Tag Archives: Vietnam War

Medal of Honor, Major Charles Seymour Kettles, Field Artillery, United States Army

Major Charles Seymour Kettles, commanding 176th Aviation Company (Airmobile), Duc Pho, Republic of Vietnam, 15 May 1967. (U.S. Army)

MAJOR CHARLES SEYMOUR KETTLES

FIELD ARTILLERY, UNITED STATES ARMY

CITATION: The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Major (Field Artillery) Charles S. Kettles (ASN: 0-1938018), United States Army, for acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty while serving with the 176th Aviation Company (Airmobile) (Light), 14th Combat Aviation Battalion, Americal Division. On 15 May 1967, Major Kettles, upon learning that an airborne infantry unit had suffered casualties during an intense firefight with the enemy, immediately volunteered to lead a flight of six UH-1D helicopters to carry reinforcements to the embattled force and to evacuate wounded personnel. Enemy small arms, automatic weapons, and mortar fire raked the landing zone, inflicting heavy damage to the helicopters; however, Major Kettles refused to depart until all helicopters were loaded to capacity. He then returned to the battlefield, with full knowledge of the intense enemy fire awaiting his arrival, to bring more reinforcements, landing in the midst of enemy mortar and automatic weapons fire that seriously wounded his gunner and severely damaged his aircraft. Upon departing, Major Kettles was advised by another helicopter crew that he had fuel streaming out of his aircraft. Despite the risk posed by the leaking fuel, he nursed the damaged aircraft back to base. Later that day, the Infantry Battalion Commander requested immediate, emergency extraction of the remaining 40 troops, including four members of Major Kettles’ unit who were stranded when their helicopter was destroyed by enemy fire. With only one flyable UH-1 helicopter remaining, Major Kettles volunteered to return to the deadly landing zone for a third time, leading a flight of six evacuation helicopters, five of which were from the 161st Aviation Company. During the extraction, Major Kettles was informed by the last helicopter that all personnel were onboard, and departed the landing zone accordingly. Army gunships supporting the evacuation also departed the area. Once airborne, Major Kettles was advised that eight troops had been unable to reach the evacuation helicopters due to the intense enemy fire. With complete disregard for his own safety, Major Kettles passed the lead to another helicopter and returned to the landing zone to rescue the remaining troops. Without gunship, artillery, or tactical aircraft support, the enemy concentrated all firepower on his lone aircraft, which was immediately damaged by a mortar round that shattered both front windshields and the chin bubble and was further raked by small arms and machine gun fire. Despite the intense enemy fire, Major Kettles maintained control of the aircraft and situation, allowing time for the remaining eight soldiers to board the aircraft. In spite of the severe damage to his helicopter, Major Kettles once more skillfully guided his heavily damaged aircraft to safety. Without his courageous actions and superior flying skills, the last group of soldiers and his crew would never have made it off the battlefield. Major Kettles’ selfless acts of repeated valor and determination are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Army.

Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States  of America, presents the Medal of Honor to Lieutenant Colonel Charles Seymore Kettles, United States Army (Retired), in a ceremony at The White House, 18 July 2016. (Library of Congress)

Charles Seymour Kettles was born at Ypsilanti, Michigan, 9 January 1930. He was the third of five sons of Albert Grant Kettles, an airplane pilot, and Cora Leah Stoble Kettles.

Kettles attended Edison Institute High School, Dearborn, Michigan, and then Michigan State Normal College (now, Eastern Michigan University) in Ypsilanti. While there, he learned to fly.

Charles Kettles was conscripted into the United States Army, 18 October 1951. He underwent basic training at Camp Breckinridge, near Morganfield, Kentucky. After graduating from Officer Candidate School, Fort Knox, Kentucky, 28 February 1953, Kettles was commissioned as a second lieutenant, Field Artillery, United States Army Reserve. He was next assigned to the Army Aviation School for flight training. Lieutenant Kettles served in Korea, Japan and Thailand.

