I flew my 145th and last combat mission 5 Nov '67, not by choice. I had arrived at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base on March 15, 1967 after completing the Wild Weasel School at Nellis. I talked to my boss, Lt Col Obie Dugan, who was commander of the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron and our deal was that I would fly 100 missions as a Wild Weasel and then complete another 37 missions as a strike pilot. This would make me one of the first guys to get 200 missions in North Vietnam in an F-105, since I had flown 63 missions in '65 when the 563 TFS had been at Takhli for 4 months. In fact it would make me one of the first to get 200 in anything, since Carl Richter at Korat would be the first to finish 200 in September. My Boss sent me up the command chain. The Deputy for Operations for the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing (355TFW/DO), Colonel Bob White agreed as well. My next stop was with the Wing King of the 355 TFW, Colonel Bob Scott, Colonel Scott also agreed and I was off to the races.
By late October '67 I had flown 77 missions as a Wild Weasel and Carlo Lombardo and I had become a hell of a fine Weasel Crew. In October of '67, Colonel White was reassigned to Saigon to become the Director of Operations for all Out-Of-Country missions. He was the first director to have ever flown in the North and that, along with his excellent other qualifications, made him the best man for the job. All of us who flew in North Vietnam really needed someone who could walk and chew gum without gagging in that shop. We needed all the help we could get and Colonel White promised to be an absolute treasure. The only problem was that he needed an Electronic Weapons Officer (EWO) in his shop and wanted Carlo. Carlo Lombardo was easily the best choice for the job, but it would break up our team and I was selfish enough to want to keep him. Colonel White actually asked me, a lowly Captain, if he could take Carlo. I was forced to smile and be a nice boy. I became an instant Strike Pilot and also "D" Flight Commander instead of "E" Flight (Weasel) Commander.
The Sparks-Lombardo Wild Weasel team was a top pairing in the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron. Their job was to fly in first and light up enemy radars inviting attack. Their first-generation smart bombs and missiles could follow a radar signal to its source. Of the team it was often said (by front seaters no doubt), that all the brains were in the back but all the decisions were made in the front. For a better understanding of the Wild Weasel concept visit Wikipedia. Photo: USAF
Colonel White took me in to see our Wing Commander, Colonel Giraudo, who had replaced Colonel Scott in the summer. Colonel Giraudo, AKA The Great Kahuna, reluctantly agreed to let me finish out my remaining 60 missions for the magic 200. Carl Richter had been killed recently with only a couple to go for 200 and the all of the Brass were a bit nervous about allowing anyone to try for the 200 mark. I would rather have been a Weasel, however, Captains take what they can get. I took over "D" flight and started to relearn how to lead a Strike Flight. I flew my first Strike Flight Lead to Kep Airfield and my second to Phuc Yen. My third was to Kep again and I was back in the saddle. Three Route Pack Six missions in three days are a good way to get back in shape.
I managed to slow myself down in the Takhli Stag Bar by dislocating my right shoulder while rolling for drinks. A "Roll" consists of several staid, sober, careful folk looking at each other and yelling, "Last one with his feet on the bar-rail buys!" Everyone does a front roll and the last one to whack his feet on the bar rail buys a round for the mess. I tripped, dislocated my shoulder, AND had to buy for the bar. Not a very swift way to "Roll" for drinks. Ted Moeller took me over to the Hospital and had my arm taped to my side for 10 days.
I spent the next fortnight being Supervisor of Flying (SOF), a job that ranks somewhere near dental work without anesthesia. I also heard a whole bunch of my "Friends" offer to "Roll" for drinks. I finally got the shoulder working at about half speed and flew an engine change test hop to prove I was ready and went back on the schedule.
One of the reasons I had been reassigned as a Strike Pilot was that all of the Squadrons were short of Mission Commanders. My Squadron, the 357 TFS, had only two, Lieutenant Colonel Tom Kirk, our boss, and Captain Neely Johnson. Neely and the Boss were both outstanding; however, we really needed at least 2 more to keep the workload down. While I was SOF for 10 days, Tom Kirk was shot down over Hanoi, not recovered, and Neely was the sole Mission Commander in the Squadron. I was scheduled to become a Mission Boss after my first 3 missions, but the dislocation put that on hold. I was scheduled for two more to see if the shoulder would work before I would be certified as a Mission Boss.
