On May 8, 1972, President Nixon authorized the mining of Haiphong and other North Vietnam ports, together with regular and frequent air strikes north of the 20th parallel. Operation Linebacker was on.
Two days later, the US Air Force launched 120 aircraft against targets in and around Hanoi. Oyster Flight, four F-4s from the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron flying MiG-CAP, was led by Maj. Bob Lodge, an outstanding young combat leader. He and his backseater, Capt. Roger Locher, were veterans of the air war, both with previous tours in Southeast Asia. Also in Oyster Flight were Capts. Richard S. "Steve" Ritchie and Chuck DeBellevue, who were to become the Air Force's only F-4 "ace" team with five victories.
As Oyster Flight neared the Red River at a point about 75 miles northwest of Hanoi, they were alerted to the approach of MiGs. In the ensuing battle, Lodge and Locher shot down a MiG-21 and were positioning themselves to fire on another when they were hammered by 30-mm shells from two MiG-19s. The F-4's hydraulic system was knocked out, making the aircraft uncontrollable. A fire in the rear of the fuselage forced Captain Locher to punch out while the plane was inverted. Major Lodge did not eject. Since no one in the vicinity saw parachutes, it was assumed that both men had perished.
Captain Locher had, in fact, landed in trees near a MiG base at Yen Bai, north of the Red River, shaken but uninjured. He could not retrieve his parachute, which was caught in the trees, or his survival pack. After a brief radio call, he sought to put distance between himself and the parachute, which inevitably would attract a search party. (His radio signal was received by friendly aircraft, but, since there was no voice transmission, the signal probably was thought to be sent by a North Vietnamese using a captured radio.)
Within minutes, Captain Locher heard sounds of a search party Taking cover in a brush pile, he took stock of his situation. It wasn't encouraging. He had the contents of his survival vest, including two pints of water and a couple of snacks. Rescue so deep in enemy territory--some 350 miles north of the DMZ--was unlikely.
His best chance of rescue was to cross the heavily cultivated Red River Valley, swim the river, and work his way to the sparsely inhabited mountains about 90 miles to the west. The river lay several miles away through forested, hilly terrain. He would travel only at first light and at dusk, living off the land.
The enemy's search resumed the next morning. At one point, searchers came within 30 feet of Captain Locher's hiding place. On the third day, there were no sounds of a search party, and Locher could move somewhat more freely, but living off the land proved to be a greater problem than he had anticipated. It was too early in the season for ripened fruit, nuts, or berries. He ate what he could find, gradually weakening as the days passed. Water was no problem. There were plenty of small streams. There were also plenty of mosquitoes and drenching rains as he inched along at less than a mile a day.
Captain Locher frequently tried for radio contact, with no success. Then, on June 1, three weeks after he was shot down, as he was contemplating leaving the forest for a dicey venture into the valley, a flight of F-4s passed directly over him on their way home from a strike and, he hoped, with radio frequencies open.
Locher's call was picked up. Within hours, a small search-and-rescue (SAR) force was on its way from Nakhon Phanom, Thailand. After the A-1 Sandys were satisfied that they were talking to Locher, an HH-53C SuperJolly helicopter, flown by Capt. Dale Stovall, started in for the pickup, but the SAR force was driven off by missiles and MiGs. Maybe rescue was not possible so far north of the DMZ, after all.
Seventh Air Force thought otherwise. On June 2, another SAR force, supported by fighters, bombers, Wild Weasels, tankers, and ECM aircraft, numbering more than 100 in all, fought its way in. Captain Stovall's HH-53 picked up Roger Locher and returned him to Ubon RTAFB.
It had been a record-setting show. Captain Locher had eluded capture in enemy territory for 23 days, setting a record for successful evasion in the Vietnam War. Captain Stovall had twice flown his rescue helicopter further into North Vietnam than had been done before, earning him the Air Force Cross. All the principals emerged as heroes, but there is more to the story. Combat crews who would be flying Linebacker strikes north of the Red River now knew that eluding capture in that inhospitable land and rescue from Hanoi's backyard were indeed possible. That was a good thought to sleep on.
Published February 1992. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.
Daily Report: The day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag