Talking Proud --- Military

The F-105 Thunderchief, a legend flown by legends

The F-105 "Thunderchief," known as the Thud, the hyper hog, the lead sled, and a lot more to those who flew her "Downtown" in North Vietnam, is indeed a legend. Most remarkable, though, are the men who flew her. One pilot has said, "To go to Hanoi day after day not only took great courage, but more important, it took great loyalty to your country." One writer said this about these men: "Knowing what lay ahead, the best of men competed for a place on the toughest missions. They did it because they were fighter pilots." We need to take a moment to think about their sacrifices and what those mean to our nation.

August 30, 2005

Editor's note: Our children need to learn about the heroes who fought the Vietnam War. They need to study these men, their machines and weapons, what they were up against. They need to learn these things because they need to understand what courage and loyalty mean. I urge you to make these Vietnam War heroes a mandatory curriculum item for your children. It is our obligation as adults to teach our children patriotism.

This is a photo of Darel Dean Leetun, Captain, United States Air Force.

He is a son of Hettinger, North Dakota, a graduate of Steele High School and North Dakota State University, a father of two and husband to Janet, and a former F-105 “Thud” pilot with the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS), Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base (RTAFB), Thailand.

Captain Leetun has been away for a long time, some 39 years. He came home in late June 2005, from North Vietnam, promoted to lieutenant colonel during the time he was gone. He was shot down and killed there on September 17, 1966. It's been a long time coming home.

This officer is a recipient of the Air Force Cross for extraordinary heroism, the second highest medal for valor in combat. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on July 8, 2005. A flight of USAF F-16 Fighting Falcon jets in the “missing man formation” flew over the grounds of North Dakota's State Capitol in Bismarck to remember him on August 13, 2005.

His son, Keith, now 45, said:

“What was meant for evil, God turned into good. Dad has now come home.”

We say, "Welcome home, colonel."


We believe this is a photo of Captain Leetun leaving North Vietnam under escort of an American military honor guard and a flight crew committed to his swift and safe flight home. Presented by Arlington National Cemetery.

On September 17, 1966, Captain Leetun, known as “Gravel” because of his raspy voice, was flight leader for a group of F-105 Thunderchiefs in the infamous, and most dangerous, "Route Package 6," (RP6), the geographical sector of North Vietnam hosting the capital, Hanoi, the country's major seaport, Haiphong, and two railroads to China crucial to the North Vietnamese logistics line.


On this day, Captain Leetun and his colleagues were targeted at rail and road bridges near Kep, about 35 miles northeast of Hanoi, in the mountainous Lang Son Province, not far from the border with China. The target area is shown roughly by the red dot on the map. We are going to discuss this target area later in greater depth. Suffice to say at this point, if you do a Google search on Kep Airfield, your computer display will be overwhelmed with Air Force and Navy pilots who gave their lives to attack the airfield and railway complexes in its near environs. Exposure to them and their stories is numbing.

Captain Leetun's was a daylight mission flown in the morning hours. The target was heavily defended. He and his flight came under a barrage attack. Captain Leetun's aircraft was struck by hostile fire, most likely antiaircraft artillery (AAA) as the flight approached the Cao Nung bridge 17 miles northeast of Kep. The aircraft lit on fire and was nearly uncontrollable. Nonetheless, Leetun remained in formation, delivered his ordnance right on target, and destroyed that target. After he released his load, his aircraft spun out of control and crashed about 10 miles from the target area.

His wingman, Mike Lanning, saw Leetun's aircraft crash but saw no chute and heard no emergency beepers. Lanning had tried to call Leetun during the bomb run when Leetun's aircraft was on fire, but Leetun never responded and Lanning said he never ejected. Captain Leetun was declared missing in action (MIA). The Air Force declared him killed in action (KIA) in June 1975.

A joint US-Vietnamese search team from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command conducted three investigations between 1991 and 1995 as they sought information on Leetun's crash site. During one of the investigations, local villagers led them to human remains on a hillside. The Vietnamese Communists agreed that the remains found on the hillside could be repatriated in 1995.

American forensic efforts in Hawaii positively identified these remains as those of Captain Leetun in March 2005 using DNA samples from family members. The Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory used mitochondrial DNA as one of the forensic tools to identify his remains.

Ken Rogers, writing for the Bismarck North Dakota Tribune, has suggested:

“All of us should take a moment and think about Darel Leetun's sacrifice, about what that means in terms of our nation, and about his family. And then look up at that blue sky and imagine an F-105 Thunderchief flying high.”

We want to do this. We will use the opportunity of his repatriation to talk about his airplane, his target, and other men who flew these machines into North Vietnam. As a result, we hope to tell you a lot about the air war and what our pilots endured. We need to understand these things.

The report is divided into five sections, including this introduction. The next four are as shown:

  • The F-105 Thunderchief, the airplane
  • The F-105s targets, Rolling Thunder in northeastern North Vietnam
  • Some of the pilots who flew the Thud
  • Concluding comments

The F-105 Thunderchief, the airplane

Captain Leetun was assigned to the 13th TFS, known as the “Panther Pack.” It deployed to Korat RTAFB in May 1966 using pilots mainly from the 44th TFS, Kadena Air Base (AB), Okinawa, Japan. we'll talk more about this "deployment" business in a moment.

We count ten F-105 fighter squadrons assigned permanently to the Vietnam War, mainly at two bases in Thailand, Korat RTAFB and Takhli RTAFB. We count another 10 squadrons that went in and out temporarily. You can get a good summary of these squadrons at Thud Ridge Web.

Let's take a look at this airplane, the F-105D "Thunderchief," more famously, and appropriately, the "Thud."


This is an F-105B on the lakebed at the NASA Dryden Research Center in 1959. She's really a beauty to look at. Photo presented by NASA

The F-105 Thunderchief was the first supersonic fighter-bomber developed from scratch. It was a private venture for Republic Aviation. The wing was highly swept and incorporated low-speed ailerons and high-speed spoilers for lateral control, and a droop-snoot leading edge. It was the largest single-seat, single engine combat aircraft in history.


This is a photo of the large bomb bay with a very large belly fuel tank beneath it. We'll talk about the fuel tank later. Right now, we simply want you to note the enormous size of the bomb bay. From F-105 Close-up presented by Frank Mitchell and Mark Young

The aircraft was built around a large internal bomb bay that could carry what was in those days a large nuclear bomb. The B28IN nuclear bomb shown at the forefront of this next photo was the principal nuclear bomb to be carried by the F-105.


B28IN nuclear bomb carried by the F-105 "Thud." This was a bomb built for high altitude freefall or retarded (parachute), airburst or contact, and low altitude laydown. It is our understanding that, for most targets, the Thud intended to come in low and as fast as it could go (Mach 1-2, depending on altitude and load). This bomb had a small diameter (22 in.), light weight (1,700 - 2,320) thermonuclear warhead inside and became the most versatile and widely used design ever adopted by the United States. From The Thunderchief's Nuclear Punch.

The “B” model was the first production model, but was not a good aircraft and was withdrawn from operational use almost as fast as it entered.


This is a photo of a 9th TFS F-105D out of Spangdahlem, West Germany in the early 1960s, before most Thuds stationed in Europe for the nuclear job were transferred to Southeast Asia (SEA) for the tactical and conventional job. While we do not know what, if any load this aircraft was carrying, as you proceed on in this report you will see that the nuclear bomb was carried in the bomb bay, so the aircraft looks "slick." In its SEA role, a gas tank was put in the belly and all weapons were hung off the wings. From the Cold War Thuds, designed and prepared by Dave Gurtner.

The F-105D was the all-weather nuclear strike-fighter version. There was no “C” model, so the F-105D emerged as the workhorse of the fleet.

The F-105 was deployed to Europe and Japan and tasked to conduct nuclear attacks against the Soviet Union, its allies, and if necessary, China. The 36th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) and 49th TFW had this job in Europe, the former at Bitburg AB, West Germany, the latter Spangdahlem AB, West Germany. The 8th TFW and 18th TFW had it in Japan, the former at Yokota AB, Japan, the latter at Kadena AB, Okinawa, Japan. Deployments were made to Osan AB, Republic of Korea, for F-105s to sit nuclear alert there as well.