A trio of Takhli-based F105 Thunderchiefs on the roll. Photo: USAF
A two-seat F-105 “Thud” belonging to 357 Tactical Fighter Squadron sits in a revetment at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand. Photo: USAF
Two 357th Thuds (Tail code RU) sit at the Takhli flight line. Photo: USAF
A nice colour shot of a single-seat F-105 strike fighter, again at Takhli, Thailand. Photo: USAF
A clear comparative shot of both the single seat and two-seat variants of the mighty Republic F-105 Thunderchief or "Thud”. The two seat variant was utilized in the early Wild Weasel program. Photo: USAF
I led a flight to Kep the first day back and the next day, November 5, 1967, I led to Phuc Yen again. My call sign was Marlin and we were to be the last flight to roll in (Tail End Charlie). Flying a raid against Phuc Yen is about like being in hell with your back broke. The only thing worse is to be Tail End Charlie at Phuc Yen. The bad guys kept all of their MIG-21s there and objected rather firmly when we hit the airfield. As I remember, there were over 1,000 37 mm and larger guns surrounding the place and it was covered by between 6 and 16 SAM sites. Not exactly the best spot for a sight seeing trip.
The briefing for Marlin flight was a bit different on that day because I was checking out Major Frank Billingsley as an element lead. Frank was over 40, had come to the F-105 from C-141s, and had never flown any single-seat aircraft since he went through pilot training. Frank had been one of our students at McConnell and I had given him a couple of check flights before I went to Weasel School. He asked me to cover Rescue Procedures (RESCAP) during the mission briefing at the squadron. I asked why and he told me that if he were to really be an element lead, he might have to run a RESCAP. I told him that I would run the RESCAP if required. He said, "Not if you're the one on the ground." I covered RESCAP for at least 15 minutes and asked for questions. There were none and we suited up.
The author, Captain (at the time) Billy Sparks (seated) explains the days mission for fellow 375th TFS pilots and GIBs (Guys in Back). Photo: USAF
All of the ground routine went smoothly. Taxi, takeoff, join-up, refueling, pod formation, and all of the other aspects of an RP-6 mission were routine. The Strike Force held a good pod position as we made our way through Laos and North Vietnam to the Red River crossing point about 10 miles downstream from Yen Bai. From there toward Phuc Yen, the Strike Force flew at about 6,000 feet and 540 knots until we neared the MiG base and started our afterburner climb to roll-in altitude. For some reason the 3rd flight hung it high and waited way too long to start their attack which caused Marlin to be almost at 18,000 before we could head down the slide. Our attack heading was almost east instead of southwest because of the delay and it seemed as though it took a week to fly down to release altitude of 7,000'. Since our target was the last standing hangar on the airfield, it was easy to spot. The normal problems caused by the flack bursting in layers caused us to lose sight of the hangar two or three times, but it didn't move and was there when we got to our release parameters of 7,000', 45 degree dive, and 540 knots. The pass looked good at the time and, the next day when I saw the Bomb Damage Assessment photos (BDA), we had put 18 of our 24 M-117 750 lb. bombs through where the roof had been. Not too shabby for manual bombing.
Phuc Yen air base near Hanoi under attack from USAF fighter bombers in 1967. Photo: USAF
I reefed my bird hard up and left at 5+ "G" and did my normal roll right and then left to allow my wingmen to see me for the rejoin. Our problem was that we were now headed almost directly toward Hanoi and really had few options to avoid the vast amount of flack. I took the easiest way out by flying a loose left, jinking turn around Phuc Yen in order to fly on the north side of the complex and head for Thud Ridge. There were fewer guns on the north side. It took over a minute to rejoin. Before the flight could get into pod formation for SAM protection, we had 3 missiles launched at us from our six o'clock.
