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Oyster 1 Bravo: Evasion and Escape in Vietnam

 

On March 30, 1972, North Vietnam launched the Nguyen Hue Campaign. Named by the Americans the “Easter Offensive” because it began on Good Friday, it was an all-out attempt to knock South Vietnam out of the war. Because of President Richard Nixon’s Vietnamization strategy, the only substantial American forces in the region were the U.S. Air Force and Navy.

The offensive was entering its second month when President Nixon authorized Operation Linebacker, a renewal of the bombing campaign in North Vietnam that included for the first time the mining of the main port of Haiphong. One of the goals of Operation Linebacker was the reduction or interdiction of the flow of supplies to the North Vietnamese armies fighting in the south. This made bridges prime targets, the most important being the Paul Doumer road and rail bridge in Hanoi.

Oyster 1 was upside down and in a steep dive when Locher reached down for the ejection handle between his legs and pulled. The next thing he knew, he was clear of the doomed F-4D, dangling at the end of his parachute. Lodge never ejected.

Gen. John W. Vogt, Jr., Seventh Air Force commander, was determined to take out that bridge and it was at the top of his target list.

Operation Linebacker commenced on the morning of May 10, 1972. When combined with U.S. Navy aircraft from the carriers Constellation, Kitty Hawk, Okinawa, and Coral Sea, a total of 120 aircraft were assigned that day against targets in North Vietnam, with 88 scheduled to enter enemy territory.

Lodge and Locher F4D

Maj. Robert Lodge and Capt. Roger Locher in the cockpit of their F-4D. USAF photo

Oyster 1, with pilot Maj. Robert Lodge and Weapon Systems Officer (WSO) Capt. Roger Locher, was the lead Phantom in Oyster Flight, a four-aircraft flight that, together with Baltar Flight, was tasked with providing MIGCAP (MiG Combat Air Patrol) air-to-air protection in pre-strike support operations against the Paul Doumer Bridge. Time on Target was scheduled for the eight planes at 9:45 a.m.

Lodge was experienced in air-to-air combat over Vietnam, with two MiGs to his credit. Oyster and Baltar flights were in a holding pattern high above and near the target area when the cruiser USS Chicago, serving as PIRAZ (Positive Identification Radar Advisory Zone) off the coast of North Vietnam under the code name Red Crown, warned them that four separate forces of MiGs were airborne in the area and that one set of four bandits was heading their way. The Phantoms jettisoned their external fuel tanks and accelerated to combat speed.

“If they wanted me, they would have to stand on me.” – Capt. Roger Locher, Oyster 1 Bravo

The dogfight commenced within minutes. As soon as they were within Sparrow air-to-air missile range, and after having verified through IFF that the approaching MiGs were the enemy, Oysters 1, 2, and 3 fired a total of five Sparrows head-on at their targets. Out of the five, two scored hits – one each for Oyster 1 and Oyster 2. Lodge now had his third MiG.

But then it was the MiGs’ turn. Oyster 1 was “padlocked,” getting ready to shoot down a fourth MiG, when the pilot in a MiG-19, closing in from Oyster 1’s right, attacked. Within seconds the F-4D was raked with 30mm cannon fire. At first Lodge and Locher thought the damage was slight. But Locher later recalled, “The next thing I knew we were decelerating – I think the right engine had exploded. We ended up doing some really hard yaws to the right.” Bob Lodge broke off and tried to fly out of the area, but he was having a hard time controlling the plane. Locher offered a couple of suggestions, one being to put the Phantom on autopilot, a technique designed to minimize hydraulic fuel loss. After a moment’s silence, Lodge told his backseater, “Rog, you don’t understand. We don’t have any hydraulics.” A Phantom can fly with a number of system failures. Hydraulic power is not one of them. Once all the hydraulic fluid had bled out of the wrecked system, control would be gone and the airplane would plummet to the ground.

USAF ARRS Vietnam

The major elements of the U.S. Air Force air rescue team in Vietnam: Douglas A-1E and A-1H/J Skyraider (visible are four from the 602nd Special Operations Squadron), and a Lockheed HC-130P Hercules recovery aircraft refueling a Sikorsky HH-3E Jolly Green Giant helicopter in 1968. National Museum of the U.S. Air Force photo

At eight thousand feet, and with fuselage fire approaching the cockpit, Locher said he was going to have to bail out. Lodge looked back over his right should and said, “Why don’t you eject, then?”

Oyster 1 was upside down and in a steep dive when Locher reached down for the ejection handle between his legs and pulled. The next thing he knew, he was clear of the doomed F-4D, dangling at the end of his parachute. Lodge never ejected.

Because of the angle and the dense smoke pouring out of Oyster 1, and the continuing dogfight, the other members of Oyster Flight did not see Locher’s parachute. As they flew back to Udorn, the only thing they knew for certain was that Oyster 1 had been shot down, and could only hope their comrades survived.

HH-53 Super Jolly Green Gian

The old days: An HH-53 Super Jolly Green Giant of the 40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron as seen from the gunner’s position of a helicopter of the 21st Special Operations Squadron in Vietnam, October 1972. DoD photo

Locher landed in a forested ridgeline in a cluster of trees 40 feet high. He suffered some slight injuries during the final descent, but otherwise landed safely. His only other wounds were second-degree burns on his neck and wrists. After he stepped out of his harness, he tried to pull down the parachute canopy, but it was firmly caught in the tree branches. He then tried and failed to disconnect the survival pack from the harness and quickly grabbed a couple of items from it. Knowing that a search party would arrive soon, he pulled out his rescue radio and made a brief call: “This is Oyster Zero One Bravo. I’m on the ground. I’m OK.” He then quickly turned off the transmitter. After shedding his flying helmet and harness, he began a brisk trot in order put as much distance as possible between him and his landing site. He had covered about a half a mile when he heard the babble of Vietnamese voices back where his parachute was. The search party had arrived.

As evening approached, Locher found a place in a wooded hillside that appeared to be a good place to hide. He then took stock of his possessions. Food and drink were a couple of energy bars and two pints of water, quickly consumed. His survival vest contained two beeper radios, four batteries, a survival knife, a .38 caliber pistol with extra ammunition, a mosquito net, a small medical kit and a signaling kit with flares, smoke markers, a signal mirror, and a whistle. Most importantly, he had no serious injuries.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...