Lieutenant Kettles was released from active duty in 1956 and returned to Ypsilanti. With his older brother, Richard, he formed Kettles Ford Sales, Inc., an automobile dealership. At the same time, he maintained his reserve commission, assigned to the 4th Battalion, 20th Field Artillery Regiment.

Kettles married Miss Anna Theresa Maida of Philadelphia on 25 August 1956. They would have six children. They divorced 21 September 1976 after twenty years.

In 1962, Kettles Ford was foreclosed, and its vehicle inventory returned to the manufacturer.

In 1963, Kettles requested to return to active duty with the U.S. Army. He was sent to Fort Wolters, Texas, in 1964, for transition training in helicopters. He then deployed to France. While in Europe, Kettles trained to fly the Bell UH-1D Iroquois, universally known as the “Huey.”

Returning from Europe in 1966, Captain Kettles assumed command of the 176th Aviation Company (Airmobile) at Fort Benning, Georgia. He was promoted to the rank of major, 27 February 1967. The unit then deployed to the Republic of Vietnam in support of the Americal Division. Kettles first tour “in country” was from February through August 1967.

Major Kettles’ personal Bell UH-1D Iroquois, 65-10045, was undergoing maintenance on 15 May 1967. (Charles S. Kettles Collection)

On 14 May 1967, the day prior to the Medal of Honor action, Major Kettles took part in the rescue of a six-man Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol which was surrounded by enemy soldiers, and was in the target zone for an imminent B-52 “Arc Light” strike. For his actions, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

For his actions in Operation MALHEUR on 15 May 1967, Major Kettles was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The Medal was presented by Lieutenant General L. J. Lincoln, commanding Fourth United States Army, in a ceremony at Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas, in May 1968.

Lieutenant General L.J. Lincoln, Commanding Fourth United States Army, presents the Distinguished Service Cross to Major Charles S. Kettles, at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, May 1968. (U.S. Army)

In October 1969, Major Kettles  returned to South Vietnam for a second 12-month combat tour, now commanding the 121st Aviation Company. Major Kettles was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel (temporary), 18 August 1970.

Major Charles S. Kettles, commanding the 121st Aviation Company, with a UH-1 Huey helicopter, 1 January 1969. (Department of Defense)
Major Charles S. Kettles was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel, 18 August 1970. (U.S. Army)

Lieutenant Colonel Kettles married his second wife, Catherine (“Ann”) Cleary Heck. 14 March 1977.

Lieutenant Colonel Kettles retired from the United States Army in 1978. In addition to the Distinguished Service Cross and Distinguished Flying Cross, he had been awarded the Legion of Merit; the Bronze Star with one oak leaf cluster (two awards); and twenty-seven Air Medals.

Lieutenant Colonel Charles Seymour Kettles, Air Defense Artillery, United States Army.

He completed his college education which had been interrupted when he was drafted into the Army twenty-six years earlier, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in business management from Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, and a Master of Science in Industrial Technology from Eastern Michigan University. He then taught Aviation Management at E.M.U.

Charles Kettles also worked for Chrysler Pentastar Aviation until he retired in 1993.

Beginning in 2012, efforts began to upgrade Colonel Kettles’ Distinguished Service Cross to the Medal of Honor. A bill, S.2250, was passed in the first session of the 114th Congress authorizing the award, which was also approved by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.

President Obama presents the Medal of Honor to Colonel Kettles. (U.S. Army)

In a ceremony held at The White House, 18 July 2016, the Medal of Honor was presented to Lieutenant Colonel Charles Seymour Kettles, United States Army (Retired), by Barrack Obama, 44th President of the United States of America.

Charles Seymour Kettles died in his home town of  Ypsilanti, Michigan, 21 January 2019. He was buried at the Highland Cemetery.