The triad of B-52 long-range strategic bombers, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), and Submarine Launched Nuclear Missiles (SLBM) formed the heart of the American nuclear combat capability. The idea of using the F-105 for this job soon lost favor. As things turned out, she was needed for the tactical job in Vietnam, a job, frankly, for which the USAF was ill-prepared. At the war's beginning, the US had very few fighter aircraft from which to choose, and found itself having to get whatever was in the inventory over there. In terms of jet fighters, the F-100 Super Sabre was the first, getting to the theater in the early 1960s. The F-105 was then chosen, arriving in 1965. As you will see, the F-105 carried the heavy load of USAF fighter operations in this war.

Before we track the 105 into Vietnam, a conventional war, we found a most useful description by Ed Rasimus, a former F-105 pilot, of what it was like to train for the nuclear mission in Europe. He contrasts this with what the aircraft was expected to do to perform in Vietnam, and as you proceed through this report, you will be able to envision those contrasts yourself. Rasimus describes training for nuclear war with the 105 this way:

"In training we flew a nuclear profile mission that used all the systems. We would take off and level out at 1000 feet AGL (above ground level) on the altimeter and go 'under the hood' (The pilot can see the dashboard instruments through but cannot see outside as that view is blacked out). Engage autopilot and set Doppler nav(igation) coordinates to a known point to calibrate the terrain clearance radar for 1000 feet AGL flight. Then fly a 500-mile round-robin mission under the hood at low level through the Nevada mountains on autopilot using terrain-avoidance radar, altitude hold for the level areas, and Mach hold to climb/descend to keep the radar centerline clear of obstacles. Nav was linked from Doppler waypoints to the autopilot and could be updated either by visual or radar.

"At the target, we could deliver a blind offset nuc(lear) shape (that's a radar delivery on a non-returning target up to 10,000 feet offset from a nearby radar image) and the autopilot would do an automatic wings level 4-g (four times normal gravitational stress) pull up to auto-toss the bomb either forward in RLADD (radar low-angle drogue deliver) mode or 'over-the-shoulder' in high toss. The delivery was with an autopilot pull up to weapon release in a 'solution anticipation' mode (the airplane was almost at release parameters when at optimum release angle). The autopilot would then fly the complete Immelman and roll out in altitude hold on a preset heading away from the burst.

Editor's note: Rasimus in a different discussion elaborates a bit on the technique: "Start four-g pull up straight ahead for about six or seven seconds. Bomb releases in climb at about 30-45 degrees of pitch and flies forward to the target in a ballistic arc. A 'drogue' chute deploys based on a bomb timer to stabilize the bomb and slow descent until a radar ranging mechanism detonates the bomb at a preset height above the ground (air burst rather than the ground burst of the laydown delivery). The delivery aircraft completes a wing-over and escapes about 90-135 degrees off the original run-in course.")


This is a photo of a F-105D in flight carrying a full bomb load in a conventional combat configuration employed in the Vietnam War. You can see how its appearance differs from the one flown in Europe for the nuclear mission shown earlier. Photo from the USAF Archive, presented by the WPAFB Air Force Museum.

"Thunderchief tactics were different for delivering conventional ordnance. Remembering that the 105 was not a dedicated interceptor and that the air-intercept function was probably used more for tanker rendezvous or force join-up, the sequence in SEA (Southeast Asia) Route Pack combat ops (operations) would most likely be:

"Set switches for weapons delivery -- that's nine total positioning moves -- two radar switches, two sight controls, and five distinct weapons station, delivery, sequence and quantity switches, plus a manual depressed reticle setting on the gunsight

"Get jumped by (enemy) MiGs

"Reverse hard to negate initial attack, select AB (afterburner), pickle off (drop) all ordinance, blow external tanks, call for help on radio -- not necessarily in that order.

"Get really lucky and have a MiG in front of you

"Say 'aww shit' as you realize you're trying to shoot without guns selected.

"Select guns and say 'aww shit' again as you realize you're trying to track the MiG with a fixed gunsight reticle that's manually depressed 106 mils.

"Find the radar control and switch to 'guns air.'

"Realize you can't turn with the MiG and if you keep messing around you're going to be eating pumpkin soup (in a North Vietnamese prison) for the next five years.

"Unload, head for the deck, keep AB engaged and get the hell out of Dodge.

"Use the A/A (air-to-air) radar to find other members of your flight who are ahead of you and well above, since you are now in the weeds at Mach 1 (speed of sound)."

You get the idea. Training pilots for the nuclear job was far different than training them for the Vietnam War. Indeed, for the Thud pilots who were among the first to arrive in the theater of war, their tactical training was on-the-job training.

Furthermore, many changes had to be made to the F-105D to employ it in the Vietnam War.

Additional fuel storage was put into the large bomb bay.


Thud with Centerline Pylon Removed, Bomb Bay Opened & Bay Fuel Tank Lowered For Service. Photo credit: Michael Benolkin Photo, presented by

A six-barrel Vulcan 20 mm rotary cannon was installed.


Gun bay. Photo credit: Terry Summer. Presented by Aircraft resource Center.


M61 Vulcan Cannon Port on F-105D. Photo credit: Michael Benolkin Photo, presented by

The aircraft was configured to carry 12,000 lbs of external armaments on ejector racks hung from the wings. For a short-range mission, she could carry sixteen 750-lb bombs. Alternatively, she would carry two 3,000 lb bombs or three drop tanks. Typically, over North Vietnam, she would be outfitted with six 750-lb bombs or five 1,000 pounders, along with two 450 gallon drop tanks. She could also carry a Bullpop air-to-surface missile.


Fully loaded F-105D on its way to send love and kisses to the North Vietnamese. Presented by the USAF Photo Museum Archives.

We mentioned earlier that the F-105B had to be replaced before it got much operational flying time, and there was no "C" model. So the F-105D ended up carrying most of the load early on. It experienced a very difficult growth period. It had early engine problems. Between 1961 and 1967, the F-105D was grounded a number of times, after experiencing various operational problems, including the failure of the fuselage frame, chafing and flight control deficiencies, engine failures, fuel leaks, and malfunctions of the fuel venting systems. The aircraft went through continuous modification as a result of rapidly changing Southeast Asia combat requirements. These included equipping them with armor plates, backup flight control systems, X band beacons, new radar altimeters and gun bombsights. Their conventional bombing capability was increased. The pilot ejection seat was improved as were the refueling probes of the early F-105Ds.

While all this was true, the F-105 could take a beating. We believe that we read one source that indicated three of them were struck by surface-to-air missiles and the pilots managed to limp them to safe landings. If she had a drawback, it was with her control hydraulics, easy to damage leaving the aircraft without control. This seems to be confirmed in reading pilots' accounts of taking hits; they frequently found it very hard or impossible to control their damaged aircraft.


Damage done by a AAA shell. This is where the thing came out, after entering from the other side! He brought 'er home. Presented by Thud Ridge Web Photo Album.

We ran across a web site focused on Takhli RTAFB that featured some experiences of SSgt Ervin Davis, who was assigned to a commando unit at Udorn RTAFB farther to the north, across the Mekong River from Vientiane, Laos. Davis was part of several groups called "Emergency Recovery Teams," trained to dearm and download battle damaged aircraft. Udorn was a frequent recovery base for battle damaged F-105s that could not make it back to home base, so Davis was busy. He talks about the resiliency of the F-105 in very descriptive, "GI speak" terms that only GIs know. Here is an excerpt:

"I was not at Takhli but I served your birds at Udorn.

"We frequently chased smoke bellowing F-105s down the runway or parelled them on the flightline to get them when they stopped or even still on a rool, so we could down load anyway possable anything that goes 'BOOM'.

