Fifty years ago tomorrow, Boonville’s very own Tom Maxwell was involved in a heroic mission to save a man trapped deep in enemy territory in Vietnam. This mission could have cost Maxwell his career, but he chose the high ground defying orders – to save a fellow in distress.
“On the morning of 18 July 1967 the carrier USS Oriskany (CVA-34) was sending strike aircraft from Carrier Air Wing 16 deep ‘over the beach’ to hid bridges located near Phu Ly, in North Vietnam. Things went bad from the start as the A-4E of VA-164’s Lt Cdr Richard Hartman was hit by 37 mm AAA near the target. He ejected, and his wingman, Lt(jg) Larry Duthie, immediately started to cover his lead for potential rescue. Duthie, in another Skyhawk from VA-164, was then hit by AAA as well and he tried to head towards the water. Duthie made it about 12 miles east before he too had to eject. With two men on the ground deep in enemy territory all other missions immediately became Search and Rescue (SAR). Among the first to arrive on the scene was Lt Cdr Dick Schaffert, flying an F-8C Crusader from VF-111,” according to Skywarrior Units Of The Vietnam War by Rick Morgan. “Schaffert set up a SARCAP over Duthie while dodging anti-aircraft fire and the odd SA-2 Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM). After 45 minutes in the area he finally turned over the on-scene commander duties and headed back to the Gulf of Tonking, even though his efforts had left him without sufficient fuel to reach the North Vietnamese coast, let alone CVA-34. Safely orbiting well over the Gulf of Tonkin, Lt Cdr Tom Maxwell of VAH-4 Detachment Golf was piloting the duty KA-3B Skywarrior tanker whilst monitoring the SAR event on the radio. When Schaffert’s call for help came he looked at his two crewmates, Lt(jg) Jim Vanderhoek and ADJ1 Bill Shelton, who immediately gave him an emphatic ‘Thumbs Up.”
Not long ago, Boonville resident Ron Cox and friend to Maxwell, received an email detailing the incident from the perspective of the person that Maxwell had to save.
“When I read the following account, the name of Tom Maxwell popped out. We have a retired Navy Captain in the neighborhood by that name, so I made a copy of this and went to see him. It was in fact the same Tom Maxwell who 50 years ago ignored standing orders to keep his tanker aircraft in a safe zone and flew into North Vietnam to save an aircraft without enough fuel to get the pilot to safety. Tom had not seen the email, but when I showed it to him his eyes lit up as he recalled the event long, long ago in a land far away,” Cox stated.
Below is the description of the event from Dick (Brown Bear) Schaffert. (VF-111, F8E/C, USS Oriskany on Yankee 1966 and 1967-8 VF-92, F4-J, USS Constellation on Yankee 1972 and 1973). Schaffert is the man that Maxwell saved in this heroic mission.
“On July 18, 1967, my section of VF-111 F8C Crusaders was assigned MIGCAP to escort an Alpha strike against the Bridges at Co Trai. Unfortunately, after the catapult shot Old Nick 106 gave me a wing-unlocked warning light. I raised and lowered the wing several times, but the unsafe indication persisted. Since my wingman ENS John Laughter also had radio failure, I traded VF-162's John Hellman our MIGCAP for his BARCAP. I dropped my wingy off, so he could join the recovery in progress, and proceeded (slowly) to the BARCAP station near the Northern SAR destroyer, Harbor Master.
During the strike, VA-164 Magic Stone Dick Hartman's A-4E was hit by enemy fire. He ejected about 25 miles south of Hanoi, and other Skyhawks set up a RESCAP over him. Listening to all this on Strike Control frequency, while orbiting slowly off the mouth of the Red River, I again recycled Old Nick 106's wing several times; still the unlocked indication. The Magic Stone's RESCAP made contact with Hartman on his emergency radio, reported his TACAN position from Oriskany, and asked Harbor Master to initiate a rescue, but the Magic Stone A-4's were running out of fuel and they had to bingo back to Oriskany.
I knew from personal experience, with the successful rescue of VF-162's Butch Werich at Phu Ly two days earlier, that timing was everything. If the rescue couldn't be made in the first hour or two, the unfavorable odds became astronomical So, asked Red Crown (the Yankee Station command and control cruiser) for a vector to Hartman's position and went feet dry.
I'd witnessed the death of VF-162's Lee Prost a few months earlier, when his wing came off during a strafing run, so I tried to hold 106's speed down to the wing unlocked limitation of 220 knots. Not possible seconds after crossing the beach, was taking 37/57 mm flak close aboard, so I pushed it up to 300 knots. When a Fansong tracking radar locked on, and my APR-27 warned of a SAM launch, Old Nick 106 showed me her wing would stay on through a 350 kt/3g barrel roll.
I was about 20 miles south of Hartman's reported position, down low trying to shake-off a Fansong, when I stumbled across an emergency radio beeper. Going over the top in another barrel roll, spotted what looked like a parachute. It was the first time we realized two Skyhawks were down; both Hartman and (as we found out later) his wingy, Larry Duthie, who'd been hit while orbiting, or leaving, Hartman's position. I couldn't get Duthie to answer on the radio. His emergency beeper was weak but clear, so I swung down into the trees and brush in an attempt to pick him up visually. That brought a whole lot of 37mm my way. Not wanting to give Duthie's exact position away to the bad guys, I climbed out of there and took up a position to the west, staying within visual range.