A reconnaissance platoon of the 1st Air Cavalry Division exits a Bell UH-1D Iroquois at Du Pho, Republic of Vietnam, circa 1967. (Sgt 1st Class Howard C. Breedlove, United States Army)

The Bell Helicopter Co. UH-1D Iroquois (Model 205) was an improved variant the UH-1B (Model 204). The type’s initial military designation was HU-1, and this resulted in the helicopter being universally known as the “Huey.” The UH-1D has a larger passenger cabin, longer tail boom and increased main rotor diameter.

The UH-1D was a single main rotor/tail rotor medium helicopter powered by a turboshaft engine. It could be flown by a single pilot, but was commonly flown by two pilots in military service. The helicopter had an overall length of 57 feet, 0.67 inches (17.375 meters) with rotors turning. The fuselage was 41 feet, 5 inches (12.624 meters) long. The helicopter had a height of 13 feet, 7.4 inches (4.150 meters), measured to the top of the mast. The maximum gross weight of the UH-1D was 9,500 pounds (4,309.1 kilograms).

A U.S. Army Bell UH-1D Iroquois, Republic of Viet Nam, circa 1967

The two blade semi-rigid, under-slung main rotor had a diameter of 48 feet, 3.2 inches (14.712 meters), and turned counter clockwise when viewed from above. (The advancing blade is on the helicopter’s right.) At 100% NR, the main rotor turned 324 r.p.m. The two blade tail rotor assembly had a diameter of 8 feet, 6 inches (2.591 meters). It was on the left side of the pylon in a pusher configuration and turned counter-clockwise as seen from the helicopter’s left. (The advancing blade is above the axis of rotation.)

101st Airborne Division soldiers move away from the landing zone after being dropped off by a 176th Aviation Company  (Airmobile) Bell UH-1D Iroquois helicopter during Operation Wheeler, 1967. (U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, Vietnam War Photograph Collection)

The UH-1D was powered by a Lycoming T53-L-9 or -11 turboshaft engine which were rated at 1,100 shaft horsepower at 6,610 r.p.m., for takeoff (5 minute limit). The T53-L-11 was a two-shaft free turbine with a 6-stage compressor (5 axial-flow stages, 1 centrifugal-flow stage) and a 2-stage axial-flow turbine (1 high-pressure stage, and 1 low-pressure power turbine stage). As installed in the UH-1, the engine produced 115 pounds of jet thrust (511.55 Newtons) at Military Power.

Its maximum speed, VNE, was 124 knots (143 miles per hour, 230 kilometers per hour). With full fuel, 206.5 gallons (781.7 liters), the helicopter had a maximum endurance of three hours.

Many UH-1D helicopter were upgraded to the UH-1H standard.

A Bell UH-1D Iroquois, 65-09733, of the 176th Aviation Company (Airmobile) “Minutemen.” (U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, Vietnam War Photograph Collection)

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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4 May 1967

Colonel Robin Olds, United States Air Force, winc Commander, 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, Ubon Ratchitani RTAFB.
Colonel Robin Olds, United States Air Force, Wing Commander, 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, Ubon Rachitani RTAFB. (U.S. Air Force)

4 May 1967: Colonel Robin Olds, United States Air Force, commanding the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing based at Ubon RTAFB, shot down his second enemy airplane during the Vietnam War.

Colonel Olds had flown Lockheed P-38 Lightning and North American P-51 Mustang fighters during World War II. He is officially credited with shooting down 12 enemy airplanes over Europe and destroying 11.5 on the ground. On 2 January 1967, he had destroyed a MiG-21 near Hanoi, North Vietnam, while flying a McDonnell F-4C Phantom II. He was the first U.S. Air Force fighter ace to shoot down enemy aircraft during both World War II and the Vietnam War.

