The following is an excerpt from Bloody Sixteen: The USS Oriskany and and Air Wing 16 During the Vietnam War (May 2018) by Peter Fey. The passage details the events of October 1967 as Air Wing 16 prepares to continue bombing Hanoi and a young pilot named John McCain flies a seemingly impossible mission.
The low point of 1967 for CVW-16 was 26 October. The somber day marked the one-year anniversary of the hangar deck fire. But the men were too tired and too numb. They had simply suffered too much during the past months. For most, this day would be their fourth day in a row of strikes into Hanoi. As a result of the previous day’s targeting luncheon, the air wing was tasked with destroying the Hanoi thermal power plant. Unlike the previous raid, which was a point of pride with VA-163, there was not enough time to design an elaborate raid as part of other strikes. The air wing would have to fight its way into Hanoi alone.
As pilots were briefed for the mission, they began comprehending the overwhelming defenses they faced. Following three days of strikes to Hanoi, Lew Chatham, the assistant strike operations officer, fully expected to lose pilots. Lt. Cdr. John McCain pleaded with Lt. Cdr. Jim Busey to be put on VA-163’s flight schedule for the mission. Busey, who referred to McCain, the new guy, as “Gregory Green-Ass,” relented. On board for less than a month, McCain was still too new to be apprehensive about the mission that lay ahead.
That afternoon, Oriskany launched eighteen planes, led by Shepherd. The target lay in the very middle of Hanoi, and there was no easy way to minimize the risk. Shepherd led the strike west of the city, so if anyone was hit, at least they’d be flying toward the gulf. It also helped that they would be flying away from the setting sun, making life harder on the Vietnamese gunners. Shortly after going feet-dry, the defenses began tracking the strike. Flying at medium altitudes, the pilots were in the heart of the defenses. With RWR gear blaring in their helmets, pilots watched as the sky erupted with “intense and accurate” 57 and 85 MM AAA. McCain later recalled the raid: “The closer we came to the target the fiercer were the defenses. . . . We were now maneuvering through a nearly impassable obstacle course of antiaircraft fire and flying telephone poles. They [SAMD] scared the hell out of me. We normally kept pretty good radio discipline throughout a run, but there was a lot of chatter that day as pilots called out SAMS.”
As the strike approached the city center, poor weather once again conspired against Shepherd. Lt. Cdr. Buck Sheeley managed to find the power plant on the edge of Truc Bach Lake and talked Shepherd’s eyes onto it. They were so close that Shepherd was again putting his dive profile at risk. Sheeley dove down, leading his wingman, VA-164’s Lt. (junior grade) Frederic Knapp, through tracking AAA fire. Despite barrage fire blanketing their release altitude, Sheeley still destroyed the pumping station serving the power plant.
As the number three position in cag’s division, McCain made his dive on the target with a sam warning screaming in his ears. He was hit immediately after dropping his bombs, and the blast blew off his starboard wing. His Skyhawk plummeted in an inverted spin, and McCain ejected. The force of the ejection knocked him unconscious, breaking his right leg at the knee, his left arm, and his right arm in three places. McCain parachuted into Truc Bach Lake and came to as he plunged beneath the water. Using his good leg, he kicked off the bottom of the lake, only to sink again. On the third try, McCain managed to use his teeth to pull the inflation toggle on his life preserver and float to the surface. He was immediately set upon by angry locals, who swam out to drag him from the water. They proceeded to beat him—McCain was stroked with a rifle butt and eventually bayoneted before a North Vietnamese soldier arrived to control the crowd and haul him off to prison.
The Iron Hand division faced an impossible task as they fought to suppress the defenses. Lt. Cdr. Bob Arnold earned his third Distinguished Flying Cross in four days for his efforts. During planning, he identified the most dangerous sam sites and assigned two to each of the Skyhawks. As the strike approached Hanoi, Arnold destroyed one SAM site 2 miles east of the city, following his Shrike to the site and bombing missiles on their launch rails. But the defenses were just too great. Before McCain was lost, a SAM brought down one of the flak suppression Crusaders flown by Lt. (junior grade) Chuck Rice, one of VF-162’s August replacements. Rice saw two missiles tracking him as they began their bombing runs. His Crusader was loaded with bombs, and he didn’t have enough airspeed to escape the first missile. Rice attempted the last-ditch evasive maneuver and thought he’d made it. As he rolled wings level, the missile impacted. He later recalled the experience:
I daresay what I’m about to tell happened in no more than three to six seconds, but it seemed much longer. It hit, a tremendous jolt, and scared the shit out of me. Fire came into the cockpit. I got burned on my eyelids and neck and hands. I had vowed I would not jump out of an airplane as long as I had altitude and could make it go. . . . Well, it won’t fly. “You’re going to die.” I said that out loud. . . .
I pulled. The next sensation I felt was a violent tumbling. I didn’t feel the seat separate, the chute come out—just tumbling. Suddenly I’m in a totally different war than I was familiar with. The war I’d fought till this point involved the sound of my own jet engine and the radio voices of men either high-pitched panic or calm and cool, with puffs of exploding flak outside my canopy, and the white contrails of jets streaming around.
Soon as I punched out, it’s windy and I’m hearing all this noise. Flak and missiles exploding, the roar of bombs going off, the sound of the whole strike group, instead of just the sound of my engine. And the smell! Even that high up I could already smell North Vietnam. Night soil used as fertilizer. The country smelled like shit.
There I was. If you’ve ever seen a five-year-old kid who just lost his mother in a shopping mall, that’s what you’ve got in that parachute floating down. Mrs. Rice’s little boy, Chuckie, age twenty-four. It was the worst despair I’d ever felt in my life. And I started to cry. I said,“This can’t be happening to me.” Floating down. Tears pouring out of my eyes.
As the strike group flew back to Oriskany, their numbness masked the toll. The strike had been successful, but it came at great cost. While the damaged power plant burned for days, men struggled to cope with the stress and constant losses. Lt. (junior grade) George Schindelar was Shepherd’s wingman, and when he didn’t see the target, it delayed their dive to the point they dove at too steep an angle. Schindelar had almost flown into the lake trying to pull out from a 65-degree dive, and he was livid. During his debrief, he angrily told both Doug Mow and Bill Span that he refused to fly again with cag Shepherd. Both men calmly told him to be quiet, and he’d fly with whomever he was assigned. Rear Admiral Richardson was so pleased with the results that he told his staff to submit whoever led the strike for a Navy Cross. The whole incident left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth and further polarized the air wing at a time when they could least afford it.
And so it went. The Alpha strikes continued twice a day, with missions to the Uong Bi power plant, the ferry at Kim Quan, and more. The days blurred together as men kept flying, believing North Vietnam to be on the brink of defeat. But the chance for victory, so close in September, had passed. The seeming fury unleashed by President Johnson proved to be nothing more than an impotent fit of rage.