"F-105s came back so blown to Hell that more costly F-4's even a 10th as damaged would NEVER make it home ! If a bird was on fire, my crew had 'our own rules' that I influenced into creation, as frankly the importance was removing explosives NOT following Air Force regulations, so 'no sweat' we'd chase the bird (USAF, Army, Marine, Navy) then jerk stuff (bombs, missiles, rockets etc) free, hussel-hussel-hussel to lay it in the grass beside the runway, or rool it or skoot it there, then run back to get more, so the Fire Department could finish up and the crane pick up the damaged bird to haul it away so the runway was free for the next bird to land. We use to get evil looks from the Chief of Maintenance, Wing and Base Commanders, and shocked looks from pilots seeing us lay or skoot bombs etc into the grass like speed deamons,.... but our crew was the FASTEST and BESTEST and everyone was always amazed and always had compliments about our unbelieveable speed, and complaints about our ILLEGAL munitions handling procedures .....but mostly, after most folks saw us in action a few times, no one said much and when they did we knew they HAD TO to cover themselves and didn't really mean it ........... and if that wasn't enough to get us catching Hell all the time, there we were freaking out the Control Tower Jocks as we dodged landing aircraft for the next couple hours after the birds were removed, as we'd still be hanging around with an MJ-1 and chains hauling bombs and missiles from the grassy sides of the runway, de-fuzing, etc etc etc

"I've seen many of those battle damaged bird sights, .....and it seemed most FREQUENT that an F-105 would land blowing a tire eating half the metal wheel away while skooting blowing sparks down the runway, or sliding into the grass at 100 MPH or so ....... I'll never forget that one even landed BLIND with oil covering its windshield after being shot in the front section and taking a direct hit in the front canopy glass.......but one of the strangest memories was when an F-105 landed with a missile stuck into its tail!!! YES, you read correctly, this F-105 came in boiling black smoke, the rear side of the engine area with flames and so hot several FEET were eaten away by fire................. and that damned missile WEDGED in between the engine afterburner and the skin of the bird..... normally maybe a three inch gap now swelled around seven inches in diameter."

You've met the airplane, now meet a few of its major targets in North Vietnam, Route Package 6, Hanoi-Kep.

The F-105s targets, Rolling Thunder in northeastern North Vietnam

Most targets in North Vietnam demanded the Thud pilots fly1,250 mile round trips from Thailand, so air refueling was required on the way in and on the way out. This map displays typical flight routes for the Thud from Korat RTAFB, Thailand. You can imagine a similar route from Takhli RTAFB. Note that for practical purposes, same way in, same way out, day in and day out, for the F-105s , and same kind of refueling orbits for the tankers, so F-105 attacks on North Vietnam seldom came as a surprise. Recall from the earlier map of route packages that the F-105 was heavily tasked in Route Package 6, the northeast sector of North Vietnam, which included Hanoi and Haiphong. This is where we are going to concentrate, because that's where the Thuds did most of the work.


F-105 pilots often ran into so many hostile attacks on the way to and exiting from their targets that our refueling aircraft, normally the KC-135, a modified Boeing 707, had to take a high risk and fly over North Vietnam to feed the fuel exhausted F-105 on his way out. You can see that their refueling tracks took them over Laos, but they were not supposed to fly over North Vietnam. But they did. A warfighter does what a warfighter has to do.


Two 355TFW Thunderchiefs taking gas from a KC-135 prior to entering North Vietnam to attack their targets. Photo presented by Thud Ridge Web

Let's now get a better "lay of the land" for Route Pack 6 in North Vietnam.



When approaching Hanoi from Thailand, the F-105Ds had first cross the Red River, then fly over to "Thud Ridge", the name given by Thunderchief pilots to a series of hills located between the Red and Black Rivers. They then turned and flew low level down Thud Ridge directly to Hanoi and its near environs, or cross over Thud Ridge and strike at targets to the northeast of Hanoi.

Once over "Thud Ridge," the F-105s would approach their targets low and fast, an environment in which the F-105D excelled. Maneuverability and stability during low-level, high-speed flight were excellent because of the aircraft's high wing loading. By fast, we're talking in the vicinity of 500-600 knots, often at treetop level, no room for error.

We have read accounts by veteran 105 pilots that if hit over their targets in this route pack, they would first assess whether they could get to the Gulf of Tonkin to the east and bail out, knowing they would be picked up by the Navy, or second, get back to Thud Ridge where they could bail out and find some cover. Bail-out over the plains almost surely would lead to capture, and bail out over the rugged karsts to the northeast was a dangerous enterprise once their chutes hit the jagged limestone rocks. Sometimes, they could regain control and hobble to Udorn RTAFB as described earlier. Some would even land at or bail out over friendly Laotian dirt strips.

In these days, American fighter operations over Laos and North Vietnam from Korat and Takhli RTAFBs did not receive much publicity. The US and Thailand would not admit the US was flying combat sorties over North Vietnam from Thailand until 1966, and even after that neither government wanted to admit the extent of flight operations from those bases. Politicians and diplomats in both countries were in a "worry-warp" that China would enter the war ala Korea which, in turn, might trigger a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union, so these and many other diplomatic games were played.

From a USAF perspective, Korat was set up in 1962 with one officer and 14 airmen assigned on temporary status.


US Army "Camp Friendship" is in the foreground, the cantonment area where the first Air Force people at Korat RTAFB stayed. The RTAFB can been seen at the top of the photo. Photo taken in 1964 and presented by Photo Gallery for the 44th Engineer Group (Construction), Camp Friendship, Korat, Thailand

They lived at an Army cantonment at Camp Friendship, they had some vehicles including crash trucks, refueling units, forklifts, generators and the like. The Army operated their communications. As you can see from this 1964 photo, the Army cantonment area was very close to a pretty darn good airfield, a RTAF field at the time. As early as 1962, perhaps even earlier, the US government saw a need to get ready at Korat to fly and fight with USAF aircraft, mainly the Thud.

Following the Gulf of Tonkin battle of August 1964, people started to arrive at Korat to support tactical fighter operations. Initially, the group numbered about 500, and they still lived at the Army cantonment area. The Army started building up USAF facilities at Korat, adjacent to the RTAF airfield. The first fighter squadron, the 36th TFS, arrived in August from Japan on temporary duty. Temporary duty was used as a cover for Thailand, another diplomatic game to reject the idea that fighter aircraft were "assigned" to the field.

The 44th TFS arrived from Japan on a temporary rotation in December 1964, giving Korat two fighter squadrons.


F-105Ds at Korat RTAFB, 1965. Photo presented by Arlis Kelly

The 13th TFS was set up at Korat in May 1966, largely using 44th TFS aircraft and pilots. But it did not use the 44th TFS designation, instead taking the 13th designator. The 13th squadron had four flights of F-105Ds (single-seat) for air-to-ground attack and one flight of F-105E “Wild Weasel” aircraft (two seat, pilot and weapons system officer-navigator) which specialized in hunting down and destroying enemy surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites. Leetun flew the F-105D.


Thud Row -Takhli RTAFB Flight Line1965. Photo courtesy Jimmy Butler, presented by Takhli RTAFB Web Page.

Fighter operations at Takhli RTAFB began earlier, in 1962 when F-100s arrived from Cannon and England AFBs in the States, also on temporary duty. F-100 deployments and rotations went up and down through 1965, tankers arrived in 1965, and so did F-105s from the 355th TFW from McConnell AFB, Kansas.

All F-105 squadrons were extraordinarily busy during 1966-1967, focused on attacking North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos. They were part of the controversial Rolling Thunder air campaign against North Vietnam, begun on March 2, 1965, and terminated in 1968.


Gen. Earle Wheeler, USA, chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), meeting with Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson in the Oval Office, March 31, 1965. Photo credit: Yoichi R. Okamoto, presented by Library and Museum of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

To this day the mere mention of Rolling Thunder can get a veteran's dandruff up. One can find a number of different descriptions for the mission, and, as is the case often in war, the mission changed and evolved as events dictated.

As a general statement, Rolling Thunder was to be a systematic bombing of North Vietnam, starting at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Vietnam. By slowly advancing the target areas northward across North Vietnam, it was hoped the will of the North Vietnamese leaders to fight would be destroyed. The idea was to destroy industrial bases and air defenses, and stop the flow of men and supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The underlying core objective was to destroy the enemy's will to fight and force a truce. The US dropped more bombs during this campaign than all the bombs dropped during World War II.

Many issues are associated with this air campaign, too numerous to outline here. Washington imposed stringent controls. As indicated earlier, Washington feared Communist China would send in its forces to fight ala the Korean war, which in turn could result in a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. These fears drove many political decisions at home, and many American forces were fighting with their hands tied as a result.

In any event, the thinking in Washington was that a major air campaign against North Vietnam would force the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table and the war could be swiftly brought to an end. Some thought this could happen within eight weeks. They were wrong. Rolling Thunder lasted, on and off, for three years and, in response, the North Vietnamese substantially increased their operations in South Vietnam.

There were significant differences of opinion about the Rolling Thunder campaign between military, especially Air Force, leaders and political and diplomatic leaders, the latter referred to by this editor as "the suits." These differences deserve more than passing mention.


