed departing the crippled aircraft.
The U.S. Air Force placed both men in the category of Missing in Action. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) further refined that category according to enemy knowledge.
On June 9, 1993, Joint Task Force–Full Accounting (JTF-FA, now DPAA) identified the remains of Lieutenant Colonel James Alvin Branch missing from the Vietnam War.
Lieutenant Colonel Branch entered the U.S. Air Force from Illinois and was a member of the 47th Tactical Fighter Squadron. On September 4, 1965, he piloted an F-4C Phantom II (tail number 63-7700, call sign “Rhino 02”) on a strafing mission over Nghe An Province, North Vietnam. During a low-level run at the target, this aircraft was shot down and Lt Col Branch was killed in the crash. Heavy enemy activity in the loss area prevented the recovery of his remains at the time of his loss. In 1992, a joint U.S./Vietnamese team visited the crash site and recovered remains that U.S. analysts eventually identified as those of Lt Col Branch.