Communications with Harbor Master indicated the Navy was launching the SAR helicopter which had earlier been requested for Hartman. There were also reports that an Air Force HH-3 Jolly Green with Sandy A-1 escorts had scrambled when Hartman was reported down and was enroute from the southwest. Thailand? It was simply a matter of me staying overhead and vectoring them to Duthie's position when they arrived. That involved 45 minutes of evading continual 37mm and 57mm, and an occasional SAM. At one particularly hazardous point, 106 kept her wing on at 400kts and 4.5g before the SA-2 flew past.
Unfortunately, the SAR aircraft still had a way to come when I reached bingo fuel. Oriskany had earlier launched all her KA-3D tankers to top-off the Alpha strike and was trying to hot-spin one to get some fuel back in the air, but all they had airborne now was one A-4 buddy tanker to cover the recovery. The rules were clear. That tanker had to stay around the carrier landing pattern.
God was in the air that day. I felt His hand on the stick many times. He also inspired one hell of an A-4E driver by the name of Mac Davis who, upon his arrival back at Oriskany lied about his fuel state, took the fuel from the buddy tanker, and came back in to help me.
When I heard Mac coming, I knew we had a great chance to get Duthie, if I could only stay there long enough to show him the location. So, I changed my bingo fuel calculations from making Oriskany, to just making feet wet. Davis made a perfect rendezvous on me, and dropped him off over Duthie, as Harbor Master's helo reported approaching the area and the Sandy flight reported coming in from the Southwest. I was down to 500 lbs. (less than 10 minutes) of fuel and suddenly realized Couldn't make it to the water. I was reporting my likely ejection position to Red Crown when tanker pilot Tom Maxwell came up on the frequency. His KA-3D detachment had dozens of "saves" during that '67-68 cruise, and I was the lucky recipient of two of them in our first week on the line. It was against all the rules for the guys in those big slow tankers to go feet dry in the area of known SAM firings, but Tom Maxwell gave me the same break I'd given Duthie and came on in to save my rear. I heard later that he'd simply looked at his BN Jim Vanderhoek and the aircrewman while they were listening to my situation, and they both gave him an automatic "thumbs up." Tom made a perfect rendezvous on me and swung in front of Old Nick 106 with his drogue extended, and our APR-27's blaring a SAM launch Warning in our ears. After plug-in, glanced down at my fuel gauge and saw it rising off the zero index mark.
When disconnected with enough to make Oriskany, the Harbor Master SAR was checking in over Duthie's position. Unfortunately, they got shot up; real quick and real bad One of their Crew was killed and they were forced to withdraw. Magic Stone (TCig) Wood's A-4E was also hit during the rescue attempt, but he made it to the water and was picked up by a boat from Harbor Master. Perfume, the Yankee Station Commander, Wasn't about to give up on Duthie. Larry was finally plucked from certain capture, or worse, by Major York and his brave crew with their Jolly Green HH-3 from the USAF in Thailand/Laos.
Contact was re-established with Dick Hartman, but it was too dark to try for another rescue. Perfume directed an attempt to maintain radio contact. Oriskany Crusader drivers J.P. O'Neil and Pete Peters, and others, dodged SAM's in that area all night to talk with him. The brilliant glow from a SAM's booster rocket motor lift off at night was followed by extreme difficulty in judging its closure rate. Which led to JP's famous quote: "I completed three barrel rolls, and was in the midst of a hammerhead stall, before it ever got to me!" Dick Hartman reported an intensive weapons build-up all around him and suggested a massive strike on the area.
At first light the next morning, Oriskany launched 16 aircraft, under the leadership of that natural-born courageous SOB of an A-1H Spad Driver, VA-152 Skipper Wilson, to escort a SAR helicopter from HS-2 to get Hartman. Just short of Dick's position, the helo made an unfortunate turn over a 37mm gun position ... and all those brave Souls onboard were killed. Wilson immediately went back for another helo, but that one got shot-up before getting more than ten miles feet dry, and Perfume called it off. There was talk of trying the Fulton Recovery Rig, and we attempted to maintain contact with Hartman, as he evidently evaded capture for three days... then it was over. Dick was probably either killed while being captured or died shortly thereafter. His remains were returned in 1974. The remains of the heroic helo Crew came home in 2012.
Major York received the Air Force Cross and his courageous crew Silver Stars. Some other participants were awarded DFC's. Tom Maxwell and his heroic tanker crew violated higher authority rules of engagement by coming into the SAM envelope to save me. "Greater love hath no man..." Unbelievably, they were not recommended for the combat award decorations they so courageously earned. Perhaps because their award recommendations would have been reviewed by "higher authority" and might have brought criticism of our leadership abilities? Our Air Wing Commander Burt Shepherd was later invited to the Oval Office to display our collective Rolling Thunder hand-held combat photography, and he received recognition on the Ed Sullivan Show as the Navy's (then) most decorated aviator, and now-Senator John McCain (who survived the Forrestal fire to fly 23 missions before he got bagged) was the star of Discovery Channel's documentary about our Attack Squadron 163 Saints. The rest of us have just suffered in silence, through long sleepless nights, occasionally trying to type an e-mail with tears fogging our glasses. God Bless Us, each and every one, and may God Bless the America we all fought for, and for whom so many of us were tortured and/or died.”
“I am blessed to hear often from Dick (Brown Bear) Schaffert who was then a fighter pilot in Fighter Squadron 111 and as you read was the real hero of the event.
Now, half a century later, these memories live on, especially in books. Maxwell’s book ‘Grandfather’s Journal details this mission.
For more information, please contact Maxwell at firstname.lastname@example.org.