President Lyndon B. Johnson meeting with Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) around a picnic table on LBJ Ranch front lawn, December 22, 1965. The red arrow points to General Curtis Lemay, Chief of Staff, USAF (CSAF). Rolling Thunder did not make him a happy camper, and he looks it in this photo. In December 2004, we prepared a photo gallery of other such photos in a presentation entitled, "How did so many smart guys make such a mess of Vietnam?" You may wish to page through it. Photo credit: Yoichi R. Okamoto

While Rolling Thunder was initially advertised as an eight-week bombing campaign that would force the North to give up, it developed into what became known as a strategy of "gradualism," the complete antithesis of what General Curtis Lemay, the CSAF and his senior generals saw as the proper use of airpower. The Air Force at this point in its evolution was immersed in strategic bombardment, some called Lemay's "hard-knock." Many knew Lemay as "Bombs away with Curt Lemay." He wanted to pulverize North Vietnam's strategic targets and was not much interested in coaxing them to lose their will inch by inch.

General William W. Momyer commanded the 7th Air Force (7AF) in Vietnam and became General Westmoreland's air component commander for this theater of warfare. His idea of employment of air power was much like Lemay's "hard-knock,' except his plan was referred to as SLAM, a concept for seeking, locating, annihilating, and monitoring the enemy. In a book written by General Momyer, entitled Airpower in three wars, published by the Air University Press in April 2003, General Momeyer makes the following points about Operation Rolling Thunder:

Senior USAF leadership felt the operation was too restrictive and that it should target vital North Vietnamese strategic targets instead of lines of communication.

The USAF wanted an "air strategy focused upon the heart of North Vietnam. But neither the President, the Secretary of State, nor the Secretary of Defense yet conceived of Rolling Thunder as a strategic air offensive ... Secretary McNamara still believed that Rolling Thunder should be a limited application of Airpower against logistics targets relatively close to the DMZ. Further, the size and frequency of these strikes, as well as the targets, should be selected in Washington."

There was no agreed on formal command arrangement for who would control the strikes into North Vietnam. As an aside, Momyer took this on as a major task to fix while commanding 7th AF, and he finally became the air component commander for all air forces, though tensions always remained between the USAF and Navy-Marines.

Instead, a Rolling Thunder Coordinating Committee controlled air operations during the 1965–1968 bombing campaign ... "The Rolling Thunder Coordinating Committee could not do the job."

This was most surely a recipe for disaster - warfare by committee.

The F-105 in the early years of the war was flying about 75 percent of the Air Force's attack missions into North Vietnam, largely because the USAF did not want to risk the B-52 strategic bomber, which had to be protected for the nuclear strike mission against the Soviet Union. While the Thuds did enormous damage to the North Vietnamese war machine, they took a severe beating. The USAF bought about 600 F-105Ds. As of early 1967, there were only about 300 left. About 350 F-105s were lost to combat. Most of these, 312, were lost to anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) and surface-to-air missiles (SAM). Most of these were lost to AAA. North Vietnamese MiGs claimed 22 F-105 kills. In 1966 alone, the year we lost Captain Leetun, 126 Thuds were lost, 103 to AAA.

One problem was that the F-105 formations flew every day at roughly the same time, using roughly the same flight routes, and the same callsigns. So the enemy was waiting for them. In December 1966, MiG-21 pilots intercepted a large group of Thuds and shot down 14 of them. It was calculated that an F-105 pilot stood only a 75 percent chance of surviving 100 missions over North Vietnam.

In order to give you a sense for the job undertaken by the F-105 pilot and his machine, we want to present a few USAF photos of them in combat over North Vietnam. They were provided courtesy of "Ralph H. via Paul Jarvis," and presented on a page entitled, "388th TFW F-105 Thunderchiefs over Vietnam:" Remember, there is an American pilot in those cockpits!


June 1968 Hanoi strike.


F-105 over Hanoi.


Enemy surface-to-air missile (SAM) fired at F-105


F-105 struck by SAM and on fire


F-105 egress

Ed Rasimus, a lieutenant F-105D pilot at the time, later wrote a memoir of his F-105 days in Vietnam called,
When Thunder Rolled. We have seen some of his chats on the internet. In one, he said his roommate at Korat in 1966 kept a log for four months of Rolling Thunder. That log said they were losing about a pilot and an aircraft a day. He described it this way:

“During four months of 1966, I briefed each day for missions into NVN (North Vietnam) with a group that typically consisted of four or five flights of four aircraft--a total of around 25 pilots at a time. On average over the period we lost one of those guys daily. Next morning, start with 25, that night you have 24. Go in the following day with 25, finish the day with 24. Over six months that it took to fly my 100 missions my roommate kept a diary that listed each time we lost someone. During the tour we lost 110% of the aircraft assigned and 60% of the pilots who started the 100 mission tour didn't finish.”

As a result of such high attrition, the 13th TFS was transferred to Udorn RTAFB as an F-4D Phantom II squadron in October 1967. The F-105 men, machines and mission transferred to the 44th TFS at Korat.

So, the 13th squadron spent about one and one-half years flying the Thud in the war. The squadron arrived in May 1966, and Captain Leetun was shot down four months later, in September. He was on a Rolling Thunder mission.

Capt. Leetun's mission has been described as targeted against rail and road bridges near Kep, in what was known as Route Package 6.


Kep Airfield, North Vietnam. Note bomb craters. Presented by

Several months prior to his attack mission, a CIA Intelligence Memorandum provided to President Johnson addressed the Kep Airfield as part of a growing number of North Vietnamese air bases that could host the MiG-21 fighter, a major air-to-air threat to US F-105 strikes in the Hanoi and Haiphong areas. It appeared at the time that the North Vietnamese were trying to disperse their fighter force to reduce chances of their being destroyed on the ground and improve their access to incoming US fighter formations. The roads and bridges, of course, were used to bring in the needed equipment and supplies to build up the air base. The Soviets were mightily involved, assisting the North Vietnamese in developing their plans for air base buildups throughout the country.


As things turned out, the enemy MiG threat was not the major threat to the F-105, especially early on. So worrying about the airfield, in retrospect, arguably should not have been the major concern. More important, Kep was a major distribution point for transportation of weapons coming from China. It was a key hub on the North Vietnamese railroad system. Once weapons arrived at Kep, they were moved by trucks and boats to designated collection points were porters then carried them to their final destination points in the war zone. Kep was on the most important segment of the rail system which was a single track northeast railroad line that ran some 82 nautical miles from the Chinese border through Kep into the heart of Hanoi. There were a large number of important targets along the length of this railroad, including multiple rail yards and bridges linking the industrial and military triangle of Hanoi, Thai Nguyen and Kep. Those who favored strategic bombing felt that disruption, even total destruction, of transportation between these areas would greatly reduce the war making capability of North Vietnam.

However, the suits put on all kinds of restrictions in bombing these targets. For example, at one point, only 10-22 miles of its total length, depending on the timeframe, were declared accessible to US air attack because of self-imposed rules of engagement. The rest of the railroad line lay within the 30-mile buffer zone south of the North Vietnamese-Chinese border and the “protected” zones around Hanoi and Haiphong. This is what drove senior Air Force leaders nuts. They wanted to take down Hanoi and Haiphong and all the major distribution points around them; the idea that they would fall in "protected" zones was unthinkable.


North Vietnamese gunners manning an anti-aircraft artillery site. This was photographed by an Air Force reconnaissance pilot. Presented by

Returning to that 10-22 mile section of railway, the North Vietnamese installed AAA batteries every 48 feet and concentrated SAM sites around the tracks. The buildup of AAA became the major threat to F-105 operations, and most Thud losses were due to these guns. You will, in the next section, learn that our pilots watched the building of SAM sites in this area, prohibited from attacking them. Only when the SAM sites were operational and demonstrated hostile intent could our pilots take them out. For a long time, the suits did not want to admit that the Soviets and Chinese were building these sites, once again fearing they would enter the war with significant combat forces.

You've been exposed to the airplane flown by and the targets attacked by Captain Leetun and many others. Let's now expose you to the courageous men who flew the F-105.

Some of the pilots who flew the Thud

During the course of our research, it became obvious that the Rolling Thunder target area in northeastern North Vietnam was a mighty dangerous area. It is also obvious that our pilots were flying an airplane not designed for the job for which they were tasked. So, as is almost always the case, you are left with the pilots and their crew chiefs and mechanics, the men and women who have to get the job done no matter what the challenges

We can't introduce you to all of them, but we want to introduce you to some so you can get a feel for what kind of people they were, and what kind of missions they flew. There is no priority to the way we present these guys, except I want to first show the F-105 pilots who received the Medal of Honor, then one who received the Air Force Cross.

