“If I had been superstitious at all, I probably wouldn’t have flown the mission at all. Every one of the previous F-111s lost had a call sign ending in 3, and they had all gone down on a Monday night. December 22 was a Monday, and our call sign was Jackal 33,” Bill Wilson, former F-111 WSO
When Bill Wilson was captured by the North Vietnamese, one of his captors pointed an accusing finger at him, exclaiming: “YOU! F-One Eleven!” and, with a sweeping palm down gesture, “WHOOOOSH!” It was a simple eloquence that described the fear and awe that the North Vietnamese felt for the swing-wing marauders that came in the night, unheralded, to sow their seeds of destruction with pin-point accuracy. When Wilson collected his “Golden BB”, he had been flying the F-111 for just over a year.
Originally known as the TFX (Tactical Fighter “X”), the F-111 was conceived to meet a U.S. Air Force requirement for a new tactical fighter-bomber. In 1960 the Department of Defense combined the USAF’s requirement with a Navy need for a new air superiority fighter. The USAF’s F-111A first flew in December 1964, and the first production models were delivered to the USAF in 1967. Meanwhile, the Navy’s F-111B program was canceled. In all, 566 F-111s of all series were built; 159 of them were F-111As. Although the F-111 was unofficially referred to as the Aardvark, it did not receive the name officially until it was retired in 1996.
An interesting feature of the aircraft was its variable-geometry wings. While in the air, the wings could be swept forward for takeoffs, landings or slow speed flight, and swept rearward for high-speed flight. The F-111 could also fly at very low level and hit targets in bad weather.
In the spring of 1968 the USAF operationally tested the F-111A in Southeast Asia with mixed success. In 1972, after correcting early problems, the USAF returned the F-111A to Southeast Asia for Operation Linebacker II as former F-111A weapon system officer (WSO) Bill Wilson remembers in Lou Drendel book F-111 In Action. “My last mission was by far the most memorable, though the memories are anything but happy. It was our second mission of Linebacker II. Our first mission was the strike against Hoa Lac Airfield on the night of December 18. Following that mission, we had a break of four days to allow the operations people to distribute the missions equally among all of the crews. During that break, I made the mistake of asking the Ops Officer for a mission to “downtown”. We had never been to any of the targets close in to Hanoi, and both Bob [Wilson’s pilot, Capt. Robert Sponeybarger] and I were curious about the area. We had confidence in the F-111 and our tactics, and I guess we were eager to prove that we could challenge the most formidable air defense system ever devised and survive. It was not the first dangerous mission I had volunteered for, but I later promised myself that it was the last.
“The target we were assigned was the river docks right in the center of Hanoi. Now, “downtown” was a euphemism used to describe the magic ten mile radius of the most intensive air defenses around Hanoi. I really hadn’t expected to be sent right to the center of it!
“We took off from Takhli about 2100, climbed to a medium altitude, and proceeded up through the Plain des Jars area of Laos into the Gorilla’s Head area of North Vietnam, where we began our let-down to penetration altitude.
“This was December 22, which was really the height of the battle. The enemy was not as exhausted as he would become a week later, and the air defense crews were at their sharpest. We had been striking all around the Hanoi area, and, in fact, the river docks had been hit previously. Most of the strikes had been coming in from the south-east, since this gave the crews a more direct route out of the area, and minimized their exposure to the defenses. We figured that they would be looking more closely at these southeast approaches, so we planned our run-in to the target from the north. After stabilizing in the TFR mode, we crossed into North Vietnam at 500 feet. The closer we got to Hanoi, the more we hugged the terrain. Our last leg before turning south was on the north side of Thud Ridge, which gave us complete masking from the air defense radars. When we came around the corner and turned south, we broke out of the weather. We were at three hundred feet, and there was a broken overcast above, with a full moon showing through the breaks in the clouds. Hardly the ideal F-111 weather. Visibility under the overcast was unlimited, and we could see the lights of Hanoi in the distance. We picked up our final run-in heading at Duc Noi, about 10 miles due north of the target. At this point we were doing about 480 knots, and my impressions of the world outside the airplane are fragmentary, limited as they had to be since I was spending the majority of my time on the radar. I remember that they never did turn the lights off. They were welding the superstructure of the Paul Doumer Bridge, which we used for our radar offset in the final attack phase. We started to pick up some AAA fire, mostly 37-57mm stuff, five miles before we got to the target. It was the typical stuff, coming up in clips of five, red and orange golf balls and, though there was a lot of it, it was all behind us since they didn’t have us on radar and it was all directed at our sound. At that time I remember feeling a little let-down. since I had expected much heavier resistance. We had seen bigger stuff . . . 85 and 100mm . . . on a previous mission to Thai Nguyen. We later learned that the enemy had stopped shooting the big guns at low-level high speed targets because the rapid rate of traverse required was throwing the gun crews off the gun mounts and injuring them, and they had no hope of hitting us anyway. [As Drendel explains, many of the civilian casualties claimed by North Vietnam to have been inflicted by U.S. bombers were actually self-inflicted by the large caliber shells detonating at low altitude and spewing shrapnel indiscriminately about the countryside.]
