Tuesday, June 4, 2019

The loss of Oyster One Alpha - Major Bob Lodge, USAF

Major Bob Lodge, USAF, Lynbrook, New York, a 1964 graduate of the US Air Force Academy , and member of the 555th “Triple Nickel” Fighter Squadron, 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing , Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, spent two tours in the Indochina War, flew 186 combat missions in fighters, and shot down three enemy MiGs. 

On May 10, 1972, Lodge, flying an F-4 Phantom II jet fighter, callsign Oyster One, was shot down over North Vietnam by North Vietnamese (NVN) Air Force (NVNAF) MiG-19s. Lodge was killed. His backseater and Weapons Systems Officer (WSO), Capt. Roger Locher bailed out and was rescued some 23 days later west of Hanoi in what was among the most harrowing rescue missions of the war.

By way of brief background, the Paris Peace Negotiations, underway in one form or another, began in 1968. By February 1970 they were deadlocked. On May 14, 1971, the NVN Politburo directed that a major offensive against the RVN occur in 1972. It was to be an all out attack, one that would employ virtually the entire North Vietnamese Army (NVA). The plan was ready in June 1971.  

The NVA invaded the RVN on March 30, 1972 with about 30,000 troops, tanks, artillery, and surface-to-air missiles. By April 1972 the NVN had committed 12 of its 13 major regular combat divisions.

As a result, President Nixon directed the JCS to develop an air attack plan against NVN. It came to be known as "Linebacker I."

Linebacker I had two major objectives. First, stop the NVN offensive. Second, take the war to the enemy’s heartland, to wit, Hanoi and Haiphong.

On May 10, 1972, 

Bob Lodge and Roger Locher led Oyster flight into the NVN.

The History Channel, in its “Dogfights Season 2: The Bloodiest Day” video, presents you a blow by blow animation of the massive air fights that occurred on this say. I commend it to you. Its video starts like this:

“In the air war over Vietnam, one day stands out among all the rest: May 10, 1972. The full fury of American air power was unleashed on North Vietnam. More North Vietnamese MiGs are shot down on this day than on any other day of the war.”

The day began at 0730 hours, May 10, 1972, when 30 USN fighters from the USS Constellation launched the first assault against North Vietnam. The intent was to cripple the communist invasion of the South that had begun on March 30, 1972. 

The Navy targeted petroleum storage tanks in the port of Haiphong, which the Navy had also mined.

Navy F-4 Phantoms from VF-92 flew escort. US surveillance resources issued Mig warnings. Several F-4s peeled away from escort and successfully took on the MiGs. Once the attacking force finished its work over Haiphong, it returned to the Constellation.

The day’s attacks were coordinated. USAF fighters congregated over Laos and refueled, employing six KC-135 tankers. The strike package was composed of 32 F-4 Phantoms, while 28 more flew escort, with about 60 more aircraft flying support missions such as jamming and intelligence collection.

This is when Oyster flight of four Phantoms from Udorn RTAFB flew into North Vietnam toward Hanoi from the southwest at low altitude to avoid radar. Its job was to patrol the airspace ahead of the strike package, working to make sure no MiGs posed a threat. Two other F-4s, Balter Flight, flew behind them and above them. 

The idea was to allow enemy radar to spot Balter Flight with a view toward luring enemy fighters. The plan then was for Oyster Flight, staying at low altitude to avoid detection, to engage them by surprise.

Bob Lodge (Oyster One Alpha) with Roger Locher (Oyster One Bravo) were the flight lead. John Markle with Stephen Eaves flew Oyster 2. Steve Ritchie flew Oyster 3 with Chuck Debellvue.

Four MiG-21s approached from west of Hanoi at 15,000 ft. Oyster Flight moved to engage. Lodge took the first two shots with his missiles and destroyed one MiG-21. A furious air battle ensued. If you studied this battle you would learn how many air-to-air missiles failed to detonate, or ran out of fuel and burned out, or failed to track and flew off aimlessly. Nonetheless, the pilots fought hard and shot down three out of four MiGs, Lodge, Markle and Ritchie getting one MiG-21 each.

Lodge then found another MiG and engaged him. He got too close to use his missiles. Markle flew behind Lodge to protect his rear. Suddenly two MiG-19s popped into the fight in an ambush and flew in between Markle and Lodge. The MiG-19s had cannons and began firing at Lodge. Lodge’s right engine was hit, the Phantom caught fire and started spinning out of control in a flat spin.

Lodge's F-4 rolled on its back, the fire spread, Locher punched out successfully and escaped and evaded for some 23 days. But Lodge stayed with his aircraft and was killed. For some time thereafter, the feeling was Lodge could not escape and had no choice but to go down with his ship.

The rest of the attack and escort force proceeded to their targets. One of the targets was the Paul Doumer bridge east of Hanoi. Countless previous attacks had gone after this bridge, all failing to bring it down. However this attack force was equipped with electro-optic or television guided bombs, called Walleyes, and laser guided munitions called Paveways. Multiple bombs hit their target, and the Doumer Bridge was at long last disabled.

The Navy brought on the third phase of attacks for the day. 

The strike group began its attacks against the Hailing railyards. What would happen next, and the Navy F-4 pilots had not expected this, was the most intense MiG air-to-air combat of the war.

By the end of the day, the Americans had destroyed 11 MiGs, the most ever shot down in a single day. The Navy scored eight of the 11, the USAF three. The Navy lost two aircraft, all four crew rescued. The Air Force lost one, one pilot killed (Lodge), one crew (Locher) ejected and was ultimately rescued.

That was the air battle on May 10, 1972, the “Bloodiest Day” for enemy MiGs.

I need to return to the question of why Major Lodge did not bail out.

Colonel Marshall Michel, USAF, in his book, Air Combat over North Vietnam 1965-1972, told of a program called "Combat Tree." Colonel Michel wrote that Oyster one carried  equipment known as the QRC-248 enemy IFF transponder interrogator. Michel wrote:

“(Combat) Tree F-4s could see and identify the MiGs on their own radar screens even at low altitude; now flights of F-4s with Trees could be sent on MIGCAP (MiG Combat Air Patrol) into North Vietnam, arriving before the strikers and setting up patrols between the MiG airfields and the target to cover the strike and chaff flights as they entered North Vietnam...

“A MIGCAP ideally obtained two Tree F-4Ds in the number 1 and 3 positions and two cannon armed F-4Es as number 2 and number 4; unless absolute unavoidable, there was always one Tree aircraft in the flight.”

Combat Tree at the time was a highly classified piece of equipment. As of early 2017, the program and equipment details remained classified.

Michel specifically addressed Oyster 1, Major Lodge. He wrote:

“The loss of Oyster 1 had been especially disturbing; he (Lodge) had been the wing weapons officer at Udorn and the most knowledgeable pilot in the wing about the Combat Tree system. He had scored his third kill just before he was shot down, and he appeared to be well on his way to being the first Air Force ace. After the back seater (Roger Locker) was picked up and explained how the front seater (Lodge) had deliberately ridden the aircraft down rather than take the chance on being captured and interrogated by the North Vietnamese, no one was surprised ---‘He was that kind of guy’ was the common opinion.”

Ritchie would later say Lodge and Locher were considered by their colleagues to be the best fighter crew in Southeast Asia. Lodge and Locher were credited with three MiG kills, one MiG-21 occurring on May 8, 1972, just two days before their aircraft was shot down, the first on February 2, 1972, also a MiG-21.

On September 30, 1977, Major Lodge’s remains were returned to US control.

1 comment: