Tom Tapman – Caterpillar Club

Tom TapmanI was shot down on 7 April 1968 at the top of Mu Ghia Pass while flying Misty in an F-100F. Misty was a special Forward Air Control mission that flew out of the 416th TFS at Phu Cat AB, SVN, and operated in Route Pack 1 and along the Ho Chi Minh trail. Misty was formed in 1967 and was attached to the 416th TFS for aircraft and personal equipment support.

I was the Chief of Current Operations in the 37th TFW and assigned to the 416th TFS for flying support; however, I tried to fly with all units. When I flew with Misty, I usually flew on the first mission on Sunday mornings. On this day I was scheduled for first takeoff with Captain Eben Jones in the front seat and we were to arrive at Mu Ghia Pass at first light. That was the best time to catch trucks moving on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Eben was the first F-100 pilot to get 100 missions in NVN, and we were shot down on his 100th mission! Eben went on to fly 101 missions before he was cut off.

We had stopped some trucks at the top of Mu Ghia Pass and we put fighters on the targets, but the wind was so high that the F-4s could not hit them. Eben decided to strafe the trucks and on our 5th pass we took a hit that really rocked us. I took the aircraft from Eben and engaged the afterburner. We had been operating below 5,000 feet and had our zero lanyards hooked. I was having all kinds of trouble flying the aircraft because I could not jettison anything, the right main gear was unlocked and showing down and we had a Fire Light but the EGT was normal for afterburner operation. As we were climbing west, another Misty, Carroll Williams, saw us and started calling, “Tom get out, you look like a Roman candle.” I told him I could feel and see the heat but I did not want to jump out close to those guys we had tried to kill.

As we approached 20,000 ft., the controls locked and I told Eben I was going to bailout first, and then I pulled the handles and squeezed the triggers. Everything worked perfectly. I forgot to disconnect my zero lanyard and the chute open immediately. We were doing about 320 IAS at about 20,000 ft. and I have never been hit so hard. The opening knocked me out and when I came to, there were F-105s circling me. I eventually entered the trees that were about 70 or 80 feet tall. I went crashing through them and when I stopped, my feet were about 2 inches about the ground. I looked up, thanked God and figured I had better get the hell out of there. I carried 2 radios and one radio only had a transmitter that operated and the other radio only had a receiver that worked. I called Carroll Williams and told him to send some help, and it turned out that he had already given Rescue my approximate position.

Soon I could hear voices in the woods and coming in my direction. I laid down in a grassy slope and pulled out my .38 pistol. One soldier came around a tree and I shot him. Another came around to help him and I shot him. I them ran for about 30 minutes in the opposite direction and stopped to use my radios. The Jolly Green CH-53 was in the area and he asked me to fire a flare.

The forest canopy was very thick; however, I found a hole about 4 foot wide and fired a pen gun flare that went right through the opening and I heard the Jolly Green pilot say we have your flare and he immediately came over to my spot and hovered. The A-1Es began to strafe on both sides of me. The Jolly dropped a penetrator down and I jumped on it. As soon as I cleared the trees, the chopper started moving out of the area. I soon was in the chopper and learned they had already picked up Eben Jones and he was in good condition.

They took us to NKP and put us in the hospital for a checkup and then flew us to Phu Cat in a T-39. When we got to Phu Cat, everyone was waiting for us and we went to the O’ Club for refreshments.

I had a separated left shoulder, torn ligaments in my right knee, and my left testicle was badly bruised. I still have a broken bone in my left shoulder that restricts movement, but does not hurt much. My left testicle is still giving me trouble.

~ Tom Tapman