My choices were not very good. I could turn right and over-fly the north railroad and dodge the missiles while in the flack from the rail lines, I could turn left and fly back over Phuc Yen dodging missiles in even worse flack, or I could put the flight down in the weeds supersonic and haul for the ridge below 50'. I chose to mow the grass. Red-Dog, the Weasel flight, called the launch and told me which SAM site it was from. I jerked the bird around enough to catch sight of the first SA-2 Guideline missile and watched it hit the deck. My wingmen were almost in formation by now as I saw the second missile loose guidance commands and go up out of sight. At about the time I heard Red-Dog 3 call that he was hit and burning, I caught sight of the 3rd missile as it went into some houses and exploded. I decided to come up out of the grass and started a climb as Marlin Flight got into good pod formation. We were at 750 knots and were below 100' above the rice paddies as I came out of after burner and continued to climb.
USAF Thunderchiefs (Of the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing) on a strike mission over Hanoi break hard to avoid incoming SAM missiles. Photo: USAF
A back-seater in an F-105 looks back past his bomb load to capture a Thud being hit by a SAM over North Vietnam. The missile did not have to make a direct hit to cause mortal damage and this Thud is streaking away with flames coming from its dying engine. Photo: USAF
As I passed through about 100' altitude, I saw several rounds zip by me and three hit my aircraft. I took three 57 mm hits almost simultaneously. The rounds came from a 57 mm site almost a mile north of us and were optically fired. These were the same guns that had hit Red Dog. One round hit the afterburner section just above the right slab, one was in the bomb bay directly under my feet, and one was in the Air Turbine Motor (ATM) compartment just in front of my right knee. I kept climbing at near military power and the cockpit instantly filled with smoke. I heard Red-Dog 3 calling that he was on fire and also heard his element lead tell him that he was in "Great Shape", a big fat lie.
Red-Dog 3, Dutton and Cobiel, bailed out over a rail yard less than 20 miles away and were put in the Hilton. Dick made it out in '73; however, Ed Cobiel died from torture he received from Fidel, the Cuban torture specialist at the Hilton.
I couldn't see anything because of the smoke and decided to blow the canopy. I flat could not find the canopy ejection handle on the left console and pulled some knob off trying, so, I flipped the manual canopy unlock lever under the canopy rail and the canopy went like it had been blown off. I was now in a convertible at 695 knots, still supersonic, climbing through 300'. I got two or three radio transmissions out before the radio died and everything else decided to quit. It was probably a good thing the radio failed or everyone could have heard me squealing. The fire from the AB section caused the Fire and Overheat Lights to both come on and then quit. I checked the circuits and they didn't test (just like the good book says can happen when a big fire is on board). All three hydraulic gauges started down, bounced a few times, the utility gauge went to zero followed by primary flight gauge #2 (P2). P1 (primary Flight #1) went slowly down and then dropped to zero. The oil pressure gauge went to visit the hydraulic gauges and every light on the peek and panic panel came on and then all of them quit.
Shortly after the radio quit, I had a complete electrical failure followed by the failure of all pitot static flight instruments. The only thing in my Thud what worked was the Whiskey Compass and I think it was leaking alcohol.
I was still flying and heading up Thud Ridge away from Hanoi. I still had smoke coming into the cockpit and swirling around before the truly tremendous slipstream sucked it out. I caught myself reaching up and fanning the compass mounted on the canopy to see what heading I had. Now that is very stupid. I am in a 450-knot convertible fanning a compass. If my arm had gotten caught, I would have been sans arm. I started to laugh at my stupidity until I noticed that the right front quarter panel of the windscreen was starting to melt. I reached as far forward as I could and felt extreme heat from the fire in the ATM compartment. I am sure that the utility hydraulic reservoir had ruptured and was burning. The right quarter panel melted almost completely and shortly thereafter the right rudder pedal collapsed and dangled from the cables. I was now over half way up Thud Ridge and had turned for the Red River crossing. That was pure reflex, I guess. I then had an explosion in the bomb bay, which blew the doors off and a small amount of fire came into the cockpit below my left foot. I had to hold my left foot up to stay clear of the flame. It wasn't all that hot due to the suction from the canopy area.
