My squadron the 615th of the 401st Tactical Fighter Wing out of England AFB in Louisiana was the first to operate in North Vietnam (NVN) and Laos. We were TDY to the Philippines in June 1964, wh,e Lt. (jg) Everett Alvarez, the USN pilot, was shot down in Laos; thereafter becoming the very first US aviator POW in Southeast Asia (SEA). Shortly after that event, several of us flew “retaliatory” strikes in Laos near the Plain-of-Jars. That 1964 TDY provided most of us with our first taste of combat.
The 615th returned to SEA in March 1965. This TDY sent us to Da Nang, South Vietnam. On March 31. 1965, I found myself leading one of the very early “Operation Rolling Thunder” missions headed up North. My tow-ship flight’s mission that morning (call signs Panther 10/11) was a weather recce for the strike flights scheduled for that afternoon. The target for the strike package was on the border between NVN and Laos at the northern end of the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail – a place called Mu Gia Pass.
When we arrived at altitude in the target area, there were multiple layers of clouds below. Descending through the layers we finally go under the broken ceiling at about 1500 feet. We set up our weaving recce formation headed toward the pass, individually jinking like crazy. But as fate would have it, I was immediately nailed in the tail section by automatic weapons fire.
“I’m hit! I called out to my wingman, Lawrence “Dutch” Holland. “Yeah, you’re on fire, Lead! You better get out!”, Dutch replied. “I ain’t getting out here yet. This thing is still flying!”
My immediate concern was maintaining aircraft control. Somehow, I was able to get the nose headed up before the flight controls froze, and the good old Hun eventually climbed to about thirteen grand. I still had trim control, but soon all systems failed, and every red light in the cockpit was flashing.
The heading remained between 200-220 degrees, sending me toward the nearest friendlies. The right wing was on fire, and there were small explosions in the aft section’ but that J-57 just kept on churning! As we topped out, the airspeed fell off, and the nose dropped below the horizon as the old bird tried to maintain the “trimmed-for” airspeed of around 400 knots. About then, with the frozen controls and throttle, I was just a passenger riding a roller coaster. But as long as I was getting further away from Mu Gia Pass, I was more than willing to go along for the ride … with good ol’ Dutch in chase.
As we descended through about 8000 feet, the speed and lift increased, the nose rose, and we climbed back to about ten grand. However, as the next descent began, the aircraft started a slow roll toward the inverted. Either rolling or upside down, I knew the nose would never come above the horizon again. It was time to leave. But I knew the leaving wouldn’t be easy because I was doing about 450 knots, nose down and upside-down – well out of the safe ejection envelope.
I raised the ejection handles which blew the canopy and ejected. Upon hitting the slipstream, my helmet was torn off along with my kneepad and other unsecured objects; and worse yet, my right arm was jerked out of its socket. Then came the chute deployed. It looked like a streamer because of the high speed, and I just knew that was gonna be the end. But suddenly the stream ballooned into a “good chute”, albeit one with two adjacent panels blown out. Those missing panels compounded my concern about my impending penetration of the rapidly approaching, triple-canopy jungle.
Meanwhile, Dutch has watched my ejection, seen the apparent streamer and noted the two blown panels. He also saw the stricken bird go in, leaving a long flaming scar on the ground. Dutch circled until he saw me disappear into the vast jungle, and wisely marked the range and bearing of that spot in reference to the wreckage, having figured out rough coordinates for both. Then he climbed for maximum endurance altitude and got on the horn with the initial “May Day” call. The Search and Rescue (SAR) was about to begin.
For the rest of the story go to https://supersabresociety.com/biography/bigoness-ronald-albert/ and see Ron’s Caterpillar Story.