"Just like a football game: Send me in coach, I'm ready," said USAF F-4 pilot Bob Pardo as he was tasked with flying over Vietnam.
In March of 1965, a little-known operation called Rolling Thunder was underway. Author of "To Hanoi and Back" Wayne Thompson recalls, "Rolling Thunder was an extraordinarily cautious bombing campaign. It reflected the caution of the guy who ran it, President of the United States Lyndon Johnson."
And ran it he did.
In our history, a president has never been so involved in the minute details of choosing targets and tactics during war. For Colonel George "Bud" Day, this type of warfare was unacceptable: "gradualization basically violates every known rule of war." The restrictions imposed on our pilots by the White House — such as not bombing the city of Hanoi and attacking enemy surface-to-air missile sites only when fired upon — made a pilot's dangerous job almost impossible.
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Johnson's cautious approach gave the Vietnamese enough time to prepare their defenses and study U.S. tactics. It wasn't an ideal situation for the men of the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, but they carried out their duty. "I thought it was the right thing to do to take the communists on," said Col. Day.
In late August 1967, Col. Day was sitting in his two-seat F-100 preparing to take out a SAM site: "We took this huge hit in the aft end of the airplane. And the airplane just felt like it stopped. Struck the burner. Got the nose up. Trying to do some things to see if I could get the airplane flying again. Didn't work. Nothing to do but punch it. Bang. Don't know what happened, I just went unconscious within 20, 30 seconds. Here was about a 13-year-old kid with a really old rusty bolt action rifle pointed right at my head. So I reversed the American dream. Went from riches to rags in one pull of the ejection handle."
Col. Day spent over five years in captivity and for his service he received our nation's highest award, the Medal of Honor.
For most pilots, superstitions or lucky charms are part of their daily routines. For F-4 pilot Bob Pardo his was never flying on his birthday. "When I was a second lieutenant my best friend over in England, flamed out over the English Channel and ejected and died of exposure on his birthday. And I said, 'That's it, I'm not ever gonna fly on my birthday again,' and up until that point, I hadn't." On March 10, 1967 LBJ authorized the bombing of a new target — on Pardo's 35th birthday. Bob and his back-seater, Steve Wayne, were about to strike one of Vietnam's most-heavily defended targets.
"We had pulled up to about fourteen thousand feet for the roll in," Pardo recalled. "We'd release the bombs somewhere between, 7,000, 7,500 feet. Down we go. Drop our bombs. Start to pull out. And right at the bottom of the pull out, Steve and I got hit."
One other F-4, flown by Earl Ammon and Robert Houghton, was also hit on the run and now both planes were leaking fuel. Ammon's F-4 didn't have enough fuel to get them out of enemy airspace. "And I thought that's gonna be really bad to sit here and watch these guys get captured," remembers Pardo.
He decided that he would push the damaged aircraft out of North Vietnam airspace, so they could bail out over Laos — a more secure area to be rescued.
"I was looking at the bottom of his airplane and saw the tail hook. I said OK one last try here," Pardo recalls. "So we eased it and put the hook in the middle of our windshield because that was the only flat spot on the front end of the airplane. They eased some power on and sure enough his vertical speed decreased by half. By this time he is completely flamed out. We can hold it on there for about 30 seconds at a time and it would slip off to the side. So we just eased back a foot or two and go back in. We finally got down to about 6,000 feet which is as close to the ground as I wanted to get."
Pardo's push lasted for about 20 minutes and 88 miles to get Ammon and Houghton's plane to safety.
"We watched Earl and Bob eject and saw both their parachutes open," Pardo recalls. "We turned towards the tanker, but it became obvious within a minute that we weren't gonna make it. As soon as the engines flamed out, I said, 'OK Steve, it's time to go.' Said we got to get out. He said, 'I'll see you later.' And he was gone. There were a total of five airplanes shot down that day. And the four of us were the only ones who made it back."
After two and a half years, with over half a million tons of bombs dropped, 900 planes lost and more than 1,000 airmen killed, missing or captured, Rolling Thunder finally came to an end in October of 1968. But the brave men who flew through enemy skies swarming with anti-aircraft fire, MiGS and missiles fulfilled their oath to "defend the Constitution against all enemies" and are true heroes.
— Kelly Guernica is a producer for "War Stories With Oliver North"