The Grumman A-6 Intruder was the ‘Main Battery’ of carrier aviation throughout the Vietnam War, and it remained in service with the US Navy and US Marine Corps until 1996. Truly an all-weather, day/night precision bomber, the A-6 was still the most potent strike aircraft on a carrier flightdeck during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
As explained by Rick Morgan in his book A-6 Intruder Units 1974-96, Battle Force Yankee/TF-155, under Rear Adm Riley Mixson, with his flag on CV-67, launched aircraft from Kennedy and Saratoga on the night of Jan. 17, 1991. America would join in on day two. Crews flying from Red Sea carriers had to cover vast distances to reach their targets, so they quickly established a routine of sending two large strikes a day, with flights averaging five-and-a-half to six hours. This would lead to aircrew flying greater total hours but fewer actual sorties than their Persian Gulf counterparts.
On board Saratoga with CVW-17 was Cdr Jim Anderson’s VA-35. The ‘Black Panthers’ were joined in the wing by a pair of F/A-18C squadrons (VFA-81 and -83), which lost an aircraft on the first night to a MiG-25. The ‘Black Panthers’ had been tasked with attacking an airfield in western Iraq that was still called by its old RAF title, H-3. Four A-6Es made up the strike force, with squadron XO Cdr Mike Menth having the division lead in dash-1. The second aircraft (‘Ray Gun’ 510 BuNo 161668) was crewed by Lt Bob Wetzel and his B/N, Lt Jeff Zaun. Wetzel was a New Jersey native who had earned his Naval Aviator wings in 1987. He had joined the ‘Black Panthers’ in late 1988 and immediately deployed with them for a Mediterranean cruise in the newly commissioned Theodore Roosevelt. The airfield strike would be his first combat mission;
‘We were tasked to hit the fuel farm at H-3 with eight Mk 20 Rockeyes, with a 2300 hrs time on target. The wing provided fighter and jamming support and our plan was to go in very low and fast, with each section arriving from different directions. Our aircraft would follow a minute behind the XO from the southeast. By the Initial Point [IP], we were about ten miles from the target, and the XO was already stirring things up ahead of us as there was a lot of AAA coming up. They were on NVGs, we weren’t, and he was able to avoid the worst of it. About six miles out we saw a SAM coming up from our right — I broke heavily into it, while dropping chaff and flares.’
The approaching missile was a French-built Roland short-range SAM — something U.S. forces had never faced before. The Roland came as something of a surprise to some. While Iraq’s large force of Soviet-built SAMs was well understood, the French-German Roland system proved to be a tough customer. In the Falklands War, Argentine Rolands had counted for at least one British Harrier. Designed for short ranges and low altitudes, Roland was mounted on a tracked vehicle. Although intended for mobile army support, it appears as if the Iraqis dug them in at specific locations as fixed sites. The missile’s radar did not set off American radar warning systems, and it ended up hitting four or five Allied aircraft during the war according to some sources. In the case of VA-35’s attack on H-3, the unit unintentionally flew right through the heart of the envelope of at least one battery.
Wetzel and Zaun never saw the second missile, which was the one that hit them. ‘The whole cockpit panel lit up with warning lights, and I vividly recall hearing the first engine grinding down as it quit. Then the other one went and I knew it was time to eject.’ The crew each pulled their own handles with the aircraft at about 200 ft while doing at least 480 knots. Wetzel was knocked unconscious during the event. When he came to he was in the desert with serious injuries. Later evaluation would tell him he had suffered two broken arms, compression fracture of the vertebrae and a broken collarbone. His B/N, who had landed only about 100 ft away, was in better shape and able to render assistance to his pilot. They realised they were close enough to their target to see it, and attempted to start moving to the south, towards Jordan, but were picked up by Iraqi troops within 30 minutes.
‘When we were captured we were surrounded by several Iraqi soldiers that were very intent on taking out their frustrations on us and bringing us harm, if not death,’ Wetzel recalled. ‘As tensions increased and these soldiers became an angry mob, Gen Layth Muneer, the H-3 base commander, arrived and I’m certain he saved our lives that night. He kept us safe through the night by keeping us in the base infirmary. The following morning he had his personal driver take us to Baghdad.’
Gen Muneer would later state that the head of base security demanded to take custody of the two Americans but he refused to let them out of his control.
Wetzel and Zaun were released on Mar. 4, 1991. Although Wetzel would eventually regain flight status, it would take several operations and years of recuperation before he became a TA-4J instructor pilot with VT-7 at NAS Meridian, Mississippi. He would leave the US Navy in 1995 and currently flies for United Airlines.
Muneer would later move to the US, and subsequently met with Wetzel and Zaun several times. They now consider him a good friend.
Photo credit: PH1(Sw) Jeff Elliott / U.S Navy and U.S. Army
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com
A-6 Intruder Units 1974-96 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
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