Medal of Honor

On Mar. 10 1967, then Captain Merlyn H. Dethlefsen, Greenville, Iowa and 354th TFS was flying an F-105F as No. 3 in a four-plane formation on a mission against the Thai Nguyen Steel Mill, 50 miles north of Hanoi. The task for the F-105s was to knock out surface-to-air (SAM) and antiaircraft gun sites before the bombing forces arrived.

When the four F-105s made their low-altitude attack run, the flight leader was shot down and No. 2 was damaged so heavily that he had to head homeward. Although standard tactics called for only one attack pass on such a heavily defended area, or two at the most, Lt. Col. Dethlefsen decided not to leave the area, but to continue his attacks. However, a MiG appeared and he had to fly through heavy antiaircraft fire to escape from the MiG; in doing so, his F-105 was also hit and seriously damaged.

Instead of heading for home, he elected to carry-on and even after the steel mill had been bombed and the bombing force had withdrawn, he, along with his wingman, stayed in the target area looking for SAM sites. After evading a second MiG and then having his F-105 hit once again by flak, the he spotted two SAM sites and attacked, destroying them both. Only then did he head his battered F-105 for friendly territory.

For his valor in combat above and beyond the call of duty, Dethlefsen received the Medal of Honor, the third USAF member to receive the award during the South East Asian (SEA) conflict.

On April 19, 1967, then Major Leo Thorsness, Walnut Grove, Minnesota and 357th TFS flew an F-105 aircraft 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 MiGs, damaging one 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.

Air Force Cross

By our count, thirty-nine F-105 fliers received the Air Force Cross, the second highest award for valor in combat. To our knowledge, only one man has received three Air Force Crosses, Colonel James H. Kasler.

During the Korean War, Lt. Kasler flew the F-86 and shot down six enemy MiGs to become one of the USAF's few jet aces, and received the Silver Star and three Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFC).

On June 29, 1966, serving as operations officer of the 354th TFS at Takhli RTAFB, Major Kasler's actions earned him his first Air Force Cross while flying as F-105 mission commander of a perfect strike on the heavily defended Hanoi petroleum storage complex.

Five weeks later, on his 91st mission, he led a formation evaluating low-level delivery against a high priority target. His wingman was hit and ejected, Major. Kasler located the downed pilot, flew cover at low altitude until his fuel was almost exhausted, refueled with a tanker, and returned to direct rescue operations. Flying at low altitude trying to precisely locate his wingman, Kasler's F-105 was struck by ground fire, he ejected, was captured, and served over six years as a POW.

Kasler received his third Air Force Cross for his almost inconceivable resistance to abuse by the North Vietnamese, the most notable being the infamous rope torture. In June and July 1968 he refused to meet with visiting delegations sympathetic to the North Vietnamese cause and appear before TV and news cameras.

Writing "Valor in three wars" published in the November 1986 edition of Air Force Magazine, John L. frisbee said this about Colonel Kasler:

"It took a particular kind of valor to withstand torture, deprivation, solitude, and psychological incursions month after month, year after year, with no end in sight. It also demanded a belief in something more important than one's own life. The bravest suffered the most. Tradition--the memory of great things done together in the past--also inspired and will continue to inspire airmen in combat and in resistance to barbarism if we again face an uncivilized foe. Kasler, through his heroism in the air and his unshakable determination never to yield to attacks on body and mind, is one of those in whom the Air Force tradition of valor resides."

Now, for some other heroes.

Let's start with Major Cliff Cushman, 469th TFS, Korat. He was shot down in roughly the same area (Kep, North Vietnam) as was Captain Leetun, and he was shot down about a week after Leetun was lost. The date was September 27, 1966 .

Cushman was number two in a flight of three F-105s targeted at a railroad bridge near the Kep Air Base. Cushman's callsign was “Devil 2." He followed Devil Lead into the target, dropped his load, and, after pulling off the target was hit by enemy anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). He reported losing stability, augmentation and aircraft power. Devil Lead saw Cushman's afterburner light, a simultaneous torch of flames right aft, and then Devil 2 broke apart. Cushman did manage to eject, and there was a beeper, but radio contact could not be made with him following ejection.


This photograph is of the limestone karst topography and rice fields in nearby China, the same as encountered in northeast North Vietnam by our pilots. Photo credit: provided by The Ongoing Global Bicycle Adventure

The area in which he ejected, populated by rough karsts, was too dangerous for a search and rescue (SAR). Years later, an investigation team learned from local villagers that a USAF pilot had ejected into this area, had very bad head wounds, probably from hitting the limestone of the karsts, died and was buried, but the burial site had reportedly washed away. To our knowledge, Cushman has never been found. Skeptics doubt the story, worrying that he met his fate at the hands of enemy forces.

You might know the name Cliff Cushman. He was a world-class hurdler, captain of the Kansas Track & Field Team, a two-time All-American at Kansas (Class of 1961) out of Grand Forks, North Dakota, a native of Iowa, and a 1960 Rome Olympics Silver Medalist in the 400-meter hurdles, beaten by the famous Glenn Davis. Dave Clark, his roommate at those Olympics, a pole vaulter, described him as a gentle guy, quiet, introverted, a "perfect gentleman." Clark could not understand why Cushman did not try to get out of Vietnam. He probably did not know that Cushman was in Air Force ROTC and fell in love with jets then. Nonetheless, Clark would comment, "He hardly seemed like a warrior." Clark, knowing Cushman's competitiveness on the track and field, should have known better. He would later come to learn about the magic. On May 1, 2004, Clark wrote this:

"Attempting to qualify for the '64 Olympics, Cushman fell at the trials in Los Angeles. On the flight home, responding to sympathies, he wrote newspapers in Grand Forks, Iowa and Kansas. He told everyone not to pity him. 'You watched me hit the fifth hurdle, fall and lie on the track in an inglorious heap of skinned elbows, bruised hips, torn knees and injured pride. ... In a split second, all the many years of training, pain, sweat and blisters and agony of running were simply and irrevocably wiped out. But I tried!' He cited Romans 5:3-5, about the link between suffering and endurance and character and hope. And then he dared young people. Dared them to cut their hair, clean up their language, honor their parents, go to church, help someone less fortunate, get in shape, read a book. 'I dare you to look up at the stars, not down in the mud,' he wrote, 'and set your sights on one of them that, up to now, you thought was unattainable.'"

You can hear the fire in Cushman's belly in those words. Cushman is listed as number 6 of the 50 greatest sports figures of North Dakota in the 20th century, behind the likes of Roger Maris (New York Yankees), Phil Jackson (NBA player and coach), and Lute Olson (Arizona NCAA basketball coach).

Then there's Ed Rasimus's book, When Thunder Rolled. The first line in Chapter 1 is:

“How'd I get myself into this?”

He goes on to write:

“It's May 1966, and I'm riding an airline into San Francisco, on my way to the ol' 'date with destiny.' Flying had been a dream since I was in the seventh grade in Chicago. If I had thought about it a little more, I would have figured out that a guy can get himself dead or even worse doing this kind of thing. Now it was getting serious. Here I was on the downhill slide into the Vietnam air war as a fully qualified F-105 pilot. Clearly an example of knowing exactly what you want until you get it and then finding out it ain't so good. Now the thought continually running through my mind is how do I break the chain. How do I get out of this?

“Why the 105? It must have been an occurrence in my formative years … Or maybe it was that July afternoon … cruising down Route 66 just west of Holbrook, on my way to start Air Force pilot training at Williams AFB outside of Phoenix. Windows open on the '63 Impala, all my worldly possessions in the trunk and the back seat, and me wondering absently about the new world I am about to enter. Then, with a blink of a shadow over the car and a nearly mind-numbing roar, two Thunderchiefs not more than a hundred feet above me blasting down straddling the highway. That's it. That's for me. I've gotta fly the 105. Life couldn't be better than that.”

Ned Colburn, and EB-66 Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO), tells about Major “Buns” Frasier, an F-105 pilot in the 333rd TFS at Takhli RTAFB. Buns was 6' 3” tall, 250 lbs, and “had to be lubricated and inserted into the cockpit of the F-105 with a giant shoe horn. Once installed, Buns was literally an integral part of the aircraft and flew it as such.” You can see the budding artist here painting an F-105 on a wall at Takhli during one of the bombing pauses declared by the suits.

