USAF plans required the phase-out of the F-100 from frontline units by 1970, but it was during its final years of wartime service during the Vietnam War that the ‘Hun’ performed one of its most valuable tasks. The area to the North of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) known as ‘Tally Ho’ had become too haurdous for light, slow FAC aircraft by 1967 — some 282 0-1 and 0-2 aircraft were shot down during the war and 177 pilots killed, most from early 1967 onwards. The increasing numbers of SA-2 SAMs and AAA batteries along the Ho Chi Minh trails also put strike aircraft and Arc Light B-52s at risk. When the USSR began to supply SA-7 `Strela’ man-portable SAMs to the NVA, the position of propeller-driven FAC and RESCAP aircraft worsened considerably. It was the loss of O-1E 51-12102 and its pilot, Lt Col Lester Holmes, to an SA-2 near the DMZ on May 22, 1967 that hastened the Fast FAC programme.
As told by Peter E Davies in the book F-100 Super Sabre Units of the Vietnam War, a faster FAC aircraft was needed to reduce exposure to ground fire, and the F-100F offered both speed and a back seat with good visibility for an airborne observer.
Aircraft were drawn from the dwindling inventory of F-100F’s at all the Iocal F-100 bases, and after an initial period at Phan Rang in May 1967, jets were concentrated at Phu Cat from Jun. 15, 1967 as Det 1 of the 612th TFS. Aircrew served with the det on four-month secondments from other units, flying F-100Fs borrowed mainly from the 416th TFS – the latter also supplied the unit’s buildings and facilities.
Under the official designation Operation Commando Sabre, the unit was formed with 16 volunteer pilots, including four 0-1 FACs, at Phu Cat (the closest F-100 base to North Vietnam) ill July 1967. Col Ray Lee, 37th TFW vice-commander decided that it required its own commander and facilities. The Seventh Air Force director of operations appointed Maj George ‘Bud’ Day, a dynamic leader who served as a US Marine Corps gunner during World War 2, an F-84 Thunderjet pilot in Korea and with the 55th BS at RAF Wethersfield from 1955 flying the F-84F Thunderstreak. There, he survived an incredible bail-out from a notoriously unreliable F-84F (nicknamed Atom Bum) when its engine disintegrated on approach. Ejecting below 300 ft with the jet rolling inverted, Day fell through trees as his parachute failed to deploy and emerged with only a broken ankle – he was the first jet pilot to survive a `parachute-less’ ejection. Having transitioned with the 20th TFW to the F-100D, Day joined the 309th TFS at Tuy Hoa in April 1967 with more than 5000 hours in his log book. On Jun. 25, 1967 he was made CO of Det 1, 416th TFS, despite telling the director of operations that he thought using F-100Fs as FAC aircraft was ‘a very bad idea’.
Overriding these early misgivings `Bud’ Day applied himself fully to the task of devising tactics for the new, secret operation, and he had Det 1 operational two weeks later. In the search for an appropriate call-sign for the Commando Sabre sorties, ‘Bud’ remembered a song he had liked in a Las Vegas nightclub in 1958. Johnny Mathis’ ‘Misty’ provided the squadron’s sentimental, but highly respected, label.
One of ‘Bud’ Day’s August 1967 missions was a perfect demonstration of his skill, and the effectiveness of Misty. Noticing a discontinuity in the jungle terrain, he focused on one small patch of ground and spotted a camouflaged roads and a small truck emerging from the trees. Approaching the vehicle head-on, ‘in the weeds’, he fired a marker rocket that blew it up. Day then called in a flight of F-105Ds, but also made a second pass over the suspect area, firing another rocket into the trees. His instinct had been correct. The rocket set off 28 large secondary explosions that blew the camouflage netting off a truck park and a SAM site, providing plenty more targets for the F-105Ds.
Sadly, ‘Bud’ Day’s Misty leadership was cut short on Aug. 26, 1967. Flying his 139th mission in F-100F 56-3954, which was noted for its slack rear-seat harness and consequently uncomfortable ride when jinking, he was checking out Capt Corwin Kippenham on his first FAC sortie when he received last minute instructions to locate a SAM site near Thon Cam Son. Approaching the suspected target very low at almost 500 knots, they attracted unusually heavy AAA, but Day thought he spotted an SA-2 launcher. Having refuelled from a Blue Anchor tanker, Kippenham and Day returned on a different heading for another look.
At around 550 knots and 1000 ft they met another curtain of 37 mm AAA, and their F-100F took a serious hit in the rear fuselage just as Day sighted the SA-2 launchers. They lit the afterburner and pulled hard to try and gain height, as they were only ten miles from the coast, but the Super Sabre’s hydraulics had been fatally damaged and at only 3000 ft it became uncontrollable. Kippenham was recovered by an HH-3E after the inevitable ejection, but Maj Day, unconscious with a broken arm, dislocated knee and swollen left eye, was captured by local villagers. His last view of freedom was the HH-3E, with Kippenham in its doorway, searching for him until a storm of small-arms fire forced it to retreat.
Despite his injuries Day escaped, remaining free for two weeks while he struggled to reach South Vietnam. Tragically, he was re-captured by a VC patrol just after crossing the border and incarcerated in Hanoi until Mar. 14, 1973. For his heroic escape and subsequent example of leadership and resistance during a period of appalling torture and neglect during captivity, Day was awarded the Medal of Honor.
F-100 Super Sabre Units of the Vietnam War is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and This Day In Aviation
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