“But, though they weren’t coming close to us with their AAA, they were quite effectively tracing our path in the sky. They had developed the tactics of blasting away with small arms fire . . . straight up . . . along this path, in the hope of getting a lucky hit. Two nights previous to our mission, one of the airplanes had come back with a hit in the extreme rear of its tailpipe. The previous night an airplane had returned with a hit in the stabilator. It seemed that they were getting the hang of their new tactics. And if I had been superstitious at all, I probably wouldn’t have flown the mission at all. Every one of the previous F-111s lost had a call sign ending in 3, and they had all gone down on a Monday night. December 22 was a Monday, and our call sign was Jackal 33.
“Our weapons system pickled off the twelve 500 pound Snakeyes as we roared over the docks at better than 550 miles an hour. With the F-111’s sophisticated system, and the good radar offset we had gotten from the Doumer Bridge, there was never much doubt that we would hit the target, and we could see the docks exploding as we rolled off the target and headed for the turn point for our initial leg back to base. As soon as we looked back in the cockpit, we saw that we had a utility hydraulic failure light. We didn’t think much of it at the time . . . we hadn’t felt any hits on the airplane, and we had gotten one of these lights on a previous mission. It was more of a minor irritation than anything else. But less than a minute later, we got a right engine fire warning light. We went through the bold-face procedures, shutting the engine down. (Bold face refers to the instructions for emergency operations which appear in the flight manual.) I called Moonbeam, reporting that we were off the target and had lost an engine, and they acknowledged the call.
“We had just reached the first set of foothills and I had told Bob that we could start to climb, when I heard him say: “What the hell . . . !” I looked up from the radar to see him moving the control stick like he was operating a butter churn, and I saw that the entire warning-caution light panel was lit. There was no doubt about our next move, and with Bob’s command, “Eject! Eject!”, we fired the capsule rockets.
Everything worked as advertised, and it was a smooth ejection. When the parachutes opened, we were in the overcast, so we didn’t see the airplane hit, but we did see the glow of the explosion, and when we broke out we could see the wreckage burning fiercely. We came down on the side of a hill, and the capsule rolled over onto my side. But it was a real nice landing . . . like someone had raised your chair a couple of feet into the air and dropped it . . . and we both exited from Bob’s side completely unhurt. It was probably about 2230 when we hit the ground.
“Fortunately, we had attended a jungle survival school a couple of weeks previously, and the lessons learned were still fresh in our minds. We had been told to separate as soon as possible, since it was much easier for one person to hide than two. We would try to stay within a few hundreds yards of each other to make the rescue as quick as possible when the Jolly Greens got to us . . . and we never doubted that they would come. We both had survival radios, and they were working just fine. It was the last I was to see of Bob for more than a month.
“It was the beginning of the wet season in North Vietnam, and though the area we were in was not thick jungle, the tall grass was quite wet, which made for a high degree of discomfort in the cool temperature. I found what I thought was a good hiding place, and settled down to wait for daylight, and our rescuers.
“The North Vietnamese were out in force by 0430 the next morning searching for us. I had picked a hiding place right next to what was apparently one of the main trails up the side of the hill, and I spent most of the day literally frozen in place. I was so motionless that I wound up with a pinched nerve in my arm, which was under me all lay. Shortly after dark, the last search party of the day came up the trail and paused next to my hiding place. They had a portable radio and were listening to Radio Hanoi, which I had assumed was knocked off the air by the bombing. After what seemed like an eternity, they moved off down the mountain.
“I spent the next two nights moving to new hiding places. The weather in our area was so bad that we didn’t even see an airplane that we could call on our survival radios. On the third day, a flight of Sandy A-7s came into our area. Since Bob was closer to the top of the mountain, he did all the talking, relaying whatever I had to say. The clouds were still too low for them to come down through, but we were able to talk to them, and they pinpointed our position. Unfortunately, at the end of our transmission, I heard rifle fire from Bob’s position.
“Bob had been hiding in some vines, and the North Vietnamese had apparently heard him talking. One of them came crashing down the hill and just by chance stepped on him. The startled Vietnamese backed up, and fired. Luckily, he missed, but that brought the rest of them down on Bob. The volleys of fire I had heard were signals that they had caught an American. They trucked him off to Hanoi, and I was left alone . . . almost. The patrols in my area continued.