Colburn goes on to describe a scene at the Officers Club, the wing commander seated alongside “the most beautiful, delectable, round-eye (American female) in an ultra short skirt that only a male in the jungle of Thailand could dream about,” and the chaplain, a former fighter pilot, drinking with a congressman (the round-eye's escort) and smashing their glasses against the teakwood paneling.”

There were some press people with the congressman, and one, from Time magazine, stood next to Buns at the urinal, asking about what it's like to fly the F-105 in combat over North Vietnam. The long and short of it went something like this, with Buns answering a question posed by the reporter:

“All we F-105 pilots fight over who gets to fly on Sunday missions where we go to Hanoi, fire our machine guns to ring the church bell, and when all the little kids come out of the houses to go to Sunday school, we drop napalm on them.”

Shocked, the reporter responded, “Major Frasier, you are putting me on in the most absurd fashion, trying to make me look like an idiot!”

Buns replied:

“You don't need any help making yourself look like an idiot, you Rufus Doofus Dunderhead! All I'm doing is illustrating how your article in Time Magazine will read regardless of what I tell you as the real facts of the matter - so Buzz Off Buster!”

End of interview. You gotta love Buns!

Ray Merritt was assigned to the 67th TFS of the 18th TFW from Kadena, and rotated in and out of Korat. He flew F-105 missions over North Vietnam between February and September 1965, and was shot down over North Vietnam in September. He was captured and held prisoner in and around North Vietnam until our POWs were released in February 1973. He was interviewed by Dr. Richard Verrone as part of the Vietnam Oral History Project at Texas Tech University. Merritt flew the F-84 for the USAF in combat in Korea, and the F-105 in Vietnam.

While in Okinawa, Merritt's job with his nuclear F-105 was “to keep China in bay. We had aircraft on alert same as Strategic Air Command (SAC), to attack targets, if ordered, on the mainland…Southeast Asia was a blip down there where you'd hear about it and didn't seem to be that much going on that we knew of.”

Before he knew it, family all settled in at Kadena, Merritt's squadron was ordered to Korat. What stands out in his descriptions of participating in the first Air Force bombing missions into North Vietnam and in the Rolling Thunder operations were the restrictions placed on our pilots, restrictions he scoffed at with noticeable contempt. We'll provide a string of excerpts to give you the feel:

“Of course, we had all this stuff laid out on our map where the DMZ was, where we could fly, where we couldn't fly. It was very, very tight control on what you could or could not do if and when we went into North Vietnam … Now also at this time, we were cautioned against saying that we were using Thai airbases. That was still something going on between the US government and the Thai government monarchy saying, 'We don't want the world to know you're using our airbases to bomb North Vietnam.' So, that was, 'Where'd you come from?' 'Well, I don't know' …You don't piddily bomb, use multi-million dollar airplanes and weapons systems to bomb trucks on a trail. It's basically what we were limited to … Unless the White House said, 'Go,' you would have a target that again, restricted areas, restricted locations, restricted ordnance, as to where you could and couldn't bomb. Stupid way to run a war … You were forbidden to attack a surface to air missile (SAM) site unless it launched a missile on an American airplane. You could watch it being built, you could see it being built. You could not attack them. If it launched a missile finally and became operational, the missile site, the SAM site, then it could be targeted, but by now its ringed with many layers of automatic weapons, camouflage, much more difficult target to find and destroy … You couldn't go within so many miles of the DMZ. You couldn't go I think 20 miles, maybe 10 a distance from the Chinese border. You had a 30-mile circle around Hanoi; you couldn't fly inside of or drop bomb expend ordnance inside of. Same thing with Haiphong, the harbor where all the ships were coming into; you could not attack. You could not destroy their capability to conduct war.

“I think we all said, 'What the hell, why are we doing this? If you're not out to win, why fight it?”

Merritt was shot down on September 16, 1965, in the morning, and was captured almost immediately by armed peasants. He was imprisoned for 7.5 years. Merritt, a retired USAF colonel and now 76, commented recently to Rick Rogers of The San Diego Union-Tribune, on his tour of duty in a Vietnamese prison:

"In one way, (being a POW) was a positive. You know that you can survive. You can dig down deep to find whatever is necessary to keep going, whether it is military training or schooling or your God ... We knew that even if we were shot down, our job was not done. We knew that if we could tie up the enemy's assets that they would have to deal with us instead of shooting at our planes."

Despite his obvious frustration and contempt for decisions made by the suits in Washington, Merritt and his colleagues were still fighting while roped up in horrendous North Vietnamese prisons.


Then Captain Jacksel M. Broughton next to his Korean war model P-80. Presented by Snow Leopard Productions.

Colonel Jack Broughton, a Class of 1945 West Pointer, Korean War veteran, and a Thunderbird pilot (F-84G), flew the F-105 out of Takhli and was the vice wing commander, 355th TFW there. He, like Ed Rasimus and Ray Merritt, is highly critical of the “suits” in Washington who mismanaged the war. That said, he received the Air Force Cross for valor in Vietnam and took the fall at a court martial against two of his fliers who fired back at a Soviet ship in the Gulf of Tonkin that first fired at them. He took responsibility for the retaliatory attack and destroyed a tape that might have proven the two retaliated on their own. He had been recommended for a second Air Force Cross but that recommendation was withdrawn because of his actions.

Robert Taylor has painted a portrait of his group of F-105s in the raid on the Thermal Power Plant at Viet Tri in March 1967. Due to a very clever set of maneuvers, the Thuds he led knocked out the AAAs defending the plant and the follow-on force destroyed it. Boughton is quoted saying this, in his typical style:


"Rolling Thunder," by Robert Taylor. Col. Jack Broughton leading a flight of four F-105 "Thuds" on a low level mission to silence AAA defending the Viet Tri power plant near Hanoi, March 12th. 1967. The target was destroyed. Presented by Brooks Art

“I led that mission as I wanted to, ignoring all details of altitude, airspeed, and heading given to me by some administrator who knew nothing of Hanoi... it made good flying sense, We flew a smooth mission, everybody did good work... "

Air Force Magazine related a story about Lt. Karl Richter entitled, “Here am I. Send me” in its December 1992 edition. Richter, a 1964 graduate of the Air Force Academy, became an F-105 pilot with the 388th TFW at Korat in 1966. Air Force Magazine describes him and his F-105 colleagues this way:

“F-105 pilots who flew 'Downtown' into North Vietnam's Route Package One to attack the most heavily defended targets in the history of air warfare were judged by their contemporaries against four standards: courage, skill, aggressiveness, and eagerness for combat. Lieutenant Richter entered this deadly game with enthusiasm and disregard for his own safety. He soon became a flight leader, volunteering for the most hazardous missions. He believed his most important contribution, next to destroying enemy targets, was to pass along his growing knowledge of tactics to newly assigned pilots.”

Richter flew two tours, over 200 missions, and died on a rescue helicopter after ejecting over very difficult karst terrain, suffering multiple injuries after striking the rough rock formations.


Memorial statue, 1Lt. Karl Richter, USAF, at the Air Park, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Photo credit: MSgt. Otto Ubele, USAF, Karl Richter VFW Post 10217, presented by Post 10217.

Richter Lounge at the Air Force Academy's Arnold Hall was named in his honor, and a 10-foot tall bronze statue of him stands at Maxwell AFB, home of the Air University. Most recently, the Air Force Academy Class of 2008 has named Richter has its Class Exemplar. The purpose of the Class Exemplar Program is to provide a clear and visible attachment to the great leaders of the past for a new generation of air leaders who will face new challenges in the future. The Class Exemplar serves as the honorary leader of the class, setting its personality and character. The Class Exemplar's model of innovative, pioneering leadership challenges cadets in each class to look forward into the Air Force they will soon be leading. The Class of 2000 was the first class to choose an Exemplar to lead them in the new millennium. Exemplar patches have been added to the cadet athletic jacket above the class year.

