Cold War Era

The story of the A-4 pilot that destroyed a SAM storage hidden in a mountainside during an Iron Hand mission over North Vietnam

Iron Hand A-4 aircraft orbited over a known site, or between sites, at 10,000 ft, fired their Shrikes and then rolled in to drop ordnance…

On May 23, 1972, VA-55’s Lt Dennis J Sapp launched with his wingman, It Ken Bray, from USS Hancock (CVA-19) on an Iron Hand mission to cover an Alpha strike against targets northeast of Haiphong, in North Vietnam. Sapp’s section had two missions – to destroy a SAM site adjacent to the target and to silence a lethal cluster of SAM sites ringing Haiphong near the target area.

As explained by Peter Mersky in his book US Navy and Marine Corps A-4 Skyhawk Units of the Vietnam War, Sapp flew A-4F BuNo 154996, which was armed with two AGM-45 Shrike anti-SAM missiles and four Rockeye bomblet canisters. The A-4Fs had recently been equipped with the Target Identification Acquisition System, which allowed the pilot to centre the radar from the SAM site or flak battery on the cockpit radar, then look through the gunsight for tracking purposes to decide where and when to drop weapons. Iron Hand A-4s orbited over a known site, or between sites, at 10,000 ft, fired their Shrikes and then rolled in to drop ordnance. This arrangement permitted a much more direct attack instead of having to fire a Shrike from a greater distance as was the case for A-6 and A-7 crews.

SA-2 Surface-to-Air Missile on display in the Southeast Asia War Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

Sapp detached his section from the main strike group to go on ahead, and it was soon the target of two SAMs fired from the Haiphong area. He and his wingman immediately began evasive manoeuvres, narrowly evading the missiles. Sapp then continued on toward his assigned area. Although the site was well hidden, he pinpointed it and delivered two Rockeye canisters, all the while under defensive fire from 37 mm flak sites. Sapp destroyed all five radar vans in the centre of the site and his wingman despatched three SAMs on their launchers. Fires and explosions followed the two aviators as they left the area. Sapp took a photo from 20 miles away that showed smoke billowing above 20,000 ft. The target had turned out to be a SAM storage area hidden in a mountainside.

Sapp took his section to their designated station and continued the mission, using their Shrikes and remaining Rockeyes to suppress defences around Haiphong and allow the strikers to hit their targets. Sapp received the Distinguished Flying Cross for this mission.

US Navy and Marine Corps A-4 Skyhawk Units of the Vietnam War is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. A-4F Skyhawk VA-212 Rampant Riders, NP306 / 155019 / 1970

Photo credit: U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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