“On the fourth day, the A-7s returned, pinpointed my position, and then said that they were low on fuel and would go out to a tanker, gas up, and return. Well, by the time they got back, the weather had socked me in and they couldn’t get back down.
“The next day the weather cleared, and the bombing of Hanoi resumed in earnest. I spotted a big V of A-7s outbound from their target and called them, but they wouldn’t answer. Apparently they reported the call to the Sandies though, because it wasn’t long before they were over me. After determining my position, they left to get a helicopter.
“As luck would have it, there was just one .50 caliber gun position in the area, and helicopter flew right over it on his approach to my position, and they really hammered him. His refueling boom was all but shot off, the co-pilot was seriously wounded, and they were leaking fuel. To his credit, the pilot still tried for the pick-up. I had not given them real explicit instructions on my position though, and they came to a hover about twenty feet from me, on the steep side of the hill. I decided that it was now or never, and made a run for the penetrator, which was on the end of the cable. Just as I was about to make a grab for it, I lost my footing and the downwash from the big HH-53 knocked me to the ground. I did a backflip, and rolled down the hill. When I got up, the helicopter was leaving. I can’t really blame them . . . they were pretty well shot up, and may have thought that I had been hit by ground fire. As it was, they just barely made it out to a Lima Site in Laos, where the back-up Jolly Green picked them up. I later learned from the Combat Cameraman on that helicopter that the North Vietnamese were running towards them, firing their AK-47s, while they hovered over me.
“Why the North Vietnamese didn’t really comb the area I’ll never know . . . they must have known the helicopter was trying to get someone. But they didn’t, and I moved again that night.
“By this time, the two pints of water that had been in my survival gear was long since gone, and I was getting mighty thirsty. The light misty rain that fell most of the time only served to keep me wet, cold and miserable. The jungle instructors had told us about the water vines and bamboo that existed in North Vietnam, but they had neglected to tell us that they were dry until well into the wet season. I drilled into several of these looking for water, but only found cool air. While I was hiding the next day, several Vietnamese came up the trail close to where I was. I would swear that one of them spotted one of those drilled bamboo, and exclaimed: “LOOK! AMERICAN!” Anyway, whatever he said precipitated a search of the area. I heard one of them coming my way, and tucked everything in. I had lost my mosquito net in the jump for the helicopter, and that had provided most of the camouflage for my face. I put my gloved hand over my face, and held my breath. I heard and felt the grass being parted over my head, but again my luck held and he didn’t see me.
“Shortly after that, a flight of F-4s came into the area and called me on the radio. The flight lead spotted my position and told me to move to a better area for pick-up. Rather than give instructions that the North Vietnamese might overhear and understand, he told me to move from Nellis to my home. Nellis AFB is where we had been based, and we had lived in Las Vegas, which is almost due south from Nellis. But I have always considered Iowa my home, and that, of course, is almost due east of Nellis.
“The next day there was 10,000 foot overcast, and the A-7s punched down through it and found me again. The leader called me and said: “Hey, did you know you were right up against a house?” Well I didn’t of course, and I moved away from it while they strafed the house and environs. They picked up a lot of return fire, and told me that I was going to have to move to an area that was not quite so hot. In the meantime, they dropped a survival package that contained water, food, and batteries for my survival radio, which was getting weaker every time I used it. They gave me directions to the package and headed home.
“I knew it was a hot area, because I had heard AK-47s firing at them from pretty close to my position. I had to decide whether it was best to just get the hell out of that area as quick as possible, forgetting the water in that package, or to go for that water. By this time, I was really thirsty, and the vote was 51 to 49 in favor of the water. I cautiously made for the area in which they had said the package had fallen. Suddenly, I came to a pretty well beaten path. I looked both ways and stepped gingerly across. The trip wire they had strung at the edge of the trail was practically invisible, and the explosive cap that announced it’s disturbance was the first indication that I had snagged it. I dove into a thicket of brush, but they had heard the cap go off, and the area was swarming with them in no time at all. It didn’t take them long to spot me. Then they just stood around jabbering and pointing at me. Finally, they got some guy to come up and tap me on the shoulder. I knew it was all over.
“I stood up and made a gesture of surrender, and they were all over me. Funny thing, the first thing to come off was my Seiko watch . . . then they got around to my gun and knife. They stripped me down to my underwear and boots and marched me down the hill to a base camp they had set up as a holding area to await a truck to come out from Hanoi and get me. I had been on the ground, evading them, for a week.”
Photo credit: Ken LaRock / U.S. Air Force
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com