Look at the company Richter finds himself in:

Class of 2000: General James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle
Class of 2001: Brigadier General William "Billy" Mitchell
Class of 2002: Captain Lance Peter Sijan
Class of 2003: Major Richard I. Bong
Class of 2004: Captain Edward V. Rickenbacker
Class of 2005: General George S. Patton, Jr.
Class of 2006: General Carl A. Spaatz
Class of 2007: Lieutenant Colonel Gus Grissom
Class of 2008: First Lieutenant Karl Richter

As an aside, there is a rumor that Cadet Richter was a "triple centurion" on the punishment tour pad while at the Academy. We understand from a graduate familiar with him that he was indeed a character. Clearly he had spirit!


Captain John F. Piowaty and his Thud, handle-bar mustache included. This photo almost makes one want to say, most respectfully, "Dude!" Photo provided by John Piowaty and presented by Internet Modeler.

So did Lt. Col. John F. Piowaty, who flew the F-105 as a captain. He wrote the following “Reflections of a Thud driver” for the January-February 1983 edition of the Air University Review:

“In looking back on my experiences as an F-105 pilot in the mid-sixties, I realize that some of my strongest recollections involve the general frustration that we Thud drivers felt concerning the restrictions under which our war against the North was fought. Our rules of engagement (ROE) were defined with a rigid precision that made little sense to us at the time-and which make little more sense to me today.”

He further commented:

“I remember a protected building in Route Pack I, a church we were told. My wingman, one day, bragged that he got a large warehouse. 'Not a big white building with a pitched roof?' 'Yeah. Why?' 'That was a church. We weren't supposed to hit it.' Well, whatever it was, I got a helluva secondary (explosion) out of it!'”

Piowaty, by the way, got credit for helping to take down a span of the infamous Dournier Bridge on the Hanoi raiload and highway in August 1967, arguably the most heavily defended target in North Vietnam. The principle northern entry into Hanoi, the bridge was approximately one mile long and was made up of two highways and a rail line. Lt. Col. Harry W. Schurr led the third strike element and received the Air Force Cross for his gallantry.

Piowaty recounts his portion of the mission in Internet Modeler. It's a fascinating read, one that sends shivers up and down your spine, real good "pilot-speak." We are compelled to convey the flavor. The pilots were in the briefing room, a staff sergeant came out and broke the news: target is Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) directed, its "that big bridge heading into Hanoi, oh crap!"


Left to right, Bob Lindsey, Nelson MacDonald, Bob White, Mal Winter (standing). Photo provided by John Piowaty and presented by Internet Modeler.

Piowaty was in Bear Flight. Lt. Col. Nelson MacDonald, the squadron commander, was Bear Lead, or Bear One; Mal Winter, Bear Two; Bob Lindsey, Bear Three; Piowaty Bear Four. Col. Bob White, a former X-15 test pilot, was force commander, and Shark Lead, or Shark One.

Bear Flight took off as a team, one after the other, about 20 seconds apart. Takeoff speed about 193 knots. Following takeoff, Bear 4 had to accelerate to about 400 to catch up with the others, then throttle back to 350. An air-to-air refueling hookup completed after about 200 miles of flight, then in to the target area. Approaching the Red River near Hanoi, Bear Lead pumped them up to 520 knots, then to 540 knots, smoking down the flight path with the sky now filled with gray and black bursts of heavy-duty AAA. Bear Lead swivels his Thud belly up, hits the afterburner and rolls toward the target, followed by the other three. Each one "pickles off" his bombs and pulls off the target to head home.

The join-up point was about seven miles away. Piowaty knew there was a POW camp nearby holding US airmen and decided to swing down to 4,000 feet and let his comrades in the slammer know the hometown Thuds were there and that someone cared about them. Following this, Bear 4 headed to join up with his flight, jacked his Thud up to 630 knots, and all of a sudden he and his machine are immersed in AAA fire.

Just as he was to turn to join his flight, Bear 4 got hit, his Thud's tail struck pretty hard. Then Bear 3 was hit. Two out of four are flying hurt. They choose Udorn RTAFB as their emergency landing field, Bear 4's chute does not open on landing, but the arresting cable brings him to a stop. Here's Piowaty's aircraft, Thud 415, safe and sound at Udorn.


F-105 tail number 415 after her mission to attack the "Big Bridge," the Dournier Bridge in Hanoi. Photo provided by John Piowaty and presented by Internet Modeler.

On arrival at the Udorn Officers Club with brewski opened, Piowaty learns his 3,000 pound bomb hit the bridge and it was down. Mission accomplished, 55th mission over the North flown, 45 more to go to get into the "100 Club."

These photos are of Larry Guarino. We want you to meet him.

GuarinoBefore GuarinoCaptured GuarinoToday

On the left, you see him courtesy of Thud Ridge Web as a major flying with the 44th TFS at Korat in June 1965, shortly before he was shot down, on his 50th mission over North Vietnam. At the time he was only the 11th American to be captured and he spent nearly eight years in captivity. The middle photo is apparently a photo of him shortly after capture, presented by SOFTVision. We recommend you visit this site to read about him. He was a thorn in the side of the enemy, even while a prisoner. His captors kept telling him they knew he took off from Korat. After all, that's what it said on his parachute pack and flight suit. He insisted he took off from Da Nang and that his aircraft "crapped out." He also told his captors that the B-52 strikes they were enduring were retaliation for his own shootdown and capture, even though B-52 strikes against Hanoi had not yet begun. His captors pretended they were MiG pilots, trying to impress him, so Larry talked to them in fighter jock slang, lots of acronyms. Of course his captors were not pilots and had no clue about what he was talking, but they could not admit it for fear of losing face. The photo on the far right is Larry in 2001 at the age of 79. He retired a full colonel in 1975.

Oh yes, and one more photo. That's young Larry and his bride, Evelyn. This is off the cover of a book, Saved by Love, written by Larry's wife, Evelyn. Evelyn tells the family’s side of the POW story. Of this book, Senator John McCain, himself a former POW, says the following:

"Evy Guarino’s graceful account of enduring her husband Larry’s loss to the prison camps of Hanoi, and of ultimately being reunited to lead a glorious new life together, reminds us of the ability of patriotism and faith to overcome even the most severe tests of human will. Set in war and peace, their story, though tinged with suffering, rejoices in love and timeless truths. A wonderful tribute to the sacrifice of all POW/MIA families and the power of the human spirit.”

From where we sit, and we know Guarino went through hell while a prisoner, the North Vietnamese, the USAF, and the Thud didn't change the guy much over the years --- at 79 he was still a good looking dude.

One final note. Captain Kevin J. Cheney was an F-4E Phantom navigator and Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) stationed at Korat in 1970. He flew over there for two tours, and, at the time of capture, had logged 400 missions over Southeast Asia. His pilot was Major Paul K. Robinson. Like so many Thuds before them, they and their F-4E were shot down on July 1, 1972 while over Kep Airfield, but now by two SAMs that littered the countryside thanks to previous rules of engagement. They ejected just north of Hanoi and were captured immediately. Cheney was sent to the Hanoi Hilton, and became acquainted with Larry Guarino. Cheney has written this about that:

"My most memorable moments while in captivity came when I found and became acquainted with Col. Lawrence Guarino who had been captured in 1965. His oldest son and I had shared an apartment while in college, during which time I met Col. Guarino's wife and three other sons. The information that Col. Guarino and I were able to exchange while in prison was a big aid to both of us. I was very fortunate to have been put in the same camp with him."

We could go on forever highlighting these brave F-105 pilots, but we need to slow it down. Just two more photos:


Major Bill Vangilder of the 469th TFS at Korat RTAFB presents case of beer to crew chief following completion of 100th Mission on 14 July 1967. Old Vangilder sure looks like he put in a day's work for you and me. And please take special note of the crewchief --- you got it, a two-striper and a damn good one at that! Presented by Thud Ridge Web


Lieutenant Dave Waldrop of the 34th TFS at Korat RTAFB gets the traditional end-of-tour hose. Waldrop is credited with one MiG kill for sure, some argue two. Presented by Thud Ridge Web

We've covered a lot of ground. We want to conclude with some closing comments to sum all this up.