Colonel Robin Olds and 1st Lieutenant William D, Lefever (standing, left and center) with other pilots of the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 8th Tactical Fighter wing, Ubob Rachitani RTAFB, 4 May 1967. (U.S. Air Force via Jet Pilot Overseas)
Colonel Robin Olds and 1st Lieutenant William D. Lefever (standing, left and center) with other pilots of the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, Ubon Rachitani RTAFB, 4 May 1967. (U.S. Air Force via Jet Pilot Overseas)

A description of the air battle follows:

On 4 May, the 8th TFW provided two flights of Phantoms for MiGCAP for five F-105 flights of the 355th TFW which were on a strike mission. Col. Olds, 8th Wing commander, led the rear flight, flying with 1st Lt. William D. Lafever. The other F-4 flight was sandwiched midway in the strike force. MiG warnings crackled on Olds’ radio just before his wingman sighted two MiG-21s at 11 o’clock, attacking the last of the Thunderchief flights. Colonel Olds’ account picks up the encounter at this point:

“The MiGs were at my 10 o’clock position and closing on Drill [the F-105 flight] from their 7:30 position. I broke the rear flight into the MiGs, called the F-105s to break, and maneuvered to obtain a missile firing position on one of the MiG-21s. I obtained a boresight lock-on, interlocks in, went full system, kept the pipper on the MiG, and fired two AIM-7s in a ripple. One AIM-7 went ballistic. The other guided but passed behind the MiG and did not detonate. Knowing I was too close for further AIM-7 firing, I maneuvered to obtain AIM-9 firing parameters. The MiG-21 was maneuvering violently and firing position was difficult to achieve. I snapped two AIM-9s at the MiG and did not observe either missile. The MiG then reversed and presented the best parameter yet. I achieved a loud growl, tracked, and fired one AIM-9. From the moment of launch it was obvious that the missile was locked on. It guided straight for the MiG and exploded about 5–10 feet beneath his tailpipe.

Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21PF in markings of the Vietnam People's Air Force, at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force)
Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21 in markings of the Vietnam People’s Air Force at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force)

“The MiG then went into a series of frantic turns, some of them so violent that the aircraft snap-rolled in the opposite direction. Fire was coming from the tailpipe, but I was not sure whether it was normal afterburner or damage-induced. I fired the remaining AIM-9 at one point, but the shot was down toward the ground and did not discriminate. I followed the MiG as he turned southeast and headed for Phuc Yen. The aircraft ceased maneuvering and went in a straight slant for the airfield. I stayed 2,500 feet behind him and observed brilliant white fire streaming from the left side of his fuselage. It looked like magnesium burning with particles flaking off. I had to break off to the right as I neared Phuc Yen runway at about 2,000 feet, due to heavy, accurate, 85-mm barrage. I lost sight of the MiG at that point. Our number 3 saw the MiG continue in a straight gentle dive and impact approximately 100 yards south of the runway.”

Colonel Olds then took his flight to the target area and covered the last of the 355th TFW strike aircraft as they came off the target. Leading his flight to Hoa Lac airfield and dodging two SAMs on the way, he found five MiG-17s over that airfield.

“We went around with them at altitudes ranging from 1,500 to 6,000 feet, right over the aerodrome,” Olds reported. The F-4s ran low on fuel before any real engagements occurred, however, and were forced to break off the encounter.

— Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia 1965–1973, by R. Frank Futrell, William H. Greenhalgh, Carl Grubb, Gerard E. Hasselwander, Robert F. Jakob and Charles A. Ravenstein, Office of Air Force History, Headquarters USAF, 1976, Chapter II at Pages 51–53.

During this mission, Colonel Olds and Lieutenant Lefever flew McDonnell F-4C-21-MC Phantom II serial number 63-7668.