I had a couple more minutes to get to the river. I held what I had, trying to be the smoothest pilot in the world since I didn't have the foggiest how much hydraulic fluid I had in P2. The fire burned up from the AB section and the aft fuel tank blew leaving only the aircraft struts showing. The fire also burned up the right side of the aircraft, out into the right wing and the right main tire blew causing the right main gear to smack down into the slipstream and be ripped off the aircraft. All three of my wingmen looked like the Thunderbirds at an Academy Graduation. I had no right rudder pedal, no right gear strut, my bomb bay doors were missing, no lid on my cockpit, a melted hole in the windscreen, my left foot up, sundry other things disastrously wrong, BUT, I was coming up on the Red River. I found out afterwards that I had been called out as a SAM twice by other aircraft as I burned my way up the ridge. Marlin Three only said, "That's no Sam, that's Sparky" I started to think I had it made until the controls went and I became a passenger.
I still had 5 miles or so to go to cross the river when all of the controls went south. The bird pitched up, shuddered, rolled right like it was going to spin, and then started another pull-up. It was still going my way, so I held on to the stick to keep my arms from getting outside and stayed with my Thud. It would pull up sharply, shudder, shake, and snap right as if it were going to spin, and then start another pull-up. It did this three times until I was over the Red River. The last time it did snap into an inverted spin entry and I decided that it had taken me as far as it could go and pulled the handles up and squeezed the triggers. Only an F-105 could have taken that amount of punishment for 7 ½ minutes and deliver the driver to the river.
I still had one of my wingmen trying to fly formation and saw him flash by as I ejected. I had no idea what my altitude, airspeed, or attitude was since nothing worked except the Whiskey Compass. I learned that I was at 24,000', 270 knots and entering an inverted spin, BUT I was over the Red River. Being over the river was wonderful since the rescue Jolly Green Giants were not allowed to cross the Red River for a rescue.
I fell about a week subjective time waiting for the 'chute to open at 10,000' and remembered that the last time I had ejected I had caught the risers under my chin and really put a Raspberry on my neck. I was at least not going to do that again. I stabilized on my back in a head down position that didn't spin and when I heard the spring motor in the parachute whir, I snapped my chin down just in time to catch the risers under it. I put another Raspberry on my neck. When I looked down I was not quite across the river, so I hauled on the front risers and slipped across. I then saw that I was going to land near a small group of houses, so I went back up the risers and turned the 'chute and headed down stream. I pulled the front risers down and then got my knee in the riser "Y" and did front riser slips to put as much distance between me and the houses until I was at about 200 feet or so above the jungle. I had come almost 4 miles and had two ridgelines between me and the nearest house or road. I looked down and decided that I needed to stop the slip and land in what I thought was "Elephant Grass". I landed in 75' tall bamboo.
I smashed into the bamboo and the 'chute caught with me at least 40 feet up. The bamboo broke and I fell the last 40 feet and landed like a sack of feed on a fairly steep hillside with no place to do any kind of a parachute landing fall (PLF). I didn't even do a Fighter Pilot PLF of heels, ass, and head; instead I just crumpled into a mound of goo. I broke my right patella, chipped a bone in my right elbow, dislocated my right shoulder again, had hairline fractures in several small bones in both feet, and landed on the family jewels with a mighty thump. I was down and across the river.
I moaned some, cursed even more, and managed to get the beeper from my parachute and shut it off. I pulled out my primary survival radio and found that the radios were very weak. Not to worry, I had two survival radios, three sets of batteries, the 'chute beeper, and a partridge in a pear tree. I drank one of my 6 baby bottles of water, contacted Frank Billingsley who was running the RESCAP in an exemplary fashion, and started to move down the hill and find a place I could see the sky.
If you have never been in bamboo, don't go. It is not a nice place. I would end up several feet in the air trying to squeeze through the bamboo and have to break my way back down. I moved about 200 yards in about 15 minutes and worked my way into 25 foot tall ferns that made the bamboo look like a good place. It took another 10 or so minutes to wiggle out of the fern thicket and get under a huge tree. I tried to find a better place and gave up since the whole area was bamboo and/or ferns. I talked to Frank and vectored him in to my tree and asked him to check his fuel. He in informed me that he was running this show and to shut up. He also told me that he had a better view than I did, had sent the wingmen out for fuel, and was about to have to leave for a while. I found out that he left my tree, 75 miles northwest of Hanoi, with less than 2,000 pounds of fuel. He went to a tanker and was back in 29 minutes. The tanker could not have been in Laos. Everyone was trying his best to pick my worthless butt up.