Concluding comments


F-105D RU 61-0100 aka "Hot Stuff" of the 357th TFS. What a beauty. The three feet long poles sticking out of some of the bombs are fuse extenders or "daisy cutters" which ensured detonation above the ground. Photo presented by Thud Ridge Web

The F-105 driver most certainly had his hands full flying into North Vietnam during the Rolling Thunder operation. He had a big machine designed for a different mission, and he had to execute missions in support of a political machine that had lost sight of what war is all about and that winning, as Vince Lombardi would say, is everything. The losses endured by these men and their flying machines are hard to comprehend in this day and age, but the legacy of airmen at war has always been one of great sacrifice from WWII through Korea and into Vietnam

We've found three well articulated takes on all this. No doubt, we could have found more. The first is by Dr. Kenneth P. Werrell, a historian who has written a great deal about air power and terms the F-105's performance in Vietnam as mediocre at best. The second is by Blake Morrison, an F-105 pilot and editor, USAF Weapons Review Magazine, who talks most affectionately about his airplane. The third are comments made by Colonel Bill Norris, F-105 pilot, to Air Force Association Magazine and written down by John L. Frisbee, published in January 1992. He talks to courage and valor.

Dr. Kenneth P. Werrell, a graduate of the Air Force Academy who went on to become a professor of history at Radford University, wrote an article, “Did USAF technology fail in Vietnam?” published in the Spring 1998 edition of Aerospace Power Journal. He made the following comments about the F-105 in Vietnam:

“The Republic F-105 Thunderchief in many ways symbolizes Air Force performance in Vietnam. It was an aircraft that looked good from any angle. It was fast and stable, a machine that pilots called 'honest.' It could carry a heavy bomb load a long distance at a high speed. In short, it was a fine aircraft, a pilot's plane, well designed for the single purpose of fighting a nuclear war … Although designated as a fighter its size and weight, not to mention its bomb bay, brought this designation into dispute.

“Some write that it earned a poor reputation mainly due to the poor reliability of the avionics and the pilot's unfamiliarity with the fighter. The aircraft's low in-commission rate and high cost of maintenance were both disturbing and frustrating. The aircraft and its systems were complex and new to the Air Force, and spare parts were short. More dramatic and more important to its reputation were crashes. An examination of the records of other fighters of the century series, however, indicates that at least early in its career (up to 53,000 flying hours), the Thunderchief's accident record was only bested by the F-106. Regardless, it was the Air Force's primary strike aircraft during the decade of the 1960s and what the Air Force had when the Vietnam War began. It flew three-quarters of the Air Force's strike missions during Rolling Thunder, the American strategic bombing campaign against North Vietnam between 1965 and 1968.6

“The F-105 did not fare well in combat. The Thunderchief served as a fighter-bomber but was limited by its avionics designed for nuclear, not conventional, missions. Ironically, the bomb bay was used to carry a fuel tank, not bombs. At low level it was the fastest aircraft of the war, but was at a disadvantage in air-to-air combat because of its lack of maneuverability. Overall, the F-105 had the highest loss rate of any US aircraft operating in Southeast Asia and over North Vietnam.

“Why such heavy losses? The political restrictions certainly played a role, allowing the North Vietnamese to build up and adjust their defenses. Another factor was that the tactics that had been developed for a short nuclear war proved costly and inappropriate in a long conventional air campaign fought against extensive ground-based air defenses. The introduction of surface-to-air missiles (SAM) made matters even worse for the airmen. A third factor was the aircraft itself.

“The F-105 was neither as rugged nor as survivable as its World War II predecessor, the P-47, which was rightly celebrated for its toughness. The Thunderchief was designed to fight a nuclear war in which the delivery of one nuclear weapon at low altitude and high speed was all that was required. Little thought was given to a campaign consisting of hundreds of missions extending over years. Therefore, survivability was not a major design consideration; ruggedness, redundant systems, armor, and the like were not priority items.

"It is hard to put a positive spin on the F-105's service in Vietnam. One might say diplomatically that its record could be called 'mixed,' but that really doesn't say anything. To cut to the heart of the issue, the F-105 could not overcome the limitations of its basic design, the peculiar conditions of the war, the role in which it found itself, or American tactics. At best, it proved to be a mediocre performer in difficult conditions.”

The following are the thoughts of Blake Morrison, F-105 pilot and editor,
USAF Weapons Review Magazine, in a “Requiem for a heavyweight:"

“Thud, that's one of the most respected names in the history of American aviation. She was called a lot of things then...hyper-hog, ultra lead sled, ultra hog. Drop forged by Republic Aviation and a lot more names that are unprintable. No one ever called the F-105 by her official name 'Thunderchief,' except the press. She was one big joke early in that decade. She was to all, that is, except those of us who flew her.

“But, 'Thud' stuck. And we Thud crews just smiled a knowing smile and quietly continued separating the gin from the ice. We knew something the others didn't. She was one of a kind. She was as stable as a Swiss franc and she could hit. She could hit with the Gatlin gun and she could hit with bombs, lots of bombs. She had long legs at low altitude. She was fast. It was very easy to go fast with her, especially on the deck. And nobody else could go that fast.

“Then we were presented with Vietnam and we found out some other things.

“From 1966 to 1968 she was the one to carry the big iron Downtown. She wasn't exactly designed for it, but Thuds hauled 75% of the smash carried down Route Pack Six. And in combat, she maintained a 90 percent in-commission rate.

“Maybe it was because she was used to taking hits from anyone and everyone, for we found out that she could take other kinds of hits, the real kind, as well, and still fly. As an example, numbers 0512 and 0376 (two dash tens) took direct SAM hits aft and came back home. So did 0167 (a dash five), returning with the entire right stabilator shot off.

“But she wasn't perfect. No real lady is. She couldn't turn worth a damn. We figured even a frisbee would outturn the Thud.

“She didn't always come back. She died a lot. Her corpses line Thud Ridge, Hanoi, Thanh Hoa, and a lot of other places up north. She wrote the epitaph for a lot of good men like Karl Richter. Over half the inventory was gone by the end of 1968; most lost in combat.

“She became a legend and legends flew her. Robbie Risner, Karl Richter and Leo Thorsness, to mention a few. She was flown by other greats such as Dave Waldrop, Billy Sparks, and Pete Foley. And she was handled by many unknowns like Bob Gerlach, Jim Stiles, and me.

“As a Weasel, she reigned supreme. She killed SAM sites, SAMs, MiGs, and earned the Medal of Honor for two men; Leo Thorsness and Merlyn Dethlefsen.

“The Thud piled up thousands of combat hours on each bird and she was said to be weary and worn out. But ask any F-15 driver who tried to pace her at low altitude during Exercise Red Flag 80-2. It was 'check twelve, turkey,' and I'll be waiting for you at the club back at Nellis. She's the only bird I know that can give you 'the bird' whether parked on the ramp, taxiing out, or in-flight.

“She entered the inventory on 26 May 58 and on 12 July 1980, she made her last scheduled operational Air Force flight at George AFB before going on for a brief stint with the Guard and Reserve.

“She stays with us as an American classic and a real thoroughbred. She could break your back but never your heart. She is genuinely loved by all who flew her and a lot who didn't.

“She was ugly, she was strong, but she had dignity.”

We'll close out with comments made by John L. Frisbee in an article entitled, "A Bridge Downtown." published by
Air Force Association Magazine in January 1992. Frisbee talks to courage and valor.

"Some targets have become legends in the history of air warfare. Among those of World War II are Berlin, Schweinfurt/Regensburg, Ploesti, and Rabaul. The Vietnam War's counterpart to Berlin was Hanoi, 'Downtown.'

"One of the Thud pilots who had gone north many times was Col. William C. Norris, who had flown 100 F-51 missions in Korea, had spent most of his career in fighters, and now commanded the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing's 333d Squadron. He remembers those days in Southeast Asia with a mixture of pride and bitterness. 'During Rolling Thunder, we lost 252 F-105s. Every day, those pilots who went to the Hanoi area went to one of the most heavily defended areas in modern warfare. Worst of all, they were forced to fight under the most ridiculous rules of engagement. Those unrealistic rules certainly contributed to our heavy loss rate and also hindered us from accomplishing our mission. To go to Hanoi day after day not only took great courage, but, more important, it took loyalty to your country'--whose leaders seemed not to understand air operations or the hazards to their own men, which they were compounding.

"Colonel Norris, today a retired major general, was awarded the Air Force Cross for his leadership of the Aug. 12 mission. Rather than being remembered for that award, he says, 'I would much rather be remembered as an F-105 Thud pilot of the Rolling Thunder campaign in 1967.'

"There could be no finer tribute to comrades who fought, died, and suffered in Hanoi's prisons. Knowing what lay ahead, the best of those men competed for a place on the toughest missions. The reason may defy layman's logic. They did it because they were fighter pilots."