Colonel Robin Olds shot down a MiG-21 with an AIM-9 Sidewinder fired from this McDonnell F-4C-21-MC Phantom II, 63-7668, 4 May 1967. U.S. Air Force)
Colonel Robin Olds shot down a MiG-21 with this McDonnell F-4C-21-MC Phantom II, 63-7668, 4 May 1967. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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29 April 1975

Air America helicopter evacuates refugees during the Fall of Saigon. (Hubert van Es)
Air America helicopter evacuates refugees during the Fall of Saigon. (Hubert van Es/Corbis)

This iconic photograph was taken 29 April 1975 by Dutch photographer Hubert van Es. A Bell Model 204B helicopter operated by Air America is shown parked on the roof of the Pittman Apartments at 22 Gia Long Street in Sài Gòn, the capital city of the Republic of South Vietnam.

Although commonly described as the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy, the actual embassy was a much larger building several blocks away. This building was a residence for U.S. diplomatic personnel.

Air America Bell 205D N47004 (s/n 3211) picking up evacuees from the Pittman Apartments in Saigon, 29 April 1975. (Phillipe Buffon/Corbis)

After this helicopter took off, hundreds of people waited on the roof, but no one else came for them.

The United States government’s decision to abandon the people of South Vietnam after propping up their government for over ten years led to the deaths of many thousands at the hands of the Communist invaders.

This is one of the most shameful events in the history of my country.

A Bell Model 204B helicopter operated by Air America.
A Bell Model 204B operated by Air America.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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26 April 1966

Major Paul J. Gilmore and 1st Lieutenant William T. Smith with their McDonnell F-4C Phantom II, 26 April 1966. (Air Force Historical Foundation)

26 April 1966: Major Paul J. Gilmore, aircraft commander, and First Lieutenant William T. Smith, pilot, flying McDonnell F-4C-23-MC Phantom II 64-0752, shot down the first Vietnam People’s Air Force Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 of the Vietnam War.

Douglas RB-66B-DL Destroyer 53-422. (U.S. Air Force)
Douglas RB-66B-DL Destroyer 53-422. (U.S. Air Force)

An official Air Force history reports:

. . . on 26 April, Maj. Paul J. Gilmore, in the front seat of the lead F-4C, and 1st Lt. William T. Smith in the back, downed the first MiG-21 of the war. They were part of a flight of three F-4s flying escort for two RB-66s. Launching from Da Nang, they rendezvoused with the RB-66s and proceeded north to the Red River, where one RB-66 and one F-4 split off for a separate mission. Gilmore, flying the other F-4, and the other RB-66 proceeded north east of Hanoi. Almost at once they spotted two or three MiGs coming high in the 2 o’clock position and closing rapidly. Gilmore and his wingman jettisoned their external tanks, lit their afterburners, and broke into a hard left descending turn while the RB-66 departed the area.

Gilmore pulled out of his vertical reversal at 12,000 feet [3,657.6 meters], with his wingman flying a tight wing position. They pulled up after the MiGs, which were in afterburner, heading northwest at 30,000 feet [9,144 meters].

A Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 interceptor at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, in the markings of the VPAF. (U.S. Air Force)

The second MiG was descending very slowly, trailing white vapor toward the east. The F-4 aircrews lost sight of this aircraft as they closed rapidly on the first, which was making gentle clearing turns as he climbed away. Gilmore had several boresight lock-ons but was out of range for a good Sparrow shot. At a range of 3,000 feet [915 meters], Gilmore fired one Sidewinder with a good tone; he then maneuvered to the left to gain more separation and as a result did not see his first missile track.

Later, Gilmore reported that he had not realized that he had scored a victory with his first missile: “My wingman, flying cover for me, told me later the MiG pilot had ejected after I fired the first missile. I didn’t realize I’d hit him the first time. My wingman wondered why I kept after him as I had hit him the first time and the pilot ejected.” Because of radio difficulties, his wingman could not inform Gilmore of his success.