I sat under my tree for almost 20 minutes; it seemed like a week, until I heard a burner light. I came up on the survival radio and had a call from Ozark; a flight of four from Korat who had my cap until Frank got back. I vectored them into my tree and they set up a cap away from me to keep the bad guys guessing. Frank called back a few minutes later with the rest of Marlin Flight and took back the RESCAP duties. I was starting to get lonely and had finished two of my baby bottles when Frank told me that the Sandies were inbound. I had been on the ground for only a bit over 2 hours clock time or a month subjective time. I started to believe I had a chance. I inventoried my stuff and put everything I was going to take out away. Pistols, spare radio and batteries, the beeper, all seven knives I carried, my Medical kit, and my trade goods kit. I kept out several flares and two pen-gun flare kits.
The Sandies called shortly thereafter, at about 1630 local time, and I managed to vector them in to my tree. They left to set up an orbit away from me and I waited very anxiously for the HH-3 to arrive. I listened to the Jolly call in and then all hell seemed to break loose. Some MIG-17 showed up and the Sandies became most nervous. The Jolly tried to calm things down and the Low Sandy came by to mark my position with a Willy Pete (White Phosphorous) bomb. The Sandy then marked another location for some reason and the Low Jolly went there. I had 17 aircraft in my CAP and everyone started to talk at once. The Jolly went to the wrong place and then headed back to me. All this time I could see a little patch of sky only about 30 feet in diameter. Frank made a pass at the Low Jolly and turned him towards me and shouted for me to, "Do something!" I pulled out my pen-gun flare and fired and reloaded as fast as possible. I bounced a flare off his canopy and saw the pilot jump and then hover in my tree.
The angels. Any downed USAF or USN pilot could count on the Search and Rescue tag team of the Sikorski HH-3 “Jolly Green Giant” helo and Douglas A-1 Skyraiders (affectionately know as “Sandies”). The immediate Combat Air Patrol or CAP was conducted by the pilot's squadron mates until this team arrived. The Sandies would mark the spot of the downed pilot and then the helo would drop in to hoist him out. In the meantime, the relatively slow-moving Skyraiders would scour the surrounding area with rockets and machine guns to supress any attempt by the enemy to find the pilot.Photo: USAF
A Sandy pulls up hard in the moist Vietnamese air after marking a spot on the jungle floor with a white phosphorous bomb. Photo: USAF
The radio went absolutely Able Sugar with people shouting out MiG calls and as I watched the penetrator come down towards me. I had stowed my radio and did not hear a transmission from Harry Walker who was told that there were MiGs in the area. His answer was, "Keep them off my ass, I've got better things to do!" and stayed in the hover with his rotor blades whacking the tree well below the top. I backed out to see the cable operator, but the open space was so small I couldn't see squat. The cable stopped a few feet above me and then came down some more and was level with me a bit down a steep slope. I couldn't jump because of my ankles and knee and then it swung towards me and I let it hit the ground and discharge a huge spark. I then unzipped the straps, pulled down on the folding seat, put my legs around the penetrator, really tightened the straps around my body, and yanked on the cable as hard as I could. I was pulled off the ground and up about 50 feet or so. The HH-3E pivoted 180 degrees and started to pull me up and through the tree as it accelerated to his max speed. It was a very wild ride for a while. I broke out of the canopy at top speed for the Jolly as the winch hauled me up. The door gunner was firing his mini gun at something; so, I whipped out my 38 and shot the jungle. I figured I could get off six rounds and make everything lighter.
I was pulled in the door and hugged by the crew. I thought I would be the happiest man in the world, but the crew of Harry Walker's HH-3E were happier than I was. The whole crew was laughing like mad, so I asked what was funny and was told that Harry had just said, "Tell the SOB not to die until we get him to a hospital. We need a live one for a change." I had problems standing and the Paramedic (PJ) sat me down and started to check me out. The first thing he did was to strap a parachute on me. I sure as hell didn't want to use one of those again for a while. He asked if I was hurt and I told him I had some small problems. He them put me on a stretcher and gave me a good once over. It was noisy as all hell in the Jolly and since I didn't have a headset I had real problems hearing. He pulled out a Morphine Styrete case and I said NO. He grinned and showed me a miniature of Jack Daniel's Black Label that was in the tube. It was exactly what the doctor ordered.
