The A-4 was the backbone of the US Navy and Marine Corps’ light strike force for much of the 1960s, and especially during the first half of the ten-year struggle in Vietnam.
Flying into vast thickets of anti-aircraft bursts mixed with huge surface-to-air missiles took great courage and skill, and to do so repeatedly during a carrier’s tour of duty on the line bespoke a depth of dedication and character that can only be wondered at.
A-4 pilots hurled themselves daily at heavily defended targets up and down the south-east Asian peninsula, often paying a heavy price in lives and aircraft, a claimed confirmed by the mission flown on Apr. 26, 1967 by Lt(jg) John W Cain a Scooter driver assigned to VA-192 Golden Dragons aboard USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14).
As told by Peter Mersky in his book US Navy and Marine Corps A-4 Skyhawk Units of the Vietnam War, on that day Cain launched as part of a petroleum, oil, lubricants (POL) raid in A-4E BuNo 152076 — the squadron’s CAG bird, ‘NM 200’, call sign ‘Jury 200’. Making his attack run, Cain’s A-4 was hit and the cockpit filled with smoke. The young aviator continued his attack but the A-4 began to roll, and he disconnected the hydraulics so as to fly on manual. The procedure did not work, however, and at 2000 ft, barely making 205 knots, Cain ejected and came down just offshore, 15 miles south of Haiphong near the harbor entrance.
Cain lost his personal survival radio during the ejection, and thus could not call for help. A full-blown SAR developed, complete with orbiting F-8s and A-1s providing much-needed CAP services. Eventually, there were 20 aircraft involved — 19 were fixed-wing, while the 20th was an SH-3A from HS-2, normally part of Hornet’s air group, pulling SAR duty aboard the guided missile destroyer USS Mahan (DLG-11).
Lt Steve Millikin and his crew heard the call that an aviator was down in the harbor. Orbiting as the strike group had passed over, the crew of ‘Chink 69’ had been amusing themselves by indulging in Tonkin Gulf ‘plinking’ – shooting at debris in the harbor. Millikin firewalled the throttles, which for an SH-3 meant steaming ahead at 125 knots. Cain was only 250 yards offshore of a small island where there were enemy troops watching, waiting.
Soon, the troops began firing at Cain as he drifted in the water. He had decided to not get into his personal life raft because it would have provided too much of a target. His prospects looked bleak, but then he heard the beat helicopter rotors as ‘Chink 69’ approached. Lt Millikin told Petty Officer Peter Sorokin to lower the rescue horse collar. The fire from the shore increased as Millikin entered a hover over Cain, and he could see the water erupt into geysers as the rounds came perilously close. At first he thought the shots were coming from Navy A-1s, but Millikin soon realised they were North Vietnamese mortar rounds.
Petty Officer Charles Sather returned fire with his door-mounted machine gun, while the co-pilot, Lt(jg) Tom Pettis, stuck a submachine gun out his window and added to the small barrage coming from the struggling H-3. The engagement intensified, but finally Cain was in the sling, and as he was still on his way up, Millikin turned the H-3 about and got out as quickly as he could. As he chanced a glance back to the island, he watched an A-4 drop four bombs on the enemy. Millikin smiled as a part of the island seemed to slide into the harbor.
The exhausted crew and their young survivor made it back to Mahan, and later that day they delivered Lt(jg) Cain to Ticonderoga. Lt Millikin received the Silver Star, Lt(jg) Pettis the DFC and the two enlisted crewmen Air Medals for their efforts. Unfortunately, ‘Chink 69’ and Lt(jg) Pettis were lost at sea several weeks laid. Steve Millikin retired as a captain and subsequently became well known as editor of The Hook, the highly regarded quarterly magazine of the Tailhook Association.
US Navy and Marine Corps A-4 Skyhawk Units of the Vietnam War is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Rinaldi / U.S. Navy
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