A U.S. Air Force ordnance technician prepares to load four AIM-9 Sidewinder infrared-homing air-to-air missiles (top row) and four AIM-7 Sparrow radar-guided air-to-air missiles (bottom row) aboard an F-4C. This aircraft, F-4C-23-MC Phantom II 64-0793, is from the same production block as the fighter flown by Major Gilmore and Lieutenant Smith, 26 April 1966. (U.S. Air Force)

After his maneuver to gain separation, Gilmore pulled up behind the pilotless MiG-21 again and fired another Sidewinder without effect. He again rolled left, pulled up, and fired his third Sidewinder at a range of 3,000 feet. “After missing [he thought] twice,” Gilmore later told a newsman, “I was quite disgusted. I started talking to myself. Then I got my gunsights on him and fired a third time. I observed the missile go directly in his tailpipe and explode his tail.”

The two F-4 aircrews then descended to watch the debris impact. As Gilmore commenced his pull-up he spotted another MiG-21 tracking his wingman and called for a defensive split. He broke to the left and down while his wingman broke to the right and up.

When Gilmore emerged from the roll, he sighted the MiG ahead, in afterburner and climbing away. He rolled in behind this aircraft and climbed in afterburner until he was directly behind. He fired his fourth Sidewinder, but the range was too short and the missile passed over the MiG’s left wing. Because of low fuel reserves, both F-4s then left the battle area. The 6-minute aerial battle was Gilmore’s first encounter with an enemy plane “after twelve years in the tactical fighter business.”

Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia 1965–1973, by R. Frank Futrell, William H. Greenhalgh, Carl Grubb, Gerard E. Hasselwander, Robert F. Jakob and Charles A. Ravenstein, Office of Air Force History, Headquarters USAF, 1976, Chapter II at Pages 27–29.

According to Vietnam Peoples’ Air Force records, a fighter was lost 26 April 1966, though it is described as a MiG-17. The pilot, First Lieutenant Tràn Vặn Triém, ejected after being hit by friendly fire.

The Phantom II flown by Gilmore and Smith on that date was written off 6 August 1967.

F-4C 64-0752. Ngày 06/08/67 chiếc F-4C này bị PK bắn rơi ở Quảng Bình.
F-4C 64-0752. Ngày 06/08/67 chiếc F-4C này bị PK bắn rơi ở Quảng Bình. (vnmilitaryhistory.net) [A Vietnamese historical website describes the aircraft in this photograph as Major Gilmore’s F-4C.]
© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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Medal of Honor, Major Leo Keith Thorsness, United States Air Force

Lieutenant Colonel Leo Keith Thorsness, United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force)

MEDAL OF HONOR

LIEUTENANT COLONEL LEO K. THORSNESS
UNITED STATES AIR FORCE

Rank and organization: Lieutenant Colonel (then Major), U.S. Air Force, 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron

Place and date: Over North Vietnam, 19 April 1967.

Entered service at: Walnut Grove, Minn.

Born: 14 February 1932, Walnut Grove, Minn.

Medal of HonorCitation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. As pilot of an F- 105 aircraft, Lt. Col. Thorsness was on a surface-to-air missile suppression mission over North Vietnam. Lt. Col. Thorsness and his wingman attacked and silenced a surface-to-air missile site with air-to-ground missiles, and then destroyed a second surface-to-air missile site with bombs. In the attack on the second missile site, Lt. Col. Thorsness’ wingman was shot down by intensive antiaircraft fire, and the 2 crewmembers abandoned their aircraft. Lt. Col. Thorsness circled the descending parachutes to keep the crewmembers in sight and relay their position to the Search and Rescue Center. During this maneuver, a MIG-17 was sighted in the area. Lt. Col. Thorsness immediately initiated an attack and destroyed the MIG. Because his aircraft was low on fuel, he was forced to depart the area in search of a tanker. Upon being advised that 2 helicopters were orbiting over the downed crew’s position and that there were hostile MiGs in the area posing a serious threat to the helicopters, Lt. Col. Thorsness, despite his low fuel condition, decided to return alone through a hostile environment of surface-to-air missile and antiaircraft defenses to the downed crew’s position. As he approached the area, he spotted 4 MIG-17 aircraft and immediately initiated an attack on the MlGs, damaging 1 and driving the others away from the rescue scene. When it became apparent that an aircraft in the area was critically low on fuel and the crew would have to abandon the aircraft unless they could reach a tanker, Lt. Col. Thorsness, although critically short on fuel himself, helped to avert further possible loss of life and a friendly aircraft by recovering at a forward operating base, thus allowing the aircraft in emergency fuel condition to refuel safely. Lt. Col. Thorsness’ extraordinary heroism, self-sacrifice, and personal bravery involving conspicuous risk of life were in the highest traditions of the military service, and have reflected great credit upon himself and the U.S. Air Force.