Hope came in the form of a clattering and slow moving HH-3 Jolly Green Giant helo. Helo pilots had very little defensive capabilities save for a chain gun at the door and their crews risked their lives with every rescue or attempted rescue. For a a wonderful depiction of the rescue process and its hazards, one should watch the film BAT 21. USAF
I guess I was beat up worse than I thought since I went into shock for a while. The whole crew took off their jackets and piled them around me to keep me warm. I straightened out in time to watch the Jolly refuel on the way back. The PJ and the flight engineer helped me up to the cockpit and I sat on the jump seat as the C-130 came over us, stopped just in front and then let down until the hose was only 50 feet or so in front. We were in Laos with all of the Low Level Fuel lights on, it was just after sunset. There were layered clouds that were black with a blood red sun shining from below up through and between them. It was incredible. Harry moved the big HH-3E up to the hose, stuck it, and took gas. It was all very smooth, very easy, and very beautiful. I was the second furthest north rescue in the whole war. The whole crew of very brave men had risked their lives to pull me from the jungle. Harry did understand what "We Band Of Brothers" meant.
We went to Nakon Phanom (NKP), AKA Naked Fanny, and landed about 2100 hours. I was on a stretcher and really couldn't walk. I was treated like the crown jewels and rushed to the hospital for a check up. I was on the x-ray machine that was broken when Brigadier General McBride came in. Willy P. had been my Wing Commander at Spangdahlem and was a very nice and very funny man. He went into a routine about having given me a perfectly good F-105 and I had dumped it! He was not going to give me any more. He also brought a bottle of Old Overshoes Rye Mission Whiskey and a six-pack of warm Miller beer. We both sat on the x-ray and drank the Old Overshoes neat with warm beer chaser. He also told me that The Great Kahuna had sent the Takhli Gooney Bird for me and it was inbound.
I was taken from the Hospital, never having seen a Doctor, and loaded on the C-47 in my stretcher. When we were airborn, the pilot came back and put my going home ration from Colonel Giraudo on my chest, a bottle of Chivas Regal, a glass, and a bucket of ice. The Chivas was to get me back to Takhli in good humor. It did a very good job. When we landed the crew turned the stretcher so I could see what was happening. I was met by the fire suppression helicopter, fire trucks, over 1,000 folk, and was treated to a Hundred Mission Parade at near midnight Tahkli time.
When we stopped, the doors of the Gooney Bird swung open and The Great Kahuna jumped into the C-47 and hollered, "Throw her up!" A very shapely female came flying through the air and landed in Colonel Giraudo's arms. He came over, dumped her on me and said, "Welcome Home Sparky, look what I brung ya!" The lady, Vicky Nixon, had just arrived that day and was the first female on the base. She was his brand new secretary, very sharp, and she was scared spitless. I was laughing like a hyena and decided to try and calm her down since she was actually shaking. I whispered in her ear, "I just fell out of a tree, landed on my jewels, and there isn't a thing I could do to you!" She looked at me, started to cry, really hugged me, and said, "You poor baby!" We were placed in the back of Colonels G's pickup, still on my stretcher, and given a tour of the base. Neely Johnson whom I was supposed to relieve as a Force Commander, met me with the Flight Commanders for the morning go and saluted me from the C-47.
I was grounded and that was my last combat mission. I tried to talk the Boss out of his decision, but I went home. I was the first guy from Takhli who was picked up from North Vietnam in over nine months who made it back to Takhli. Frank Billingsley did a perfect job the first time he ran a RESCAP and I am the most fortunate person in the world. I never did get to help Neely out. He finished his tour after having led over one third of his total missions into Route Package Six..
Lt Col Bill Sparks stands in front of an A-1 Skyraider similar to the ones that helped save his life 43 years previously. USAF Photo
Many thanks to my old ski-lift pal JD Cook USN Ret'd for bringing this to our attention. Thanks as well to Vern Vouriot for his kind proofing assistance. For our other American Hero Thanksgiving stories click on these links:
Sons of Men
The Untold Story of Patriot of Jesse O Williams