Major Leo K. Thorsness and Captain Harold E. Johnson with their Republic F-105F Thunderchief, Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, 1967. (U.S. Air Force)
Major Leo K. Thorsness and Captain Harold E. Johnson with their Republic F-105F Thunderchief, Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, 1967. (U.S. Air Force)

AIR FORCE CROSS

CAPTAIN HAROLD EUGENE JOHNSON

Air Force Cross
Air Force Cross

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Title 10, Section 8742, United States Code, takes pleasure in presenting the Air Force Cross to Captain Harold Eugene Johnson (AFSN: 0-3116556/42372A), United States Air Force, for extraordinary heroism as Electronics Warfare Officer of an F-105 aircraft of the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 355th Tactical Fighter Wing, Tuy Hoa Air Base, Vietnam, engaged in a pre-strike, missile suppression mission over North Vietnam on 19 April 1967. On that date, Captain Johnson guided his pilot in attacking and destroying a surface-to-air missile installation with an air-to-ground missile. Through his technical skill, he immediately detected a second missile complex and guided the pilot into visual contact. Diving into a deadly barrage of anti-aircraft fire, his aircraft bombed and successfully destroyed this site. In the attack on this second missile site, a wingman was shot down by the intense anti-aircraft fire, and the crew members were forced to abandon their aircraft. Flying through hostile missile threats, Captain Johnson’s aircraft engaged and destroyed a MiG-17 while attacking a superior MiG force. He aided in the rescue efforts for the downed crew, engaged additional MiGs, and damaged one in the encounter. Through his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness, Captain Johnson has reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.

General Orders: Department of the Air Force, Special Order GB-363 (April 19, 1967)

Action Date: 19-Apr-67

Service: Air Force

Rank: Captain

Company: 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron

Regiment: 355th Tactical Fighter Wing

Division: Tuy Hoa Air Base, Vietnam

Major Thorsness and Captain Johnson flew this Republic F-105F-1-RE Thunderchief, 63-8301, on 19 April 1967. It was one of 61 F-105Fs that were upgraded to the F-105G Wild Weasel III configuration beginning in late 1967. It survived the Vietnam War, but was destroyed 20 December 1974 when, assigned to the 35th TFW at George AFB, California, it crashed at the Cuddeback Lake Gunnery Range after an engine failure. (U.S. Air Force)
Major Thorsness and Captain Johnson flew this Republic F-105F-1-RE Thunderchief, 63-8301, on 19 April 1967. It was one of 61 F-105Fs that were upgraded to the F-105G Wild Weasel III configuration beginning in late 1967. It survived the Vietnam War, but was destroyed 20 December 1974 when, assigned to the 35th TFW at George AFB, California, it crashed at the Cuddeback Lake Gunnery Range after an engine failure. (U.S. Air Force)

A description of the air battle follows:

The first MiG kill of the day was recorded by Maj. Leo K. Thorsness, pilot, and Capt. Harold E. Johnson, Electronic Warfare officer (EWO), flying an F-105F. Thorsness’ flight consisted of four F-105F Wild Weasel aircraft, each plane being manned by a pilot and EWO and being specially equipped to locate and attack SAM sites. The flight was ahead of the main strike force and was committed to suppress SAM activity in the target area. About 8 to 10 MiG-17s attacked as the flight prepared to strike a SAM radar site with Shrike air-to-ground missiles. The Thorsness flight split up into three parts: the third and fourth aircraft entered into separate MiG engagements while Thorsness and his wingman continued the attack against the radar. The time was then about 4:55 p.m. Johnson provides an account of the encounter:

We found and delivered our ordnance on an occupied SAM site. As we pulled off the site heading west, Kingfish 02 ¹ called that he had an overheat light. He also headed west, and the crew, Majors Thomas M. Madison, pilot, and Thomas J. Sterling, EWO, had to eject from their aircraft. We headed toward them by following the UHF-DF steer we received from their electronic beepers and saw them in the chutes. . .

As we circled the descending crew, we were on a southerly heading when I spotted a MiG-17 heading east, low at out 9 o’clock position. I called him to the attention of Major Thorsness. . . .

Thorsness continued the story:

The MiG was heading east and was approximately 2,500 feet mean sea level. We were heading southeast and at 8,000 feet MSL. I began “S” turning to get behind the MiG. After one and a half “S” turns the MiG had progressed from the foothills over the delta southwest of Hanoi. The MiG turned to a northerly heading, maintaining approximately the same altitude and airspeed. Captain Johnson continued to give me SAM bearings, SAM-PRF [pulse recurrence frequency] status and launch indications as I continued to maneuver to attain a 6 o’clock position on the MiG.

The first burst of approximately 300 rounds of 20 mm was fired from an estimated 2,000–1,500 feet in a right hand shallow pursuit curve, firing with a cased sight reticle. No impacts were observed on the MiG. Within a few seconds we were in the 6 o’clock position with approximately 75 to 100 knots overtake speed. I fired another burst of approximately 300 rounds of 20 mm. I pulled up to avoid both the debris and the MiG. While pulling up I rolled slightly to the right, then left. The MiG was approximately 100 feet low and to our left, rolling to the right. The two red stars were clearly discernible, one on top of each wing, and several rips were noted on the battered left wing. We continued to turn to the left and after turning approximately 130° again sighted the MiG, still in a right descending spiral. Just prior to the MiG’s impacting the ground, Captain Johnson sighted a MiG-17 at our 6:30 position approximately 2,000 feet back. I pulled into a tighter left turn, selected afterburner, and lowered the nose. I again looked at the crippled MiG, saw it impact the ground in what appeared to be a rice field. After confirming the MiG had in fact impacted the ground I made a hard reversal and descended very near the ground, heading generally westerly into the foothills.

Thorsness then left the battle area, but returned after refueling to provide rescue combat air patrol during the search for his wingman’s aircrew. Thorsness and Johnson attacked another MiG and scored some damaging hits before they were themselves attacked by other MiG-17s. Although it is highly probable that Thorsness and Johnson destroyed a second MiG, this kill was not confirmed.

— Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia 1965–1973, by R. Frank Futrell, William H. Greenhalgh, Carl Grubb, Gerard E. Hasselwander, Robert F. Jakob and Charles A. Ravenstein, Office of Air Force History, Headquarters USAF, 1976, Chapter II at Pages 46 and 47.

Eleven days later, 30 April 1967, Major Thorsness and Captain Johnson were shot down by an AA-2A Atoll heat-seeking missile fired by a MiG-21 fighter piloted by Vũ Ngọc Đỉnh, 921st Fighter Regiment, Vietnam People’s Air Force. They ejected but were captured. Both men were held as Prisoners of War until 4 March 1973.

Colonel Leo Keith Thorsness, United States Air Force (Retired) died Tuesday, 2 May 2017, at St. Augustine, Florida. He was 85 years of age.

¹ Radio call sign for aircraft 2.

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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